Nestled in southern Colorado, North America’s tallest dunes rise over 700 feet high against the rugged Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The wind shaped dunes glow beneath the rugged backdrop of the mountains.
This geologic wonderland, containing 39 square miles of dunes, became a National Monument in 1932.
With the passage of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Act of 2000, resources now also include alpine lakes and tundra, six peaks over 13,000′, ancient spruce and pine forests, large stands of aspen and cottonwood, grasslands, and wetlands – all habitat for diverse wildlife and Rocky Mountain plant species.
Designated to help protect the watersheds and creeks that recycle the sand through the dune field, the National Preserve stretches from the eastern boundary of the old national monument to the crest of the Sangre de Cristos, from just west of Carbonate Mountain on the south side to Milwaukee Peak on the north, then south through Music Mountain, Tijeras Peak, and Cleveland Peak.
Including the watersheds for Sand Creek and Medano Creek, the preserve boasts high alpine tundra and lakes, barren scree slopes, and 13,000+ ft Rocky Mountain peaks.
Non-Commercial Vehicle and Occupants: $25
Oversized Vehicle, 15+ passengers, age 16+: $15/person
Motorcycle and Riders: $20
Pricing subject to change; passes valid for 7 days.
Official Park Website
Piñon Flats Campground (operated by National Park Service)
– open April through October
– Reservations avialble through Recreation.gov reservation system: https://www.recreation.gov/camping/campgrounds/234685
More Details: https://www.nps.gov/grsa/planyourvisit/camping.htm
Sand Dunes in one day
It’s a little off the beaten path to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. A popular destination for over 300,000 visitors annually, Great Sand Dunes features a diversity of resources and something of interest for all ages. Explore desert to forest to tundra, an unusual combination of landscapes found within a single National Park Service unit.
If You Only Have Time for a Short Visit
If you have only a very short time to enjoy the park, try to take in the contrast between wind-swept dunes and craggy Rocky Mountains. Make your first stop the Visitor Center: watch the 20 minute film and take a peek at the exhibits. Then head into the dunes. Watch for animal and insect tracks in the sand. Is Medano Creek flowing? If you see water on the surface, moisture levels have been average or high in the preceding months.
More options for a quick visit
Attend a terrace talk or nature walk during summer months; check the interpretive schedule at the Visitor Center for times. All interpretive programs are free and open to everyone-please join us!
Explore Medano Creek, flowing at the base of the dunes. During dry years, the creek disappears. In years of adequate snow and rainfall, the creek flows in spring and early summer. Observe the creek closely. Do you see anything unusual? Medano Creek exhibits a phenomenon called “surge flow.” Its surges may remind you of waves at a beach. Each time a surge occurs, a mound of sand (which had temporarily damned some of the water in the creek bed), collapses. If you’d like more information on surge flow, ask for a handout at the Visitor Center. If you have youngsters in your group, you may have a difficult time prying them out of the creek and the wet sand. We encourage you to spend time with them building sand castles, flying a kite, or sliding down the dunes. When you’re ready to call it quits find the footwash just outside the rest room building in the dunes parking area. Your pets are welcome to play with you-but please keep them leashed at all times, and clean up after them!
Bring a picnic lunch and enjoy awesome views of the dunes from the picnic area. You may have magpies scavenging around you, large black and white birds, iridescent in hues of green or purple in the sunlight. Remember, keep wildlife wild! Never feed the birds or animals, no matter how persuasive they are.
Hike the Montville Nature Trail, a ½ mile jaunt beginning at the Mosca Pass Trailhead Parking Area. Take along a trail guide and learn a little natural and human history of the area. The trail gets its name from a late 1800s settlement at the foot of nearby Mosca Pass, consisting of 20 houses in its heyday.
If you have half a day
Spend a little more time exploring the dunes, and watch for the interactions of sand, wind, water, and animals. Climb the “High” Dune, the prominent dune visible from the Visitor Center. Though it is neither the highest in elevation above sea level, nor the tallest from top to bottom, it appears that way from the main visitor area. Elevation gain to the top is 650 feet. There are no trails to the summit; begin at the base and zigzag up the dune ridge lines. From High Dune are splendid views only motivated hikers are privileged to see. Another skyrising dune can be seen to the southwest: the spectacular Star Dune which rises 750 feet. Star dunes have three or more arms and are created by complex wind patterns. Star dunes are also very photogenic, so make sure you take your camera.
Wildlife watching is a popular past time at Great Sand Dunes. During the day, watch for coyotes, mule deer, pronghorn, ground squirrels, and chipmunks. At night, wander the dunes in search of giant sand treader camel crickets or kangaroo rats. In fall, winter, and spring, also watch for elk along the entrance road. Remember, everything at Great Sand Dunes is protected, so please do your part to keep wildlife wild–observe wildlife only from a distance, and never feed wild animals!
Consider a walk on the dunes around sunset; what better way to watch the closing of the day than from a dune ridge line? Moonlight walks on the dunes can be enchanting, and the night sky may amaze you with its brilliance! No need to worry about poisonous snakes and scorpions-they are not found in these high-elevation dunes. However, be sure you stay oriented and can find your way back to your vehicle when you’re ready. Save some time for quiet contemplation. You may find the dunes to be a place where you can set aside the challenges of everyday life, a place where uninterrupted solitude can be found.
