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Review: Great Sand Dunes National Park 26 June 2011

Posted by magicdufflepud in Travel.
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And you thought they only existed in the Sahara, or off the Outer Banks of North Carolina. But no, the highest dunes in North America rise in the middle of Colorado, hundreds of miles from the nearest desert and thousands from the nearest seashore. Luckily, though, they’re close enough to Denver to visit in a weekend. But when you find yourself at a loss for things to see and do there after the first few hours—a distinct possibility—the Sangre de Cristos rise to more than 14,000 feet behind the dunes, offering another and altogether different diversion.

If the existence of such a place, right here in Middle America no less, strikes you as a little strange, it ought to. In fact, most everything about Colorado should strike you as a little strange and a little wonderful. And of course, it’s no wonder that with attractions like the dunes and the 14ers and the road biking and skiing and hiking and, well, all of that, that people from out of state imagine we barely get any work done at all. I’ve had the good fortune to find myself here, writing about some of it, but it’s only been a sliver, really. There is so much more to Colorado, and to being a Coloradan.

Sorry for the detour.

At any rate, the dunes raise one question: how did they form?

The answer requires less science than you might think: it’s all about water. Despite their appearance as a dry, barren and otherworldly place, the dunes rely on an expansive aquifer, and two streams. Simple as that. Well, maybe not quite that simple. Not just any place with water can form dunes after all. Colorado’s massive piles of sand lie atop an unusual aquifer where the water table rises so high that it peaks above the surface forming marshes in an otherwise hostile climate.

Various geologic barriers prevent that aquifer from leaking into the surrounding area, so when streams carrying water from the mountains empty into the area, they remain on the surface well into the dry landscape before drying out. The streams essentially float on top of the high water table. Elsewhere along the range, streams that form in the mountains disappear into the ground just a few hundred feet into the parched San Luis Valley. But around the sand dunes, Sand and Medano Creeks flow freely, running right through the sand until they dry out well in the valley.

And that’s the key thing. When the wind picks up grains of sand anywhere else around Colorado, they fall at random. When the winds blow the sand into either of these creeks, though, the flow carries the grains back down to where they dry out. Then the wind blows again, across all those grains sending them back toward the creeks. Eventually, enough sand comes from elsewhere that it begins to pile up. Voila: dunes.

If the water table were even a few feet lower, the two creeks at the heart of this system would dry up sooner, and the sand cycle they promote would diminish or even disappear. Concern for that very scenario led Congress to designate the dunes and the surrounding lands over the aquifer a national park in 2004. Thus protected from other interests, the dunes to persist for as long as the water flows from the mountains.

I suppose that explanation went a little long, but really, it’s at the heart of the spectacle. Certainly the dunes rise high and look pretty, but to leave them still wondering “How?” or “Why here?” leaves it feeling hollow.

And of course, the dunes aren’t all science. The area has hosted humans for the the last 11,000 years, which is longer than you might think in North America, given that no one’s entirely convinced of a date when people showed up on this continent. Reading a book about that debate in college, it occurred to me that, actually, no one cares about Clovis man. The only name that you’ll remember out of the long history of peoples and tribes who followed is probably Zebulon Pike’s, of Pike’s Peak fame. In 1807 after seriously screwing up a mission to find the Arkansas River, he ran into the sand dunes instead, and, in an act that demonstrates that everyone’s a tourist, climbed to the top of the things.

You can, too. The entry fee’s $3/person, unless you’re too young or too old to enjoy it that much—in which case you’ll pay less. You can camp for $25/night, too, in semi-shaded campgrounds that overlook the dunes. They’re all right, but between Memorial Day and Labor Day, you’ll likely share the campground with everyone on earth, and their screaming kids/generators/whathaveyou. Camping’s free if you hike a ways into the mountains. As for more luxurious accommodations, I don’t think they exist.

A few other notes:

  • Be prepared to find sand in everything you own for the rest of your life, even in things that didn’t go to the dunes
  • Don’t wear shoes on the dunes. The first several hundred feet getting to them kinda sucks, but on the other hand, it’s better than hating life because your shoes have filled with sand.
  • Bring long pants/sleeves. If you don’t, you’ll find out sandblasting works, first hand.
  • Don’t plan on spending more than a day at the dunes. Once you’ve played in the creek and climbed to the top of High Dune, you’ve exhausted the opportunities. You could always hike Blanca or Little Bear, though.

Visiting Moab 1 March 2011

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You can go to Moab from April through October. Or you can go in February, when snow still falls in the high desert and the crowds have booked flights for the beach. Not bad deal if you ask me.

