Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Tallest Sand Dunes in North America

By Tiffany Amber Stockton

Last month, I showcased Garden of the Gods park in Colorado Springs, an amazing geological formation. If you missed that post, you can read it here: https://www.hhhistory.com/2020/05/garden-of-gods.html.

This month, let's move a little further south to the San Luis Valley and the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) mountain range to the tallest sand dunes in North America.

The GREAT SAND DUNES National Park

The Great Sand Dunes - showing perspective w/people
Remember how I mentioned a man named Zebulon Pike a few months ago? He is the man for whom Pike's Peak is named, and he led a small group of explorers all around the Front Range on several different expeditions to discover the area around where they lived and report back to others who hadn't yet visited or settled there.

Well, Mr. Pike was at it again. This time, he set his sights on the sand dunes in the San Luis Valley. His journals were the first known writings about the dunes, although several Native American tribes and Spanish explorers had previously passed by them in centuries prior. In fact, there is evidence in this area of nomadic hunters from as far back as the prehistoric bison and mammoth era.

Great Sand Dunes | White Mountains | Medano Creek
I won't go into the geological details, although it's quite fascinating! The San Luis Valley is a vast, high-altitude desert plain surrounded by two alpine mountain ranges. When you see these giant desert dunes piled up against the snow-capped mountains, the combination doesn't make much sense. However, the natural formation is what creates the dunes. Sand is deposited from mountain streams on the valley floor and it's carried by southwest winds toward a low curve in the mountains. There, it encounters reverse storm winds from the northeast that cancels the migration of the granules. This "closed basin" is the reason the sand has come to rest and is piled high in this desert area...and why it's pretty much the same today as it was thousands of years ago.

"Surge flow" of Medano Creek at Great Sand Dunes
The Ute, Navajo, and Comanche tribes all value the sand dunes, and part of their tribal lands are today encompassed in the national park, which encompasses 233 square miles.

As Lewis & Clark's expedition was coming to a close, Lieutenant Pike was commissioned to explore the area along the Arkansas and Red Rivers. He traveled west from modern-day Pueblo, Colorado, and crossed the Sangre de Cristo mountains. On the other side, looming 800 feet from the base of Medano Creek, he came face to face with the sand dunes.

The Great Sand Dunes as Pike likely saw them
His journal from January 28th, 1807, reads: "After marching some miles, we discovered ... at the foot of the White Mountains [today’s Sangre de Cristos] sandy hills…When we encamped, I ascended one of the largest hills of sand, and with my glass could discover a large river [the Rio Grande] …The sand-hills extended up and down the foot of the White Mountains about 15 miles, and appeared to be about 5 miles in width. Their appearance was exactly that of the sea in a storm, except as to color, not the least sign of vegetation existing thereon."

Following Pike, the Westward Expansion of the United States brought homesteaders and settlers to the valley, as well as several army forts just to the south of the dunes. You can look up Fort Garland and several other national historic landmarks in the San Luis Valley to learn about the settling of this area. During the 20th century, the dunes became a symbol of pride for the settlers in the area

My kids and friends enjoying the "surge" and "waves"
I first saw the Great Sand Dunes ten years ago, and we make it an annual family trip right around Memorial Day. There is a small window of time after the snow melt in spring where Medano Creek flows wide and is at its deepest of the entire year. Usually, it's barely a trickle and most of the water at the sand dunes runs under the sand. The three or four weeks from late May to mid-June provides a "beach"-like experience with a waterfall further upriver causing rhythmic "waves" in the current of the creek. On good years following a lot of snow in the winter, the creek can be a foot deep and reach what they call "surge flow."
My kids with their beach toys

If you go at any other time, all you see is sand, and if you go during the summer months, it's extremely HOT sand with no chance of shade anywhere on the dunes. It's best to go early in the morning or later in the evening. I can only imagine what it was like for the explorers and original settlers hiking those dunes in all those layers of clothing. Hope it wasn't in the summer!

After doing the research on the history of this area, you can bet I'll be taking more time to document our experiences and explore more around the dunes the next time we go.


* Have you ever been to the Great Sand Dunes National Park? If so, when and why?

* What would YOUR reaction have been to seeing these dunes for the first time? If you HAVE seen them in person, what were your impressions?

* Do you have any sand dunes where YOU live? Or have you visited other sand dunes? Where?

* What did you like the most about today's post? What topics would you like to see covered in future posts?

Answer any or all of the following, or leave any comment or question you'd like below. Come back on the 9th of July for my next appearance.


Tiffany Amber Stockton has been crafting and embellishing stories since childhood, when she was accused of having a very active imagination and cited with talking entirely too much. Today, she has honed those childhood skills to become an award-winning and best-selling author and speaker who is also an advocate for literacy as an educational consultant with Usborne Books. She loves to share life-changing products and ideas with others to help better their lives.

She lives with her husband and fellow author, Stuart Vaughn Stockton, along with their two children and two dogs in Colorado. She has sold twenty (23) books so far and is represented by Tamela Hancock Murray of the Steve Laube Agency. You can find her on Facebook and GoodReads.


  1. There are dunes at our beaches but nothing along the scope of what you are describing. Maine does have its' own "desert" and I understand there are dunes there, but I've never felt the need to pay the admission to see them. Thanks for posting!

    1. Connie, I guess it depends on what all there is to see as to whether its worth the fee for the experience. For the Great Sand Dunes National Park here, it's definitely worth it!

  2. I've not been to California yet, so have not seen these dunes. Growing we visited other Cape Cod (MA) or Kitty Hawk (NC) where we saw lots of dunes. I also visited Maine's desert that Connie is referring to. Rather than sand, the ground is covered in "glacial silt" but looks like sand. I enjoy learning about places I've not visited.

    1. Actually, Linda, these dunes are in Colorado, not California. :) There are dunes all over the country, especially near the beaches, but it's definitely an anomaly to have them in a land-locked state. Lol!

  3. We were at the Bruneau, IdahoSand Dune State Park during spring break the first week in April of this year. Our grandchildren had a great time sand boarding downhill. Bring plenty of beeswax for smoothing the base of the (sand/ski)board.
    One dune is 250' high and an easy climb. The 750' high dune, very close by, had about 8 people going downhill while we were there. Great fun.

    1. Jelcy, that sounds like so much fun! We're about to head to the dunes here next weekend, and I advised a friend of mine to stock up on her beeswax for her boards. :)