Frommer’s calls it Colorado’s most underrated national park, a secret gem three hours south of Denver. And while it’s true that the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve pulls in far fewer visitors than Rocky Mountain National Park to the north, it is beloved by those who know it.
The park boasts the tallest dunes in North America, as well as grasslands, forests, alpine peaks and lakes. Visitors can walk—or rent a sled and slide down—the 30-square-mile dune field, which has no designated trails. The dunes, some of which top 750 feet, have names like High Dune on First Ridge, Hidden Dune, Star Dune and Eastern Dune Ridge. At their base is the seasonal Medano Creek, which fills with snowmelt from April to July, making it deep enough for tubing.
The dunes were formed from sand trapped between mountain ranges after two ancient lakes receded. The region was designated a national monument by President Herbert Hoover in 1932, the result of a two-year letter writing campaign by the PEO Sisterhood, a philanthropic organization for women. The ladies wanted to protect the area from mining companies seeking gold and sand. In 2004, after legislation, the purchase of a former ranch, advocacy by The Nature Conservancy, and legal challenges related to water, the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve became the 58th U.S. national park.
We asked Senator Cleave Simpson (R), from District 35, and Representative Donald Valdez (D), from District 62, what the attraction means to their communities.
What should people know about the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve?
Simpson: It is a spectacular natural phenomenon with absolutely stunning and breathtaking views. It is located in the historically significant and highly diverse San Luis Valley, nestled against the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains with their 14,000-foot peaks and an abundance of wildlife, camping and hiking opportunities.
Valdez: It is a unique place in more ways than one. In springtime Medano Creek runs, in summertime the sun is scorching on the sand dunes, and in wintertime the sun is shining on the snow.
What do the Great Sand Dunes mean for your district?
Simpson: The Sand Dunes have always been a substantial economic driver for the community. Attendance at the dunes now exceeds 500,000 visitors a year. The dunes continue to be a centerpiece of what good public land management can look like.
Valdez: It’s a huge economic driver. People from all over the world come to the San Luis Valley and are spending dollars in restaurants and hotels in Alamosa and the surrounding communities.
When is the best time to visit the park?
Simpson: The dunes have their own majestic presence almost any time of year. There is something spectacular about seeing them covered with a dusting of snow in the wintertime. Always a great time at the dunes is late spring as the snowmelt up Medano Creek will flow across the base of the dunes, creating world-famous surge flows. The dunes carry a dark-sky designation, which makes nighttime visits something to behold.
Valdez: With the night sky, there is the beauty of the stars and moon coming over Mt. Blanca and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Seeing that beauty is, bar none, the most spectacular scene in the world.
What else is great about your district?
Simpson: Absolutely the people. I serve over 100,000 constituents that reside in the San Luis Valley, the Wet Mountain Valley, the Arkansas Valley and the southern Front Range. They are very diverse communities with a great sense of belonging. Many families are multigenerational residents, routinely fifth, sixth or even longer generations tied to their communities.
Valdez: Another great thing is the wildlife, with elk, deer, bears, mountain lions, birds and bighorn sheep. The bison ranch from The Nature Conservancy is nearby, and there is the Fort Garland Museum and Cultural Center. There is also the Colorado Gators Reptile Park.
Nora Caley is a Denver-based freelancer. The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.