While the state may be famous for its mountains, the sand dunes in Colorado are also quite impressive. In fact, these are the tallest sand dunes in all of North America. They definitely earn the name “Great Sand Dunes,” reaching up to 750 feet and covering an area of 30 square miles.
If you’re planning a trip to this giant sandbox, you’ve come to the right place. Read on for a detailed guide to the Great Sand Dunes National Park, including the top things to do, the best time to visit, recommendations on where to stay, and more.
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Great Sand Dunes National Park—How Where the Colorado Sand Dunes Formed?
The Great Sand Dunes in Colorado formed many thousands of years ago in a very complex geological process. It started with the formation of two mountain ranges—the Sangre de Cristos and San Juan.
This process created the San Luis Valley, which was eventually filled by a lake. It suddenly receded, leaving behind a few smaller lakes. These, too, receded over the years.
Strong opposing winds then carried the exposed sand and caused it to accumulate in the valley. Two mountain creeks continue to bring sand to the valley floor every year, which ends up blowing back into the dune field.
Pretty amazing, isn’t it? You can read more about the geology of the Great Sand Dunes on the NPS website to understand better how they came to be.
The Great Sand Dunes became a national monument during the Great Depression in 1932. The intention at the time was to protect it from gold mining. It didn’t officially become a national park and nature preserve until 2004.
Due to its somewhat remote location, this is one of the more “off-the-beaten-path” national parks. It receives a fair amount of visitors but nowhere near as many as Rocky Mountain National Park or the Great Smoky Mountains.
You can combine a trip to the sand dunes with another one of the least-visited national parks by visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison for a pretty epic Colorado road trip. Along the way, you can soak in hot springs, climb a castle, and even look for UFOs.
Great Sand Dunes National Park is open year-round, but winter and summer temperatures can get pretty extreme. You’ll need a pass for your vehicle to enter the park, which costs $25 and is valid for a week. It’s also covered in the America the Beautiful annual pass.
4 Top Things to Do in Great Sand Dunes National Park
There are plenty of fun things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park. You can easily spend a few days here taking it all in.
1. Take a Hike
Let’s start with the varied hiking options. You can choose from hikes on the actual dunes to many different forested and alpine trails. Here are some of the best hikes in Great Sand Dunes NP:
- Hidden Dune/Star Dune: These two sand dunes are currently tied for the tallest in North America and are both popular places to hike to in the park. Set off from the main parking lot and head off on your walk across the sand.
There are no trails to follow here, but you can punch in the GPS coordinates (37.775916, -105.531912 for Hidden and 37.7517639, -105.5580583 for Star). It’s about a 6-mile-hike round trip to the summit of either dune. Plan to do the hike early in the morning and to spend about six hours in total.
- Mosca Pass Trail: This forested trail is 3.5 miles one-way. It follows a creek to a low pass in the mountains and is a moderate hike with an elevation gain of 1,520 feet.
- Medano Lake: You’ll need to be an experienced driver with a 4WD vehicle to reach the trails for these alpine hikes. Otherwise, you need to tack on an extra 3.5 miles to the pass. From there, it’s a strenuous 3.8 miles with an elevation gain of 1,920 feet to reach the lake. Avid hikers can continue to reach the summit of Mt. Herard at over 13,000 feet.
2. Go Sand Sledding or Boarding
For many, the main attraction at the Colorado Sand Dunes is zipping down the massive dunes on a sled or a sandboard. It’s important to note that you cannot rent sleds or boards in the park. Several places in the valley rent them out, including the nearby Oasis Store.
It’s at least a 0.7-mile hike from the main parking area to reach some of the smaller slopes. It can be pretty tiring climbing the dunes and even more with a board or sled. We’re in pretty good shape and were exhausted after climbing up and attempting to sled down once.
Here’s another tip: wear goggles and a gaiter or bandana to cover your nose and mouth. You will get sand everywhere. And I mean everywhere. It is a pretty awesome experience, though!
3. Swim in the Creek
After the snow melts on the mountains, Medano Creek is formed at the Great Sand Dunes. This usually happens sometime in late May, and the creek sticks around for a few weeks.
At this time of year, you can experience the “surge flow” of waves across the sand. The water is very shallow and perfect for children to float along using inflatable toys.
As such, it’s a very popular time for families to visit. The park and campgrounds can be very crowded this time of year, so plan accordingly and book in advance.
4. Gaze at the Stars
As they say out here: “Half the park is after dark.” The fun definitely doesn’t stop when the sun goes down here; rather, it’s just beginning!
Great Sand Dunes National Park is a premier stargazing destination thanks to its dry air, high elevation, and low levels of light pollution. It’s best to visit the park on a moonless night or one with a very late moonrise. Full moons are also a popular time for a nighttime stroll on the dunes.
The best time of the year to view the Miky Way is late summer/early fall in the evening. Read more about how best to experience the night on this page from the NPS.
How to Get to Great Sand Dunes National Park
It takes a bit of effort to get to Great Sand Dunes National Park, that’s for sure. The nearest major airport is in Denver, about 250 miles and a 4-hour drive away. At least there are lots of options for direct flights to Denver International Airport (DIA).
Another option is Colorado Springs, which doesn’t have quite as many flight options but is a bit closer to the park. There’s a very small regional airport in nearby Alamosa, but it only has flights to and from Denver.
Your best bet is flying into either Denver or Colorado Springs and renting a car. Unless you’re coming from a nearby state where it makes sense to drive or this is part of a bigger road trip.
