Great Sand Dunes National Park

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Grand Sand Dunes National Park is located in southern Colorado in the San Luis Valley. The park is surrounded by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and has the tallest dunes in North America.

Great Sand Dunes of Colorado

Colorado is home to four spectacular National Parks. One of these parks is the Grand Sand Dunes National Park and today I want to share with you tips on planning your visit to this beautiful and unique place.

When to visit the Sand Dunes?

The park is open year round, however the amenities like camping grounds are only open from April to October, which is when most visitors are drawn to the park.

Great Sand Dunes National Park
Great Sand Dunes National Park- starting the hike, which way should we go?

If you want to avoid crowds, the best times to visit are April or October or even off season.

For families, the best time to visit is during the summer. Kids can enjoy playing in the Medano creek or “sand surfing” the Dunes.

If you want seclusion, the winter is the best time to visit. The creek is mostly frozen and the windchill can be really chilly, but hotels nearby offer lower rates.

How to get there?

The open road
The open road

The park is located about 4 hrs by car from Denver or Albuquerque, but the scenery along the way makes the drive worthwhile.

Where to stay?

Great Sand Dunes of Colorado
Great Sand Dunes of Colorado at Sunset

The nearest town to the Great Sand Dunes National Park is Alamosa and it is surprisingly well set up with many hotels and restaurants making it an easy place to commute to and from. However, Alamosa is still 35 miles from the park, so just be aware to plan the extra time into your trip. There are no other towns with tourism infrastructure around.

If visiting from April- October, the best option is to camp at the park. Pinon Flats Campground is at the park entrance and for those planning multi-day visits, this may be a great option.

The last option and one that I look forward to trying in the future is Dune camping. How cool does that sound? The park allows visitors to stay overnight at the Dunes. A permit is required, so visit the office or the park’s website for more information.

What to pack for the Great Sand Dunes?

Sand Dunes at Sunset
Sand Dunes at Sunset Detail

1 |Water

The weather in Colorado has very low humidity and due to the altitude, the sun is stronger and hotter at high elevations. Water is essential to ward off high altitude sickness, dehydration and other unpleasant situations. I always see several people hiking in Colorado with nothing but the clothes on their bodies, but I would advise against that. Take a bottle of water and a snack bar even if only hiking for a couple of hours, you never know what might happen.

2 | Sunscreen and sunglasses

These are a necessity in Colorado year round. Not only it protects you from the year round scorching sun, but the sunscreen acts as a moisturizer and believe me, you will need it here. Tons of it.

3 | Hiking shoes and wool socks

Hiking up

Hiking uphill in sand is no joke. You walk a step and fall two back, so it takes twice the effort to get up to the peak, proper shoe attire will prevent injury, as well as, keep you from carrying extra sand in your shoes.

Opt for high socks that will prevent sand from creeping in and causing blisters.

4 | Food

If you visit during the summer, there is a small market for food at the campground. But if you visit during winter, it’s best to pack lunch and plenty of snacks. The nearest town is 35 miles away.

5 | Extra clothes

Frozen Creek at Great Sand Dunes National Park
Frozen Creek at Great Sand Dunes National Park- a little treacherous to cross- hold on tight, move slowly

In the summer, pack a swimsuit, hat and a towel to enjoy Medano creek.

In the winter, pack layers and even a change of clothes for the end of the day as the weather can change abruptly and sand tends to get everywhere!

6 |Camera

Can't ever get tired of this!
Can’t ever get tired of this!

The views are breathtaking. You won’t want to miss the opportunity to capture these memories!

What to see (other than Sand Dunes)?

Sand Dunes National Park
Sand Dunes National Park

The Great Sand Dunes National Park is an outdoor paradise for active folks. The Dunes are surrounded by plains and the Sangre de Cristo Range, which contains several mountains that peak at over 13,000 and 14,000 feet.

In Colorado, there is a strong hiking and climbing culture and people aim to reach the peak of all these mountains. If you are fit and do your research, hiking up to the top will gain you some bragging rights.

If you are not fit, don’t even attempt these ascents, as several people either die or have to be rescued every year for unpreparedness or injury. There are other ways to reach the top of a fourteener and you can read it about it here and here.

If this sounds too extreme, worry not! You can easily spend a week in the Great Sand Dunes having fun in different ways. Here is what not to miss:

1 | Watch the Stars

When you have nothing around but nature, the stars throw a spectacular show and the skies around the Great Sand Dunes National Park are one of the darkest. There is little light pollution, which makes it a spectacular place to watch the stars.

During the summer months, the rangers have astronomy programs for the entire family.

2 | Zapata Falls

View of Sand Dunes from Zapata Falls
View of Sand Dunes from Zapata Falls

Just a 1/2 mile hike, it’s an easy trail that the whole family can do with amazing views of the Dunes and surrounding mountains from afar. The falls are also hidden behind walls of rock and can be fun to explore.

Zapata Falls
Zapata Falls- The waterfall is through those walls

3 |Alpine Lake

A little longer, all day hike that ends in a lake with incredible scenery. It is easier to access in the warmer months.

4 |San Luis State Wildlife Area

This area is a sanctuary to several wildlife species and if you want to see more of the wildlife of the wetlands, this is a great place to visit.

There are several campsites available on a first come, first served basis and if you have an RV, this may be a good option.

5 |Wildlife watching

Colorado Deer
Colorado Deer- so rare to find a couple… they were out on a date.
Elk in Colorado
Elk Herd at the base of the Sand Dunes- They were too far for me to get a good close up.

You can easily see huge herds of Elk and deer grazing at the Dunes everyday at sunset. They don’t come close to the road, so you will need a set of binoculars to see them up close.

We also saw what we believe was a grey wolf or a really well fed coyote right on the road to the park and several species of birds.

Hunting is allowed during season with a permit.

6 | Sand Surfing or Snow Skiing

You can take snowboards or snow slides to play in the Dunes and it sure is one of the coolest ways to descend after hiking to the top. I have done this on the beach and had a blast!

In the winter, there are two ski resorts nearby: Monarch Mountain and Wolf Creek.

7 | Alamosa

Stroll trough downtown Alamosa. It’s a charming little town in the middle of nothing. They still have a very old style JCPenny store and a nice brewery.

Have you ever seen Sand Dunes in the US?

Updated May 2019.

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2 Comments

  1. February 15, 2015 / 11:42 pm

    Love Colorado! Great post & awesome photos!! You’ve reminded me I still need to go there… Incidentally, one of my favorite camping spots is very near the dunes – with a roaring river, tree-shaded campsites, and easy access to hiking! Maybe this Summer? With or without the boys? Ha, ha.

    Oh, and I love the format of your website!

    Saludos!
    G.

    • February 16, 2015 / 2:49 am

      Thanks G! We need to check out that camping spot for sure. Just tell me when and I am in.

      I just re-did the site. I like it much better now, still working out the kinks… We should get together for that power writing session when we are both back…

      Mrs. Goodlife

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