For century after century, streams, creeks, melting snows, and flash floods brought bits of rock that became sand grains out of the mountains and to the valley floor. When sand lay exposed, southwesterly winds began the slow process of bouncing the grains toward the low curve of the Sangre De Cristo Mountains where they piled up to become the Great Sand Dunes. Reaching heights of 700 feet, these are the tallest dunes in North America, and the sight of them lying at the very foot of the snow-clad Sangres can be a bit unsettling at first. This is the only Wilderness defined as a saltbush-greasewood ecosystem, with hardy plants that include blowout grass, Indian ricegrass, scurfpea, and prairie sunflower. It's also the only place on Earth where you'll find the Great Sand Dunes tiger beetle and the giant sand treader camel cricket. Kangaroo rats may be seen dancing lightly on the shifting sands, and the night awakens other interesting denizens of the dunes.
You really should stay overnight in order to appreciate the greatest wonder of the dunes: the ever-alternating colors and shadows as the sun moves across the sky and the moon rises.
Leave No Trace
How to follow the seven standard Leave No Trace principles differs in different parts of the country (desert vs. Rocky Mountains). Click on any of the principles listed below to learn more about how they apply in the Great Sand Dunes Wilderness.
The wilderness area is entirely within Great Sand Dunes National Park located in the San Luis Valley of south-central Colorado. The nearest city is Alamosa (pop. 7,500) located about 35 miles to the southwest. From Alamosa take U.S. Highway 160 east about 16 miles and turn left onto Colorado Highway 150. From there it's 19 miles north to the Great Sand Dunes Visitor Center.
Digital and paper maps are critical tools for wilderness visitors. Online maps can help you plan and prepare for your visit ahead of time. You can also carry digital maps with you on your GPS unit or other handheld GPS device. Having a paper map with you in the backcountry, as well as solid orienteering skills, however, ensures that you can still route-find in the event that your electronic device fails.
Motorized equipment and equipment used for mechanical transport is generally prohibited in all wilderness areas.
This includes the use of motor vehicles, motorboats, motorized equipment, bicycles, hang gliders, wagons, carts, portage wheels, and the landing of aircraft including helicopters.
(No official title, designates National Park Service wildernesses) - Public Law 94-567 (10/20/1976) To designate certain lands within units of the National Park System as wilderness; to revise the boundaries of certain of these units; and for other purposes.
Visiting in the spring: Spring at Great Sand Dunes can mean anything from warm sun and mild spring temperatures to chilly winds or blizzards -sometimes in one day! At this 8200' (2470 m) elevation, be prepared. Have clothing available for a warm, calm day splashing in the water, but also for snowy or windy conditions if needed. In average to wet years, popular Medano Creek begins as a trickle in early April, increasing to a wide, shallow stream flowing in rhythmic waves at its peak in late May. Bring a swimsuit to enjoy this natural beach environment. A dunes-accessible wheelchair is available for those unable to walk in the dunes.
Visiting in summer: About 300,000 visitors come to the park annually, and most visit during the warmer summer months. Plan to hike on the dunes in morning or evening to avoid afternoon storms, and to avoid the hot mid-day sand surface.
Visiting in fall: Fall at Great Sand Dunes can mean anything from warm sun and mild fall temperatures to blizzards - sometimes in one day!
Visiting in winter: Winter at Great Sand Dunes offers solitude, natural quiet, and incredibly clear day and night skies. When snow does fall on the dunes, sledding, snowboarding or skiing are fantastic, with no trees or rocks as obstacles. Whether the dunes are snowy or sandy, a winter hike on the dunes can be a refreshing experience for all ages.
Recreational opportunities include hiking, camping, wildlife viewing, photography, and enjoyment of clear night skies. Many people enjoy sledding or skiing down barren dune slopes!
Medano Creek: When there's water in Medano Creek at the base of the dunes, adults and kids alike love to splash in the stream. Watch for waves in the water, a phenomenon called 'surge flow'.
The Tallest Dunes: The High Dune is neither the highest dune in elevation nor the tallest but it looks that way from the parking lot. It is about 650 feet (198 m) high. Cross the flats and zig-zag up the ridgelines to reach it. From High Dune the skyrising dune you see to the west is the Star Dune, rising 750 feet (229 m). It is the tallest dune in North America. To reach it from High Dune, journey another mile and a half up and down across the dunes to its summit.
Eastern Dune Ridge: By high clearance 4Wd vehicle, drive to Sand pit or Castle Creek Picnic Areas. Or, with 2WD vehicle, drive to Point of No Return, then hike .5 mile (1K) to Sand pit. Castle Creek offers an impressively tall, steep dune face. Both areas have close access to Medano Creek.
Climate and Special Equipment Needs
Summers are generally pleasant with high temperatures rarely exceeding 90 degrees F. but the sand can get quite hot (140 degrees or more) so wear shoes that will protect your feet and be considerate of what pets will encounter if you bring them along. Thunderstorms with abundant lightning are common in the summer months.
Spring time brings strong winds (which is why the dunes are here in the first place) and hiking on the dune field can be a sand blasting experience!
Autumn temperatures are often delightful with cool or even cold nights. Wintertime temperatures can dip as low as -20 F overnight.
Safety and Current Conditions
Beware of hot sand during the summer months; it's best for pets if you leave them at home. Remember to put on sunscreen as the sun's rays are especially intense at the high elevations encountered here.
Stay off dune ridges if thunderstorms are approaching (even if they're still miles away) as lightning is a common occurence on the dunes.
Remember that the sand that makes up the dunes is very fine and can easily find its way into everything so be especially careful with camera gear.
Drink plenty of water. At over 8,000 feet (2,499 m) above sea level, altitude sickness can be a problem, especially if you're accustomed to lower elevations. Symptoms include shortness of breath, headaches, and nausea.
Want to Volunteer for Wilderness?
Citizens who volunteer their time to steward our wilderness areas are an essential part of wilderness management. Contact the following groups to inquire about volunteer opportunities.