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Your Guide to Visiting Colorado with the Kids
The Wildlife of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Wildlife watching in the Great Sand Dunes National Park provides visiting families with fantastic educational and entertainment opportunities.

The complex system stretches through several life zones, or neighborhoods for wildlife, including alpine tundra, sub-alpine forests, pinyon/juniper woodlands, the Dune Field (which holds a surprising amount of life), the sand sheet, and the sabkha region.

Photo: Kids play in Colorado's biggest sandbox at the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Did You Know?

The tallest sand dunes in North America are in Colorado, at Great Sand Dunes
National Park
The dune field  covers more than 30 square miles. The dunes themselves stretch over 700 feet high in places.

Photo: The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado is a complex system with a huge variety of wildlife.

In the Neighborhood

The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve has several components, all knitted together, and creating conditions for an amazing variety of life. From the steep, high peaks on the east to the marshy wetlands out on the valley floor, the plants and animals that live under Park Service protection here function in a huge connected system.

The spine of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains stretches the length of the national preserve. The alpine, subalpine, montane, and pinyon/juniper life zones here provide a cool, restful alternative to lower-elevation glare.

Alpine Tundra

Within the preserve, eight peaks scratch the clouds with altitudes over 12,000 feet above sea level. At this height, the wind screams more often than it whispers, and the snowpack can last most of the year. Nighttime temperatures are likely to drop below freezing even in the summer. The climate in this alpine life zone is too harsh for trees to survive, and the plants that do thrive are similar to those found in the arctic tundra.

Cushion plants, such as moss campion and dwarf phlox hug the ground, where they can soak up warmth from the rocks and soil and hide from the wind. Look also for purplefringe, snow buttercup, bistort, and alpine primrose. Horned larks nest in the tundra in the summer and white crowned sparrows feed on the ground or survey the tundra from trees at the edge of timberline. Surprisingly, white throated swifts and violet green sparrows hunt for insects at this altitude as well. Look for rock wrens with their cute little curvy beaks hopping (where else?) among the rocks. Here, also, endearing little pikas dash through the rock piles, gathering grasses like hay for the winter and issuing their sharp little “e!” calls. Once in a while a coyote will venture above the trees to search for supper. Visitors frequently spot yellow-bellied marmots, and bighorn sheep in alpine areas as well.

Subalpine Forests

At about 11,000 feet above sea level, trees are able to survive and create the subalpine life zone. Stunted, even to the point of growing flat along the ground right at timberline, the trees become taller and thicker as you drop in elevation. Heavy snowfall provides enough moisture for subalpine forests to grow, thick with Englemann and blue spruce trees, subalpine fir trees, and aspen and willows along the watercourses and seeps. In sunny patches, the short summer growing season explodes with wildflowers like rock primrose, shooting stars, columbine, penstemon, paintbrush, violets in the grassy meadows, and wild iris in wet meadows.

Club moss thrives along streams where Rio Grande cutthroat trout have been re-introduced. These fish feed on aquatic insects like stone, caddis, and may flies. Crane flies and mosquitoes also like this area, and big fat bumblebees dance among the wildflowers. Wild turkeys are sometimes seen walking through the forest understory. Gray jays and Steller’s jays scold in the trees and try to steal snacks from picnickers. Watch for red-naped sapsuckers and American robins. Diminutive flyers in this forest include mountain chickadees, cordillian flycatchers, and ruby crowned kinglets. Northern harriers hunt low over marshy meadow areas by day, while the twilight sky is home to nighthawks dipping and soaring in their evening hunt.

They are joined in the sky by little brown bats, who also search for insects at nightfall. Just below, in the treetops, pine martins hunt in the dark for their favorite food, chickarees (also know as pine squirrels). Cousins of the martins, short tail ermine prowl the forest floor at night, looking for mice, voles, and other tasties.  Long tailed weasels, which resemble ermine closely, except for the length of the tail, are more likely to be seen as they hunt by day. A favorite food of theirs is also a common resident of the preserve’s subalpine areas: pocket gophers. Both ermine and long tailed weasels change color with the seasons, turning white when the snow flies, just like the snowshoe hares, which are also found in the area. Red foxes, bobcats, and black bears rummage through the woods here, while beaver work the streams. Visitors are very likely to see elk and mule deer grazing and browsing on the meadow edges.

Montane and Pinyon/Juniper woodlands

Photo: Pinyon-Juniper woodlands in the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

The montane forest and pinyon/juniper (PJ) woodlands occupy about the same elevation, the difference being the availability of water. Drainages and shady north-facing slopes that hold more snowfall tend to have animals and plants of the montane life zone. A few yards away, on sunnier, dryer slopes, the PJ dominates. Thus, this elevation holds a wonderful variety of living things.

