We want your visit to be safe and worry-free. Here are the basics you need to know as you plan your visit:
Surface temperatures on the dunes may reach 150 degrees F on summer afternoons. To avoid heat exhaustion and burned feet, plan to hike the dunes in early morning or evening in summer months. Hot sand can blister or even cause second-degree burns on bare feet, the tops of feet (when wearing sandals), and any exposed skin that comes in contact with the hot sand. Wear closed-toe shoes when hiking on the sand. Take sunscreen, as skin burns easily at this high elevation (8,200 feet/2,499m at the visitor center). Remember your pet's feet are sensitive to burns, too. Avoid hiking on the dunes mid-day in summer when the sun is shining.
Do not allow children to dig deep holes at the base of dunes. Rarely, dune slipfaces may collapse the hole, partially trapping a child.
Wind and Sand
Check weather forecasts in advance. Sand begins to bounce around when the wind speed reaches 13 mph. Stronger winds create wind-blown sand that can be painful and dangerous. Spring is the windy season, especially spring afternoons. However, winds may arise during storm fronts at any time of the year.
PetsTo avoid heat exhaustion and burned feet, plan to take your pet on the dunes only in early morning or evening in summer months. Surface temperatures often soar over 150 degrees F on summer afternoons. On summer afternoons, take your pet on shady mountain trails, including Mosca Pass and Zapata Falls. Pets must be on a leash and attended at all times to prevent encounters with wildlife. Never leave a pet in a car on a summer day; temperatures can reach 100+ degrees within minutes.
High ElevationThe visitor center and campground areas are about 8200 feet (2,499m) above sea level. The highest elevation in the park and preserve is 13,604 feet (4,146m). Some people experience headaches, dehydration, fatigue, sleeplessness, rapid heartbeat, and shortness of breath at higher altitudes. Drink plenty of liquids, avoid alcohol and caffeine, and move slowly until your body acclimates over a day or two.
LightningThe barren dunes are subject to lightning strikes, especially on summer afternoons. When you see thunderheads forming or hear thunder, leave the dunes and seek shelter in a building or in your vehicle.
Water QualityThe water in the park is clean mountain snowmelt, but surface water may contain bacteria. Backcountry hikers should treat any surface water by filtering or boiling.
Mountain LionsWhile mountain lions are very secretive and only rarely observed, their presence here is obvious from their tracks that are commonly seen in the foothills and edges of the dunes along Medano Creek. They are primarily nocturnal in the warmer months.
There have been no reported mountain lion attacks at Great Sand Dunes, but it's wise to stay alert when walking in their habitat. Always hike together as a group; children should not run ahead. A hiking stick is a useful tool for lion defense.
If you see a lion close to you:
1) Make noise
2) Stay calm and face the lion
3) Pick up/protect children
4) Stop and back away slowly. Running or quick movements can cause a lion to chase or attack.
5) Appear larger in any way; raise your arms or spread out a jacket.
6) Talk firmly and quietly.
7) Fight back if attacked. Throw stones, branches, or whatever you can grab.
Black bears live in the foothills and mountains just above the dunes, but rarely visit the dunes. Despite their name, black bears can be black, brown, cinnamon, or even blonde in coloration. They are generally secretive and avoid humans. The most common safety problem is when campers or picnickers leave food out, inviting a bear into their site.
The park has a relatively short 6-week mosquito season in an average year. As Medano Creek gets low and warm in the second week of June, mosquitoes emerge in large numbers. Move away from vegetation, upstream, and on the far side of the creek to avoid the worst of the mosquitoes: they don't like open sand but prefer to be near shady bushes and trees.
Venomous snakes do not exist in this high-elevation park. Only harmless, non-venomous snakes and lizards live in the park and preserve. Rattlesnakes are occasionally seen in lower elevations of the San Luis Valley, primarily in rocky areas.
Deer, Elk, Pronghorn, and Small Mammals
Deer, pronghorn, and elk are often seen in the park and on park roads. Be alert and drive slowly, especially at night, to avoid hitting one of these animals.
Last updated: April 1, 2020