Protected Lands

The Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area encompasses vast expanses of protected lands including the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, 3 National Wildlife Refuges (Alamosa, Monte Vista, and Baca), 2 National Forest Wilderness Areas (Sangre de Cristo and South San Juan), San Luis State Park, and the Nature Conservancy’s Medano-Zapata Ranch.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve


The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, lies in the northern reaches of the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area. The tallest in North America are nestled beneath some of the most secluded and rugged sections of the Rocky Mountains. This is a geologic wonderland with thirty square miles of dunes, alpine lakes and tundra, six peaks over 13,000 feet, ancient spruce and pine forests, large stands of aspen and cottonwood, grasslands and wetlands.Recreational activities are diverse ranging from dune skiing and snowboarding to camping, biking, bird watching/wildlife viewing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, mountaineering, star gazing, fishing and hunting. Although this park is incredible it is not alone in providing a wide array of recreational opportunities to visitors. For details visit the official Great Sand Dunes site.

Sangre de Cristo Wilderness

The Sangre de Cristo Wilderness Area in the Rio Grande National Forest defines the northeast and southwest portions of the SdCNHA. Mountain peaks soar, rising to elevations as high as 14,000 feet. There are excellent recreation opportunities for visitors seeking more remote backcountry hiking, camping, 4- wheel driving and mountain and ice climbing experiences. The area is easy to access even though it has a designated wilderness status. Visitors can also experience beautiful scenic drives, gold medal fishing, exceptional mountain biking, and lake-side camping. For more information visit the Wilderness Website.

South San Juan Wilderness

The South San Juan Wilderness in the San Juan National Forest encompasses the eastern extent of the San Juan Mountain Range. You’ll find about 180 miles of trails, and some of the best backpacking and rugged terrain in the state. The Continental Divide crosses the heart of the Wilderness for 42 miles. The South Fork of the Conejos River Trail will lead you to the Conejos Peak Trail, which climbs north to the summit of Conejos Peak and offers a fantastic view into the heart of the area. Many trails don’t have signs so it’s a good idea to take a San Juan Wilderness Trail Map.

San Luis State Park and Wildlife Area

San Luis State Park and Wildlife Area is in the shadow of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and only 15 minutes away. This water haven is popular for water skiing, motor boating, fishing, sailing, windsurfing, and camping. Waterfowl, shorebirds, songbirds and raptors fill the sky over this unique desert ecosystem, making San Luis an outstanding watchable wildlife area most of the year. Visit the official site.

Sandhill Cranes Return in Spring.  Courtesy Sean Canon

Sandhill Cranes Return in Spring. Courtesy Sean Canon

National Wildlife Refuges

The Monte Vista and Alamosa National Wildlife Refuges (NWR) provide migratory birds of the Central Flyway food, cover, and nesting habitat.

Early spring brings clouds of ducks, cranes, and geese back to the Refuges, reminiscent of pre-European accounts. Thousands of northern pintails, sandhill cranes, and Canada geese can be seen throughout the valley refueling for their journey to northern breeding grounds. Monte Vista hosts the annual Crane Festival.

In spring and fall, 95% of the Rocky Mountain population of sandhill cranes migrate through the San Luis Valley. The Monte Vista NWR is a major stopover for migrating greater sandhill cranes.

They migrate between their wintering area around Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico and breeding grounds in the northern United States and southern Canada. Up to 20,000 cranes pass through in the spring and again in the fall. Three remaining endangered whooping cranes from a failed attempt to establish a wild migratory population in the 1980’s can be seen migrating with their foster species, the sandhill crane. Get the Monte Vista NWR map.

Owl. Courtesy Sean Canon

Owl. Courtesy Sean Canon

Bald Eagle. Courtesy Sean Canon

Bald Eagle. Courtesy Sean Canon

The Alamosa NWR provides important riparian habitat for the endangered southwestern willow flycatchers and many other songbirds. When the ice box conditions of winter hit the valley, raptors or hawks dominate the Refuge’s landscape. Short-eared owls winter and breed on the Refuge. Over 100 wintering bald eagles fish and roost along the Rio Grande as well. Elk, deer, coyotes, porcupines and beaver are some of the other wildlife you may see while visiting the Alamosa NWR.

Bison at Dollar Lake.  Courtesy the National Parks Service

Bison at Dollar Lake. Courtesy the National Parks Service

A variety of wildlife-dependent recreation opportunities are also available at Alamosa NWR. A self-guided, interpretive auto tour showcases refuge wildlife, habitat, and management activities. Get the map.

The Baca NWR is currently closed to public access.

The Medano-Zapata Ranch is the largest Nature Conservancy preserve in Colorado. Adjacent to the Great Sand Dunes National Park you can view co-existing herds of bison, elk, deer and antelope. The historic, working cattle ranch offers ranching vacations.