The winds howled as they had for millennia. Dozens of dust devils ripped across the valley floor sending tumbleweed into cartwheels across a road that pitched into a dusty soup of nothingness. Were we really going to camp in this? I could already feel the grit against my skin – the cold wash of the desert plain setting into my bones. Every once in a while, there were signs of civilization: a lonely country store, a billboard advertising a nearby gator farm, signposts counting down the miles to Alamosa. As we drew closer to the mountains, I could almost feel the southwesterlies coaxing us along with the grains of airborne sand whipping past us. We were to settle – along with the grains of sand – at the foot of that colossal dune.
At over 30 square miles in area and 750 feet tall, the dune field of Great Sand Dunes National Park is the tallest sand dune in North America. It has stayed glued to its present-day location from as far back as half a million years ago because of its position over an enormous aquifer. The subterraneous water keeps the dunes relatively moist, averaging around 7% moisture content by weight (NPS 2018). When Ord’s Kangaroo Rats (Dipodomys ordii) store grass seeds under the sand, the seeds absorb enough water from the sand to entirely meet the rat’s water needs.
The Ord's Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys ordii) can be found scuttering across the Park's dunes at night (Image source: https://vesr.nrs.ucsb.edu/natural-resources/mammals/ords-kangaroo-rat)
Two important forces help to form and stabilize these massive dunes: wind and water. Winds from the southwest blow sandy deposits from ancient lakebeds in the San Luis Valley to the foot of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Three passes in the mountains – Mosca, Medano, and Music passes – occasionally funnel storm winds back in the opposite direction, lifting the dunes to their towering heights. As mentioned above, the hydrology of the area is also important in stabilizing the dunes. The high-water table of the underground aquifer is responsible for keeping the Park’s three primary creeks – Sand, Medano, and Mosca – flowing out around the dunes, recycling sand from the mountains. If the water table were any lower, the surface flow would stop because the water would sink into the Earth near the mountains to meet the lower water table.
The region's hydrology plays an important role in stabilizing the dune field. For this reason, the dunes have changed little over the last few hundred years (Image source: https://www.nps.gov/grsa/learn/nature/images/hydrology_creeks_1000.jpg)
The juxtaposition of the swirling Sahara-like sands with the 14,000-foot Blanca Peak behind them was simply magnificent. We arrived late in the afternoon as the sinking sun casted its oblique glare onto the parchment-colored sands. Angie and I were with mom and dad and it had been tens of years since I had been camping with them.
Setting up camp in a pinyon pine (Pinus edulis) grove at the Desert Oasis Campground just outside the Park
We quickly realized that without a reservation it was going to be impossible to secure a campsite at the Pinyon Flats Campground, the Park’s only campground. After some searching, we were able to find a car camping area just outside the park, the Desert Oasis campground, with stellar views of the dunes to the northwest.
Aside from retiring dad’s 40-year-old lantern and Coleman stove after it caught on fire, our time spent camping was pretty uneventful. In the morning, we drove back into the Park and set out on foot across the dunes. We hiked probably about a quarter way up Star Dune, the highest point, until we decided going to the top wasn’t necessary.
Suddenly, I felt a wave of strength surge through me and I easily held mom and dad up on my palms. It’s amazing the energy you can reserve when you decide not to summit.
Mom and dad served as our willing photographers as we posed for some images to celebrate our engagement and upcoming wedding. The dunes and their sinuous knife-edge ridges provided a surreal backdrop.
Our time in the Park was limited to the afternoon, at which point we returned to Denver after bidding our farewell to mom and dad in Manitou Springs. Living so close, I’m sure we’ll return to hike one of the Park’s tall peaks or go off-roading in a 4x4 along the Medano Pass Primitive Road. For this time, camping with mom and dad under dark skies and enjoying a brief stroll along the stunning sandscapes of the Sangre de Cristos felt like just the thing we needed.
National Park Service. 2018. Hydrology. Accessed November 1, 2020. [https://www.nps.gov/grsa/learn/nature/hydrology.htm]