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 it 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 in an RV?
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 on the east and the San Juan Mountains to the west.
Once inside the park, you’ll be amazed by its diversity. 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.
When to Visit Great Sand Dunes National Park
You can enjoy a visit to the park any time of the year, although summer can be very hot and crowded.
Great Sand Dunes National Park in the Spring
Spring will give you the most comfortable temperatures. However, it can be really windy, and March and April are the snowiest months.
Great Sand Dunes National Park in the Summer
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.
Great Sand Dunes National Park in the Fall
Early fall tends to be the best time to visit the park, with mild temperatures.
Great Sand Dunes National Park in the Winter
Don’t let the winter weather deter you. The area is generally sunny throughout winter, and because of its dry air, it doesn’t feel as cold as more humid destinations. Remember that most of the programs offered take place from May through September.
Where to Stay
Piñon Flats Campground is a National Park Service campground located about a mile north of the visitor center. It’s open from April through October and has 91 non-hook-up RV and tent sites. Reservations in advance are recommended.
Roadside camping is also permitted along Medano Road only at the 21 numbered RV sites in Great Sand Dunes National Preserve. Several hiking areas inside the park allow overnight backpacking with a free backcountry permit.
Staying Outside the Park
There are also many options for camping outside the park entrance. Here are a few nearby campgrounds with their approximate distances to the park:
- Cool Sunshine RV Park: About 40 minutes from the visitor center.
- Great Sand Dunes Oasis Campground: About 10 minutes from the visitor center.
- Blanca RV Park: About 30 minutes from the visitor center.
- Conejos River Campground: About 1.75 hours from the visitor center.
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Free camping with electric hookups at San Luis Lakes State Wildlife Area Campground 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.
Tips for Your Camping Stay
- Reservations are made through recreation.gov and can be placed up to six months in advance.
- Pinon Flats can accommodate RVs up to 33 feet and travel trailers up to 20 feet.
- Expect limited cell reception in the park, and the closest Wi-Fi is located about 40 miles southwest in Alamosa, CO.
- Pets are welcome in the Pinon Flats Campground but must remain on a leash at all times.
- Black bears are potential visitors, so keep all food stored inside your RV or in the locked boxes provided.
- Collecting firewood in the park, as well as transporting firewood from other regions, is prohibited. Regionally harvested firewood is available at the visitor center, campground, and camp store.
How to Get 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 and 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 requiring a high clearance vehicle and check road conditions before heading out to explore.
Places to Go
If it’s your first visit to Great Sand Dunes, here are the must-see spots:
There are no designated trails in the 30-square-mile dune field, and 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 its impressively tall, steep dune face. Otherwise, 2WD vehicles must drive part of the way and hike 3/4 mile to reach it.
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, creating waves that look like the ocean. You can check the Medano Creek conditions here.
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.
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!
Things to Do in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
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 are permitted anywhere on the dunes, so long as you stay 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.
In addition to the dunes, there are plenty of hiking trails in the park for exploring its alpine lakes and tundra. Here are a few forested trails to help you escape direct sunlight during your visit.
- Montville Nature Trail: A short hike with views of the dune, valley, and Mt. Herard.
- Mosca Pass Trail: About 3.5 miles one way along a small creek to a low mountain pass.
- Medano Lake Trailhead: Begins at 10,000 feet and leads to an alpine lake. Experienced hikers can continue along the trail to the summit of Mt. Herard at 13,297 feet above sea level.
- Music Pass and Sand Creek Lakes: A 2.5-hour drive from the visitor center and an 8-mile round-trip hike to the lakes. But it’s worth it for some of the most beautiful alpine scenery in the area.
- Sand Sheet Loop Trail: An easy interpretive trail at the visitor center with glimpses of the grasslands.
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.
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.
For the latest info on visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, visit their website: Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.
What to Bring and How to Prepare
Great Sand Dunes National park is beautiful, but it’s still a desert. Make sure you have plenty of the following:
- 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 are typically windy, visitors are often unprepared for the conditions. Wear protective sunglasses, bring lots of water, 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 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.
- Bring a camping cooler to keep your beverages cool and a portable fan to keep you cool!
Brief History of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Designated by President Hoover in 1932, Great Sand Dunes National Park has been a monument of beauty and evidence of human existence in the San Luis Valley for more than 11,000 years. In 2004 the park boundaries were re-established to incorporate over 107,000 acres while specifically protecting an additional 41,000 acres. With the tallest sand dunes in North America, the park is a true spectacle within our own backyard.
Have you been to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve? What tips can you share?