Other-worldly sand formations, creek rafting, hiking, and hidden waterfalls – what more could you ask for from a national park?
Great Sand Dunes National Park is a true gem; over half a million people visit yearly. But without a plan, it’s hard to know what to expect from this unique national park.
In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know to visit the Great Sand Dunes of Colorado. From where to stay and what to pack to the activities you need to try, we’ve got you covered.
Great Sand Dunes National Park History
President Hoover established Great Sand Dunes National Park on March 17, 1932. However, the park has a rich history that stretches far beyond that.
The dunes were formed when nearby creeks and streams brought large amounts of sediment and sand into the valley. The strong winds blew the sand toward the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, where opposing storms squeezed the sand into the tall peaks we see today. Without this perfect combination of elements, the dunes would never have formed.
Today, you can witness geology come alive at Great Sand Dunes. The strong winds and forces of water still shape the park, and although the largest sand dunes have remained constant for decades, smaller dunes are always forming and shifting. This is why the traditional Ute word for Great Sand Dunes is “Saa waap maa nache”, meaning “sand that moves”.
Humans have lived in the San Luis Valley for over 11,000 years, dating back to the Stone Age. The very first people were nomadic hunters who wanted the herds of mammoths and bison that grazed in the valley.
Today, Native American tribes maintain a connection to the surrounding lands, despite their removal by the US government in the late 1800s. For example, the Jicarilla Apache tribe regularly holds cultural and ceremonial events in their traditional homeland.
Why Visit the Great Sand Dunes National Park?
A national park like no other
Many tourists think of the Great Dunes as a big sandbox and just visit for a couple of hours to grab a selfie. The truth is, Great Sand Dunes is a truly unique national park with an otherworldly feel to it. It’s a tough one to describe, so it’s definitely worth the visit to see for yourself.
Dark Sky Reserve
This national park is a designated dark sky reserve because of the low light pollution and incredible night sky views. Photographers and astronomers come from miles around to photograph the starry skies here and gaze at the universe.
The international dark sky park has some of the darkest skies in the US, so it’s a must-visit to see the galaxy like never before.
Not many people think of hiking when they picture sand dunes, but Great Sand Dunes has dozens of hiking trails that range from gentle strolls to hard scrambles. For hikers, this should be a bucket-list trip to take on the tough hikes up North America’s tallest dunes.
Great for kids
Great Sand Dunes National Park is also a great trip for kids. You can go swimming and wading in the cooling waters of Medano Creek, which is shallow and perfect for little ones. Plus, kids love sandboarding and surfing down the dunes.
Best Time to Visit Great Sand Dunes National Park
You can actually visit the park year-round, and the best time to go will depend on what you want to do while you visit.
Early in the year is the coolest time to visit the park. Average high temperatures only get to about 32F, and the lows can drop below freezing. A lot of the roads are closed to cars because of snow, but many of the lower trails are still open. You’ll also be able to spot Elk grazing this time of year, which can be rare to see.
May is the best month to visit if you want to wade in the overflow of Medano Creek. This time of year, you’ll see 20-inch waves across the flat sand, and kids will be able to ride inflatables in the shallow but choppy waters. Temperatures are also pretty mild, so you won’t have to worry about the blistering heat of summer.
This is the most popular month to visit the Great Sand Dunes of Colorado, and weekends will be extremely crowded. The temperatures soar to around 76F, and the creek will be fairly low. You’ll need to plan your trip well in advance because campgrounds fill up and roads become busy with traffic. This is also mosquito season, so don’t forget your bug spray!
This is probably the best month to visit the park if you can. Temperatures are mild but still incredibly warm, and the night sky is so clear that you can spot the Milky Way on a moonless night. It’s also a lot quieter since kids are back in school, so you won’t get as many crowds. Towards the end of September, Aspen groves are stunningly golden, and the hiking trails are beautiful.
Average Weather in Great Sand Dunes National Park
The temperature varies throughout the year, but average highs and lows are pretty consistent:
- July: highs of 82 F, around seven days of rain
- August: highs of 78 F, around seven days of rain
- September: highs of 73 F, around four days of rain
- October: highs of 60 F, around three days of rain
Temperatures cool off considerably in the dunes when the sun goes down, so bear that in mind if you plan camping.
