Wind, Water, and Sand Dunes Dance

Interplay of wind, water and sand

The interplay of wind, water and sand shaped the San Luis Valley’s unique landforms and contributed to its biological diversity.

Roughly the size of New Hampshire, the Valley is the highest elevation in the United States to receive such little precipitation. What makes the desert valley truly unique is its hidden waters.

Hidden waters

Great Sand Dunes: Photo courtesy Mallory Olenius

Sangre de Cristos and Great Sand Dunes: Photo courtesy Mallory Olenius

Below the valley are two aquifers that contain an enormous quantity of water.

Despite its desert title, the Valley contains 230,000 acres of wetlands which represent the most extensive wetland system in the Southern Rocky Mountains.

The aquifers feed ponds, artesian wells, springs and lakes – they’re akin to desert oases. The Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area is home to unique plant and animal species and is a migratory stopover for many birds.

Great Sand Dunes

The sand dunes of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve crest at 750 feet above the valley floor. They are the highest dunes on the continent. The dunes are shaped and sustained by the dynamic interaction of sand, wind and water. Water flowing from the mountain slopes and water percolating from the valley’s aquifer all contribute to the maintenance of the dunes.

San Luis Valley Lakes: Photo courtesy Cliff Hare

San Luis Valley Lakes: Photo courtesy Cliff Hare

Sangre de Cristo and San Juan Mountains

Flanking the east side of the region, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains rise abruptly from the valley floor to over 14,000 feet. The San Juan Mountains form the western perimeter and gradually rise from the valley to the Continental Divide. The San Juan and Sangre de Cristo mountain ranges are both part of the southern Rocky Mountains.

The Sangre de Cristos contain a number of peaks over 14,000 feet.  Mt Blanca is the highest at 14,345 feet.

The Sangre de Cristos are divided between the Sangre de Cristos themselves in the northern part of the range and the Culebra Range to the south. The natural diversity of alpine tundra, tall forests of evergreen and aspen, massive desert dunes, spacious grasslands, and verdant montane wetlands in the Sangre de Cristo Range is unique to the North American landscape. Just miles from its headwaters in the San Juan Mountains, the mighty Rio Grande traverses through the SdCNHA as it winds its way across the state line and into New Mexico.

The geographic isolation of the valley and abundance of public lands provides a coveted place for exploration, adventure and solitude. Recreation activities abound. You can hike, camp, rock climb, mountain bike, horseback ride, ice climb, snowmobile, and backcountry ski. Given the plentiful public lands of the Rocky Mountain Flyway, the area is especially well suited for bird watching and other forms of wildlife observation.


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