So I’ve been surfing in County Mayo, Ireland…I’ve been skiing in Northern Minnesota, USA…but I have to say that I never thought I would consider snowboarding in southern Colorado on a hot summer’s day. Actually, until I saw some guys grab their boards and rip down a sand dune, I probably would have laughed at the idea. Can’t say that I’m laughing now. Actually, I’m busy dealing with the horrendous amount of sand that’s in my mouth, eyes and ears. At least snow melts…
The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in southwestern Colorado, USA is nestled in the San Luis Valley immediately before the Sangre de Christo Mountains. The long, winding drive through the southern Rocky Mountains preluding our arrival at the preserve made me have my doubts on what to expect. How could there be a sand dune hidden in these rolling hillsides that are dotted with sage brush, tumbleweed and ponderosa pines? I began to suspect one of two things: either the sand dunes were an unremarkable pile of dry dirt or we were hopelessly lost. Thankfully I was wrong on both accounts…as I’d hate to have driven so far to see a sandbox and if our GPS managed to get us lost in the Rocky Mountains, I’d hate to think how we would find our way back out again!
The dunes are a magnificent piece to the 330 square mile sand deposit that covers a portion of this wild valley. The largest dune in the park (or North America, for that matter) is the Star Dune, rising 750 feet (229 meters) above the already soaring San Luis Valley. I’m afraid that I didn’t climb that one (the sand is HOT HOT HOT) but I did watch a few guys snowboard (sandboard?) down the side of one. Not understanding the size of these dunes before arriving, I didn’t think to bring my own gear, but I did try to sled down one on me…er, rear. That probably had something to do with my sandy discomfort on the way home.
The dunes, despite their lifeless appearance, support a wide variety of wildlife and flowers. There are tiger beetles, sunflowers, and a few unhappy looking bees as well as several other species of insects that are so well adapted that they cannot live anywhere else. Poor guys. I also discovered a beautiful, flowering, starvation prickly pear in the grasslands surrounding the dunes. All I have to say about those little dudes is that you want to watch where you kneel when you’re photographing them. Prickly, sandy jeans…not exactly an equation for a comfy ride home. These gnarly little cacti really live up to their name (and yes, you can actually eat them…just not like a pear…if you value your tongue.)