• Great Sand Dunes and Sangre de Cristo Mountains

    Great Sand Dunes

    National Park & Preserve Colorado

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  • Main Park Phone Numbers Not in Service

    The two main phone numbers to the park, 378-6399 and 378-6300, are not in service at this time. Voicemail is not functioning. Please call the Visitor Center at 719-378-6395 between 8:30-6:00 MST to reach a staff member.

Plants

There are hundreds of plant species in the park and preserve, adapted for environments as diverse as alpine tundra and warm water wetlands. View the 2005 List of Plants for Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve (.pdf file). Note: recent field surveys have discovered additional plant species; this list will be updated with these species and included as part of a vegetation mapping project of the entire park.

Common Plants of Great Sand Dunes (.pdf file, 252 kb for web viewing), has color photos and descriptions to help visitors identify some of the frequently seen plants in the main day use area of the park, including the dunes, grasslands, and montane woodlands.

Below are selected plants found in ecosystems of the park and preserve, beginning with alpine tundra.

 
Alpine phlox

These alpine phlox were on Marble Mountain at approximately 13,000' (3963m). Access Marble Mountain via Music Pass in Great Sand Dunes National Preserve.

NPS/Patrick Myers

Alpine phlox look somewhat like "flocks" of sheep on a grassy hillside. They grow in a mossy mat, and are common on alpine tundra.
 
Dwarf clover

NPS/Patrick Myers

Dwarf clover are tiny magenta clover that grow out of a soft mat, hugging the ground closely to stay close to the earth's warmth on chilly alpine tundra.
 
Alpine Forget-Me-Nots

NPS/Patrick Myers

Alpine forget-me-nots are dwarfed, brilliant blue versions of their larger low-elevation cousins. They grow in small bunches on alpine tundra.
 
Fairy Primrose and Alpine Avens

When hiking on tundra, please step carefully to avoid crushing small alpine plants. Some plants take decades to reach maturity in the slow growing conditions.

NPS/Patrick Myers

Fairy primrose, like most alpine tundra plants, are small, fragile, and close to the ground to survive arctic-like conditions. These magenta-lavender flowers have daisy-like petals.

Alpine avens are one of the most common tundra plants, resembling small yellow buttercups.

 
Bristlecone Pine and Tijeras Peak

Bristlecone pines receive heavy snow and rain most years.

NPS/Patrick Myers

Bristlecone pines (left) grow best along high, wet ridges in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Bristlecones and limber pines are the two primary conifers in krummholz at treeline in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
 
Subalpine Trees and Blue Penstemon

Tall subalpine conifers and wildflowers contrast the arid habitats of the valley floor below.

NPS/Patrick Myers

Subalpine forests receive heavy precipitation each year in rain and snow, allowing for tall subalpine firs and pines. Blue penstemon are common along trails in Great Sand Dunes National Preserve.
 
Penstemon, Lousewort, and Paintbrush

NPS/Patrick Myers

Subalpine flowers grow in high, wet meadows surrounded by forest. At left, red Indian paintbrush, white lousewort, and blue-purple penstemon seem to be patriotic with colors of the United States flag. Small aspen daisies at lower left, and yellow western paintbrush at upper left are also part of this natural garden photographed high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

 
Elephantella

NPS/Great Sand Dunes NPP

Elephantella or "Little Pink Elephants" are an aptly named magenta stalk of little elephant-head-shaped flowers, blooming in mid-summer in subalpine meadows.
 
Snow Buttercups

These flowers are already fully formed as the snowfield shrinks in late June.

NPS/Patrick Myers

Snow buttercups begin growing under the snow, as sunlight and water begin filtering through in spring. When the snowfield disappears, the flowers are ready to open up for a short subalpine summer season.
 
Aspens and Douglas Fir

The montane zone is along the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. This autumn view is from the Montville Trail.

NPS/Patrick Myers

Douglas fir and aspen trees can live in either subalpine or montane forests, as long as there is plenty of moisture. In drier montane woodlands, they are only found near drainages where there is sufficient groundwater.
 
Rocky Mountain juniper

Some junipers along the foothills have been dated at over 700 years old.

NPS/Patrick Myers

Rocky Mountain juniper trees mix with pinyon trees along the montane foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

 
Pinyon tree

NPS/Phyllis Pineda Bovin

Pinyon trees are the predominant tree of drier montane woodlands along the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. They are mixed with Rocky Mountain junipers (above). Pinyon nuts are enjoyed by animals and people.
 
Three-leaf sumac

Three-leaf sumac is also known as "lemonade bush" because of its lemony red berries.

NPS/Patrick Myers

Three-leaf sumac is a montane shrub that can turn brilliant shades of crimson or gold in fall. In summer, it produces sticky red berries that taste like a sour lemon drop; these have been used by pioneers and Indian tribes to make lemonade.
 
