Visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
If you want to see the tallest sand dunes in North America (750 feet high) nestled amid a 30 square mile dune field in a gloriously scenic setting, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is the place for you. When the nearby Sangre de Cristo Mountains are snow capped the park is at its loveliest.
Located in south central Colorado, Great Sand Dunes offer a variety of activities and is especially family-friendly. Although the more remote areas (mainly mountainous) can be reached only by high –clearance Jeeps or strenuous hikes up steep trails, the Dunes are close to the visitor center (slightly more than half a mile) and are the major reason that people visit this enjoyable area.
Hiking the dunes is a popular but strenuous activity, while sand boarding, sledding and skiing are popular activities with kids and lighter adults (about the only ones who can make any speed on the sand). Be sure you are appropriately equipped before trying these exhilarating sports. By the way, grabbing some cardboard and trying to use it as a sled, will not work.
In addition, to its dunes, the adjacent Medano Creek wetlands, nearby grasslands and scenic trails extending into the surrounding mountains make Great Sand Dune National Park a special place to visit.
The Great Sand Dunes area was once a lake bed separating the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on the east from the San Juan Mountains on the west. The Sangre de Cristo were uplifted during ancient times and are what is known as a fault block mountain range. Conversely, the San Juan’s were formed from volcanism over extended periods of time. The two mountain chains coalesced at their southern edge and contained a plain that eventually filled in with melt water from glaciations. The lake formed was roughly the size of the state of Connecticut. Sediments from the mountains began to fill the valley and the lake become progressively shallower as the climate changed.
Eventually, runoff from the mountains eroded through the deposits that had dammed the southern end of the valley, draining the lake and leaving a large plain of sand. Due to a wind pattern that is predominately from the southwest, dunes began to form along the curve of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The other part of the story is that storm winds in this area are usually from the northeast. These winds blow over and down the slopes of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain and against the accumulated sand, helping the dunes to grow vertically in a continual game of “to and from”.
The Park features a broad range of elevation. Near the San Luis Lake it is approximately 7,500 feet, the Visitor Center is at 8,170 feet and Tijeras Peak is around 13,600 feet. If you have breathing difficulties you should discuss the sensibility of visiting this and other attractions in high elevations.
Availability and Admission Fee
The entrance fee to the park is $3 per adult (age 16 and older). The entrance fee is valid for 7 days and you can exit and re-enter the park during this period at your convenience.
Great Sand Dunes National Park is open 24 hours a day, every day of the year. The Visitor Center is open in winter from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily, except for federal holidays, when the building is closed, and from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the summer. See the official Great Sand Dunes National Park Website for more details on visiting.
In-park camping at the Pinyon Flats Campground is available year round, although only one-half of the camp’s 88 sites are available in winter. Camping is an attractive option here and the campground is in high demand in peak season, especially when Medano Creek is flowing. Visit this section of the Great Sand Dunes National Park website for details on camping.
Best Time to Visit
Spring can be windy and cold. Summer is generally pleasant but the temperatures on the dunes can be above 130 F on otherwise warm, sunny days. Even at this time of year the Park is cool in the evenings.
Fall is usually the best season for a visit, although nights can be cold and snow can be expected anytime the calendar turns to October. In winter, the Park is often just too cold for touring.
Lodging and Nearby Places
The nearest major airport is Denver (approximately 250 miles) or Albuquerque, which is about the same distance south.
There is a small, rustic hotel just outside the park entrance (the Great Sand Dunes Lodge). In addition, the nearby Zapata Ranch offers vacation packages.
Alamosa at 35 miles distance is the closest town with lodging. Denver is 234 miles, Colorado Springs 167 miles, Pueblo 183 miles and Albuquerque 246 miles. If you approach from the east, we recommend spending the night in Colorado Springs or Pueblo and making the drive to the park in the early morning. (Alamosa is a small town and you will find more choices for lodging and cuisine in the Springs or Pueblo).
If you are planning to vacation in southern Colorado, you should consider making the drive across the Rockies to Mesa Verde (228 miles). An alternative is to head north and explore the Rocky Mountain National Park (about 184 miles) and the Colorado ski country. Conversely, you might consider touring iconic Taos, New Mexico (125 miles south) and continuing down to Carlsbad Caverns National Park (392 miles). If you do so, consider adding stops in Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Roswell (only if you want to see its Flying Saucer Museum).