Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve: An Immense Experience


By Eva Eldridge


When I was young, around twelve years old, our neighbors invited me to go with them on an excursion. I don’t remember the three-hour drive, but where we stopped amazed me. 

Surrounded by tall mountains, was an ocean of sand. Khaki colored waves grew larger and larger as the dunes reached for the mountains. The dunes seemed endless and immense, and I couldn’t imagine how all that sand got there.

The neighbor’s two younger boys ran towards the dunes, splashing through the meandering steam and up the nearest dune. I followed reaching the summit only to see there were so many more summits to reach. We tumbled down the dune in laughing balls of legs and arms, only to climb up the next dune and somersault down. When that exhausted us, we played in the wet sand, digging holes and making sandcastles with moats that filled with water. I loved it there surrounded by pine trees, sand, and mountains. 

I don’t remember the trip home, either, but I suspect I fell asleep exhausted by the day in the sun and sand. The smaller details didn’t make an impression, but the wonder of the place certainly did.

Fifty years later, I paid attention on the drive to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. We drove from Canon City, Colorado, up Highway 50 to Salida along the Arkansas River until we turned south at Poncha Springs on Highway 285. The mountain highway lined with pines and aspens wound over Marshall Pass at 10,842 feet. We made our way down the mountain and turned off on Highway 17 towards the San Luis Valley. 

The San Luis Valley is about 8,000 square miles surrounded by mountains. It seems like a low basin used for agriculture, but the average elevation is 7,600 feet. As we traveled south on Highway 17, we saw small ranches, fields where crops are grown in circles—dependent on central irrigation, and a lot of scrub vegetation. And there were signs. Lots of signs suggesting, we are not alone. 

Of course, we had to stop at the UFO Watchtower north of Hooper where psychics say there are Vortexes—gateways to other dimensions. I didn’t feel the Vortex power, but I’m not sure I’m open to vortexes. However, I do believe there are UFO’s. We didn’t see one during our visit but there are many testimonials to sightings in the area. There is enough activity to attract the show Vice The UFO Garden area was filled with an interesting collection of items, artful and weird. If extraterrestrials visit the UFO Watchtower Garden, they will see American culture in bits and pieces along with homage to our alien friends. From the UFO Watchtower looking east you can see the beige smudge of the sand dunes which made us eager to continue our trip.

We turned off Highway 17 onto north Lane 6. This straight road took us past San Luis Lakes State Wildlife Area. We decided it was time to have a picnic and turned in. The area changed designations from a state park to a state wildlife area in 2017 which left the entrance booth deserted and forlorn. The picnic areas were nice with overhead shelters and big picnic tables facing the water. The lake and surrounding area are home to coyotes, rabbits, elk, songbirds, ducks, and other high desert species. It is a nice place to relax and watch the ducks play in the water. 

After lunch, we headed to our main destination. We turned north from Lane 6 onto Highway 150. The Great Sand Dunes rose against a backdrop of tall mountains and looked out-of-place with the flat grasslands in the foreground. 

We parked in the visitor lot and headed for the dunes. First, we had to cross Mendano Creek. The area looked like ocean front beach with water running parallel to the beach instead of flowing back to the ocean. The sand felt like ocean sand. I wanted to take off my shoes and socks and start making sandcastles but left that for younger people. 

Mendano Creek is seasonal. Usually in August, the Colorado water table is low, and the stream dries up leaving only sand. This year, 2019, Colorado had enough snow and rain to move it out of drought stage. The water meandered through the sands making it the ideal playground. In the spring and early summer, the creek can be deep enough to create waves.                    

After the pleasure of the cool damp sand, we walked towards the dunes. The sand was hot from the August sun and reflected back on us. The heat didn’t detour people from climbing and children sliding down the dunes on pieces of cardboard. I didn’t have the energy to hike up one of the larger dunes but walked to a low dune covered in vegetation. 

Indian rice grass, blowout grass and scurf pea, grow predominately on the dunes along with prairie sunflowers. The dune I stood on was covered in Indian rice grass and scurf pea. Little spots of muted green that seem isolated until you look at them from a distance, then they blended into swaths of green. Vegetation has a difficult life on the dune with temperature extremes, wind, and inconsistent water. A hostile environment, yet it survives and grows.

The visitor center has good information on how the sand dunes were formed. It involves the uplift of one of the Sangre De Cristo Mountains through plate tectonic movement and the volcanic activity of San Juan Mountains to the west. Over millenniums, an inland ocean formed and receded leaving mostly volcanic sand particles that were blown eastward and trapped by the Sangre De Cristo Mountains. 

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is a special place high in the Colorado desert. It’s worth a visit to experience the uniqueness of immense piles of sand next to 14,000-foot mountains. There are lovely campsites in the park and other lodging available in Alamosa, Colorado, which is only thirty-five miles away. 

I’m planning my next trip for either the middle of winter so I can see snow on the dunes or for a nighttime star-gazing experience. Maybe I’ll have a UFO experience and can add my story to the UFO Watchtower. You can find more information on the Great Sand Dunes at:

Eva Eldridge is a contributing writer for Big Blend Radio & TV Magazine and Parks & Travel Magazine. Along with travel and lifestyle articles, she also writes fiction and poetry. Visit her at



State Travel Guide Visit Link Here
Date Park Established 2004
Website Link Visit Link Here
About the Author:

Eva Eldridge is a contributing writer for Big Blend Radio & TV Magazine and Parks & Travel Magazine. Along with travel and lifestyle articles, she also writes fiction and poetry.

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