Great Sand Dunes
There are many hidden treasures throughout Colorado but none is more impressive than the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.
Located in the high mountain desert of the San Luis Valley they are North America’s biggest dune field.
Covering over 30 square miles and towering above 700 feet the dunes are a sight to behold.
I love the Great Sand Dunes National Park and feel it is one of the best places to visit in all of Southern Colorado.
Well, my love has made this page about the sand dunes become longer and longer so I hope the following list helps you find what you are looking for.
I recently heard about sandboarding and then found this video from Outside Television where they feature sandboarding on the Great Sand Dunes.
If you want to try sandboarding check out our section on it lower down the page for rental information.
The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is open year round.
The entrance fees are very affordable at $3.00 a person or a yearly pass for $15 dollars.
Here is a short video provided by the Great Sand Dunes National Park Service showcasing what the Great Sand Dunes have to offer.
The Visitors Center is a great place to stop and the first building after you pay the entrance fee.
It is open daily from 9 A.M to 6 P.M. from Memorial Day to Labor Day and the rest of the year the hours vary.
Inside the visitors center there are many exhibits
to give you more information about the Great Sand Dunes National Park.
There is a short video about how the sand dunes were formed.
Different animal exhibits show what animals live on the dunes as well as a section on the insects that are only found in the Great Sand Dunes National Park, nowhere else on earth!
There is also a tree that has scarring on its bark from where the Indians removed the bark for various uses.
There are still trees alive in the park with this scarring but you must have a 4WD vehicle to reach the area.
As many visitors don’t have the vehicle or don’t want to take the time for the extra drive, the Visitors Center allows for easy viewing of this unique history.
There are also many souvenirs and books about the Great Sand Dunes National Park as well as other interesting areas in the San Luis Valley.
As this is on your way to the dunes parking lot I highly recommend stopping for a few minutes!
Sand, Sand, and More Sand
When you visit the Great Sand Dunes National Park be prepared to get sand everywhere, and I do mean everywhere.
In your ears, nose, shoes, shorts, etc.
I always recommend for people to wear old clothes that they do not care if sand gets in them because sometimes it will not come out even with several washings.
My “sand dunes shoes” have been washed several times since my last trip to the dunes and still I get sand between my toes
every time I wear them.
If you plan on climbing the dunes during the day you will definitely need tennis shoes.
The sand can heat up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit and you won’t get very far before your feet are burning.
I would also recommend buying a disposable camera to prevent sand from ruining your good one.
If you are careful and don’t plan on playing in the sand very much, putting your camera in a Ziploc bag when not in use will also prevent sand from ruining it.
Did you manage to get great pictures? Were you able to clean all the sand off? Click here to share your tips.
The water is the lifeblood of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and the San Luis Valley.
Water is what holds the sand in place. Anywhere on the sand dunes you can find wet sand if you dig down far enough.
Medano Creek and other small creeks flow within the Great Sand Dunes National Park bringing the melted snow down to the valley floor.
Spring is a great time to visit the Great Sand Dunes National Park as this is when the water is flowing fast.
The later in the season you visit the less water there is to splash in and during the winter there is usually no water flowing at all.
If you visit late in the season, you could park at the main parking lot and walk up the Medano Creek bed.
You will be able to see where the water just disappears into the sand.
Picnics and Parking
The main parking lot is your next left after the Visitors Center.
Here there is ample parking for cars as well as larger vehicles such as RVs.
This is the main entrance to the dunes and Medano Creek. After you park you are free to walk wherever you want.
Some people enjoy playing in the water and just wading up and down the creek while others head straight for the dunes with the purpose of climbing to the top.
Whichever one you choose you are sure to have a great time.
To the south of the parking area there is a picnic area.
There is a paved road that you can drive down with picnic pull off spots.
There are many spots to choose from and they have a picnic table ready for your use.
There are trails from the picnic area back to the dunes so you can leave your stuff at your picnic site, go play in the sand and then come back for a snack.
In this area there is also a changing room and outside shower to wash some of the sand off.
If you have muddy sand on you, just let it dry and then it will brush off easily.
I like to wear tennis shoes when climbing the dunes, but I bring sandals to slip on after I wash off my feet.
It is just a lot simpler than trying to put your tennis shoes back on.
Food and Drinks
There is only one convenience store/gas/restaurant in the area and this is the Oasis Store and Gas Station.
The selection can be limited so I highly advise packing everything you need for your trip.
