In a powerful display of the ever-changing nature of the world around us, towering dunes constantly change their appearance and erase any evidence of those that step foot in this magical place each day. Where desert sandscapes give way to rugged mountains in a dramatic clash of scenery that inspires and captivates...Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado is nature’s sandbox. This guide provides you with the best adventures and top things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park that will let you appreciate nature and walk away fulfilled.
We also include an example 1 day itinerary for Great Sand Dunes National Park to help you with your planning!
About Great Sand Dunes National Park
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is located in southern Colorado in the San Luis Valley. It is a 149,000-acre area of beautifully wind-swept sand dunes sitting against the magnificent backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Within the park, you are free to explore and get lost among the dunes and soft sands, spend your time sandboarding, or climb the highest dunes in North America. In spring and summer, a meandering creek even emerges, the Medano Creek, creating another adventure to pass through on the way to the immense dunes that seem to shapeshift almost before your eyes.
This lesser-visited park has a lot to offer to those who venture here and we would highly recommend it as part of a larger trip or road trip to Colorado!
Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado Location
Located 40 minutes from Alamosa, 3 hours and 45 minutes from Denver, 2 hours 45 minutes from Colorado Springs, and 1 hour 25 minutes from Salida, Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado might not be close to any major airports or cities, but it is still certainly worth the trip!
We took a day trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve while we were boondocking in the San Isabel National Forest on public lands (about 3 hours round trip).
Our spot between Salida and Buena Vista was the perfect place to explore several great attractions including Great Sand Dunes National Park, downtown Salida, Buena Vista, Leadville, Alma, and complete great hikes such as Mt. Elbert and the Decalibron.
Great Sand Dunes National Park Weather
The best time to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve falls in the spring, summer, and fall months. Late spring and fall can be favorable, as this is when the weather is mostly mild and good for adventuring among the dunes and local trails.
While summer is the most popular time to visit, spring offers cooler temperatures and higher levels in Medano Creek, and fall could offer more wildlife in the area and the chance to catch some beautiful fall foliage.
Summer months can be hot and sunny, with sand temperatures soaring in the middle of the day. If you plan your trip in the summer we recommend planning your excursion in the park earlier or later in the day! This is what we did during our July visit and by mid-day we were ready to head out of the dune field and into the protection of the shade!
Best Things To Do in Great Sand Dunes National Park
For any adventure into a National Park, we typically recommend starting at the Visitor Center. The Great Sand Dunes Visitor Center has been recently renovated and has great exhibits where you can learn more about the park and surrounding areas, as well as talk to Rangers to help you plan your time in the park!
Hours: Open daily 9 am-430 pm
Amenities: Restrooms with flush toilets and water
After stopping at the Visitor Center, use your map to navigate to a parking lot that aligns with your day’s itinerary (there will also be clearly marked signs) and start your exploration of the park!
Below we dive into some of the most amazing things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve:
Great Sand Dunes National Park Hiking
Great Sand Dunes National Park is truly a big playground. Among the dunes themselves, you are free to explore and make your own path. This can make for a fun day, just be careful that you can find your way back. The dunes can be disorienting and it can get really hot out there!
If you are interested in some “designated” or set trails, you might also follow some of the general routes that the park has laid out. You won’t necessarily find any signs, but you will be able to follow along on the map or use something like AllTrails to make your way around to the park’s iconic sights.
To check out the tallest dune in both the United States and North America, head to High Dune.
Star Dune rises 755 feet from its base and HIgh Dune 699 feet, but the crest of High Dune is actually taller than that of Star Dune based on their starting points!
Distance: 3.0 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 629 feet (the tallest point on High Dune sits at about 8,727 feet)
Duration: 1.5 – 3 hours
When to hike: Trail is open year-round; best times to hike are May-October
*This trail is dog friendly
If you are up for a more strenuous hike (the sand is more of a workout than you might initially suspect), you can also combine High and Star Dune in a loop!
Distance: 8.0 mile loop
Elevation Gain: 1,300 feet
Duration: 3.5- 5 hours
When to hike: Trail is open year-round, the best times to hike May-October
*Dogs are NOT allowed past High Dune or out on Star Dune*
If you would prefer to
Other dog-friendly hiking trails at Great Sand Dunes National Park that are not in the dunes:
- Mosca Pass Trail – 6.2 miles, 3-4 hours
- Dunes Overlook Trail – 2.7 miles, 1-2 hours
- Montville Nature Trail – 0.5 miles, 15-30 minutes
Great Sand Dunes Hiking Tips & Know Before You Go
- Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is dog friendly! Dogs are permitted in the dunes but are not allowed in the backcountry of the dune field beyond the first high ridge of the dunes. Consider bringing socks or booties for their paws when the sand gets hot later in the day!
- Hiking in the dunes in the summer can be dangerous. Sand temperatures can soar up to 150 degrees.
- Summer can also bring afternoon storms and lightning can be a threat. Hiking early morning or late afternoon might be best (for you and your adventure pup if you have them along)
- Along with storms and heat, check for wind advisories. This area can be prone to wind and storms and all that sand flying around could be a hazard.
