When most people think of Colorado, they think about the Rocky Mountains and popular ski towns. The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve can often be overlooked, but is one of the state’s most notable spots!
The sand dunes, which are believed to have started forming about 440,000 years ago from the combination of opposing winds and a huge supply of sand from the valley floor, are the tallest in North America. They’re a must-see for any RVer.
Why Visit Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve?
Not only are the sand dunes a rare natural phenomenon, but the entire area surrounding the national park is filled with beauty. As you drive to the park, you’ll quickly fall in love with the San Luis Valley and be greeted with sweeping views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and on the east and the San Juan Mountains to the west.
Once inside the park, you’ll be amazed by the diversity it offers. Its high desert landscape is home to lakes, forests, wetlands, grasslands, meadows, and shrublands. Plus, with over 100,000 acres to explore, you’re sure to find what excites you most! Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve was also recently named one of the quietest national parks, which is just another feature that makes it feel somewhat bizarre. It’s truly a park of contrasts that you have to see to believe.
Things to Do
There’s plenty to do in the park, and each activity will help you learn to love this area even more. Here are some of the top activities.
Sandboarding and sledding
Colorado is known for its skiing, and the park offers its own version. You’ll find that the first activity most visitors want to enjoy is hiking to the top of the dunes only to slide right back down on a sled or sandboard!
Sandboarding and sand sledding is permitted anywhere on the dunefield away from vegetation, but you’ll be greatly disappointed if you bring just a standard sled or board. You’ll need one with an extra slick base material and possibly even special wax for it to work in the sand. The NPS does not rent gear, but there are several nearby retailers that do.
Explore the Dunes
There are no designated trails in the sand and, as you can imagine, hiking up the dunes is quite challenging. In fact, it takes the average person about an hour to reach the top of the first dune ridge. If you’re up to the challenge, the high dune on the first ridge is the most popular destination and provides a great view of the entire dune field.
The more advanced explorers who are willing to spend about five hours round trip can enjoy Star Dune, the tallest dune in North America (750 feet). Lastly, if you have a high clearance 4WD, you can drive right to Eastern Dune Ridge to enjoy views of it’s impressively tall, steep dune face. Otherwise, 2WD vehicles must drive part of the way and hike 3/4 mile to reach it.
Hit the Trails
Montville Nature Trail and Mosca Pass Trail are great shady, forested hikes if you’re looking to escape the heat of the dunes. Both will also reward you with views of the nearby mountains, valley, and dunes. Medano Lake Trailhead is another popular trail that can be accessed from the Medano Pass 4WD road and leads to an alpine lake.
If you’re up for a long drive and hike, you can also visit Music Pass and Sand Creek Lakes and enjoy some of the most beautiful alpine scenery in the area.
The grasslands, wetlands, and shrublands in the park are also great for exploring, but access is limited and a guided tour, or at least a good map and a ranger’s advice, is recommended. Otherwise, the Sand Sheet Loop Trail from the visitors center offers an easy trail with interpretive signs to give you a quick glimpse of the grasslands.
Splash Around in Medano Creek
Medano Creek is at the base of the dunes and easily accessed from the parking lot. It offers a beach-like environment at Great Sand Dunes and visitors love splashing in the shallow waters. When creek flow is high, you might even spot some children floating on rafts in the waters.
During certain conditions, a phenomenon called “surge flow” occurs where sand forms and falls in the creek bed and create waves, that look much like the ocean. You can check the Medano Creek conditions here.
Take a Scenic Drive on the Medano Pass 4WD Road
This is not your average road! Medano Pass is 22 miles of sandy, rocky, and wet terrain that is only passable with a high-clearance 4-wheel drive vehicle during warmer months. It will take you about 3 hours to drive the entire road, which connects Great Sand Dunes with the Wet Mountain Valley and Colorado State Highway 69 and gives access to Great Sand Dunes National Preserve.
You’ll want to check the road conditions ahead of time and follow the NPS’s recommendations for reducing your tire pressure and follow their mileage chart to ensure your safety.
