What’s Up with the Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve?

The OutThere Colorado team explores Great Sand Dunes National Park. Photo Credit: OutThere Colorado.

What do alpine tundras, deserts, mountains, plains, forests and grasslands have in common? They are all habitats that can be found in the geographically diverse state of Colorado.  One especially unique habitat is the Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve Located in the San Luis Valley high elevation desert, the dunes encompass about 30 square miles and contain the tallest sand dunes in North America, maxing out at 750 feet. Great Sand Dunes National Park is a destination that should be on everyone’s bucket list.

According to the National Park Service, the sand dunes are a sacred land to the Navajo for both the resources offered by the area and the proximity to Blanca Peak – one of four sacred mountains to the Navajo. Other tribes also inhabited the area including the Utes, who referred to the dunes as “Saa waap maa nache,” or “sand that moves.” The Navajo, Ute, and other tribes collected the inner layers of bark from the surrounding ponderosa pine trees for food and medicine.

How did the Dunes get there? It’s the result of a process that’s spanned thousands of years. The San Luis Valley once had much more water, including the large “Lake Alamosa.” As these lakes dried up, they left sand behind, which was pushed by wind into a natural pocket formed by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

So, why are the dunes still so tall? A recycling system of water and wind creates the large dunes. Heavy snow and rain contribute to mountain watershed in the form of creeks that flow through several habitats ending around the main dune field. Sand that has blown away from the dunes is picked up by the watershed and deposited back into the dune field. When the creeks peter out, sand is picked up by the wind again and carried back to the dune field.  

The dunes are estimated to contain over 5 billion cubic meters of sand and contain a variety of recreational opportunities including camping, backpacking, and sand boarding/skiing. The breathtaking views are worth the travel time from any corner of the state or country.

Please recreate responsibly in the Great Sand Dunes. Campfires are not allowed in the dunes, so a gas stove should be used instead. Dogs are also not permitted, and camping permits are required. Leave No Trace principles should be practiced at all times in the area, and remember: the land is sacred for a reason, so please respect its beauty.

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