Off The Hill: Sand, water and time in the Medano Creek of Great Sand Dunes National Park |

Off The Hill: Sand, water and time in the Medano Creek of Great Sand Dunes National Park

I had passed the exit for the Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve many times over the years. It’s hard to believe that just a short drive from Breckenridge you are deposited into such a landscape. When you go to the Great Sand Dunes and look, surrounded by mountains and the dry bed of ancient Lake Alamosa, you are confronted by the enormity of time.

Sands of time

The Sangre De Cristos were created by some serious seismic activity, and the San Juan Mountains rose up through the rifting of large surface plates. This created the San Luis Valley, where sediment from both mountain chains filled between the peaks. Huge amounts of water from melting glaciers and rain then created Lake Alamosa, which broke through at the southern end of the valley.

Two lakes eventually formed in the northeastern corner and continued to gather sediment. When these two lakes receded due to dramatic natural climate change, they left the sand sheet that makes up the modern dunes. Thanks to the predominantly southwest winds, the sand deposit blew toward a low curve in the Sangre De Cristos.

In this area, three mountain passes meet: the Mescano, Medano and Music passes. The sand gathers in this natural pocket, settles and then blows up into the mountains. During storms, sand is blown back down into the valley. These opposing winds and sand recycling are why the dunes grow vertically. Two creeks — the Medano and Sand Creek — also bring sand back towards the valley.

Weird waters

I stood in the Medano Creek, and it was unlike any other water I have ever been in. Ankle deep in most spots, it would surge and send out waves as the result of small sand bars giving way. It flowed outward and downward, but not like a river heading somewhere. Its course was ever changing, and it left small eddies and water courses spinning “downstream” in surreal patterns.

It continued on to eventually absorb back into the sand sheet, dry out and redeposit the sand it brought with it from the mountain. It was as if I stood in a giant hourglass: The sand goes up and comes down … goes up and comes down — continually.

Lying here, staring at the mountains, it feels good to be at rest for a moment. I am a grain of sand at rest for the time being, waiting for the winds to once again bring me to the peaks. Being buried and blown around in the valley, it is suffice to gaze at the mountains, remembering the rides down.

Beyond the Medano

If you combine every grain of sand from every beach on Earth, there are as many grains as stars in the galaxy. You start to feel fairly small when you consider this while standing on the vast expanse of sand that is the Great Sand Dunes.

In a way, it also makes me feel universally connected: In the way a grain of sand rides and recognizes a mountain, I recognize the universe. You can see time in its immensity at work looking out over the Dunes, and I kept thinking, “Wow, this desert is lucky to live in the mountains.”

Z Griff is first and foremost a snowboarder. A longtime local, he is an adventure writer for the everyman. He can be seen as the winter host of On The Hill at or and reached at

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