It’s also worth noting that the sand gets unbearably hot in the midday sun during the summer, so it’s best to plan activities for early morning or late afternoon.
What to do at Great Sand Dunes National Park
There is so much to do in this giant sandbox of a national park that you’ll need a couple of days to make the most of your trip.
Most cars won’t be able to handle the soft sand of the dunes, but you can rent a 4WD vehicle in nearby Alamosa and take a scenic drive along Medano Pass Primitive Road. You’ll traverse soft sand, rocky terrain, and even some shallow parts of the creek along the alpine pass, all making for a stunning drive.
If you want to stop overnight, there are a few primitive campsites along the pass, or you can take on the 7.5-mile round trip in one day.
Rangers take tourists out on regular park tours so you can learn more about the park, how it was formed, and how it’s preserved. One guided tour takes you to Escape Dunes, which is particularly beautiful and off the beaten path. The rangers are friendly and extremely knowledgeable, so it’s a great way to get to know the area.
Whether you’re a novice photographer with just a smartphone or a professional looking for world-class shots, you’ll be impressed with Great Sand Dunes. Photographers come from all over the world to capture shots of breathtaking landscapes.
One of the best places to take a photo is the visitor center. It’s in the perfect position for a panoramic shot of the dune field and has a patio to give you an uninterrupted view right over to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Junior Ranger Program
Kids love the free junior ranger program hosted in the national park on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Kids will learn about the park from a professional ranger and participate in some fun activities. You can see the weekly schedule and itinerary at the visitor center.
Hiking and Backpacking
With over 29 miles of maintained, marked hiking trails, Great Sand Dunes is the perfect playground for hikers and backpackers. The trails range from easy to strenuous, so there’s something for everyone.
Many hikers forget the high elevation is in the alpine valley (around 8,000 feet above sea level), so be prepared for the high altitude when hiking.
If you want something off the beaten track, it’s easy to forge your own trail in the park. The dunes are constantly changing, so charting your own way allows you to avoid crowds and explore different areas of the park.
Don’t forget to check out the mountain areas of the park, where you’ll find alpine meadows, peaks, and waterfalls.
Sandboarding and Sand Sledding
Great Sand Dunes is famous for its sandboarding and sledding, and you can’t visit the park without giving it a try. Sandboards and sand sleds can be hired out at the Oasis Store, just outside the entrance of the park.
It can be difficult to get the technique right at first, but once you get the hang of it, there’s nothing like sledding down the side of a giant sand dune!
As a dark sky preserve, stargazing is another popular pastime at Great Sand Dunes. You’ll often see people with impressive telescopes set up to capture glimpses of stars you won’t get to see elsewhere in the US.
But you don’t need a telescope to enjoy stargazing at Great Sand Dunes. Simply take a walk along the sand at night, and you’ll be hit with the vastness of the night sky shimmering with millions of stars.
Most of the national park allows horses, so you can bring yours if you have your own. Many of the local campsites have spots for horses and trailers, so it’s easy to bring them along and go for a ride.
Note: there are some areas that prohibit horses, so check the website if you want to bring your horse to the national park.
If you don’t have your own horse, but you’d still love to go horseback riding, you can go on a tour with Zapata Ranch. The ranch has extensive programs for visitors with horse riding, cattle farming, and bison ranching, all on their stunning local ranch.
Regular cycling isn’t allowed in the park, but fat biking is. Fat bikes have extra-wide tires built for the sand, so you can go down-hilling Medano Pass Primitive Road without sinking in the soft sand.
Be mindful that you share the road with vehicles, so ride carefully when on the road. You also can’t ride bikes on State Highway 150, so you’ll need to transport your bikes to the park for use.
There are some fantastic hiking trails to try at Great Sand Dunes National Park, no matter your skill level.
High Dune on First Ridge
- 3-mile roundtrip
- Elevation: 530 feet
- Difficulty: Hard
- Trailhead: Main Dune Parking Area
This is the popular trail in the park, so expect crowds in the summer months. There is no official path marking the way, and since the sands are constantly changing, you’ll need to pick your own way across the ridge.
