Great Sand Dunes National Park's dunes are the product of competing elements: wind and water. Winds of more than 13 miles per hour from the southwest and northeast shake loose available sand, blowing it into one of three deposits in the valley: the cementlike sabkha, the outer sand sheet, and the inner dunefield (home of the biggest dunes).
Medrano and Sand creeks also carry sand from the dunefield's north and east borders, transporting it back to where the wind can blow it into the heart of the dunes. All in all, the dunes contain nearly five billion cubic meters of sand.
Above the dunes, the park and preserve also include a parcel of alpine tundra, complete with a number of lakes, and six peaks over 13,000 feet in elevation. The forests here, populated by spruce, pine, aspen, and cottonwood, are bordered by grasslands and wetlands, making good habitat for a wide variety of life.
The park's animal residents include mule deer, elk, coyotes, and bald eagles; bison graze on the adjacent grassland. A number of insect species found in the dunes, such as the Great Sand Dunes tiger beetle and the giant sand treader camel cricket, live nowhere else on Earth.
Great Sand Dunes National Park Photo Opportunities
Hiking in the dunes is well worth the effort because of the amazing views, with the summit of High Dune offering the best panorama. For visitors with more time to spend, there are also plenty of hiking trails in the surrounding wilderness. Below, we list some of the best places to practice the art of photography.
- High Dune: Although not the highest dune in the park, High Dune is the tallest dune visible from the visitor center, offering a 650-foot elevation boost. There are no trails to reach the top, so motivated hikers follow the ridge lines, zigzagging to the summit. A sweeping view over the sand dunes awaits those who make the climb.
- Mosca Pass Trail: Stealthy hikers may observe weasels, pine martens, mountain lions, red foxes, or black bears. The path follows Mosca Creek through pinon-juniper woodlands, aspen groves, grassy meadows, and spruce-fir forest.
- Zapata Falls: The 30-foot Zapata Falls pour from a rock crevasse into a pool of icy water. This is a particularly good excursion for a hot summer day, as the trail to the falls passes through a stream (wading is required). From the Zapata Falls alcove, hikers are rewarded with clear views of the Great Sand Dunes, San Juan Mountains, Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and San Luis Valley.
- Music Pass: It's a steep 3.5-mile climb from the lower parking lot to Music Pass, but the panoramic views are spectacular. Depending on the direction you face, you'll see the Tijeras and Cleveland peaks, Music Mountain, Wet Mountain Valley and upper Sand Creek Valley.
There are a variety of activites for visitors to enjoy, including sand-castle building in the endless hills of sand. But where did all this sand come from, and how do the dunes assume their unusual shapes? To learn about the formation of these sand dunes, go to the next page.