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Austerity and Incongruity: the Sand Dunes of Colorado, Utah and California

Ask someone to close their eyes and picture sand dunes and they will probably visualize a landscape like the vast Saraha. But dunes are found all over the world, including in the United States. The sand dunes of Colorado, Utah and California offer an intimate austerity that is very particular to the Western United States.

Dunes like these below share their space with mountains and red rock formations. They are like a counter-intuitive oasis, offering an austere, simple landscape situated amidst more showy terrain.

Mesquite Sand Dunes Death Valley Landscape
Mesquite Dunes in Death Valley

Sand Dunes of Colorado- What are these doing here?

Great Sand Dune National Park in Colorado is tucked away into a valley of the Rockies about four hours south of Denver. All throughout that drive, you are passing through classic Rocky Mountain terrain with steep mountain sides, granite rock and pine forest. And then the dunes appear. They are a completely incongruous feature on the landscape.

It has been theorized that a lake bed once covered much of this valley in southern Colorado. The lakes and melting glaciers caused sediment to wash down the valley and when the lakes receded, there was a large sand sheet remaining. The two nearby mountain passes have created a wind funnel which accumulates the sand into a natural pocket. Winds from the southwest push the sand up the valley and opposing storm-driven winds from the northeast push the sand in the opposing direction. This constant push/pull has kept the sand in the area and creates large, shifting dunes.

Witness the unlikely partnership between the dunes and the Rockies.

Sand Dunes of Colorado Rockies

These sands dunes of Colorado are very climbable. And some people even come with snowboards and sleds for sliding down the hills.

Great Sand Dunes National Park of Colorado

The Great Sand Dunes National Park gives off a vibe of the Great American West. This tumbleweed bobbing through the scene is right on cue from a Clint Eastwood western.

Sand Dunes in Colorado- tumbleweed

If you visit Great Sand Dunes National Park

  • Plan ahead. The park offers campgrounds and there are a few lodges nearby. But it’s a fairly remote area and you shouldn’t expect a lot of services.
  • Get more information from the National Park website for visiting and booking campgrounds.
  • And check out more info on Great Sand Dunes, nearby Ice Lake hiking trail and a larger Colorado Road Trip itinerary.
  • Other fun things to do in the area: Pagosa Springs (2 hours) is a cute little town with great hot springs. Durango (3 hours) is even cuter with an old mining town vibe. And Mesa Verde (4 hours) is its own amazing national park with first people’s history and impossible cliff-side ruins.

Sand Dunes of Utah- the Poor Stepchild to Zion

Yes, yes– if you are doing the southern Utah circuit, you should visit Zion National Park. The red rock cliffs and narrow slot canyons offer great hiking and an excellent lesson on the power of Mother Nature. But leave some time for Utah’s fantastic and oft overlooked state parks. The state parks have similarly beautiful red rock terrain, great hiking and far fewer crowds.

Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park is one such place. Here, the wind conspires with a notch in the nearby mountaintop to pull sand particles off of the eroding red Navajo sandstone and into the open valley.

Coral Pink Sand Dunes state park in Utah

No, the white balance was not out of whack on my camera. The sand is truly a hot coral pink color the likes of which you will not find in any other sand dunes.

Fending in Coral Pink Sand Dune state park Utah

If You Visit Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park

  • The park is located about 1.5 hours northwest of Page Arizona (Antelope Canyon) and an hour south of the eastern entrance to Zion. So it makes a perfect pit stop if you are traveling between those two locations.
  • All of the dunes are open for hiking and many are open for ATV riding.
  • Trip Advisor offers advice on adventure day-trips from nearby Kanab and some of the providers offer 4×4 tours of the area.
  • And here’s a useful guide to maximizing your visit to Zion National Park.

For winter outdoor adventures in Utah, check out this guide to SLC ski resorts and this guide to hacking discount lift tickets.

Sand Dunes of Southern California- Conveniently Located in Hell

Death Valley National park is a 140 mile (225/k) valley floor bordered on the east and west by mountains. So, as with the sand dunes in Colorado and Utah, a literal sand trap is created by the interaction between the prevailing winds and the geology.

What makes the Mesquite Sand Dunes “convenient” is that they are located right off the main park road and only about 15 minutes from most of the park’s lodges and campgrounds.

Death Valley Photography Tour Mesquite Dunes

What makes the dunes somewhat less convenient is that to really experience their austere beauty, you need get out there before dawn. I know, it’s hard to get up before dawn. And if you’ve subscribed to the blog and read the free Contrarian’s Guide to Great Travel Photography, you’ll know that I rarely manage a dawn shoot (and if you haven’t yet subscribed to the blog, you can conveniently do so right here, which will get you the guide).

But in the case of these California sand dunes, I made an exception and it was truly worth it.

Mesquite Dunes at Dawn- hikers

The Mesquite Dunes aren’t just notable for their vast peaks. But peer down rather than up and you’ll find  a lot of subtlety in the landscape.

Death Valley at Mesquite Dunes

If You Visit Death Valley National Park

  • This is where the “hell” comes in. From May-Oct, temperatures can top out at 120′ f (49′ c). So don’t go in the summer unless you want to die like the ill-fated the pioneers of 1849 who gave their lives so that Death Valley National Park could have such a cautionary name.
  • Death Valley is lovely in April, go then. Check out the best way to do Death Valley in two days and learn more about the dunes and the other cool landscapes and ghost towns in the park.
  • The park is huge and it would not be convenient to stay outside of the park and day-trip in. There are a lot of camping and lodging options within the park for various budgets. Check out the National Park Website for more information.

Sand Dunes in Northern California- Resistance Against Urban Planning

A lot of San Francisco’s land is a man-made affair. Much of the north and eastern edges of the city were built on landfill. Such iconic sites as Pier 39, the Transamerica building and the Giants Stadium are built upon land manufactured from garbage and sunken ships. On San Francisco’s western edge, city planners also wanted to tame the ocean and they created a scenic thoroughfare for the civilized citizenry. Their attempt to tame the dunes included the construction of the Great Highway, a scenic stretch of California’s coastal highway 1.

Ocean Beach Sand Dunes in San Francisco

But did the city planners really tame the dunes? Hardly. The dunes are emboldened by the prevailing trade winds blowing in from Japan. The sand is in an ongoing battle with the Great Highway and it is constantly reclaiming chunks of the highway.

Sand Dunes in California- San Francisco Ocean Beach

It’s just as well that the dunes persist because they provide nesting habitat for the endangered snowy plover. The beach also provides a habitat for the intrepid surfer. The water temperature at Ocean Beach usually hovers around 57′ f (14’c). And the waters are infested with great white sharks. So it takes a special kind of crazy to want to surf out there. I’m certainly not going in the water. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate the scrubby beauty of the dunes and that special kind of solitude that you can only feel on a windswept beach.

Ocean Beach- surfer

If You Visit Ocean Beach

When you visit the sand dunes of Colorado, Utah or California, you can look forward to a visual treat. Enjoy the austere landscape incongruously placed the middle of mountains, ocean and red rocks. Keep the sand between your toes and happy trails!

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Hit the right parks in the Western USA and discover the austere and incongruous sand dunes of Colorado, Utah and California.
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