It was about this time last year that I headed out for my first visit to Utah, and I returned with a new tag for my travel posts: “the heartbreak of rural America.” A year later, Moab is still heartbreaking in all the same ways, but it’s best for the traveler to avoid dwelling on that sort of thing. The surrounding landscape of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks simply doesn’t allow for it—and that’s the part I missed in last February’s reflections. So this time around I’m giving a proper review, and a thumbs up, if only because it could send more visitors and more dollars to this sunburnt city.

In the Bible, Moab stretched east from the Jordan river, a nearly treeless plateau bounded by Beth-jeshimoth to the north, Baal-meon to the east and Kiriathaim to the south. The resident Moabites and the neighboring tribes of Israel enjoyed an on-again, off-again relationship in which both sides got their Old Testament jollies by comparing family trees or killing one another. When postmaster William Pierce first showed up in this part of southeastern Utah, it’s possible he saw that grand narrative laid before him on the landscape. Or else he just saw a lot of desert, which is pretty much what the Jordanian Moab is, too. Whatever the case, settlers arrived in 1878, and by 1890 were already petitioning to change the town’s name because of the association it created with the biblical Moabites’ affinity for idolatry and incest.

But the name stuck, and the people did, too, at first eking out an agrarian existence near of the Colorado River’s few crossings. As happened in so many Western towns, though, it was mineral wealth that put the city on the map. Potash and manganese contributed to the bloom, then came oil and gas, but it was the harsh landscape’s radioactive ores that made Moab the “Uranium Capital of the World” in the 1950s as prospectors laid claim to vast tracts of desert waste in the hopes their finds would supply the next world-obliterating bomb. Edward Abbey gives a good account of the mad, and largely unsuccessful, uranium dash in his book Desert Solitaire. And, come to think of it, he gives a good account of most everything else in the region, too. Today, the prospectors have returned, and pending all the right approvals, America will see its first new uranium mill since the Cold War Era rise on the Colorado side of the border.

Chances are, though, you won’t be thinking about any of that when you make the turn off I-70 and head south into slick rock country. If you’re native to the southwest, maybe you won’t think much of the highway scenery, a denuded landscape of rock and dust that stretches to horizon. But if you hail from more verdant climes, your jaw will drop. This is an America everyone east of the Rockies has only seen in movies, and even then, the slightly fantastical quality those films all share makes the reality of the landscape seem a little suspect too. When was the last time you saw a movie set against the upper midwest that wasn’t Fargo? We associate the West with a fiction, though, making the reality all the more surreal.

I won’t talk much about what you’ll see when you arrive because that’s essentially impossible. Try to imagine a wall of flaming red rock, miles long, taller than the tallest building in your city by half. Imagine a chasm dropping almost a vertical mile into a river you’ll never see. This is what moving water does to a landscape which sees so little rain. The Green and Colorado rivers scour the earth and the rock and, seemingly, the sky, while the flash floods turn creekbeds into canyons. To look at all of it is to travel through time. Much of the visible rock dates to the Jurassic and the Triassic, when dinosaurs lumbered where you now stand with a camera to your eye. And behind all this lie the La Sals, dozens of miles of distant but encroaching as if they run right up to the canyon walls. Visit in February and you’ll be treated to snowcapped peaks set against red rocks.

You can hike into it, too. In Canyonlands, the Upheaval Dome trail makes an 8.3-mile loop around a formation that only makes sense when view from the air. In Arches, the Devil’s Garden trail offers a five-mile ramble through the area’s signature fins and arches, topping out of a ridge which offers views over the whole park. If you have the time, try both of these in favor of hitting all the recommended photo locations. You’ll appreciate the slower pace and the interaction with the landscape you won’t get when you’re stopping and starting like a pizza delivery boy. And I’ve always hated recommended photo locations anyway. Experience the parks for yourself. Find something.

A word of caution, though: traveling in the desert isn’t like wandering around in the Appalachians. 1) Carry sufficient water. Carry more than enough water, even in your car. The average person traveling in a place this dry needs a gallon of water per day, and in this case at least, it’s best to consider yourself just average. In February you can probably find running streams in a canyon or two, but don’t rely on it. 2) Don’t bust the crust. Even in a place that only sees a few inches of precipitation a year, life thrives, and the crust, visible as hard black formations on the soil, holds it all together. Walking off trail destroys this complex web of cyanobacteria, lichens and other life that keeps the soil from disappearing with the wind. And when you bust the crust, it can take decades to return to its original state.