For many, it comes as a surprise that the largest sand dunes in North America are not found in one of the southern deserts but rather in Colorado’s high Rocky Mountains. Great Sand Dunes National Park is an odd but beautiful place with many surprises. Here, surrounded by peaks that rise over 13,000 feet, even the highest dune looks deceptively small. The best of Great Sand Dunes National Park is found by fully exploring this unique and beautiful landscape. It is a place carved by erosion and built by the wind. There is so much to learn and explore when visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park and we have got the top 8 reasons to start planning your own journey.
When exploring the best of Great Sand Dunes National Park, summiting the highest dune is on most people’s to-do list. However, from the base of the massive dune field, it can be deceptive as to which dune is the highest. The tallest is Star Dune rising 750′ from the basin floor. Many visitors actually summit the 699′ High Dune which looks like the highest from the Medano Creek parking area. High Dune is a deceptive 2.5 mile-long hike. Hiking on steep sand can be exhausting. There are no set trails in the sand so hiking from the peak of High Dune to Star Dune is allowed but save yourself the up and down and instead follow the flow of Medano Creek about 2-miles to the south where the Star Dune peak is more easily seen and then head straight for the top. Going this route is about 4-miles (one-way).
2) Camping in the Dunes
Instead of just venturing in and out of the sand dunes why not plunge deep into the 30-square-mile dune field. This is the best way to beat the crowds for the early morning light and find solitude amongst the sand. Backpackers that have the Dunes Backcountry permit can set up camp anywhere within the dune field so long as it exceeds more than 1.5 miles from the parking area. Spending a night in the heart of the massive dune field comes with the added benefit of unobstructed views of the Milky Way. In 2019, Great Sand Dunes National Park became an official International Dark Sky Park. Experiencing a clear night on the sand is truly memorable. Permits to camp in the dunes must be reserved ahead of time. The permits become available 3 months ahead of time.
Alternative: Camping in the Campground
The next best thing to spending the night in the dunes themselves is to camp in the Piñon Flats Campground located inside the park. It won’t have the solitude but the night sky will still be visible and you won’t have to lug jugs of water across the sand. See the campgrounds area of this post for more details.
3) Wade Medano Creek
The Medano Creek is often fondly referred to as the beach in Colorado which comes complete with tiny waves. Each spring the creek begins flowing along the eastern edge of the dune field making for a great place to splash around in the cool water while enjoying the sand. The sand is pushed into small ridges by the flow of the water. These ridges repeatedly create small dams on Medano Creek and then quickly give way under the pressure creating small waves. It is an interesting phenomenon. The creek can be waded through making for a unique and cool hike on a hot summer’s day. Just don’t wait until too late in the summer to visit the Great Sand Dunes because the creek is fed by snowmelt and typically disappears by mid-summer.
Medano Creek is an integral part of why the Great Sand Dunes even exist. Throughout the fall and winter sand is blown into the Sangre de Cristo mountains on the west side of the park. In the spring the snow melts and washes the sand back into the basin. The flow of Medano Creek widens as it passes the dunes and quickly vanishes into the San Luis Valley. The water actually sinks beneath the surface and into an underground aquifer leaving the sand behind on the surface of the basin. This sand will later be picked up by the wind and redeposited on the dunes.
4) Sand Surfing or Sledding
One of the most popular activities in Great Sand Dunes National Park is sledding down the giant mounds. It can be an exhausting trek to the top of the dunes but getting back to the bottom is quick and exhilarating, especially when you take a sled or sand surfboard with you. Even if you don’t have a sled just running or rather hopping down the steep dunes is a blast as each hop sinks deep into the porous surface and you end up sliding down the dunes rather than actually hiking. It may take you hours to hike to the top but when sliding down you can cover the same distance in a few minutes. Sand boards and sleds can be rented from the Oasis store just before entering the park.
5) Off-Roading Medano Pass
Great Sand Dunes National Park has very little asphalt. The paved road leads to the visitor center, the Medano Creek parking lot, and the campground. However, if you have a 4×4 capable of handling the sand there is a rough road along the eastern edge of the park that crosses Medano Creek and then climbs up and over the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range via the 10,040′ Medano Pass. This road is closed throughout the winter and in the spring it can be very muddy from the snowmelt. This is an adventure best had in the late summer and fall. Check with the Great Sand Dunes National Park Service for current road conditions. Contact Pathfinders 4×4 if you are in need of a jeep rental for the journey.
