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Shifting Sands

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

A dry wind blows across Colorado’s San Luis Valley. Tiny grains of sand tumble and roll in the wind and tumble and roll some more until they finally roll up against the towering Sangre de Cristo Mountains. There, at the foot of the mountains, the sand has been piling upon itself for hundreds of centuries until, today, it forms the tallest sand dunes in North America. Rising as high as 750 feet above the valley floor, the dunes are constantly forming and reforming with the action of the wind. As the sun moves across the sky, the colors of the sand shift from brown to gold to cream to pink. You would expect to find sand dunes along the seacoast or in California’s Death Valley — but here, in this 7,500-foot-high valley in the Colorado Rockies, it comes as a surprise.
In 1932, President Herbert Hoover established Great Sand Dunes National Monument to protect 38,400 acres — including the 30 square miles of sand dunes — in this strange and beautiful stretch of land just 32 miles northeast of Alamosa, Colorado. In 2000, the monument was legislated as a national park and on September 13, 2004, it officially became the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.
Visiting Great Sand Dunes was a spur-of-the-moment decision for us. To be honest, we didn’t even know it existed until, while driving along U.S. Highway 160, south of the park, we spotted the dunes rising above the horizon. Curious, we checked the map to see just what it was and quickly decided to turn around and head north to the park. We drove several miles before the dunes seemed to get any larger, so we knew they were enormous.
Since our motorhome was under the 32-foot limit, we were able to camp in the Pinyon Flats campground inside the park at the end of State Highway 150. It was only $6 per night with a Golden Age Passport (plus the $3 entrance fee to the park). There are no hookups, but it’s a nice campground and water is available until freezing weather hits. Longer units will find camping at Oasis Park just outside the park.
We visited in late September, and the aspen and cottonwoods along Medano Creek were a glorious golden color. The setting sun turned the mountains a brilliant shade of red — we quickly understood why an early Spanish priest named them Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ). Evenings were chilly, but the nighttime sky was irresistible; we sat for hours listening to the sounds of the night and making wishes upon a dozen falling stars. Coyotes serenaded as we fell asleep. Dawn found us on the dunes to watch the sun rise.
Determined to hike to the top of the highest dune, we found it rough going in the sand. Our camera tripods grew heavy, but we were glad we had them because the beautiful dune patterns begged for pictures. Several other hikers had carefully walked along the crests of the dunes, tracing them with lacy footsteps and making interesting shapes. By mid-morning, we had shed our coats and shoes and relished the feel of sand squishing between our toes.
As we discovered, fall was a perfect time of year to visit the Great Sand Dunes. The weather was mild, with daytime temperatures in the 60-degree F range. Snow can cover the dunes in the winter, and spring can be very windy. Summer mornings are usually beautiful with deep blue skies but, by afternoon, tremendous thunderstorms oftentimes roll across the valley — you definitely want to be off the dunes by then.
After our picture-taking session, we stopped at the visitor center (near the entrance to the park, along Highway 150), where we watched an interesting 15-minute film and then listened as one of the rangers gave a “porch lecture,” spinning legends of ghostly towns and long-lost gold buried beneath the shifting sands. We learned that this park contains some of the oldest archaeological sites in the United States, including points of hunters’ spears dating to 15,000 B.C.
We also heard stories about the Spaniards who came to explore in the early 1600s, of the Ute Indians who occupied the San Luis Valley from about 1400 until the white man came to settle in the 1860s and about Zebulon Pike, who first set eyes on the dunes in 1807.
Outside again, we watched with interest as a handicapped visitor checked out a dune-accessible wheelchair from the visitor center — and went rolling gleefully out into the sand on huge soft tires. Most people come to Great Sand Dunes to see the dunes, of course, but there are other activities here, including a popular sandcastle-building competition (the last Saturday in June), along with kite flying, summer concerts and seminars and photography workshops. Some folks enjoy camping with their horses or pack animals and riding off into the mountain wilderness; others bring Jeeps and go four-wheeling along the Medano Pass Primitive Road.
Just remember: There is no off-road driving in the park, and equestrians need to check with the ranger station for regulations regarding horses. Bird-watching among the trees and grasslands bordering the dunes is another popular activity; about 150 bird species are found in the park. We even spotted a golden eagle soaring on the wind currents above the dunes. A short distance from the campground is the Ghost Forest, where a section of Medano Creek is dotted with the sandblasted skeletons of trees that have been buried in the sand and suffocated — only to have the dunes move on and uncover them again.
One visit to ever-shifting Great Sand Dunes National Park will never be enough. Each time you come to visit, you will see a different shape to the dunes — a different pattern in the sand and a whole new landscape to explore.

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