The GREAT Great Sand Dunes

I got an early start this morning, leaving San Luis State Park around 5:30 a.m., because I wanted to catch the first light at Great Sand Dunes National Park nearby.  It was a chilly morning and I stood there in the sagebrush, by the side of the road a few miles from the dunes, with my camera on a tripod, snapping away as the sun rose over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, hoping to get at least one good photo.  You can be the judge.

Above:  I got up before sunrise this morning and spent several hours at Great Sand Dunes National Park, mostly splashing in the surging Medano River.  After that I hit the road, driving north to Gunnison and then south to Lake City, where I'd spend most of the next six weeks.

After an hour and a hundred pictures, I drove into the park around 7 a.m. and explored a bit.  As I said before, I’d never been to this massive National Park even though I worked for many years just a few hours away in Lake City for several summers.  I was hoping it would be as Great as the name implied, and it was.

After tooling around the backcountry roads for a bit, I drove to what seemed to be the most popular site in the park, the parking area for the Medano River crossing.  The Medano River starts high in the mountains nearby and flows around a large lobe of the sand dunes and, like most rivers that flow in sandy substrate, it’s wide-and-shallow, definitely wadable at only 6” deep – or 12” or 2” or 18.”  It all depends on the surge.

Surge, you ask?  Ah yes, and this is what makes the Medano so special.  During springtime when the snowmelt is at its peak, the waters come rushing down the mountains, then it spreads out at the foot of the sand dunes.  Because the river bed here is sandy, small sandy “dams,” a few inches high, form on the river bed and slowly migrate upstream and in the process, impede the flow of the river for a few moments.  Then the small dams break and a surge of water, perhaps 3” or 6” or even higher, washes downstream, and then the whole process repeats itself a few moments later.

Above: Here's the Medano River flowing past the sand dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park.  Each spring the river "surges" with snowmelt, one of the few places in the world where this happens.  (1:09)

Because of its unique geography, the Medano is one of only a few rivers in the world with this curious phenomenon.  In all my travels, I’d never seen anything like it and, golly, as it turned out, this particular week was the peak surging season.  It sounds a little scary but it’s not at all, and it’s great fun to wade across the wide Medano in early June and experience the frequent surges.  And judging from the delighted screams of the little kids who were playing here, it’s fun not just for old Extreme Geographers like me but for young folks, as well.  So get yourself down here next June and play in the Medano for an hour or a day; you’ll never forget it.  I had so much fun that I decided to take a panorama photo while standing right in the middle of the river.

After crossing the Medano, and like the dozens of folks in front of me, I started hiking up the dunes.  At about 750 feet, these are the highest sand dunes in North America, while the second place award, at 650 feet, goes to the Kelso Dunes in the Mojave Desert of California, which I’d climbed just a few weeks earlier (see News: May 19).  Figuring that one tall sand dune was enough for this month, I turned around and headed back down to the river, but not before taking another panorama picture.

So why is this giant sand pile here, you might ask?  The sand originates in the San Juan Mountains to the west, which are slowly eroding.  The wind, which blows from west-to-east, picks up the sand and dust from the San Juans and then drops it here at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  The dust continues on over the mountains to the east, but the sand is too heavy so it drops here.  So "sand source / prevailing wind / mountain range that traps it" – it's the same story everywhere I've seen sand dunes in the West, whether at the Kelso Dunes in California, the Coral Pink Sand Dunes in Utah, or right here at the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado. 

As I made my way across the Medano and back to my truck, while passing dozens of happy folks heading in the opposite direction towards the dunes, and many with children in tow, I decided that this was one pretty terrific place.  I’ve been to a lot of fantastic National Parks and am a bit jaded, perhaps, and it takes a lot to impress me.  But Great Sand Dunes definitely lived up to its name.  It’s just, well, great.

Great Sand Dunes National Park


Back Home Again

Due to my ridiculously early start this morning, I left the park when it was still early, about 10 a.m.  I drove up to Saguache (pronounced “sa-WATCH”) and got gas, then headed over Cochetopa Pass and down into the beautiful Gunnison Valley.  I’ve lived in a lot of places and have traveled to a lot more, but there are only two places in the world that really feel like home to me.  One is Portland, Oregon, where I’ve lived for most of the past 30 years, and the other is the Gunnison/Lake City area of Colorado. 

I fell in love with the Gunnison Valley the first time I saw it.  To be precise, that was on the afternoon of June 24, 1983, a tad over 33 years earlier and a day much like today.  I was in college that year and got a summer job as a ranger with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), working on a 3-person trail crew in a wilderness area near Gunnison.  Me and the other two folks on the trail crew, Ted and Julie, worked on a desert trail down in Montrose for the first two weeks near Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument (now a National Park).  We then moved up to Gunnison in late June to work in the high country for the rest of the summer.  I still remember driving up from Montrose that Friday afternoon and being overwhelmed with the beauty of this area, with the rolling hills covered with sagebrush and the craggy, snow-covered mountains in the distance.  It immediately felt like home and every time I’ve come back to Gunnison and Lake City, it still feels like home.  I loved everything about this area and I still do.

I hadn’t been to Gunnison in 15 years but I was glad to see that it hadn’t changed much.  I wanted to stop by the BLM office to see if anyone I knew back in the 1980s was still around, by some remote chance.  By the way, the BLM is largest public land management agency in the United States, though most folks east of the Mississippi have never heard of it.  The BLM manages more land than all other public land agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service (i.e., National Forests), the National Park Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service – but much of it is sagebrush.  Think Nevada or southern Idaho and that’s the BLM.  However, the BLM also manages some real jewels, including a 100-square mile section of the Rocky Mountains near Lake City, Colorado that's probably the most beautiful place in America and, lucky me, was my stomping ground for six summers when I was a ranger.

Anyway, I’d heard that the BLM’s Gunnison office had moved recently so I Googled it on my cell phone and drove to the new location, which was down by the airport.  Well, gee, that building was actually a marijuana dispensary (pot is legal in Colorado), so figuring that the BLM hadn’t changed that much since I worked here, I drove over to the U.S. Forest Service office and they pointed me in the right direction. 

I found the new BLM office a few minutes later, walked in, and introduced myself to a guy at the front desk.  “Hi.  My name’s Del and I worked here back in the 1980s.”  The fellow there, named Stewart – who was the assistant manager, as it turned out – smiled and immediately extended his hand to shake mine.  We talked for about 20 minutes and I told him lots of stories, some rather humorous, about the “good old days."  As we continued to talk, I was dismayed (but not too surprised) to learn that no one I’d worked with back then was still in the office.  Well, Stewart said, my old boss, Arden, was still in town but he was retired.  And his assistant for many years, Sally (who I helped out in the 1990s) was also around, so he gave me Sally’s email address.  Even though I didn’t know anyone who worked in the BLM Gunnison office anymore, and even though this new office was foreign to me, I felt right at home, being back with "my people.”

In a great mood, I left the office, stopped at the Gunnison Safeway, where I stocked up on groceries, and headed south on Highway 149 to Lake City, 50 miles away.  Lake City is, was, and will always be one of the most special places in my heart and I was thrilled to be going back there after 15 years.  I drove through town late in the afternoon and continued on past Lake San Cristobal – the second largest natural lake in Colorado and the namesake of Lake City – then pulled into a nearly-deserted Williams Creek Campground, one of my favorite campgrounds in the entire world and in one of the most beautiful settings you can imagine, surrounded on all sides by 13,000-foot snow-capped peaks.  I was home again.

The Great Sand Dunes to Lake City




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