Great Sand Dunes is a truly unique national park, located northeast of Alamosa in the San Luis Valley. The 150,000-acre park and preserve is a mixture of grasslands, wetlands, forests, lakes, high peaks, and what it’s known for, giant sand dunes.
The park offers exceptional views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which lie just at the base of it. The 30 square mile dune field is the tallest and largest in North America, at 750 feet vertical.
Camping, Hiking, and Horseback Riding
As the tallest sand dunes around, with one measuring 250 vertical feet, the Great Sand Dunes are quite a sight! The dunes are the main attraction in the park, as there’s not too much else to explore. A seasonal creek runs around the dunes, but dries up, and is not fished. Surrounding the park are the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
These snow-capped peaks, fuel Medano and Sand Creeks which run seasonally at the base of the dunes. Medano Creek is one of the best places to see “surge flow”, where waves come in rhythmic, 15-second intervals due to sand buildup on the creek bed. Shortly after leaving the park, the creek disappears into an underground aquifer. The creek is usually dry by the end of the summer.
There are three large campground loops, that all get fairly windy and crowded. Reservations are highly recommended. Pinyon Flats Campground has 88 total sites, half are reservable. High clearance 4x4s can find free, primitive camping on Medano Pass, first come, first serve. Folks with a 4×4 can access the Medano Pass Primitive Road.
Nearby San Luis State Wildlife Area has plenty of campsites that look out to the dunes and are generally less crowded. Although it’s reserved for those with a valid Colorado fishing or hunting license. Zapata Falls also has a campground loop that overlooks the mesmerizing San Luis Valley.
The main hike leads you up the face of High Dune, the closest and 2nd largest dune. Wear shoes and not flip-flops or bare feet. The sand gets hot, so hiking in the morning or late afternoon is best. During the summer, the sand is usually too hot for most dogs. Horseback riding and seasonal hunting are also popular.
How the Sand Dunes Formed
Wind and water eroded the mountains and streams deposited sand onto the valley floor. Southwesterly winds then collected sand from across the San Luis Valley before being block by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
The sand was then dropped at the base of the mountains. Wind also came from the northeast reversing the wind flow and blowing sand back toward the Dune Field.
Activities at Great Sand Dunes
Backpacking, Camping, Hiking, Horseback Riding, Hunting, Picnicking, Sandboarding, Skiing & Sledding on the Dunes, 4WD Medano Pass Primitive Road, Swimming in Madano Creek, Visitor Center
Camping: Yes; they fill up quickly during peak season.
- Pinyon Flats Campground – Loop 1 (44 sites), first-come, first-served | Loop 2 (also 44 sites) and 3 other group sites are reservable.
- Medano Pass Primitive Road Campsites – Free, includes backpacking and car camping along the Medano Pass 4WD road, first-come-first-served. High-clearance 4WD is required for car camping along Medano Pass.
- Nearby Campgrounds (not in Park) – San Luis State Park | Zapata Falls | Great Sand Dunes Oasis
- Read about the camping near Alamosa, Sand Dunes, and the San Luis Valley.
Hiking: There are a number of exciting trails within the park, although most people just start hiking up the bib dune from Medano Creek. You can escape the crowds in the Great Sand Dunes Wilderness, which offers 32,643 acres of backcountry exploration.
Part of the Park and Preserve holds a portion of the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness as well. It’s home to 4 fourteener mountains, all close together known as the Crestone Group.
- Sand Dunes – The 30-square-mile sand dunes are open for exploration, so hike anywhere you like. High Dune is the most popular and closest to Visitor Center. It’s a 650-foot vertical hike, which takes 2-3 hours round trip. It’s tough hiking in the sand, much like snow. Star Dune is the highest at 750 feet vertical.
- Sand Sheet Loop Trail – An easy, 1/2 mile loop trail located just behind the Visitor Center. There are several informational plaques located around this 20-minute loop. Learn about the geology, plants, humans, and animals of the San Luis Valley.
Horseback Riding: Permitted in the park; leave the trailer at Medano Pass Primitive Road. There are also 3 licensed providers of guided horseback trips who will meet you in the park with horses by reservation.
Hunting: Only permitted in the National Preserve during designated seasons, not in the National Park.
Lodging: There are no accommodations on-site other than the campgrounds. The closest abode is the Great Sand Dunes Lodge, which has 18 rooms for rent. Consider one of Alamoas’s top hotels, just thirty minutes from the park entrance.
Tips for Visiting the Sand Dunes
- During summer sand gets very hot, up to 140°F. Hike in the early morning or early evening. Dogs usually don’t last long on the sand dunes due to their paws getting hot.
- Take your time and drink plenty of water. Wear sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat.
- Campsites fill up quickly during peak season. Reserve early or check out nearby campgrounds.
- Wear sneakers while hiking up the sand. Flip-flops or going barefoot are bad choices.
- Bring lunch with you. The gift shop sells only a few snacks.
- Use a slick, rigid, flat sled on the sand. Saucers won’t work.
Season: Year-round, 24 hours a day
Fees: Yes per adult (16+)
Pets: Yes, on-leash
Maps: Great Sand Dunes Visitor Guide (PDF)