Places: Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

By Mike Rosso

What’s a mountain dweller to do when they need to get some sand between their toes? When the nearest ocean is 1,000 miles away?

One solution lies close to home in the San Luis Valley. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve sits at the base of the majestic Sangre De Cristo mountains on the eastern side of the San Luis Valley. The park encompasses 107,342 acres and the preserve protects an additional 41,686 acres (65.1 square miles.)

The park boasts the tallest sand dunes in North America, covering an area of about 30 square miles. The tallest dune, Star Dune, is 750 feet from base to top. The dunes are estimated to contain over 5 billion cubic meters of sand. Visitors must walk across the wide Medano Creek to reach the dunes during spring and summer. The creek typically has a peak flow from late-May to early-June in most years. It has been known to reach over two-feet deep in wet years.

Visitors have always attempted to slide down the dunes on various kinds of boards and devices, but nothing worked well until 2009, when sandboards and sandsleds specifically designed for sand were developed. These are made of laminated wood, with a special super-slick material on the bottom, that when combined with a special wax, allow visitors to slide at high speed on dry sand slopes. Courtesy of Great Sand Dunes N.P.

From July through April, the creek is usually no more than a few inches deep, if there is any water at all. The Great Sand Dunes system is comprised of four primary components; the dunefield, the mountain watershed, the sand sheet – where dunes can and do form, but overall, grasses and shrubs stabilize the sand deposits, and the sabkha, a phonetic translation of the Arabic word used to describe any form of salt flat. Over many years in geologic terms, sediment from the surrounding mountains filled the valley. After valley lakes receded over time, exposed sand was blown towards the Sangres by the predominant southwest winds over an estimated tens of thousands of years, thus forming the dunes.

Nomadic hunters and gatherers first came to exploit the area for the herds of mammoths and prehistoric bison which grazed nearby. They were Stone Age people who hunted with large stone spear or dart points, now identified as Clovis and Folsom points. The area was first historically inhabited by the Southern Ute Indians. The Utes called the dunes Saa waap maa nache, “sand that moves.” The Navajo (Dine’) and Jicarilla Apache tribes also have cultural connections there. Blanca Peak, located just south of Great Sand Dunes, is one of four sacred mountains to the Navajo people who named it Sisnaajini – the White Shell Mountain. In the San Luis Valley itself, evidence of human habitation dates back about 11,000 years.

In 1694, Don Diego de Vargas, a Spanish governor of Santa Fe de Nuevo México, became the first European leader on record to visit the San Luis Valley. (In the late 1500s, the Oñate brothers entered the Valley.) They were followed by explorers Juan Bautista de Anza, Zebulon Pike, John C. Fremont, and John Gunnison in the 18th and 19th centuries. n fact, the first known writings about the dunes were found in Pike’s journals of 1807. Settlers followed, who farmed, ranched and mined the valley and mountains in the late 19th century. The dunes were accessed via trails from Santa Fe or La Veta Pass, and over Medano and Mosca Passes from the Wet Mountain Valley side. In the 1920s, gold was discovered in the sand, prompting a mini-gold rush. A woman who was a miner’s daughter at that time, told park staff that each miner had his area staked off, and panning and sifting went on from morning until night. She said her father was finding about an ounce of gold per four cubic yards of sand. At the same time, the Volcanic Mining Company had a claim along Medano Creek, and set up a small building and a contraption that separated out magnetite and gold sand.

Around that time, residents from nearby Alamosa and Monte Vista were becoming concerned that the dunes could be destroyed by mining or a proposed concrete-making plant. The dunes had become a potential source of tourist revenue, as well as a point of pride for them. Members of the Ladies P.E.O. (Philanthropic Educational Organization) sponsored a bill to Congress asking for national monument status for Great Sand Dunes, and it was signed into law by President Herbert Hoover in 1932.

In 2000-2004, another push was made for the monument to be expanded into a national park, to preserve not only the natural ecosystem but also numerous archeological sites found in the area. On September 24, 2004, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve was established.

The park is open for hiking, sand sledding, horseback riding, picnicking, wildlife watching, star gazing and more. There are designated trails within the park, including in the forested area above the dunes. Backcountry camping permits are also available. Sandhill cranes, an iconic species of the San Luis Valley, are one of 250 bird species found in the park and preserve. There are also free, ranger-led programs, demonstrations, book signings and lectures during the spring, summer and fall seasons.

While hunting is not permitted in the park, licensed hunters may hunt in Great Sand Dunes National Preserve during designated legal seasons. Camping and lodging are available within and just outside the park from spring through fall. The visitors’ center is open daily, year-round except for winter federal holidays. Leashed pets are allowed in day use areas of the national park (including the play area of the dunefield and campground) and in the national preserve, but not in backcountry areas of the park. Whichever season you choose to visit – barefoot or not – you should plan according to daytime and night-time highs and lows, possible precipitation and wind speeds. Check the weather on the park website or at the visitor center during operating hours. Visitor center hours from Labor Day weekend to Memorial Day weekend are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Entrance fees and other information can be found online at

GETTING THERE: From Alamosa, go 37 miles east on U.S. Hwy. 160 to Hwy. 150. Go north on 150 to the park’s entrance. Coming from the north, take U.S. Hwy. 285 over Poncha Pass and turn left onto Hwy. 17, just past Villa Grove. Drive south past Hooper to County Road 6, and go left. CR 6 will eventually end at 150, where you will turn left (north) and into the park.