• Great Sand Dunes and Sangre de Cristo Mountains

    Great Sand Dunes

    National Park & Preserve Colorado

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Frequently Asked Questions

Quicklinks for detailed answers to common questions on:

Camping and Lodging ¦ Medano Creek Forecast and Conditions ¦ Outdoor Actitivies ¦ Weather Info and Forecast ¦ Webcam ¦ Hours ¦ Programs

Answers to some other common questions:

1. What is nationally significant about Great Sand Dunes?

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve:

  • contains the tallest dunes in North America and one of the most fragile and complex dune systems in the world
  • protects a globally significant, water- and wind-driven system, which includes creeks that demonstrate surge flow, a rare hydrologic phenomenon
  • provides tremendous scenic settings that, for many, provoke strong emotional responses. These settings (including massive dunes surrounded by alpine peaks, a desert valley, creeks flowing on the surface of the sand, pristine mountains, and rural range land) offer spacious relief from urban America, exceptional solitude and quiet, and a remarkably unspoiled day and night sky
  • hosts a great diversity of plants and animals, including insect species found nowhere else on earth. The system, which spans high desert to alpine life zones, supports rare biological communities that are mostly intact and functional
  • contains some of the oldest (9,000+ years before present) known archeological sites in America. The dunes have been identified as having special importance by people of various cultures, and the area is recognized for the culturally diverse nature of human use
  • provides special opportunities for recreation, exploration, and education in the highly resilient dune mass and adjoining creek environments.

2. What time does the park close?

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The Visitor Center is open 7 days a week except for federal holidays in winter. Hours at the Visitor Center vary seasonally, but are generally 9-4:30 daily in winter, and 9-6 daily during the three summer months. Call the Visitor Center at 719-378-6399 for specific hours when you plan to visit.

3. Can we ride motorbikes or ATVs on the dunes?

Mechanized or motorized vehicles are not permitted on the dunefield, and ATVs are not permitted in the park and preserve. The dunefield and most of the adjacent Sangre de Cristo Mountains are federally designated wilderness: the dunes were made a wilderness by Congress in 1976, and the Sangre de Cristos in 1993. At Great Sand Dunes, you can hike, sandboard, sled, splash in Medano Creek, or wander anywhere in the wilderness of dunes and mountains. It is a unique place to discover the intricacies of the natural world, as well as natural quiet and dark night skies where you can see countless stars with very little light pollution. There are six species of insects that are found at Great Sand Dunes and nowhere else on earth, including the beautiful Great Sand Dunes Tiger Beetle. It is also a safe place for children and families to play and explore without the danger of vehicles.

You may take a street-licensed, high-clearance 4WD vehicle on the Medano Pass Primitive Road, which goes around the eastern edge of the dunes then over a 10,000' mountain pass. The road is soft and sandy in the dunes area, then forested and rocky with stream crossings in the mountain portion.

There is a dunefield in northern Colorado where people can ride ATVs, called the North Sand Hills SRMA near the town of Walden in North Park.

4. What can we do in the park and preserve?

See our outdoor activities page for many suggestions with links to details, including: hiking, backpacking, sand sledding/sandboarding, horseback riding, mountain climbing, splashing in Medano Creek, free ranger programs, driving Medano Pass with a high clearance 4WD. For information on wheelchair-accessible activities, visit Accessibility at Great Sand Dunes .

5. Are pets allowed?

Pets may go out with you in the main day use areas of the national park, and in the national preserve, as long as they are kept on leashes at all times to protect wildlife and respect other visitors. Pets are no longer permitted in the national park backcountry; for details visit our webpage on pets at Great Sand Dunes. Cleaning up after pets is required.

Pet safety: Summer sand can blister paws; extreme dune heat (it’s much hotter closer to the surface of the sand) can cause heat exhaustion or stroke. Pets left in vehicles without adequate ventilation can succumb to suffocation. Rolling the windows down a little does not provide adequate ventilation. When the outside temperature is 85°F the temperature in the vehicle can climb to 120°F in 30 minutes!

6. I have specific questions about what is allowed in the park and preserve. What are the regulations?

See the management page for links to compendiums of regulations for the park and preserve. These regulations are designed to protect the park's natural and cultural resources for this and future generations, and to protect park visitors so that all may enjoy the park and preserve.

7. How big is Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve?

About 150,000 acres, or 604 square km.

8. How large is the main dunefield?

The large, main dunefield covers approximately 30 square miles, but there are many more square miles of smaller dunes in the sand sheet surrounding the main dunefield. At the widest point, the main dunefield runs six miles and at the greatest length, eight miles.

9. How tall is the tallest dune?

Great Sand Dunes has the tallest dunes in North America. Star Dune rises 750 feet from its base to its crest. High Dune rises 650 feet from its base, but because it starts on higher ground, its crest is higher above sea level that of Star Dune. The highest dunes in elevation above sea level in the park are those closest to the mountains on the eastern edge of the main dunefield.

10. How far is it to hike to the top of the first ridge of dunes?

In a straight line, it is about a mile, but it is best climbed in a zig-zag fashion, following the ridge lines. Generally, it takes the average person an hour or so to reach the top of the first ridge.

