We left Pueblo and took Highway 160 up the Rockies from the east to Blanca town. After two hours, we entered the once sacred home for native Americans – the San Luis Valley, a high desert with an average elevation of 7,664 feet. It is also the northernmost outpost that Spanish people explored in the sixteenth century. At an elevation of 14, 345 feet, Blanca peak is one of the four sacred peaks for Navajos. We turned towards north on Highway 150 after passing the majestic Sierra Blanca. Just a short drive on Highway 150, we saw a stretch of sand dunes at the foot of alpine mountains. There deep in the Rocky Mountains lies 30 square miles of sand dunes that are the tallest in the North America. We were at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve!
At the foot of Sangre De Cristo (Blood of Christ), by the Great Sand Dunes, we found a campsite with a great view of sand dunes at Pinon Flats Campground (Elevation 8,278 ft). Then we walked to the sand dunes via Dunes Trail. A group of colorful rocks scattered on the ground where vegetation ended. Between the Great Sand Dunes and the vegetated ground is the river bed of a seasonal creek – Medano Creek. What a surprise and joy to find a flowing creek in the desert. The water was clear and slow. And the creek edges the base of the sand dunes running towards southwest. Looking up to the enormous sand dunes, there were moving black dots in different places. Those were hikers hiking on the sand dunes on different routes. Several mountain bluebirds flew low around the creek. We didn’t hike to the dunes because it was late in the afternoon. A question stayed in our minds: How did the sand dunes end up in this place?
The early rainbow above the Great Sand Dunes was a pure joy that started a brand new day. The distant San Juan Mountain Range glowed in the sunrise, contrasting the shaded sand dunes. We rode our bikes to the visitor center. The visitor center is one mile away but the steep road was hard for cycling. We were out of breath trying riding up the road but ended up pushing the bikes along and rode down the hill. The video From Sand to Summit explained the origin of the dunes and gave insights of this Great Sand Dunes. Most sand comes from the San Juan Mountains and sediments come from the Sangre de Cristo Range. Sand and sediments accumulated in this closed basin over time, and the prevailing southwest winds blew the sand to this part of the valley and piled up. Northeasterly storm winds from the east and the southwesterly winds built the tallest dunes in North America. Two creeks by the sand dunes – Sand Creek in the north and Medano Creek in the east – carried sand to the valley floor and disappear on the western edge of the dunes, and southwesterly winds blow the sand back to the dunes. Water current in the creeks is high in summer, and it is a fun playground for kids. Snow changes the sand dunes into a white mountain in winter. The sand dunes move but the main dune complex remains roughly at the same place. A dune might migrate closer to the mountains in one year but the next year the opposite wind will probably move it back to its original location.
Back from the visitor center, sitting in our trailer, we saw boys went to the dunes and sled down the slopes. It is a 30 square miles of sand box to have fun. I was eager to join the people out there on the dunes. At two O’clock in the afternoon, I carried a backpack and off to climb the Great Sand Dunes. I was not going to challenge the 755 feet highest dune – Star Dune. I wanted to see Sand Creek at the north side of the dunes, so I climbed along the east side of the dune. The continuous ascent became difficult after a stretch of relatively flat sandy area. Some areas had soft sand and a few areas had damp sand. While taking a break, I saw a family of four was climbing on the steep slope ahead of me on the west. Two little kids were climbing with their parents. The boy was climbing with his hands and knees. He seemed to stop in the middle of it. Shortly his big sister returned to help him. “If kids could climb to the top of the sand dune, I can do it, too!” I thought. And I determined to climb to the top.
The wind picked up in the afternoon. The higher on the dune, the stronger the wind was. I sat down on the sand with my back against the wind and waited for the gust wind to decrease a little bit. The blowing sand got into my shoes, my clothes, my backpack, my ears, and my eyes. I drank some bottled water and the sand stuck to the edge of the opening. Then I tasted the sand in the water. I wore the new pink hat that I just bought from the visitor center. The back of the hat that was designed for shading the neck was blowing hard and making loud noise. I had to hold on to my hat most of the time. It was a constant battle with the wind. Looking to the surface of the dune, millions of grains of sand were traveling in the air. I reached the top of the lowest dune on the east after a long strenuous ascent. I thought I would see Sand Creek from there, but what I saw was more sand dunes extending to the foot of Mount Herard and more to the west.
I sat on the sand and enjoyed the view. The sky was blue with shining white clouds. The family I saw were on top of the tall dune flying kites! What a brilliant idea! The red kite was flying vigorously in the wind. After a while, they started to come down. The kids scooted down the deep and steep slope and ran to the bottom of it. Wow! That was really a stunt. I climbed up the steep slope and then there was another ridge ahead of me. A group of boys and girls and a dog were on the ridge of the dune. The wind started to blow hard again. I sat by the ridge and dodged from the wind. The sand was very loose on the slope to the ridge, I literally used my hands and knees to climb up the slope. My right thigh was tight when I got up there. I thought I pulled a muscle. Oh, no! I stretched my leg and then kneeled on the sand for a moment. Luckily the tightness went away. Then I walked along the ridge and finished the final ascent to the top of the dune where the family was.
The vista from the top took my breath away. Under the dramatic rolling clouds in the azure sky, a sea of sand dunes stretched to the west from the base of Mount Herard. The undulating light and shade defined by the curves of ridges on the lower sand dunes were fascinating. It was a mild winter, so the peaks of Mount Herard were only covered with light snow. Looking to the southwest, a giant curvy ridge winded its way towards higher dunes. I turned on my camcorder trying to take some videos, but the shutter didn’t open all the way. There might be sand stuck in the shutter. I used my fingers to open up the shutter and I was able to take some videos. I was glad that I didn’t have my good camera with me because sand could be an enemy to the lens. Thankfully my iPhone worked well even it was covered with sand. Looking across the round top of the dune to the east, the peaks of Sangre De Cristo were not that much higher any more. I felt like I could touch the peaks if my arms were long enough. My iPhone showed that I was on the 49thfloor. I probably ascended about 500 feet. I lingered on the summit of the dune and was mesmerized by the panoramic view of this unique scenery from sand to summit.
I was going to slide all the way down but I didn’t have a sled. And I couldn’t roll down the dune because of my backpack. I tried to scoot down but it was slow. Anyway, going down was much easier. After three hours, I finally went back to the campground. The good things about hiking on sand dunes are you could sit wherever you want and you could roll or slide down the dunes, and it is relatively safe. Although the sand irritated my eyes, I am happy that I climbed to the top of the Great Sand Dunes. The vista from above is unparalleled. The shape of sand dunes, the kite flying on the crest, and the scene of kids climbing the dunes will be imprinted in my memory.