National Park Guides

Great Sand Dunes National Park: Scale the Largest Dunes in North America

POSTED ON February 7, 2023 BY Ralph S.


Introduction

Have you ever wanted to marvel at the sights of a natural wonder? Look no further than Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Nestled within the picturesque San Luis Valley of southern Colorado lies a natural wonder that stands as a testament to the harmonious interplay between earth, wind, and time – Great Sand Dunes National Park.

This national park is one of the most unique attractions in America and offers visitors an unforgettable experience. This enchanting expanse, overseen by the vigilant stewardship of the National Park Service, showcases the raw beauty of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains meeting a colossal dune field on the eastern edge of the valley. As the tallest dunes in North America, including the iconic Star Dune, this dynamic landscape beckons adventurers and nature enthusiasts year-round.

The park’s allure is heightened by the ephemeral Medano Creek, and its history is interwoven with the nearby Gunnison National Park and a former national monument. The sand dunes here range in size, with the star dune being the largest at 750 feet high. The eastern edge of the dune field is home to some of the most massive and impressive dunes in the world.

From its surge flows to its recognition under the Preserve Act, the southern end of the Sangre de Cristo offers an ever-evolving tapestry of geological marvels.

Join us as we embark on a journey through the sands of time, exploring the multifaceted charm of Great Sand Dunes – a destination where the artistry of nature meets the embrace of the National Parks.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

History of Great Sand Dunes National Park

The captivating history of Great Sand Dunes National Park is a tapestry woven with the threads of early settlers, the resilient landscape of the San Luis Valley, and the vigilant guardianship of the National Park Service. This park boasts North America’s tallest sand dunes and a wealth of natural wonders that have attracted visitors for generations.

Long before the area gained national park status, indigenous peoples left their mark on the San Luis Valley, drawn to the diverse ecosystem at the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Fast forward to 1932, when President Herbert Hoover designated the Great Sand Dunes as a national monument, recognizing its massive dunes and their unique formation. The monument’s boundaries expanded over the years, eventually encompassing the entire dune field and nearby mountains.

A visit to the park today reveals a treasure trove of experiences. The visitor center acts as a gateway to discovery, providing insights into the geological and ecological wonders that define this landscape. The iconic High Dune showcases the grandeur of the tallest dune, offering breathtaking vistas of the dune field and the nearby mountains.

Nature’s artistry extends beyond the dunes. The gentle waters of Medano Creek weave through cottonwood groves and sustain a diverse array of plant species. Hot springs dot the landscape, adding to the allure of exploration.

Wildlife finds a haven in this diverse habitat as well. Mule deer and other creatures traverse the deep sand, while bird enthusiasts delight in the avian residents of the park. But you can find a comprehensive list of the available animals at this link.

In 2004, Great Sand Dunes received its rightful recognition as a national park and preserve, highlighting the importance of preserving not just the dunes, but the entire ecosystem they encompass. Open year-round, the park welcomes adventurers to witness the surge flows of Medano Creek, the tranquil beauty of Lake Alamosa, and the rugged landscapes of the north rim.

As you step onto the shifting sands of Great Sand Dunes National Park, you’re treading upon a landscape that has witnessed the passage of time, the stories of ancient peoples, and the enduring beauty of southern Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Range.

Key Facts about Great Sand Dunes National Park

  • Size: Approximately 149,140 acres (604.57 km²)
  • Number of Visitors: 527,546 (2019)
  • Established: As a national monument on March 17, 1932, and a national park and preserve on September 13, 2004
  • Number of Hiking Trails: 11
  • Total Length of Trails: Roughly 30 miles (48 kilometers)
  • Lowest point: Around 7,520 feet (2,292 meters) above sea level.
  • Highest Point: Star Dune, the tallest dune in the park, at approximately 755 feet (230 meters) above the floor of the dunes.

