When is the best time to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park?
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If you’re planning a trip to Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes, you’ve come to the right place. It can be hard to decide when to go because the dunes are accessible—and amazing—year-round. Here we’ll cover pros, cons, and tips for each season so you can determine the best time to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park.
When is the best time to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park?
Personally, I think the best month to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park is September or October. The weather is mild, the fall foliage is stunning, and the park isn’t as packed with tourists as it is in summer.
But the Great Sand Dunes have something to offer in every season, so the best time to go depends on what you plan to do.
Best time to go to Great Sand Dunes National Park by type:
- Fewest crowds: Winter is the best time of year to visit the Great Sand Dunes if you’re looking for some peace and quiet. You’ll have the dunes to yourself!
- Best for hiking: Moderate weather and wildlife spotting make late spring and early fall the best times to hike in and around the Great Sand Dunes.
- For camping: If you want to sleep under the stars, summer is the best time of year to visit the Great Sand Dunes because the nights are warm and the stargazing is at its peak.
- Best weather: September is typically the best month to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park for the weather. The average high is 71°F, with lows in the 40s, and the skies are usually calm and clear.
Visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park by Season
Keep reading to learn about Great Sand Dunes by the season.
Spring in Great Sand Dunes National Park
As the snow melts and the dunes thaw, Great Sand Dunes National Park comes to life again. Mild temperatures make spring a perfect time for outdoor activities, with highs in the 50s and 60s, though it can get as low as 20°F at night.
Pros & Cons of Visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park in the Spring:
- Spring in Great Sand Dunes National Park is less crowded than summer. The dunes get busy during spring break, but otherwise are relatively quiet.
- Temperatures are milder than in summer, but there’s still a chance of snow.
- Medano Creek starts to flow again, starting with a trickle in March and hitting its peak in late May.
- Spring is an ideal time for spotting sandhill cranes, which stop at the San Luis Valley every spring during their annual migration.
Great Sand Dunes National Park Spring Activities:
- Hike up High Dune. You can do this year-round, but spring is an ideal time for hiking in the sand dunes because the weather is starting to warm up but it’s not brutally hot yet.
- Go boarding or sledding down the dunes. The National Park Service doesn’t rent equipment, so get your sandboard or sled in a nearby town like Hooper or Alamosa.
- Camp on the dunes. Piñon Flats campground opens in April, and it’s easier to snag a spot in the less-crowded spring months.
- Watch sandhill cranes’ spectacular mating dances. In March, you can even attend the nearby Monte Vista Crane Festival to learn more about them and go on guided birdwatching tours.
Tips for Visiting in the Spring:
- Pack layers. While most days will be comfortably warm, it gets chilly at night.
- If you plan to camp, make sure you’re equipped with a warm sleeping bag and extra blankets.
- Bring waterproof boots and a raincoat. There may still be snow on the ground, and flurries are always possible.
- Bring your binocs to spot sandhill cranes!
Summer in Great Sand Dunes National Park
Summer is the hottest season, with highs in the 70s and 80s during the day and lows in the 40s at night. It’s also, as you can guess, the park’s busiest time of year. Summer is the best time to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park if you’re an avid stargazer or you want to experience Medano Creek.
Pros & Cons of Visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park in the Summer:
- As with most national parks, summer is the most popular season. Be prepared to contend with heavy crowds in the parking lot, at the visitor center, hiking up the dunes—everywhere you go, really.
- It’s also the hottest season. During the day, the dunes’ surface temp can reach 150°F! This also means nights are the perfect temperature for camping and stargazing.
- The bugs are bad (at least, by Colorado standards). Mosquitos start to surge in late June as Medano Creek recedes.
- Afternoon thunderstorms are common in July and August, bringing enough rain for wildflowers to flourish in the surrounding mountains and prairies. But be careful—they also bring the risk of lightning strikes.
Great Sand Dunes National Park Summer Activities:
- Stargaze. Summer nights in the sand dunes will cool down to comfortable temperatures, and summer is the best time to see the Milky Way at night.
