A brief exploration of Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park, with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the background.

It wasn’t that long ago that a sandy patch of ground in the northern San Luis Valley of Colorado was a national monument. But it’s fitting that the dunes now make up Great Sand Dunes National Park.

It’s likely one of the smaller units in the National Parks System, but at the same time it’s earned its upgrade. If for no other reason, it would have to be its curious nature.

The semi-arid scrub of the San Luis Valley turns into a desert-like landscape where the valley meets the park.

Where else in the country can you slap a scene straight of of the Sahara right in front of the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains? The dunes of the park are the largest in the country, despite there being plenty of deserts throughout the western United States.

And it’s the curiosity of this park that makes it stand out. How did the dunes get here?

Building storms or not, plenty of people were at the park to play. The dunes are so large that the people look like ants.

The answer lies to the west. The San Juan Mountains, which make up some of the most expansive reaches of alpine wilderness in all of Colorado, are in the continual process of erosion, and some of that has pieces of these towering peaks reduced to dust. That dust, or sand, ends up being picked up by strong alpine winds and carried east before running into the wall that is the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. And it’s at the foot of these mountains that those winds dump their sandy cargo. Given enough time and a dusting of sand becomes a wide stretch of dunes, some hundreds of feet high.

People come to see the dunes, but in the summer months, they’re here to play. Boogie boards in hand, park visitors climb the dunes, then ride down as if they were body surfing or snowboarding. Pop in on any given summer afternoon and they’re there by the hundreds.

The meeting of sand and sky is dramatic.

The park has other charms. It’s known as a prime spot to take in the clearest of night skies, and there is plenty of hiking to be had near the park and in the foothills of the Sangres. Other people will explore the dunes just for the views, or possibly be on the lookout for wildlife. Campsites are numerous and many can accommodate pop-up trailers and RVs, but you’ll need to reserve in advance. This is a popular place to camp.

As for me, my visit was brief. I was spending a night in nearby Alamosa, and it seemed to be a wasted opportunity not to go there, check it out, and maybe walk out with some decent photographs.

The scenery didn’t disappoint. It would be worth a return visit to explore more, and I’ve been told that you can get a good deal of solitude in the off-peak seasons. Maybe that’s something I can look forward to in the future.

Bob Doucette