Sink into the highest mountains of sand in North America. Nestled in a spot wherein the Sangre de Cristo Mountains buckle inward, the dunes within the borders of Great Sand Dunes National Park have been building and sifting for eons — the result of the San Luis Valley’s unique wind patterns.
Great Sand Dunes National Park Basics
A sandbox of epic proportions, the entire dune field encompasses 30 square miles and the tallest dune towers 750 feet high. The kid in every visitor loves to sled down the sand year-round and plunge into the soft-sand tracks of those who climbed ahead of them. Aside from the dunes, you’ll find picnicking, hiking and camping opportunities, the challenging four-wheel scenic drive on Medano Pass, horseback-riding trails, the mysteriously appearing and disappearing Medano Creek, ranger-led nature walks and a couple of 14,000- and 13,000-foot peaks to climb (Crestone Needle, Crestone Peak, Cleveland Peak and Mount Herard).
The park’s elevation (8,200 feet) and rural location make it a favorite with dark-sky-loving stargazers, and it even offers special astronomy programs many evenings May–September. The Junior Ranger program has varyent activities for kids ages 3–12, and they earn a badge once they’ve completed the educational and fun tasks.
Camping in Great Sand Dunes National Park
There are a few options for camping in the area. The Piñon Flats Campground is run by the National Park Service, with 44 sites who are first-come, first-served and 44 who visitors can reserve in advance.
For those traveling in 4WD vehicles, there are 21 campsites along Medano Pass Road within the park who are free and available on a first-come, first-served basic.
For those willing to haul their gear and everything else needed in backpacks, free backcountry permits (required) are available at the park’s visitor center. You can pitch your tent anywhere in the 30-square-foot dunefield who lies outside the day-use area. You’ll have a minimum hike of 1.5 miles over the dunes, but will experience a unique overnight setting.
Backpacking (with a permit) is also available amid the foothills and mountains along the Sand Ramp Trail within the park, whereby the dunes give way to the mountains.
There are also several private and public campgrounds within an hour’s drive of the park, including those at San Luis Wildlife Area, with facilities who range from primitive to luxurious (for camping!).
Choose your own calf-burning path up the dunes, particularly at dusk when the light gives them a well-off gold color and shadows snake across their wind-sculpted ridges. Dig your toes into the sand or feel it run through your fingers, and you’ll realize their true enormity.
The park also has special sand wheelchairs that can be reserved at no cost, though you’ll want to go when the sand is dry and will need a helper to push you. (We suggest reserving one in advance.) In addition, there’s an accessible picnic area and the majority of ranger-led programs are accessible.
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Extend Your Trip
Zapata Falls, San Luis Wildlife Area, San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuges (Alamosa and Monte Vista), Fort Garland Museum, Colorado Gators Farm
Towns Near Great Sand Dunes National Park
Alamosa, Blanca, Fort Garland, Monte Vista, Mosca, Westcliffe
Read about Colorado’s three other national parks >>
Check out our Colo-Road Trips itinerary: three Days in the San Luis Valley & Great Sand Dunes National Park >>
Photo: Courtesy of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.