Sunday, November 28, 2010

Day 23- Great Sand Dunes National Park!!!

October 7th 2010, Thursday

This morning we had some extra pep in our step as we set out to check out Great Sand Dunes National Park. It’s funny but before this trip I had never even heard of this park. It was really only until we looked at the National Geographic Atlas that we’d brought with us and scanned for recreation areas near where we would be travelling that we found it.

We weren’t quite sure what to expect from a National Park we’d heard nothing about but we kept an open mind. We passed along the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) mountain range, the peaks springing up from an otherwise completely flat landscape. They constitute the southern-most part of the Rocky Mountains, which is amazing to think about because it really makes you realize how extensive the Rockies really are. I would love to read more about the various experiences people had in settling and travelling through the different parts of the Rockies.

Tyler with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains rising up in the background.

Blanca Peak is the highest peak in the Range, hitting 14,345 feet! The Navajo called it the Sacred Mountain of the East. It marked the boundary of the Dinetah, which is the traditional Navajo homeland. The granite that makes up Blanca Peak is approximated to be about 1.8 billion years old!

I forgot to mention that yesterday, before we settled into Nathrop, we drove some beautiful roads winding through the mountains, evergreen trees surrounding us. We turned a corner in the road, however, and noticed that the road started to wind down and into an incredibly flat valley. It’s always interesting coming across extremely flat landscapes at very high elevations; at this point we were around 9,000 ft. The winds are so intense at higher elevations; I definitely wouldn’t want to live in an environment like that. If it’s going to be frigidly cold at least give me mountains!! That tends to be a commonality around this part of the country; flat land with a few intense mountain ranges popping up out of nowhere. Even as we drove by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains we experienced the same effect. When I read more about Blanca Peak especially, it made sense to me that these mountains would appear to pop out of nowhere because they rise about 6,000 feet above the San Luis Valley in which we drove.

We were still in Colorado but we were getting a lot closer to New Mexico. Colorado really is an amazing and quite extensive state, certainly worth several visits.

As we neared the Park we saw the Dunes in the distance and they were quite a sight! At first glance it just seems bizarre that there would be these huge 750 foot sand dunes next to these even larger mountains, how fascinating! Suddenly I was super excited to be there already so I could explore and find out more about this natural wonder.

The Sand Dunes in the distance.

Just outside the Park!
 When we got there and looked at the Visitor’s Guide I immediately fell in love with the place. There are several types of endemic species of insects and plants (meaning that this is the only place in the entire world where they exist!!) that are specially adapted to this specific micro-climate. You can read more about the endemic insects and see some photos here (The Tiger Beetle has such an amazing pattern on its back!):

Welcome to Great Sand Dunes!
The vegetation was very interesting in the area because it was low-lying and had some great colors that really popped against the mute colors of the landscape.

The gorgeous landscape in the Park.
Since we weren’t sure what the park would be like we had said we would spend the night if we wanted to but otherwise we would continue on. Needless to say we decided to spend the night. We unhitched our trailer in one of the park campgrounds and immediately headed out to explore.

There is only a general understanding of how the sand dunes formed and continue to form to this day according to the National Park Service. Basically there was formerly a lake where the valley is, and when they receded they left behind a sheet of sand that was fairly loose and susceptible to being blown around in the wind. The predominant winds blow from the southwest and pushed the sands into a gentle curve in the mountains. Wind funnels through the mountains in the opposite direction during high wind events and this force is what makes the dunes grow vertically instead of just piling up against the base of the mountains. The dunes continue to grow to this day because of two mountain creeks that carry sediment during times of high flow and then the winds pick it up and it gets added to the dunes when the creeks dry up. Scientists have loosely estimated that the dunes started forming about 440,000 years ago. It’s a very interesting phenomenon with really unique results! You don’t need to go to Asia to get crazy sand dunes; you can just go to Colorado!!

So how the heck had I not heard of this incredible place before? I could have easily spent a week there with all the hikes that start in the National Park and take you up into the beautiful mountains. What was formerly a National Monument, Great Sand Dunes became a National Park only in 2004 so that may be partially why I hadn’t heard of it before. For anyone in the Southern Colorado or Northern New Mexican area, go to Great Sand Dunes!! They have a really informative visitor’s center with a working model of the dunes formation that uses fans to simulate the effects of the wind and you can change the direction from which they blow in order to see how the sand is affected. I am so glad we didn’t by-pass this place!

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