10 Epic Things To Do In Great Sand Dunes National Park
Searching for the best things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park? Whether you’re spending one day at Great Sand Dunes National park or a few days, there are definitely some great things to check out when making your Great Sand Dunes National Park itinerary and checklist.
From low-key activities to outdoor adventures like sand boarding, hiking, and camping, there are plenty of great things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve.
Things To Do In Great Sand Dunes: A First Time Visitors Guide
Sand Dune National Park Interesting Facts
- When Was The Park Established |March 17, 1932 but became a National Park on September 24, 2004.
- How Was It Formed | Volcanic activity, swirling winds and flowing streams that continue to bring sand from the mountains and deposit it at the dune fields.
- Great Sand Dunes Elevation | At its lowest, 7,520ft. At it’s highest, 13,604ft.
- Yearly Visitors |Around 500,000 making Great Sand Dunes one of the least visited National Parks within the US.
- How Big Is Great Sand Dunes NP | 107,342 acres
Check Out: The Ultimate Colorado Road Trip Itinerary
Where Is Great Sand Dunes National Park Located?
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is located in Southern Colorado, about 60 miles from the state line of Colorado and New Mexico. The National Park is nestled in between the towns of Alamosa and Fort Garland in the San Luis Valley.
TIP: Both of these towns are perfect places to stay when looking to book accommodations outside of the National Park.
How To Get To Great Sand Dunes National Park
If you’re driving to Great Sand Dunes National Park, a few popular starting points are listed below to give you a general idea of how long the ride will take…
- Denver, CO: 225 miles, 4 hours
- Durango, CO: 165 miles, 3.25 hours
- Santa Fe, NM: 170 miles, 3 hours
- Colorado Springs, CO: 165 miles, 2.5 hours
- Taos, NM: 105 miles, 2 hours
Check Out: Top Road Trip Essentials To Pack & Not Leave at Home
If you’re looking to fly, the nearest airport to Great Sand Dunes National Park is San Luis Valley Regional Airport in Alamosa, Colorado.
However, if you’re looking for a larger airport to fly in and out of, you’ll have to set your sights a few hours away. Below are three of the nearest airports to Great Sand Dunes National Park.
- Colorado Springs Airport (airport code: COS)
- Denver International Airport (airport code: DEN)
- Santa Fe Airport (airport code: SAF)
NOTE: If you fly into either of these airports, a rental car will be needed to you you to and from Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Things To Do In Great Sand Dunes National Park
1. Hike To High Dune
High Dune is 699 feet (198 m) tall from base to top. While that might not seem all that tall, it’s a workout for sure. For every step you take, you’ll slide back on the loose sand. It’s an arduous hike to say the least.
Once you reach the top of High Dune, you’ll be standing at 8691 ft / 2649 m in elevation and have some pretty views of the National Park and Santa De Cristo mountains.
The hike roundtrip takes anywhere from 2-4 hours depending on 1) your fitness level and 2) how much time you hang out at the top.
A general rule of thumb is however long you think it will take you to hike a dune, double it. Hiking on sand is hard (worth it though) so it’s better to give yourself extra time rather than to rush it.
NOTE: If you are not acclimated to the elevation (the National Park sits at 8,000 ft), the hike will take you longer.
If High Dune isn’t your cup of tea, no worries. There are loads of other (smaller) dunes that are waiting for you with epic views. So don’t freak out. Do what’s best for your comfort level and enjoy!
2. Go Sand Boarding Down The Sand Dunes
Missing the snowy slopes? No worries, get your shred on at Great Sand Dunes National Park with sand boarding! Yes, sandboarding. Word to the wise, you can get up to 40mph coming down the dunes, so be prepared for a mouth full of sand if you fall 🙂
It’s all good fun and well worth it for any thrill seekers and boarders out there.
Where To Rent Sand Boards and Sand Sleds
Located 4 miles from the Visitor Center, you’ll find the Oasis Store. The Oasis Store sells tasty treats and also, sand boards and sleds. Costing $20 (+ tax) a day.
Our advice, start small and then work your way up to the larger dunes. Just be prepared to be picking and wiping sand off yourself for days.
Note: you cannot rent sandboards at the Visitor Center. If Oasis Store is sold out, there are a few other stores like Spin Drift Sand Board Rentals and Kristi Mountain Sports that will rent boards and sleds to visitors. It’s highly recommended to make reservations.
