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Exploring Southern Colorado: Have you visited the Great Sand Dunes?

Posted: 6:13 AM, Jan 20, 2020
Updated: 2020-01-28 10:48:10-05
Great Sand Dunes
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Tucked away in the northern tip of the San Luis Valley is one of the country's most unique national parks, the Great Sand Dunes.

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Standing at approximately 750 feet tall with an estimated 5 billion cubic meters of sand, the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is home to the tallest sand dunes in North America.

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How did they form?

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The formation of the sand dunes comes from the creation of the San Luis Valley millions of years ago. Volcanic activity to the west created the San Juan Mountains, while tectonic plate shifts to the east created the Sangre De Cristos. This left a valley in between those two mountain ranges that then filled with water.

Formation of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Southwest winds blew sand and piled it up overtime into the northeast corner of the Sand Luis Valley to create the Great Sand Dunes.

Overtime, that body of water, named Lake Alamosa, drained into the Rio Grand, leaving behind a bed of sand on the San Luis Valley floor. Prevailing winds out of the southwest over time then blew the sand into the northeast corner of the valley, creating the Great Sand Dunes as we know them now!

Medano Creek:

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Medano Creek flowing across the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

One of the most fun and beautiful aspects of the park is the seasonal flow of Medano Creek. This stream of water is fed from snow melting off of the Sangre De Cristos north of the park.

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Kids playing in the "surge flow" in Medano Creek

Peak flow of the creek usually tends to be from late April through the first week of June, when the flow is strong enough to create "waves". The creek typically dries up by the middle of June, but heavy July rains can occasionally push a weak stream back across the dunes.

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Lighter water flow in late Spring at Medano Creek

Use this link to see current and past flow rates of Medano Creek: https://www.nps.gov/grsa/planyourvisit/sandboardingsandsledding.htm

Sand Boarding and Sledding:

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It may not be water, but you can still ride waves at the park! Sand sledding and boarding are both very fun and popular activities to do at the park with the right gear, under the right conditions.

Sand boarding and sledding works best with DRY sand and specially treated sleds/boards. Cardboard, saucers, and plastic sleds will not work well and often just dig into the sand.

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The Great Sand Dunes National Park does not rent sand boards or sleds, but here is a link to places that do: https://www.nps.gov/grsa/planyourvisit/sandboardingsandsledding.htm

Prepare for HOT SAND!

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Direct sunshine can quickly heat the sand enough to burn exposed skin

If you plan on visiting the sand dunes during the late Spring, Summer, or early Fall months, you MUST bring the right footwear!

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On sunny days with air temperatures in the 70s and 80s, the sand can heat up to over 150 degrees, easily burning exposed skin. Bring plenty of water as the heat and dry air make it easy to become dehydrated.

Visiting the Dunes at night:

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Clear skis at the dunes off a cold but rewarding view of the night sky

One of the best ways to experience the Great Sand Dunes National Park is to go at night!

The park is actually listed by the International Dark-Sky Association as an official International Dark Sky Park. The designation officially classifies it as an exceptional location to observe the Milky Way and other astronomical wonders around us.

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For peak night sky viewing conditions, find a night with no cloud cover and if possible, moonless conditions. Be sure and dress warm as temperatures in the San Luis Valley plummet quickly after sunset.

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Wild life at the Dunes:

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The Great Sand Dunes is home to a wide variety of wildlife. Numerous types of birds, mammals, reptiles, insects, and fish all live together across the park.

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Visit the National Park Service website to see a full list of animals living in the park.

Autumn at the Dunes:

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If you're going leaf peeping on La Veta Pass, why not keep drving west to the sand dunes?

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Not only will you see Cottonwood and Aspen trees dotting the surrounding mountains, you'll hike in fantastic and comfortable temperatures.

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Daytime highs in October and November average in the 60s and 70s, and the dunes are typically much less crowded compared to the Spring and Summer months.

Winter at the Dunes:

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While every season is beautiful in the sand dunes, nothing quite compares to the park covered in fresh snow on a cold winter day.

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Snowfall isn't exactly rare for the sand dunes, but they only average around 5 to 10 inches in the winter months.

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If you plan on visiting the dunes during the winter, bring extra warm gear if you're out at night. Fresh snowfall and a limited sun angle can often make the San Luis Valley, the home of the sand dunes, one of the coldest places in the country at night!

How to get there:

The easiest way to get to the sand dunes is to simply drive south of I-25 and go west along highway 160 by Walsenburg. From there you'll turn north onto highway 150 and follow it right into the park.

Admission to the park is 25 dollars for standard vehicles, which also buys you 7 days in the park. More information on fees can be found here.

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Be sure to share the details and photos of your trip with us here at KOAA by posting to our Facebook Page.