The closer we got to home the more I doubted what we were doing on this epic road trip. Would any of it make sense? We were on this random journey that had no apparent continuity except for the road that connected each stop.
Some of our destinations had been picked out in advance; others, like Salvation Mountain, The International Car Forest of the Last Church, and Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve were added because of conversations with strangers. And then others were random decisions to “turn there!” I was second guessing everything. I was even nervous that we hadn’t seen enough, that we should have done more, even though we still had five more days of travel ahead of us. Good lord, woman - what did I expect of myself? What did I expect of my husband?
And then I took a second look. I realized that we were going to two more National Parks in one day, featuring two completely different climates and landscapes, and both were in Colorado.
“This is what I’m trying to highlight,” I thought. The range of climates, geography, geology, cultures, tragedies, survivals, and experiences in this country - this trip was a random sampling of the United States. That’s what I wanted to show. It’s good and bad and beautiful and ugly; America is all of this.
Of course, I reminded myself, we couldn’t do everything. But we had done a lot, and there was more to come, and the entirety was a vivid quilt of what makes this country great.
We turned north on CO-150 outside of Alamosa. In the distance we could see a slight discoloration at the base of the Sangre de Cristo range, and as we neared the dunes took shape. It almost looked like an airbrushed landscape. Black mountains topped with white in the distance, beige brush all around us, and in between the tallest sand dunes in North America.
If you want to see a cyclical environment, you can’t get a much more perfect example than Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.
The formation of the dunes began in the San Luis Valley about 440,000 years ago. Glaciers melted, creating a lake. When its water evaporated, sand and soil accumulated on the high desert plain. The Rio Grande and its tributaries contributed to those deposits, which were picked up by westerly winds. When the winds came up against the mountain range they lost some of their oomph, and since they could no longer carry the extra baggage, they dropped it and the dunes were born.
They continue to grow. At the base of these huge piles of sand are wetlands and streams that cascade from the mountains. As their water evaporates, the cycle continues.
To get to the dunes from the Visitor Center, we walked a short trail through the sand sheet and over Medano Creek. It’s an intermittent, seasonal stream that was mostly dried up when we were there. After the snow melt and summer thunderstorms it can get up to a foot deep, but we were able to keep dry as we crossed over rivulets. In the distance people were sandboarding and sand sledding down the dunes, riding special boards they either brought themselves or rented in Alamosa. It was quiet; in fact, this is the quietest National Park in the 48 contiguous states.
With that silence, and the barrenness of the dunes, it was tempting to think the park was devoid of wildlife. It most certainly was not. It’s actually home to black bears, badgers, and other mammals; more than 200 species of birds; salamanders, frogs, and toads; tiny short-horned lizards; and more than 1,000 types of insects and spiders - that they know of. Seven of those arthropods can be found nowhere else on earth. (Wearing shoes is advised.)
Visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve was another haphazardly-added item to our itinerary that resulted in an eye-opening, educational experience, illustrating just how much there was to learn about this country.
We left with a greater awareness and headed east towards our next destination.
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