Medano Creek at Great Sand Dunes National Park

A look at the crowds at the Great Sand Dunes in 2019.

The lifeline behind Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes, Medano Creek, plays a key function in allowing this natural phenomenon to exist consistently over time.

As snow starts to melt in the surrounding Sangre de Cristo mountains, water trickles toward the national park, forming a seasonal creek that transports escaping sand particles from the mountains back to the valley floor. Each year, thousands of tourists scramble to see the creek during its brief period of flow, as families of ‘beachgoers’ pack the edges to plant towels and umbrellas in the nearby sand. Of course, as snowpack varies year-to-year, when and in what capacity the creek shows up can also vary.

Planning a trip to spot this natural phenomenon must be done carefully, as the peak flow lasts only a few days, with the creek typically visible in varying conditions for only a few weeks. While COVID-19 restrictions and closures are set to start lifting at the Great Sand Dunes National Park come June 3, this might be too late to spot the best of this creek in 2020.

According to park representatives, snowpack is around one-third of the average in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, with the region in severe drought conditions. This means that the peak flow of Medano will likely occur in late May, appearing far less spectacular than the abnormally high peak that was seen last year in early June. With the peak coming soon, the creek is only flowing at around one to two inches deep and 30 feet wide. This is less than half the width during peak flow last season and a fraction of the depth.

Keep in mind that while the snowpack is lower than last year, it’s also melting faster. These combined factors could mean that the creek is present for a much briefer period of time before disappearing beneath the sand.

Typically, the creek is flooded with tourists, though it remains unclear how the COVID-19 pandemic may impact crowds and capacity limits. Your best bet for seeing Medano Creek will be to get there as soon as possible after the reopening.

Spencer McKee manages the OutThere Colorado digital publication. He also writes about outdoor recreation, travel news, and more. In his spare time, he loves to rock climb, trail run, and mountain bike.

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