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Great Sand Dunes National Park

Updated: Apr 26, 2019

You've heard of the Sahara Desert...Death Valley...Perhaps White Sands National Park too? But did you know there was a massive mound of sand nestled in between the San Juan Mountains of Southern Colorado, and the San Luis Valley?

San Juan Mountains Colorado, San Luis State Wildlife Area, Great Sand Dunes National Park, National Park Service
Looking at San Juan Mountains from San Luis Wildlife Area.

The geological history and formation of the dunes is certainly interesting, but also ever-evolving. While the landscape of the dunes is blatantly desert-like, it is also home to small creeks that follow a tide, and a variety of wildlife.

These "dunes" are nothing like what you see lining coastal beaches. There is no fence idling humans to 'stay off' - in fact, the national park welcomes patrons from around the world to hike these mounds both day & night. A common phrase is invitation to view speckled skies where "most of the park is after dark." We sat amongst the star strung sky during our stay in San Luis Wildlife Area, which is just outside the boundaries of Great Sand Dunes National Park. Here we were able to see for miles, with a scattering of satellites, shooting stars, and a clear view of the moon. While the days were hot, the nights were pleasantly cool, and eerily silent. Not a gust of wind, or sound of rustling leaves made its presence known during those summer nights.

San Luis State Wildlife Area Camping
The moon and stars at dusk in San Luis Wildlife Area.

During the day, surrounding the sands are various trails that can be enjoyed for all levels of experience. When we traveled, we opted to avoid the 5 hour sand dune hike, and instead chose the canopied hike along the base of the San Juan Mountains. Along this hike we followed a riparian area, rich with plant & insect life. While we didn't see all that the ecosystem is home to, there is a list of native animal species that you could easily see on your trip. We were visiting for only 2 days, but those on extended-stays will easily find this park has more than day-hikes to offer!

Besides the invigorating hikes, the goregous views, and the wanderlust serenity - I travel to grand landscapes for the purpose of feeling small. To stand beside mounds & mountains larger & older than anything else I know, is to realign my ego with insignificance. It is all too easy to fall trap to our civilization-induced sense of importance. Being humbled by altitude is more than finding resolve in your insignificance. It is recognizing that you can both cherish the life & people you have, and let it all go. When I turn my chin up to the mountains, and see all the creatures beneath my feet - I am reminded how fleeting, and myopic my experience really is.

Hiking Great Sand Dunes National Park
Hiking along the riparian area, overlooking the dunes.

Do not confuse me. Small, seemingly insignificant things certainly play a role in the circle of life. I know just as the microscopic bacteria that layer the soils of the lands serves an irreplaceable service to the Earth - my own macroscopic humanity is innate with purpose to the Earth as well. But this does not absolve me of insignificance, entirely. I am just One, among many. And these mounds & mountains continue to insight these meditative philosophies back into my soul, where they belong.

Read a poem I wrote inspired by Colorado Stars here.

Hiking Great Sand Dunes National Park
Standing small next to the dunes.

If none of the above intrigues your interest, perhaps a desert sunset might? With nothing but expanse to see on ground, the same is true for the sky, before the stars come out. To have but one desert sunset in my life has made me wealthy. The feast of colors, the impermanence of clouds, and the singularity of the sky is unmatched to the mountains, some might say. Whether it be in the deserts of the Sahara, California, New Mexico, or Colorado - put a desert sunset on your bucket list.

Camping at San Luis State Wildlife Area
A cloudless desert sunset in San Luis Wildlife Area.


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*All photos were taken by Chelsea Rose in 2018 via Canon.

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