To the average American, Colorado usually means three stereotyped images: winter skiing, summer mountain activities, and Denver, the Mile High City.
Like all good travel destinations, however, Colorado contains a major surprise -- the largest inland sand dunes in the world. With some towering an incredible 70 stories high, they're also the tallest dunes in North America.
While these facts are impressive, they pale in comparison to the actual dune experience, where playing Lawrence of Arabia seems mandatory.
"They're bloody amazing," said Graham Roberts, an English visitor who spent three hours hiking to the top of the tallest dune with a companion. "I feel like I'm in Saudi Arabia."
Backdropped by the razor-edged peaks of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, the Great Sand Dunes dramatically rise from the cultivated San Luis Valley as if sculpted by some giant artist. Soft swirls and crescents, peaks and valleys catch the sunlight to create varying shades of tan, cream, yellow, brown and even pink. The wind adds another dimension, constantly shifting the sands into a slow-motion sea of angles and lines, waves and ridges.
Not to be outdone by nature's physical allure, man has added his own twist -- fanciful tales of buried wagon trains and web-footed ponies that engage the child-like imagination in all of us.
Located less than 250 miles southwest of Denver, the dunes were created by a unique set of geological circumstances -- a large valley, lots of ancient river sediment, an eastern range of mountains, and a combination of winds strong enough to pick up the sediment but not strong enough to carry the particles over the mountains. Best guesstimates put the dunes at around 12,000 years old.
Today, they're the major attraction of Great Sand Dunes National Monument. Established in 1932, the monument sees a relatively small group of visitors (315,000) annually. While thedunes are what people come for, there is another side to the monument.
"If visitors hike our mountain trails or take our four-wheel-drive road," says Kathy Brown, chief interpreter for the monument, "they'll get a real surprise because they're verydifferent from our dunes. We have the pinon-juniper forest, good stands of ponderosa pine, and abundant wildlife -- everything from blue pinon jays and mule deer to bobcats and black bears.
"But," she admits with a laugh, "the dunes are definitely the big attraction. And they're tremendously accessible."
That's putting it mildly. Visitors are welcome to wander anywhere throughout the 39 square miles of dunes. Overnight camping is even permitted on the dunes, although it takes apermit, it must be done beyond the second range of dunes, and the leave-nothing-but-tracks-behind rule applies.
The desire to wiggle your toes in warm sand, or hike up to a towering peak starts the moment the dunes are spotted. From a distance, they seem to be a tan-colored skirt hugging the green-and-gray-toned mountains. Getting closer, they begin to grow on the horizon. By the time people stop at the monument's one major parking lot, the dunes dominate the landscape.
From the parking lot, a half-mile walk across a flat sandy stretch brings visitors to the foot of the dunes. Most hikers covering this ground are reminded of two important points: walking in sand can be difficult and tiring, and 8,200 feet above sea level means less oxygen in the air. By the time many reach the foot of the dunes, it's time for a break before tackling the imposing slopes.
It's also a good time for one last check before entering the harsh, unforgiving environment. In the summer, surface temperatures within the dunes can reach 140 degrees, and mini-sandstorms can be blinding and frightening. It's critical visitors check upcoming weather conditions at the visitors center and carry plenty of water, a hat and sunscreen when exploring the dunes.
For such efforts, though, the rewards are great. In the clear, high-altitude air, the dunes are a living canvas -- shaped by the wind, colored by the sun. Sweeping patterns and swirling designs flow gracefully together, then apart, defined by the sun and shadows that play tag on the ridgetops.
From the foot of the dunes, visitors can usually spot other hikers -- some only specks on the highest ridges, silhouetted against Colorado's famous cobalt blue sky. They seem to be perched precariously on surprisingly sharp-looking peaks.
That visual deception doesn't last long when people begin climbing the mounds themselves. They quickly discover the slopes are gradual enough so there's nothing to fear. In fact, the sand can only pile up as high as 31 degrees (the "angle of repose") before sliding back down on itself. That means climbers can walk along the sharpest looking edges and feel safe and secure. It also means sliding, skipping, running, tumbling or even snowboarding down the slopes is safe and definitely exhilarating.
For many, however, the best part of hiking the dunes is simply finding an isolated spot to sit and experience the magic of the place. If the wind isn't blowing, it's so unbelievably quiet your ears will create sounds to fill the void. Sand pushed down a slope flows as gracefully as water. And tufts of desert grass somehow find a way to survive in little valley oases.
In such a magical place, imagination takes over and the stories surrounding the dunes seem real and believable. Of course there must be wild ponies who have lived in the dunes for so many generations that they now have webbed hooves. Who cares that legend says only the eagle-eyed can see them during moonless nights, as they stand proudly on ridgetops and fling back their manes in total independence.
And there's nothing far-fetched about an entire wagon train being buried in the dunes. Who cares that the tale says the drivers went to sleep a short distance away and woke up the next morning to find a giant sand dune in their place? Must have been pretty sound sleepers.
No matter what the tales, though, while you're sitting atop a 70-story dune, seeing the beauty wrought by wind and sand, feeling a peace and serenity generated by a true natural wonder, anything seems possible . . . even finding the world's largest inland sand dunes in Colorado.