great sand dunes national park and preserve

Other interesting facts about Great Sand Dunes National Park

  • The sand dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park aren’t fixed in place. Strong winds continuously reshape them, creating an environment where the dunes migrate and evolve over time.
  • The dune field’s floor sits at an elevation of about 7,520 feet (2,292 meters), while the nearby Sangre de Cristo Mountains rise dramatically to over 13,000 feet (3,962 meters), offering a unique blend of high desert and alpine scenery.
  • The park’s Medano Creek creates a natural beach-like setting, complete with sandy shores and shallow waters in spring and summer. Visitors can even experience a “surge flow,” where water flows downstream in waves.
  • Despite the seemingly harsh environment, the park hosts a rich variety of plant species and animal life. From cottonwood groves along creek beds to elusive black bears, the ecosystem surprises with its resilience.
  • The sand originates from the ancient San Juan Mountains and the Rio Grande River. Over thousands of years, sediments were carried downriver, forming the dunes that are now the park’s iconic features.
  • Great Sand Dunes is designated an International Dark Sky Park, making it an excellent spot for stargazing. Away from urban light pollution, visitors can witness celestial wonders in the clear night skies.
  • The park’s history dates back centuries. Indigenous groups and Spanish explorers have all left their marks, contributing to the cultural tapestry of the region.
  • Great Sand Dunes National Park highlights the importance of preserving the unique ecosystem and its geological wonders for generations to come.

Climate and Weather

Great Sand Dunes National Park boasts a climate as unique as its landscape. From the warm embrace of spring to the crisp coolness of winter, each season paints a distinct picture, offering visitors a diverse and immersive experience year-round.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Spring (March-May)

As the snow melts on the surrounding Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the park comes alive with the promise of spring. With temperatures ranging from 11°C to 21°C (51°F to 70°F), it’s a comfortable time to traverse the designated trails, like the Sand Ramp Trail or Medano Creek Trail.

Early spring is perfect for sledding in the sand, as the dunes are often covered with snow. Medano Creek starts to flow, providing a gentle oasis for wading.

Be prepared for occasional high winds, especially in March, which add a sense of excitement to your visit.

Summer (June – August)

Summer in Great Sand Dunes National Park is characterized by warm temperatures, with averages ranging from 16°C to 31°C (61°F to 88°F). Early June is ideal for sandboarding, and the clear, dry air makes for excellent star gazing. The Medano Creek reaches its peak flow, inviting visitors to splash around and cool off.

Plan for an early start to beat the heat and enjoy the dunes before the sun is high in the sky.

While summer brings more crowds, the park’s vast expanse ensures that tranquility can still be found.

Fall (September – November)

As early fall sets in, temperatures start to drop, ranging from 5°C to 25°C (41°F to 77°F). This is a wonderful time for hiking, horseback riding, and exploring the park’s various trails, such as the Sand Ramp Trail and the Medano Pass Primitive Road.

The cooling temperatures make for comfortable exploration, and the changing foliage adds an extra layer of beauty to the landscape. Medano Creek’s flow diminishes, but the dunes remain a captivating sight.

Winter (December – February)

Winter blankets the dunes in serene beauty, with temperatures averaging between -12°C and 7°C (10°F and 45°F). While the park’s visitor center is closed, Medano Creek’s frozen surface invites visitors to experience the dunes in a whole new way – by cross-country skiing or snowshoeing.

Keep in mind that the park’s facilities and services are limited in the winter months when snowfall averages around 17 inches. Layer up and brace for the dry air and occasional high winds.

When to Visit Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park is a year-round wonder, with each season offering its own unique charm and experiences. However, consider the distinct attributes of each season to find the best time that aligns with your interests and preferences when planning your visit to this mesmerizing landscape in Southern Colorado.

Summer in great sand dunes national park and preserve

Spring and fall offer milder weather and fewer crowds, making them great for hiking and exploring.

Summer brings the chance to enjoy Medano Creek and Stargaze.

Winter transforms the park into a snowy paradise for those seeking a unique experience.

Recommended Gear

Embarking on a journey to Great Sand Dunes National Park is an opportunity to embrace the magic of nature’s grandeur.

