12 Things You Didn't Know About Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve


At the foot of the Sangre De Cristo Mountains in Colorado, one small step into Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve may inspire memory of one giant leap for mankind. The park and preserve’s out-of-this-world geography incorporates 149,137 acres of tundra, forest, wetlands and soaring sand dunes in a spectacular array of the country’s most unique geographic formations. 

The park was originally established as Great Sand Dunes National Monument on March 17, 1932 by President Herbert Hoover. Congress authorized a boundary change and redesignation as a national park in 2004. Today, visitors can surf an ocean of sandy slopes, observe the glow of planets and hear sand sing. Dive into some facts about Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve to inspire your next voyage.

The dunes are out of this world 

two large dunes overlapping at dawn. Mars is glowing in the sky with other stars.

Mars is visible over the dunes at sunrise. Photo by Patrick Myers, National Park Service. 

The famous sand dunes resemble an alien landscape so much that NASA uses the geological conditions to test rovers. The two Viking spacecraft that first landed on Mars proved their astronomical fortitude in the extreme environment of dunes at the national park. You can watch robots navigate each April at the annual Colorado Space Grant Robotics Challenge.

Explore the tallest sand dunes in the continent

A large dune fills the entire image. Two individuals walk across the ridge of the dune in a desert.
Sand dunes in the park tower at over 700 feet. Photo courtesy of Alex Xu (www.sharetheexperience.org). 

Hiking the dunes is one of the most popular park activities. Great Sand Dunes protects the tallest sand dunes in North America, with the legendary Star Dune towering at 755 feet. Visitors can climb and explore any part of the 30 square mile dunefield, but in summer it’s recommended to do so in the early mornings or evenings to avoid high surface temperatures.

Sand that moves

Elks walk in a valley with shrubs in front of a large, rippled dune. Behind the dunes are a mountain range.
Elk Dune's namesake stroll in the grass in front of the dune. Photo by Patrick Myers, National Park Service. 

At Great Sand Dunes, you can witness geology coming alive. Sand is dormant, but the forces of wind and water that move geological structures are very much active. The traditional Ute word for the Great Sand Dunes is Saa waap maa nache,"sand that moves." Though the locations of the larger dune forms have remained fairly constant for centuries, some smaller dunes may grow and migrate across grasslands. How do dunes grow? Each day, sand erodes from surrounding mountains and is carried by wind and water to the dunes. After thousands of years, these tiny fragments of rock begin to add up, gradually forming the largest dunes in North America.

Half the fun is after dark

A large constellation of twinkling stars is in a dark blue sky.  A rippled dune sits in the bottom of the image
The Milky Way glows over the dunes. Photo by Patrick Myers, National Park Service

Ever wondered what a desert is like after dark? Experience active nightlife in Great Sand Dunes when the sun sets. In 2019, Great Sand Dunes became a certified International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association. This means that the park’s rare combination of dry air, little light pollution and high elevation makes it perfect for viewing galaxies. The Milky Way is most visible over moonless nights from mid-summer through early fall evenings. Visitors also hike the dunes at night, once the temperatures have cooled off from the hot summer’s day. Great Sand Dunes offers summer night programs for adventurers of all ages, be sure to check the program schedule during summer months. 

You might find fossils

A park ranger holds a columbian mammoth tooth in her hands. The mammoth is the size of a human head.
A ranger holds a columbian mammoth tooth found in the park. Photo by Patrick Myers, National Park Service.

Prehistoric treasures have been found in the park. The columbian mammoth, even larger than its well known cousin the woolly mammoth, had teeth the size of a human head and once roamed San Luis Valley. Thousands of years ago the desert valley was covered with large lakes and rich plant life-- excellent habitat for a mammoth that needed to eat over 700 pounds (317kg) of vegetation each day. As the climate naturally changed, the vast lake system was reduced to the small wetlands present today. Mammoths disappeared and the people that hunted them moved to wetter regions.

11,000 years of exploration

Two members of the Jicarilla Apache tribe play instruments on a stage at the park.
Last July, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve was honored to have members of the Jicarilla Apache tribe set up a tipi beside the visitor's center, tell stories, demonstrate crafts, and dance at the park ampitheatre. Photo by Patrick Myers, National Park Service.

Humans have inhabited the San Luis Valley and Great Sand Dunes area for 11,000 years, as early as the Stone Age. The first people to enter the area were nomadic hunters and gatherers whose connection to the area centered around the herds of mammoths and prehistoric bison that grazed nearby.  

