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Shifting Sands: Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is nothing like a day at the beach

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Story and photos by ANN BUSH // May/June 2017

On a brochure about the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, I notice that it proudly boasts of having the tallest sand dune in North America. Intrigued, I make a point to visit the park as part of a road trip from Texas to the Rocky Mountains.

In my loaded SUV with my four-legged mutt, Tipper, we approach the Spanish Peaks Wilderness area on the southern end of the Sangre de Cristo Range in southern Colorado. I point out to Tipper the Blanca Peak stretching up 14,351 feet. I give her my pre-trip homework lecture about the granite being 1.8 billion years old and that Navajo people named the peak the Sacred Mountain of the East.

She blinks a couple of times and flops her head back on her pillow.

After more twists and turns and ups and downs on the mountain road, Tipper gives me the “I think I am going to throw up” look. I am relieved when we finally reach the bottom and move along a vast open prairie adjacent to the dune field.


Resting at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Range, the mounds of sand cover 19,000 acres. At the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve visitor center, I half expect a camel to walk by. Reality sets in when I open the car door and a cold, fall season, wind hits my face. This is no desert.

Researchers say the dunes started forming about 110,000 years ago when glaciers melted and water evaporated leaving sand behind. Strong winds carried the sand for many miles and began depositing it when it hit the mountain.

At the Pinon Flats Campground, I pick a perfect site with an incredible view of the dunes, which are within a short walk. The spacious campground is packed with Pinon pine trees.

The sliding afternoon sun turns the sand bright orange as evening approaches. Tipper is elated when I untie her leash from the picnic table and head to a footpath that leads to the sand. It is eerily quiet as we pass a dozen deer watching us intently. According to a study conducted by the National Park Service, Great Sand Dunes Park and Preserve is the quietest national park in the 48 contiguous United States.

The Rangers warn me that the temperature at night dips to 25 degrees. We are, after all, at an altitude of 8,200 feet. I later discover a bear-proof box next to the picnic table at our camp site. Bears and mountain lions are common in the area. I decide that Tipper and I will sleep in the warmer and safer SUV instead of the tent.


The next morning, beautiful western bluebirds flutter above our heads during breakfast. Tipper beats them to every crumb I drop.

The park has many trails ranging from one-half mile to seven miles long. In the park there is much to explore: lakes, tundra, mountain peaks, spruce and pine forests, grasslands, wetlands and acres of aspens.

Zapata Falls is a waterfall located on the southeast side of the park. The only way to reach the falls is by wading through a water-filled cave. Medano Pass is reached by using a four-wheel drive vehicle. Starting at the Point of No Return picnic area, high-clearance vehicles are necessary to navigate the creeks. The rugged backcountry road also passes through a canyon and over sections of soft sand.

Medano Creek never finds a stable stream bed in the ever shifting sand. Building sand castles along the creek is a popular activity. On the dunes, others take part in another popular activity – sand sledding.


Sand is very different than snow and water. Items used for sand sledding are specially designed.  Sand boards and sleds can be bought from retailers near the park. Rangers recommend those who are not experienced in sand sledding to begin on smaller dunes. Many, however, opt to slide down Star Dune, the highest dune in the park.

I discover that it is hard to walk in sand. I sludge along, stopping many times to catch my breath. The sand buries my feet with each step. Even Tipper stops pulling on the leash to go faster.

With shoes and paws full of sand, we pack up and continue our trip to the Rockies. Tonight, a nice hotel and a shower await us.

Ann Bush is a freelance writer based in East Texas.

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