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What Is Great Sand Dunes National Park?

Great Sand Dunes National Park is a natural marvel in Colorado, boasting the tallest dunes in North America. This unique landscape offers breathtaking views, diverse ecosystems, and thrilling recreational activities like sand sledding. It's a testament to nature's sculpting powers, where wind and sand create an ever-changing canvas. Ready to explore how these majestic dunes came to be? Join us on this sandy adventure.
Rebecca Cartwright
Rebecca Cartwright

Great Sand Dunes National Park is a U.S. national park that covers 150,000 acres (about 600 sq km) in southwestern Colorado. The establishment of the park was authorized by Congress in 2004. A much smaller national monument, established in 1932, had previously existed in the same area. Great Sand Dunes National Park has the highest and tallest sand dunes as well as the largest dune field in North America. It is also noted for the tremendous range of ecological zones it contains and the multitude of wildlife species found there.

The heart of the park is the 30 square miles (about 70 sq km) of sand dunes in the main dune field. Star dune, the tallest of these, measures 750 feet (about 230 m) from the base to the very top. The dunes are made of sand left from prehistoric lakes that once existed in the San Luis Valley where the dune field is located. Winds in that area are funneled by the surrounding mountains in ways that build up and maintain the dunes.

Coyotes might be seen in Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Coyotes might be seen in Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Although the top few inches of the sand are normally dry, below that level there is persistent moisture. This allows animals and plants to thrive in a place where few would be expected to live. Temperatures at the surface of the sand can reach 140 to 150 degrees F (about 60 to 65.5 degrees C), while yearly lows can be as cold as -20 degrees F (about -29 degrees C.)

Cougars are some of the predators in Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Cougars are some of the predators in Great Sand Dunes National Park.

The dune field is surrounded by an area of sandy soil supporting both grasslands and a mixed juniper pinion pine scrub forest. To the west of the field the ground rises quickly into the Sangre de Cristo range of the Rocky Mountains. Six peaks over 13,000 feet (about 3,960 m) high stand within Great Sand Dunes National Park. The ecosystems present in the park run from the high desert of the dune field to the treeless alpine tundra at the top of the tallest mountains.

Mammals in Great Sand Dunes National Park include raccoons.
Mammals in Great Sand Dunes National Park include raccoons.

A huge range of animals are found within the park, including at least six insect species that are found exclusively in this area. Some of the amphibians and reptiles commonly seen there include Great Plains toads, bullsnakes and shorthorned lizards. Alpine lakes hold suckers, chub and several species of trout.

Mammals are very well represented in Great Sand Dunes National Park. Among the largest are bison, elk, and bighorn sheep. Mule deer and pronghorn are also present, as well as skunks, rabbits and raccoons. In addition to coyotes, predators in the park include black bears, foxes and mountain lions.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is unique about Great Sand Dunes National Park?

Bison are among the largest animals present in Sand Dunes National Park.
Bison are among the largest animals present in Sand Dunes National Park.

Great Sand Dunes National Park is unique for housing the tallest sand dunes in North America, with the Star Dune standing at approximately 750 feet (229 meters). The park's diverse landscape spans over 149,028 acres, blending dunes, mountains, forests, and wetlands, creating a variety of ecosystems. This geological wonder is a result of wind and water patterns over thousands of years, which continue to shape the dunes today.

What activities can visitors enjoy at Great Sand Dunes National Park?

Visitors to Great Sand Dunes National Park can engage in a range of activities, including sand sledding and boarding, hiking, wildlife viewing, and stargazing. The park is recognized as an International Dark Sky Park, offering exceptional night sky clarity for astronomy enthusiasts. Seasonal activities include splashing in Medano Creek and exploring the backcountry. The park also offers ranger-led programs to enhance the visitor experience.

When is the best time to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park?

The best time to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park is typically from late spring to early fall. Medano Creek is a popular attraction in late May and early June when the water flow is at its peak. Summer months offer warm weather for sand activities, while fall brings cooler temperatures and fewer visitors. Winter can be harsh but provides a unique perspective with snow-capped dunes.

How did Great Sand Dunes National Park form?

Great Sand Dunes National Park formed through a combination of geological processes involving the San Juan Mountains and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Over time, water and wind carried and deposited sand from the mountains into the San Luis Valley. The unique wind patterns in the valley caused the sand to accumulate, creating the dunes we see today. This natural phenomenon has been ongoing for thousands of years.

Are there camping facilities available at Great Sand Dunes National Park?

Yes, Great Sand Dunes National Park offers camping facilities. The Piñon Flats Campground, operated by the National Park Service, provides individual and group campsites with basic amenities. Backcountry camping is also permitted within designated areas of the park for those seeking a more rugged experience. Campers must adhere to park regulations to preserve the delicate ecosystems and ensure a safe visit.

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Discussion Comments

Sporkasia

National parks make great family vacation spots because there is so much to see and the visits can be so educational for children -- and adults as well. What my children enjoy most is just walking through the parks and seeing nature. Many of the animals that you can see in some of the national parks are not animals that the average child sees everyday.

We have seen many bears on our vacations in national parks, but we have not seen a mountain lion. I hear they are quite common in Colorado, so maybe Great Sand Dunes would offer us a chance to see one.

Animandel

When I think of dunes I think of the beach. This is not a National Park that you hear much about. At least I have not heard much about it. This sounds like a good place to vacation.

By the way, walking on dunes is one of the best ways to get a workout. The exercise provides a good workout for your heart, and your muscles also get a lot of work.

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    • Coyotes might be seen in Great Sand Dunes National Park.
      By: Michael Ireland
      Coyotes might be seen in Great Sand Dunes National Park.
    • Cougars are some of the predators in Great Sand Dunes National Park.
      By: SandmanX
      Cougars are some of the predators in Great Sand Dunes National Park.
    • Mammals in Great Sand Dunes National Park include raccoons.
      By: Lars Christensen
      Mammals in Great Sand Dunes National Park include raccoons.
    • Bison are among the largest animals present in Sand Dunes National Park.
      By: Jeffrey Banke
      Bison are among the largest animals present in Sand Dunes National Park.