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.
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.
On the afternoon of Sunday, October 27, after our long hike into Havasu Canyon, we wandered from our campsite to have a look at Havasu Falls, the showpiece of the canyon, that in 1974 wasn’t even part of the Havasupai Reservation.
In the summer of 1974, during the darkest days of the Watergate crisis, a bill to enlarge Grand Canyon National Park wound its way through committee in the U.S. House of Representatives. The legislation sought to incorporate two National Monuments into the Park, smooth out some of the boundaries, and regulate air traffic above the Park. It also sought to finalize Native American land claims. The bill offered a chance for the Havasupai to reclaim the vast majority of the land taken from them in 1880.
Sunday morning, October 27, we had to be up early for our ten-mile hike into one of the most scenic parts of the Grand Canyon. We wanted to get an early start both to avoid the midday desert heat in the inner canyon and to ensure we got a nice campsite for our subsequent three nights in Havasu Canyon.
On Monday, September 16, we woke into a world that could hardly have been more different than the warm and sunny afternoon we’d enjoyed the day before. Over the next few days, as our trip shifted northward from California into Oregon, the weather also shifted, from summer to what felt like winter. It altered the trajectory of our trip, and it added a flavor of adventure that was reminiscent of the sudden cold snap in our during our trip to the Dakotas five years earlier.
On Sunday, September 15, we spent a classic National Park day in the wild heart of Lassen Volcanic National Park. I love a day when we can rise from our tent and go see some amazingly lovely sights propelled by nothing but our own legs. On the docket for our big hike day in Lassen was an 11.6 mile loop over creeks, around lakes, and into the Park’s designated wilderness.
Lassen Volcanic National Park protects over 106,000 acres at the southern end of the Cascade Range in northern California, including Lassen Peak. Lassen Peak, southernmost in a string of legendary volcanoes (Shasta, Hood, St. Helens, Rainier, Baker) in a range that stretches north to British Columbia, is quiet today, but it was in the midst of an eruption just a century ago. In 1907, the year after passage of the Antiquities Act gave him the power, President Theodore Roosevelt declared two National Monuments in the Cascade Range east of Redding, California: Lassen Peak National Monument and Cinder Cone National Monument. Seven years later, in May 1914, long dormant Lassen Peak began to erupt (after an estimated 27,000 years of inactivity). The following year, in May 1915, the mountain exploded, sending a column of ash and steam 30,000 feet into the air and partially collapsing in on itself with flows of mud, ash, and pumice traveling some twenty-five miles from the crater. Major steam eruptions continued into 1921, with some 400 total eruptions between 1914 and 1921. In August 1916 with the eruption very much ongoing, President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation combining the National Monuments and expanding them into Lassen Volcanic National Park.
Lassen Volcanic National Park had long been among the Parks I’d been most excited to visit in this whole journey. In fact, more often than not, I’d cited it as the Park I was most excited to visit. Now just past noon on Friday, September 13, having finished packing up our campsite on the beach, we were on our way there.