Planning a road trip across the United States to visit some of the country’s beautiful national parks is a time honored tradition for many Americans, and something that draws visitors from around the world to the country each year to enjoy. The United States is filled with many beautiful park lands that showcase all different types of incredible landscapes. In my opinion, one of the most underrated national park lands in the United States is the breathtaking Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. In putting together this Great Sand Dunes Guide, I had little trouble thinking of amazing things for visitors to see and do within this unique and beautiful park.
Made famous by its towering sand dunes, which are the tallest in all of North America, the Great Sand Dunes National Park is a landscape like no other on the continent. In fact, its sand dunes are so massive that NASA uses the park to test the rovers it plans to send to other planets. However, you don’t have to be a geologist or work for NASA to appreciate the beauty and uniqueness of this incredible park. With sand dunes that reach a mind boggling 755-feet high, the park is a magnet for adventure travelers as well.
Each year, flocks of people travel to the park for a chance of sand boarding or sledding on North America’s tallest sand dunes. And when the sun goes down, visitors are treated to some of the most beautiful star filled skies in the world. In fact, the skies are so clear that you can actually view far away galaxies in the night sky. These are just some of the many things that make it an essential stop on any national park road trip you take in the near future.
In this Great Sand Dunes Guide, I am going to give you all of the information you need to plan a successful trip to see the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. I cover the best times to visit and the best ways to get there so that you can maximize your sightseeing time on your trip. In addition, I outline the top things to see and do while you are there and where the best places to stay are. With this information in hand, you can be confident that your trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park will be one that you remember for the rest of your life.
How to Get There
The Great Sand Dunes National Park is located in Southern Colorado, roughly a 30-minute drive from the city of Alamosa. If you are planning on visiting the Great Sand Dunes National Park from outside of the United States, the easiest way to visit would be to fly into either the city of Denver, Colorado or Albuquerque, New Mexico. The park sits roughly half way in between these two large cities, and is only a four hour drive from each. If you plan on flying into Denver, you will want to plan to arrive at Denver International Airport (DEN). For those planning on flying into Albuquerque, I would recommend flying into the Albuquerque International Sunport (ABQ).
For travelers who are planning on visiting other areas in the Western United States and would like to include a stop at the Great Sand Dunes National Park on their itinerary, I have included a table in my Great Sand Dunes Guide below that outlines the driving distance and time to Great Sand Dunes National Park from other large cities in this region of the United States.
|Denver, CO||239 miles||3hrs 54min|
|Albuquerque, NM||237 miles||4hrs 07min|
|Moab, UT||325 miles||6hrs 02min|
|Oklahoma City, OK||577 miles||9hrs 04min|
|Salt Lake City, UT||539 miles||9hrs 06min|
|Rapid City, SD||633 miles||9hrs 46min|
|Kansas City, MO||696 miles||10hrs 31min|
|Las Vegas, NV||699 miles||11hrs 47min|
|Boise, ID||876 miles||13hrs 58min|
While road-tripping is a hallmark of American travel, especially when visiting the country’s national parks, I am well aware that long drives are not for everyone. If you would prefer to fly out to the Western United States to begin your adventure, there are a number of other large cities in the region that have large airports. If you are planning a trip to the Rocky Mountain region or the Western United States in general and would like to review some airport options, I have included a map of some of the major cities in the region besides Denver and Albuquerque that you can fly into to start your adventure.
Although it may not be one of the bigger national parks in the United States, the Great Sand Dunes National Park has more than its fair share of beauty and wonders to captivate visitors. Whether you come to do a little sandboarding, hike to the top of the tallest sand dune in North America, or just enjoy the beautiful vistas, the park is certain to leave you with lifelong memories. In order to help familiarize you with the park so that you can better prepare your itinerary before arriving, I have included a Great Sand Dunes National Park map for you to review below. You will be given a park map at the entrance, but it may help your planning efforts to download the park map PDF that I included in my Great Sand Dunes National Park Guide below to start your planning ahead of your arrival.
Top Things to See and Do
There is a seemingly endless number of incredible things to see and do at the Great Sand Dunes National Park. If you are planning a visit, I would strongly recommend staying for a few days so that you can experience the beauty of the desert at night. Believe me, your mind will be blown when you see the night sky at Great Sand Dunes for the first time. In addition to all of the fun things to see and do within the park, there are also a number of amazing things in the surrounding area that you can add to your travel itinerary. If you would like some recommendations on the top things to see within the park and the surrounding area, I have included a list of my favorite things to see and do in my Great Sand Dunes guide below.