Go Out After Dark
Great Sand Dunes National Park was recently recognized as an International Dark Sky Park. With its dry air, high elevation, and lack of light pollution, it’s an ideal destination for night sky viewing.
Plan your visit during a full moon and enjoy a late night hike along the dunes with no need for a flashlight! Or, bring your telescope and camera to capture the milky way. The park also offers night programs to learn about and experience the night sky and nocturnal wildlife in the area.
Venture Out to Other Nearby Attractions
There’s so much to see and do outside the park too! Take a hike to Zapata Falls and along other trails inside the Rio Grande National Forest and the San Isabel National Forest that both surround the park.
The San Luis Valley is also home to three national wildlife refuges, perfect for bird watching. The nearby towns of Alamosa and Mosca are filled with history and eclectic culture and Hooper is home to the UFO Watchtower if you’re into paranormal activity!
When to Visit
You can enjoy a visit to the park any time of the year, although summer can be very hot and crowded. The sand surface temperatures have reached up to 150°F in the hottest months of the year! Summertime also brings many thunderstorms to the area so it’s best to enjoy the park early in the morning or during the evening.
Spring and fall will give you the most comfortable temperatures. However, it can be really windy and March and April are the snowiest months.Early fall tends to be the best time to visit the park, with mild temperatures.
Don’t let the winter weather deter you. The area is generally sunny throughout winter and because of it’s dry air, it doesn’t feel as cold as more humid destinations. Keep in mind though, that most of the programs offered by the Great Sand Dunes take place from May through September.
Where to Stay
Piñon Flats Campground is a National Park Service campground that is open April through October. It’s located one mile north of the Visitor Center, accommodates RV’s up to 35 feet long and has 88 non-hook up sites. Reservations in advance are recommended.
Roadside camping is also permitted along Medano Road only at the 21 numbered campsites in Great Sand Dunes National Preserve. Several hiking areas inside the park allow overnight backpacking with a free backcountry permit.
There are also many options for camping outside the park as well. Oasis Campground is the nearest, located just outside the park entrance and even offers full hookups to RVs, as well as other amenities, and is open April through October. Zapata Falls Campground is another close by option that offers primitive camping on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, spectacular views, and is first-come, first-served for only $11 a night.
You can camp for free with electric hook ups at San Luis Lakes State Wildlife Area Campground just 15 miles west of Great Sand Dunes Visitor Center. Entrance requires a Colorado wildlife annual access pass, or hunting or fishing license but no reservation is needed and the views are priceless.
If you’re looking for a fun and unique camping experience in the area, try out the Sand Dunes Swimming Pool and Campground and enjoy full hook-up sites and an on-site geothermal swimming pool with a great restaurant and fun for the whole family. Or, if you’re brave enough to endure a possible alien encounter, the UFO Watchtower and Campground offers primitive camping.
Getting to and Around Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
The most common route to the Great Sand Dunes is to take I-25 to Walsenburg, west on US 160, then north on State Highway 150. Once you turn onto CO-150, you can follow it right into the park.
If you’re coming from within Alamosa, you can take CO-7 north to County Lane 6, go east until you get to CO-150. It’s best to follow the map on the NPS website, as GPS units have been known to lead visitors to primitive 4WD only roads.
Once inside the park, you’ll want to be aware of areas that will require a high clearance vehicle and check road conditions before heading out to explore.
Tips and Tricks Specific to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
- Unlike many other national parks, pets are permitted in many areas of the Great Sand Dunes. Just be cautious of hot sand temperatures, cactus, and wildlife while exploring with your four legged family members.
- While it’s no surprise that the Great Sand Dunes is typically windy, visitors are often unprepared for the conditions. Wear protective sunglasses, layer your clothing, and remember that walking through the dunes is strenuous so don’t over-pack. Of course during summer temperatures, bring plenty of sunscreen and water and protect your feet from the hot sand.
- Take the time to read and learn about the fascinating history of how the dunes formed. You can do this by reading it on the website or by stopping at the visitors center. Either way, it will give you a greater appreciation for the park.
For the latest info on visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, visit their website: Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.
Have you been to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve? What tips can you share?