It may not be 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, add these memorable experiences and things to do at Great Sand Dunes National Park.
- About Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve
- The Best Things to Do at Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve
- 1. Hiking Great Sand Dunes National Park
- 2. Go Off-Roading on Medano Pass Primitive Road
- 3. Sandboard and Sand Sledding Down the Dunes
- 4. See the Ranger Show at the Amphitheater
- 5. Play in the Waves (Seasonal)
- 6. Camp with a Backdrop of the Dunes
- 7. Things to Do at the Great Sand Dunes National Park Visitor Center
- 8. Get Some Amazing Photos
- 9. See the Stars (and the Milky Way) as You’ve Never Seen Before
- 10. Explore the Dunes on Horseback
- 11. Fat Biking on the Great Sand Dunes
- Essential Tips for Your Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve Adventures
- The Best Time to Visit Great Sand Dunes National Park
- Where to Stay During Your Visit to Great Sand Dunes National Park
About Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve
This park doesn’t get nearly as much attention as Rocky Mountain National Park, but as one of Colorado’s four national parks, Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, is an impressive sight. As you 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.
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There is still a lot that geologists are learning about the formation of the dunes. It’s unknown 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.
The park is one of the less-visited national parks (ranking 41 of 62 parks in 2019). However, 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. Zig-zag 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′ (in fact, the tallest sand dune in North America), covering about one mile if you go directly to the summit. Make it a more manageable 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 them well hydrated in the heat. Find more tips on safely hiking with your dog here.
Zapata Falls Get reprieve from the summer heat at the top of the Zapata Falls trail. Pick up the path 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 water-logged 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 from the Piñon Flats campground.
2. Go Off-Roading on Medano Pass Primitive Road
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.
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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 Sand Sledding Down the Dunes
No trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park is complete without time sandboarding or sledding on the dunes.
Get the real experience and rent boards or sand sleds from the Oasis (summer only) or the place in Alamosa. While they worked a little better than our sleds from home, we found our sleds were much lighter and easier to carry.
When the winds kick up, fun in the sand can be frustrating. 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, located near the entrance to the park’s campground, Piñon Flats. Showtimes change seasonally, so check the visitor center for the current schedule.
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.
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The water flow 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 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 can’t get a site in Piñon Flats, try nearby sites at Zapata Falls or San Luis Lakes State Park. Both are tent and RV friendly.
Campsites are available with a backcountry permit from reservation.gov, 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 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.
8. Get Some Amazing Photos
Massive dunes, snow-capped mountains, and golden Aspens are perfect photo opportunities. Throughout the day, watch the dunes change as the sun moves across the sky. See deer, lizards, and hummingbirds (but hopefully not bears!) in their natural habitat.
9. See the Stars (and the Milky Way) as You’ve Never Seen Before
A night hike onto the dunes will be like nothing you’ve ever experienced. With minimal light pollution, 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, and 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 simply 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.
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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. Bringing plenty of sunscreen, lots of water, and shoes to protect feet from scorching sand temperatures is a must.
- The Dunes are in the middle of nowhere, 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 minimize light pollution for other nighttime 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 to plan your trip to the sand dunes for late spring or fall.
Where to Stay During Your Visit to Great Sand Dunes National Park
When planning 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 is an easy walk to the dunes. With front-row views of the dunes, complete with flush toilets, this campground books up quickly. If you can’t get a site at Piñon Flats, there are first-come, first-served campsites at the 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, accessible only by 4WD.
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Not a camper? The town of Alamosa is just under a 45-minute drive from the dunes. It has a handful of basic hotel accommodations like the Best Western, Holiday Inn Express & Suites, and Fairfield Inn & Suites.
Or make your visit 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? Send us a message with your favorite things to do at Great Sand Dunes National Park!
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