Colorado's own natural waves delight visitors at Great Sand Dunes National Park.

A 40-minute drive from the southern Colorado town of Alamosa, the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is one of Colorado’s hidden treasures and is loved by locals and visitors alike. Sliding down the massive dunes of soft sand and splashing through Medano Creek are some of the most thrilling and one-of-a-kind experiences our state has to offer.

Known as “Colorado’s Natural Beach,” Medano Creek is a bit like a magical place, showing up at the base of the sand dunes each year for a few short weeks then fading away into memory for another year. The crisp runoff from the Sangre de Cristo Mountain range brings Medano creek to life, making a perfect spot for skim boarding, tubing, and splashing around in this sandy Colorado oasis.

Tens of thousands of visitors spend hours each year trekking up the dunes and building sandcastles by the water, soaking up the mountain sun, and enjoying this natural wonder. That’s because the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is one of the few places to experience a natural and rare phenomenon known as surge flow, where the creek water flows in burst creating waves up to three feet high across the dune field.  

kid's tubing, Medano Creek

Courtesy of Great Sand Dunes National Park (Facebook)

The best days to visit the Great Sand Dunes National Park and play on this mountain beach are about to happen, and this summer is going to be especially great thanks to the large amounts of late spring moisture hidden up in Medano Pass.

Surge flow will occur when three very specific conditions are met; a steep enough channel, a sandy creek bottom, and a lot of flowing water, creating a dam of sand ridges as water flows through the creek bed. Eventually, the water pressure will build up and break down the dam, creating the surge of waves. The high snowpack Colorado is experiencing this year is creating the perfect conditions for a historic surge flow season. Snowpack this year is at more than 160 percent of normal, and the late snow melt has pushed peak flow season back this year from its normal late-May to early-June window.

The National Park Service (NPS) reports that, normally, peak flow averages around 40 cubic feet per second (cfs); the current flow is 22 cfs, with peak flow expected to happen the first half of June, and shallow flow into July.  

Check out this video from the park about Medano Creek and the surge flow.

The surge flow has already been running for a few weeks, though not at a very high level. Right now, Medano Creek is in a small surge flow, standing at about 30 to 60 feet wide and ranging one to nine inches deep. With snowmelt expected to rapidly increase as June temperatures heat up and the runoff starts flowing, the flow is expected to be quite significant. Flow is normally at its highest at dawn, and hits a low point at dusk, according to the NPS. You can follow up to the minute flow and season forecasts on the NPS webpage here.

Admission to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is $25 per non-commercial passenger vehicle and the pass is good for one day. The park is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with visitor center hours from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through Labor Day.

Recently, the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve was designated as an International Dark Sky Park, due to its quiet atmosphere and pristine views of the night sky. Local lodging, camping, and sand sled rental options make this a destination perfect for a quick day trip or a weekend getaway, but you may want to move quickly to plan your visit if you want to catch this year’s surge flow. The perfect beach conditions are likely going to make this one popular Colorado destination for the next few weeks.

Have you experienced peak surge flow at Medano Creek and the fun of sliding through the dunes then washing off in the waves? This year seems like a good one to try for if you have never been to this unique vacation spot. Share with us your favorite experiences at Medano Creek and the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in the comments below.