Tucked at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range which rise up to over 13,000 feet in Colorado, Great Sand Dunes National Park, home to sand dunes rising up to 750 feet, is truly a unique and exotic wilderness wonder. Created as a the result of wind and rain eroding the mountain ranges surrounding the dunes, and wind patterns dropping the sand in the valley over a millennia resulted in the natural creation of the dunes.
This was the last stop on my whirlwind national parks of the west road trip, and what an excellent note to end five weeks of adventure! After going backwards on my sand sled accidentally and having an epic crash, I didn’t have much stamina or psychological will to keep climbing the sand, but it was a fun, strange and out of this world experience that I probably will always consider to be the highlight of my trip.
If you plan your trips with a long checklist of things to see, you can probably cross off a few items from your visit to Great Sand Dunes. In addition to the large dunes, the park offers creeks to play in, grass meadows to spot wildlife, wetlands to explore, aspen forests to walk in, alpine lakes to take a swim in, and tundra to explore.
If you’re interested in exploring the array of landscapes at Great Sand Dunes, having a four-wheel drive will give you the best experience. Roads such as the Medano Pass Road cannot be traversed in a two-wheel drive or even a small sport utility vehicle.
Hiking: There are five dunes in the park that stand over 700 feet tall. There are no trails to guide your way on the dunes and most hiking apps don’t show the changes in dunes. Moving vertically on sand is not a walk in the park, especially when the starting elevation is 8,000 feet (the elevation of the park) so be prepared to exert your body. In the late afternoons and evenings, wind gusts pick up adding to the effort you’ll have to expend! In the summer, sand temperatures can get up to 150 degrees in the middle of the day, so make sure to wear shoes that cover your feet (and not Chaco sandals as I did!).
Although many visitors come to hike and play in the sand dunes, there is a world of hiking opportunities beyond the dunes. There are several alpine trails that start at 10,000 feet of elevation and can gain another 2,000 feet and provide unparalleled views of the dunes. There are trails that take you to serene alpine lakes. And other trails that offer peaceful walk among giant trees. Whatever your hiking pleasure, it is guaranteed, Sand Dunes National Park can meet it.
– High Dune
– Star Dune
– Mount Herard
– Sand Creek Lakes (three lakes)
– Zapata Falls (located 12 miles outside the park)
Backpacking: There are several backcountry campsites available. Visitors can camp along the sand dunes at non-designated sites. There are only 20 permits/sites allowed each night. There are also seven designated campgrounds along the Sand Ramp Trail – a trail that allows hikers to experience the varying landscapes of Sand Dunes.
Sandboarding and Sand Sledding: One of the most unique and fun adventures that I’ve had in a national park was sand sledding at Great Sand Dunes. The park permits sandboarding and sledding anywhere on the dunefield as long as it is away from fragile vegetation. Proper gear specifically designed for the sand is required and make sure to go out only in dry conditions (if the sand is wet, sledding will be really hard). The park website has helpful guidelines on proper technique and a list of equipment that works in the sand.
Although the park does not rent sand sleds, there are several outfitters close to the park that they do. Oasis Store is located just 4 miles outside the park on the road that leads to the park entrance. I grabbed my board on the way and it was an easy, quick process. They do not provide training, so make sure to watch some videos and read the advice on the park website.
While it might be tempting to take on the tallest dunes, practice on the smaller ones close to the main parking area. The sand at the base is softer and the gentler runouts can slow you down. After sledding through a few dunes, I decided to try on a higher dune that had a razor thin ledge. Because I didn’t properly center the board, I went backwards and tumbled down to the base. I wasn’t hurt badly – a sore shoulder – but there was sand in every conceivable part of my body! And if I had been on a higher dune, I could’ve injured myself.
Fat Biking: Although mechanized vehicle use is limited in the wilderness areas of the Great Sand Dunes National Park, bikes with wide tires are permitted on the Medano Pass Primitive Road. This road is only accessible by 4WD vehicles and fat bikes, but both vehicles and bikes have to share a single lane road. No permits are needed to bike or camp in the Medano Campground.
Star Gazing: As a certified dark sky park, the unfettered view of the sky from a camp spot in the dunes is beyond imagination and other worldly. Make sure to plan your visit on a moonless night to get the full impact of the starry night. Camping in the dunes requires a permit that can be obtained at the visitor center. Permits are awarded each night at the visitor center on a first come, first-served basis. Only 20 permits are awarded each night, weather permitting. The only rules of camping in the dunes is to hike out beyond the day use area (about 1.5-2 miles into the park).
Great Sand Dunes National Park is a remotely located and visitors must drive into the park. There are several unpaved roads that require 4WD that provide access to the park. To avoid traveling down these roads unintentionally in vehicles not equipped for them, Great Sand Dunes warns visitors to not rely on GPS to route them to the park. They advise using maps to navigate yourself. Highway 150 from the south and County Road 6 from the west are the only two paved highways that provide access to Great Sand Dunes.
Airports: There is a small airport in Alamosa, Colorado (38 miles) but service is very limited. There are three major airlines that will get you in the vicinity but will require varying amounts of driving.
– Colorado Springs, Colorado (165 miles)
– Albuquerque, New Mexico (237 miles)
– Denver, Colorado (250 miles)
Entrance Fees: As with other National Parks, there is an entrance fee for Great Sand Dunes National Park.
– Cars/Other Vehicles, $25; Motorcycles, $20; & Bicycle/Walk-In, $15/per person (seven day pass)
– Annual Great Sand Dunes Pass (unlimited visits to Great Sand Dunes): $50
– Annual National Park Pass (unlimited entrance to any public lands operated by NPS): $80
There are no lodging options and one campground, Pinon Flats, inside Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Camping: Pinon Flats Campground is open seasonally (April – Oct) and reservations can be made up to 6 months in advance. Each individual campsite is $20/night and the cost of group sites vary by size. RVs are allowed in the individual site area but not in the group site area.
Gateway Towns: Given the lack of accommodation inside the park and the remote location of the park, planning your stay in a community surrounding the park in advance is important. The park lists four hotels/motels within 45 minutes on its site. The closest communities are small and offer only a view options. Alamosa, Colorado (38 miles) is the town that offers the most lodging options.
– Mosca (23 miles), Rustic Rook Reosrt
– Fort Garland (31 miles), Mountain View Inn & The Lodge Motel
– Alamosa (38 miles)
– Monte Vista (43 miles)
– San Luis (45 miles), San Luis Inn
– Moffat (45 miles), Willow Spring B&B
Although lodging is limited, Great Sand Dunes National Park is surrounded by land managed by the National Forest Service and offers dispersed camping and a range of commercial campgrounds. During my visit, I drove from Mesa Verde and it started to fairly late and I was able to pull into a national forest campground only 30 minutes outside the park.
– Oasis Campground, immediately outside the park and open seasonally (April – October)
– Zapata Falls Campground, open year round and primitive
– Sand Dunes Swimming Pool & Campground, commercial camping
– Rio Grande National Forest, 33 campgrounds and cabin rentals
– San Isabel National Forest, campgrounds and cabin rentals