- 8-mile roundtrip
- Elevation: 1,300 feet
- Difficulty: Hard
- Trailhead: Main Dune Field Parking Area
Star Dune is the tallest dune in the park, named for its star-like shape. The hike is a full-day trip and is best for experienced hikers because of the high elevation gain. You’ll have to choose your own route, and there are two high vantage points with some incredible views.
Eastern Dune Ridge
- Trailhead: Castle Creek Picnic Area
If you have a 4WD vehicle, you can drive to Castle Creek Picnic Area to start your hike on the Eastern Dune Ridge. If you don’t, you’ll have to drive to the Point of No Return car park and hike an extra 1.5 miles to Castle Creek to get started.
There are no formal trails on the Eastern Ridge, so you’ll have to forge your own trail and decide how far you want to go. Make sure to have GPS or a decent map to find your way, and be prepared for some steep climbs.
Montville Nature Trail
- 0.5-mile roundtrip
- Elevation: 80 feet
- Difficulty: Easy
- Trailhead: Montville Parking Area
This short, easy trail is great for families and kids looking for a gentle hike. It’ll take about an hour, and there are plenty of educational signs along the way explaining the natural wildlife.
Mosca Pass Trail
- 6.5-mile roundtrip
- Elevation: 1,459 feet
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Trailhead: Montville Parking Area
This is a high mountain pass leading to the east of the sand dunes. With almost 1,500 feet of elevation gain, you’ll get spectacular views of the mountains and sands far below. It’s a moderate hike that can take between half a day and a full day, depending on your speed and number of stops.
Sand Ramp Trail
- 11-mile roundtrip
- Minimal elevation
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Trailhead: Point of No Return Parking area
This trail is usually used to access backpacking sites along the foothills and isn’t a popular trail for taking in the scenery. It stays at the same elevation along the mountains’ base but is mostly made up of sand up and down foothills, so it’s a grueling hike.
Medano Lake and Mount Herard
- 3.7-mile roundtrip
- Elevation: 2,000 feet
- Difficulty: Moderate/Hard
- Trailhead: Medano Pass 4WD road
This trail takes you through lush meadows and alpine forests, ending at an alpine lake with incredible views. You can finish here and turn back or keep going to the summit of Mount Herard. At almost 13,300 feet, the aerial views of the dunes are spectacular, but it’s a tough hike best kept for experienced hikers.
- 7-mile roundtrip
- Minimal elevation
- Difficulty: Easy
- Trailhead: Music Pass Trailhead
This hike follows a small creek to the summit of a low pass in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The hike is fairly easy, weaving through evergreen and aspen forests. It’s well established, so you don’t need to worry about navigation, and will take around 2-3 hours to reach the pass.
Sand Creek Lakes
- 7.4-mile roundtrip
- Elevation: 1,964 feet
- Difficulty: Hard
- Trailhead: Music Pass Trailhead
This trail takes you deep into the mountains, high above the sand dune field. You’ll be taken high above the tree line to Sand Creek Lake, surrounded by icefields and alpine meadows. You’ll need a 4WD vehicle to reach the trailhead and some navigating experience to do this full-day hike.
Wetlands, Grasslands, and Shrublands
Much of the Great Sand Dunes of Colorado are wetlands, grasslands, and shrublands. Mostly undisturbed, it’s a great area to go for a peaceful hike away from the crowds.
There aren’t any official trails to follow, so you’ll need experience navigating and GPS to forge your own trail. Be mindful that some parts of the area are closed off, so be sure you know which areas are permitted before leaving for your hike.
You’ll need a backcountry permit to go hiking in the wetlands, so get this at the visitor center before you set off.
Medano Creek Activities
Medano Creek is Colorado’s natural beach because it sits at the foot of the great dunes. The shallow water and gentle waves make it the perfect spot for kids to play, and they can participate in various activities from wading and swimming to rafting and even bodyboarding.
May is the river’s peak flow time, so this is the best time of year to visit if you’re interested in any water activities at Medano Creek.
What to See in Great Sand Dunes National Park
This is the tallest sand dune at Great Sand Dunes National Park, so it’s the most popular photo opportunity. Standing at 750 feet, it’s a challenge for hikers but offers incredible views if you can reach the top. But even standing at the bottom gives you a sense of the scale of the dunes in the park.
Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area
This heritage area encompasses 3,000 square miles within Alamosa, Conejos, and Costilla counties. Known as the Cradle of Colorado, it has the oldest church, Colorado’s first town, historic trains, many historical sites, and agricultural riches. All of this sits in front of stunning mountain scenery.
The area has tons of activities, including a train ride, climbing, fishing, sledding, and more.
We’ve already talked about all the fun to be had at Medano Creek, and it’s clear to see why it’s a must-visit when visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Check to see the flow rate when you plan to visit so you know if you’ll be able to raft, swim, wade, or walk out into the creek. But no matter what time of year you visit, it’s a stunning sight to see.
Where to Stay in the Great Sand Dunes National Park
There are a couple of options for accommodation when visiting Great Sand Dunes, depending on the type of trip you’re planning.
Piñon Flats Campground is part of the national park service, located about a mile north of the visitor center. It’s open from April to October and has 91 spaces available for campers.
You can reserve an individual spot up to six months in advance, whereas group sites can be reserved up to a year in advance.
There are no hook-ups for RVs, but a seasonal store and portable water are available.
There’s also primitive camping along Medano Pass Primitive Road, which has 21 campsites. However, the road can only be accessed by a 4WD vehicle or some serious hiking. These operate on a first-come, first-served basis and fill up quickly in the summer months.
If those campsites are full, there are also several campsites around Great Sand Dunes for backpackers and RVs:
- Zapata Falls Campground – 11 miles north of the visitor center.
- Oasis Campground – right outside the park entrance.
- San Luis Lakes State Wildlife Area – 15 miles west of the visitor center.
- Rustic Rook Resort – 19 miles west of the visitor center.
- Lake Como Road Free Dispersed Camping – 20 miles south of the visitor center.
- Sand Dunes Swimming Pool and Campground – 32 miles west of the visitor center.
- Base Camp Family Campground and RV Park – 27 miles southwest of the visitor center.
The Piñon Flats campground has several spots for RVs up to 25 feet in length. However, there are no hook-ups available, so if you want amenities, you’ll have to stay at one of the campgrounds outside of the national park.
Reservations for Piñon Flats go extremely quickly between May and June, so book well in advance if you plan on taking your RV.
Towns near Great Sand Dunes National Park
If you’re wondering where to stay near Great Sand Dunes National Park, there are a few towns to choose from.
23 miles / 29 mins
Mosca is a tiny town southeast of the visitor center. It has a gas station to refuel, a restaurant, a post office, and a motel. There’s also Colorado Gaters, which is an educational farm where you can watch live alligator shows.
34 miles / 39 mins
A little further out is Alamosa, just off Highway 160. It’s another small town that’s home to the San Luis Valley Regional Airport. You’ll find small eateries, a library, and a huge park with a playground, picnic tables, and restrooms.
89.6 mi / 1 hour 33 mins
It’s a bit of a trek to get to Salida, but this is a larger town with a lot to offer. You’ll find convenience stores, outdoor activities, and restaurants. And if you’re aching from hiking the sand dunes, Salida Hot Springs Pool is the largest indoor hot springs facility in the entire country.
27.9 mi / 33 mins
Seven miles north of Mosca is Hooper, which has a gas station, convenience store, restaurant, and playground. If you’re staying at Sand Dunes Swimming Pool and RV Park, this will be the closest town and a convenient place to refuel and stock up on supplies.
Booking a Tour vs. Going Solo
When planning your trip to Great Sand Dunes, you might wonder if it’s worth booking a guided tour or going it solo. Both are great options, depending on your experience and walking and hiking skill level.
A guided tour is perfect if you’re interested in learning more about the park and don’t want to take a strenuous hike while you visit. The rangers are informative, and the pace they go is suitable for everyone.
However, if you’re a hiker looking to take on the highest peaks and explore at your own pace, a tour might be a little slow for you.
If you’re staying for more than one day, a tour only takes a couple of hours, and you’ll learn some interesting stuff about the park. You can then take the next day to explore solo, try sandboarding, and search for waterfalls in the alpine-covered mountain ranges.
Planning Your Visit to the Great Sand Dunes National Park
Since Great Sand Dunes is a unique destination, it’s important to plan your trip well to make the most of your time in the park. Here’s everything you need to plan in advance.
How long should you stay?
