Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve protects 149,000 acres of dune field, transition zone, and a portion of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in south central Colorado. The Park and Preserve was authorized by Congress in the waning days of the Clinton administration in 2000 and established in 2004 under the Bush administration. The dunes proper had received earlier protection in the waning days of the Hoover administration in 1932 after local communities became alarmed that the dunes might be destroyed for industrial use for gold mining or concrete production.
That the tallest sand dunes in North America rise above the enormous, flat, high-elevation (above 7,000 feet) San Luis Valley in Colorado—and not in, say Death Valley, nor the Mojave, Sonoran, or Chihuahuan Deserts, places generally much sandier than the valley—is a unique circumstance of geography. The sand that comprises the dunes comes mainly from the San Juan Mountains dozens of miles to the west across the broad, flat valley. Sediment washed down from the mountains by snowmelt, rain, and the Rio Grande, whose headwaters are in the San Juans and which begins its long journey to the Gulf of Mexico by emerging into the San Luis Valley. Sandy sediment is deposited on the western side of the valley and then blown by the prevailing winds rushing down from the San Juans. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the southernmost range in the Rockies, run north-south for 242 miles, but the dunes formed only in a nook just north of Mount Blanca, the range’s highest peak and a sacred mountain to a number of Native American peoples. The dunes formed adjacent to a relatively low saddle in the range where three major ephemeral springs flow down into the valley. The streams, which secure the sand, are important for the stability of the dunes and for the hardy plant communities that grow from the extensive sand flats surrounding the dunes proper. But it is the storm winds rushing down from the low saddle in the Sangre de Cristos that balance the prevailing winds from the west, keeping the dunes themselves remarkably stable over years and decades.
Even with the uniqueness of the region’s wind and geography, the sheer amount of sand cannot be explained just by this process. More recent evidence suggests that the southern end of the San Luis Valley was once covered by a vast lake, remnants of which are visible as wetland complexes west and south of the dunes and a vast aquifer beneath the valley, which makes agriculture possible. It is the sand of this ancient lakebed that comprises the bulk of the dunes.
Tuesday, August 24, we’d spend exploring this singular place by getting to know the transition area between the dunes and the mountains.
As we began our first big National Park trip in just shy of two years, Sean and I were not the same people we were when we returned home from our sixteen-day journey to San Francisco, Redwood National Park, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Crater Lake National Park, and Portland in September 2019. No one was the same. No one is ever the same, but in this case the changes wrought by time felt heavier, sometimes more momentous, but often just murkier in the morass of the pandemic. The Parks too are always changing, but as we left for our new sixteen-day trip the smoke of the Dixie Fire wafted heavily across the interior West, Midwest, and even Atlantic seaboard. As our new trip approached, we looked back on that earlier trip and watched the reports of fire consuming Lassen Volcanic National Park, which Sean had declared the most beautiful we’d visited.
Many other things had changed, but the most personally gratifying was the maturing of Bold Bison, my firm. That previous trip had been the respite in the wake of departing Openlands. Now two years later, this Colorado trip commenced in the wake of my longtime professional collaborator Patrick joining the firm. Stepping away for my first big trip in a while, I was leaving my business in deeply capable hands. This particular professional evolution was underscored on the day before our trip, Friday, August 20, with a successful client presentation in the morning followed by a late afternoon gathering on Chicago’s lakefront to celebrate a whole series of delightful professional evolutions with friends who were former Openlanders. Almost all of us had landed in good positions doing meaningful work, whether it be in conservation or education. It was a good, celebratory moment before the trip.
Meanwhile that day, Sean was wrapping up a slew of work projects before his two weeks off. Elsa had been getting increasingly nervous about our departure, a jarring development after having us around nearly nonstop for eighteen months.
As Sean and I flew home from New York on March 2, 2020, we couldn’t have known how profoundly the world was about to change. We also couldn’t have known that it would be some eighteen months before we’d visit our next National Park unit. We’d had plans to visit Parks: a visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park with my parents was already booked for April 2020; we were looking at Santa Fe and White Sands National Park in 2020; September of that terrible year was supposed to include a marriage celebration on Cape Cod followed by Acadia National Park and the Canadian Maritimes; we had loose plans for a weekend trip to St. Louis and Gateway Arch National Park. For 2021, we’d been considering possibly the Hawaiian Parks and American Samoa, maybe a 10th anniversary return to Isle Royale National Park combined with the Lake Superior Circle Tour, and then maybe that marriage celebration would be feasible for fall 2021.
