Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is tucked beneath the rugged Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Southern Colorado. Though this wonderland is renowned for 30 square miles of dune field and North America’s tallest dunes, it also has large groves of aspen and cottonwood, ancient spruce and pine forests, alpine lakes and tundra, and six peaks over 13,000 feet.
Minimal light pollution, high elevation, and dry air make it a perfect place to observe galaxies. In 2019, Great Sand Dunes became a certified International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association.
Another unique feature of the Great Sand Dunes is Medano Creek – about ten miles long, a seasonal stream that comes alive during late spring and early summer. It flows along the east edge of the dunes and disappears below ground in the valley.
Best time to visit
Great Sand Dunes can be visited in any season. My favorite season to visit Great Sand Dunes is fall when day temperature dips down, cottonwood and aspen foliage turn into and night sky puts up a brilliant show.
Spring is a bit moody with high winds and temperature fluctuations. Medano Creek starts flowing. Summers get hot during the daytime, and cold by the evening, Medano Creek starts to shrink as summer progresses. Winter is cold with snow blanketing the mountains. It lends the park a new contrast.
Where to Stay and Eat
I will highly recommend to camp at Piñon Flats Campground to experience the full glory of the night sky and listen to the sand sing.
Outside of the park, your options are Great Sand Dunes Lodge, Oasis Camping Cabins, Oasis Duplex Motel, and historic Zapata Ranch. Some of these facilities are closed during winter.
The only restaurant and a small store near the park is the Oasis Restaurant and Store that is located at the main park entrance. Alamosa is about 40 minutes away and has a wide variety of restaurants as well as grocery stores.
The entrance pass is for $25 which is good for a week. Frequent visitors have the option to buy Great Sand Dunes Annual Pass for $45 or America the Beautiful Annual Pass for $80 that gives access to all the national parks and federal land. Check the National Park Service website for more details, roads, and trails conditions.
Park Visitor Centers
Great Sand Dunes has one visitor center about 3 miles from the park entrance. Don’t miss the 20-minute movie about the park and interactive exhibits to deepen your appreciation for the park geology and ecosystems.
Things to do
Whichever season you choose to visit Great Sand Dunes, you will have plenty of things to do to enjoy the park.
Medano Pass Primitive Road
Medano Pass is not only a scenic drive, it is an adventurous drive as well that requires a high-clearance 4WD vehicle. Be ready for deep sand and creek crossings. This 22-mile rugged roundtrip drive starts near the campground and climbs up Medano Pass at 10,040 feet. It is passable only during summer and early fall when the creek level is low and the drive is snow-free. It
You will need an air compressor, aa you driving through soft sand and rocky canyon.
Sand Sledding or Sandboarding
The most unique activity at Great Sand Dunes is surfing the sandy slopes. You will need to rent special sand boards or sleds in Alamosa. I would highly recommend experiencing this fun, Alamosa is just 40 minutes away from the park. It’s worth it.
Sandboarding and sledding are permitted anywhere on the dune field except near the vegetated areas.
Yes! rafting at Great Sand Dunes is possible, depending on the month of your visit. The dynamic flow of Medano Creek from late spring to early summer is perfect for cooling down by rafting or swimming. Bring your inflatable rafts or tubes and relax in the hot afternoon.
Bring along your fat bike for a challenging and rewarding experience of sand, creek crossings, and rocks. You also have an option to backpack at Medano Canyon. Make sure to check road conditions with rangers before riding.
Night Sky Viewing
Bundle up in warm layers and lie down to look up at infinite stars. The Milky Way is most visible over moonless nights from mid-summer through early fall evenings. This is a perfect park to bring along your portable telescope if you can. Park offers ranger-led night sky viewing, check the schedule at the visitor center.
Great Sand Dunes has plenty more to offer besides sand dunes. Plan to explore sand dunes during early mornings, late evening or night to avoid high surface temperature and afternoon thunderstorms. Hike in the mountain areas of the park during the afternoons.
Hiking the Dunes
You have an entire 30 square mile dune field to explore, there are no designated trails.
Besides the legendary Star Dune towering at 750 feet, there are four other dunes taller than 700 feet. Make your own trail, and spend as much time as you want in the dunes. Make sure to carry plenty of water and sun protection. Climb down immediately when thunderstorms, lightning strikes are common. See those blackish tubes of glass called fulgurites in the dunes for the lightning proof.
I will highly recommend hiking up the dunes for sunset or at night, in case you are visiting during a full moon night. It is a magical time up there!
Montville Nature Trail
This half a mile loop trail is best to explore with young children. It loops around the old townsite of Montville that was destroyed by a flash flood in 1911. In its heyday, the town of Montville included about 20 houses and a general store with a post office. Enjoy outstanding views of Mt. Herard, the dunes, and the valley at the highpoint of the trail.
Mosca Pass Trail
Walk in the footsteps of Native Americans and early settlers who used this trail to travel into the valley. This seven-mile roundtrip trail climbs through evergreen forest and meadows to the summit of a low pass in the Sangre de Cristo mountains.
You may want to read these useful tips to start hiking with kids.
Mount Herard Trail
If you are looking for adventure and have a 4WD, head out to Medano Pass primitive road to access the trailhead for Medano Lake and Mount Herard. This 8.8-mile out-and-back trail has solitude, wildflowers, alpine lake, and beautiful views from 13,297 feet tall Mt. Herard.
Backpacking is allowed anywhere on the sand dunes with a backpacking camping permit. For the backpacking in the mountains, designated backcountry backpacking camping sites are located along the Sand Ramp Trail. The permit is free and available at the visitor center on a first-come-first-serve basis. Read this backpacking gear guide to select the right gear for your backpacking trips.
Things to remember while visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park
Afternoon thundershowers are common in July and August. Lightning strikes are common at the sand dunes and can be fatal.
Protect your eyes and face with sunglasses and a buff/large handkerchief while on sand dunes. It gets really windy and uncomfortable up on the dunes.
Even in summer, the temperature drops dramatically at night. Bring warm layers to stay comfortable.
Enjoy your Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve visit. Here is a fun National Parks Quiz for you.
Happy and safe travels!