The great thing about this national park is the flexibility you have in the duration of your trip. Some people choose to visit for just a few hours to splash in Medano Creek and go sandboarding.
However, we recommend overnight camping to make the most of your trip. This way, you can set off early to do a couple of the hiking trails, see several different massive dunes and the mountains, and have time to do some star gazing.
The easiest way to get to Great Sand Dunes National Park is to fly into one of the nearby airports and then rent a vehicle to drive the rest of the way.
San Luis Valley Airport (ALS) is the closest airport with commercial flights flying in from Denver. It takes about 45 minutes to drive from the airport to the park’s entrance, where there is ample parking.
If you’re coming with a tour group, a bus will pick you up from whichever airport you’ve arranged to travel to. If not, you’ll need a rental car for your trip.
- Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport – located in Broomfield, CO, it’ll take about 3 hours 50 minutes to get to the park.
- Denver International Airport – also takes around 3 hours 50 minutes to get to the park.
- Grand Junction Regional Airport – located in Grand Junction, CO, it’s around 5 hours 10 minutes away.
- Albuquerque International Sunport – takes about 4 hours to get to the park.
- Canyonlands Field Airport – located in Moab, UT, it’s about six and a half hours to the park from here.
- Cheyenne Regional Airport – it’ll take just over 5 hours to get to Great Sand Dunes from Cheyenne Airport.
- Laramie Regional Airport – it’s about a six-hour drive from this airport.
- Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport – over in Amarillo, TX, this airport is about 280 miles from the park.
Great Sand Dunes National Park entrance fee
You’ll need an entrance pass to get into the park:
- Normal car: $25
- Vans with 15+ passengers: $15/person
- Motorcycle and Riders: $20
If you plan on visiting more than once, you can get an annual pass for $45, which covers everyone in a vehicle for up to one year.
Permits and reservations
You don’t need to make a reservation to visit Great Sand Dunes, but you will need to reserve your camping spot in advance.
If you want to go backcountry camping, you’ll need a permit to camp on one of 20 non-designated sites along the Sand Ramp Trail, including:
- Buck Creek
- Escape Dunes
- Indian Grove
- Little Medano
- Cold Creek
- Sand Creek
What to bring with you
In general, you’ll need to pack what you normally would for a camping trip. However, since this is a tough climate, there are a few things that are important to remember:
- Hat, gloves, and thick socks for the night – the temperature drop is significant, and you’ll feel the chill camping overnight.
- High-factor sunscreen with good UV protection.
- Bandana, hat, or lightweight neck and face cover to protect against the sun and sand.
- Earplugs – these are great for keeping the sand out of your ears while hiking.
- A swimsuit for swimming or wading in Medano Creek.
- Good containers or ziplock bags to protect your food from the sand.
- Bug spray – summer is mosquito season, and the sand can become covered in bugs that bite.
What to wear to Great Sand Dunes National Park
You’ll need decent hiking shoes to take on the trails. The sand surface temperatures can become unbearable during the day, so make sure your shoes come up your ankles to avoid getting burned.
Lightweight clothing is best, but the more skin you can cover up, the better. That’s why a hat or bandana is important, along with breathable fabrics.
If you’re going sandboarding, it’s best to wear long sleeves and trousers to protect your skin from the hot sand when you inevitably fall off.
Things You Didn’t Know About Great Sand Dunes National Park
Before you go, here are some interesting facts you probably didn’t know about Great Sand Dunes National Park…
- The sand dunes are such a unique landscape that NASA uses the area to test rovers for mars missions.
- You could find fossils in the park – the Columbian mammoth roamed the planes millions of years ago and had teeth larger than a human head.
- The Ponderosa Pines in the park are on the Register of Historic Places. They are missing their bark because Native American tribes would use it for medicinal purposes.
- The sand sings! In the wind, masses of the sand shift in avalanches and create an eerie humming sound.
Planning on Camping at Great Sand Dunes?
If you’re planning a trip to the Great Sand Dunes of Colorado, we hope this complete guide has given you all the information you need to make it an incredible trip. From sandboarding to fat biking, you won’t get bored in this incredible national reserve.
If you’re planning on camping at Great Sand Dunes, head to our camping guide to find out more about the specific campsites, how to get to each one, and what to pack for your trip.