For a walk with great views but more solid footing, walk the Sand Ramp Trail beginning in the campground near the second bathroom in Loop 2. Hike north to Point of No Return. Along the trail are majestic views of the dunes. Take a short spur trail to the Dunes Overlook. The openness of the landscape provides excellent views in all directions.
Hike the Mosca Pass trail, which winds up Mosca Canyon and the national preserve. Summertime wildflowers are abundant in moist areas along Mosca Creek. Mosca Canyon also is a favorite area for birders. In the lower reaches of the canyon you’ll find pinyon, juniper, cottonwood, and aspen trees thriving. Higher up grow spruce and fir groves. Watch for bristlecone and limber pines as well. The top of the pass reveals views into the Wet Mountain Valley on the east side. The elevation at the top of the pass is 9,413 feet. Experienced hikers, consider a bushwhack to the top of Carbonate Peak, south of Mosca Pass.
On a hot summer day, hiking to nearby Zapata Falls can be a “chilling” experience, but is not for anyone unsteady on their feet. The trailhead is located outside the park on highway 150. From the Visitor Center, drive south about 8 miles, then turn left (east) onto a gravel road. Drive about 3.5 miles to the trailhead. To view the falls, hike about 1 mile, crossing the creek, climbing a short ladder, and traversing the stream into a cavern where the falls cascade onto a ledge. Be careful! In winter, the falls freeze, creating an icy sculpture capturing the motion of the falling water. Watch for slippery trail conditions in winter.
Sand Sledding, Sand Boarding
Sand sledding or sandboarding can be fun with the right gear and conditions. Below are tips for an enjoyable and safe sledding or sandboarding experience at Great Sand Dunes.
- Sandboards and sand sleds are specifically made for sand, featuring a special design with extra slick base material and special wax; these work best for sliding in most conditions.
What NOT Works
- No: Snow sleds, snowboards and skis only slide on very wet sand after rain or snow. The sand surface is usually dry.
- No: Cardboard, saucers, and soft plastic items don’t slide on sand; they will dig into or drag on the sand.
- No: Rectangles of rigid, ultra-slick plastic or masonite might slide, but are not safe: there is no way to control or steer them, and their angled edges could cause injuries.
Read more on the NPS website about RENTALS and SAFETY: https://www.nps.gov/grsa/planyourvisit/sandboardingsandsledding.htm
Explore the Sand Dunes
Explore any part of the 30 square mile dunefield you wish; there are no designated trails in the sand.
A dunes–accessible wheelchair is available for free loan at the Visitor Center. In summer months, plan to hike the dunes in morning or evening to avoid hot sand.
When there’s water in Medano Creek at the base of the dunes, adults and kids alike love to splash in the stream. Watch for waves in the water, a phenomenon called “surge flow.” As mounds of sand form and fall in the creek bed, water surges, similar to the action of waves at a beach. Check current conditions of Medano Creek on our news page.
The Tallest Dunes
The “High Dune” is neither the highest in elevation nor the tallest in the park, but it looks that way from the main parking lot. It is about 650 feet (198 m) high. Cross the flats and zigzag up the ridgelines to reach it. The 360 degree view is inspirational. From High Dune, the skyrising dune you see to the west is the spectacular Star Dune, rising 750 feet (229 m). It is the tallest dune in North America. To reach it from High Dune, journey another mile and a half up and down across the dunes to its summit.
Eastern Dune Ridge
By high clearance 4WD vehicle, drive to Sand Pit or Castle Creek Picnic Areas. Or, with 2WD vehicle, drive to Point of No Return, then hike 1/2 mile (1K) to Sand Pit. Castle Creek offers an impressively tall, steep dune face. Both areas have close access to Medano Creek, which usually flows through autumn in this area.
The High Dune
Trailhead: Dunes Parking Lot Difficulty: moderately strenuous
One way distance and elevation gain: about 1 mile, about 650 feet.
Soft sand and steep slopes make this more strenuous that you’d expect. From the base, zigzag up the dune ridge lines. Hike before noon in summer to avoid extremely hot sand and sun. You’ll gain terrific views of the dunefield, the surrounding mountains, and the San Luis Valley from the top.
The Star Dune
Trailhead: Dunes Parking Lot Difficulty: strenuous
One way distance and elevation gain: about 4-5 miles, about 750 feet.
The Star Dune is can be approached from the High Dune, or from Medano Creek south of the Dunes Parking Lot. From the High Dune, the Star Dune is the very prominent high point about 1 mile to the west. To approach from the south, hike downstream from the Dunes Parking Lot about 2 miles, then begin watching for ridges leading north> It’s about 1.25 miles to the Star Dune. Expect many false summits as you climb.
Trailhead: Dunes Parking Lot Difficulty:easy
One way distance and elevation gain: go as far as you like, minimal elevation gain.
Explore Medano Creek, flowing at the base of the dunes. During dry years, the creek disappears. In years of adequate snow and rainfall, the creek flows in April, May, and June. Observe the creek closely. Do you see anything unusual? Medano Creek exhibits a phenomenon called “surge flow.” Each time a surge occurs, a mound of sand (which had temporarily damned some of the water in the creek bed), collapses. If you’d like more information on surge flow, ask for a handout at the Visitor Center. Watch for animal tracks and signs of insect life in the damp sand–there are 6 species of insects living in the dunes which are found nowhere else on earth!