Thousands of years ago, a large plate in the Earth’s surface shifted. This rift created the San Luis Valley in Colorado, a valley roughly the size of Connecticut. As the plate rifted and rotated it pushed up a large mountain formation we refer to today as the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. The San Juan mountains, which form the southwest border of the Valley, were formed due to violent volcanic activity.
Eventually, as water from melting glaciers and rain continued to rush down and fill the valley floor (accompanied by sediment from the Sangre and San Juan mountains), large lakes spread across the valley floor. These lakes and streams cultivated an extremely lively ecosystem full of diverse plant and animal life. Mammoths and prehistoric bison roamed the area during this time, and while they may have been lost to the past, the descendants of the prehistoric bison still call the Valley home today. The lakes, also, became a feature of history as sediment and sand build-up from the mountains increased, eventually causing the lakes to dry up altogether. Today the dunes stand in their place, a monument to the past. However, unlike most monuments, the dunes are always changing. As wind blows in opposite directions, east from the Sangres and west from the San Juans, sand builds up vertically, forever shifting and reshaping the dune field. The Utes refer to the dunes as “saa waap maa nache” or “sand that moves” and the Jicarille Apaches named them “Sei-anyedi,” which means “it goes up and down”.
A detailed history of the dunes is ever-emerging as scientific research advances. That said, you don’t have to be a scientist to appreciate the beauty and singularity of this mountain valley. The Great Sand Dunes are the highest inland dunes in North America, and the ecosystem that surrounds them is uniquely vibrant and diverse, home to bobcats, porcupines, deer and elk, coyotes, weasels, as well as an immense variety of birds (great horned owls, burrowing owls, red tailed hawks, ferruginous hawks, etc). The dunes are a marvel, whether in winter, dusted with snow crystalized by the morning sun, or in the summer months, lit by a spotlight of gold beneath a sky of heavy monsoon clouds. It’s no wonder why this place has been revered by Native Americans, explorers, and early settlers alike; a reverence and appreciation that is still felt every time you look out the window at the Zapata Lodge.