Eight years ago today – after four years of support from locals in the San Luis Valley in Colorado– several public and private lands came together to form one of our most unique and biologically diverse national parks.
On an average day at Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, you might hear children laughing – their dogs barking along in harmony – as they run across the giant sand dunes or slide down them on sleds. Still, the overall mood remains one of calm, quiet reflection. The dunes inspire a certain speechless awe. Enhancing the quiet is the fact that – despite all it has to offer – Great Sand Dunes is one of the National Park Service’s best kept secrets, receiving just .001 percent of visitors annually. When I visited on Christmas day, this effect was magnified. Just one other visitor trudged up the dunes, step by slow step, with his dog. It was just us, the wind and the sand. This place seems like a landscape outside of time – always changing, but always the same, as the sands shift back and forth. The dunes rise and fall like the inhales and exhales of the land, each breath lasting weeks or months.
The dunes formed over thousands of years, as drought periods dried out shallow lakes in the San Luis Valley. This left the grains of sand that had been washed there from the San Juan Mountains exposed to the wind, which piled them up against the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. There they remain today, kept more or less in place by competing winds, towering up to 750 feet and covering 30 square miles.
It is this vast ocean of sand that the park is best known for, but Great Sand Dunes is home to a variety of ecosystems, from wetlands to tundra to the many forests of the Sangre de Cristos. These forests gained national preserve status in 2000 out of concern for the water systems that the dunefield and their surrounding ecosystem depend on. By protecting the forests – from the krummholz, or “crooked wood,” hunched against the wind at 11,700 feet to the ponderosa pines in the foothills – the mountain streams and groundwater were also protected. On September 13, 2004, these areas joined the dunes – then a national monument – and formerly private lands to the west, to form what is now officially known as Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve.
This is a place with a magical ability to make time seem irrelevant. Once time is irrelevant, age becomes irrelevant as well. Whatever your age, after a slow trek up the dunes, and a moment of reverence for the vast landscape you look down on from wherever their summit is that day, you may find yourself tearing down them with abandon, just another carefree kid with a dog.