Summit the High Dune
Let’s face it, the gigantic sand dunes are the stars of the Great Sand Dunes National Park. When you are standing in the middle of them, you would swear that you are standing in the middle of the Sahara Desert in Africa. Not only are they incredibly beautiful, but these amazing sand dunes are much bigger than you would imagine. The tallest of the dunes, which is named the High Dune, stands at a whopping 755-feet tall. To put that into perspective, the tallest building in the city of Denver is the 1801 California Street skyscraper, which is only 709-feet tall. If you have the time, I would recommend hiking to the top of the High Dune to enjoy the incredible views. However, don’t be lulled into thinking it is an easy hike. Even though you are only hiking up 755-feet, it will take you hours to get to the top of the dune hiking thru the sand.
Go Sledding or Sand Boarding
IMPORTANT NOTE: You cannot rent sand boards at the national park. Please see the information I have included below on where to get your sand board rental when visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park.
By far, one of the most popular activities to enjoy within the Great Sand Dunes National Park is sand boarding or sledding down the gigantic sand dunes. It’s an experience unlike any other you will have in the park system. However, before you pack your snow board for the trip, you should know that these boards will not slide on the dry sand. There are specially designed boards meant for the sand that you will need to use.
Don’t worry, you don’t need to invest in a sand board or figure out how to make one. All you need to do is stop by one of the many nearby outfitters that rent them. However, I would strongly suggest that you plan ahead. Sand boarding is becoming increasingly popular at the park and some of the outfitters that rent them are nearly an hour away from the park. In order to ensure you get a rental from one of the nearby shops, I would reach out to them well in advance of your trip.
For more information on which outfitters rent boards and where they are located, please refer to the table I have included in my Great Sand Dunes guide below. You can also view this information on the official Great Sand Dunes National Park page, which includes additional information on where to go boarding in the park and what types of boards and sleds will and will not work on the dunes as well.
|Name||Distance From Park||Operating Months||Phone Number|
|Oasis Store||4-Miles||Mar 1 - Oct 31||719-378-2222|
|Spin Drift Sand Board Rentals||25-Miles||Mar - Oct||719-379-4410|
|Sand Dunes Swimming Pool and Recreation||32-Miles||Year Round||719-378-2807|
|Kristi Mountain Sports||40-Miles||Year Round||719-589-9759|
|Spanish Peaks Outfitters||64-Miles||Year Round||720-401-8545|
Camp Under the Stars
There are some truly spectacular places to view the night sky within the national parks of the United States, and no doubt the Great Sand Dunes National Park is one of them. Certified as an official International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association in 2019, the combination of dry air, low pollution, and high elevation near the Great Sand Dunes National Park creates skies that are so dark and clear that you can actually see remote galaxies in the night sky. This is why I could not recommend strongly enough that you camp out during your visit to the Great Sand Dunes. It will be an experience you will remember for a lifetime.
Visit the Beautiful Zapata Falls
While it is not technically located within the Great Sand Dunes National Park, the nearby Zapata Falls is definitely a must-see attraction when visiting the park. Located just 9-miles outside of the park, the Zapata Falls is a breathtaking waterfall that is fairly easy for hikers of all abilities to get to. To reach the trailhead for the falls, head southwest on county highway 150 South out of Great Sand Dunes National Park. Follow 150 South for roughly 5.3-miles until you see a sign for Zapata Falls on the left-hand side of the road. You will turn left and follow the access road for roughly 3.6-miles until you reach the parking lot and trailhead.
Once you reach the trailhead for Zapata Falls, the trail itself is very easy and accessible for hikers of all abilities. It’s a very short out-and-back hike that is less than a mile, but it does require that you get into a shallow stream for a bit to reach the falls. Zapata Falls is located near the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and is enclosed within a rock outcropping. Once you reach the stream, you will be able to walk in the stream or hop from rock-to-rock in the shallow stream until you reach a sharp turn where the falls are located.
If you have water shoes or sandals, they are ideal for this hike as you can wear them in the water. Zapata Falls drops roughly 30-feet into the stream below and is one of the prettier waterfalls that I have seen in Southern Colorado, so it is definitely worth the hike. For more details on the Zapata Falls hike, please reference the Zapata Falls trail map I have included in my Great Sand Dunes guide below.
