Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado is kinda like the coolest aunt you didn’t know you had. In all the years of road trip planning I’ve somehow never come across this national park until I finally did, and, whoa… dunes in Colorado? Say what?!
As it turns out, Great Sand Dunes National Park is extraordinary in several ways:
- It’s home to the tallest dunes in North America. (Aaaand… one of the most complex dune systems in the entire world!)
- This national park has such a diverse ecosystem – care for a dune hike or an alpine forest hike, all in the same hour?
- But the best part? A rare natural phenomenon to stumble upon! (More on that later.)
The official name of this national park is Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, but for the sake of preserving your scrolling space I’m going with the shorter version for this post, “Great Sand Dunes National Park” instead. Hope it’s OK and I don’t hereby offend the NPS deities.
Great Sand Dunes National Park
As you approach the park, the dunes make little sense. They are nestled in a lush valley at the base of the mountains where you would not expect to see sand dunes of any size, let alone North America’s tallest dunes.
They seem dwarfed against the mountain range at first but grow in magnitude the closer you get. The way the dunes contrast with the alpine peaks and the green valley automatically raises so many questions.
Why dunes? Why here?? And… How in the world???
Sand dunes are dependent on two factors – sand and wind, and the dunes in Great Sand Dunes National Park are no exception. They are the result of unique wind patterns between the San Luis Valley and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains where the wind basically blows either from the valley floor toward the mountains or back from the mountains toward the valley. The ever changing wind pattern is what causes the dunes to constantly shift.
As to why all that sand is even here in the first place and for how long, no one is actually quite sure.
The scientific theory is that the sand originated from a series of lakes that once formed on the valley floor. Not all at one time, but in a slow fashion, over different time periods. The lakes eventually receded due to natural climate changes and left behind sand deposits. Timewise, the valley would have been mostly dried up about 400,000 years ago.
Scientists can speculate and exchange theories about the distant past, but one thing is clear – the resulting dunes we see today, combined with the landscape they blanket, is an impressive sight to see! Even though you may be tempted to just drive by real quick and snap a few pictures before speeding away, I want to say hold on for a minute, because there is more to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park than first meets the eye!
The 8 best things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park
#1 Climb the dunes!
The dune field is easy to access (park near the visitor center – dune parking, or stay at the campground). There are no formal trails on the dunes, you are free to explore at your will.
The tallest dune in the park is Star Dune (750 feet from base to summit). It takes about 2.5 hours to reach that peak. The next most famous dune in the park is High Dune (699 feet high) which takes about 1 hour to reach on average. If you have a specific dune in mind, be sure to check at the visitor center about the best way to conquer it, but in all honesty you’ll enjoy the experience just climbing whichever way without a predetermined dune destination.
Fair warning: climbing the dunes is a lot more work than it seems. But it’s so worth it to just get up there – no matter how far you get. The dunes are eerily silent, and the views from up there are incredible. (Have kids? No problem – we took a shot at High Dune with our kids.)
Be prepared with enough water, sun protection, and closed-toe shoes.
#2 Go sand sledding
Or sandboarding (think snowboarding, on sand), another popular activity in Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Both looked like a ton of fun, except for the part that has you climbing up the dunes, in the heat, with gear, repeatedly. On second thought, this may be one of the things that’s actually more fun to watch than to jump into. Boy, do I feel old saying that.
FYI: The park does NOT offer equipment rentals, but the Oasis Store located just a few miles outside the park entrance does (April through mid-October), and other retailers in the San Luis Valley do as well.
#3 Dip your toes in Medano Creek
Medano Creek is NOT your ordinary creek (not that there is anything wrong with ordinary creeks…). It’s the park’s rare phenomenon I talked about earlier at the beginning of this post.
Medano Creek is basically a mini-river, on sand, with waves. I know, right?! (In scientific terms, a stream of water that has waves is referred to as “surge flow.” And, oftentimes, Medano Creek is called just that.)
Now here’s the catch: to see Medano Creek, you’ll need to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park some time between late May and early June when the creek is flowing (more details about Medano Creek here).
The water is frigid in the morning hours but warms up quickly to pleasant temperatures on a nice spring day. The creek is only a few inches deep, no more than a foot deep even during the highest flow and in deepest spots, and it’s clean snowmelt water – just perfect for kids to play in.
#4 Hit the trails!
I would say that Great Sand Dunes National Park isn’t your go-to park for some of the most epic hiking, or even just for hiking per se, BUT there are a few hikes right near the visitor center that will bring a different flavor to your visit.
