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Rolling Miles of Sand Dunes

Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes is a natural spectacle at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, in the mountainous state of Colorado, is a natural wonder as rolling miles of dune fields dramatically appear amongst the mountain wilderness. The park’s tallest dune towers at 750 feet high—the largest in all of North America. 

Its sprawling hills of golden sand, juxtaposed against the snow-capped Rocky Mountains, is a mirage-like sight to behold. It is a stunning visual experience, where sudden fields of sand—spanning 604 square kilometers—are the last thing a visitor would expect in this rugged region. 

The Great Sand Dunes were designated a national monument in 1932. President Bill Clinton later signed the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Act of 2000, bestowing it the status of a national park. 

Researchers say that the majestic dunes began forming around 440,000 years ago, a creation of the region’s strong and unpredictable wind patterns. Powerful gusts of wind, sometimes topping 65 kilometers per hour, alternate from the southwest to the northeast in the San Luis Valley area. The wind’s unique back-and-forth motion causes the sand from surrounding creeks and rivers to pile atop the foothills, growing vertically and naturally forming the large dunes. This process has continued for centuries, and the dunes shift steadily everyday. 

Located in a small region named Mosca, the dunes are the main tourist attraction in the mountainous Colorado landscape. The closest city is Alamosa, although other major cities such as Colorado Springs and Denver, the state capital, are within a three to four hours’ drive. 

For accommodations, the Great Sand Dunes Lodge is the closest motel lodging available. Camping is another popular choice for visitors, with the Pinyon Flats Campground providing 88 individual camping sites that can be reserved by telephone or online. All campsites are equipped for tent and motor home sites, and cost $20 per night for a maximum of six people, two tents and two motor vehicles. The Oasis Store and Restaurant is located just outside the park entrance and stocks basic groceries and camping gear. 

Patrick Myers, a park ranger with the National Park Service for over 21 years, shares important travel tips that should be kept in mind before planning a trip to the Great Sand Dunes. “Always plan sufficient time to really enjoy the park fully,” says Myers. “The most common reaction I hear is, ‘I only planned an hour here, but had no idea how big this park is and how much there is to do!’ ”

 An estimated 300,000 people come to the park annually. Visitors can enjoy the Great Sand Dunes through a variety of activities such as hiking, sand sledding, sand boarding, four-wheeling, camping, photography and wildlife-viewing. Medano Creek is very popular for swimming, and generally flows from April through June.

Myers advises visitors to bring multiple sets of clothing to accommodate climates that can change from warm sun and gusting winds in the day, to severe windchill and frigid temperatures at night. During hot summer months, the temperature on the sand’s surface can soar to 65.5 degrees Celsius, so protective outerwear and proper footwear is essential for any activity around the dunes. Dune conditions are known to be much cooler and calmer in the early morning or late afternoon, thanks to the park’s elevation of 8,200 feet above sea level. So, hiking and other sand recreation are recommended at these times. 

For a surprising blend of diverse scenery and outdoor adventure, the Great Sand Dunes will undoubtedly inspire you with a sense of wonder and excitement. 

Jason Chiang is a freelance writer based in Silver Lake, Los Angeles.