Catch a Sunrise or Sunset Over the Dunes
As a travel photographer, I am always chasing light when I travel. This means that I like to get up early and stay at locations late to capture as many sunrise and sunset photographs as I can. Seldom in my travels have I seen more beautiful sunrises and sunsets than at the Great Sand Dunes National Park. The crisp, clean air is perfect for producing colorful skies and the beautiful sand dunes are a great canvas for showcasing those colors in photographs.
If you plan on visiting the park, I would strongly suggest planning some sunrise or sunset time into your itinerary so that you can capture some incredible shots of your own. If you are a beginning photographer and would like some tips and tricks on how to improve your travel photographs, I would recommend checking out my tutorial on 10 Easy Tips to Make Your Vacation Photos Really Pop.
Off Road on the Medano Primitive Road
If you are looking for a little adventure on your trip to the Great Sand Dunes National Park, I would suggest exploring the infamous Medano Primitive Road. It is a rough road, so you will need the right vehicle if you want to explore it, but the views you will see from the road are spectacular. It also gives you access to several amazing back country campgrounds that are quieter and more secluded then the ones I cover in this guide.
The road is also a great place to go mountain biking or fat tire biking if you have your bike with you on your trip. If you would like to explore the road, but don’t have a bike or 4×4 vehicle, you can always book a tour with nearby Pathfinders 4X4. Keep in mind, as of 2021 they only offer tours of the Medano Road as part of larger tours of the area. For more information on the Medano Road, including vehicle and bicycle requirements and regulations, please refer to the Great Sand Dunes National Park page on the Medano Road.
Take a Horseback Ride Thru the Dunes
Another really great way to experience the beauty of the Great Sand Dunes National Park is on horseback. If you love to ride horses, then you will love having that experience in this beautiful park. For travelers who have their own horses, you will need to familiarize yourself with the areas that are off limits to horses before visiting the park. Before you arrive, I would review the park’s Map of Areas Closed to Horse Use. I would also strongly suggest reading the park’s rules and regulations on horse and pack animal use before setting off to ensure you are in compliance.
For those who don’t have their own horses, but would still like to have the experience of horseback riding within the Great Sand Dunes, Ranchlands (719-378-2356) is the only licensed operator that is allowed to operate within the Great Sand Dunes National Park. I would suggest booking your horseback riding tour well in advance if you are interested. If you are an overnight guest at the Zapata Ranch, you can also experience a horseback ride at that historical site as part of your package as well.
See the Ranger Program at the Amphitheatre
One of the best ways to learn more about the Great Sand Dunes National Park is to participate in one of the park’s many wonderful ranger programs. The park rangers in America’s national park system are some of the most dedicated and knowledgeable ambassadors of the country’s park lands. Every time I have participated in a ranger program, I have come away from that experience feeling like I have learned so much more than I thought I would. For more information on the ranger lead programs at the park, including events at the park amphitheater, check out the Ranger Programs page on the Great Sand Dunes National Park website.
Hike the Dunes Overlook Trail
While hiking and playing on the gigantic sand dunes can be a lot of fun, it is difficult to appreciate just how massive and beautiful the dunes are while you are right on top of them. If you would like to get a better appreciation for just how large the sand dunes are, then I would suggest you hike the Dunes Overlook Trail. This trail will take you to a spot overlooking the sand dunes where you can the dunes as a whole much better. From this vantage point, it is much easier to see how the great sand dunes absolutely dominates the landscape in the area. For more information on this wonderful hike, please refer to the map I have included in my Great Sand Dunes guide below.
When to Visit
In many ways, the weather at the Great Sand Dunes National Park can be characterized as being extreme. During the summer months, the temperature on the sand dunes can be blistering hot. As winter comes around, those hot temperatures are replaced by bitter cold night time temperatures and blistering cold winds. Before you visit the Great Sand Dunes National Park, it is important that you understand what type of weather to expect so that you are prepared. To assist you in your planning, I have included some helpful climate and visitor stats for you to review in my Great Sand Dunes guide below.
Average Temperature (°F)
During the hot summer months of June thru August, surface temperatures on the sand dunes can exceed 150°F ( or 65°C). If you are planning a visit during the summer, it is critically important that you bring enough water and sunscreen with you, and that you are vigilant about monitoring your travel partners for signs of heat stroke. It is also recommended that you wear adequate footwear to protect your feet from the hot sand if you plan on spending time on the dunes.
