Great Sand Dunes National Park is one of those places you really have to see to believe. The scale! The contrast! It looks like part of the Sahara Desert was dropped into the Rocky Mountains.
Great Sand Dunes Overview
At the feet of the (often) snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range, on the eastern edge of the San Luis Valley in South-East Colorado, rise North America’s tallest sand dunes. The highest sand dune peak is Star Dune (750 ft / 229 m). The most popular peak to hike up to is High Dune (650 ft / 198 m).
The Great Sand Dunes National Park encompasses 167.7 sq miles (434.4 sq km) – with additional National Preserve land of 65.1 sq mi (168.7 sq km) higher up on the mountainous side. Only about 30 sq mi (78 sq km) of that entire area are covered by the dunes themselves – with a much larger and flatter sand field on the western side of the park.
Located rather remotely in the Rocky Mountains in South-East Colorado, close to the New Mexico border, it’s such a unique place that it is a worthy destination in its own right with an overnight stay. Or visit the Great Sand Dunes as yet another highlight on road trip through Colorado and New Mexico, as we did.
Driving straight towards the national park with a view of the snowcapped mountain peaks, we kept wondering WHEN will we finally see the Great Dunes. Then it suddenly occurred to us that we thought were the foothills as we know them from other mountain ranges were actually the dunes! As we drove closer, the perspective just kept making them grow humongous. Later driving up north through the San Luis Valley, we kept seeing that long sprawl of “foothills” – now knowing they were the Great Sand Dunes. That’s why we think you have to see them, to truly grasp their size and uniqueness.
If you are on a road trip during fall, winter or spring, and will be driving over a Rocky Mountain Pass to get to the San Luis Valley, please be aware that you may drive through snowy conditions, possibly low visibility, and even road closures. Check the weather reports and drive during the day if possible.
If you have the time, we do recommend an overnight stay so you can go beyond just taking in the scenery – and have some fun hiking, sand sledding, cycling, photographing, or maybe even going for a moonlit walk across the dunes.
How Did the Great Sand Dunes Form?
The Great Sand Dunes are believed to have formed due to three basic conditions. First, the mountain ranges Sangre de Cristo in the east and San Juan Mountains in the west were pushed up during the time of tectonic shifts and volcanic activities – creating the San Luis Valley in-between.
Then, in very simple terms, sandy sediment was left behind by dried up lakes and also washed down via creeks from the mountains.
Last but not least, the unique shape of the mountains and valley cause the predominant southwest winds to blow the sand against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and then more rare but strong storm winds come from the opposite side through passes in the Sangre de Cristos and push the sand back – creating a kind of swirl and forcing the sand up to form tall peaks and sand dune ranges.
Great Sand Dunes Sights and Activities
As if a field of sand dunes in the Rocky Mountains wasn’t unique enough, there is also a river that runs through the desert terrain – adding an extra dash of juxtaposition. The Medano Creek fluctuates in size and is best enjoyed for splashing, swimming or paddling in late May and June when the snow-melt swells its size along with the visitor crowds. Find out more about river conditions on the National Park Services website.
Altogether, the landscape of the Great Sand Dunes National Park is more diverse than the name implies. Besides sand, there are grasslands, wetlands, conifer and aspen forests, alpine lakes, and tundra.
The sand dunes entice you to hike up, hike around and then go sand sledding or sandboarding back down. No, your regular sled or snowboard won’t work on sand and the National Park does not offer them for rental. But you can rent sandboards and sandsleds seasonally from the Great Sand Dunes Oasis just outside the park – and from shops in relatively nearby towns (e.g., Kristi Mountain Sports in Alamosa and SpinDrift Sand Board Rentals in Blanca)
Besides casually hiking around the dunes, which might be more strenuous than you think due to the soft sand and wind, you can be ambitious and aim to hike up to one of the sandy peaks. Of course, there are no designated trails – but you can pretty easily find your way up to the most popular destination right on the First Ridge: High Dune, which appears to be the tallest dune from the main parking lot. According to NPS, the average High Dune the round trip takes about 2 hours. The Star Dune round trip hike takes about 5 hours.
For more traditional hiking, there are several forest trails up the mountains, mainly Montville Nature Trail, Mosca Pass Trail and Sand Ramp Trail. For the more ambitious and adventurous, there are also alpine trails that can lead you to wildflower meadows, snow fields and alpine lakes. Some of these trails can be reached via four-wheel-drive roads. List and map of Great Sand Dunes Hiking Trails (via AllTrails).
Another popular activity is four-wheel driving along the 4WD Medano Pass Primitive Road. We took our 4Runner up the pass a bit – and had fun bouncing and sliding around the sand. But we saw other vehicles struggle. So not for every one. Another option: riding fat tire bikes!
The park offers many camping options. There are a few campgrounds accessible by vehicle – and then quite a few backcountry campsites. Most special: camping is permitted anywhere in the 30-square-mile dunefield past the day use areas (about 1.5 miles in).
The landscape obviously inspires photography – and challenges you to stretch your creativity to capture more than just sand. Beware that the wind can be strong blowing sand at your equipment. If possible, a protective clear filter over the lens would be ideal. And maybe don’t wear your fanciest sunglasses – to avoid them getting lightly “sandblasted”. But do wear some kind of sunglasses because it’s bright out there with the mountain sun and the reflective sand, which adds another interesting challenge for photographers.
Location, Hours, Fees and Other Visitor Facts
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is located in a rather remote area of South-East Colorado. The Visitor Center address is: 11999 State Highway 150, Mosca, CO 81146.
The nearest town with a variety of lodging and eating options is Alamosa on the Rio Grande, about 35 miles away and with a population of under 10,000. Driving time to the Great Sand Dunes either from Denver or from Albuquerque takes about 4 hours each. Closer towns worth combining on a road trip are Taos, NM (about 2 hours south) or Pagosa Springs, CO (2 hours west).
Great Sand Dunes National Park is always open: all day and night all year long. The Visitor Center is open 8:30-5:00 Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend, and 9:00-4:30 the rest of the year. Closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, New Years Day, and Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Entry Fee: A day pass per car costs $25 and is valid for 7 days. An annual family pass costs $45. As always, we recommend the America The Beautiful Annual Pass, which grants access to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites, including the National Parks and Monuments. As of early 2020, the price for the regular pass is $80 – it can have two names on it – and usually covers everyone in the car. Support our national parks!
This is one of the U.S. National Parks where pets are permitted – at least in a large section of the park, including the Main Use Area of the dunes (up to the first ridge) and in the preserve. Of course, they need to be leashed. As always, don’t leave them in the car unattended and keep in mind Colorado summer days are hot.
Click for a larger map of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.
Hiking up to Zapata Falls (post coming soon). Watching birds in the San Luis Lakes State Wildlife Area. Visiting gators at high altitude in the Colorado Gators Reptile Park (if anyone has been – please tell us about it). Driving along any of the long straight roads through the San Luis Valley with snow-capped Rocky Mountain horizons in three directions. Another view that has to be experienced in person to grasp how amazing it is. And for a more culturally diverse drive: Los Caminos Antiguos Scenic and Historic Byway.
More Photos of Great Sand Dunes National Park
Let’s Inspire Each Other!
Since this is our first blog post of 2020: did you go anywhere over the holidays? And do you already have any travel or outdoor explorations planned for this year?
How about Great Sand Dunes National Park? Have you been? Tell us about your experience. Or are you currently planning a trip into that corner of the USA? What else is on your list to see? Which other “you have to see it to believe it” places have you seen?
Please leave a reply in the comment section below.
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All photos by Luci Westphal.