- Bring lots of water to stay hydrated while you explore and keep a good eye on the direction you came from. There are not many markers and things can be deceiving and confusing.
- While you can try hiking barefoot (as Zach did) it might be best to wear some comfortable shoes with good soles.
- Hiking in the sand is more challenging than you might anticipate! You are at elevation in the park and climbing up dunes is a workout! When looking up from the base of the dunes it might be deceiving, but the climb is like taking 2 steps forward and 1 step back in the soft sand.
Sandboarding & Sand Sledding
Sand sledding at Great Sand Dunes National Park is an exhilarating adventure that allows you to embrace the unique landscape of towering sand dunes and is one of the most popular things to do in the park.
With a sprawling mass of dunes that goes as fas as the eye can see, the park provides an ideal setting for an adrenaline-fueled sliding experience. With the right equipment, such as sand sleds or specially designed sandboards, you can glide down the sandy slopes, feeling the rush of speed and the thrill of sliding on the soft grains of sand.
The vast expanse of the dunes offers plenty of space to explore and find the perfect spot for sledding. Sand sledding at Great Sand Dunes National Park promises a memorable and one-of-a-kind experience that combines adventure, stunning natural beauty, and the joy of sliding down the sandy slopes in a unique and captivating environment.
Sand sleds and sandboards are specially made for sand, including a specific base and special wax.
Great Sand Dunes National Park itself does not rent boards, but there are a few local rental companies:
- Great Sand Dunes Oasis Store is located 4 miles from the Great Sand Dunes Visitor Center near the park entrance. Open spring through early fall.
- Spin Drift Sand Board Rentals, located in downtown Blanca, 25 miles southeast of the Great Sand Dunes Visitor Center, rents sand sleds and sandboards from spring through early fall.
- Kristi Mountain Sports in Alamosa, 40 miles southwest of the Great Sand Dunes Visitor Center, rents sand sleds and sandboards year-round. Call 719-589-9759 to reserve a board, advanced reservations are recommended, especially in the busier summer months. (Closed Wednesdays)
Most companies will not rent boards if the sand is wet, snow-covered, or frozen as this can ruin the bottom of the boards.
Other Colorado Gems to Explore In the Area
Zapata Falls Recreation Area
The Zapata Fall Recreation Area area is right on the way to Great Sand Dunes National Park and is well-marked with signs. Included in this area is a BLM Campground (Zapata Falls Campground) which is said to boast great views of the Dunes, the San Juan Mountains, and some local 14ers in the distance. In addition, you can hike the Zapata Falls Trail, a 1-mile trail to a waterfall. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to explore the Zapata Falls Recreation Area, but we saw the signs for it during our drive into Great Sand Dunes National Park and it came highly recommended!
Salida & Buena Vista
If like us, you plan to explore other things in this area of Colorado and take a day trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, we highly recommend staying near Salida and Buena Vista. Less than 1.5 hours away, this area offers great National Forest Boondocking options, plenty of water activities along the Arkansas Rivers, fun hiking opportunities, and charming downtowns to explore.
We loved watching people raft past us while dining in Salida, and listening to live music on the banks of the Arkansas River in Buena Vista. The people were friendly and welcoming, the food was great, the weather was perfect even in the height of summer, and the atmosphere was very laid back.
If you are looking for an epic hiking adventure, Mt. Elbert is only about a 1-hour drive from great camping areas between Salida and Buena Vista. At 14,440 feet, Mt. Elbert is the highest peak in Colorado and the second highest peak in the lower 48 states (behind Mt. Whitney). A tough hike, but it does not require the technical expertise that other 14ers might demand.
The views at the top were worth every step of this strenuous hike (9.2 miles, 4,460 feet of elevation gain) that took us about 7 hours to complete.
If you are really interested in summitting as many 14ers as possible, the Decalibron is a fun hike that allows you to summit 4 peaks over 14,000 feet all in one loop (Mt. Democrat, Mt. Lincoln, Mt. Cameron, and Mt. Bross).
1.5 hours from our dispersed camping site in the San Isabel National Forest, this hike might require an early wake-up call but is another great option for a day trip! The views are stunning and it was an amazing feeling to be walking up above the clouds along the ridgelines. A 7-mile loop with 3,130 feet of elevation gain.
Example 1 Day Itinerary: Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve in Colorado
Check the weather and plan your itinerary accordingly! This can be a great destination for a sunrise or sunset or even some astrophotography.
We arrived early and enjoyed the neat effect of low-lying clouds hovering over the dunes. We also found hiking early in the dunes most enjoyable as the sand and sun get hot fast, even on a mild day.
Below is an example 1 day itinerary that includes time in the dunes, a trip to the highest sand dune in North America, and time in the surrounding preserve area as well:
Camping Near Great Sand Dunes National Park
One of the best ways to boost the benefits of travel and vacation is by combining it with the restorative powers of nature! Camping and RVing can be great ways to do this, and can often be very cost-effective as well!
