10 Things to Know Before Visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park

Adventure Hiking Listicles Tourist Spots Travel By Emily Leikam

 

The Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve in Colorado is a spectacle like no other. Sitting at 750 feet high, it’s home to the tallest sand dunes in North America.

Visiting the dunes provides a prime opportunity for some outstanding and awe-inspiring views. This desert-like landscape is comfortably snug within the San Luis Valley Mountain range, offering plenty of nearby nature to explore. Grasslands, alpine lakes and a sacred grove of ponderosa pines once used by the indigenous tribes all welcome you here.

Hiking, sledding, horseback riding, and sandboarding the dunes are just a few options for adventure while exploring this National Park. Here are some helpful tips that will get you ready for your visit:

1. There’s Plenty of Space to Play

One of the most popular activities at the sand dunes is sand sledding – gliding down the coarse mountains on a board. It’s rather similar to snowboarding or sledding, but you’re on sand! This is a unique opportunity for anybody looking to gain a new skill.

Several retailers in the San Luis Valley area rent equipment for this fun sport. It’s best to be prepared and call ahead to rent your sandboards or sand sleds, as the Great Sand Dunes National Park doesn’t provide any rentals. 

During the months of April to June, the Medano Creek is flowing with cool water for everybody’s enjoyment. Bring some small tubes and your swimming suits and relax in the refreshing creek.

The expansive landscape is also an ideal location for nature photography. Giant grooving sand slopes with snow-capped mountains in the distance make for great daytime photos. While clear night skies packed with stars make for gorgeous nighttime photography.

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Grab a sandboard and hit the slopes. Great Sand Dunes National Park/Joseph Tumidalsky

2. It’s a Terrific Location for Hiking or Backpacking

The best way to explore the dunes is on foot, or by their free-to-rent dunes-accessible wheelchairs. There are 30-square miles of wide-open land to hike, with no trails in sight.

The popular hills to hike are the High Dune, Hidden Dune, and Star Dune. The High Dune is nearest to the parking lot and is about a two-hour round-trip hike. While the Hidden Dune, which is tied with the Star Dune as the tallest dune in North America, will take more than six hours for a round-trip hike.

If you are in search of something more adventurous, the Great Sand Dunes National Park provides plenty of open space for a backpacking trip in a beautiful, wide-open, landscape. Just remember to acquire the needed permit before your excursion.

man walking on top of brown sand dune

Hiking the High Dune in the Great Sand Dunes National Park in December. Photo by Matt Noble

3. Be Prepared for a Variety of Weather

Summer usually brings temperatures ranging from 45-80 degrees Fahrenheit through day and night. But, even though the air temperature may seem comfortable, it’s really the sand you have to worry about. Sand surface temperatures may rise up to 150 degrees! It’s always a good idea to arrive early in the morning or late in the evening to beat the midday heat.

In the fall season, the temperatures cool down a bit with the chances of thunderstorms. Winters are cold with temperatures ranging from below 10 degrees to a high of 45. Springtime carries the most snow and high winds. As with any trip you plan, always check the weather before you go, so you can be prepared with the right gear.

snow on brown sand

Occasional snow in Great Sand Dunes National Park doesn’t usually last more than a day. Photo by Patricia Ann Concepcion.

4. Make an Essentials List

Packing proper gear, clothes, and food before your trip will make for a smooth and relaxing adventure. Some items that would work well for the Sand Dunes include:

  • Bathing Suit for warm days in the Medano Creek
  • Visor, hat, or sunglasses for protection against the sun
  • Warm hat, gloves, jacket and wool socks for cold days
  • Bandana or face cover for windy days
  • Earplugs to keep sand out of your ears
  • Camera for the memories
  • 1/2 gallon of water per person or 1 gallon if staying the night
  • Packed lunch with fruit, like oranges and bananas
  • Nuts, trail mix, or protein bars for a quick energy boost
  • Eco-friendly sunscreen
  • Wood for a fire if staying the night

Make sure to check out our complete desert hiking checklist in Hiking Checklist: What to Bring on A Hike.

5. Stargazing Is a Must

The Great Sand Dunes National Park is a fantastic location for stargazing. The vastness of the dunes and proximity away from the cities provides an ideal location with minimal light pollution. For a truly unforgettable experience, bring your tent and camp in the dunes for the night. With a backcountry permit, you’re allowed to camp anywhere within the dune field. 

One of the best times to go is during a new moon when the sky is blanketed with the glowing brilliance of the stars. Piñon Flats Campground is a great option if you’d like to stay in the park rather than the dune field. This site is near the main parking area, requires reservations, and doesn’t accommodate RVs longer than 35 feet. It’s important to note that the park asks you not to collect any firewood within the park, so you’ll have to bring your own. They also request that you only bring wood from the San Luis Valley region. 

