Driving into the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado, the mighty Rocky Mountains obscure the horizon surrounding the long flat basin on all sides. The valley sits at 7000 feet above sea level and the encompassing mountain ranges are still monumental!
The San Luis Valley basin is approximately 122 miles (196 km) long and 74 miles (119 km) wide, extending from the Continental Divide on the northwest rim into New Mexico on the south and includes the headwaters of the Rio Grande river. Across the valley at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains is a landmark long-established for navigating the open plain by early humans, frontier settlers, and visitors today, the Great Sand Dunes of North America.
North America's tallest sand dunes seem out of place in a high plains valley. However, it is the colossal mountain terrain that provides the sand as it washes down from seasonal melting glaciers and rains. A prevailing southwesterly wind then blows the sand across the basin into the dune field. The dunes cover an area of 30 sq mi (78 sq km). The dazzling shapes and height of the dunes are the interplay of winds rushing down the mountains against the frequent southwest winds.
Barchan sand dunes are crescent-shaped and face the wind.
Star Dune is the tallest dune at 750 feet or 229 meters.
Hiking into the dunes quickly establishes the expansive size of the landscape. Walking the sandy flat from the parking area takes nearly 15 minutes to reach the first small dune hill. During the summer months, it best to hike early in the morning before sunrise or at nighttime to view the stars because the sands can quickly heat up to 150 °F (66 °C).
Once you reach the highest peak, over an hour of trudging, sandboarding and sledding are the best ways down. Be sure to pick up a sandboard rental before arriving as all rental shops are outside the park.
By Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve- Man Sandboarding, Wikimedia
Sand in your shoes is not the only fun to be had, half of the park is a preserve in the magnificent surrounding mountains and national forest. Several hiking trails lead to alpine lakes, abandoned frontier cabins, and mountain summits reaching over 14,000 feet. The most fun we had was driving the backcountry Medano Pass primitive road through the sand, forest, and 9 different water crossings to various isolated campsites.
American Beaver Family
A young black bear with blonde coloring
The wildlife was spectacular as we witnessed American beavers building damns and a young bear frolicking in the sun and foraging for food. Hummingbirds swarmed our truck each morning as butterflies covered our clothes in the afternoon sunshine. Blue and purple columbines and delphiniums blossomed in the alpine meadows alongside golden mountain arnica and yarrow blooms.
Anyone wishing to have a vacation with plenty of space away from other people and filled with hiking, sandboarding, stargazing, offroading, and exploring nature, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is an ideal destination for families and outdoor enthusiasts alike.
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