Great Sand Dunes is an outdoor adventurer’s paradise. Featuring the continent’s tallest dunes and an array of diverse landscapes such as grasslands, wetlands, forests, alpine lakes, tundra, and mountain peaks, Great Sand Dunes is a paradise for off-roaders, backpackers, and of course, sand boarders.
Officially, it’s Great Sand Dunes National Park; unofficially, it’s America’s largest sandbox. In this complete guide to Great Sand Dunes, you’ll learn everything you need to know to enjoy a trip to North America’s tallest dunes, including the top hikes, where to stay, when to go, the best things to do, and more!
Complete Guide to Great Sand Dunes National Park
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Quick Facts About Great Sand Dunes
Location: Colorado, USA
Established: 1932 (National Monument), 2004 (National Park)
Size: 149,056 acres
Annual Visitors: 493,428 (2022)
Fee: $25/vehicle for 7 days or free with an annual pass
Visitor Center: Great Sand Dunes
Fun Facts About Great Sand Dunes
Great Sand Dunes contains the tallest dunes in North America. According to the NPS website, “Star Dune rises 750 feet from its base to its crest. The ‘High Dune’ on the first ridge rises 699 feet from its base, but because it starts on higher ground, its crest is higher above sea level than that of Star Dune.”
Great Sand Dunes contains one of the most fragile and complex dune systems in the world.
The lowest elevation in the park is 7,520 feet near San Luis Lakes. The highest elevation is 13,604 feet at Tijeras Peak.
Surface temperatures on the sand can range from 150 degrees F in the summer to -20 degrees F on a winter night.
The dunes are constantly shifting due to wind and water. Storms can cause the shape of the sand to alter dramatically, so the dunes may look different each time you visit!
Best Hikes in Great Sand Dunes
High and Star Dune Loop
- Distance: 8 miles
- Type of Trail: Loop
- Elevation Gain: 1,309 feet
- Difficulty: Strenuous
Since there are no designated trails in the dunefield, visitors can find their own path up, around, and across the sand.
You will traverse down bowls and up ridges, following the ever-changing sandy dips and rises. It’s definitely less strenuous to zigzag than shoot straight up the dune, but it’s been done both ways! Acknowledge the limits of your personal physical ability, and always bring plenty of water; the sand is scorching hot in the summer months!
AllTrails marks this looped path to the two highest dunes as 8 miles in length, but exact mileage will vary as you navigate your own path.
Upper Sand Creek Lake Trail
- Distance: 7.4 miles
- Type of Trail: Out & back
- Elevation Gain: 1,965 feet
- Difficulty: Strenuous
This 7.4-mile trail takes you deep into the alpine backcountry. Since the dunes are the highlight of the park, many don’t venture back into the mountains. You will rise above the dunefield as you ascend the tree line to reach the lake.
Please note that reaching this trailhead requires a 4WD, high-clearance vehicle, and you must have some navigational and hiking skills to venture into the backcountry.
Mosca Pass Trail
- Distance: 6.2 miles
- Type of Trail: Out & back
- Elevation Gain: 1,407 feet
- Difficulty: Moderate
This 6.2-mile out & back trail meanders along a creek to the summit of Mosca Pass. You will be treated with aspen and evergreen forest, mountain, and dune views.
Where to Stay in Great Sand Dunes
Lodging (Inside the Park)
There are no lodging options inside the park. Consider camping or staying outside the park.
Lodging (Outside of the Park)
Pinon Flats Campground. This is the only campground in the National Park. It is located one mile north of the Visitor Center, and it is open from April through October. All 91 sites can be reserved on recreation.gov up to 6 months in advance for individual sites and 1 year in advance for group sites. Amenities include food storage lockers, a camp store, ice, firewood, an amphitheater, a dump station, potable water, and flush toilets.
Backpackers can enjoy one of two backcountry experiences: designated sites along the Sand Ramp Trail or 20 non-designated sites in the Dunes Backcountry. Permits are available on recreation.gov for $6; free, in-person permits are no longer available.
Getting Around Great Sand Dunes
There are two ways to get around Great Dunes National Park: by 2WD on paved roads or by 4WD on rough roads.
Medano Pass Primitive Road is the most popular unpaved pass in the park, and it is only accessible by 4WD, high-clearance vehicles. Do not attempt this road with an AWD or 2WD; you will get stuck in the deep sand and creek crossings.
If you only have a 2WD, don’t worry; you can still access the main park entrance road. The Dunes Parking Lot, Visitor Center, and Pinon Flats Campground are accessible to all vehicles.
When to Visit
The NPS has broken down the conditions you can expect each month in the park. I’ve summarized it below!
January. Coldest month.
February. Little snowfall. Most days are sunny and calm.
March. Snowiest month.
April. Volatile and blustery conditions. The creek begins to flow. Campground opens.
May. Moderate temperatures. Peak of creek flow. Medano Pass Primitive Road opens. Mountain hiking trails become passable.
