The Milky Way galaxy is primarily visible in early morning hours during spring, or in evening hours in summer and early fall. During the rest of the year, its brightest part is below the horizon. To the naked eye, the Milky Way appears as a dull whitish cloud, but cameras must use longer exposure times, picking up subtle colors.
Half the park is after dark! With a combination of dry air, little light pollution, and high elevation, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is an excellent and easily accessible dark sky viewing location! In 2019, Great Sand Dunes became certified as an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association, meeting strict standards for sky darkness, limiting outdoor lighting, and working with neighboring communities to reduce light pollution.
To protect our dark skies, there are no outdoor lights illuminating the parking areas or dunes. Carry a flashlight at all times, but keep flashlight use to a minimum to protect your own night vision as well as that of other visitors and wildlife. Don’t use your phone flashlight; preserve its battery in case of emergency. If possible, use a red light, which does not affect night vision.
Be sure to note the location of the Dunes Parking Area in relation to the line of cottonwood trees so you can find your vehicle when you return. As you return from the dunes, the parking area is near the left end of the trees.
Black bears and mountain lions are active at night, primarily in forested areas. Always stay aware of your surroundings and hike with others if possible. If you encounter a bear or lion, stop, stay calm, speak firmly but quietly, and slowly leave. If attacked, fight back with rocks, sticks, flashlight, or bare hands. Report any wildlife sightings to park staff when possible by calling the visitor center, or talking with a ranger at the visitor center during operating hours.
The Milky Way is highest and clearest in the evening sky during late summer and fall. In spring, it's only visible in early morning hours before dawn. During the rest of the year, the Milky Way's most visible section is below the horizon.
Watch the weather forecast to time your visit for nights with little chance of rain. If it is rainy, watch for frogs, toads and salamanders along Medano Creek or in the dunes! Rainy weather is safe for exploration unless it is accompanied by lightning.
Minimize your use of lights. Shining a bright flashlight will diminish your night vision for up to 30 minutes, limiting your view of the night sky and wildlife, and harming other visitors' experience. Bring a regular flashlight for safety, but use only a red light if possible.
Keep an eye out for the night-life of the dunes, including camel crickets, kangaroo rats, toads, salamanders, coyotes, bobcats, and owls. Never touch wildlife, and remember that their nocturnal eyes are highly sensitive to light. Use only a red light if needed.
Don't just depend on your eyes to experience the night. Feel the soft night breezes. Listen for the call of owls, the howling of 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 others. Smell the fresh scents of piñon pine, juniper, and seasonal flowers. You may notice that your senses grow sharper as you spend more time in dark and quiet locations.
Summer night programs are a good way to experience and understand the night sky and nocturnal ecology. Check the program schedule during summer months to see what evening programs are scheduled during your visit.
Junior Ranger Night Explorer
Kids ages 5-12 can be become a Junior Ranger Night Explorer and earn a Night Explorer patch by completing an activity booklet. Activities are divided into several age levels. Get your free booklet at the visitor center!