Where Did You Come From, Sand Dunes?

The Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

by Samantha Adler

The farther west I traveled the more awestruck I became with the wilderness of the US. The space was vast, untamed and unpredictable. Here nature was an unstoppable force with a mind of its own. These forces challenge our perception and how we’re used to understanding our home turf; The Great Sand Dunes is one of these wonders.

I was late to arrive at the southwest Colorado park. It was dusk as I pulled into the Great Sand Dunes National Park entrance and I sped down the dusty, long road, eager to claim my campsite before the ranger station closed. My laser focus waned when I turned the corner and saw the dunes. I had researched the park a bit on my phone and marked as a must see, but the preparation didn’t make it any less extraordinary.

As the sun set behind the mountains, everything had a misty tinge of blue. Light leaked between the mountains’ peaks illuminating the varying curves of the giant sand dunes at their base. Even in the bewitching glow of twilight, the dunes seemed magically out of place. They resemble those of a typical desert, ones you would find in the Middle East or Northern Africa, but plopped at the base of a mountain range in Colorado. The contrast between the sandy mounds and the sharp mountain peaks was striking.

The Great Sand Dunes is one of the lesser known national parks, located at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range in the San Luis Valley of southwest Colorado. Geologists are still studying the dunes’ origins, but believe that sediments and water from the creation of the nearby mountain range fell into the valley. The valley was originally a large lake, but due to climate change only the sediments remain. Wind tunnels from the mountain ranges helped to then create the shape of the dunes we see today (for a much better description and animated visuals narrating the dunes’ creation, check out the NPS geologists' research).


I woke up around daybreak to hike the dunes. While located within the mild tempered Colorado, the dunes hold many qualities of a normal desert. It’s only recommended that you hike in the early morning and early evening, due to the varying degrees of the sand. During midday to late afternoon the sand becomes scorchingly hot from the sun. During the summer the dunes' surface can reach 150°.  The hot sands can burn any skin that comes into contact with it.

Standing at the base of the dunes I felt like I was in the middle of a desert, somewhere across the ocean. Turning away from the mountain range, I could only see the curves of the white sand against a baby blue sky.

This was, to my surprise, the most strenuous hike I’ve ever done. There are no trails on the dunes, it’s a free for all, and you can explore freely like it’s your own huge sandbox. I started up the closest dune at a quick pace and quickly began to realize this wasn’t going to be an easy frolic. Climbing sand is incredibly difficult; your body weight pushes you into ground sometimes causing you slide and swerve. I felt like an eager golden retriever, out of breath in a matter of minutes but starry-eyed and excitable by everything that surrounded me.

I continued on up the dunes, taking many breaks, panting heavily and plopping atop of peaks to take long sips of water. Other hikers bounded on nearby dunes. Some genius individuals brought sleds, to slide back down the slopes when they reached the highest one. As I hiked up and down endless mounds, scaled edges of peaks and slid down sandy mountains this small dollop of sand seemed like an endless world.

The Great Sand Dunes is often shadowed by bigger parks like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. But don’t underestimate it, the Sand Dunes is one of those wonders that reminds you that you’re a little piece of a much bigger world.