Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Great Sand Dunes
Location Saguacche County and Alamosa County, Colorado
City Alamosa
Area 84,670 acres
Established 1932 (National Monument)
September 13, 2004 (NP)
Visitors 258,660

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is a national park and national preserve located in the state of Colorado. It is the most recently established national park. The park features towering, 750 feet sand dunes (the largest in North America) and massive mountains over 13,000 feet. Originally a national monument, the Great Sand Dunes was established as a national park and preserve on September 13, 2004.

History of the areaEdit

Millions of years ago, the San Juan Mountains and Sangre de Cristo Mountains were created by several volcanic eruptions. Through this process, the San Luis Valley where the Great Sand Dunes are located was created. Long ago a large lake filled the San Luis Valley, which was confirmed in 2002 by geologists who found lake deposits on the surrounding hills. Named after a town in the area, Lake Alamosa later disappeared, leaving behind multiple smaller lakes. Due to climate change, these lakes also eventually disappeared, resulting in a sea of sand but no or very little water. Opposing winds eventually led the sand to rise and turn into dunes that grew vertically. Scientists that study the park estimate that the dunes started to form around 440,000 years ago.

While the area has only been a part of the National Park Service for under 100 years, humans have known about the area for 11,000 years. Nomadic hunters and gatherers are considered to be the first humans to set foot in the area. Clovis points and Folsom points, spears that these people used for hunting, have been excavated by archeologists in the Great Sand Dunes. When there was no water to be found in the area, it has been suggested that they abandoned the area. 400 years ago, people from Spain arrived in the area. By then, Native Americans had already taken residence and named the land Sowapopheuvehe, roughly meaning "the land that moves back and forth", an appropriate name that bared similarities to the name that the Jicarilla
Zebulon Pike

Zebulon Pike.

Apaches gave it, Sei-anyedi, or "it goes up and down". While in the dunes, these Native Americans would peal the bark off of certain trees such as the ponderosa pine trees that they used for medicine.

Europeans are said to have first entered the general area in 1694 when Don Diego de Vargas went there. It is said, however, that Spaniards may have entered the region as early as 1598. While in the San Luis Valley, Don Diego de Vargas and a crew that came with him hunted at least 500 buffalos in the area. The man Zebulon Pike is the first person to have written about the Great Sand Dunes, explaining how he and his crew found "sandy hills" at the "foot of the White Mountains". According to his writings, he climbed the dunes, explaining them in detail. Years later, John C. Fremont, when coursing a possible train route, also wrote about the dunes, mentioning the "sand-hills" and how he and his horses would sink in the sand. Years later in the mid and late 1800s, people would start building homes around the dunes, notably the Herald family who built a ranch there, the Trujillo family, and the Wellington family.

Around this time, miners from around the country came to the dunes in hopes to find gold. There was gold to be found, but it was too expensive compared to other locations. The thought that gold miners could potentially destroy the sand dunes concerned some people who had a great connection with the area, most notably Alamosa Vista and Monte Vista. They and a group of other women sent a letter to Congress which explained how the dunes should become a national monument. The letter was a success, and in 1932 President Herbert Hoover turned the area into the Great Sand Dunes National Monument. Years later, interest in the area once again led locals and others fascinated by the dunes to ask congress to turn the National Monument into a National Park, and on November 22, 2000, president Bill Clinton authorized the area to become the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. In the next four years, a lot of planning went into making the park what it is today, enlisting the help of the Nature Conservancy to purchase thousands more acres to more than triple the size of the park. On September 13, 2004 the park was officially established into a national park and preserve.

Plants and animalsEdit

Main article: Plants at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Main article: Animals at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Despite the often harsh conditions of the sand dunes, many animals live and thrive in the general area. Few species actually live in the sand, but many will occasionally trot over it. One of the most unique animals in the area is the ord's kangaroo rat, which can live its entire life in the sand dunes. Various other animals, even beavers, will make their way across the dunes typically so that they can get to the other side. Outside of the dunes are a wide assortment of animals ranging from mountain lions in the woodlands, to black bears at the park's creeks, to bison which are protected by The Nature Conservancy. Mammals obviously aren't the only types of animals in the area. The short-horned lizard, for example, is a species that has proven its ability to withstand certain conditions that were previously thought impossible for the species. It has even been reported that the lizard, which oddly grows only half its normal size in the park, has made its home at over 12,000 feet in the alpine tundra.


GSD Fall

There are many places to hike in the national park.

There are many things to do in the national park and preserve. While the dunes are rightfully considered the central attraction, there are lots of activities outside of that area to do as well that are still within the confines of the park. Many park visitors enjoy hiking the area, exploring the dunes that reach up to 750 feet high. The portion of the park where the dunes are is 30 square miles. Unlike some other parts of the park, there is no designated path in the dunes. Those who are physically disabled can receive a wheelchair at the visitor center which can travel over the dunes. The dunes can become very hot during the summer months, with the sand reaching temperatures of 140 degrees (F).

While the dunes are exciting to adventure, Medano Creek is one of the most popular attractions when water is filled in it, especially during hot days when visitors want to cool off. Medano (meaning sand dune) Creek swimmers can participate in any number of activities that don't involve mechanized vehicles. The park management requests that people who do spend time in and around the creek to keep it clean and to not disturb any animals or plants around the area.


  • Medano Creek: A large creek on the foot of the dunes that will typically start to disappear during the hot months of August and September.
  • Star Dune: Star Dune is the tallest dune in the park and in North America at an astounding 750 feet (229 meters). It is several miles from where the hike starts.
  • High Dune: Despite this dune's name, it is 100 feet shorter than Star Dune, though is much easier to access.

Types of areasEdit

Alpine lakes

The national park is more than just sand dunes.

  • Alpine tundra: It is too cold here for many plants, including any types of trees, to grow. Alpine tundras can be found high on top of the many mountains within the park. At over 11,700 feet, it is the highest ecosystem within Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.
  • Grasslands and shrublands: The grasslands and shrublands of Great Sand Dunes are the least visisted areas in the park, which is surprising considering the astounding amount of wildlife a person may find in the area of the park such as elk and bison.
  • Meadows and forests: Visitors will likely find all sorts of animal and plant species in the meadows and forests of the Great Sand Dunes park.
  • Lakes: There are several lakes within the park that transition different ecosystems.
  • Montane woodlands: These are found at the base of mountains and contain an assortment of birds, reptiles, and mammals including mountain lions.
  • Sand dunes: The primary area in the National Park, the dunes feature very extreme heat. The dunes span many miles, and while typically animals do not live here, visitors will occasionally find one crossing the dunes.
  • Wetlands: Includes various lakes and is a fantastic place to find amphibians, birds and insects, as well as the occasional buffalo.

Visitor informationEdit

  • Entrance fee: To gain access to the park, it will cost visitors $3 per each person 16 years or older, while children 15 and younger are given access for free. The $3 admission price is eligible for seven days after purchase and can be used each day.
    • National Park Week: During National Park Week, which is different each year, admission into the park is free.
    • Annual pass: An annual pass to the Great Sand Dunes, which is eligible for the entire family, costs $15 and can be used for 365 days.
    • Tour fees: Tours will cost the visitor money. The amount of money the visitor will have to pay depends on the number of passengers (1-6 is $25, 7-25 is $40, while 26+ is $100).