Cover photo full
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrA beautiful juxtaposition of wooded mountains and soaring sand dunes, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is one of the most unique natural formations in Colorado.
The dunes are the tallest in North America — at a staggering 750 feet — with a dramatic backdrop of the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains . Located about four hours south of Denver, Great Sand Dunes National Park sees an average of 285,000 visitors annually.
GeologyThe formation of the Great Sand Dunes is a mystery that continues to be investigated. Geologists believe they have a general understanding of the dunes’ history, though they continue to study the geologic processes of the area.
The sand dunes were formed after a flurry of geologic activity: tectonic rifting, volcanic explosions, and the filling and receding of an ancient lake. The sand that forms the dunes is sediment that was left behind after the lake that had filled the valley between the San Juan Mountains and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains eventually drained out of the valley.
Over time, southwest winds blew the sand to a pocket alongside the Sangre de Cristo Mountains; opposing storm winds then barraged the sand from the other direction. These opposing winds, over time, caused the sand to build up vertically to form the dunes. Though geologists don’t know for certain how old the dunes are, they theorize the dunes began forming about 440,000 years ago when the lake started to recede.
HistoryDuring the gold rush in the early 1900s, people believed that there was gold buried in the towering dunes. Mines began to spring up along Medano Creek, and a gold mill was established to extract gold from beneath the sand.
Locals feared that the mining operations would destroy the dunes and took their concerns to Congress. The Great Sand Dunes were named a national monument in 1932 and later became an official National Park in the early 2000s.
ActivitiesThe 30-square-mile dune field provides many excellent photo opportunities as well as outdoor activities for all members of the family. Visitors are free to wander throughout the dunes and the neighboring Sangre de Cristo Mountains, in addition to hiking, sledding down the dunes, and sandboarding.
Great Sand Dunes National Park also is superb for stargazing, as there is little light pollution to obscure the stars. The park offers astronomy programs during the summer, in addition to many other seminars to educate visitors about the history of the dunes and the animal species that reside in the area.
Sandboarding and SleddingFlying down the slopes on sleds and sandboards is truly an unforgettable way to experience the Great Sand Dunes. Be sure to bring equipment that is made specifically for sand, as these will have slick bases that will allow you to slide even when the sand is dry. Otherwise, sleds and boards that are made for the snow will only slide when the sand is wet.
The park does not rent sandboards or sleds, but visitors can rent equipment at nearby retailers. Oasis Store, which is located just outside the park entrance, rents a limited number of sleds and boards during the peak months of April through October.
HikingThere are no official hiking trails on the sand dunes, so explore freely. If you are in good shape and would like to spend a few hours traversing the ridges and summits, hike to the top of High Dune on the first ridge for breathtaking views of the entire park. From here, continue to the top of Star Dune, which is the tallest dune in North America. The average hike time to Star Dune is five hours for a round trip.
When hiking at Great Sand Dunes National Park, remember that walking through sand tires are much quicker than hiking on regular trails. Also be aware that because of the lack of shade, the sun can be very intense and will quickly heat up the sand. Bring sunscreen, a hat, and plenty of water.
As an alternative to hiking on the sand, there are several forested hiking trails that are a good option during the heat of the day. The easiest hike is the Montville Nature Trail, a half-mile loop with great views of the dunes and mountains. The more challenging Mosca Pass Trail climbs 3.5 miles through evergreen and aspen forests to a mountain pass in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
For some high-altitude hiking, try hiking the trail to Mount Herard and Medano Lake, which climbs 2,000 feet to a stunning alpine lake.
WildlifeGreat Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is home to a variety of animals, including: elk, Pronghorn, Bighorn sheep, mule Deer, black bears, mountain lions, Beavers, Pikas, Marmots, Ptarmigans, burrowing owls, badgers, tiger salamanders, and kangaroo rats. There is a herd of more than 1,500 Bison within the park boundary as well and can be visited through an organized tour.
There are no rattlesnakes, scorpions, Gila monsters or tarantulas in Great Sand Dunes National Park, because these desert dwellers typically live at lower elevations in the valley. In fact, no venomous animals or insects live in the dunes themselves.
CampingSome nearby campgrounds include Oasis Campground (near the park entrance), San Luis State Park Campground (11 miles from the park entrance), and Zapata Falls Campground (11 miles from the park entrance).
