Experience the Night

The Milky Way galaxy and stars shine in the night sky over dune ripples
Milky Way over Dune Ripples
Photo taken September 4, 2021

NPS/Patrick Myers

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.
 
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Duration:
2 minutes, 19 seconds

Half the park is after dark! In this 2-minute video, discover the diverse sights and sounds of the night at Great Sand Dunes.

Also available to watch on YouTube:

 
International Dark Sky Association Logo

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.

 
Woman and Baby on the Dunes at Night
Woman and Baby on the Dunes at Night

NPS/Patrick Myers

Safety First

  • 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.
  • Check park forecasts on our weather page, and watch and listen for approaching storms. Lightning tracking apps can also help to alert you of lightning in the area.
 
A small owl in dim evening light
Western screech owls are one of 8 owl species at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Listen for owls along the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Montville Nature Trail, Wellington Ditch Trail, and Dunes Overlook Trail are options for hiking in the foothills.

NPS/Patrick Myers

Planning to Experience the Night

  • To see the most stars, plan your visit for moonless nights, or nights with a late moonrise. Or, plan your visit on the full moon when it's bright enough for a surreal walk on the dunes. Make a free moon calendar for Great Sand Dunes for the month you plan to visit. This calendar can also show sunrise and sunset times.
  • 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.
 
Night Ranger with Telescope

NPS/Patrick Myers

Night Programs

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.

 
NPS-JR-Night-Explorer-Patch
Earn this patch by completing the Night Explorer activity booklet!

NPS

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!

Last updated: January 21, 2022

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

Visitor Center
11999 State Highway 150

Mosca , CO 81146

Phone:

719 378-6395
Great Sand Dunes Visitor Center main number

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