I think we will wind up as a healthier community because we had to come together to restore the aquifer. —George Whitten, San Luis Valley rancher, quoted in High Country News
If most of the earth will be a Phoenix suburb by 2050 as the Onion sardonically conjectured, Great Sands Dunes and the San Luis Valley of Colorado will surely be one of the last outliers of unconfined space. Mai and I visited there to celebrate the National Park Service’s 100 year anniversary, when the entrance fee was free. We camped at Piñon Flats for a couple days and vowed not to use the car, exploring the park on foot and by bicycle. At first I felt conflicted about taking the car option out but leaving it parked was a most liberating limitation.
The San Luis Valley is a broad alluvium perched at 7,600 feet above sea level. Mountains ring the valley, supplying the Rio Grande, which runs through it. The valley’s area is about the size of the entire state of New Jersey. The San Juan and Sangre de Cristo ranges shield the valley from storms, an orographic effect, resulting in an alpine desert making the river and aquifers so very important. The scale of the San Luis Valley is so expansive the huge sand dunes seem tucked right in and don’t even make a dent in the enormous space. The dunes are eroded mountains, carried and anchored by water, blown by the wind. Although the dunes appear simple and austere, the ecosystem is rich, complex and sensitive, and the management plan was updated in 2000 to protect more of the socio-ecological system and diverse habitats.
We cycled to the visitor center after setting up camp. Gliding through the clean alpine air, sun pressing on skin, drove home the sense of awesomeness of this place. The campground is perfectly positioned at the sand sheet’s edge with walking access to Medano Creek, the dunefield and upland trails. Plus they have a campground store with everything you need, kinda. We needed ice cream after our bike ride underneath the white hot sun, and the store had ice cream available. A good arrangement for replenishing the mind, body and spirit.
Boundaries in nature are not always obvious. The viewshed from the park into the greater valley is integral to understanding how resources are used to make a living here. Circular fields on 160 acre plots dot the land. These farms use center pivot irrigation–a technology adapted from the Great Plains–to supplement the sparse 7 or 8 inches of annual rainfall. Although the scale of the agriculture is industrial, I’m encouraged by the steps residents are taking to integrate sustainability into every aspect of planning and operations. Some farmers are experimenting with crops that are nutritious but use less water, such as Quinoa. The Nature Conservancy runs two ranches adjacent to the Park, Zapata and Baca Ranches, in a unique partnership to conserve the water and soil that sustains quality life and stabilizes the land.
Each morning we awoke before sunrise and walked. Crossing Medano Creek and climbing up the dunes to observe the day’s first light pouring down onto the earth was spectacular. When you walk into the landscape and immerse yourself, a whole other world reveals itself.
The landscape exerts a certain pull on human hearts. If you love this land, practicing conservation is true patriotism. When it comes to experiencing our National Parks, conservation helps us see the benefits of encouraging walking and cycling in a new and clear light. I’m glad we took the time to stay awhile and develop a personal rapport with this place.
Happy 100th Birthday National Park Service https://www.nps.gov/subjects/centennial/index.htm
What an incredibly diverse landscape. Awe-inspiring country.