Sandhill cranes are an iconic species of the San Luis Valley - majestic, large, and wild. One of 250 bird species found in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, they are a delightful part of the area’s natural diversity.
Over 20,000 cranes spend part of their spring and fall each year in this valley. After wintering in the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, they typically begin to arrive in the San Luis Valley in early February, while winter temperatures still drop below zero degrees F at night. While here, they build up energy by feasting on barley grains in agricultural fields and aquatic invertebrates in wetlands. Cranes mate for life, but each spring they renew their bond through a courtship ritual that includes dancing, bowing, chortling, and throwing tufts of grass in the air. They leave again by late March for the northern U.S. and Canada, where they raise their young. In fall, they begin to arrive back in the San Luis Valley in late September, and leave by late November.
In general, cranes are in agricultural fields or grasslands during daylight hours, and in wetlands from sunset to sunrise. In some locations they return to wetlands during mid-day for water and rest.
Sandill Crane Locations
Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge is the hotspot for crane viewing and activity in the valley, because the refuge features both barley fields and wetlands. Take Highway 15 south from Monte Vista 6 miles; drive on roads in and around the refuge to look for cranes. There are pullouts on Highway 15 and Road 8S.
To drive to Monte Vista NWR from Great Sand Dunes, take Lane 6N west, go one mile south through Mosca, then take Lane 5N to Highway 285 south to the refuge. Cranes are often seen in fields along this route. Please respect private property; only view from the roadside.
San Luis Lakes State Wildlife Area is located 15 miles west of the Great Sand Dunes Visitor Center on County Lane 6. The large recreational lake, open year round, is a potential location to view cranes flying to nearby wetlands at dawn and dusk. Some cranes may land on the north shore of the large lake, but most prefer the wildlife area's wetlands to the north. The wetland area is closed February 15 - July 15 for nesting season, so plan to view cranes there only during the fall migration. During the open season, park at the north end of the large lake and walk into the wetland area. In drought years, these wetlands may be dry in the fall. Cranes then seek out wetlands and fields near larger water sources such as the Rio Grande. The Rio Grande State Wildlife Area protects some of these wetlands near the river:
Great Sand Dunes National Park
About 500 cranes feed and roost in wetlands within the boundaries of the national park, but this area is currently not accessible to the general public. It is currently owned by The Nature Conservancy, and managed by Ranchlands.
Last updated: February 27, 2020