June. Decreasing creek flows, but warmer temperatures. Mosquitoes are the worst during this month.
July. Warmest month. Sand temperatures can reach 150 degrees F. Creek is reduced to a trickle. Peak season for wildflowers. Thunderstorms are common.
August. Second warmest month. Peak bloom for prairie sunflowers. Thunderstorms are common. Creek is dried up. Mountains are barren of snow. Milky Way is most visible.
September. Ideal weather. Dune temperatures can reach 150 degrees F. Aspen trees turn gold. Snow showers begin to dust mountain peaks.
October. Chillier temperatures but pleasant conditions. Gold cottonwood trees peak and snow showers blanket the mountains.
November. Winter storms are possible, but days are generally sunny and calm. Elk are often spotted in the early mornings or evenings.
December. Heavy and long-lasting snow begins.
Overall, the best time to visit Great Sand Dunes is May through November.
Best Non-Hiking Activities
My favorite way to experience the National Parks is to venture into the backcountry, hike along the various trails, and immerse myself in the diverse terrain and landscapes. But sometimes, the best way to capture the full experience of a park involves other activities as well! Here are some unique experiences available at Great Sand Dunes.
Wade in Medano Creek
Great Sand Dunes is famous for its sand and striking backdrop of mountain peaks, but did you know a creek flows directly in front of the dunefield?
Medano Creek flows seasonally; the snowmelt rushes off the mountains, melts into the lakes, and cascades through meadows and forests before dumping at the base of the dunes. Surge flow, caused by the build-up and breakdown of underwater sand ridges, sends out waves through the creek that adds an extra thrill to the experience.
With the sand and the wave-smattered water, you’ll feel like you’ve escaped to a mountainous beach tucked into the alpine wilderness. So after a hot day of climbing the sand dunes or off-roading through the sunny backcountry, cool off in the wide, shallow creek by wading, floating, rafting, or skimboarding!
Check the park’s website for updated info on current conditions and water flow, but the creek typically flows from April through June.
Stargaze at the International Dark Sky Park
In 2019 Great Sand Dunes became recognized as the newest International Dark Sky Park. The high elevation and lack of light pollution in the park concoct the ideal location to stargaze.
Experience the stars at their finest on a moonless evening. See what it feels like to be guided by a velvet blanket of shimmery diamonds as you shuffle through the cool sand, accented by stark mountain ranges lit up by the star shower.
Go Off-Roading on Medano Pass Primitive Road
Medano Pass Primitive Road is a rough, 22-mile road connecting Great Sand Dunes with the Wet Mountain Valley and Colorado State Highway 69. Only 4WD vehicles are permitted on this road; AWD, 2WD, and all other vehicles with low clearance will get stuck in the deep sand and creek crossings.
Enjoy a thrill ride through nine water crossings, many areas of deep, shifting sand, and bighorn sheep habitats.
Though Medano Pass only takes about 2.5-3 hours to drive, many chose to camp overnight along the road. Roadside camping is permitted in 21 numbered sites in the park; they are first-come, first-served, so plan on arriving early to secure a spot.
For more information regarding the current road conditions, creek level, and mileage chart, click here.
Go Sandboarding or Sledding Down the Dunes
Most people are familiar with snowboarding, but did you know you can perform that same sport on sand instead of snow? It’s called sandboarding!
Sandboards and sand sleds are perfect for the whole family. Unlike snowboarding, you don’t need cold weather and snow slopes; you just need a steep, tall dune, a board, and a little wax!
Great Sand Dunes Oasis, which is located right before the entrance to the National Park, rents these boards on a first-come, first-served basis for just $20/day. Arrive early to snag one of the exclusive boards or sleds, or consider bringing your own. We arrived right when the Oasis opened at 9:00 am, and there was already a line wrapped around the building. The Oasis also has gas pumps and convenience services so you can load up on all of your fuel for a day (or week) in the park!
Once you’ve secured your board or sled, head through the entrance station and park at the main Dunes parking area. It is a large parking lot, but it fills up quickly during summer days and weekends. Once you’ve parked and have your board or sled tucked under your arm, it’s time to find that perfect spot!
The beauty of this sport/activity is that you can find a dune that meets your thrill needs and skill level. There are dunes of all shapes and sizes that are constantly reforming with the wind, so snag that mini hill or claim the tallest dune. The taller and steeper the dune, the larger the thrill. But no matter what size sand dune you chose to slide down, you’re sure to have a blast! And don’t worry about crowds; there is a slice of sand for everyone, and you’ll feel deep solitude in this quiet National Park!
I have an entire guide about how to sandboard in Great Sand Dunes. Read it here!
What to Explore Around Great Sand Dunes
If you’re visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park, I’d highly recommend adding these spots to your itinerary:
- Zapata Falls
- Black Canyon of the Gunnison
- Rocky Mountain National Park
- Colorado National Monument
- Colorado Springs
- Garden of the Gods Recreation Area
- Pikes Peak
- Paint Mines Interpretive Park