When the state of Colorado is mentioned, most people immediately think of Denver, the big city a tad bit east of the Rocky Mountains. Sports teams, an amusement park, and an abundance of snow often spring to mind next. While Denver is home to several attractions and an abundance of history, there are other areas in the state which are just as fascinating to explore. One such place is the Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Bordered by eight 12,000+ foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the sand dunes evolved after centuries of streams, creeks, melting snow and flash floods turned bits of rock into sand grains. With the grains exposed to the elements, southwesterly winds ignited a slow process of moving the grains toward the low curve of the mountains. The grains piled up there to become the sand dunes, reaching as high as 750 ft. The sand dunes are the only wilderness that is defined as a saltbush-greasewood ecosystem. Several different type of plants grow in the area, to include Indian rice grass and prairie sunflower, and the dunes are the only place in the world that is home to the Great Sand Dunes tiger beetle and the giant sand treader camel cricket. The dunes cover an area of 30 square miles and became a national park/monument in 1932.
The Sangre de Cristo’s border the park from the east. Marshy wetlands cover a portion of the valley floor. Ponds hug the sand sheet’s eastern edge, and open fields surround the floor. The wind blows more often than not, whirling the sand. Several species of insects call the dunes their home and spadefoot toads have been seen.
The dunes make for a great day trip or for a few days of camping. There are plenty of campgrounds in the area to leave a tent or RV while you spend the day hiking through the sand or exploring its perimeter. Air temps reach about 85 during the summer and drop to 20 below 0 during the winter. The surface temps reach as hot as 140.
The nearby mountains often more options for hiking, fishing and even horseback riding. There are small towns near the sand dunes, but if you prefer a bigger town, Walsenburg is not far to the east, and the Spanish Peaks near Walsenburg make for another great area to explore. So leave Denver behind, head to the southern part of the state and squish your toes in the sand, you might even spot a grouse, a hummingbird or a Northern pygmy owl, not to mention a bald eagle or a crane or great blue heron in the wet grasslands. Then again, you might see catch sight of elk, a bobcat or a coyote. Occasionally, they sneak onto the dunes.
|Northern Pygmy Owl|