In the rich tapestry of indigenous history, nineteen Native American tribes have maintained active cultural affiliation to the park and surrounding lands. This is notably despite the tribes’ removal by the U.S. Government in the late 1800s. Today, tribes such as the Jicarilla Apache have an enduring relationship with the Great Sand Dunes National Park and the National Park Service, and regularly hold cultural and ceremonial events in their traditional homeland. 

Rooted in Native American history

A girl stands behind a ponderosa pine tree, with only her smiling face visible. The pine tree has been stripped of its bark in the center section.
A girl connects with a special part of Great Sand Dunes’ cultural heritage: a ponderosa pine peeled for food and medicine by Native American tribes. Photo by Patrick Myers, National Park Service. 

Over 200 of the park’s ponderosa pines are the only grove of trees on the National Register of Historic Places, called Indian Grove. The trees were historically peeled in the early 19th century for food and medicine by Native American tribes. Lean in for a sniff of these majestic pines, and you can smell the enticing scent of vanilla.

Extreme temperatures

Frosty mist settles over a snow-capped mountain and snow-enveloped dunes.
Sand dunes enveloped by snow on a winter's night. Photo by Patrick Myers, National Park Service.

Make sure to wear sunscreen and protective clothing year round. Sand surface temperatures peak at 150°F (65 degrees C) on a sunny summer afternoon and drop to -20°F (-29 degrees C) on a winter’s night. It is recommended to wear sturdy and closed footwear year round to protect yourself from the elements. In January, snow falls on the dunes about once per week. During this quiet season, elk and pronghorn are often spotted in the early mornings.

Singing Sand

A steep avalanche occurs on the face of a dune. Ripples in the dune indicate the sand is sliding down quickly.
An avalanche of singing sand. Photo by Patrick Myers, National Park Service.

Ever heard the earth sing? At Great Sand Dunes, come and listen to a choir of sand. This natural phenomenon sounds like humming and happens as air is pushed through millions of tumbling sand grains during an avalanche. Avalanches occur naturally during storms, but visitors may be able to hear a fragment of the sound by pushing sand down a dune face. Bing Crosby was even inspired by the crooning dunes. His 1940 hit “The Singing Sands of Alamosa” is a love song based on the sounds of the park.

Surfing in the desert

A girl sand boards down the side of a dune. A mountain and river are in the summer background.
Whiz by mountains while sand surfing the dunes. Photo by Patrick Myers, National Park Service.

At Great Sand Dunes, hang ten and surf the ocean of sandy slopes. Visitors can sand board and sand sled with the right gear and conditions. Sand boards and sand sleds, available for rent or purchase from retailers in the San Luis Valley, are specifically made for dry sand. It is best to hike up the sandhills and slide down on a board early mornings or evenings during summer to avoid extreme heat.

Raft Riding

Visitors ride rafts, sit in chairs, and walk dogs in the shallow creek.
There are a myriad of activities to do while cooling off in the Medano Creek. Photo by Patrick Myers, National Park Service. 

Beat the heat and float down Great Sand Dunes’ Medano Creek during peak runoff. Medano Creek is a popular seasonal stream, meaning that the creek has a dynamic flow perfect for rafting in the late spring and early summers, and dries up in the arid winters. Water that feeds the creek begins as snowfields high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, melts into Medano Lake, and cascades through meadows and forests to join the stream. Visitors enjoy surfing, skimboarding, rafting and sand castle building in ‘Colorado’s Natural Beach'.

One ecosystem, many different natural features

Blues, purples, and orange colors make the image into a beautiful landscape of the park. A refreshing creek sits in front of dunes and snowcapped mountains. Birds fly overhead.
Soaring mountains, sand dunes and creeks are all included in the tapestry of terrain at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Photo by U.S Department of the Interior. 

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve hosts many different types of terrain within its parameter. Alpine tundra is the highest feature in the Great Sand Dunes system. Here, the conditions are too harsh for trees to survive, but beautiful wildflowers and bighorn sheep are present. Another level of the ecosystem are grasslands and shrublands. These vast stretches of grass and wildflowers surround the dunefield on three sides. Wetlands, like the one shown in the photo, are a dynamic home for many creatures including freshwater shrimp.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve never stays the same, providing a distinctly unique experience for each visitor. The massive dunes have been building and drifting for eons, forever changing their shape. Medano Creek arrives with peak season and settles into dust by winter. The mammoths that once roamed the terrain thousands of years ago are now replaced by bountiful herds of elk. Whenever you decide to experience this park, know that it always invites you back with new wonders in store. Plan your trip today.