National Park Number: 53 of 59
In the middle of the Rocky Mountains, nearly 8,000 feet above sea level, lies 30 square miles of sand. It rises out of the surrounding terrain like an apparition, the tallest sand dunes in North America set against jagged mountain peaks and high desert scrub. Blown here from the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Mountains and kept here by a cross-current of winds, the dunes rise in places up to 755 feet.
This is a wholly unexpected landscape, and an extremely beautiful one. The dunes are all soft lines and sculptural gesture; they are also MASSIVE. Even set against the backdrop of much higher mountains, they tower and impress.
There’s a surprising diversity of landscapes encompassed within the park—alpine meadow, tundra, wetlands—but we, like most visitors, stuck pretty close to the dunes. It’s hard to pull yourself away from them; this landscape entices you to play.
And play is what we did. We dug holes, made castles, hiked around, wrote our names and, in the early evening when the sand had cooled down from the heat of midday, we took a rented sand sled out to the top of a dune and took turns sliding down.
It’s a playground, but it’s also home to some fascinating species and phenomena. One of our favorites that we learned about was the Tiger Beetle, which lives nowhere else on earth and which can run 2.5 meters per second, 125 times its body length. If I could go at the same pace, I’d be able to cover 250 yards per second!
Another fascinating Dunes fact: during the late spring and early summer, a big creek flows around the dunes (we’d be really excited to play in it, but the ranger told us they actually didn’t have one this year—for the first time in recorded history—because rising winter temperatures meant there wasn’t enough snowmelt to make even a trickle.) The water pulses with something called surge flow, which forms when small ridges of sand that have built up underneath the flow collapse and result in a surge of water. These happen in only a few places on earth, and this little park in Colorado is one of them!
But maybe my favorite factoid we picked up on our visit is that the black grains of sand in the dunes are actually magnetic—they are eroded from magnetite and they carry a charge, so if you pass a magnet over the ground, all the black particles will collect onto it and make it fuzzy with sand. We tried it in the visitor center and I was like a little kid with the magnet, wide-eyed and laughing while I passed it through.
Nature is cool.
These little natural oddities are what make the national parks so ridiculously delightful. Giant dunes in the middle of the Rockies? Lightning fast beetles?? Rhythmic waves in a creek and magnetic sand??? How could we help but be filled with childlike wonder when confronted with this stuff?