the sunset view is one of the best things to do at Great Sand Dunes National Park

11 Memorable Things to Do at Great Sand Dunes National Park

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It may not be one of the most well-known of the National Parks, but The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is filled with adventure and geological wonders.  These Colorado dunes are the highest in North America, with seven different ecologies within the park. When planning your trip to Colorado’s dunes, make sure to add these memorable experiences and things to do at Great Sand Dunes National Park.

About Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve

One of Colorado’s four national parks, Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve is an impressive sight. As you make the drive into the park, the dunes don’t look like much as they first come into view. But as you get closer and get out into the massive dune fields, you’ll experience how amazing they really are.

There is still a lot that geologists are learning about the formation of the dunes. It’s not known exactly when the dunes formed, but estimates put it at over 400,000 years ago. Over that time, the dunes haven’t changed much. The highly resilient dunes are protected by the surrounding habitat.

While the park is one of the less-visited of all the national parks, ranking 41 of 62 parks in 2019, the draw of Medano Creek and other things to do at Great Sand Dunes National Park can lead to long lines and limited parking.

The Best Things to Do at Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve

1. Hiking Great Sand Dunes National Park

High Dune and Star Dune This is the ultimate of the dune hikes. Zigzag up the dunes to the highest peak for an incredible view. It’s not a hike for the faint of heart though. The climb to High Dune is 750’ (the tallest in North America), covering about one mile if you go directly to the summit. Make it an easier, but longer, hike by zig-zagging your way to the top.

There is no shade or access to water along the route, and the sand can reach temps over 150° in the heat of the summer. Make sure to dress appropriately, bring plenty of water, and plan your ascent for early mornings and late afternoons. Colder months can still bring warmer-feeling temperatures out on the dunes, but layers will keep you comfortable.

Hiking with Dogs on the Sand Dunes

This is one of the few national parks that allow dogs almost everywhere in the park. While you can bring dogs out onto the dunes, watch for your pet’s paws on hot sand and bring extra water to keep him or her well hydrated in the heat. Click here for more tips on safely hiking with your dog.

Hiking the dunes is a must on anyone’s list of things to do at Great Sand Dunes National Park

Zapata Falls Get reprieve from the heat of the summer sun at the top of the Zapata Falls trail. Pick up the trail right off the main road, or drive the unpaved, 3-mile road to the next trailhead. They mean it with the “rough road” warnings.

You’ll know when you reach the falls when you feel the temperature drop. The trail doesn’t end at the water, though. Follow the stream around the corner to the right until you reach the falls. The water is shallow, but waterproof hiking boots or Chaco sandals will keep your feet happy on the trek back down.

Mosca Pass Trail If you want to skip the rough road or waterlogged shoes, the Mosca Pass trail is a good alternative. This shaded trail starts near the visitor center, at the Monteville Nature Trail.  You can also pick this trail up by taking the 1 mile Wellington Ditch Trail right from the Piñon Flats campground.

2. Go Off-Roading on Medano Pass

The Medano Pass Primitive Road off-road trail is a sandy, bumpy, 12-mile drive deeper into the dunes. The first stop is the Point of No Return, where you can pick up hiking trails. Beyond this point, 4WD is required – and strictly enforced.  

This hidden area of the dunes gets lots of shade into the day. The Medano Creek also passes through here, sometimes with more water than found in the main dune field. Climb up at sunset for spectacular views of the dunes and Sangre de Cristo mountain range.

With restrooms (vault toilets) and picnic tables found along the off-road trail, this is a great spot to spend the afternoon climbing the dunes away from the crowds.

3. Sandboard and Sledding Down the Dunes

No trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park is complete without time sandboarding or sledding on the dunes.

For the real experience, rent sandboards and sleds from the Oasis (summer only) or the place in Alamosa. We found that while they worked a little better than our sleds from home, our sleds were much lighter and easier to carry.

When the winds kick up, fun in the sand can turn into frustration. It may seem excessive, but coming prepared with ski goggles and neck gaiters will keep the blowing sand out of eyes and mouths.

4. See the Ranger Show at the Amphitheater

Learn about the night skies in a kid-friendly presentation at the amphitheater at the entrance to the Piñon Flats Campground within the park. Showtimes change seasonally, so check in the visitor center for the current schedule.

The nighttime ranger program teaches visitors about things to do at Great Sand Dunes National Park when the sun goes down

5. Play in the Waves (Seasonal)

Spring snowmelt makes its way to the lower part of Medano Creek, right in front of the dunes. Be prepared for the crowds during this most popular time of the year to visit the dunes. 

