No Where Else on Earth
As I stood there, baking in the sun, my arms and legs pelted by millions of tiny airborne tacks, sand going up my nose and crunching between my teeth, I was astonished. If my eyes hadn’t dried out, I might have cried. North America’s largest beach stretched out for a half mile below me. A beach with no water, not in the month of August anyway. The harsh and unforgiving climate makes this location an extremely difficult one to visit, yet one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. It’s America’s newest National Park, the Great Sand Dunes of Colorado.
My husband and I had arrived earlier that morning to camp in the park and preserve. We could see them almost an hour away driving south on Highway 17 like giant piles of cinnamon next to the broccoli-colored Sangre de Cristo Mountains. What an odd combination, cinnamon and broccoli. They only got taller as we turned east on County Lane 6, growing until we saw the crests and troughs of the individual dunes. The dunes were so still they appeared painted on the mountain backdrop and strangely out of place. Mountains were supposed to be places of alpine trees, boulders and snowmelt creeks. What was all this sand doing here?
I had climbed about half way up the sand dunes hoping to make it to Star Dune, one of two high points visitors can hike to from the main parking area. The higher I climbed, the worse the winds swirled around me. The perpetual winds that buffet the mountains and continually build and rebuild the sand dunes pick up grains as they cross the ridges. The grains pelted my exposed skin. Fortunately I wore sunglasses or I would have been plucking the grains from my contacts later. In between the ridges, I found some relief as the winds blew above my head. Walking on the dunes was like walking through water just above your knees. I wore my trusty pair of sandals to trek through the dunes. Since these sandals were dusted with the sand from beaches all over North America and the Caribbean, I figured they would work great on the dunes. I was wrong as my ankles twisted, turned, slipped and were even buried in the dunes. I should have put on my hiking shoes that were in the Jeep. I had a water bottle with me, but I drank most of it just walking across the quarter mile flats before the dunes themselves start. I had just a few sips left and was only halfway there. Thank goodness I was smart enough to put sunscreen on before starting this trek.
I stopped to rest and take in the view around me. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains arose from the sand in the distance, vibrant green between the beige beach and the blue sky. I thought it would be cool to take a photo; my feet in the sand with the mountains in the background. To do this, I had to sit down on the dune. Big mistake. Sure it would look cool later, but the reality of sitting on the crest of a dune with the wind swirling sand all around was not a smart move on my part. There may still be grains of sand permanently wedged in my lungs.
Standing up in order to breathe better, I encountered two hikers, a man and a woman, coming back down, both silent as they passed. For some reason they took a great arc around me, probably wondering what the heck I was doing sitting in the sand. I wanted to continue and get to the top, but I looked at my cell phone. It was after 4 p.m. and my water bottle was now empty. My husband and dog were waiting on the flats below. He stayed behind because he didn’t think the dog, at 11 years old, was up the task, not to mention with panting her only way of keeping cool, she would have swallowed buckets of sand. With a sigh, I headed back down. Going down was much easier. I found I could skate down the dunes with my feet sliding a few inches with each step. It was fun. The softness of the sand also cushioned my knees as I took giant leaps down the dunes.
Several individuals, including some children, were making their way up. It amused me how most of them were grossly under prepared for the task. Few had water and almost all wore tank tops and flip flops. Flip flips were not going to get them very far as this was not your typical beach. Even more amusing were the number of people with plastic saucer sleds, only instead of snow, they were sliding down the sand. It looked like a good idea, but sitting that low to the ground would cause you to inhale large gobs of sand kicked up from under you. Maybe at age 10 that would be fun, but not something I would want to experience now.
Crossing the flats, I searched for my husband and dog. They were at the edge of the dunes, next to the parking lot. Jasmine, our dog, played with some children digging with a pail and shovel in the sand. A foot below the surface, they found water and Jasmine was stuck her head in the hole to drink as the children laughed. The water was always there; remnants of Medano Creek that flowed down from Medano Pass. In May and June, when the snow melt was at its peak, the creek flowed freely through the flats and it turned into a giant inland beach. Children in bathing suits could pull each other through the shallow water in blow-up rafts and build sand castles. However, this was August and the summer heat evaporated the creek from the surface, but the water was still there hidden below.
