Great Sand Dunes packs many kinds of terrain and experiences into its 150,000 acres. Towering sand dunes sit incongruously against the backdrop of Colorado's Sangre de Cristo mountains, while in spring, a surging creek draws waders and skimboarders. The dunes are unlike any sand drift you've seen, tall enough to coast down on a sled or sandboard. This park at the central southern end of Colorado is also a great jumping off point to see other nature areas nearby, including San Luis State Park and Rio Grande National Forest.
Facts and figures
- The park features the tallest sand dunes in North America
- Night skies tend to be dark enough that you can see the Milky Way, and the park is open 24 hours, seven days a week
- Park elevations range from 7,515 feet to 13,604 feet above sea level. Its campground is at about 8,200 feet
- The park draws about 285,000 visitors a year
Native American tribes including the Ute and the Navajo traveled centuries ago through the San Luis Valley. While at the dunes, they peeled the inner bark from ponderosa pine trees to use as food and medicine. Hunters and herders from Spanish colonies may have entered the San Luis Valley as early as 1598, and American explorers followed in the 1800s. Homesteaders and Gold Rush miners began to stake claims in the latter half of that century. Concerns over gold mining and concrete-making eventually spurred an effort to protect the dunes, which was led by P.E.O., a women’s civic and philanthropic group. President Herbert Hoover signed legislation establishing Great Sand Dunes as a national monument in 1932, and it became a national park in 2000.
Things to do and see
In warm months, plan to explore dunes in the morning and retreat to the forested trails in the afternoons, when the sand surface at the dunes can reach 150 degrees. High Dune, which is nearly 700 feet high and affords views of the entire dunefield, is a popular destination. The tallest of them all at 750 feet is Star Dune, which is about a mile and a half beyond High Dune. The hike to High Dune takes about two hours roundtrip, while Star Dune is a five-hour excursion. Afternoon hike options include the .5-mile Montville Loop Trail and nearby Zapata Falls, which sits just outside the park. The park is open 24 hours, so on a clear night, plan on a stargazing hike to take advantage of its starry views.
For a picnic with a view, head to the Castle Creek or Sand Pit picnic areas. Two-wheel drive cars can park at the Point of No Return, which is a ¾-mile hike to Sand Pit or 1.5 miles to Castle Creek, while four-wheel drive vehicles can park right at the picnic areas.
For adventurous kids and adults alike, try the unique thrills of sandboarding or sand sledding, where you'll essentially surf or ride the dunes. Regular equipment for snow won't work unless the sand is very wet, so plan to rent special boards or sleds at the Oasis Store just outside the park entrance, or at outfitters a bit farther away.
When Medano Creek is full in late spring, it takes on a beach-like vibe, as families splash in its waters and kids ride its surges on skimboards and small rafts. The waters mostly recede as the summer wears on, so it's an attraction with a short season. The creek is accessible from a parking area near the Visitor Center. In months when the creek is low, if you have a four-wheel drive car, take a drive on the Medano Pass Primitive Road. In fall, it's a good way to view the foliage, taking you around the eastern side of the dunefield and through a forested canyon.
The park's Piñon Flats campground, open April through October, has flush toilets and water spigots. Reservations are required. The privately owned Oasis Campground, also open April through October, is another option just outside the park entrance.
Best time to go
Summer and early fall are ideal times to visit, but if you want to catch Medano Creek's waves, you'll need to go when its waters are at their peak, which is May through early June. Temperatures in late spring through early fall tend to reach the 60s and 70s, but nights get chilly, so bring warm layers and check park forecasts. Spring tends to bring high winds and variable weather, while winters are cold and sunny with some snowfall.