- Wellington Ditch Trail – an easy out-and-back hike just shy of 2 miles (round trip) that spans between the visitor center and the park’s campground. The path is narrow and sandy, some parts have shade. The bonus is that this trail gives you that much needed higher vantage point for satisfying wide-open views of the dunes below and the surrounding mountains.
- Montville Nature Trail – a short (0.5 miles) loop along the canopy of a thick forest with marked points of interest. I imagine this trail gets popular around noon come summertime when it’s too hot for folk to hang around the dunes.
- Mosca Pass Trail – the trail in Great Sand Dunes National Park that winds its way through some of the most diverse landscape we’ve ever seen on a single hike. This out-and-back trail (3.5 miles one way) doesn’t have the most exciting panoramic views, but the varying scenery makes it interesting to follow. The trail goes up in a gradual incline which makes this hike moderately difficult, especially when combined with the park’s high altitude (the visitor center that’s located down in the valley sits at 8,170 feet). The forested segments of this trail are heavy on mosquitoes, so make sure to bring bug spray on this hike if you’re visiting when temperatures are warmer.
#5 Zapata Falls
This item on the list of the best things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park is not part of the park but is close enough to tie the two together. This spot is located about 13 miles south from the park’s visitor center.
Zapata Falls is a short out-and-back hike to a hidden 25-foot-tall waterfall. The only catch is… you’re probably going to get wet. Except for a few months out of the year when the creek freezes over.
This is a unique hiking trail, dubbed a hidden Colorado gem by many. I’m not sure that I share the enthusiasm for this hike, but you may disagree (find more info about Zapata Falls here). This is, however, an excellent place to cool down when it’s too hot around the dunes, and the views of the dunes from the parking lot can’t be beat!
#6 Stay at the Pinyon Flats Campground
If you want to surround yourself with remarkably unspoiled dune views day and night, camping in Great Sand Dunes National Park might be just the thing to do. The Pinyon Flats Campground is open April through October (more info here).
Heads up: due to close proximity of the campground to the dunes, blowing sand isn’t uncommon. When the wind picked up, even minor gusts were funneling sand into our tent from every which way pretty much constantly. But hey, the wind and sand together is what creates all this beauty around, right?
The campground has basic amenities. Shade varies, as does privacy. In the spring, a small creak runs through the campground (it went right along the edge of our site) which kept our kids fairly busy (and wet). The campsites are highly sought-after around the time Medano Creek is flowing, so you may need to book a site well ahead of time if you’re planning to arrive at this time of the year.
One particular benefit of staying at the Pinon Flats Campground is that Medano Creek is much less crowded towards where the campground is (as opposed to the visitor center/dune parking area). It’s a bit of a walk from the campground, but no need to drive, so that’s definitely a plus.
#7 Off-roading in Great Sand Dunes National Park
FYI: driving on the dunes in Great Sand Dunes National Park is prohibited.
But, off-roading enthusiasts can still get a taste of the largest sandbox in North America by riding the Medano Pass Primitive Road. Bonus points – beautiful scenic views! And, 21 designated roadside campsites along the route (free, first-come-first-serve), should that spike interest.
Medano Pass Primitive Road is a 22-mile-long back road that connects the park with Colorado State Highway 69. The road is rough (areas of deep sand, steep and rocky terrain, plus several creek crossings), so having a 4WD vehicle with high clearance is a must.
Plan on spending 2.5-3 hours on this rugged scenic drive if you’re not setting up camp. (All vehicles in the park must be highway-legal in the state of Colorado. ATVs and most UTVs are not permitted in the park.)
#8 Stay for the sunset
If you crave dramatic sunsets, Great Sand Dunes National Park is THE place to be!
The dunes come ablaze with beautiful bright rich colors as the sun sets and darkness begins to fall. You can choose to view the sunset from the base of the dunes, the dunes themselves, from the park’s campground, or from a distance to capture both the dunes and the mountain range.
Best time to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park
The weather in the park varies significantly depending on location.
In general, winters are sunny and cold, fall days are mild, summer brings warm days, cool nights, frequent thunderstorms and soaring sand temperatures, and spring in the park is basically a wild card.
High season in the park is May and June (because of Medano Creek).
A few more tips for visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park
- The park is easy to get to, though somewhat remote – the closest town (Alamosa) is a whopping 35 miles away. Still, it’s within a reasonable distance from nearby major cities – roughly 4 hours from Denver, 3.5 hours from Durango, and about 3 hours from Santa Fe.
- Find basic park information here.
- Backcountry camping (including on the dunes) is allowed, but permits are required (no charge).