6) Climb Mount Herard
The 13,297′ Mount Herard is the highest mountain peak visible from the dune field when visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park. If you are able to traverse the 4×4 road over Medano Pass and are acclimated to the elevation why not climb the mountain peak? The summit of Mount Herard provides the best views for taking in the scale of the Great Sand Dunes. It is one of the few places in the park where the entirety of the dunefiled can be seen. Like many of Colorado’s high peaks, snow can linger on Mount Herard throughout much of the Summer, and winter conditions can roll in at any time. The best time to hike is early in the morning, summiting before 11:00 AM, and in mid-July thru early-September.
7) The Singing Sand
When searching for the best of Great Sand Dunes National Park listen for the singing sand. It is a phenomenon when large sections of sand slide away creating an avalanche of unique sound. It is an odd sensation hearing the ground cry out in a low octave hum as millions of grains of sand crawl down the slopes in a giant wave. To hear the singing sand best try to venture away from the noisy crowds and seek out the steeper sections of the mountainous dunes. Although the sand sings naturally when the weather causes the sand to shift you can also create it by pushing on the sand and causing an avalanche.
8) Zapata Falls
During the peak of summer, the sand can be unbearably hot when visiting the best of Great Sand Dunes National Park. Cool off with a hike to Zapata Falls. The beautiful 30′ waterfall isn’t located within the park boundary but it is a favorite when traveling to the area. Wading into the frigid creek waters will cool you off on the hottest of days. The drive-up is on a gravel road. It can be a bumpy road but during the summer it is usually maintained well enough that any vehicle can make the journey. Once parked it is a relatively easy half-mile hike up to the creek and a short wade through the creek into the gulch to the waterfall. Sections of the waterfall remain frozen well into the summer providing a natural air-conditioning.
Logistics for Visiting the Best of Great Sand Dunes National Park
April – June is the best time to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park. Medano Creek is flowing and the temperature is usually very nice. This is also mosquito season but they usually only inhabit the foliage near Medano Creek.
September & October is the second-best time to visit the heart of the park with cooler weather making the dunes nicer than the summer season.
July & August is a great time to visit the Sangre de Cristo mountains on the eastern edge of the park. The dune field can be explored early in the morning but will be unbearably hot, especially to your feet, during mid-day.
November – March is generally a cold and unpleasant time to visit the park. Many of the facilities are closed and the weather can be very windy. The blowing sand can be painful. However, standing atop the dunes after a fresh coat of snow is a beautiful and unique experience. If you are looking for this January and February are the best months for snow. Bring a pair of ski goggles to protect your eyes.
The Piñon Flats Campground inside the park is a great place to stay when visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park. You must reserve your site and it is highly recommended to get them when they become available 6-months in advance. The campground is only open from April 1st – October 31st and has no hook-ups or showers.
Driving an RV and need more luxury? Check out Oasis Campground just outside the park. It has electrical hookups and hot showers. This campground also has a season running from April 1st to the end of October. Reservations are recommended.
If you are planning a trip last minute, then head for Zapata Falls Campground. It is primitive camping but the sites are first-come, first-served. Arrive early as the 23 sites fill up fast. The campground is open year-round but the access road isn’t maintained in the winter so conditions could be rough.
If you’ve missed the reservation window for the other campgrounds and want to have a better chance of securing a site last minute you should look 15 miles to the west at the Mosca Campground in the San Luis Lake State Wildlife Area. It is very enticing as it is free (sort of) and it is open year-round. Unfortunately, this campground will take some forethought as you need to come prepared with a Colorado hunting or fishing license. The state also has a cheaper State Wildlife Area Pass that will allow you to camp here as well.
The Great Sand Dunes Lodge is the only option close to the park, for those looking for a hotel room over a campground. Alamosa, Colorado is 30-miles away but is the closest town to the park. It has lots of national brand hotels for the choosing.
The only place to get a cooked meal near the park is at the Great Sand Dunes Oasis which is also one of the campground options. The food is good but nothing overly special.
If you are willing to drive 30 miles to Alamosa, Calvillo’s Mexican Restaurant is one of the best Mexican eateries in the entire state. Jennifer and I always make the journey when visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park.
The Best of Great Sand Dunes National Park
In 2004, the Great Sand Dunes finally became an official National Park after being originally established as a National Monument in March of 1932. This relatively small park sees a fraction of the annual visitation of Rocky Mountain National Park in the northern part of Colorado. However, it encompasses not only the largest sand dunes in North America but wetlands, forests, and even tundra. Whether you are looking to summit the highest dune, surf the sand, have a relaxing day of playing in the water, or summiting the 13-thousand foot Mount Herard, Great Sand Dunes National Park encompasses a wide variety of truly unique experiences.
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