Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve: The Complete Guide

Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado

Courtesy of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

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Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Address
Colorado, USA
Phone +1 719-378-6395

Rising up from a remote valley in south-central Colorado, the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is home to the tallest sand dunes in North America. And while the 30-square-mile dunefield is obviously the park’s main draw, the landscape within and surrounding the national park is incredibly diverse with a wide range of ecosystems (forest, tundra, grasslands, etc.) represented. Visitors can watch pronghorns graze at sunrise, summit a 13,000-foot mountain peak, plunge into an alpine lake, sled down dunes, off-road through seasonal creeks, and enjoy starry nights all in the same day.

Plan the perfect trip with this complete guide covering must-see points of interest, best hiking trails, other popular park activities, campgrounds, how to get there, and logistics like park fees and accessibility.

History and Culture

The park’s namesake centerpiece represents about 11 percent of an enormous sand deposit that covers more than 330 square miles in the San Luis Valley. Long before kids splashed in Medano Creek’s waves, the towering mounds and high peaks of the surrounding Sangre de Cristo Mountains were used as hunting and gathering grounds for several Native American tribes—including the Ute and the Jicarilla Apaches—and as geographical landmarks by early explorers, gold miners, homesteaders, ranchers, and farmers. In fact, the oldest evidence of humans found in the area dates back about 11,000 years.

Some spots even hold significant ancient spiritual meaning. Blanca Peak, southeast of the Dunes, is one of the four sacred mountains of the Navajo Nation (Dine’). They believe Sisnaajini (“white shell mountain”) was created out of a shell and a bolt of lightning by the deities as the Dine’ people entered the “glittering world” for the first time through a large reed. (To learn more about the creation of the four mountains and how they form the boundaries of the Navajo homeland, watch this video by a Dine’ park ranger.) The people from the Tewa/Tiwa-speaking pueblos along the Rio Grande believe the lake through which their people emerged into the present world is in the San Luis Valley. Sip'ophe ("sandy place lake") is thought to be a spring and/or lake immediately west of the dunefield.

sand boarding in Great San Dunes NP

Courtesy of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Things to Do

First-time explorers should start at the visitor center, which is open daily year-round with the exception of the federal winter holidays. It features exhibits, a film, passport stamps, restrooms, and a park store. You can also purchase backcountry permits.

The next order of business is tackling the dunes themselves. There are no designated trails in the 30-square-mile dunefield so blaze your own path. The High Dune on the first ridge is the most commonly visited destination as it provides a view of the entire dunefield. At 741 feet, Hidden Dune and Star Dune are tied for the tallest dunes in the park and in North America. Hiking to either of those takes about six hours round trip. In the summer months, sand surface temperatures can rocket up to 150 degrees Fahrenheit from late morning through late afternoon, so plan to hike in the early morning or evening. 

Sandboarding and sledding are popular pastimes in the dunes. Specialty equipment is needed as cardboard and snow sleds don’t slide on dry sand. If you don’t have your own equipment, you’ll have to rent it before you enter the park. Some outfitters include Oasis Store (just outside the park), Kristi Mountain Sports (Alamosa), and Spin Drift Sand Board Rentals (Blanca).

Splash around and cool off in Medano Creek along the base of the dunes. The catch? There is not always water in the stream. The trickle tends to start in April and grows in May and June, which are the best months to witness surge flow. Surge flow is a phenomenon where waves are created by sand falling into the creek bed. It starts to dry up by July and is usually completely gone by August. Current conditions and flow forecasts can be found on the Medano Creek page

The park and preserve contain a lot more than the dunes. It also features plenty of other natural wonders like the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (often snow-covered in winter), piñon pine groves, grasslands where elk often graze, wildflower patches in spring, forests, wetlands, and streams. Many of these ecosystems and landmarks can be visited via your own two feet, though four-wheeling along the Medano Pass Primitive Road is quite scenic—especially in late September and October when the autumnal color changes are in full swing. Pathfinders 4x4 is the only authorized Jeep tour company in this park.

