I was officially in Colorado. More specifically, I was officially not in Texas. It seemed strange to me. I woke up for the first time truly feeling like a nomad. It is a lovely feeling knowing that, on any given day, you are one decision away from a dramatically different life. And for the first time in my life, I made that decision.
I woke up early, went downstairs to grab breakfast, and ate it overlooking the mountains of Colorado from my bedroom window. And I was happy. I worked during the day and after work hours were over, I grabbed my day pack and started driving out ~30 miles to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. (Successfully this time with much better weather ). I drove through downtown Alamosa, a cute little town with all of the essentials and some beautiful mountain views. After passing through the city, I was driving on US Route 160 and about halfway into my total drive I turned off the main highway onto Colorado State Highway 150 – a one lane road headed towards the mountains. I had no idea what to expect, I mean, how could there be massive sand dunes in the middle of Colorado? Remember how I said the same thing about a massive canyon in the middle of the flat eternity that is West Texas? Same idea. Hint if you didn’t already guess it – I am about to eat my words for a second time
As I got closer, the sand dunes started to rise over the short trees. Sure enough, standing tall at the base of the mountains, were massive sand dunes. Time to lather on the sunscreen and break out the bikini – I’m going to the beach! – Not really though but that is what it felt like. It was a peculiar thing to see sand dunes at the base of mountains. How did they form? How long had they been there? Is this the beach that Lil Wayne was singing about when he said “life is a beach, I’m just playin in the sand?” So many questions! While I cannot get in Lil Wayne’s head, I did do some research on the origin of the sand dunes.
To summarize – a long time ago…the movement of Earth’s surface plates resulted in the uplifting of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Also a long time ago… volcanic activity led to the creation of the San Juan Mountains. In between those 2 mountain ranges, the San Luis Valley was formed. Over time, rain and glacier melt created a lake in the San Luis Valley. High water pressure in the lake eventually broke through volcanic deposits and lots of water drained into the Rio Grande River. Several small lakes remained, however, and over time those lakes were reduced by climate change leaving behind sand deposits. The sand has stacked as a result of opposing winds. Storm winds blow the sand towards the valley, but normal winds blow the sand from the valley floor towards the mountains thus leading the the vertical accumulation of sand…aka dunes. You can read more here if you are interested.
Nature is pretty freaking cool right? Now that the nerd in me had been satisfied, I could truly enjoy the phenomenon.
I stopped in at the camp store and bought a 6-pack of Alamosa Amber beer from San Luis Valley Brewing – Sound familiar? (ref story above on creation of sand dunes). I drove a bit further to the park sign, took some photos, danced like a fool (classic Dayna) and proceeded to drive towards the dunes. It was bizarre to say the least. Every 5 seconds I had to prevent myself from stopping and taking pictures. When I parked at the base of the sand dunes, I hopped out of my car, and immediately wondered when it became winter. Okay okay, I am exaggerating. BUT it was much colder than the 90 degrees I had been getting in Texas. I put on a long sleeve shirt, grabbed my bags, ditched my hat because the wind would have surely fed it to the dunes, and started walking. I didn’t really have a plan when I got there – but I saw people high up in the dunes and thought…why not? (spontaneous Dayna strikes again). So I started climbing.
Let me tell you – I am out of shape! One hill in and I was huffing and puffing. But you know how it goes, you get to the top of one hill and you think, what is one more? And so on…and so on. Until I was standing on High Dune. WHICH, despite its name – is not the highest dune in the park. In fact, at 699 feet from the base to the top it is actually the 6th tallest Dune in the park. The highest Dune, Star Dune stands at 750 feet from base to summit and was quite a trek away. Despite not making it to the highest dune in the park, I felt pretty ecstatic with the view from High Dune.
As I soaked in the view, I began talking to the only other person on the dune. He was on a roadtrip himself going all over Colorado. Originally from Houston, he and I were able to bond over Texas and about how incredible our lives felt at that point in time. It may have been the most amazing thing I have ever seen. I asked him if he could take a video of me dancing, to which he agreed and then proceeded to fist bump me thinking it was awesome haha mental self high five for making friends. I didn’t plan to stay long, but I guess I had nowhere better to be. So I sat. I watched the top layer of sand slowly creep from one dune to the next as the wind blew. I felt the sand against my skin. And then BAM – heavy wind that made the sand feel move with such vigor that it felt like getting hit with tiny pebbles all over my body.
Worth it? Totally. As it got later, I debated whether I wanted to hang out for stargazing. Great Sand Dunes National Park is an International Dark Sky Park (IDSP). So what exactly does that mean? According to the International Dark Sky Association, “an IDSP is a land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment.” As of February 2020, there are over 130 certified IDSPs in the world. I felt pretty stoked to be there because I love stars. Unfortunately, there were storms in the area and there was no way it would be a clear night. So at that point I debated hanging around to see if there would be a lightning storm. Sadly, it was just rain. No stars and no lightning, but hey, what a freaking incredible place. If you have even an inkling of wanderlust to get outside and explore this beautiful planet – Just Dune It.