11. What is the elevation here?

The elevation within the park and preserve ranges from a low of 7,520 feet (near San Luis Lakes) to a high of 13,604 feet above sea level (Tijeras Peak) - a difference of 6,084 feet! The elevation at the Visitor Center is 8170'.

12. Where did the sand come from? How were the dunes formed?

Please visit our page on the formation of the Great Sand Dunes.

13. How old are the dunes?

We don’t yet know. To date there is no accurate process to date sand. Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) dating may provide us with some clues, but so far the results at Great Sand Dunes are inconclusive. The OSL process determines how much time has passed since quartz crystals were last exposed to sunlight. As we currently understand it, the dunes are probably thousands of years old, not millions, and may date to when Lake Alamosa disappeared. Visit our Nature and Science pages for more information.

14. How much do the dunes change over time?

While the immediate surface of the dunes changes constantly, the main dunefield as a whole is fairly stable. Comparing recent photographs with photographs taken in the late 1800’s reveals that the major dunes have maintained their overall shape and position. Vegetation in the surrounding area prevents significant migration of new sand into the main dunefield. When flowing, Medano Creek catches sand blowing from the main dune mass east towards the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and carries it back to the southern edge of the dunes to the point where the creek disappears. When dry, the sand can then blow back onto the dunes in a unique recycling pattern that has played an important role in building these dunes. When the creek is dry, sand can blow across the creek bed forming escape dunes which suffocate ponderosa pine stands as they march eastward towards the mountains. Visit our Nature and Science pages for more information.

15. When does Medano Creek flow?

The length and time that Medano Creek flows near the main visitor use area greatly depends on the amount of winter snowmelt. In heavy snow years, the creek may flow through July or even throughout the summer. In dry years, the creek may not even reach the main parking area. Typically, the creek starts to flow in late March or April, with peak flow in late May. When the creek is flowing well, the area may look more like a beach in Florida, complete with people in swimsuits, than a Rocky Mountain stream. For much more information, check current conditions and forecast flow for Medano Creek.

16. Are there hazards in the dunes?

Sand surface temperatures can reach over 140° F on summer afternoons, so be sure to take boots or tennis shoes (sandals are not adequate) when hiking on the dunes. When storms approach, come down off the dunes as lightning will often strike the dunefield. When lightning hits the sand, it fuses or melts particles of sand together, resulting in a “fulgurite” (latin for lightning rock). Fulgurites, like all natural objects in the park, are protected and should be left for others to view. Of course, lightning can potentially strike anywhere within the park so avoid hiking when storms threaten. There are no scorpions, poisonous snakes, or quicksand on the dunes or anywhere in this high elevation park.

17. What is the difference between a national park, national monument, and national preserve?

A national park is generally a large tract of land that contains a variety of resources or an entire natural system, and is established by an act of Congress. A national monument is generally smaller than a national park and is intended to preserve a single nationally significant resource, such as a dunefield or rock formation. National monuments require only a presidential proclamation without a vote of Congress. A national preserve is an area managed by the National Park Service where certain activities that are prohibited within a national park may be permitted. For example, hunting is allowed in the Great Sand Dunes National Preserve, as it was when that area was managed by the United States Forest Service.

Great Sand Dunes was made a national monument in 1932 by president Herbert Hoover, protecting only the main dunefield. It was expanded into a national park and preserve four times the size of the national monument by Congress in 2004, protecting the entire natural geologic and hydrologic system of the dunes, including the alpine watershed, creeks, grasslands, sand sheet, and wetlands.

18. Where can we ride mountain bikes?

Mountain bikes generally are not permitted off road in any national park. On unpaved roads or trais at Great Sand Dunes, standard mountain bikes are either unsuitable because of soft sand, or not permitted because of wilderness designation. However, "fat bikes" (with special wide tires for sand) are permitted along the Medano Pass Primitive Road. The Zapata Loops at the Zapata Falls Recreation Area, 9 miles south of the Visitor Center, provide mountain biking trails of varying difficulty. The area is managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

19. Can I rollerblade or skateboard in the park?

Rollerblading and skateboarding are only permitted in these two places and during these times:

1) In the employee/delivery parking area on the east side of the Visitor Center after the center is closed.

2) The east section of the Dunes Parking Lot (RV parking area) during winter months, when the lot is coned off.

Because of danger to vehicles and pedestrians, rollerblading and skateboarding are not permitted elsewhere in the park or preserve.

20. What is the annual visitation at Great Sand Dunes?

About 300,000 visitors annually.

21. Do you offer "tours" of the dunes?

See the Schedule of Events page for information on free ranger programs, commercial tours, and other educational and recreational events.

22. Do I need a permit for a wedding or for commercial filming?

Yes. See the permits page for more information.

23. I have other questions. How can I find out more?

Explore this website for answers and trip planning. Call the Visitor Center at (719) 378-6399 for answers to your specific questions, or email a ranger.

And, stop by the Visitor Center when you arrive in the park. You'll find:

  • answers to your questions
  • interactive exhibits
  • inspiring 20 minute film about the park and preserve
  • weather forecast
  • list of daily programs and events
  • free information sheets
  • restrooms
  • park store

Did You Know?

Myrtle Woods, PEO member

The Ladies' PEO organization led the original effort to make Great Sand Dunes a national monument in 1932. Pictured at left is Myrtle Woods, a member of PEO at that time. More...