Great Sand Dunes National Park Visitor's Guide

Updated: Sep 28, 2020

The tallest dunes in North America are the centerpiece in a diverse landscape of grasslands, wetlands, conifer and aspen forests, alpine lakes, and tundra. Experience this diversity through hiking, sand sledding, splashing in Medano Creek, wildlife watching, and more! The park and preserve are always open, so plan to also experience night skies and nocturnal wildlife during your visit.

The Great Sand Dunes are accessed via Highway 150 in South-Eastern Colorado. As you drive into the park land you will see the North Zapata Ridge on your right and the impressive Mt. Herald straight ahead. Approaching the park there are some smaller turn outs that vehicles and smaller RVs can park at that give views of the sand dunes and landscape from a distance.

Park entrance is $25 per vehicle and is valid for seven consecutive days. The park is open year round, 7 days a week, 24 hours out of the day. Nighttime is an especially interesting time to visit.

There are several activities at the Great Sand Dunes Park but the majority of visitors come here to see and experience the dunes. Park your vehicle in the visitor center and learn about the dunes and area. This should take you no more than 20 minutes. As you exit the visitors center you will see the dunes in the distance and this offers a great location to snap some photos.

One of the most common activities is to climb the dunes and you will have an opportunity to do so. But a word of caution here. The dunes get extremely hot during the summer and can reach temperatures of 150 F. There are sudden and frequent violent thunder storms as well. It is best advised you plan your dune hikes early morning or late in the evening.

There also no designated trails anywhere on the dunes. It covers over 30 square miles with dunes as high as 750 feet. Make sure you are prepared to walk in deep sand, have glasses and bandanas available if the wind picks up and blows a dust storm in your direction and make sure to have plenty of water on hand.

For those with mobility issues, you can still experience the dunes, as the visitor center offers special dune wheel chairs free of charge.

Once you are done your dune hiking, if there is water in Medano Creek, you are more than welcome to take a dip in the cool flowing waters.

For those exploring the area more in depth there are trails that lead into the forested section of the park. He popular trails are the Montville Nature Trail and the Mosca Pass Trail.

In summer, the Montville Nature Trail is a great escape from the heat of the dunes. Walk along a shady forested trail named for a late 1800s settlement, comprising 20 houses in its heydey. Rest near the trail's highpoint, where you'll find outstanding views of Mt. Herard, the dunes and the valley.

Mosca Pass Trail follows a small creek to the summit of a low pass in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, winding through aspen and evergreen forests. Allow 2-3 hours to reach the pass as it is 5.7 km one way. Native Americans and early settlers used this route for travel into the valley.

If you feel more adventurous there are alpine trails that lead in and on the various mountains that hug the dunes.

Medano Lake and Mount Herard trail is one of the most popular. This trailhead is accessed from the Medano Pass 4WD road. Beginning at 10,000' elevation, the trail climbs 2000' through lush meadows and forests, ending at an alpine lake at timberline. For advanced hikers, you can continue to the summit of 13,297' Mount Herard for a spectacular aerial view of the dunes.

Many visitors choose to visit the park for multiple days and camping is permitted anywhere in the 30-square-mile dunefield outside of the day use area (about 1.5 mile hike minimum over dunes). This is a unique chance to enjoy wide open views of the starry sky or a bright moonlit night in the middle of a dune desert.

Camping in The Great Sand Dunes National Park

And if you are looking to expand your experience here consider going sandboarding. Basically, you are snowboarding or riding down sand dunes in the summer!

Sandboarding, sledding, and skiing are permitted anywhere on the dunefield away from vegetated areas. From the main Dunes Parking Area, it's a minimum 0.7 mile (1km) hike to get to the small or medium-sized slopes; the top of the first high ridge is 1.25 miles. Smaller slopes at the base are fine for young children, while teens and adults may prefer longer slopes near the top of the first high ridge of dunes.

The National Park Service does not rent sleds or sandboards; these may be rented or purchased at three retailers in the San Luis Valley. Sandboards and sand sleds are available rent or purchase at Kristi Mountain Sports, Sand Dunes Swimming Pool and Recreation Center and the Oasis Store.

Sandboarding, sledding, and skiing are permitted anywhere on the dunefield away from vegetated areas. From the main Dunes Parking Area, it's a minimum 0.7 mile (1km) hike to get to the small or medium-sized slopes; the top of the first high ridge is 1.25 miles. Smaller slopes at the base are fine for young children, while teens and adults may prefer longer slopes near the top of the first high ridge of dunes.

Experience the Great Sand Dunes at Night

One of the best times to visit the dunes is at night where thousands of stars will fill the night sky and soft, cool air carries the sounds of wildlife that is all around you. Keep an eye out for the night-life of the dunes, including camel crickets, kangaroo rats, toads, salamanders, coyotes, bobcats, and owls. Never touch wildlife, and remember that their nocturnal eyes are highly sensitive to light. Use only a red light if needed. You will find the stillness of the night increase your awareness and enjoyment of this natural wonder. There are Ranger led programs and Junior Ranger programs available for those who want a guided tour at night.

The Great Sand Dunes National Park also allows for other activities including Fat Mountain Biking, Horseback Riding, 4X4 offroad adventure driving and hunting.

Our daytrip here was enjoyable and our teen sons enjoyed the dunes and the unique opportunity to pretend they were in the Sahara Desert. After taking many photographs and video, climbing summits and running though sand our energy levels were low. We decided to head south to a predetermined spot for a late lunch. We drove for about 40 minutes through a grassland landscape away from the Easterm slopes into Del Norte, a small community where one of Colorado's best Craft Breweries is located.

Three Barrel Brewing offers true, local craft brews: Handcrafted, hand-mashed small batches with "Single Source Colorado ingredients": San Luis Valley CMC Malted Grains, local hop varieties, Colorado Caramelized beet sugar, Haefeli's Farm Honey, Conifer Spruce Tips, SLV grown Hemp, and pure Rocky Mountain deep-aquifer mineralized water.

One of the Best Craft Breweries in Colorado

We ordered two flights of beer and were not disappointed. All of the varieties were top notch. Of course, we didn't just opt for a liquid lunch! Three Barrel Brewing also offers some of the best wood fired pizza's we ever had. I personally recommend the house pizza. Absolutely delicious. They also offer sandwiches, soups and salads as well as a small children's menu.

If you are driving through Del Norte or visiting the Great Sand Dunes and are looking for great beer, great food and great service, we highly recommend Three Barrel Brewing.

Did you enjoy reading this article? Consider tipping us and buying a cup of coffee for our hardworking independent travel journalists. Who knows, the life you save, may be your own.


Experience This 360

360° of Travel Adventure
  • Facebook
  • YouTube
  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • Travel Podcast
About Experience This 360

Experience This 360 is a destination for travel, experiences, and lifestyle. We are here to provide you with the best in travel guides, information, resources and experiences. Learn More


Join our mailing list
  • Facebook
  • YouTube
  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • Travel Podcast

© 2017 Experience This 360 LLC

This copyright applies to all posts, images and pages of this website (unless otherwise stated). Any of these may not be reproduced on another blog/website without the author's expressed written consent. All applicable laws apply and will be enforced.

We do our best to keep the content updated, but please double check the information directly with the concerned brand or organization (e.g. immigration departments, tourism boards, airlines, hotels, brands). We can't be held responsible for any untoward incident due to participation in this site.

Your privacy is important to us. We only collect data to further enhance our web site and to offer you better information. Learn more about our Privacy Policy.

© Copyright Experience This 360