Experience the Night

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3 minutes, 40 seconds

In this three-minute video, discover the beauty and importance of dark skies in this International Dark Sky Park!

Dark Sky International Logo with the name 'Dark Sky' on a purple background and a globe with stars
Dark Sky International 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 certified as an International Dark Sky Park by Dark Sky International, meeting strict standards for sky darkness, limiting outdoor lighting, and working with neighboring communities to reduce light pollution.

The Milky Way galaxy appears as a soft cloud with subtle colors in the starry sky over ripples in the sand.
Milky Way over Dune Ripples

NPS/Patrick Myers

Viewing a Starry Sky and The Milky Way

Many visitors hope to see a sky filled with stars, including the Milky Way Galaxy, but it requires the right timing, and knowing what you're looking for.

Planning Around the Weather

Watch the weather forecast to time your visit for nights with the clearest skies.

Planning Around the Sun and Moon

It's essential to avoid sunlight and moonlight to be able to see the the most stars, and especially to view the Milky Way.

To avoid the sun lightening the sky, plan to view the night sky at least 1 1/2 hours after sunset, or 1 1/2 hours before sunrise.

During times when the moon is up, especially a brighter, fuller moon, the moonlight will also wash out the sky, preventing most stars and the Milky Way from being visible. Plan to visit on moonless nights, or an hour before the moonrise time or an hour after the moonset time.

You can create a sun and moon calendar for Great Sand Dunes on sunrisesunset.com . Select the month you plan to visit, then select Great Sand Dunes from the menu of national parks. Check the 'Moon phases' and 'Moonrise and moonset' boxes. A calendar will be created for you with the information you need to plan around the sun and moon.

If there is a bright moon when you visit, you can still explore the dunes in otherworldly light, almost like being on the moon itself. The moon is bright in the park, and most feel comfortable exploring without a flashlight.

Plan for the Right Season

The Milky Way is up in early morning hours during spring, or in evening hours from mid summer to early fall. During the rest of the year, its brightest part is below the horizon. While there are beautiful night skies in winter, there are more familiar constellations up at the same times as the Milky Way.

Plan for Expectations vs Reality

Some visitors expect the Milky Way to be a dramatic, colorful display like fireworks, as seen in many highly altered photos. To the naked eye, the Milky Way only appears as a dull whitish cloud. Cameras must use longer exposure times, picking up colors that are actually present in our galaxy. Some photographers push the color and contrast of their photos to make them more exciting, but the Milky Way never looks like that.

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

Experiencing More Than the Sky

  • 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.

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

NPS/Patrick Myers

Safety and Protecting Dark Skies

  • To protect our dark skies, there are no outdoor lights illuminating the parking areas or dunes. Carry a flashlight at all times for safety if needed, 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.

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.

Earn this patch by completing the Night Explorer activity booklet!


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: June 7, 2024

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Contact Info

Mailing Address:

Visitor Center
11999 State Highway 150

Mosca, CO 81146


In case of emergency (police, fire, medical): call 911. Non-emergency (non-life-threatening): call (719) 589-5807

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