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The History of the Great Sand Dunes National Park
The history of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve actually starts with prehistoric people.

In fact, there is evidence that the first visitors to the Great Sand Dunes left Clovis Points, suggesting that the earliest humans in the New World may have gone hunting here.

Since then, all kinds of folks have tromped back and forth including American Indians, Spaniards, fur traders, slave hunters, ranchers, gold miners, and park rangers.

Photo: Kids play in Colorado's biggest sandbox at the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Did You Know?

The tallest sand dunes in North America are in Colorado, at Great Sand Dunes
National Park
The dune field  covers more than 30 square miles. The dunes themselves stretch over 700 feet high in places.

Photo: Mount Herard, named after a 19th-century rancher in the area, rises
over the dunes and Medano Creek in the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Prehistoric Mammoth Hunters

When deep glaciers gouged mountainsides, turning rocks into sand, and the dunes at the edge of the rift were younger, great ice age mammals roamed across the plain of the San Luis Valley. The wet environment at the end of the Pleistocene created marshes and lakes, and giant mammoths were fond of such spots. Paleontologists have uncovered mammoth bones in several locations near the Great Sand Dunes. In one of those sites, evidence suggests that Clovis hunters, the earliest universally accepted culture in the New World, may have killed mammoths there.

Clovis and Folsom Points

As huge mammals such as mammoths began to decline, the culture of the people in the valley changed as well. The Folsom people also hunted with fluted projectile points, while adapting with more foraging. Several Clovis and Folsom points have been found lying on the surface of the San Luis Valley. If you are lucky enough to discover an arrowhead or other artifact, leave it exactly as you find it and contact a park ranger. Its location and position may lend great insight into the ancient folks who made their livings in the area.

Rock Art

Evidence of Folsom cultural presence in the valley fades out after about 5,000 B.C., although humans still made their mark. A research team from the Smithsonian Institution has discovered what are possibly pit houses and attendant hearths near springs in the sand sheet area. At nearly 5,000 years old, they date from the Archaic Period. And pictographs and petroglyphs ranging in age from 3,000 B.C. to the late nineteenth century adorn boulders and rock faces in several places around the San Luis Valley.

Sacred Places

More recently, modern Native Americans express various connections to the dunes area. Some of the Pueblo tribes along the Rio Grande River speak of the sabkha region’s lakes as their people’s place of emergence into this world. The Navajo hold Blanca Peak as one of their four sacred mountains, and the San Luis Valley was a hunting ground for the southern Utes and Jicarilla Apaches. Within the Great Sand Dunes National Park, large ponderosa pine trees stand with bark partially stripped off by Native Americans. This Indian Grove is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Spanish Colonists, American Explorer

The first people of European descent to poke around in the San Luis Valley were Spanish colonists. Folks on hunting trips or herding stock may have come this far north around 1600 or so. It wasn’t until nearly one hundred years later that the oldest known record of exploration into the San Luis Valley was made. Territorial governor Don Diego de Vargas kept a diary as he explored to a point about 35 miles south of the sand dunes. The usage of names in his diary suggests that Spanish speaking people had already seen and named the places he visited. Another territorial governor, Juan Bautista de Anza, kept a journal of his travels past the western edge of what is now the Great Sand Dunes National Park in 1779.

While neither de Vargas nor de Anza mentioned the dunes in their writings, Zebulon Pike left us a nice description when he ventured through the Sangre de Cristos and onto the dune field one January day in 1807.

On the Old Spanish Trail: Horses, Furs, and Slaves

Trade roads through the San Luis Valley and past the dunes saw significant use in the nineteenth century. What became known as the Old Spanish Trail, from Santa Fe to Los Angeles, saw heavy use from 1829 to 1848, as trade in furs, woven goods, and mostly horses and mules increased. Other historical documents and oral histories indicate that local people were captured as slaves and transported along the Old Spanish Trail as well.

Looking for a Pass

In 1853, Captain John W. Gunnison explored the sand dunes while trying to discover an economical railway route to the Pacific. He ventured partway up Mosca and Medano Passes from the west, and then skirted the dune field to the south and west, heading north towards Saguache from there.

In the 1871, Frank Hastings opened the Mosca Pass Toll Road, called “the lifeline of the San Luis Valley”, as a stagecoach and mail route. Near the base of the pass, the town of Montville sprung up, with cabins, a store, a post office, and an orchard near the corrals and tollgate of the road. Other homesteaders settled in the area, including Ulysses Herard who built a ranch along Medano Creek in 1875. Mount Herard, the 13,297-foot peak that rises prominently to the north west of the dunes is named after him.

A National Monument, Wilderness, Park, and Preserve

In the 1930’s a gold mill was built to recover gold from the sand of the dunes, although the quantities were so minute that it was never profitable. By that time, a local movement emerged to protect the dunes and support grew for designation of the Great Sand Dunes as a national monument. It finally achieved that status on March 17, 1932. The Great Sand Dunes were designated a National Wilderness Area in October of 1976, with wilderness designation for the surrounding Sangre de Cristo Mountains following in August of 1993. Authorization to expand the national monument and change it to a national park came in November of 2000. When land with a sufficient diversity of resources was acquired, in September of 2004, the monument and surrounding mountains officially became the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.