You won’t have to worry about hot temperatures during the winter months of December thru February, but you will need to be prepared for night time temps that can drop below -20°F (or -29°C) at night. If you plan to go camping near the park during winter, you should have adequate protection from the cold. In my opinion, the best temperatures at the park can be found during the late spring months of April and May and the early autumn months of September and October.
Average Precipitation (Inches)
The park doesn’t see a whole lot of precipitation throughout the year. In fact, the only month that averages over an inch of precipitation is the month of August. For those who plan to go camping near the park, avoiding wet conditions may be a priority. If you are looking for the driest time of year to plan your visit, I would suggest avoiding the late summer months of July thru September, as these months are typically the wettest. The rest of the year you can expect to see well below an inch of rain per month around the park.
Average Visitors (Visitors Per Day)
The Great Sand Dunes National Park may not be the busiest park in America’s national park system, but its beautiful sand dunes do attract decent size crowds during the busy season. If you would like a little more space on the dunes to go sand boarding or would like to enjoy the tranquility of this beautiful place without the crowds, you will want to avoid the peak season of June thru August. Instead, I would target the shoulder months of late April and early May or late September and early October. During these periods, the weather is still nice and the crowds are a lot smaller within the park. Not only will you have more space to enjoy the park, but you will have an easier time finding a sand board or sled rental in town.
Other Things to See in the Area
With the Rocky Mountains to the North and the high desert plateau to the South, the state of Colorado has some of the most beautiful landscapes in North America. The stunning San Luis Valley certainly is no exception. There is no shortage of amazing things to see and do in the area, that’s for sure. If you are planning an extended trip to Colorado and are looking for some additional stops to add to your itinerary after you have visited the Great Sand Dunes National Park, I have included links to some guides that you might find interesting in my Great Sand Dunes National Park Guide below.
|Rocky Mountain National Park Guide|
|The Ten Best Fourteeners in Colorado for Beginning Hikers|
Where to Stay
When visiting the national parks and monuments of the United States, it is a really neat experience to camp out during your visit. Some of the best campgrounds in America can be found inside the country’s national parks and monuments and the surrounding areas. This is especially true of the Great Sand Dunes National Park, which is a certified International Dark Sky Park. The extra dark skies in the park and surrounding area making it one of the best places to star gaze in North America. If you are interested in camping out during your visit, I have included a map and list of some recommended campgrounds for you to review in my Great Sand Dunes guide below.
|The High Desert Ranch|
|North Crestone Creek Campground|
|South Colony Basin|
|Piñon Flats Campground|
|Great Sand Oasis|
|Zapata Falls Campground|
If camping is not your speed, you need not worry as there are a variety of good hotels for you to choose from in the area as well. In fact, the nearby city of Alamosa, Colorado is only a short 30-minute drive from the park and is a great hub for those wanting to explore the Great Sand Dunes National Park and surrounding area. If you are in the process of planning your trip to the park and are looking for recommendations on hotels in the area, I have included a map and list of recommended hotels at different price points for you to review in my Great Sand Dunes guide below.
When planning any trip, you can never have too many resources at your disposal. In addition to the information I have provided you in this Great Sand Dunes guide, I have linked to a number of other official resources from the US National Parks Service below to use to plan your trip as well.
- Operating Hours and Seasons
- Fees and Passes
- Permits and Reservations
- Park Maps
- Park Campgrounds
- Sandboarding and Sand Sledding
- Park Trails
- Medano Pass Privative Road
- Nearby Attractions
Activities in the Area
There are a lot of beautiful and amazing things to see in the Great Sand Dunes National Park, but there are also a lot of really fun activities that you can do during your visit as well. If you are starting to plan your trip and are looking for some fun activities to enjoy while you are at the park, I have included some suggestions for you to review in my Great Sand Dunes guide below.
|Climb Blanca Peak|
|Rio Grande Scenic Railroad|
|Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge|
|Sandboarding and Sledding (Kristi Mountain Sports)|
|Zapata Ranch Horseback Riding|
|Backpacking and Hiking Tours (Kaiyote Tours)|
|Pathfinder 4×4 Tours and Jeep Rentals|
The Great Sand Dunes National Park is a very beautiful and picturesque place. If you are interested in seeing more of this beautiful park, I have included some of my favorite photographs that I have taken during my visits in a gallery for you to review below.
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