Make sure to pack lots of water as climbing the sand dunes is very tiring. Also bring all your snacks and lunch to save you a lot of hassle.
Don’t forget your sunscreen as you will burn quickly at this high altitude.
Please pick up all your trash and leave your site as clean as or cleaner than you found it.
The campground is nestled among the trees at the bottom of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range.
Don’t worry about the distance to the dune field as it is just a short walk.
The campground offers 88 campsites to choose from.
However, only half of these sites can be reserved, the rest are on a first come, first serve basis.
Each campsite costs $20.00 per night for a maximum of six people, two tents or an RV, and two vehicles.
Each site is equipped with a picnic table, fire pit, and a bear box.
The campground also offers restrooms with flush toilets (thankfully no port-a-potties!!) and a sink to wash your dishes in.
The campsites vary in size so some larger RVs may not fit.
Want a different camping experience?
Camping on the dunes is permitted in certain areas, but a FREE permit must be obtained from the Visitors Center.
Camping this way is a great experience but climbing the dunes with extra gear can become very tiring.
You can also camp along the Medano Pass Primitive Road in the National Preserve section of the park.
To access this area you MUST have a high clearance 4WD vehicle or you will get stuck in the sand!!
These campsites are on a first come basis and have seasonal closures.
Pets are permitted in the park as long as they are always on a leash no longer than 6 feet.
This is to prevent your dog from chasing any of the wildlife or disturbing other visitors.
It is also required that you clean up after your pet.
It is very important to realize how hot the sand can get and that it will easily burn your pet’s feet.
The best time to climb the sand dunes with your pet is early morning or evenings to avoid the hot sand.
Another good way to judge the temperature of the sand is to touch it with your hand or bare foot. If it is hot to you, it is hot to your pet.
There is also no water when climbing the dunes and your pet becomes quite thirsty due to the effort.
I made the mistake of forgetting water for my dog and when we got to the top he kept digging until he got wet sand and then would suck on it.
I guess that must be instinct, but I felt really bad so we cut our climb short.
Horseback riding is permitted in most areas of the Great Sand Dunes National Park but please get a “Horse Use Guideline” from the Visitors Center before riding.
The park service also asks that you shovel all manure back into your trailer to help keep the Great Sand Dunes looking nice.
There is a large diversity of wildlife throughout the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.
On the valley floor there are wetlands, sand sheet, and then the dune field.
Many birds call this area home as well as several lizards and insects.
On the sand sheet, which is the grasses and shrubs surrounding the sand dunes, you can see pronghorn, mule deer, elk, coyotes, and jack rabbits.
As you move up the mountain bobcats, mountain lions, bears, elk, and mountain sheep call this area home.
There is also a large selection of plants that grow throughout the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.
It is very important to remember when visiting that these are wild animals.
Mule deer are frequent visitors to the campgrounds and surrounding areas.
Do NOT feed them!!
They may look tame but are still wild animals and could easily hurt a human.
Bears can sometime be seen in the campground so it is very important to use the bear boxes to prevent bears from stealing your food.
Animals quickly learn where they can get a free, easy meal and then keep coming back.
This often leads to the animals being destroyed because they no longer have a fear of people.
Help keep the animals wild by keeping your distance and following the park service guidelines.
I just learned about using sandboards and sand-sleds that are designed for sand.
Kristi Mountain Sports
in Alamosa carries both and they are the only place to get them! They offer rentals or you can buy your own. Rentals are $18/day.
I'm excited to try them out next time we head to the dunes but if you have tried one please let us know how they work.
Click here to share your tips and experience on sandboarding.
If you don't want to rent one, bring your own plastic sled but be advised this isn't always as fun as you might think.
Many people think that sledding down the slopes will be a blast.
And, honestly, if the conditions are right it is, but if they are not it is a lot of work and little reward.
The best time to sled down the sand dunes is right after a rain when the sand is compacted together or when there is a layer of snow.
If the sand is really dry it just piles up in front of your plastic sled and you don’t go very far or fast.
As the San Luis Valley is a high mountain desert there is not always rain.
Timing is everything but do NOT be on the sand dunes during a thunderstorm as lightning can kill you!!
You can hike the dunes themselves or one of the nearby trails.
There are hikes for all levels of hikers both on the dunes and up the mountains.
Many people underestimate how difficult it actually is to climb the dunes.
For one thing the altitude is higher than most people live so that will make a difference with your breathing but also when climbing in sand you take two steps up and slide back one.
This makes you work extra hard plus you are sinking in the sand.
