Wallace Stegner once said that national parks are “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” I could not agree more. The 59 national parks across the U.S.A. include some of the most breathtaking landscapes and historically significant sites in the country. Colorado is lucky to have four national parks within its borders each showcasing a unique outdoor experience in the Centennial State. From the majesty of the Rocky Mountains to an ancient civilization to the nation’s largest sand dune to a canyon that cuts through 2 million years of history, Colorado’s national parks help preserve the environment, history and unique character of the state. This four week series will highlight the life of and the life in each of Colorado’s four national parks: Rocky Mountain, Mesa Verde, Great Sand Dune, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
- Wednesday, July 17: Rocky Mountain National Park
- Wednesday, July 24: Mesa Verde National Park
- Wednesday, July 31: Great Sand Dune National Park and Preserve
- Wednesday, August 7: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Great Sand Dune National Park and Preserve
One of the most unique landscapes in Colorado is in Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve (GSDNP) in the San Luis Valley. Among the towering peaks of the Rocky Mountains in this southern region of Colorado visitors will find a mini-mountain range made entirely of sand. This super sized sand box measures over 30 square miles, contains more than five billion cubic meters of sand and boasts the nation’s tallest sand dune, Star Dune at 750 feet. However, though the dunefield is the most prominent feature in GSDNP it is not the only attraction. The park also has a diverse range of wetlands, grasslands and alpine environments to explore.
Exactly how the Great Sand Dunes were created is an ever evolving debate. However, most scientists currently adhere to the theory that the dunes’ history is closely tied to the surrounding mountains (the Sangre de Christo Mountains to the north and east and the San Juan Mountains to the west and south). Tectonic and volcanic activity formed the mountains in this area and in doing so also created the San Luis Valley, Colorado’s largest alpine valley. The agitation from this formation created sediment that dusted the valley floor. Then water from mountain streams, rivers and runoff filled the valley creating the vast Lake Alamosa. Overtime the lake’s water began to cut through the volcanic deposits along the southern end of the valley eventually breaking through its barrier. As the water of Lake Alamosa slowly began draining to the south, climatic change in the area cemented the lake’s demise drying up most of the remaining water. Eventually all that was left of Lake Alamosa was a few scattered ponds and a large deposit of sand on the valley floor. Wind patterns in the San Luis Valley then helped shape that sand into dunes. Southwest winds which regularly push through the valley piled the sand into mounds along the Sangre de Christo Mountains; strong storm winds that occasionally blow in the opposite direction heightened the dunes’ peaks and kept the sand from pushing entirely into the mountains. Today the winds continue to shape the landscape, though less dramatically than in the past, which is why Ute Indians call the area Sowapophe-uvehe meaning the land that moves back and forth.
The Great Sand Dunes have been a unique tourist destination in Colorado since the early 1920s, but weren’t officially made into a national park and preserve until 2004. Today the distinctive environment offers equally exceptional outdoor activities. Sand-hiking, sand-boarding and sand-sledding top the popular activities on the dunefield where back country camping is also permitted. Medano Creek, skirting the base of the dunes, offers seasonal soaking opportunities, a welcomed relief from the heat of the sand which in peak season can reach 140°F. The park has established several campgrounds within walking distance of the dunes, and smaller hotels around the valley offer additional accommodations.
Besides the dunes, the 150,000 acres of GSDNP also includes grasslands, wetlands, alpine lakes and portions of the Sangre de Christo Mountains just east of the dunefield. Since many visitors to GSDNP focus solely on the sand, expeditions to the other environments in GSDNP can be a welcomed escape from the 285,000 annual visitors. The wetlands are notable for their wildlife and birding opportunities. In the grassland visitors get panoramic views of the dunes and up-close views of wildflowers which grow in abundance. And the mountainous regions of GSDNP have numerous hiking trails as well as several 4×4 roads.
Other noteworthy natural attractions located relatively close to GSDNP in the San Luis Valley include Zapata Falls and South Zapata Lake; Blanca Peak (the fourth highest fourteener in Colorado); as well as San Luis Lakes State Park & Wildlife Area, Blanca Wetlands Wildlife Habitat Area and Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge which are all great for birding. The valley’s man-made attractions are equally as alluring and visitors to GSDNP can easily make short trips to the Colorado Gator Farm in Mosca, the geothermal swimming pool in Hooper, the UFO watchtower or the valley’s largest city Alamosa.