None of those trips happened. Instead we stayed home, coped, watched in horror as the pandemic raged. We adjusted and created new ways to socialize. We even made some great new friends. Between gorging on poetry and the news, I built my business. As soon as it was our turn, we got vaccinated. We’re still skittish about flying, which was of course a fundamental component to nearly all of our Park trips. In June 2021 we bought a car, my first in seventeen years, because without it our horizons had contracted to the quiet, leafy streets of our Chicago neighborhood.
In early spring 2021, when it became clear that New England and the Canadian Maritimes were unlikely for the fall, we looked to alternative trip ideas. It may have felt optimistic, but we figured it would be good to get a trip booked even if we later had to cancel. Anticipating a road trip (even though we were yet to actually buy the car), we turned our gaze to Colorado.
On Sunday, March 1, 2020, Sean and I spent the day eating, drinking, seeing old friends, and going to the theater again. We also visited one more National Park Unit, Castle Clinton National Monument at the lower tip of Manhattan. Of course we could not have known then that this would be the last unit we’d visit before a global pandemic set in, making it also the last unit we’d visit in 2020 or the foreseeable future.
On Saturday, February 29, Sean and I started a long, fun-filled day in Manhattan with a sobering visit to African Burial Ground National Monument, which marks and memorializes an early colonial slave cemetery that was only rediscovered in the early 1990s. The visit anchored and provided framework for a day that would focus on history, science, family, and race, culminating in an activist-minded Broadway show. But even with all that on a packed day during a packed weekend, African Burial Ground National Monument was deeply resonant and has stuck with us in the months since our visit.
Early afternoon on February 28 Sean and I wandered over to the West Village to our second National Park unit of the day: Stonewall National Monument, which was established by President Barack Obama in 2016 as the first LGBTQ+ National Park site. The National Monument honors a key catalyzing event in the burgeoning gay rights movement of the late 1960s, the June 28, 1969 raid by New York City police of The Stonewall Inn, a mafia-owned gay bar, and the six nights of riots that followed as LGBTQ+ New Yorkers fought back, led by homeless gay youth and transexuals, many of whom were people of color. While not the start of the gay rights movement, nor even the first riot, Stonewall led to an explosion of gay rights organizing across the country as gay people embraced a stance of being out and proud about their sexual orientation.
Sean and I visited New York City the final weekend of February 2020, a time that now feels out of time compared to the indelible history of what was about to happen, indeed what was already happening all but undetected in that city. We were in Manhattan to see a Broadway show, part of Sean’s Christmas present and the culmination of a mindful shift in our gift giving away from things and toward experiences. For both of us it was a return to a city where we have long individual histories, but which we had not visited for quite some time in no small part because our attention had been turned largely West toward the National Parks. Although we were there to see a show, we also visited four National Park Units in Lower Manhattan, testament to the travelers we have become.
Wednesday, October 30 we needed to say farewell to our campsite and get all of us, including Rick with his hurt knee, out of Havasu Canyon and up to Haulapai Hilltop ten miles away and some 2,000 feet up. Although our time in the Canyon was ending, our trip would not actually finish until Saturday. We still had some Americana time coming at a Route 66 roadside attraction, Hoover Dam, and Las Vegas on Halloween.
Tuesday, October 29 was a quiet day. We mostly took it easy and rested or explored Havasu Canyon areas closer to the campground. We needed to marshal our strength for the big hike back out of the canyon the following day. And we were worried about Rick’s hurt knee. The slower day also afforded us the opportunity to check out the tiny village of Supai, where most Havasupai homes and services in the canyon are clustered.
Monday, October 28 was the first of our two full days in Havasu Canyon. We had hiked in the morning of the previous day for our three nights of camping. Despite the big hike that day, we decided for another big hike this following day: hiking downstream to Beaver Falls and then on to attempt to reach the confluence of Havasu Creek and the Colorado River in the main trunk of the Grand Canyon. From the campground, the confluence is seven miles, so it would be a long, but doable fourteen mile out-and-back. We’d decided to do it this first day because then we’d have a full day to rest before the hike back out of the canyon on Wednesday.