There are also ranger-led activities and evening events in the summer and fall. The schedule is posted in the visitor center and at the campground. A junior ranger program allows kids (and kids at heart) to earn a badge or patch upon completion. Given its high elevation, dry air, and secluded location away from urban centers, the park is great for stargazing.

hiking in Great Sand Dunes NP

Cavan Images/Getty Images

Best Hikes and Trails

Great Sand Dunes has trails to please every level of hiker. Before heading out, confirm whether or not you need a car with 4WD to access the trailhead. (Sometimes, having 4WD grants you access to a closer trailhead that cuts mileage off the hike.) Snow may block alpine trails from November to June. 

The aforementioned dunes should be your first destination. To reiterate, there are no formal trails in the dunes. High Dune is typically a two- or three-hour trek. It is about 693 feet to the top from the base and the trip typically takes visitors two hours to climb 2.5 miles; however, it can take up to four, especially for folks who aren’t acclimated to the altitude. Hidden Dune and Star Dune usually take about six hours each from the Dunes Parking Lot. Eastern Dune Ridge is a tall steep dune face reachable from the Sand Pit or Castle Creek picnic areas. To access those picnic areas, you need a 4WD vehicle. If you don’t have that kind of car, you can instead park at the Point of No Return and then hike either .75 miles or 1.5 miles to the picnic areas, both of which have Medano Creek access. Consider hiking here under the full moon. 

Some of our other favorite hikes include:

  • Montville Nature Trail: Leading you around a forested area and Mosca Creek, this half-mile path gives you a view of the first ridge of dunes. 
  • Sand Sheet Loop: This quarter-mile quickie is good for families and for an introduction to grasslands. 
  • Mosca Pass Trail: Follow a small creek through aspen and evergreen forests to a low pass in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Allow two to three hours to reach the pass; it’s 3.5 miles one way. 
  • Medano Lake Trail: The 7.9-mile, out-and-back trail starts at 10,000 feet above sea level and climbs 2,000 feet through meadows and forests until it gets to the namesake alpine lake. For a real challenge, climb an extra 1,300 feet to the summit of Mount Herard. Those who tough it out will be rewarded with a bird’s-eye view of the dunes. 
  • Music Pass: To start the adventure to Music Pass, 2WD cars must park at the intersection of the Rainbow Trail and Music Pass Road and then walk 3.5 miles; those with 4WD can drive another 2.5 miles to the end of the road and then only have to climb a steep one-miler. Music Pass is at the treeline and features a great view of the Upper Sand Creek Basin. From there, charge ahead 3 to 8 miles to get to four alpine lakes. Or, take on any of the 13,000-foot peaks above the basin. Snowfields are often still visible in July alongside wildflowers.
camping in Great Sand Dunes NP

Lindsey Martin Webb/Getty Images

Where to Camp

There are a few places to set up camp within the park’s borders. Open April through October, the Piñon Flats Campground is the main option and is 1 mile from the visitor center. Of the 91 sites, three are designated as group areas. The RV and tent sites have tent pads, fire pits, food lockers, utility sinks, grills, dump stations, picnic tables, flush toilets, and quiet areas. There are no showers at this facility. There must be at least one adult staying at each campsite. 

Sites at Piñon Flats must be reserved through recreation.gov and cost $20 a night. There are no waiting lists or first-come, first-served campsites. Individual sites can be reserved up to six months in advance while group sites can be locked in a year in advance. Reserving early is especially important during the peak summer months, weekends, and holidays.

You can also get a little more adventurous by backpacking in the backcountry. The park offers two backpacking experiences—seven sites along the Sand Ramp Trail and 20 undesignated sites in the Dunes backcountry. Backpacking is available year-round, but be prepared for snow and frigid night temperatures in the winter and high winds and lightning storms in the spring and summer. Backpackers are required to purchase permits online for $6. Permits are available on a rolling basis three months prior to the trip start date. While backpacking, only gas stoves can be used, water must be brought in, and all trash including toilet paper must be packed out. Items with scents should be bagged and hung from trees as there are bears in the area.

There are also 21 numbered camping spots along the Medano Pass Primitive Road in the preserve section. The sites begin 5.2 miles from where the road starts. This road requires a high-clearance 4WD vehicle in order to cross deep sand and creeks. These sites are free and first-come, first-served. The road closes in the winter, typically late November to mid-May. These sites and the road can also be accessed with a fat-tire bike. A few designated sites allow car camping as well. 

