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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┬áthat 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.