Trees include Douglas fir, white fir, ponderosa pines, aspen, rocky mountain maple, and thinleaf alder in the wetter, shadier areas. Narrow leaf cottonwoods grow along the water-courses as do stinging nettles and the native Parry’s thistle. Look also for wax currants (bears think they are yummy), virgin’s bower (a type of clematis), and shooting stars blooming in the early summer. Other wildflowers in the montane areas include groundsel or little sunflowers and verbenas. Parry’s oat grass and mountain muhly grow there as well.

Pinyon pine and juniper trees, of course, dominate the PJ lifezone. Grasses are more common here, including blue grama grass, and ring muhly, which grows in circles – sprouting on the outside of last year’s dead grasses. Mountain mahogany and rabbitbrush blossom in the PJ, as does mountain spray. This member of the rose family has a misty pink inflorescence with a pungent scent. Other wildflowers include claret cup cactus, paintbrush, Apache plume, fringe sage (artemesia), pussytoes, one-sided penstemon, and firecracker penstemon. Purple asters bloom profusely at the end of August.

Spider wasps zip about at this elevation, while lots of ants till the forest soils. Families are likely to see butterflies like tigerswallows dancing among the flowers, and the cute, clumsy ochre ringlets bouncing around on their creamy yellow wings in early in June. Hummingbird moths sip primrose nectar here as well. Dead and dying trees attract longhorn beetles, named for their huge antennae. These mottled chocolate iridescent insects bore into the wood with sizeable chompers, and prefer trees that are already dead or nearly so. The Ips beetle, however, attacks live trees. A native, this bug responds to distress signals caused by drought or other circumstances in pinyon trees. It is responsible for large swaths of dead trees in the southwest part of the state.

Garter snakes slither through the undergrowth at this elevation, and tiger salamanders like the wetter areas in the montane. Skinks, bull snakes, and woodhouse toads reside in the PJ woodlands, and rattlesnakes may be there, although they are not common. Rio Grande suckers and Rio Grande cutthroat trout, as well as rainbow and brook trout swim in the creeks.

Lush montane forests are home to many bird species including pine siskins, juncos, downy woodpeckers, western tanagers, mountain bluebirds, violet green swallows, robins, green tailed towhees, warbling vireos, and ravens. The dryer PJ sees mountain bluebirds as well, plus pinyon jays, Clark’s nutcrackers, northern flickers, Lewis’ woodpeckers, bushtits, Townsend’s solitaires, olive sided flycatchers, white and red breasted nuthatches, pine grosbeaks, and broad tailed hummingbirds. Nighthawks call in the twilight and observant kids might spot a great horned owl looking like a stick as it sleeps in a tree by day.

Snowshoe hares seem to prefer areas of downed wood in the montane, while cottontails hop through both montane and pinyon/juniper forests. Other mammals traveling between the PJ and montane include deer mice, rock squirrels, Abert’s squirrels, chickarees, bobcat and black bears. Dryer areas are more likely to see pinyon mice, chipmunks, and golden mantled ground squirrels. Mule deer are almost ubiquitous in the PJ, and it follows that mountain lions hunt the area, too. Although you aren’t likely to see a mountain lion, it makes sense to follow safety measures with your kids here. Big brown bats, and Townsend’s big eared bats flit over the PJ come evening. The lush montane area sees more skunks, porcupines, and raccoons. Beavers dam Medano Creek to make their ponds, a favorite hangout of water shrews. Bats flying over this area include long legged bats and hoary bats.


Although daytime air temperatures seldom reach over 85 degrees Fahrenheit on the sand dunes, their surface can reach 140 degrees. In the winter, temperatures drop to 20 degrees below zero. And the wind just blows and blows, no matter what time of year it is. Not a lot of life can survive out here, and you have to have a certain respect for those creatures that do.

Photos: Scurfpea and blowout grass are two plants that make a living right on the sand in the Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Photo Credit: NPS

Plants include Indian rice grass, blowout grass, scurfpea, prairie sunflower, skeletonweed, sand dropseed and occasionally rabbitbrush. Most of them seem pretty used to getting beat up by the flying sand, and have developed root systems that help them hang on.

More insects live on the dunes than any other kind of animal. The list includes noctuid moths, Great Sand Dunes tiger beetle, circus beetle, ant-like flower beetles, hister beetles, and giant sand treader camel crickets. Seven of the insect species of the dunefield are so well adapted to this place that are considered endemic, living nowhere else in the world.

Spadefoot toads have been seen on the dunes, and National Park Service biologist Phyllis Pineda Bovin has heard horned larks in the winter, with their “squeaky call, like crinkling cellophane”. Doves inhabit the edges of the dunefield, while red tailed hawks and occasionally turkey vultures and ravens soar overhead. While coyotes, bobcats, weasels, and even elk will sometimes venture into the dunes, only Ord’s kangaroo rats make a living there. Humans are the most common visitor, and you are likely to sight them most times of the year.

