When it comes to iconic landscapes, it doesn’t get much better than Great Sand Dunes National Park. Set against the backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range, the sand dunes tower over you at up to 700 feet tall.
The problem is that most visitors come to the park for the day, do some sledding and swimming, and head home. And they’re missing out on so much this park has to offer.
There’s no better way of experiencing Great Sand Dunes National Park than camping under the stars. The park becomes a whole new world at night that you do not want to miss out on.
In this guide, we’ll help you plan out camping in Great Sand Dunes. We’ll go through your options for campgrounds and the best activities to include to make the most of your trip.
How much time do you need at the Great Sand Dunes?
Technically, you could visit Great Sand Dunes National Park in just a couple of hours. But you won’t have nearly enough time to explore everything the park has to offer. If you want to go hiking, swimming, sledding, and see the night sky, you’ll need at least two days.
Why Go Camping in Great Sand Dunes?
They’re just giant sand dunes, right? Why would you want to camp there? There is so much to do at this National Park, you won’t want to leave.
Great Sand Dunes National Park is famed for its dark skies. In fact, only 20% of the entire area is under direct sunlight all day long and it’s a recognized dark-sky preserve due to the lack of light pollution.
It’s hard to describe the beauty of the sky in Great Sand Dunes at night. You’ll see millions of stars, the milky way, maybe even a shooting star if you stargaze for a while.
This is the number one reason why people camp out at Great Sand Dunes and it’s something you’ll miss out on by just spending the day in the park.
Pack in more hiking
There are 29 miles of hiking trails in the national park with everything from gentle strolls to strenuous scrambles.
High Point Loop Trail is one of the most popular, but there are tons more, including the Lazy L Loop Trail, South Trail, Mosca Pass Trail, Dunes Knob Trail, Lower Deck Trail, Whitewater Creek Trail, Horseshoe Trail, and Shale Trail.
If you want to explore the dunes properly and do a few hiking trails, you’ll need more than one day in the park. So, camping is the way to go.
Swim in Medano Creek
Medano Creek runs through the tallest of the sand dunes and is a great spot for swimming, wading, and enjoying a picnic. It’s a large creek but shallow, so great for kids.
But it does get quite busy during peak season. If you’re camping, you’ll get a better spot at the Creek and can choose the best times of day to avoid crowds.
In the summer months, you might be able to spot local wildlife coming to cool off, too (if you’re up early enough). Some of the park’s inhabitants include black bear, golden eagles, hawks, coyotes, and a range of rare amphibians.
See the breathtaking landscape
If you want to fully explore the park, there is a tour that takes you on three scenic drives through the different areas of the park:
- A drive through the east of the park on top of the dunes.
- A drive along Medano Creek to spot the wildlife.
- A drive through a very remote area of the park to see the fantastic colors of the dunes.
It takes around two hours to take the tour, so it’s tough to pack it in along with everything else at the park. With dispersed camping near Great Sand Dunes, you’ll have more time to do more activities – which brings us to…
Sandboarding and sand sledding
You can’t visit Great Sand Dunes National Park without sandboarding or sledding the tallest dune. It’s a tradition and a unique experience. You can’t rent sandboards in the park itself, but you’re welcome to bring your own or rent them at a local store outside of the park.
If you want to know more about sandboarding and how to make the most of it – check out our complete guide on how to prepare.
Campgrounds in the Great Sand Dunes
There are a few campgrounds near Great Sand Dunes National Park. We’ll run through the rules and amenities of each one below to help you choose.
Piñon Flats Campground
Piñon Flats is a National Park Service campground, meaning it’s a government-run facility. It’s about a mile north of the Visitor Center, making it ideal location-wise.
Individual sites can be reserved up to six months in advance, and group sites up to a year. Spaces fill up quickly since this is a popular campsite in the park, so make sure to reserve your spot early.
At the campsite, there are 47 sites available, with up to 40 guests allowed per site (and up to six vehicles). They are spacious pitches for tents or RVs, and campfires are allowed.
Toilets and water are available, and pets are welcome. There’s also a picnic table area and a range of activities right by the campground, including biking, horseback riding, swimming, and hiking trails.
The sites in the first loop have the best views, so grab one of those if you get there early enough.
Medano Pass Primitive Road Campsites
There is a 22-mile road connecting Great Sand Dunes with the Wet Mountain Valley and Colorado State Highway 69. Along the road are 21 campsites, starting around 5 miles from where the road starts near Piñon Flats Campground.
Each site is indicated by a brown post and a camping symbol, but the spots are primitive so there’s not much else.
The road is rough, and vehicle access is only permitted between late Spring and early Fall, otherwise, it’s hiking only.
These sites for Medano Pass camping are first-come, first-served, and fill up very quickly in the summer.
Pets are allowed but must be leashed at all times, and tents must be sited 40 feet in front of the bear box on each site.
Each site has a fire ring for designated campfires that need to be extinguished with water.
When vehicles are allowed on the road, there are designated spots for parking and vehicle camping – no off-road driving is allowed on this stretch.
There are bears in this area, so make sure you keep all your camping supplies, food, and toiletries in the bear box provided.
