Great Sand Dunes National Park continues to set attendance records at dizzying pace
Numbers through October 2021
83,833 overnight stays
3.2 million visitor hours
GREAT SAND DUNES NATIONAL PARK
THANKSGIVING Day at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is like most other days: Visitors pour in to spend the day or for a quick visit before the turkey hits the table. Or, more and more, they head to the Sand Dunes after dark to appreciate the dark skies of the San Luis Valley.
Anymore, with the national park setting monthly and annual attendance records at a dizzying pace, there really isn’t much of a day off at the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Already this year a new annual attendance record has been set, with 576,776 visitors through October and counting. In that number are 83,833 overnight stays and a total number of 3.2 million visitor hours spent at the park through October.
“I have a feeling that a lot of the growth in the cities in Colorado are in the visitation increases,” said Katherine Faz, chief of interpretation and visitor services for the park. “I also think it’s mobility – mobility of people finding year-round that they can work remotely and are hitting the road and living out of RVs.”
For Faz and the rest of the staff it’s all about meeting visitor expectations. With growing numbers of people, that means everything from managing wait times to get into the park, reserving camping spots, helping visitors navigate hikes, handling full parking lots, and providing digital communications updates as crowds come and go.
“Think of the Sand Dunes like it’s its own city,” Faz said of the multitude of operations it takes to manage the national park, from law enforcement to ranger duties and everything in between.
The park is planning to spend 2022 surveying visitors to better understand their experiences, and what the needs and expectations of visitors are to help the park staff plan ahead for more anticipated growth.
The dunefield itself shows that it can handle the increase in visitors. “It’s a pretty resilient resource,” Faz said. “You see footprints one hour, and they disappear within a few hours.”
Instead, it’s managing the social trails from the parking lots to the dunes and ensuring there is enough park staff to help visitors have the best experience possible.
“It goes back to keeping people informed and how they can plan ahead,” said Faz.
“We’ve always talked about one of our main jobs is managing visitor expectations,” she said. “I think we’re just seeing more of the volume and it’s just grown in the sense of how people are valuing outdoor recreation more.”
Day and night.
Great Sand Dunes National Park Photo Credit