Photo: Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, San Luis Valley, Colorado.
When I used to think of sand dunes, I would have visions of souped up Baja Bugs flying high over the top of the Pajaro Dunes along the Pacific Ocean. Or of Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia as he stumbled across the vast Gobi Desert with a camel in tow. What I failed to envision was over 30 square miles of the tallest dunes in North America resting below 14,000 foot peaks of the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo mountains high in an Alpine Valley. Who’d have thought?
The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in the San Luis Valley of Colorado is a place shrouded in mystery. There are several theories that address how the dunes got to where they are today. The most prominent being strong directional winds that blew the silt and sand from the Rio Grande River and its tributaries towards its current resting place. It is also theorized that this giant sand pile got its start some 400,000 plus years ago. Alternate theories touch on the truly bizarre from inter-galactic space travelers zooming through hyperspace and climbing out of “traversable wormholes” in order to mine the silica; to something in line with the Book of Mormon, the Lamanites, and the Great Horse and Chariot Powder Theory…it’s probably better not to ask.
Whatever the truth behind these magnificent dunes, when one stands at the base and looks off towards the East at the rugged Sangre de Cristo’s and then looks up to the top of the tallest dune, you are driven to climb. So you spend the next several hours huffing and puffing in the thin air. You somehow manage to climb 750 feet up from the 8,200 foot elevation starting point, through unrelenting fine grain sand, just to see the view. And once you finally arrive at the top, you experience a euphoria of sorts. As your muscles spasm and your lungs heave, you cannot help but smile. The view is spectacular and otherworldly. The sand is warm and caresses your tired limbs and you feel a strange, light-headed endorphin rush. All seems right with the world in that moment of accomplishment. You are standing on the peak of the highest sand dunes in North America and you were not transported there through some obscure wormhole. No, you reached the top of one of nature’s wonders by virtue of curiosity and the drive to experience something truly remarkable. Whether you climb to the top or remain awe-struck by their beauty from the base, the Great Sand Dunes are destined to leave an indelible mark on your soul.