The National Park Service manages the Piñon Flats Campground, which is located just one mile away from the park’s visitor center and is open from spring through fall. About half of the sites can be reserved in advance while the rest are first-come, first-served sites. During the summer, this campground is full almost every day of the week. If you cannot book a site in advance, your best bet is to arrive on a weekday in the morning to try to grab a vacant site.
Many of the park’s hardier visitors opt to camp in the backcountry, away from the campground crowds. At Great Sand Dunes National Park, camping is permitted anywhere on the dune field outside of the main-day-use-area, which means an, at least, 1.5-mile hike across the dunes. Camping on the dunes themselves is an extremely popular option at the park and provides a truly unique way to experience the dunes. Permits are required for backcountry camping and are not provided in advance. Only camp on the dune field when the weather is calm to avoid lightning or blowing sand.
A number of backcountry campsites line the 11-mile-long Sand Ramp Trail between the mountains and the dune field. These sites are more sheltered from lightning and wind, in addition to having shade on those hot summer days. There are also 21 roadside sites along the Medano Pass Primitive Road; these sites are first-come, first-served and are free of charge. If the conditions are not ideal for camping on the dunes, taking a wooded backcountry site is a fine alternative.
LodgingThere are several lodging options that are conveniently located near the park.
The rustic, historic Zapata Ranch is a working Bison and cattle ranch located just a few miles south of the park. Established in the late 1800s as a homestead, this log structure is nestled in a cottonwood grove next to the mountains. The ranch offers all-inclusive packages, which include lodging, meals and activities on the ranch. A three-night stay is $ 1,252 USD per person.
Budget-conscious travelers may prefer to stay at the Great Sand Dunes Lodge ( $ 100 USD for a standard room during the high season) or Great Sand Dunes Oasis ( $ 99 USD to $ 169 USD for a room during the high season, or $ 55 USD for a primitive cabin).
TransportationThe nearest town to Great Sand Dunes National Park is Alamosa. It is necessary to have a car because there are no shuttles to or within the park.
If you are able to rent a car, a drive along Medano Pass Primitive Road takes you around the eastern edge of the dunes before heading up through the mountains. Only drive this road if you have a four-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicle because of the rough road conditions and the stream crossings in the mountains.
Opening HoursGreat Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The visitor center’s hours vary, but it is generally open seven days a week with the exception of federal holidays during the winter, with daily hours of 9 am-6 pm during the summer and 9 am-4:30 pm during the winter.
FeesEntrance fees to the park are just $ 3.00 USD for visitors aged 16 or older. There is no entrance fee for children younger than 16 years of age. There are several fee-free days, usually national holidays or park-significant days; check with the National Park Service for specific dates.
WeatherDuring the summer, daytime temperatures are usually a moderate 75° or 80° Fahrenheit, but the temperature of the sand soars to a scorching 150° Fahrenheit in the middle of the day. Plan to be on the dunes in the early morning or evening to avoid blistering hot sand and the frequent afternoon thunderstorms that occur in Colorado. If you plan to camp at the park overnight, temperatures after sundown drop significantly—sometimes into the 40s and 50s—so be sure to bring warm layers.
AltitudeGreat Sand Dunes National Park sits at 8,200 feet elevation. If you are not yet acclimated to the elevation, ease into physical activity and drink plenty of water. Watch for symptoms of altitude sickness, which include a throbbing headache, lack of appetite, nausea, fatigue, and dizziness.
LightningLightning poses an increased threat at high altitudes, and in Colorado, summer thunderstorms occur on the mountains almost daily, mostly in the afternoons. Always check the weather forecast and watch the sky for darkening clouds or approaching storms. A safe rule of thumb is to be off the mountain and at lower elevations before noon. If you plan to hike to the top of Star Dune or any of the other dunes, do so in the morning when the weather is generally pleasant.
Wildlife SafetyAs with all wild areas in Colorado, black bears reside in the area and will investigate campsites if they smell food. Always properly dispose of trash and food, and use a bear canister or bear bag when camping. Drive cautiously through the park, especially at night, to avoid any animals that might be standing next to or crossing the road.
NavigationThe dunes can be disorienting, especially at night. If you plan to hike after dark or perhaps stargaze on the dunes, bring an area map, compass and flashlight in case you lose your bearings.
RestrictionsTo protect the fragile and geologically significant dunes, dune buggies and four-wheelers are not permitted in Great Sand Dunes National Park. Pets are welcome at the campground but not at backcountry campsites in the park.
Do you see any omissions, errors or want to add information to this page? Sign up.
Author: SBoston. Last updated: Sep 04, 2014