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 dunefield is the tallest and largest in North America, at 750 feet vertical. It costs $3 per adult over 16 to get into the park. It’s good for one week.
Camping, Hiking and Horseback Riding
As the tallest sand dunes around, the Great Sand Dunes are quite a sight! The tallest one is Sand Dune at 750 vertical feet. 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 are three large campgrounds loops, that all get fairly windy and crowded. Reservations are highly recommended. Pinyon Flats Campground has 88 total sites, half are reseravable. High clearance 4×4’s 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 Park has plenty of campsites that look out to the dunes and are generally less crowded. Zapata Falls also has a campground loop that overlooks that beautiful 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 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. Reservations
- 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; Zepata Falls; Great Sand Dunes Oasis is next door, greatdunes.com
Read about the Camping near Alamosa, Sand Dunes, and around 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 Park and Preserve hold 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. 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 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 park; leave 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. See NPS hunting page (here).
Tips for Visiting the Sand Dunes
- During summer sand gets very hot, up to 140°F. Hike in 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 suncreen, 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 bare-foot are bad choices.
- Bring lunch with you. The gift shop sells only a few snacks.
- Use a slick, rigid, flat sled on 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)