Driving into Great Sands Dunes National Park, it’s hard to believe the beauty of what you are seeing as you get closer and closer to the landscape. Miles of sand dunes; the tallest in North America, with a sweeping backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It doesn’t get more picturesque than this folks. This spectacular area has it all…wetlands, forests, tundra, mountain views, trails, and even sand sledding! I highly recommend adding this stop to your travel itinerary if you are in Colorado! Great Sand Dunes is located about 4 hours south of Denver, or 3 hours south of Colorado Springs.
This unique water playground makes its appearance on average from April to June, with peak flow being in May, but it depends on precipitation and snow melt for that year. We had an absolute BLAST playing in the water here and taking in the background views. Exploring here was probably the highlight of the trip for the kids, despite the mosquitoes (see safety section at end of post).
High Dune Trail: This trail is around 2.5 miles, and if you make it to the top, it is WELL worth the hike. You will have a 360 degree view of the dunes along with the Sangre de Cristo Mountain range. It is absolutely breathtaking! Hiking to the top is a little over a mile, but is a bit arduous due to the fact that you will be hiking in sand, at elevation. This hike starts behind the visitor center at an elevation of over 8,000 feet, and climbs almost 700 feet to the top. Take it slow, and bring plenty of water. Hiking down is much easier! You can have a bit of fun with it! If you rented a sandboard or sled, you can slide down, or you can roll down it! Or run it! Whichever you choose, your descent will be MUCH easier than the hike up! I suggest beginning this hike earlier in the morning, especially if you are hiking in the summer, because the sand won’t be nearly as hot. Also, you will have a better shot at taking some awesome and dramatic shots of the dunes due to the position of the sun in the morning. After the hike, if you visit between April and June, you can cool off in Medano Creek!
Montville Nature Trail: This trail is great for those with young children, as the roundtrip hike is only a half mile. Stroll through forest to get some shade from the sun, and enjoy the views of the dunes and Mosca Creek on this hike. You can easily pick up this trail at the visitor center.
Mosca Pass Trail: If you are up for more of an adventure, take this 7 mile roundtrip hike that follows along Mosca Creek, and offers beautiful views of meadows, lush forest, and the dunes! Keep in mind that this trail has an elevation gain of 1400 feet.
Camping at Great Sand Dunes NP
There are two campgrounds that I highly recommend. One is the Pinon Flats Campground within the park. The other is Zapata Falls Campground, which is located 12 miles outside the park.
Pinon Flats Campground: This campground is available for online reservations from April 3rd to October 31st. Loop 1 and 2 can accommodate both RV’s and tents. This campground has an amphitheater that offers a variety of programs for all ages, and is wheelchair accessible. You can enjoy these programs even if you are not staying at the campground. Campground Reservations
Zapata Falls Campground: If you are looking for adventure, this is the campground for you! This is a first come, first serve primitive campground that offers 23 individual sites and 1 group site. It sits at 9,000 feet at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and offers sweeping views of the San Luis Valley, the San Juan Mountains and the Great Sand Dunes NP. You can access Zapata Falls Trail at the campground. The trail is a steep 1 mile trail that will lead you to the Zapata Falls. Though I have not camped here yet, I heard the road to the campground is a bit rocky, so take it slow! Campground Information
Sand Boarding and Sledding
One of the best activities of the park for all ages is sand boarding/sledding! I recommend renting from the Oasis Store right outside the park entrance spring through early fall. Oasis Store
If you have more time, take advantage of the Junior Ranger Programs offered for kids 3 and over, as well as nighttime star gazing! This park offers spectacular views of the stars from the dunefield; especially on a moonless night. Also, I loved that this park has free wheelchair rentals upon reservation for children and adults. The park offers a pad to Medano Creek for wheelchairs, as well as trails that are paved. Also, at the park campground, sites 10, 14, and 63 are accessible. Free Ranger Programs
Safety Measures to Consider
If you plan to visit in the summer as we did, there are a few precautions to take, and please do. The sand here can reach temperatures of 150 degrees! OUCH! So, make sure you have proper closed toe shoes, and consider hiking or sand sledding in the early morning or evening. If you visit during the time when Medano Creek is sweeping across the landscape, be aware that mosquitoes are also sweeping across the creek when water levels are low, especially in June. They are literally swarming by the banks. This was something I wished I had known before coming to better prepare. BRING bug spray. This is a MUST!!! We were warned at the visitor center, but didn’t take it too seriously. Take it seriously. Trust me. If you stay away from the banks near the creek and swim more in the center of the creek (it was shallow in June), you will be better off.
Check out the Visitor Guide for more information from the park! I hope you have as much fun as we did during your time here!