The flow of the water creates little waves in the water, seldom seen anywhere else.  Bring the beach toys and let the little ones play all day in the shallow waters. 

6. Camp with a Backdrop of the Dunes

There is both developed and primitive camping at the sand dunes. Reserve a campsite right in the park at Piñon Flats Campground, where you have access. These sites do go quickly, so you’ll need to plan ahead.

If you aren’t able to get a site in Piñon Flats, try nearby sites at Zapata Falls or San Luis Lakes State Park. Both are tent and RV friendly.

Backcountry sites are available with a permit from where you can set up camp right on the dunes!

7. Things to do at the Great Sand Dunes National Park Visitor Center

See exhibits and a film about the park at the visitor center. It’s also a great place to learn about how the dunes were formed in the 20-minute film Sand to Summit.

The gift shop is filled with plenty of souvenirs to pick up before heading home.

kids at the visitor center, filled with things to do at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado
Interactive exhibits with the sand dunes in the background at Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve Visitor Center in Colorado

8. Get Some Amazing Photos

Massive dunes, snow-capped mountains, and golden Aspens are all perfect photo opportunities. Throughout the day, watch the dunes change as the sun moves across the sky. Capture deer, lizards, and hummingbirds (but hopefully not bears!) in their natural habitat.

9. See the Stars (and the Milky Way) Like You’ve Never Seen Before

A night hike onto the dunes will be like nothing you’ve ever experienced. The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve’s night sky lands at a 1-2 on a scale of 1-10 on the Bogle scale of visibility.

10. Explore the Dunes on Horseback

A horseback ride through the dunes is one of the most unique things to do at Great Sand Dunes National Park. It’s not terribly easy to do though. You must have your own horse, or ride on one of the horses provided by Zapata Ranch – but only if you’re a guest of the ranch.

11. Fat Biking on the Great Sand Dunes

If you don’t have a 4WD vehicle, or just want more of an adventure in the dunes, ride Medano Pass Primitive Road on a fat bike. Fat bikes have wide tires that handle soft surfaces like snow and sand much better than a standard mountain bike.

Fat bikes can be rented from Kristi Mountain Sports in Alamosa.

Essential Tips for Your Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve Adventures

  • Arrive early on busy days (like when the Medano Creek is at peak flow) to avoid spending too much time in the line of cars to get in.
  • Summers are hot, and there is little shade at the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Bring plenty of sunscreen, lots of water, and shoes to protect feet from the burning hot sand are a must.
  • The Dunes are in the middle of no where, so don’t arrive at the park with an empty tank of gas. There is one nearby option to refuel. If you do, though, you can refuel at the Oasis store along the 19 mile stretch to the park entrance. 
  • When exploring the night skies at the Sand Dunes, make sure to bring a flashlight or headlamp with a red light to make your way through the dunes in the dark. Our eyes need less adjustment with red lights than with standard white lights, and they help to preserve the light pollutions for other night time explorers of the dunes.
  • It can get windy out on the dunes. And when that wind kicks sand up to your face, it can hurt. Kids especially will be a bit more comfortable wearing a neck gaiter to quickly pull up to protect from blowing sand. Ski goggles are also recommended for your Great Sand Dunes National Park sandboarding adventures, to keep sand from getting into eyes.

The Best Time to Visit Great Sand Dunes National Park

The surge flow in Medano Creek in late May to early June tops the best time to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park. But we like “shoulder season” too. Months that aren’t too cold at night or too hot during the day are prime time to visit the dunes. Try for late spring or fall to plan your trip to the sand dunes.

Where to Stay During Your Visit to Great Sand Dunes National Park

When planning all of the things to do at Great Sand Dunes National Park, consider staying the night to give you plenty of time for all your adventures. Here are just a few of the best places to stay nearby:

There are a handful of campgrounds at or near the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Piñon Flats Campground is located in the park, and it an easy walk to the dunes. It books up quickly, though, but there are first-come, first-served campsites at nearby San Luis State Wildlife Area and Zapata Falls Campground. Backcountry campers might be able to secure a permit for camping right on the dunes or at one of the designated sites that are accessible by 4WD.

Not a camper? The town of Alamosa is just under a 45-minute drive from the dunes and has a handful of basic hotel accommodations like the Best Western, Holiday Inn Express & Suites, and Fairfield Inn & Suites.

Or make your visit truly unique and stay in a yurt or tipi at the Joyful Journey Hot Springs Spa or on a working ranch at Zapata Ranch. This little piece of paradise is just a 40-minute drive north of the Sand Dunes.

Have you been to the Sand Dunes? Let us know your favorite things to do at Great Sand Dunes National Park in the comments!

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