Throughout the history of the San Luis Valley one of the most notable and beloved sites has been the Great Sand Dunes National Park. The park became a national monument in 1932 and a national park and preserve in 2000-2004 to protect the park.
Many visitors to the park find that their favorite part is the flowing Medano Creek where children and adults can play in the waves and sand alongside the creek. Water isn’t just fun at the sand dunes though; it keeps the whole park working. The streams, wetlands and the dunes themselves rely on water to help them survive.
Medano Creek flows at its peak from mid to late May after the snowy April month. May temperatures are usually moderate and many plants will begin to bloom during that time too. May and June are busy months at the park, so there may be large crowds especially during the weekend.
In June the water is flowing and the weather is warmer, but visitors to the Dunes must be aware of the mosquitoes that will be out during this month. The bugs will likely be thicker near the vegetation. By July the water will likely dry up around the parking lot and can be accessed by the Medano Pass Road.
Visitors can also explore anywhere on the dunes whenever they like. The sand can heat up to 150 degrees during the summer, so caution is advised. Many visitors will hike to the top of the dunes near the parking lot to take in the view and enjoy the challenge of traveling to the top.
Hikers, and all visitors, are reminded to be cautious when visiting the sand dunes by being prepared for any weather conditions and dressing appropriately for the season. The sand can also be a cause for concern due to the extremely high temperatures it can reach in the summer and the blowing sand in windy conditions.
Fun Things To Do at the Sand Dunes
A trip to the San Luis Valley wouldn’t be complete without experiencing this mysterious natural wonder for yourself! The Great Sand Dunes is the perfect place to bring a family, have a picnic, or take a hike. Here are some fun ideas for your visit:
- Hiking & Backpacking
- Splash in Medano Creek during the Springtime
- Explore the Visitor’s Center
- Experience Interactive Exhibits
- Horseback Riding
- Junior Ranger Program
- Roll or Slide Down the Dunes
Geological Story of the Dunes
Through the breaking apart and movement (rifting) of large surface plates on Earth’s surface, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains were uplifted in the rotation of a large plate. Fossils from the bottom of an ancient sea are now preserved in high layers of rock in the Sangre de Cristos.
The San Juan Mountains were created through extended and dramatic volcanic activity. With these two mountain ranges in place, the San Luis Valley was born, covering an area roughly the size of the state of Connecticut. Sediments from both mountain ranges filled the deep chasm of the valley, along with water from mountain streams and rivers.
Sand that was left behind after these lakes receded blew with the predominant southwest winds toward a low curve in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The wind funnels toward three mountain passes here – Mosca, Medano, and Music Passes – and the sand accumulates in this natural pocket. The winds blow from the valley floor toward the mountains, but during storms the winds blow back toward the valley. These opposing wind directions cause the dunes to grow vertically.
Did You Know?
The Great Sand Dunes has it’s own quarter? The Great Sand Dunes National Park Quarter honors the Colorado Park and was released on August 25, 2014. The design was created and sculpted by Don Everhart and depicts a father and son playing in the sand next to a creek bed. The distinctive mountains and sand dunes appear in the background. Now that’s something to put in your pocket!
To access the main park area, including the Dunes Parking Lot, Visitor Center, and Pinyon Flats Campground, take Highway 150 from the south or County Road 6 from the west. Both are paved highways. View area map larger.
For More Information
Contact the National Park Service
Photos, map and information adapted from nps.gov