Autumn at Great Sand Dunes National Park
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is as spectacular as it is otherworldly. Venturing out among the highest dunes in North America offers a very unique Colorado experience you simply can't find anywhere else in this great state, but with the dunes taking up less than one-eight of the park and preserve, there is so much more to explore.
Panoramic view of part of the 30-square-mile dunefield from the top of the first ridge of dunes. Snow-capped Mount Herard and Cleveland Peak, visible beyond the sea of sand, are part of the Sangre de Cristo Range. Photo: NPS/Patrick Myers
Autumn is arguably the best time of year to visit Great Sand Dunes thanks to the combination of great weather and the tailing off of visitor numbers after summer. The juxtaposition of high desert and the craggy peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Range makes this entire area truly special, and even though it may be a minnow compared to other parks in the system at just under 150,000 acres, you can find both adventure and solitude.
The Dunefield from Sangre de Cristo Mountains. By hiking off-trail up forested mountain ridges in Great Sand Dunes National Preserve, the entire dunefield can be viewed. Photo: NPS/Patrick Myers
Month By Month
With an average high of 71 degrees and a low of 42 degrees, September days are typically sunny and calm although there will be occasional storms to keep everyone on their toes! Bear in mind that the dunes can still get up to 150F in the early afternoon in September. Elsewhere, Aspen trees start to turn their trademark gold at higher elevations with the wave of color filtering down to lower elevations by late September. As the month moves on, you may well wake up one morning to find the nearby mountains dusted with snow.
Temperatures drop in October but daytime temperatures are still pretty pleasant with the average high being 60 degrees and lows of around 32 degrees. As October progresses, you might even experience some snow on the dunes. Aspen trees typically peak at lower elevations at the start of the month. By mid-October, cottonwood trees around the dunes are also a deep and rich gold, so get your camera out and make everyone who doesn't live here envious.
November is essentially early winter at this elevation, with highs averaging 46 degrees during the day and lows dipping to a very chilly 20 degrees at night. With hiking up dunes being such sweaty work, you will need several layers because you’ll be cold to start with but you will quickly heat up! While most days are sunny, there is always the chance of a winter storm, so be prepared. This is also a good time to see elk and pronghorn in the grasslands in the early mornings and evenings as the park quietens down. While visitation is typically around one-seventh of what it is in summer, Thanksgiving weekend will likely see a spike, so plan ahead.
A very important thing to remember in November is that hunting season may have started, so if you are hiking in higher portions of the mountains (hunting is not permitted in any areas near the dunes), wear bright colors and be alert. Be sure to check with rangers about where it’s safe to travel during the fall and winter hunting seasons.
While moose are not regular residents of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, two moose were observed by the park biologist this year within park boundaries. Moose were reintroduced to the San Juan Mountains across the valley in past decades, and their expanding populations occasionally cause them to roam into the park and preserve. The Medano Creek and Sand Creek drainages may contain enough riparian willow habitat to support a small permanent population of moose in the future. NPS/Patrick Myers.
Whether you’re looking for a gentle walk or a tough workout, you’ll find it—and everything in between. Hiking is allowed on the dunes year-round and although you might see footprints from other hikers, there are no official hiking trails. Bring a compass or stay within sight of the visitor center to avoid an unwelcome night under the stars.
The famed Star Dune, which rises 750 feet from the San Luis Valley floor, is a very tough workout and will almost certainly take you longer than you think—just remember it is two steps forward and one step back when walking uphill in sand. Elsewhere, the park is also home to six 13ers—that’s peaks above 13,000 feet.
The 11-mile Sand Ramp Trail is a forested trail that travels south to north with Medano Creek on your right and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on your right. After the first two miles, the trail changes to sandy soil and sometimes just sand which makes it tougher than it sounds. The Sand Ramp Trail also provides access to the park’s seven established backcountry sites.
And that is just the tip of the dune, so to speak. There are plenty of overnight options, too, if you are looking for a multi-day hike.
Photo: NPS/Joseph Tumidalsky
When in Rome, do as the Romans do, and at Sand Dunes that means skidding down the dunes on a board or sled, but remember, regular sleds or snowboards won’t work, so pick up a rental at the lodge just outside the park entrance until October, or year-round at Kristi Mountain Sports in Alamosa.
Getting all the vertical you can is the key to a good sand run. It takes a lot of time and even more effort to reach the top of the higher dunes, but you will simply be wasting your time if you try to surf or sled down an inferior dune. Put the effort in and reap the reward.
Friction is the enemy of the sandboarder, so grab some wax and get lubing, and
technique is everything. Get yourself to the edge of the dune with a few small hops. Then, with the board’s nose pointing downhill, drop in with your dominant foot forward. Lean back and bend your back knee. Be sure to look in the direction you want to go. As you start your descent down the dune, keep your body weight on the back of the board. To turn, apply pressure on your toes and heels.
A Star(Gazer) is Born
Great Sand Dunes is an International Dark Sky Park due to our location far from city lights, the dry air, and high elevation. On clear moonless nights mid-summer to early fall, the edge of our Milky Way galaxy is visible as a soft whitish cloud in the evening sky. NPS/Patrick Myers
As a designated International Dark Sky Park, there are few places better to see the night sky in all its cosmic glory than Sand Dunes. Autumn is also great for seeing and photographing the Milky Way, and so whether you're a budding astrophotographer or just want to be overwhelmed with how insignificant you really are, on a cosmic level that is, moonless nights at Sand Dunes are for you. Visibility tails off as the weeks and months progress, but it is still likely going to be fairly visible during early October.
In autumn a number of notable constellations are visible, including the zodiac constellations of Aquarius, Aries and Pisces, as well as Andromeda, Perseus, Cassiopeia, Pegasus, Triangulum, Cetus and Cepheus, to name but a few. To help you find them and appreciate whey they are so named, download the Sky Map app. Just point and, well that’s it. It’s bordering on witchcraft.
Go Off Road
Medano Pass is a rough 22-mile road connecting Great Sand Dunes with the Wet Mountain Valley and Colorado State Highway 69. It isn’t recommended that anything other than a four-wheel drive be used to tackle it mainly because it crosses areas of deep sand and traverses Medano Creek nine times. It does, however, pass through bighorn sheep country.
It is a scenic drive throughout the year, it is spectacular in late September and early October when fall colors are peaking. If you don’t have a 4WD vehicle, Pathfinders 4x4 are the only authorized Jeep tour company in the national park.
Pinon Flats Campground. Photo: NPS/Patrick Myers
September is when first come first served backcountry permits become increasingly easier to acquire, as do spots at Piñon Flats Campground (although these can be booked up to six months in advance via Recreation.gov). Any spots not reserved online become first come first served. The campsite usually fills up every day until it closes at the end of October.
Roadside camping is permitted only at 21 numbered campsites in the park beginning 5.2 miles from where the road begins near Piñon Flats Campground. These designated sites are free of charge and first come first served.
Sunset over the Dunes. Photo: NPS/Patrick Myers
And the best and most unique camping option is in the dune field Camping is permitted anywhere in the 30-square-mile vastness (outside of the day use area - a 1.5-mile hike over the dunes). Only plan to camp when the weather is calm, particularly if there is a chance of thunderstorms with lightning, there is a limit of six people per party and a limit of 20 parties per night. Permits are first come, first served but they are free. No campfires, sorry.