Shadows deepen and draw sharp lines across the crest of the highest sand dunes in the fading evening light. Stillness envelopes graceful shapes as the inexorable drama of sunset pulls the shades of night across the mountainous eastern horizon.
At this magical hour, the world seems to stand on edge and breathes in unison with our own rhythms. Among the shaded hollows of sand grow yellow sunflowers, their bright faces capturing sunlight in the growing darkness. A pocket of cool air washes up from the creek far below and voices from the distant campground echo across this vast, silent vault of sand and sky.
Like a desert mirage shimmering across the treeless steppes of the broad San Luis Valley, the Great Sand Dunes flank the lofty snowcapped peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Through its comparative isolation, the dunes are off the mainstream of motorized tourism. But like most remote areas, it offers the unconventional that is characteristic of the western landscape. Administered first as a national monument and now as a national park and preserve by the National Park Service since 1932, this wide, uncluttered space of distant horizons is a welcome island where wilderness still succeeds.
The park’s 149,028 acres is certainly not an ocean of sand like the ergs of Arabia or El Gran Desierto de Altar in northern Sonora, but rather a sea of inland sand swelling onto an alpine beach. The Great Sand Dunes, called Saa waap maa nache or “sand that moves” by the native Utes, boast the tallest dunes in North America with elegant Star Dune reaching 755 feet from base to summit and there is so much sand in this giant litterbox that if the dune field’s eight cubic miles of sand were evenly spread across Colorado’s 103,766 square miles it would be five inches deep.
The dune environment is classified as a true desert with its meager ten-inch rainfall and the resulting expanses of sagebrush and wind-tossed sand. Hiking among the dunes, however, one finds them not nearly as lifeless as at first sight. Grasses anchor sand along the eastern edge of Medano Creek, preparing for a succession forest of juniper and piñon pine. Mule deer placidly graze along the creek, and small herds of pronghorn roam the range. In summer, a showy display of sunflowers brightens the dunes and penstemon, wallflower, and paintbrush color the interface between the creek and dunes. North of the park campground is the “ghost forest” where sand has buried and exhumed tall pine trees, leaving their silvered skeletons to bake under the summer sun.
No trip to southern Colorado is complete without a stop at this strange and wonderful oasis of sand. While most folks do a quick look-see and splash in the creek, the best way to explore the dunes is to shoulder a pack and walk among the sand mountains.
If you sleep overnight among the hollows and ridges of wind-sculptured sand, you bear witness to geologic process at work and the unique life that inhabits the sere land. Out there you see every graceful contour, curve, and ripple of sand accentuated by the waning evening light and then after darkness falls and the planets parade across the night sky, you glimpse the spirit of the eternal earth, into the world of wind, sand, and stars.
Photos by Stewart M. Green