Whether you’re navigating the dunes, exploring trails, or wading through the gentle waters of Medano Creek, there are some essential items that are necessary for having a safe and enjoyable experience.

great sand dunes national park and preserve essential gear

  • Appropriate Footwear: The National Park Service recommends wearing hiking sandals or lightweight, comfortable, closed-toe shoes when exploring the park’s designated soft sand trails, such as the Sand Ramp Trail.
  • Layers of Clothing: Weather can change rapidly, especially due to the predominant southwest winds. Visitors should also be aware of the fact that it can get much colder than at sea level since the park is located in a high-altitude environment. In the winter months, the average snowfall inches ranges from around 17 inches. As such, it is important to dress warmly. Here is a guide to help you choose the appropriate layers. However, wear light, moisture-wicking layers in warmer months.
  • Sun Protection: Sunscreen, sunglasses, and a wide-brimmed hat are essential to shield yourself from the strong high-altitude sunlight.
  • Hydration and Snacks: Bring plenty of water to stay hydrated, especially during warmer months. Pack energy-boosting snacks to keep you fueled during your adventures.
  • Sledding Gear: If you plan to try sand sledding, consider renting sand sleds at the designated spot. They can be a thrilling addition to your visit.
  • Camera and Binoculars: Capture the stunning vistas of the dunes, the alpine lakes, and the surrounding landscape. Binoculars can enhance your chances of spotting wildlife from a distance.
  • Backpack: Carry your essentials comfortably in a backpack. Don’t forget to include a first aid kit, a map of the park, and any medications you might need.
  • Seasonal Gear: Depending on when you visit, pack accordingly. For winter, bring snowshoes or cross-country skis. In summer, a swimsuit for wading in Medano Creek is a must. Check out our guide to winter hiking.
  • Stargazing Equipment: If you’re visiting during a moonless night, consider bringing a telescope or binoculars for remarkable stargazing opportunities. Great Sand Dunes’ designation as a Dark Sky Park makes it an excellent spot for observing celestial wonders.
  • Outdoor Adventure Equipment: Bring any necessary gear or equipment for extensive outdoor activities like horseback riding.

Remember that the park’s remote location and unique environment may require specific gear. Check the park’s official website or contact the National Park Service for the latest recommendations, particularly if you plan to venture into areas like the Medano Pass Road or the North Rim.

What to Do in Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park offers a variety of activities for visitors to explore and enjoy. From sand sledding and horseback riding to hiking, fishing, hot springs, and wildlife viewing, the park provides something for everyone.

Here are some of our top picks for things to do at the Great Sand Dunes:

Hiking and Backpacking

For those looking for a great walk in the park, Great Sand Dunes National Park offers plenty of hikes and trails that showcase its unique beauty.

The Dune on First Ridge is a leisurely hike that takes you to the top of the tallest dune. From there, explore some of the lesser-known trails, such as Hidden Dune and Star Dune, for a more secluded experience. Hikers can also traverse the Eastern Dune Ridge, which offers breathtaking views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the distance.

