For all of Colorado’s striking natural sights, the surreal Great Sand Dunes National Park, a veritable sea of sand bounded by jagged peaks and scrubby plains, is a place of stirring optical illusions where nature’s magic is on full display.
The largest sand dunes in North America are located in the Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve. You can climb them and you can do duo sledding and sandboarding. In addition to dunes, the park consists of mountains, mountain lakes, tundra, ancient pine forests, mountain meadows and wetlands.
Several water flows run along the edges of the dune area, which leads to erosion of the dune edges. Sand and even small stones are blown against you. Wherever you dig a hole in the dunes, you will find wet sand everywhere, even on the tops.
There are also places in the dunes where the sand is black. This sand consists of magnetite; black oxide of iron. Since it can become very hot in the summer, it is advisable to go early in the morning.
Sightseeings Great Sand Dunes National Park
The High Dune
In the west of the park are the highest sand dunes. The High Dune is the one who is best accessible. The walk to the summit is quite heavy: during the two kilometer long tour you will bridge a difference in altitude of 198 meters. On average, the walk takes an hour and a quarter of an hour. Once you have reached the top, the effort is rewarded: you have a beautiful view over the sand dunes and the surrounding mountains. Since it can become very hot in the summer, it is advisable to make the walk early in the morning.
The Star Dune
The highest sand dune in North America is the Star Dune. From the Dunes car park the distance to the dune top is 4.8 kilometers. This is a strenuous walk: on the way you will climb 229 meters and the walk will take you about two hours.
A special part of the park is Medano Creek, which rises in the Sangre de Christo Mountains and flows right past the visitor center. The river has no permanent current, because it is created by melting water in the mountains. In April and May the power will grow to a hundred meters wide river and it is a very popular location for swimming. In the summer the river dries completely.
Medano Pass Primitive Road
Where the paved road at Pinyon Flats Campground ceases, the 35 kilometer long Medano Pass Primitive Road begins. Only four-wheel drive vehicles with high ground clearance, large SUVs, trucks and jeeps are allowed here. You drive through sand dunes, small streams and wooded mountains towards the more than 3,000 meters high Medano Pass. The mountain pass is 18 kilometers from the starting point. After another 18 kilometers you reach Highway 69 at Bradford, which is outside the park. At the beginning of the dirt road, three picnic areas are close together.
Medano Lake and Mount Herard
On the Medano Pass Primitive Road, the starting point of the trail is to Medano Lake and Mount Herard. The route starts at 3,000 meters and on the way you go 600 meters through woods and meadows to the Medano Lake, which lies on the tree line. Experienced climbers can climb further to the summit of Mount Herard at 4,052 meters. The walk to Medano Lake is six kilometers, the walk to Mount Herard is about three kilometers longer.
Besides hiking, sledding and sandboarding on the dunes are popular activities. Boards and sledges can be rented in Alamosa and from April to October at the Oasis Store, just outside the parking entrance.
There is no shuttle service in the park and only a small part of the park road is paved. Until the picnic place called ‘Point of No Return’ you can come with a passenger car. The Medano Pass Primitive Road is only accessible for cars with four-wheel drive and high ground clearance (trucks, jeeps and SUVs). There are several commercial tour operators with whom you can book a tour on this rugged road. These tour operators can be found outside the park limits, for example in Alamosa.
The park is located in the south of the state of Colorado, 35 miles northeast of the town of Alamosa. If you come from the south, you can reach the park via State Highway 150. From the west you can use State Highway 17 and County Six Mile Lane.
The sand dunes are located in an area called ‘high desert’. Temperatures here are extreme, as in any desert, but summer temperatures are not typical of such an area. In winter it can be extremely cold at night, with average temperatures below -10 degrees Celsius. During the day the temperature is around freezing. In the summer it will be about 30 degrees Celsius (with occasional outliers further up), while it can cool down to below 10 degrees at night. There is very little rainfall. The mountainous areas know, depending on the rain shadow, a continental climate.
Fly to The Great Sand Dunes National Park
Denver is the largest airport in the area, but is a 4-hour drive to The Great Sand Dunes National Park. Alamosa is closer, but a plane ticket can then be more expensive.
Looking for a flight to The Great Sand Dunes National Park
Find your Stay in the Great Sand Dunes area
An admission fee is requested for entry to this park. For an up-to-date overview, see the Park prices page.
Of course you can also choose to buy the America the Beautiful Pass. This pass costs $ 80, and gives access to more than two thousand parks (including the parks managed by the NPS) for 1 year. At most parks the pass is valid for all occupants of a passenger car or camper.
The Visitor Center is open daily from 9 am, except for Christmas and New Year. The closing time is variable; during low season you can usually go to 16.30 or 17.00 hours, during the summer the Visitor Center usually stays open until 19.00 hours. A 15-minute video film is shown in the Visitor Center, there is an exhibition and a bookshop.
There is a small shop at the campground, otherwise there are no facilities in the park. There are petrol stations in the places located near the park.