Are We Dune Yet? The History of Colorado’s Shifting Sands

By Tia Vierling

I struggled up the dune in bare feet, sand stinging my skin as it whipped about me in the wind. My companions and I crested the top of the dune we were climbing and looked up at the towering mass of sand left to ascend.

We were not in the Sahara or the Mojave; we took the “challenge by choice” theory to heart and decided to climb to the very top of the highest sand dune in Colorado College’s own backyard. We were in Great Sand Dunes National Park — an hour away from the Baca campus — and we were loving it.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, cradled at the edge of the San Luis Valley, is a sight to behold. Home to what the National Parks Service identifies as “the tallest dunes in North America,” the park is surreal. 

How did something so massive and so visually divorced from its surroundings ever come to be?

The answer lies in the geologic history of the area and the dunes themselves. According to the NPS, geologists estimate that an enormous lake, christened “Lake Alamosa,” once covered almost all of the San Luis Valley. When Lake Alamosa and the surrounding smaller bodies of water dried up, the sand left over was swept toward the East. Caught between winds pushing in opposite directions, the sand rose into dunes rather than being swept all the way toward or away from the Sangre de Cristo mountains. 

Reaching over 700 feet tall, the size of the dunes can be intimidating. However, this doesn’t stop intrepid climbers or sightseers like us from striking out on the sand.

My friends and I had no water and decided not to put our shoes back on after sloshing through a shallow stream at the edges of the dunes, but we were not deterred from attempting to “summit” the sand and neither were the myriads of children and adults sand sledding down the steepest of the hills.

The history of the site, like that of many national parks, is fraught with American imperialism. The Jicarilla, Apache, Navajo, and Ute peoples are only a few of the indigenous groups separately connected to the Great Sand Dunes. Their claim to and shared past with the land must be recognized when considering the dunes in the context of U.S. history.

Indeed, NPS notes that “modern American Indian tribes were familiar with the area… about 400 years ago,” leaving open the likelihood that native peoples have had a much longer connection with the location — albeit one unrecognized by colonialists at the time. Before being recognized as a place with national significance, the dunes were the site of everything from Spanish exploration to military patrols to a failed mining attempt in 1932.

President Herbet Hoover was the first to recognize the Great Sand Dunes as a national monument in 1932, the same year the Volcanic Mining Company tried to pull gold from the sand. In 2004, the United States government recognized the value of the area in an entirely different respect, elevating the dunes into both a National Park and Preserve. The Great Sand Dunes have retained that recognition ever since.

The cultural history of the place was not evident when my friends and I clambered up the last of the sandy slopes and reached the top of the highest dune, lungs protesting and faces stinging from the wrath of the particulates. But while we didn’t know the nature of the geologic, historical, and cultural bones that the dunes were supported by, we still felt a deep sense of connection.

We watched a lightning storm from miles away. We trekked down the spine of the highest dune to reach the very end of it, looking out over the expanse of sand we hadn’t yet crossed and back at the downhill path we would follow to return to the parking lot.

The dunes were unforgettable. 

Photo by Alli Moon

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