Crestone Crater (Photo) Courtesy of Katherine Faz, National Parks Service

A satellite image of the Crestone Crater in the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.

Photo Courtesy Katherine Faz, National Park Service at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Dubbed the “Crestone Crater,” one Colorado mystery that continues to intrigue scientists and outdoor enthusiasts today certainly looks like a meteor impact, but any tangible evidence of extraterrestrial rock has yet to be found.

The Crestone Crater is located on the north side of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in southern Colorado's San Luis Valley. According to a study conducted in 1963, the Crestone Crater is an elliptical bowl that measures 355 feet by 246 feet with a mean depth of 23 feet.

Historical documents detail several eye-witness reports of a fireball crashing to the ground in 1892, though the crater was discovered years later, in 1934 by a resident of nearby Crestone.

The first scientific study of the Crestone Crater was conducted by Denver geologist Dr. H. H. Nininger in 1941. He concluded that the crater was caused by a meteorite.

However, a later 1963 geologic investigation by Ursula Marvin and T. C. Marvin revealed no obvious signs of a meteorite impact. The study showed only trace amounts of nickel-iron spherules, but “no rock flour, impact glass or other signs” of a meteorite. The two scientists concluded that the sunken feature in the land was likely formed by wind. 

Crestone Crater (Photo) Credit FredBunch, National Parks Service

Photo of the Crestone Crater by Fred Bunch, Chief of Resources Management, with scientists examining the feature during the International Planetary Dunes conference hosted at Great Sand Dunes National Park in May 2010.

Photo courtesy of Fred Bunch, Chief of Resources Management at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.

More recent observations by the National Park Service acknowledge the possibility of a meteorite impact and consider that the evidence was likely collected at the time of the meteor crash or could still be buried deep beneath the ground.

A study by students of Colorado School of Mines defines the crater as a “unique geophysical signature in the subsurface that is correlated with the surface expression.” The study shows evidence that contradicts the theory that the crater was caused by wind and that the crater’s underground characteristics “may be consistent with the effects of an impact.”

If the mysterious land feature is indeed an impact crater, it is unique because of its small size and its preservation in the sand, the students reported. The study suggests many of the characteristics of this crater are “anomalies.”

Current research by the park service utilizes ground penetrating radar and a magnetometer to look for evidence of a meteor. Another theory by the park service is that the crater is actually the result of a 'sand boil', which is formed as watery sand deposits squeeze and push up along a fault line.

Of course, it's also worth noting that many bizarre incidents that have occurred in the San Luis Valley are thought by some to be less than terrestrial. Could this mysterious “Crestone Crater” actually be an imprint of an alien aircraft? See the site yourself near the Liberty Gate Trailhead at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.

Leslie James is all about Colorado when it comes to writing features, sharing adventures, and creating colorful galleries. She loves camping, hiking, mountain biking and snowboarding. Leslie joined OutThere Colorado in November 2020.

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