Sand Sheet

Surrounding the main dune field are the vast, open fields of the sand sheet. Windy and exposed to the elements, this life zone exists on a sandy base, with transient dunes moving across it and seasonal streams flowing through it. This is the life zone you hike through on the trail that leads from the campground to the dunes.

Photo: Kids hike the trail from the campground
in the Great Sand Dunes National Park out to
the dunes themselves. The trail passes through
the life zone known as the sand sheet.

Ponds, many of which have disappeared in the past several decades, dot the sand sheet’s eastern edge. Of about 80 ponds photographed in the 1930’s and ’40’s, only five were left at the turn of the 21st century. However, a few others have formed in the past few years, apparently related to the way the creeks cut down through the sand.

Grasses dominate the sand sheet and anchor the grains. Common grasses include wheatgrass, blue grama grass, Indian rice-grass, squirreltail, needle and thread grass, sand bluestem, and foxtail barley. A member of the pea family grows here, with pods inflated, mottled, and looking like a spotted pot. Its scientific name is ceramicus. Prickly pear cactus and yucca do well in this dry, sandy landscape, as do rabbitbrush and wild oregano. Look for the tall stalks and fuzzy leaves of mullein growing in groups or singly. Wildflowers include sand verbena, prairie sunflower, low lupine, fire cracker red penstemon, narrow leaf penstemon, and wild iris in the wet meadows. Baltic rushes and bulrushes grow along the waterways, and a rare beauty also grows the in wetlands: the slender spiderflower. And according to park biologist, Phyllis Pineda Bovin, when the buckwheat here bloom in late August, they smell just like someone’ s stinky bare feet.

Wolf spiders hunt insects like the mosquitoes, small wasps, rabbitbrush beetles, and bees that live in the sand sheet. Robber flies catch their prey in mid-air, stab their victims in the back and then suck out the juices. Moths flit about at night, pollinating the desert plants. Short horned lizards, many-lined skinks, garter snakes, and bull snakes sneak around under the shady branches of the shrubs, and although rattlesnakes may potentially live here as well, they are not commonly reported in the park.

Say’s phoebes, violet green swallows, and white throated swifts hunt insects over the sand sheet, while American Kestrels hover and dive for small rodents or insects. Sage sparrows are seen here in the San Luis Valley, without much broader distribution in any other parts of the state. Often they will run on the ground rather than fly away. Birds of prey commonly seen in the sand sheet include red tail hawks, burrowing owls, and ferruginous hawks.

These hunting birds often look for jack rabbits, Gunnison’s prairie dogs, silky pocket mice, and northern grasshopper mice to eat for supper. The bunnies and rodents also must keep an eye out for weasels, coyotes, and badgers. Mountain lions make it out onto the sand sheet, where pronghorn, elk, and bison are common. (Surveys of bison DNA shows that the animals here actually have a little bit of cow in them, although you wouldn’t know it to look at them.)


An unusual life zone, the sabkha brings surprises to the desert of the San Luis Valley. Water that flows out of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains sinks into the ground underneath the sand dunes, but it keeps flowing along underground layers of sand and rock. As the surface elevation drops, the water seeps to the surface in spring fed lakes and marshes. As it rises, the water brings alkalinity to the surface, and although they are not caustic, sabkha ponds have a high pH. The minerals cement the sandy soils into a thin, whitish crust.

Few plants can survive the alkalinity. Among them are four-wing saltbrush, saltgrass, sueada (a little succulent), and willows. Baltic rush, also called wiregrass, grows in damp areas, as does a small, reddish-orange mallow.

Circus beetles live here, as do robber flies and mosquitoes. Short horned lizards join them, plus many lined skinks, garter snakes, and bull snakes. And although there is archeological evidence that humans fished the lakes of the sabkha region, now the ponds in the park are so ephemeral that no fish live there.

Shore birds are attracted to the water and observers see western snowy plovers, American avocets, greater sandhill cranes, and American white pelicans in the sabkha lakes. Redwing blackbirds and yellow-headed blackbirds like the marshy areas, while sage sparrows hop around in the nearby scrub. Golden eagles soar overhead and bald eagles often fly through in the wintertime.

While kangaroo rats burrow under the saltbrush, bison and elk will wander through the sabkha as well.

Strands of Many Colors

In the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, volcanic crumbs, layers of sediment, soaring peaks, freezing snowpack, corrosive chemicals, ever-flowing water, and wind all push each other around, back and forth, bumping and tugging, digging and grinding, sifting and sticking in one of the most fragile and complex dune systems in the world. And within this chaotic system lives an amazing variety of life forms, all interacting with one another as well. It is a huge and complicated net, woven with strands of many colors and sizes, all pulling together to keep the dunes a rare and spectacular natural wonder.