Archeologists have found evidence of habitation here as early as about 12,000 years ago in the form of Clovis Points and other items. More recently, over 400 years ago, Jicarilla Apache and Southern Ute camped and hunted near these dunes. Spanish Explorers came around 1694. During the Westward Expansion, LT Zebulon Pike explored the area with a group of soldiers he affectionately called "Dam'd Set of Rascals". Several other explorers followed until trails and roads were established in the area in the mid-1800s. There was a gold rush near here in 1854, and homesteaders arrived in 1875. The Great Sand Dunes National Monument was established in 1932 and it became a national park in 2004. Access is $3 per person 16 and over as of June 2010.
Fondest memory: The view of the thunderstorm coming over the mountains.
Because the sand was wet after previous evening rain, it had those weird textures that I didn’t see before on any pictures of Great Sand Dunes.
On the tip’s picture you see those wet lines on the sand.
Favorite thing: Great Sand Dunes’ estimated age range from 12,000 years to more than a million years. If you think that their creation stopped, you will be mistaken, because every year, dunes reshape in new piles and new sand comes from the mountains. In such a way, dunes sometimes keep growing, or at least keep their height even now.
Before I came to the park, I had a lot of assumption how those piles of sand could get there. What a fun was to know that explanation can look very easy. I will give it to you as I understood it.
The creation of Sand Dunes is due to geographical location: San Luis Valley fenced with Sangre de Cristo Mountains is a great sanctuary for the sand from winds or, exactly, they the mountains just trap them.
Most of the sand is originated in the San Juan Mountains (65 miles to the west). The larger, rougher grains and the pebbles originated in the nearby Sangre de Cristo Mountains. During winter snow of mountains starts to melt turning into creeks (Medano is one of the largest) that picks up the sand from the mountains and brings it down the stream to San Luis Valley. Southwesterly winds then began the slow process of bouncing the grains toward the low curve of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. There they piled up at the base of the mountains or dropped into creeks to be washed back out toward the valley floor. Northeastern winds pile the dunes back upon themselves, producing crisp ridges – and the tallest dunes in North America. Sounds easy?
To get to Sand Dunes National Park you should take US-160 and then turn between Alamosa and Fort Garland. It is hard to miss it, because there is a large sign. The first on your way to Dunes will be the ranger booth where you pay a fee $3 per person (summer 2007).
Here is a website to check current fees and reservations
Fees and Reservations
The darker patches that you see on the sand dunes are made from magnetite. It is heavier than other minerals and mechanically it ends up on the surface. In geology circles , it is known that the presence of magnatite often is an indicator that gold is present.
I understand that in the early 1900's people mined the dunes for "flour gold" . Fortunately for us, they couldn't find enough gold to make it a profitable operation.
To answer all the 'Why' questions in the intro, the following information is purloined from DesertUSA web site.
The San Luis Valley, averaging less than 8 inches of precipitation a year, is the only true desert of the Colorado Rockies. Formed by the Rio Grande Rift , it is bordered on the west by the Tertiary volcanic San Juan Mountains, and on the east by the Precambrian granite of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. A fault runs along the western base of the Sangre de Cristos.
The valley is filled with layer upon layer of sand, gravel, clay, lava and ash to a depth over 10,000 feet. About 12,000 years ago, when glaciers from the last Ice Age began to melt, the swollen Rio Grande River deposited glacial debris, sand and gravel across a large portion of the San Luis Valley. The Rio Grande, from its head waters in the San Juan Mountains, has been meandering through the valley, depositing sand ever since.
When prevailing southwest winds sweep across the valley, they carry sand from the sparsely vegetated surface toward the natural barrier of the Sangre de Cristos. Here, in a sheltered corner at the foot of the mountains, the wind funnels through three low passes -- Mosca, Music and Medano -- depositing sand as it loses velocity and rises.
Most of the sand consists of fine-grained, rounded quartz, pumice, ash, and lava from the San Juans. Sangre de Cristo sand, comprised of many rock types, is more coarse-grained because it does not travel as far. Sand grains from both sources range in size from 0.2 mm to 2 mm.
The oval-shaped dune field thus created -- the Great Sand Dunes-- is about 6 miles across with some dunes rising 700 feet above the valley floor. Medano Creek, running north and south of the dunes, helps regulate the size and position of the entire field.
This trail leads out in the general direction of the dunes. It is possible to walk right up and hike on the dunes. There is no actual trail leading to the top. Given the elevation and the fact that you're walking on sand, its a tough walk to the top, and quite a workout.
Be careful when hiking in this area as winds can cause the shape of the dunes to shift, making it difficult to find your way back.
Favorite thing: It takes about an hour to hike to the top of the highest sand dune. There are no trails leading out to the dunes. You just walk in the direction of the dunes and keep pushing forward. Its a bit of a struggle, as you're walking on sand. Also, this area is located at about 8,000 feet elevation, which makes uphill walking more difficult.
The sand dunes are amazing but it's the setting that really blew me away. The National Monument is 84,000 acres in size. It attracts about 275,000 annual visitors for a variety of uses. While hiking the dunes is the most popular of actvities you can also hike several peaks and forests within the monument. The entry fee is 3 dollars per person that gets you in for 7 days. An annual pass to the park is 15 dollars and an annual park pass to all of the National Park Service sites is 50 dollars. Camping within the park is allowed at a primitive camp site - 12 dollars per night.
Fondest memory: Knowing that I was walking over a creek but being unable to tell where it was due to everything being frozen.
Favorite thing: It is possible to drive near the north side of the peak. Head west on CR 550. The road passes through aspen and cottonwood groves.
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