Smith's Draba

NPS/Phyllis Pineda Bovin

Smith's draba is a small, magenta-purple flower endemic to the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan Mountains surrounding the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado. This rare plant is not often seen. Look for it in rocky areas of the montane foothills.
 
Scurfpea

NPS/Carol Sperling

Scurfpea is the most common leafy plant that grows on the dunefield. With tiny purple blossoms in spring, scurfpea attracts pollinating insects who seek its flowers, and other insects who simply seek its shade.
 
Indian ricegrass

NPS/Great Sand Dunes NPP

Indian ricegrass (left) and blowout grass are the most common grasses that grow on the dunefield itself. Containing small black rice seeds, ricegrass is an important food source for Ord's kangaroo rats.
 
Blowout grass

As the wind moves blowout grass, it may make unusual circles in the sand.

NPS/Great Sand Dunes NPP

Blowout grass looks similar to Indian ricegrass (above), but lacks the characteristic black rice seeds. Along with ricegrass, it is a common grass found in the dunefield.
 
Prairie sunflower on dunes

In wet summers, large sunflowers may bloom in August, stark and isolated in the barren sand.

NPS/Patrick Myers

Prairie sunflowers are common in late summer in the park's grasslands, but also grow on the dunes themselves.
 
Sunflowers in grasslands

These sunflowers bloomed in August 2006 after heavy rains.

NPS/Patrick Myers

Prairie sunflowers can number in the millions during wet summers in grasslands surrounding the dunes on three sides.
 
Rocky Mountain beeplants

NPS/Patrick Myers

Rocky Mountain beeplants generate a lot of questions from visitors in mid-summer. They resemble some kind of exotic tropical flower, and like tropical flowers need abundant moisture. They grow profusely in wet summers or in wet areas of grasslands or montane woodlands.
 
Rubber rabbitbrush

NPS/Patrick Myers

Rubber rabbitbrush is the most common shrub of the park's grasslands. In September, it flowers out to match the golden aspens on the mountains.
 
Speargrass

NPS/Patrick Myers

Speargrass, also known as needle-and-thread grass, is popular with children who throw the little "spears" at others' clothing. The spears stick not only to clothes, but also occasionally to animals and passersby, transporting the plant's seeds to other locations in the grasslands.
 
Small-flowered sand verbena

NPS/Patrick Myers

Small-flowered sand verbena has a large, pinkish seedpod that is often mistaken for a flower. The flowers on this plant are actually tiny, white and trumpet-shaped. Look for these in summer months in the park's grasslands.
 
Yucca

NPS/Patrick Myers

Narrowleaf yuccas bloom in early summer with creamy white blossom that attract deer and elk. Common in grasslands, yuccas are also found on drier south-facing slopes in montane woodlands.
 
Plains prickly pear cactus

NPS/Patrick Myers

Prickly pear cactus are the most common of the cactus varieties in the park. They occur in drier parts of grasslands, and on dry south-facing slopes in montane woodlands.
 
Ring muhly

NPS/Patrick Myers

Visitors are sometimes puzzled by ring muhly, a grass that grows in a circle in drier parts of the park's grasslands. This grass grows outward, releasing a chemical inside the circle that prevents other grass from growing there. In this way, a "bucket" is formed that captures rainfall in this desert climate.
 
Red osier dogwood and aspens

NPS/Patrick Myers

Red osier dogwoods turn a bright crimson color in fall along riparian areas of the montane woodlands. At left the small dogwoods are mixed in with aspen trees near the Montville Nature Trail.
 
Gold cottonwoods

Cottonwoods along Mosca Creek turn gold in early October each year.

NPS/Patrick Myers

Narrow-leaf cottonwoods are large, shady trees along riparian corridors through montane and grassland areas. Some of the largest cottonwood trees in the park have been dated at over 300 years old.
 
saltgrass

University of San Diego

Inland saltgrass can survive wide variances between water saturation in early summer and dry, salty conditions in late summer. This is the primary type of grass around sabkha wetlands in the park.

 
Slender spiderflower

NPS/Patrick Myers

Slender spiderflower is a somewhat rare plant, growing only in alkali wetlands in the western United States. It is related to Rocky Mountain beeplant (above), but prefers even wetter habitats.
 
Wild iris

NPS/Patrick Myers

Wild iris color wet meadows in and around wetlands in May and June each year.
 
White water buttercup

NPS/Great Sand Dunes NPP

White water buttercup blooms mid-summer in wetlands west of the main dunefield. Chorus frogs and toads use the floating leaves as a resting or hiding place while in the water.

Did You Know?

Surge flow, Medano Creek

Medano Creek, flowing at the base of Great Sand Dunes, is one of the few and best places in the world to experience "surge flow", where creek water comes in rhythmic waves. More...