3. Experience The Starry Skies of Southern Colorado
Great Sand Dunes National Park at night lights up! Certified in 2019 as an International Dark Sky Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park is a primo spot for seeing a galactic, milky way sky.
Perfect for nighttime photography or just star gazing, if you stay overnight, make sure you see those stars.
TIP: If it’s a full moon, you’ll have plenty of light to guide your way. If not, you may want to bring a headlamp along.
4. Witness a Magical Sunrise
Worth the early wake-up call. There is something magical about seeing the sun rise over the Santa De Cristo mountains and watching the colors of purple, pink, and blue illuminate the sky. It’s peaceful, quiet, and oh-so-beautiful.
Check Out: Camping for Beginners Tips & Essential Camping Gear
TIP: If you are wanting to be at the top of the dunes for sunrise, start your hike up one hour before the sun is said to rise.
5. Hike to Zapata Falls
Technically not within national park grounds, Zapata Falls lies just outside the park, a few miles away. However, getting there is not the easiest.
In order to get to the trailhead, you’ll need an SUV or 4WD vehicle and travel on a rugged, bumpy 3.5-mile road for about 30 minutes. Once at the trailhead, you have a 0.5-mile hike in and then a 0.5-mile hike out.
The hike itself is easy to moderate (depending on your fitness level) and a beautiful waterfall awaits you at the end.
6. Stop at The Great Sand Dunes National Park Visitor Center & Gift Shop
If you’re wanting to learn more about the park and its history, a stop at the visitor is a must then. From a 20-minute movie about the park to interactive exhibits and photography, a visit to the visitor center is a great little stop.
Plus, mosey around back to the gift shop and take a seat on their outdoor patio to take in the views of the dunes and mountains from afar.
7. Have Yourself a Sand Dunes Picnic
Looking for a little R&R after all your hiking and sandboarding fun? How about a little picnic? Plan to pack breakfast and/or lunch and set up shop just outside the parking lot.
Find a shaded spot on the sand and bam, you have yourself a tasty meal with a million-dollar view.
TIP: We used our jet-boil to heat water for coffee and to heat up some tasty curry. We also have some great lightweight chairs we bring everywhere for moments like these.
8. Drive The Medano Pass Primitive Road
Medano Primitive road is a rough 22-mile road that connects the Great Sand Dunes with Colorado State Highway 69. The road is rocky, and bumpy and if you decided to drive it, a 4WD vehicle is needed.
The Medano Pass road crosses over soft sand, the Medano Creek and if you’re lucky, you may spot some bighorn sheep. If you’re wanting to camp or do some hiking, there are a few trailheads off the road as well as 21 first-come, first-serve primitive campsites.
TIP: Don’t have a 4WD vehicle? Fat bikes are permitted on the Medano Pass Primitive Road.
9. Sign Up for A Park Ranger Program
If you’re looking for a fun activity for the kids or to learn more about the park, check out the Ranger Programs. These are free events and programs that usually take place on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.
Interested? Swing by the visitor’s center for the weekly schedule or call ahead of time.
10. Hike Park Trails & Sand Dunes
Outside of hiking the sand dunes and Zapata Falls, there are a handful of other great hikes offered in and around the area.
- Star Dune – Hike the tallest dune in North America (750 ft). Access Star Dune from either High Dune or at its base from the Medano Creek bed.
- Medano Lake Trail – The trail starts at 10,000 ft with a 2,000 ft climb through meadows and forests before ending at a lovely alpine lake. The trailhead can be found on the Medano Pass 4WD road.
- Mosca Pass Trail – Following a small creek, the 3 1/2 mile Mosca Pass Trail will take you to the summit of a low pass in the Sangre de Cristo mountains.
If you’d like to check out more trails, you might want to consider buying the Trails Illustrated Sangre de Cristo map to get a complete view of what hikes and trails there are in the area.
TIP: When hiking any dunes, plan to hike early morning to avoid heat exhaustion and hot, burned feet.
Entrance Fees & National Park Hours
The best thing about Great Sand Dunes? It’s open 24/7 (except on Memorial Day) making it 100% accessible for anyone no matter the amount of time they have (or don’t have).
When entering the park, you’ll be stopped by a Park Ranger where you’ll be expected to pay a park entrance fee.
