Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve Travel Guide

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With 30 square miles of sand swirling to create a seemingly endless sea of sand dunes set amongst the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado is home to the tallest sand dunes in America — and is an incredible sight to feast your eyes upon.

The summit of Star Dune, which rises 750 feet off the ground and claims the title as the tallest sand dune in the park, smoothly rises above the rest of the park to create a stunning juxtaposition with the 13,000-foot mountains in the background.

If you visit during a cooler part of the year, you can see snow-capped peaks towering over the massive sand dunes. Visit during the summer and you can see lush grass and desert plants poking through the sand.

But no matter what time of year you visit, you’re sure to be both inspired and in awe of these spectacular dunes, which makes it feel like you’ve made a trip across the Atlantic Ocean and settled in the Sahara Desert.

Though Great Sand Dunes National Park is home to 30 square miles of towering dunes, the park also borders Great Sand Dunes National Preserve to create an oasis of protected land that measures more than 149,000 acres. 

The area was designated as a National Monument in 1932 and, by the way of some very intelligent people, was deemed a national park in 2004. With all that land protected by the federal government, there are so many reasons to visit and things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve.

Things to Do in Great Sand Dunes National Park

Hiking

Hiking to the top and all around these massive sand dunes is by far the most popular thing to do in the park. Although there are only 16 named trails inside both the national park & preserve, many of them are through nothing but sand.

If you’ve ever hiked through sand, you know that it’s two to three times more difficult and strenuous than hiking on grass or dirt. Since Great Sand Dunes National Park features the tallest sand dunes in America, hiking can get pretty tough out there.

When you combine the toughness of hiking through sand and combine it with the fact that you can’t properly mark sand trails as well as dirt trails, it gets even tougher and you often go over the designated distance set by the trail maps.

But if you’re going to Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, you must sink your feet into the sand trails to experience what it’s like hiking through a desert oasis. I finally realized why movie characters hiking through the Sahara Desert get so worn out so quickly.

Due to having extensive ankle surgery a little over a year before visiting, I had to take it lightly and was only able to hike a few miles through the sandy desert before my ankle started pulling me back to the trailhead. But even those few miles gave me a tremendous perspective on how tough it is to hike through sand, where you simply sink with every step.

Sandboarding

Sandboarding is probably the second most popular activity inside the park, and it’s one of the most unique experiences you can ever have inside a national park. It’s literally just snowboarding on sand. Unfortunately, I visited during the pandemic and the local businesses that typically rent out sandboards weren’t operating.

I don’t understand why sandboarding was off the table because you’re clearly more than 6 feet away from the closest person. But it was probably for good reason and I took it as a sign that I probably shouldn’t have done it this time around anyway.

If you do want to sandboard inside Great Sand Dunes National Park, you can rent one from the Oasis Store, which is just 4 miles from the visitor center. They’re only $20 per day to rent, but renting one involves a lot of hiking.

There aren’t lifts that take you to the top like ski resorts. To sandboard down the dunes, you must hike your board 1 mile to the top and ride it down to the bottom. The good thing is that you get to ride for a mile (or however long you decide to hike up before calling it quits and joining in the real fun).

Sand Sledding

Sand sledding is similar to sandboarding, but you sit down on the sled instead of standing on the board. Renting a sled costs just $20 per day and you can rent one at the Oasis Store, which is the same place that offers sandboards.

Unfortunately for sledders and boarders, you typically can’t rent a board or sled when the dunes are wet because the special material on the bottom will get damaged and will need to be replaced.

Off-Roading

Unlike many national parks in America, Great Sand Dunes National Park allows drivers to traverse the very terrain they strive to protect. I guess that’s the good thing about sand. It’ll eventually be moved back to its original resting place over time or more sand will be created to fill the void.

The most well-known four-wheel-drive spot is called Medano Pass Primitive Road. The 19.9-mile point-to-point primitive road requires four-wheel drive and allows you to traverse the sandy dunes, forested mountains and even features a few creek crossings along the way.

Best Time to Visit Great Sand Dunes National Park

While the best time to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve is probably during spring, late summer and fall, winters can be spectacular. Keep in mind that Great Sand Dunes National Park is considered a high desert climate, so it can get extremely hot during the summer and extremely cold during the winter.

But if you choose to go during the winter, there’s a chance you can see the massive dunes covered in a coat of lightly powdered snow. One of the coolest experiences could be seeing the towering dunes amongst a backdrop of snow-capped peaks from the mountain range behind.

Great Sand Dunes National Park Camping

Great Sand Dunes National Park does have a campground on the premises, but like any other national park, it’s more expensive than many nearby campgrounds. Colorado, and the west coast in general, has so many free campgrounds you can stay at and Great Sand Dunes National Park isn’t exempt from this.

There are four campgrounds near Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, including Pinon Flats Campground, which is located inside the park. If you want to stay inside the park, Pinon Flats is your only choice.

However, if you don’t mind driving a short distance each day and saving a bit of money, San Luis State Wildlife Area Campground, Sacred White Shell Mountain and Zapata Falls Campground are your best bets (in that order).

Pinon Flats Campground

  • Location: Inside the national park
  • Cost: $20 per night

San Luis State Wildlife Area Campground

  • Location: 12.2 miles from the entrance
  • Cost: Free

Sacred White Shell Mountain

  • Location: 13.4 miles from the entrance
  • Cost: Free

Zapata Falls Campground

  • Location: 9 miles from the entrance
  • Cost: $11

How Was Great Sand Dunes National Park Formed?

The great sand dunes inside Great Sand Dunes National Park are formed from an extremely rare phenomenon that includes sandy creeks, wind and water.

Sand from the tops of the massive dunes is swept away by the wind and finds itself in the waters of two nearby mountain streams: Sand Creek and the Medano. Those streams then carry sand downstream where it’s deposited back onto the valley floor.

Through the cyclical process of sand, water and wind movement, the sand from the tops of the dunes make their way back to the bottom and eventually, over the course of hundreds or thousands of years will make its way back to the top before starting the cycle all over again.

Great Sand Dunes National Park Elevation

The base elevation of Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve is anywhere from 7,520 feet to 13,604 feet above sea level. However, hiking to the top of Star Dune, which is the tallest sand dune in North America, will put you at about 9,000 feet above sea level.

The drastic elevation difference is derived from the fact that the mountains in the backdrop are actually part of the national park and preserve. If you’re simply hiking through the sand dunes, you probably won’t have to worry about elevation too much because you’ll be hiking between 8,200 feet and 9,000 feet.

Great Sand Dunes National Park Hours

Great Sand Dunes National Park is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days a year. Yup, the dunes don’t take a day off, so you can visit anytime you like! If you want to rent a sandboard or sled, though, you’ll have to check with those companies. Each company that rents either is a private company and may take predominant holidays off, like Christmas and Thanksgiving.

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