At the Great Sand Dunes Visitor’s Center, we got a quick lesson in why the dunes were there and how the park formed. The accepted theory of the sand dunes was that they were much younger than the mountains surrounding them (in geological terms anyway). While the mountains were millions of years old, the dunes were only thousands of years old, but no one could pin-point an exact age. It was believed a large inland lake used to fill the valley between the San Juan Mountains to the west and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the east. Slowly, some of the lake dried up due to climate change and the rest cut through an opening in the south and drained into the Rio Grande, leaving behind a large sheet of sand. That sand was driven by two opposing winds, one from the southwest and another from the northeast (these winds were actually shown on the park map, which gave you an idea of how strong they were). The winds picked up the sand and deposited them in a “pocket” at the base of the Sangre de Cristo. What completed the dune process was Medano Creek to the east and Sand Creek to the north. As the winds blew the top layer of sand up into the mountains, the grains eventually ended up in the creeks, which then brought them back down to the base of the dunes. This circular process had been happening for millennia and was what kept the dunes in place and built them so high, the highest in the country. The Park, including the Medano Preserve, covered about 150,000 acres. The dunes were declared a National Monument back in 1932, but didn’t become a National Park, with all the protections afforded that designation, until 2004. *
After my unsuccessful attempt to summit Star Dune, we drove back to camp, but we made a stop at Castle Creek first. Accessible only by 4WD vehicle, this was where Medano Creek met the dunes on the eastern side. Here in this more shaded and wind protected area, Medano Creek still flowed above ground and you have to walk through it to get to the dunes. The dunes rose steeply here, just like the walls of a fort (could that have been how Castle Creek was named?). From the ground, this dune looked hikable and I went charging up, this time in my hiking shoes. At mountain altitude, I was quickly out of breath and stopped to look behind me. I hadn’t gotten all that far, so I trudged on, taking small, but quick steps. Breathless, I stopped again. I felt like I’d gone a long way, but the creek didn’t look any smaller than before. My husband waved up to me while he walked Jasmine in the creek. Several children were building sand castles and a group of two older boys were building a dam. A small semi-circle of water pooled up behind it so they must have built a good one. I sat down in the sand as two guys with snowboards began to climb below me. Wow, I could imagine how thrilling that would be to slide down this steep hill. I stood up and began my climb again, but the guys that had started not five minutes before had already caught up to me.
“I take it you’ve done this before,” I said to them.
“This is our third run today,” the nearest one said.
“I don’t know how you do it,” I said, referring to their climb.
“It helps to use the board,” he explained. They used their snowboards like walking sticks, digging them into the sand ahead of them and pulling themselves up as they walked. “Works great until the wind starts blowing. Then they turn into giant sails.”
I asked them where they were going to track down the dune. I didn’t want to get runover. There was a large shrub below and I asked if they were going to the right or the left of it. He pointed and said they would go right. I followed a few more steps up the dune. The guy I was talking to was well past me while his buddy was up and over and couldn’t be seen anymore. Tired, I sat down in the dune and got my camera out. The guys would make great action photos as they passed. I waited several minutes and nothing. Then a few more minutes of nothing. Finally I heard a distant shout.
With a “shush” the guy I talked to appeared, sand flying around him. He didn’t go very fast, but was steady all the way to the bottom. I guessed that was about one minute of fun for 20 minutes of dune climbing. Another few minutes went by before I saw some more movement. The other guy started down the dune, then stopped. Then he sat down straddling his legs on each side of his board and continued his way down. I wasn’t sure sitting on the board was the wisest of choices as I watched the sand fly up and over his head. I took more photos anyway, but you couldn’t see the guy at all. Just a wave of sand.
As both guys washed the sand off their legs in the creek, I took a few more photos to document my height. The steepness of the dune didn’t make it seem very high, but I could see above the tops of the trees on the other side of the creek. I made my way down. Down was so much easier! Too bad I couldn’t just take an elevator to the top and then hop my way down. At the bottom, the guys came over and asked to see my photos. I was curious to see them for myself so we checked the pics on my digital camera display.
“Those look really good,” said the guy who talked to me on the dune. “Let me give you my email address.” By this time, my husband had walked over and looked at the photos too. We found out we were all camping on Medano Pass and they had been here for one night already. They drove down from Denver specifically to sandboard. True Coloradoans; couldn’t wait for the snow. The guys said they were going to make one more run and began climbing again. We headed back to the Jeep to go back to camp. It was time for dinner. We would play on the dunes again tomorrow.
On the day we left, I asked to climb the dune at Castle Creek one more time. This time I left the camera with my husband to take photos of me. It was a cool morning and I thought I would have no problem getting to the top. But there was a problem. As I climbed higher and higher, the top kept getting farther and farther away. Was that reverse vertigo? I looked out at the mountains behind me. I was way above the tops of the trees and this time, the creek did look a little smaller below me. I could barely hear my husband when he yelled, “Hey!” I turned and waved at the camera. Then I sat down for a second. This place was amazing and I wanted just a minute to savor the sand, the wind and the sun that shone just above the mountains. There was no where else like this on earth and it was in my back yard.
*I would like to credit the NPS map and website for providing this information.
For more information on the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, visit the National Park Service web site. There are some cool pics of people playing in the water flowing around the dunes. You can also check out my husband’s facebook page for photos from our trip, 104 photos to be exact.