Native Plants of the Southwest (7) - Great Sand Dunes National Park, High Dune and Dune Ramp Trails

Mystery Plant Hint: A vine with divided, opposite leaves and white flowers.  The fruiting structure looks like a ball of white silk.

Mystery Plant Hint: A vine with divided, opposite leaves and white flowers. The fruiting structure looks like a ball of white silk.

The highest sand dunes in North America lie at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range in southwest Colorado. The extreme contrast is only matched by the extreme beauty and plant diversity.

I have never hiked for miles in the wilderness barefoot. I have seen rock climbers do so for show and have heard of survivalists who do so for the same reason. But the High Dune hike in the Great Sand Dunes National Park is gentle and quite easy on us "tenderfoots," unless it is in full sun in the middle of summer, then it can get a bit toasty. I hiked to the top of the High Dune with shoes then decided to plunge down the side toward a clump of lone sunflowers, growing in, what appeared to be, the middle of the Sahara Desert, if you didn't know better. With each step a musical note rose up from the sand, as if it was singing with each plop, plop of my bare feet. I have never heard the ground singing beneath me, so I listened carefully as I continued. Sure enough, there was a brief but distinct note with each step of my downward progression. Since I can't hold a tune to save my life, with my voice, it's nice to know I might have a chance to stay alive with my feet, at least walking downhill in the sand.

The Dune Ramp Trail is an entirely different hike, more conventional, following the trail around the edge of the dune field from the second loop of the campground. It goes on for miles, but since my time was limited, I only went a couple of miles to the "Point of No Return." This section of the trail offered great views of the dune as well as Herard Peak, the Park's high point at more than 13,000' above sea level. Though small and off the beaten path, Great Sand Dunes National Park offers a host of unique outdoor adventures from nearby herds of buffalo and flocks of waterfowl to alpine lakes and barren dunes. It's as if you could be in the Sahara, the arctic, the Great Plains of yesteryear, and the forest all in the same day. Amazing! With all this variety, plant diversity is guaranteed. Let's talk about wildflowers, shrubs, and trees, plus something special - cacti.

Scarlet Gilia is a short-lived perennial wildflower. Its bright red, tubular flowers are apparent in late summer as they sway in the breeze at the upper part of the stems, about a meter off the ground. The throat of the floral tube is flecked with dark red markings. The anthers extend beyond the opening of the flower. The leaves are highly dissected, almost thread-like. I saw several along the Dune Ramp Trail in the open sun.

Yellow Rabbitbrush is a member of the largest plant family in North America, the Sunflower Family. These colorful shrubs bear the typical yellow flowers of the family, but without the ray flowers. The disc flowers are bright yellow and are clustered at the ends of the plants bright green branches. About a meter tall, Yellow Rabbitbrush is found scattered along the east side of the dune field as the trees become more prominent. The flowers are often sticky, being dotted with resin and the leaves are narrow and generally twisted. The flowers have a peppery-sweet scent that may cause allergic reactions in some hikers that get too nosey.

Rocky Mountain Maple is an important tree to know, especially in the mountains across the western United States. It grows at higher elevations in moist places, often in canyons. It can get up to 10 meters tall and its classic leaves and fruits are a timeless reminder that the seasons are ever changing. The fruits (samaras) are mature in the spring and the leaves turn color and fall in preparation for the coming snow. They occupy some of the most desirable hiking destinations, so you are sure to enjoy their shade along many a trail from Arizona to Canada.

You'd think a cactus would be featured for a hike in the desert before a trail in Colorado, wouldn't you? Actually, cacti grow from the sea shore to alpine summits. They are endurance specialists, hanging in there when all others have died away. Their flowers are typically, quite colorful and their vegetative forms range from grotesque giants to delicate succulents, hiding at the base of larger plants. The Claret Cup is found in rock outcrops in forested areas or where the soils are poorly developed, like around sand dunes. Their flowers are deep red and consist of many petals (petals and sepals being indistinct from one another). Cacti are generalists when it comes to attracting pollinators, so bees, ants, wasps, bats, etc. may be partners with these plants in their pollination biology.

I hope you get a chance to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park. It has something for everyone. It has one of the lowest entrance fees of any national park ($3/vehicle). It has a large campground with running water and flush toilets, a nice visitor center, and friendly staff. There are also innumerable attractions in the vicinity that are sure to make your trip there unforgettable.