Don’t get discouraged as the most fun is running and sliding/jumping down the sand dunes on your way down!
Many people want to make it to the highest dune.
This is where I always go. My favorite hike is to drive my 4WD vehicle up the Medano Pass Primitive Road to the Castle Creek Picnic Area and begin my climb from here.
I enjoy the drive but mainly how easy it is to get to the dunes and begin climbing.
Medano Creek runs right next to the dunes here so it is just a few hundred feet across the creek bed to the dunes.
At the main parking lot the dunes are quite a ways from Medano Creek so you have a lot of flat ground to walk before even beginning the dune hike.
Both ways get you to the top, one just has less flat land to cover.
Once you get to the top you will notice that several other dunes around you look higher.
Depending on where you are this could be the case but do not become obsessed with trying to reach them all.
Once you get to another top you will look back and see where you just were might be higher. It is all about the perspective you are looking at.
The tallest dune is Star Dune and can best be reached from the main parking lot but requires a long hike to get there.
Once you are at the top take time to look around and see the magnificent views of the San Luis Valley, Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and the dunes themselves.
It will be worth all of your effort!
Many of the hikes take you through the flat land surrounding the dunes. The ground is still covered in sand but small shrubs and trees grow in this area.
It allows for people to see the Great Sand Dunes National Park from a different perspective and enjoy hiking without climbing the actual dunes.
As you hike keep an eye out for wildlife, especially mule deer, as they are often found around the Great Sand Dunes National Park.
The Visitors Center has a great list of all the hikes in the area.
To be honest, I have not hiked most of these as I always climb the dunes.
Have you hiked the dunes? We would love to hear about it. Just click here to share.
Best Times To Visit
The Great Sand Dunes National Park can be visited any time of the year.
The best times in my opinion to visit is in the spring, starting around May 1st, when the water starts to run.
As the snow melts in the mountains, Medano Creek begins to run faster. While the creek never gets much higher than a foot or so deep, it is enough to splash around in.
Near the parking lot the creek makes several turns and washes away the bank.
This area can get several feet deep and you can float/surf down it a little ways.
If you watch the water you will notice that it has surges of water. This is due to the sand as it creates mini dams for the water.
Once a dam breaks there is a surge of water that comes flowing down the creek.
This is known as surge flow, which only occurs at few places in the world!!
In high run-off years the surges can be up to a foot high but in all my years coming here I have never seen that happen.
I also love to visit the Great Sand Dunes National Park on a calm, warm winter day.
I still have to bundle up in layers but it is so peaceful this time of year.
I often see large herds of mule deer on my drive in and usually have the place to myself.
I like to climb the dunes as well as walk up the dry creek bed. If it has been freezing for a few nights the sand is easier to climb as well.
No matter what time of year you visit it is important to check the weather.
The main concern with the weather is the wind and cold.
On a windy day the Great Sand Dunes National Park is NOT the place to be as you will be sandblasted constantly and your trip will not be very fun.
Another day to try and avoid is when it is cold out AND the wind is blowing. This makes your trip almost unbearable due to the cold winter weather.
There are 6 endemic insects to the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Endemic means they are found nowhere else on earth.
The most well known is the Great Sand Dunes Tiger Beetle.
It is the unofficial mascot of the Great Sand Dunes.
Indian Grove is a group of approximately 100 trees that have scars on their trunks from where the Ute and Navajo Indians removed the bark.
The bark was then used in medicine, to make trays and baskets, and for food.
The Indians knew how much bark they could remove without killing the tree.
These trees are slowly dying of old age and removing a living artifact.
A tree has been placed in the Visitors Center to allow all people to view a part of history.
Ghost forests can also be found in the Great Sand Dunes National Park.
This happens when sand piles up around tree due to “escape dunes.”
An escape dune is one that has crossed over Medano Creek and is no longer part of the main dune field.
This usually happens during drought years.
As the sand piles around the trees it causes them to suffocate and die, leaving a ghost forest.
Cottonwood trees have adapted and turn their lower branches into roots enabling them to live with the sand while most evergreen trees die.
As you can see there is a lot to do and see at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.
Every time you visit it will be different as the water and sand are constantly changing.
I hope this site helps you get the most out of your time at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve!!
Have a Great "Sand" Story?
Did you build the biggest sand castle in the Rocky Mountains? Or hike to the very top? Share your story, tip, or review about the Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Comments about the Dunes
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Special thanks to the Great Sand Dunes National Park Service for the use of their pictures.