great sand dunes national park and preserve Trail

Best Hikes in Great Sand Dunes National Park

  • High Dune on First Ridge: An approximately 2.5 miles (4 km) roundtrip moderate-to-strenuous hike that ascends the tallest dune accessible from the main dunefield parking area. You will enjoy panoramic views of the dunes, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and the San Luis Valley. It is also the perfect destination for sunrise or sunset photography. This challenging hike provides an incredible vantage point over the vast dunefield. The soft sand makes the ascent demanding, so be prepared for a leg workout. The sweeping vistas at the top are well worth the effort. Prepare for about 1.5-2.5 hours.
  • Hidden Dune: An approximately 7-mile (11 km) roundtrip moderate hike that traverses the dunes, passing by the Star Dune, before reaching the secluded Hidden Dune. You will discover a sense of solitude in this less-visited area of the park. Hidden Dune offers a quieter hike through the dunes, leading to a serene and lesser-known viewpoint. While the terrain can be challenging, the beauty of the Hidden Dune in the distance makes it a rewarding trek. Prepare for 2.5-3.5 hours.
  • Star Dune: An approximately 7-mile (11 km) roundtrip strenuous hike that conquers the challenge of reaching North America’s tallest dune. Experience breathtaking vistas of the entire surrounding landscape for approximately 9 hours. This is a true adventure for experienced hikers, tied with the Hidden Dune hike. The trail is unmarked, and the hike through deep sand can be physically demanding. However, the sense of accomplishment and the panoramic views from the top are unparalleled.
  • Eastern Dune Ridge: This is an approximately 3-mile (4.8 km) roundtrip moderate hike that traverses the dune field and ascends the Eastern Dune Ridge for unique vantage points. Take in vistas of the dunes, the valley floor, and the surrounding mountains. This hike offers a chance to explore the diverse landscape of the dunes. As you ascend the Eastern Dune Ridge, the changing perspectives provide a rich tapestry of sand, sky, and mountains. Plan for about 2-3 hours.
  • Montville Nature Trail: An easy forested trail with interpretive signs that provide insights into the area’s natural history, ecology, and geology. The trail features shade from cottonwood trees, suitable for all ages. The time to Complete is about an hour.
  • Mosca Pass Trail: Length: With an approximately 3 1/2 mile (5.7 km) one-way moderate trek through the forest, this trail ascends to the Mosca Pass. You will experience a change in scenery from the sand dunes to the mountains for about 4 – 6 hours. This Trail also provides a contrasting experience from the dunes, leading you through diverse landscapes to a higher elevation. The trail is marked, but its length and elevation gain require adequate preparation.
  • Sand Ramp Trail: This 11-mile (17 km) easy-to-moderate trail ascends the sand ramp to get a taste of the dune experience. It is a trail commonly used to access several backcountry sites in the park. The Sand Ramp Trail offers a shorter and less strenuous dune experience. While it’s not a full dune hike, it provides a glimpse of the unique sand environment and its challenges.

Camping

Camping in Great Sand Dunes National Park is an opportunity to immerse yourself in the breathtaking landscapes of the San Luis Valley, surrounded by towering sand dunes and pristine wilderness.

The park offers several campgrounds to cater to various preferences and needs. Here’s a breakdown of the available campgrounds:

Piñon Flats Campground: Located within the park, this campground is the primary camping option and offers both tent and RV sites. Reservations are highly recommended, especially during the peak season (early June through early fall). You can book here or through the National Park Service website.

Oasis Campground: Oasis Campground is a convenient option located near the park’s main dunes parking area, offering tent camping. It operates on a first-come, first-served basis. Arrive early to secure a spot.

Zapata Falls Campground: Situated outside the park, this campground provides a peaceful environment and is closest to Zapata Falls, a nearby attraction. It also operates on a first-come, first-served basis. Make reservations here.

Dunes Backcountry

For those seeking a more primitive experience, backcountry camping is allowed in the dunes’ backcountry zone. This option allows for an immersive experience in the heart of the dunes. A free permit is required, which you can obtain at the visitor center.

Sand Creek: This is a backcountry camping zone located further into the dunes. It’s ideal for those looking to explore the remote areas of the park. A free permit is required and can be obtained at the visitor center.

Aspen Grove, Cold Creek Camp, Little Medano Creek, Indian Grove, and Escape Dunes: These are specific zones within the backcountry where camping is allowed. Each offers a unique experience, from forests to creeks and more. Like the other backcountry zones, free permits are required and available at the visitor center.

Note that the Great Sand Dunes National Park camping grounds offer amenities such as picnic areas, flush toilets, and access to trails like the Sand Ramp Trail and others. Piñon Flats Campground even has RV sites available. In addition, the camping grounds are open year-round, but facilities and services may be limited during the winter months.

Sandboarding and Sand Sledding

The towering sand dunes are what make Great Sand Dunes National Park a must-see destination, adding a few experiences of sledding down these massive dunes.

The best place to start sandboarding and sledding is at the visitor center located near the park’s entrance. From here, you can get an overview of the entire dune field from a higher vantage point. To access the dunes and find your perfect spot, there are two main routes: north to Sand Creeks or south across Lake Alamosa.

