It's hard to believe what I'm looking at. Only an hour ago I had been in the Rocky Mountains stepping in five-foot snow drifts. Now, I'm standing in the desert staring at the largest sand dunes in North America. The decision to go to Great Sand Dunes National Park was a last-minute one made at the intersection of Routes 50 and 285 in Poncha Springs, Colorado. After a few days of travels across Colorado and Utah it was the final day of a great trip. Going to Sand Dunes would add hours to an already daunting drive back to Denver. But who knows when, if ever, I would return to Colorado.
So we turned south and headed down Route 285 as it turned from Rocky Mountain foothills into desert flatlands. Roads that once turned in extreme degrees in the mountains now stayed as straight as an arrow. We were racing the sun to arrive at Sand Dunes to still be able to take photos. I had gone through all my color film and had one roll of Tri-X left in my bag. I was confident. Tri-X takes whatever you want to throw at it and doesn't blink.
We arrived as the sun was starting its last descent, and stood shocked at the dunes before us. Massive, mountain-like mounds of sand that looked like dirt piles from twenty miles away were now imposing and impressive. This land was once the home to many differnet groups that defined the American West, including the Southern Ute, Jircarilla Apache and Navajo tribes, gold miners, homesteaders, ranchers and farmers.
Long a tourist destination, it wouldn't become a proper part of the National Park system until 2000.
The dunes in the park are a humble 11 percent of a 330-square-mile sand area that was eroded from the nearby Sangre de Cristo Mountains and then shattered by freezing and thawing then thrown around and beaten by creeks and wind only stabilised by plants on the deposits surrounding the dunes.
Without any sense of what was in the park and arriving after the visitor center closed (no Passport stamp my chagrin) we started walking out into the fields surrounding the dunes. Later we realised that we could get closer to the dunes and even climb them if we wanted.
The setting sun, being limited to 36 images and a four hour drive back to Denver all conspired to cut our visit to Great Sand Dunes short. But it was an incredible ending to a trip filled with bucket list views.