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Spend a night under the stars at the Piñon Flats campground. Great Sand Dunes National Park/Patrick Myers

6. Car and RV Camping Are Available Nearby

If you’re looking to stay the night in your vehicle, there are plenty of great options for car and RV camping near the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Here are a few:

Oasis Campground

Oasis campground is the closest to the park, located just outside the national park entrance. You’ll find over 90 sites here including RV sites with full hookups, camping cabins, showers, laundry, a restaurant, and a small store on site. 

Zapata Falls

Zapata Falls campground is located 11 miles south of the Visitor Center, on BLM land. This site is positioned at 9,000 feet in elevation with a tremendous view of the entire valley. There’s no water or hookups, it’s first-come-first-served and costs $11 a night. 

Rustic Rook Resort

The Rustic Rook Resort offers more of a ‘glamping’ (glamorous camping) experience if you’d like to sleep like royalty. Located 19 miles west of the Great Sand Dunes National Park Visitor Center, you’ll find large, heavy, canvas tents on wooden decks that are fully furnished with cozy beds, a camp stove, WiFi, and much more. 

7. Explore Medano Pass

Medano Pass is a primitive road that connects Great Sand Dunes National Park with highway 69. You’ll need a 4WD vehicle with high clearance for this adventure, as the road crosses areas of uneven rocky roads with deep sand, while also traversing Medano Creek 9 different times. This is also a great opportunity for fat-tire biking.

One of the best times to explore Medano Pass is late September to early October when the leaves are glowing with orange, red, and yellow hues. Medano Pass is also a popular habitat for bighorn sheep, so make sure to keep your distance if you spot one.

Along the Medano Pass road, you’ll find 21 permitted camping sites that are free and on a first-come-first-served basis. 

green grass and trees in front of the desert sand dunes

Scenic landscape photographed from the parking area called “The Point Of No Return” – Medano Pass Road. Photo by Christian Collins.

8. Alamosa Is the Closest City

Considered the hub of the San Luis Valley, Alamosa is the closest city to the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

There are plenty of great places in Alamosa to grab a bite to eat like Calvillo’s Mexican Restaurant for delicious Mexican cuisine or Woody’s Q Shack for fantastic BBQ. You’ll also find warm and inviting accommodations with several different lodging options to choose from.

Most properties are pet-friendly, so you’ll have no problem bringing your furry friends.

9.  Explore Nearby Nature 

All around Great Sand Dunes National Park you’ll discover beautiful natural wonders.

Zapata Falls is a popular location with a hidden 30-foot-high waterfall that offers an amazing view of the valley below. The hike is a little over half a mile and requires hiking shoes with good grip as you’ll be hiking over wet, slippery rocks. If you’re looking for a longer hike, then travel to South Zapata Lake, a stunning alpine lake in the Sangre De Cristo Wilderness, surrounded by towering peaks. This five-mile hike will give you a challenge that is completely worth it.

Another luminous lake to check out is San Luis Lake, the warmest body of water in the San Luis Valley. This lake is perfect for any type of recreational activity such as fishing, boating, windsurfing, birdwatching, and hiking on nearby trails.

Zapata Ranch is another place to add to your adventures as it is home to over 2,000 North American Plains bison. This is a great opportunity for some wildlife conservation education and the ability to see how these plains have been revived since the re-emergence of the bison. 

gray beakless bird on ground

Get your camera ready for birdwatching at Zapata Falls. Photo by Spring Fed Images.

10.  You’ll Be in High Altitude

Great Sand Dunes National Park is high in the mountains where the elevation ranges from 7,500 to 13,000 feet. If you are not used to being so high, take it easy so your body can acclimate to these new conditions.

If you’re hiking the dunes, walk with a slow, strong stride. Think of it more as a meditation rather than a workout. Common signs of altitude sickness include headaches, nausea, and fatigue. They may even worsen to vomiting and blurred vision, in which case you need to seek medical attention.

Drink plenty of water, eat carbs, and breathe slow, deep breaths to help prevent these symptoms. 

Bonus –  Pets Are Welcome!

Pets are allowed in most areas of the Great Sand Dunes National Park with some exceptions such as the backcountry. If you are visiting during the warmer months, make certain to protect your furry friend’s feet with socks or pet booties, so the hot sand won’t damage their precious paws. Never leave your pet in an unattended vehicle, keep your pet on a six-foot leash and always clean up after them. 

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Originally a national monument, the Great Sand Dunes National Park offers remarkable views and amazing adventures in the great outdoors. Always check the weather conditions, acquire the correct permits for camping or backpacking and drink plenty of water to combat altitude sickness. For more information, check out the Visitor Guide to the park.

Featured image provided by Great Sand Dunes National Park/Patrick Myers

 

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Emily Leikam
Emily is an avid traveler and has been all around the world from Alaska and Iceland to Peru and Bali. Her home base is Nashville, TN and when not traveling you can find her hiking, practicing yoga or cooking/baking!