The northern route leads through the park service’s North Rim parking lot before arriving at the dunes. These towering dunes are a sight to behold, made up of sand grains pushed here by predominant southwest winds over many years. This area is located in the center of the entire dune field, so you will find plenty of slope options for your ride.

The southern route is a bit more challenging, but also less crowded as you cross Lake Alamosa and make your way to the dunes. It can be difficult to spot where the surge flow of sand begins, so it’s best to consult with park rangers for safe access points.

great-sand-dunes-national-park

You can rent or purchase a sand sled at any of these four popular locations:

Free Ranger Programs

Great Sand Dunes National Park offers a wide variety of ranger-led educational programs, ranging from youth camps to interpretive talks and guided hikes. These engaging activities help visitors learn about the fascinating ecosystems within the park, as well as its unique geology and natural history. Visit the commercial Tours page to check out the available tours.

The park’s youth camps are designed for children ages six through twelve. Young visitors can learn about the dunes’ formation, explore Ranger Rick’s Nature Nook, or go on scavenger hunts in search of plants and animals.

In addition to the youth camps, ranger-led interpretive talks are offered throughout the year.

Park rangers also lead guests on a variety of trails that range from easy walks to more challenging climbs.

Experience the Night

The Great Sand Dunes National Park is a place of remarkable beauty and offers an unforgettable experience during the day, but at night it truly transforms into something special. You can even create a calendar for your own location here.

As an International Dark Sky Park, certified by the International Dark Sky Association in 2019, the park provides exceptional stargazing opportunities thanks to its lack of light pollution from nearby towns and cities.

To take advantage of the park’s dark sky designation, visitors should start their night at the visitor center located near the park entrance. Here they can get a better understanding of what to expect, and find the best spots for it.

One such spot is Valley Floor, an area near the main dunes parking that provides an excellent view of both the sand dunes and the night sky. It can be accessed easily by car and is less crowded than other parts of the park, making it ideal for stargazing.

The best time to experience the stars in the Park is on a moonless night when fewer crowds will interfere with your view. Remember that while you’re enjoying this unforgettable experience, please follow Leave No Trace principles and help maintain the dark-sky status of the park. Also, check the program schedule in the summer to see the available evening programs.

Scenic Drive

Great Sand Dunes National Park offers a spectacular scenic drive that takes you through the entire dune field. The 4WD Medano Pass Road, or Forest Service Road 585, is open from late spring to fall and traverses the southern edge of the dune system. Visitors can spot wildlife in the grassy meadows while taking in the views of the towering dunes along this route.

Fat biking is also an option on Medano Pass Road, providing a unique way to explore the park and its various ecosystems. There are several designated trails for fat biking in the Park, including Castle Creek Trail.

The scenic drive offers views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, as well as to nearby Gunnison National Park. The drive takes about an hour to complete, but be sure to plan a few extra hours for stops along the way.

desert-landscape-in-the-great-sand-dunes-national-park

Horseback Riding

Horseback riding is a great way to explore the Great Sand Dunes National Park. The park service offers several options for guided horseback rides, as well as plenty of designated trails and routes for visitors who would like to go on their own rides.

The most popular area for horseback riding is near the main dune parking area. This open meadow provides plenty of opportunities for wildlife spotting, as well as views of the surrounding dunes.

However, it is important to stay on designated trails and paths to avoid damaging fragile areas when riding in Great Sand Dunes National Park. The park service recommends avoiding peak flow and surge flow times if possible; this will keep you away from areas with the highest concentrations of visitors and potential hazards. You can visit the official national park website to learn about the areas closed for horse riding, where to camp with horses, and where to find guided horseback trips.

Guided tours provide a great introduction to the sport for those who are new to horseback riding. You can even take a ride all the way up to Mosca Pass Trail and enjoy views of the entire dune field from an elevated vantage point.

Colorado Mountains

Fishing

Fishing in Great Sand Dunes National Park is a popular activity, and with its many creeks and streams, it’s no wonder why. The park offers two main fishing spots: Sand Creek and Medano Creek. Both places are stocked with rainbow trout throughout the spring, summer, and fall months.

However, visitors must have a valid Colorado State Fishing License to fish in either of these locations. The fee for licenses varies depending on the age of the fisher and the season they will be fishing in.

