Top Ten Parks for Spring


Great Sand Dunes National Preserve

Only-in-springtime view: Medano Creek flowing across a broad sand field
Activities: Hiking, wildlife viewing, playing in the sand

Great Sand Dunes is a newly designated national preserve, poised to become a park. The park is named after the immense range of dunes — seven miles long, five miles wide, and up to 700 feet tall. Rather than blow across the continent, the sand is reined in by the stalwart Sangre de Cristo mountains.

The dunes are a constant: an immense sandbox for children of all ages to jump in, roll down, surf, and just plain marvel at. Unlike most southwest desert parks, with delicate ecosystems based on fragile plants, these dunes are sand, pure and simple, just made for romping. The cool weather of spring is the perfect time to roam the dunes. In the summer, the sand can heat up to 140 degrees: good if you want to bend your glasses into shape, but a major ouch to bare feet and any other exposed skin.

The park's Medano Creek is another springtime pleasure. The Medano flows in the spring and early summer, fed by Rocky Mountain snowmelt. In all, it's only about ten miles long. It starts in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, flows along the east edge of the dunes, and vanishes below ground in the valley. Its most remarkable stretch flows across a broad sandy stretch. As if it can't make up its mind, the flowing water pushes the sand into temporary dams and then pushes through the dams, creating momentary surges. It's all playful and relaxing at the same time, kind of like a giant desk toy: It engages your mind in fascinating, shifting patterns.

But there's a lot more than sand patterns to explore here. In 2000, Great Sand Dunes was further preserved and expanded. This southernmost of Rocky Mountain national parks now includes six mountain peaks over 13,000 feet, alpine lakes and tundra, ancient spruce and pine forests, large stands of aspen and cottonwood, grasslands, and wetlands.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 24 Oct 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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