- Standard Vehicle| $25
- Motorcycle | $20
- Foot or Bicycle | $15
- Passengers under 16 | Free ($0)
Regardless of which price you pay, your pass is good for seven consecutive days allowing you to come and go as you, please. Once you pay, carry on past the visitor center and then turn into the main parking lot.
Once parked, you’ll be able to see the beautiful Sand Dunes and the Santa De Cristo mountains. From the parking lot, you’ll find a path that will lead you to the Sand Dune grounds.
From here, the walk to the sand dunes is over flat dirt/sand but you can expect a 10-15 minute walk to reach the base of the sand dunes.
Best Time To Visit Great Sand Dunes National Park
As we’ve said, the park is open all year round so there really isn’t a bad time to visit.
- Spring & Fall – The weather is cooler, the sand doesn’t get nearly as hot and the crowds are few. If you want to see Medano Creek, visit in the spring. The creek usually flows from mid-April to the beginning of June.
- Winter – You’ll find hardly any crowds and cold temperatures.
- Summer – The hottest and most popular months are the summer months.
How Long To Spend at Great Sand Dunes National Park
If you’re looking to do the quick and dirty, you can spend as little as a few hours in the park. In about 4 hours, you can hike to the top of one of the dunes, grab some epic pictures and hike back down to your car.
However, if time allows, we recommend spending one full day in the park, if not two.
What To Wear To Great Sand Dunes National Park
- Polarized Sunglasses – It’s bright and if the wind is whipping, you’ll want to protect your eyes from sand.
- Boots – For hiking the trails or climbing the sand dunes, you’ll need boots and the appropriate socks. Do not hike in sandals.
- A Jacket – If you’re waking up to watch the sunrise or staying to watch the sun set, you’ll want an extra layer. It gets chilly!
- Moisture Wicking Clothes – You’ll want to keep yourself dry so do your best to buy clothes that wick moisture like sweat – think active wear.
- Buff – Help protect your face from any whipping wind and the reflective sun.
- Hat – Another great thing to bring, especially if you’re sensitive to the sun is a hat.
- Swimming Suit – If you plan to splish and splash in Medano Creek, you’ll need a suit.
Make sure you apply plenty of sunscreen, pack some chapstick and bring lots of water, whether it’s an insulated bottle or a water bladder.
TIP: Avoid hiking in sandals at all costs when on the dunes. During afternoon hours the sand surface can reach 150F degrees.
Things You Can’t Do
With all the amazing, fun things you can do at Great Sand Dunes National Park, there are a few activities and items that are prohibited.
- Mechanical vehicles like ATV’s and Dune Buggy’s are not permitted
- Flying your drone is also not allowed
- Firearms or weapons of any kind are not permitted within park grounds
- While marijuana is legal in Colorado, possession of marijuana is still prohibited in the National Park
- Depending on if there is or if there is not a state-wide fire ban in place, campfires may be prohibited.
Is Great Sand Dunes National Park Dog Friendly?
Hell yes, it is! Go on and bring that furry, four-legged friend of yours. Just be sure to have his/her leash and bags to pick up any mess they leave.
Word to the wise, make sure your pooch is equipped and can handle the visit. They could encounter problems on the dunes from 1) the hot sand and 2) the stress it puts on their joints.
Make sure you have a leash, booties for your pet’s feet, and plenty of water for your furry friend. Oh and please do not hike during mid-day, it’s too hot for them.
Where To Eat
- Oasis Restaurant and Store – The only restaurant located within the National Park.
- Locavores – If you’re dining in Alamosa, eat here. Locavores serves farm-to-table salads, sandwiches & wraps plus local beer & wine.
- San Luis Valley Brewing Company – Want to sample the local beers? Stop into San Luis Valley Brewing.
- Blessed Brews Coffee – Need a pick-me-up? Grab a coffee from Blessed Brews before heading into the park.
- The Rubi Slipper – Local favorite for burgers, sandwiches and wraps
- Calvillo’s Mexican Restaurant – Looking for great, authentic Mexican food? Calvillo’s is your spot.
Where To Stay
Accommodations In Great Sand Dunes National Park
If you are wanting to stay within Great Sand Dunes National Park, you can either plan to camp at Piñon Flats Campground or book a stay at the Great Sand Dunes Lodge.
Accommodations Near Great Sand Dunes National Park
Alamosa is a town located 35 miles (45 minutes) from the park. It’s definitely not the most scenic town but it does the trick for a night or two. A few places to stay are below
For more accommodation options, check out the latest places and prices here.
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