The tallest sand dunes in North America billow up against snow-capped, 14,000-foot peaks like a giant, wayward beach that accidentally crashed ashore in the Colorado mountains.
Nature seems to be having fun at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, and so, too, do visitors who revel in unique delights during every season of the year. The park is relatively cold and quiet now, so it’s a great place to find solitude during a pandemic.
Along with its giant dunes, the park is famous for sandhill cranes that return to Great Sand Dunes and the sprawling San Luis Valley in both the spring and fall. Majestic, giant and prehistoric-looking, the cranes seem to offer lessons about love and loyalty.
“Cranes mate for life, but each spring they renew their bonds through a courtship ritual that includes dancing, bowing, chortling, and throwing tufts of grass in the air,” says Patrick Myers, who has been a ranger at Great Sand Dunes for 27 years.
“They provide some good advice for people: keep the romance alive,” Myers said with a grin.
In addition to sharing insights about the remarkable biodiversity, history and recreational activities at Great Sand Dunes – including splashing in Medano Creek in late spring and early summer, sand-sledding and boarding in summer and fall and snow-sledding when powder covers the dunes in winter – Myers loves photographing the park’s beauty in every season.
Below are his tips for enjoying Great Sand Dunes throughout the year. And, to snap great photos, Myers advises visitors to spend time in the park during sunrise and sunset, when the light is most beautiful.
The Great Sand Dunes every season
Winter: Cranes return to the Grand San Dunes National Park
Serenity is plentiful during the winter, so visitors have a better chance of seeing wildlife like elk and pronghorn, members of the antelope family. Beginning in February, the sandhill cranes return to the valley. And, if you time your visit right, you might get to see the cranes and enjoy the unique experience of sledding or snowboarding down snow-covered dunes. (For sledding on snow at Great Sand Dunes, regular snow sleds work. If you want to sled or board when the sand is dry, you’ll need different, special sleds or snowboards.)
Click here to see a video that shows Great Sand Dunes in the winter. (Or view the video below.)
Great Sand Dunes is cold during the winter, so if you plan to visit soon, remember to bundle up. About once a week, snow falls on the dunes and people can enjoy sledding. Trails up in the mountains are inaccessible during the winter. The Medano Pass Road, a route only for 4-wheel-drive vehicles during the summer and fall is closed in winter beyond the Castle Creek Picnic Area, but the part of the road that is closed during the winter can be a good place to snowshoe or hike if the snow is tamped down.
The cranes spend the coldest months in Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, then they typically begin to return to the San Luis Valley and Great Sand Dunes in early February,
Spring: Enjoy the beach and waves in the fresh mountain air
Spring officially arrives in late March, but March is also the snowiest month at Great Sand Dunes, so keep the parkas, hats, gloves and warm boots handy. The sandhill cranes typically stay and feed in the valley and remote parts of Great Sand Dunes through late March, then return in the fall.
Aside from the cranes, Great Sand Dunes’ star of spring is Medano Creek. Fed by melting snow high in the mountains, the creek flows in spring and early summer and brings waves and rippling sand sculptures to the base of the dunes.
“That’s the most classic time of year to come to Great Sand Dunes. We have the beach and the waves. The mountains are still snow-capped. It’s such a fresh time of year,” Myers said.
When the creek is flowing at its highest levels, the water spreads out across the base of the dunes into a wide, welcoming stream with waves up to 20 inches deep. The water beckons people of all ages who enjoy traipsing through soft, wet sand in bare feet. Catch the park on a perfect sunny day in late May or early June, and you’ll see toddlers with sand toys plopped down in an inch or two of warm water, while older kids and adults enjoy easy tubing down Medano’s gentle waves.
Click here to see a video about Medano Creek. (Or view it below.)
The fun and beauty of this natural beach, not surprisingly, draw the biggest crowds of the year.
“Everybody wants to come during that three-week window,” Myers said. “On weekends, the lines at the entrance station can stretch up to three miles long.”
While playing in Medano Creek when it’s flowing is a blast, Myers encourages visitors to discover Great Sand Dunes during other seasons.
Summer: Time to get an early start
From mid-June until late July, when the water level in Medano Creek gets low and the temperatures rise, the mosquitoes come out in force. Fortunately, the mosquitoes are not attracted to the dry dunes, so people who want to climb up dunes or sled or sandboard down can still enjoy the dunes during the summer.
The big challenge, however, is afternoon heat.
“Summer air temperatures are pleasant at this high elevation, but during the afternoon hours, the sand surface can reach 150 degrees, and dangerous thunderstorms can develop,” Myers said.
He advises explorers to head out early. That advice holds true for hikes to alpine lakes as well. Lightning is the danger at high elevations in the Colorado Rockies. The rule of thumb in Colorado for anyone hiking to higher elevation is to get up and down from areas above timberline before noon.
Two popular lake hikes at Great Sand Dunes include the trails to Medano Lake and Sand Creek Lake. (Click here to learn more about hiking and backpacking at Great Sand Dunes.)
Aside from those trails, Great Sand Dunes is different from other national parks, where hikers need to stay on designated trails. There are not trails on the dunes and as long as hikers are careful about not harming plants, they are free to chart their own path to the summits of 13,000-foot-peaks.
“This is more of a wilderness park,” Myers said.
He also said the park is one of the most biologically diverse national parks in North America.
“A place like Rocky Mountain National Park has tundra and forest. Here, it’s southwestern desert meets wetlands meets the Rockies. That means we have incredible diversity of animal and plant species,” Myers said.
Fall: Enjoy beautiful colors
In the fall, serenity returns and so, too, do the sandhill cranes. They generally return to Colorado from their summer breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska and spend time in the San Luis Valley before returning to their winter habitat in New Mexico.
Visitors often can see them in wetlands and fields outside the park from late September through mid-November. (Click here to learn where to see the cranes.)
Along with great birding and hiking, fall offers beautiful colors as the aspens and the cottonwoods turn gold.
And, during every season of the year, visitors can enjoy a very unique aspect of Great Sand Dunes: its dark skies that make stargazing a popular activity.
“With a combination of dry air, little light pollution and high elevation, Great Sand Dunes Park and Preserve is an excellent and easily accessible dark sky viewing location,” Myers said.
Just last year, Great Sand Dunes earned its certification as an International Dark Sky Park.
Getting certified took years of effort. Advocates in the park worked with neighbors to minimize light pollution.
Visitors can join in by reducing their use of lights. And, kids who participate in the Junior Ranger Program, can become official “night explorers.” On nights with full moons, people can explore the dunes without headlamps or flashlights.
Myers said exploring Great Sand Dunes after dark can be a magical experience.
“Feel the soft night breezes. Listen to the call of the owls, the howling of the distant coyotes, the calls of frogs and toads, the rustle of creatures in the forest and the drum of kangaroo rats thumping warnings to each other,” he said. “You may notice that your senses grow shaper as you spend more time in dark and quiet locations.”