What would your answer be if you were asked where are the highest sand dunes in North America? If you said Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, you would be right!
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve protects a total of 85,932 acres of sand dunes, grasslands, coniferous and deciduous forests, alpine lakes and tundra habitat. It was originally designated as a National Monument on March 17, 1932, and was upgraded to a National Park on September 13, 2004 by Congress and George W. Bush. Interesting, the fact that the sand contains consistent moisture, just a few inches below the surface, played a large role in the efforts to achieve National Park and Preserve status. The residents of this area of high desert Colorado have a vested interest in protecting available water sources.
The tallest dunes in the park are 750 feet tall, and were formed as a result of westerly winds picking up particles of dirt and sand, then dropping them on the eastern edge of the Sangre de Christo valley as the wind loses power before crossing the Sangre de Christo Mountains. Geologists believe the dunes began forming around 440,000 years ago.
Annual precipitation on the dunes averages 11 inches per year, which puts it just above a true desert habitat (10 inches or less), but it still qualifies due to the high rate at which water evaporates. Summer temperatures can exceed 95 degrees Fahrenheit, and winter lows go down below zero. Snow is rare though, due to the dry climate.
The preserve designation is unique for National Parks in the lower 48; Great Sand Dunes does permit hunting in the preserve area of the park. Bow hunting is common, and hunters are permitted to use tracking dogs to hunt mountain lions, provided that the dogs are leashed until the animal is spotted and being pursued. That seems pretty cruel to me, so I try not to think about it…
A wide variety of wildlife make their home in the park and preserve, including mountain lion, black bear, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, beavers, badgers, bison, snakes, lizards, several species of fish, eagles, falcons, owls and other birds. The park even has at least seven species of endemic insects.
There is also lots to do for visitors to the park, including camping, hiking, sandboarding (yep – you can slide down the dunes on a sandboard!), sand castle building and skimboarding on the shallow and ever changing Medano Creek.
The park also has one other unique feature – a distinction on something that is absent from the park – noise. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is the quietest National Park in the contiguous 48 states. What a fabulous place! And we were headed there on our trip!
Have you been to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve? I’ll tell you about our visit next!