- Hike to Zapata Falls. Bring your water shoes to best explore the 30-foot waterfall at the end of this short trail and cool off after a hot day on the dunes.
- Splash in Medano Creek. Late May and early June are the best times to experience “surge flow,” when 20-inch waves flow over the sand.
- Take in a movie at one of the park’s summer evening programs, held in the open-air amphitheater.
- Wildflowers are in season! Explore the area around the park to see prairie sunflowers and other colorful blooms.
Tips for Visiting in the Summer:
- Pack extra water and sunscreen. The dunes are a thirsty place, especially in summer, and they offer no shelter from the sun.
- Start your day early to beat the heat and crowds.
- To avoid the risk of lightning strikes during afternoon thunderstorms, plan your dune time for morning or evening.
- To make the most of wildflower season, don’t just hike the dunes themselves—explore the surrounding areas, such as the Sand Creek Lakes trail.
Fall in Great Sand Dunes National Park
In fall, both the crowds and the temperatures start to dial back. With highs in the 60s and 70s, it’s warm enough during the day to experience the outdoors, but it gets down to the 20s and 30s at night. Fall is the best time to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park if you’re a leaf peeper or wildlife enthusiast.
Pros & Cons of Visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park in the Fall:
- Like spring, this shoulder season is less crowded than summer.
- As visitor traffic decreases, wildlife becomes more common.
- Most days will be plenty warm for hiking and other outdoor activities, but temperatures drop at night.
Great Sand Dunes National Park Fall Activities:
- Test your photography skills. The Great Sand Dunes offer endless photo ops, especially when aspens and cottonwoods are dressed in their fall colors.
- Drive Medano Pass Primitive Road. It’s a great way to see the trees’ fiery foliage and sometimes bighorn sheep.
- Watch for wildlife. Elk and pronghorn antelope are common this time of year, especially around dawn and dusk.
- Join a ranger program. Held mostly in summer and fall, these are a great way to experience the dunes and learn about their history, geology, and wildlife.
Tips for Visiting in the Fall:
- Pack layers and a warm sleeping bag. It gets chilly at night.
- For avid leaf-peepers, mid-October is usually the best month to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park because the foliage is at its peak brilliance.
Winter in Great Sand Dunes National Park
Winter is a great time to visit the Great Sand Dunes since the park is at its least crowded. Highs are in the 30s, and most days are sunny enough for outdoor activities (if you bundle up), but snowstorms are always possible.
With lows in the single digits or even sub-zero, this isn’t the best time to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park for campers.
Pros & Cons of Visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park in the Winter:
- For most (read: sane) people, winter is too cold for camping, and the campgrounds inside the park are closed. However, there are a couple of hotels right outside the park entrance and plenty of lodging in nearby towns like Alamosa.
- Medano Primitive Road is also closed in the winter.
- Winter is the least crowded time to go to Great Sand Dunes National Park, so you’re in for a quiet, relaxing trip.
- Elk and pronghorn are often spotted in the grasslands this time of year, typically around sunrise and sunset.
Great Sand Dunes National Park Winter Activities:
- Hike to Zapata Falls to see a spectacular frozen waterfall.
- Capture snow on the dunes. The Great Sand Dunes are picture-perfect all year, but winter is a unique opportunity to snap photos of them in their snowy splendor.
- Bring a snow sled or cross-country skis to enjoy winter sports on the sand dunes. How many people can say they’ve skied on a dune?
- Warm up in the hot spring at Sand Dunes Rec.
Tips for Visiting in the Winter:
- Pack warm layers, a hat, and gloves.
- Pack snow boots—you’ll need them on the dunes, nearby trails, and even major roads. (Colorado is great at many things, but plowing isn’t one of them.)
- Bring a waterproof coat. Snow can arrive anytime!
- Don’t forget the sunscreen. Even when it’s cold, the sky will be clear much of the time, and the Colorado sun is not to be taken lightly.
You can have a blast at the Great Sand Dunes any time of year, but some seasons are better than others for certain activities. Hopefully, these tips helped you decide the best time to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park for your ideal vacation.
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