We want your visit to be safe and worry-free. Here are the basics you need to know as you plan your visit:
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.
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 picknickers leave food out, inviting a bear into their site. Never leave scented items or coolers unattended. This may result in your cooler being confiscated and a ticket resulting in a monetary fine. It could also endanger you and other campers by having a hungry bear in your site when you return. Use the bear lockers provided in Piñon Flats Campground, and/or store scented items in a vehicle with the windows rolled up.
While 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.
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.
Tiny biting gnats ("no-see-ums") are out in late spring and early summer. Their bites can cause itchy, red welts, but they are not known to carry disease.
For a few weeks in mid-summer, tiny piñon flies cluster around campers and hikers, attracted to the carbon dioxide exhaled by humans. While annoying, they do not bite.
Ticks are out in April through July in the forests surrounding the dunes. There are no ticks in the dunes. When hiking in forested or grassy areas during tick season, wear tick repellant on your clothing, and long pants with cuffs tucked into your socks to help prevent tick bites. If a tick attaches to you, use the CDC's Tick Removal Guidelines, and check for signs of tick-related illness.
Black widow spiders do exist throughout North America's woodlands and grasslands, but they are secretive and uncommon in the park. Do not reach under logs, rocks, or hidden crevices.
The barren dunes are subject to lightning striikes, 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.
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 bare feet - wear shoes when hiking. 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.
The 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.
Wind and Sand
It's most often calm in this national park, and it's actually less windy here than Chicago. However, when the wind does blow, wind-blown sand 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.
The 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.
To 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.
Last updated: August 7, 2019