The drive from Denver to Great Sand Dunes isn’t bad. You can make it a scenic loop by stopping in a few other places.
How to Get Around the Colorado Sand Dunes
You definitely need your own vehicle to properly explore the Great Sand Dunes. A 4WD vehicle is preferable, as it’s required to drive on the Medano Pass Primitive Road.
Unless you’re confident driving through sand and water, sticking to the paved roads is best. There are a few different areas where you can park, including a large lot near the base of the dunes. There are smaller ones near some of the trailheads.
When to Visit Great Sand Dunes National Park
The best time to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park depends on your interests and your tolerance for inclement weather and/or crowds. There are lots of factors to consider when planning your trip here.
First of all, camping is only available from April to October. It can be quite chilly at night during the start and end of the camping season, so keep that in mind.
May and June are very busy months for visiting the park, as this is when Medano Creek is at its peak. Families flock here so kids can play in the creek. Campsites fill up well in advance at this time.
Summer is generally a busy time for national parks, and the Great Sand Dunes is no exception. It does get very, very hot on the dunes during the day, though. You’ll need to plan an early morning or late afternoon visit to enjoy the dunes in the hot summer months.
Those hoping to do some stargazing will want to plan a trip in the fall months of September or October. These months are when the Milky Way is at its most visible. They are also some of the best months weather-wise in the park, and summer crowds die down.
A Great Sand Dunes National Park winter trip is possible, too. Many people visit around the holidays. Just be prepared for cold temperatures and snow-covered roads and trails. You can enjoy some actual snow sledding on the dunes or cross-country skiing during the winter months.
Be sure to check this page from the National Park Service for more information on Great Sand Dunes weather with a month-by-month breakdown of what to expect.
How Much Time to Spend at the Great Sand Dunes
Since it takes a while to get there, it’s worth it to at least spend a night around Great Sand Dunes National Park. You’ll get a pass that’s good for seven days anyway, so why not enter the park a few times?
A good strategy is to spend a day climbing and sledding/boarding up and down the dunes. Then, spend another one hitting some of the forested and alpine trails. This time gives you a glimpse into the many different sides of the park and its varied landscapes.
If you’re hoping to do some serious hiking in the backcountry or driving up the Medano Pass Road, you might want to tack on another day or two. There’s plenty to keep you busy for several days if you snag a campsite in the park or don’t mind driving in and out.
Where to Stay in Great Sand Dunes National Park
If you’re hoping to do some camping in Great Sand Dunes, you’ll need to plan your trip between April and October. That’s when the Piñon Flats Campground is open, the only one in the national park.
Each site can fit two vehicles and two tents for up to eight people. It costs $20 per night, and you can book up to six months in advance on recreation.gov. There is space for RVs up to 25 feet here, but no hook-ups.
There are several campgrounds within a short drive of the park as well. This includes the Oasis Campground just outside of the park. Their tent sites are $25 a night for two people. They also have full hookup RV sites, rustic cabins, and the Great Sand Dunes lodge with rooms for up to four guests.
One of the coolest experiences you can have out here is glamping. Rustic Rook Resort is just 19 miles from the park and has a variety of tents in addition to lots of fun camping activities. For more area campgrounds, check out this page from the NPS.
The nearest town is Alamosa, where you can find a handful of motels and inns. This makes for a good base if you’re not into camping, as there are several shops, restaurants, and bars.
There are also some pretty great places on VRBO in the area. We had to find a place at the last minute when inclement weather canceled our plans to camp, and we ended up staying in an awesome house in the hippie mountain town of Crestone.
Where to Eat in Great Sand Dunes National Park
There are no options for dining in the national park other than bringing a picnic. Each site has a table and a charcoal grill, but wood fires are not allowed. Most of them have some shade as well.
You can find a few different grocery stores to stock up on supplies in the nearby town of Alamosa. There are also several different restaurants to choose from there. Here’s a list that should get you through a few days in the area:
- Milagros Coffee House
- Smoothy’s Juice Bar
- San Luis Valley Brewing Company
- Calvillo’s Mexican
- The Rubi Slipper (American)
- Woody’s Q Shack (BBQ)
- Locavores (Farm-to-Table)
- May-Wa (Chinese & Vietnamese)
- Purple Pig (Pizzeria & Pub)
Top Things to Do Near the Great Sand Dunes National Park
The fun definitely doesn’t stop inside the park here. You’ve got plenty of options for continuing your Colorado adventure outside of the national park.
- Wildlife Refuges: There are three different national wildlife refuges in the San Luis Valley: Baca, Alamosa, and Monte Vista. All are great spots for birdwatching.
- Zapata Falls: This is a popular hike that’s not too far from the park. It’s a great option for hot summer afternoons when the dunes are scalding. Click here for the location.
- UFO Watchtower: Due to the very clear skies and high elevation here, this is an area known for its UFO sightings. Many have been spotted at this place, which now has a collection of random items welcoming our visitors from the great beyond. It only costs $5 per car and is worth a stop. Be sure to bring something fun to add to the collection!
Ready for the Colorado Sand Dunes?
By now, you’re probably pretty excited about visiting the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, as you should be. It really is a magical place to experience.
Days here can be filled with stunning hikes in the forests and mountains, followed by some sunset sandboarding or sledding on the dunes. Nights are spent gazing at the stars, preferably followed by a campfire. This, my friends, is pure Colorado.
If you have some tips or recommendations to add, please let us know in the comments below!
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