Great Sand Dunes Oasis
Just outside the Colorado park entrance is Great Sand Dunes Oasis Campground. It has 90 sites in total, including RV sites with full hook-ups, tent sites, and cabins.
The site has toilets, showers, laundry, a restaurant, and a store on site. It’s open from April to October and these campgrounds near Great Sand Dunes National Park are incredibly popular, so book early to reserve a spot.
There’s space for 20 RVs on level pull-thru sites, with 30/50 amp electrical hook-ups.
If you’re looking to go sand sledding, this is where you can rent sleds and snowboards.
San Luis State Park
Head 15 miles west of the Visitor Center and you’ll find San Luis State Park. Although electrical hook-ups are available, there is no potable water and no trees for shade.
To camp in the park, you need to purchase a Colorado wildlife annual access pass in advance (or you need to have a hunting or fishing license).
There is a lake in the park, but it dries up if the park has been experiencing a drought, so make sure to check in advance if you’re looking to go fishing or swimming.
There’s also a wetland area north of the lake, but this is closed entirely between February and July for nesting season.
Zapata Falls is a primitive campsite found 11 miles south of the Visitor Center. At 9000 feet elevation, it has spectacular views of the dune field and valley.
The campsite doesn’t provide water, but there are pit toilets and fire rings on each site. It’s open year-round, but the bumpy dirt road isn’t maintained in the winter. Vehicles do still drive on it though, so the snow becomes compact and fairly easy to trek on.
You can reserve a spot at Zapata Falls any time of year on the recreation.gov website.
Cool Sunshine RV Park
Nestled between the San Juan Mountains and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains is the Cool Sunshine RV Park. It’s about 35 miles west of the Visitor Center, but located just a block from downtown Alamosa, so a great spot for exploring the San Luis Valley.
The RV site has 41 full hook-up pull-thru sites and six tent sites. Pets are welcome, and there’s access to toilets, showers, and laundry on the grounds. They even have a putting green, patio area, and clubhouse.
In the downtown area, there are over 30 restaurants as well as galleries, coffee shops, and bars all within a 15-minute walk from the campsite.
You will need transport to get to the Sand Dunes National Park, but there are city walking trails nearer the site, too.
Base Camp Family Campground
Base Camp is about 27 miles west of the Visitor Center and 8 miles east of Alamosa. It has large tent sites and RV sites with full hook-ups (which are big-rig friendly with 60-degree angled sites).
The campground has large showers, toilets, laundry, and free WiFi, and is fairly close to the town and attractions.
Alamosa Economy Campground
Alamosa Campground is last on our list. You’ll find it about 31 miles southwest of the Great Sand Dunes Visitor Center and three miles east of Alamosa.
This site is open year-round, so a good choice if you’re planning your trip during the off-season. It has full hook-ups, a dump station, and showers.
Pets are welcome and there is a go-cart course on the grounds, so it’s popular with families.
Best Time to Visit Great Sand Dunes National Park for RV Camping
Great Sand Dunes National Park is open to visitors year-round. Of course, summer is the most popular time to visit because of kids being off school, so you can expect more crowds.
Visiting in the Summer
In the summer, the park gets extremely hot, with sand surface temperatures reaching 150°F in the hottest months. You’ll also experience thunderstorms in the summer, so it’s best to get up early and enjoy the park in the cool early morning or later in the evening if you can.
Visiting in the Spring and Fall
Spring and Fall are the best time to visit. Temperatures are much more comfortable and it’s not quite as crowded. However, it can get very windy in the park in the Fall, whereas the snowiest months are March and April.
Visiting in the Winter
Winter is the quietest time at Great Sand Dunes National Park, but that shouldn’t deter you. It’s usually sunny during the winter, but the air is dry so it doesn’t feel humid.
Of course, most of the programs, tours, and activities take place between May and September, so there isn’t as much to do in the winter months. Not to mention that most of the campsites close in the winter, so you’ll have to go primitive camping.
Best time of year to visit with an RV
If you’re planning on taking your RV to Great Sand Dunes, here are some tips:
- Piñon Flats Campground is a popular RV campsite that is open between April and October.
- Roadside camping is permitted along Medano Road between late Spring and early Fall.
- Oasis Campground is open between April and October and has RV hook-ups.
- San Luis Lake State Wildlife Area Campground is open year-round to RVs with a wildlife pass.
If you’re wondering how to get to Great Sand Dunes National Park, the most common route is the I-25 to Walsenburg. Go west on US 160 and then north on State Highway 150. Once you get to CO-150, you’ll follow that road all the way to the park.
Learn More About Great Sand Dunes National Park
The Great Sand Dunes are such an interesting phenomenon and it’s easy to see why millions of people visit this national park every year.
It’s a different kind of camping experience though, and one you need to prepare for. From understanding the local wildlife to being prepared for the intense heat, it’s best to do your research so you can make the most of your trip.
If the Great Sand Dunes are on your bucket list of adventures and you want to learn more about the park, check out our detailed guide on Great Sand Dunes National Park for everything you need to know.