Where to Stay

If you prefer not to rough it, there are a few lodging options near the main entrance. Great Sand Dunes Lodge is a clean, simple motel with outstanding mountain views. Open March through October, it also rents out Jeeps, sandboards, and sand sleds. Great Sand Dunes Oasis offers a small lodge and several rustic cabins. Further up the road is the Rustic Rook Resort, a collection of canvas glamping tents. Bigger motels and chain hotels can be found in neighboring communities like Hooper and Alamosa.

Where to Eat

Picnicking is your only option inside the park. The picnic area sits along the edge of the dunes and the seasonal Medano Creek. Each day-use-only site has a table and charcoal grill; most have shade. A restroom in the middle of the area is available in the summer months. There are two sites set aside for large groups—North Ramada (first-come, first-served) and South Ramada (reservations required).

The Oasis Restaurant and Store is the closest full-service eatery and you’ll find it at the main park entrance. It’s the only restaurant within 25 miles of the national park and is open April through October. In addition to renting sandboards and sand sleds here, you can also purchase groceries and gas. A wider variety of restaurants can be found in Alamosa (38 miles southwest). The towns of Hooper (30 miles northwest), Blanca (27 miles southeast), and Fort Garland (31 miles southeast) each have at least one restaurant.

birds in Great Sand Dunes NP

Courtesy of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

How to Get There

The park is in a fairly remote location. The closest airport is Alamosa, Colorado's San Luis Valley Regional Airport, which is serviced by United Airlines and is 31 minutes from the park. It’s 236 miles from Denver and it takes almost four hours to drive between the two. Ditto for Albuquerque, which is roughly the same distance to the park.

The main areas including the visitor center can be reached on Highway 150 from the south and County Road 6 from the west (both are paved).

Accessibility

This park has several features making it more accessible including:

  • Specialty dunes wheelchairs with balloon tires are available to borrow for free at the visitor center to allow exploration past the parking lot. Reserve a child or adult chair in advance at 719-378-6395 as there is a limited number available.
  • The closest parking to the dunefield is the Dunes Parking Area. About a mile from the visitor center, it has a mat from the lot to the edge of Medano Creek and the sand. But to go further into the dunes, you’ll most likely need the specialty chair.
  • The visitor center is fully accessible and the introductory film is captioned. 
  • Accessible restrooms are available at the visitor center, campground, and the Dunes Parking Area. 
  • In the campground, sites 10, 14, and 63 are accessible. The amphitheater has lighted, paved sidewalks and an accessible seating area. There’s a mostly level trail from the campground to the theater. 
  • The Dunes Picnic Area has a shaded accessible site with a hardened trail to the accessible restroom. 
Primitive Road in Great San Dunes

Marekuliasz/Getty Images

Tips for Your Visit

  • Great Sand Dunes charges a fee when the entrance station is open in the spring, summer, and fall, and when the visitor center is open during the winter. Seven-day passes are $25 per car and $20 per motorcycle. There is an annual pass for $45. Guests can also use the system-wide annual America the Beautiful passes. You may purchase a pass online in advance.
  • The park is open 24 hours a day year-round. Summer and fall are the busiest seasons. 
  • The weather can turn quite quickly. Winter sees snow and frigid temperatures, especially at night. Spring and summer are full of storms that often mean rain, high winds, or lightning. Summer temperatures are mild, but because this is a desert, it can get pretty cold at night. Check the weather before going. 
  • Pets are allowed in the preserve and in the Piñon Flats Campground, Dunes Overlook Trail, and along the Medano Pass Primitive Road as long as they are leashed. Owners are required to clean up after pets and carry out all waste. They are not permitted in the visitor center, bathrooms, and other areas shaded blue on the NPS map.
  • The desert grasslands are full of prickly pear cacti, which are so named because of the sharp spines. Stay frosty when hiking and carry tweezers.
  • Cell phone connectivity and internet access are limited and/or nonexistent in the park. This makes it all the more important to pick up a paper map, save or print passes, and plan ahead.
  • Keep an eye out for the critters that call the park home, including nine species of owls, seven insect species endemic to the dunes, bears, bobcats, kangaroo rats, bighorn sheep, elk, and tiger salamanders. Don’t feed them, shine lights on them at night, or generally get too close to preserve their way of life. 
Article Sources
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  1. National Park Service. "Grand Sand Dunes: Hiking." Retrieved on February 10, 2022.

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Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve: The Complete Guide