Remarkable Trees at Great Sand Dunes

by : Diane Winger

“I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree."

-- Joyce Kilmer

For gigantic trees, head to Sequoia or Redwood National Parks. For colorful autumn trees, head to Blue Ridge Parkway or Arcadia National Park. But, for some unusual and remarkable trees, visit southern Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.

Our first stop: the Ghost Forest. Portions of the tallest sand dunes in North America (rising nearly 750 feet from the valley floor) sometimes escape the main dune field and try to smother nearby groves of ponderosa pine and cottonwood trees. Sometimes the cottonwoods manage to outsmart the sand by essentially converting low branches into roots. The ponderosas aren’t as adaptable, and many die under the slow onslaught. As the sand shifts again, the dead trees are exposed once again, evoking ghostly images of a dead forest. Look high up along the bark-less branches, and you may spot the “flood-mark" of the sand at its highest point far above where you stand today.

Continuing up the streambed of Medano Creek along the eastern slope of the dune field, we come to Indian Grove. Here we find nearly 100 ponderosas with portions of their lower bark partially peeled away. This grove of peeled trees offer a peek into the history of Ute, Zuni, Kutenai, and other Native American groups who passed through this area from the late 1700s through the early 1900s.

As you walk among the peeled trees in a lovely meadow under the majestic beauty of Mt. Herard, you can almost sense the presence of the Indian people who were here hundreds of years ago.

Native Americans were careful not to kill the trees when they used a sharp piece of wood to peel chunks of bark from the ponderosas. The bark was used to make trays, baskets and cradleboards, and was also useful as a building material. The inner bark is highly nutritious, containing significant amounts of calcium and vitamin C. The inner bark could also be used to thicken soup or stew, or to make tea.

Because of their cultural significance, the trees at Indian Grove were added to the National Register of Historic Places in March 2000.

“As the poet said, 'Only God can make a tree' -- probably because it's so hard to figure out how to get the bark on."

-- Woody Allen