When fishing in Great Sand Dunes National Park, it is important to remember that there are certain rules and regulations in place to protect the fish population. These include No bait or lures with barbed hooks, no consumption of catch, and the use of non-motorized boats only. Also, check out the NPS Fish and Fishing website for more information on how fishing regulations work in national parks.

Where to Stay

The Great Sand Dunes National Park offers several options for lodging within the park.

The National Park Service also offers camping within Great Sand Dunes itself, with sites at Piñon Flats Campground, providing easy access to the park’s trails. The Zapata Falls Campground is another great option for camping in the area, with both tent sites and full hookups available. Lastly, the Sand Dunes Swimming Pool and Campground is located in the nearby town of Alamosa (location) and offers tent, RV, and camper sites as well as a swimming pool.

The Great Sand Dunes Lodge is a comfortable and convenient option, located just 2 miles (3.2 km) from the main dunes parking lot. The lodge features an outdoor pool, a picnic area, and a barbecue grill. It also has several cabins available to rent, as well as Oasis Camping Cabins and the Oasis Duplex Motel.

For visitors looking for a more rustic experience, the Zapata Ranch is located just outside of the park gates, about 4.5 miles (7.2 km) away, and offers cabins, camping sites, and guided horseback rides.

The Rustic Rook Resort is a great option for those wanting to stay in the area while exploring both the Great Sand Dunes and Gunnison National Parks.

For visitors interested in fishing, the San Luis Lakes State Wildlife Area is located just minutes outside of the park. It offers a variety of angling opportunities and provides access to several nearby trails and attractions.

How to Get There and Getting Around

Getting to Great Sand Dunes National Park is an adventure in itself. Whether you’re arriving by air or road, here’s how to make your journey to this captivating destination seamless.

Arriving by Air

The nearest major airports to Great Sand Dunes National Park are Alamosa-San Luis Valley Regional Airport (ALS) and Pueblo Memorial Airport (PUB). Alamosa Airport is closer and more convenient, located approximately 32 miles (51 km) from the park. Pueblo Airport is a bit further away, situated around 131 miles (210 km) away.

Getting from the Airport to the Park

From Alamosa-San Luis Valley Regional Airport, take U.S. Highway 160 east to Colorado Highway 150 south (direction). Follow the signs to Great Sand Dunes National Park.

For those arriving at Pueblo Memorial Airport, take U.S. Highway 50 west to Colorado Highway 160 east, and follow the signs (direction).

Getting Around the Park

Once you’ve arrived at Great Sand Dunes National Park, there are several ways to explore the mesmerizing landscapes:

Main Dunes Parking Area: This is the starting point for most visits. From here, you can access the Dunes Trail, Montville Nature Trail, and the dune field itself.

Medano Pass Road: This rough road leads to the Medano Pass Primitive Road, which takes you through the park’s eastern boundary to Medano Pass.

Valley Floor: Discover the dunes and creeks that grace the valley floor. Medano Creek and Sand Creek offer serene spots for relaxation.

Entire Dune Field: Venture deeper into the park’s heart by hiking to various dunes and ridges to enjoy panoramic views of the Sangre de Cristo Range.

Park Service Assistance

The National Park Service provides helpful information, maps, and guidance for your visit. Whether you’re seeking directions, trail recommendations, or insights into park history, the visitor centers are your go-to resource.

As you explore Great Sand Dunes National Park, the enchanting landscapes of the Sangre de Cristo Range and the unique desert environment will captivate your senses.

Conclusion

Great Sand Dunes National Park is a unique and captivating destination. With its towering dunes, tranquil creeks, and expansive valley floor, this park provides visitors with an unforgettable experience.

Whether you’re seeking adventure, relaxation, or just some breathtaking views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Great Sand Dunes National Park is the perfect getaway.


RALPH S.

Ralph S. is the founder of Silverlight, an avid hiker and trail runner he enjoys spending time outdoors, riding his motorcycle and swimming at the beach when he's not busy replying to customers or developing new Silverlight gear.

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