Although I’ve spent every summer of my life in Creede, Colorado I never knew I was just an hour and a half away from the tallest sand dunes in North America. As a national park lover I knew I had to make a visit as soon as I got the chance. This past weekend we took a drive around Southern Colorado and spent a lot of time at the beautiful Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. When you first land your eyes on the dunes, you won’t believe they’re real. The towering Sangre de Christo mountains behind them is a beautiful sight, but it also makes you wonder how in the world the dunes formed. Although the story of the sand dunes is continuously evolving, they are primarily formed by strong opposing winds, a mass amount of sand from the valley floor, and the sand recycling the creeks do. As we got closer to the dunes, we saw little black specs along the sand, and as we got closer we realized that they were people! This really put it in perspective of how big the sand dunes are. If you are planning your first trip to the park here is a guide of everything to know before you visit!
Getting ThereIf you are planning on flying in, there is a small airport in Alamosa, Colorado that is about 30 minutes from the park but tickets will be pricey. As far as the larger airports, there are three to chose from: 1). Colorado Springs to GSDNP (2 hours 45 minutes) 2). Denver, CO to GSDNP (3 hours 48 minutes) 3). Albuquerque, NM to GSDNP (4 hours 4 minutes) As you drive down highway 160 between the towns of Alamosa and Blanca you will find your turn to highway 150. Follow this about 20 miles and it will take you by the visitors center, the hotels and to the main sand dunes parking lot.
Where to stay:Great Sand Dunes Lodge Great Sand Dunes Oasis Sand Dunes Swimming Pool and Campground Zapata Ranch If all of the hotels near the park itself are full, there will be more options in the nearby towns. Alamosa is the largest one with a variety of restaurants and hotels that is 38 miles away from the park.
What to do:
Stop by the Visitor CenterWhen you first arrive you will want to follow the main entrance road to the visitors center. Here you will be able to get guides, maps and see the exhibits as well as check the weather forecast so you know how the day is going to go. If it is your first time visiting the park, the rangers will be very helpful in planning what activities you can do during the amount of time you will have at the park.
Hike to the highest sand duneWhen you first see the dunes you will be amazed at just how big they are. There are no designated trails so everywhere on the sand is free game! The tallest dune in the park is the Star Dune at 775 feet and it will take you about 5 or 6 hours to hike round trip. If you haven’t hiked dunes before, the easiest way to get to the higher dunes is by following the ridges. Make sure and bring plenty of water!
Sand board or sand sledThis is by far one of the coolest once in a lifetime experiences to do in the sand dunes. The closest place you can rent boards or sleds is at Kristi Mountain Sports in Alamosa or Del Norte. Visit their website to check the hours, prices and types of rentals they do because they are slightly different from each other. Although bringing your own snowboard, sled or piece of cardboard sounds like a great way to avoid having to do a rental, they will not work on the sand due to it being too dry of a surface. I did this my first time but each of them will just dig into the sand and you won’t go anywhere. I recommend starting at the small hills to get a bit of experience before heading to the larger ones. That way you can get a feel for how it is to board on sand.
Cool off in Medano CreekDepending on the time of year and how much snowmelt Colorado gets, you may be able to swim around or splash in Medano Creek. The first time I went to the dunes there was a good amount of water flowing, but this summer you couldn’t even tell there is a creek that runs through the dunes.
Hike to Zapata FallsIf you want to go explore the area around the sand dunes, I definitely recommend hiking to the only waterfall located in the park! It is accessible year round but in the summer you will have to hike through the water in a small crevasse to get there. In the early summer/late spring the water can get deep due to the snowmelt so make sure it is safe before wading. If you are hiking in the winter you will be hiking on the ice so always make sure it is stable before crossing. As you hike, make sure and look back so you can see the view of the dune field!
Go off roading on the 4×4 trailAfter you drive past the main section of the park it will lead you to the Point of No Return. Only 4WD vehicles are able to drive this section of the off-road trail due to rocky areas, sandy terrain and creek crossings. The rangers will close the road if there is any severe damage to the road, impassable creek crossings, or mass amounts of snow and ice occur so check with the visitor center before heading that way. There are also campsites located along the road for those of you who want to make an overnight trip out of it! The next time I visit I am definitely bringing a jeep and doing this since we didn’t get the chance on this trip.
Camp and experience the nightThere are a few campgrounds inside the park but if you really want to experience the night, apply for a back country permit and camp in the dunes backcountry! Yes everything you own will most likely have sand in it afterwards, but there is nothing like looking up from the sand dunes to a wide open sky filled with bright stars.
Take lots of photosThroughout the park there are tons of opportunities for great photos. The best time to take photos of the sand dunes is early in the morning for sunrise or late for sunset so the shadows have started forming over the ridges. One of my favorite spots was one of the pull offs before you reach the sand dunes parking lot which is where I got this picture.
Keep your eyes out for wildlife!As you drive through the park there will be lots of wildlife to see! Just during our day trip we saw multiple deer, chipmunks and whistle pigs!
- It costs $20 to enter the park for a single car unless you have the annual park pass which gets you in free.
- The single day pass will get you into the park free for the following 7 days so keep it taped to your windshield.
- Once you park you will walk about half a mile to the actual dunes themselves. You will have to cross Medano Creek in the summertime so make sure and prepare for that.
- During the summer the sand will be very warm. The best time for hiking is early in the morning before the sun has a lot of time to beat down on it. Make sure and have plenty of water!
- The closest place for food will be in Alamosa. So if you’re planning an all day visit, pack in some lunches.
- Visiting in the winter time you may be lucky enough to see the snow on top of the sand which is a site to see.
- If you are bringing a pet there are certain places they are allowed and not allowed so check with the visitors center for a map of locations.
- Storms are known to roll in during the early afternoons so if you are visiting during monsoon season, make sure to get off the sand quickly in case of lightning.
- For my drone friends, it is illegal to launch/land them anywhere in the park!
- If you are bringing kids, sand and water toys are a must! There is also a junior ranger program that you can find more about at the visitors center.