Here are some local camping options, both near the park and within a good distance for an easy day trip to the park:
Raspberry Gulch Dispersed Camping
Raspberry Gulch Dispersed Camping was a great place to call home for a couple of weeks. Mountain views, large spots, opportunities for seclusion, and lots of peace and quiet await in this section of the Pike and San Isabel National Forests. It was also really convenient to visit many other great sights and Colorado adventures! Just know, you might encounter large herds of cattle that are free-range here. They passed through or grazed at our sight every day during our stay.
Piñon Flats Campground
91 primitive sites perfect for enjoying what we have heard is an absolutely stunning night sky that emerges each night over the dunes. There are a few RV sites that can accommodate rigs up to 33 feet long. Individual sites can be reserved up to 6 months in advance on recreation.gov. Seasonal dump station and potable water, and flush toilets available. No showers. The campground is closed from November 1- March 31.
Medano Pass Primitive Road Camping
Medano Pass is a road that requires 4WD and high clearance and takes you on a remote adventure into the wilderness surrounding Great Sand Dunes National Park. Along the route there are 21 FREE roadside camping spots that are first-come, first-served that are technically within the National Park boundaries.
Beyond the park, the road cuts through National Forest land, where additional camping spots may be available.
Backcountry Camping & Permits
Want to get even more up close and personal with the dunes? Backcountry camping permits are available year-round on a rolling basis. We have heard camping in the dunes is a truly incredible experience and something we would love to return and do one day!
With little light pollution due to the lack of nearby towns, this park is an international dark sky park and is a great place to see the Milky Way or hone your astrophotography skills.
- Permits are available on recreation.gov for a non-refundable fee of $6.00.
There are several other campground options within 40 miles of Great Sand Dunes National Park if you are looking for something nearby that is not necessarily within the park boundaries.
There are also traditional lodging options in the area and nearby towns, including the Great Sand Dunes Lodge which sits just south of the main park entrance
Fulfilling Travel Tips
Be present. Be where your feet are.
It might be the lack of crowds, or perhaps the unique landscape of this Colorado park, that makes Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve feel like the perfect place to allow yourself to be fully present. Even when we weren’t setting aside time for an intentional practice, the intertwining of the dunes, sky, and mountain ranges drew in our gaze and helped to soften the noise of our mind chatter for a while.
During your visit, consider taking a few moments to find a quiet space away from the sand boarders and those making the trek to High Dune. Bring along your own mindfulness practice, or simply take a few moments to focus on your breathing or tap into your senses. How does the sand feel as it runs through your fingers? What does it sound like as the dunes shapeshift beneath your feet? What do you notice as you gaze out at where the mountains and dunes meet?
See how it feels to allow yourself to become completely entangled in this beautiful place for a few moments. Committed to your existence in the here and now. Just as nature exemplifies.
Great Sand Dunes National Park Overall
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is a worthwhile addition to your Colorado adventure. It can easily be added as a day trip if you are exploring other Colorado attractions and offers a unique experience unlike any other in the state. There are also some highly rated boondocking spots in the area if you are wanting to visit while just passing through!
It is also one of the few National Parks that is pretty dog-friendly and we loved being able to explore with our dog Azalea. We also found it different from our experience at White Sands National Park in New Mexico. It was so fun to compare and contrast the two “sand” parks!
Explore the dunes, hike in the surrounding preserve, get the thrill of sandboarding, or splash around Medano Creek. This park offers great things to see and do, opportunities to learn about this unique ecosystem, how it was formed, and all the life it protects, and a space to unplug and reconnect with yourself and nature in a way that is truly healing.
PLAN YOUR TRIP TO GREAT SAND DUNES NATIONAL PARK
Area Accommodations & Campgrounds: Great Sand Dunes National Park is a bit remote, but you can find camping options near the park, and accommodations in the surrounding areas (such as the nearby city of Alamosa), and within reasonable distance for a day trip ranging from RV parks, to no-frills campgrounds, and free boondocking.
Great camping options near the National Park:
- Pinon Flats Campground (NPS Campground)
- Great Sand Dunes Oasis (Private)
- San Luis Lakes (State Wildlife Area; free)
- Zapata Falls Campground (BLM Campground)
- Sacred White Shell Mountain Dispersed Camping (free BLM Land)
- Medano Pass Primitive Road Camping
Other camping options within a few hours of the park:
- Raspberry Gulch Dispersed Camping (we loved our stay here and its location in between Salida and Buena Vista)
- Four Seasons RV Resort (Salida)
- Salida East Campground (State Park)
- Shavano Wildlife Management Area Dispersed Camping
If you are looking to get closer to nature but don’t have an RV, consider renting one through Outdoorsy, or RV Share. We used both of these services when renting out our Casita and found them to be high quality and easy to use!
You can explore all Alamosa area accommodations and compare prices on Booking.com, which is a great resource for unique stays at the best rates. We highly recommend a stay in Salida or Buena Vista, just over an hour up the road where you will find more to do and beautiful scenery!
Please protect these areas – for the wildlife, the environment, and the enjoyment of future generations. Practice Leave No Trace
Love National Parks and want to explore more beautiful nature with a road trip through Colorado? Here are some other articles you might be interested in:
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