Colorado’s snowcapped peaks give way to the wide-open, high-desert landscape of the San Luis Valley as you drive south from Denver. And then the topography suddenly shifts once again as gargantuan piles of sand that look straight out of the Sahara Desert appear on the horizon. From this distance, it’s nearly impossible to gauge their immensity. Are they the size of a house? A mountain? Behold: the tallest sand dunes in North America, reaching 750 feet, roughly the height of the Golden Gate Bridge.
This is Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve (GSDNPAP), where the namesake attractions sprawl across 30 square miles, surrounded by a diverse array of other protected ecosystems, including forests, alpine lakes, grasslands, wetlands and even tundra. But why are the dunes here? About 440,000 years ago, an immense body of water called Lake Alamosa dried up suddenly, and winds blew the sand that was left behind toward the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, where it began piling up higher and higher.
Nomadic hunters arrived some 11,000 years ago to hunt the mammoth and bison that were then plentiful in these parts. Millennia of human habitation passed, and more recently, the Ute and Jicarilla Apache moved in, giving the dunes some colorful names: The Ute called them sowapopheuveha, or “the land that moves back and forth,” while the Apache went with sei-anyedi, or “it goes up and down.”And in 1807, when Zebulon Pike came to explore the land secured in the recent Louisiana Purchase, he wrote of the dunes: “Their appearance was exactly that of the sea in a storm, except as to color, not the least sign of vegetation existing thereon.”
While there may not have been much vegetation, these dunes were rife with potential for other interests: In the 1920s, miners discovered gold in them, and companies began extracting sand to make cement. Coloradans realized their precious natural resource was in danger of being exploited out of existence, so a local women’s group lobbied the federal government for protection. In 1932, President Herbert Hoover declared the area a national monument, and in 2004 the land was upgraded to a national park and preserve — the national park is mostly comprised of the dune fields, while the preserve encompasses additional land in the adjacent Sangre de Cristo Mountains, where hunting and fishing are allowed.
Over the years, the park has attracted more and more travelers, with visitation almost exactly doubling since the 2004 national park designation; in 2019, before the pandemic stifled travel, Great Sand Dunes welcomed 527,546 park enthusiasts. To put that into perspective, the state’s Rocky Mountain National Park attracted almost nine times more visitors during the same period. That means these dunes are often blissfully free of visitors, making for a relaxing retreat for those who come. And with no set trails over the sand, you can make like Lawrence of Arabia and chart your own path through the shifting, windswept terrain.
Plan Your Trip
Located in the southern stretches of Colorado, the national park is almost equidistant between Denver (234 miles away) and Albuquerque (246 miles away). From Denver, the route is relatively easy — just a straight shot south on Interstate 25, through Colorado Springs, and then west on U.S. Route 160 and north on state Route 150. For a more scenic drive through the mountains, you can take U.S. Route 285 south from Denver, though there’s a slight detour this year due to construction on a local road near the park entrance that will slow you down. From Albuquerque, drive north on Interstate 25 to Santa Fe, then continue north on 285; when you reach Alamosa, turn east on 160 and then north on 150.
There’s one entrance station on the park’s southern edge, where you pay the admission fee ($25 per vehicle). Less than a mile into the park, stop by the visitor center for restrooms and drinking water, maps, interactive exhibits about the park’s geology and a souvenir shop. Out back on a porch, use a viewing scope to explore the dunes from a different vantage point.
When timing your visit, remember that looks can be deceiving: Even though the visitor center and the base of the dunes sit in a valley, that seemingly “low” point is actually at an elevation of about 8,200 feet. In the summer, daytime highs usually reach about 80 degrees, with cooler nights that can drop into the 40s. But despite the seemingly mild temperatures, the surface of the sand dunes can still hit a blazing 150 degrees on a sunny day. Spring tends to be windy and chilly, with March and April bringing the most snowfall; autumn, on the other hand, is usually pleasant, with average highs in September hitting the low 70s. And winter is cold! Highs hit the teens to 30s, with lows sinking to about 15 degrees below zero. But it’s almost always sunny, and the dry air makes the temperatures feel less frigid.
While summer is undoubtedly the high season, Kathy Faz, the park’s chief of interpretation and visitor services, says that having the space to yourself can be as easy as avoiding weekends and busy summer holidays.
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Where to Stay and Eat
The only lodging option in the park is camping, with the best amenities at the Piñon Flats Campground, open April through October. Located a mile beyond the visitor center, its 91 campsites are set in a thicket of piñon pines and sagebrush, just as the valley begins to gently slope up into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and mule deer can often be seen traipsing through the campground. Reserve individual sites up to six months in advance (recreation.gov); group sites, up to a full year in advance.
For $20 per night, you’ll have access to a picnic table and fire ring, plus a shared bathroom with flush toilets but no showers. There are also wheelchair-accessible and ADA-compatible campsites, with hardened trail surfaces and accessible restrooms. RVs and trailers up to 33 feet long can fit on some sites, and a seasonal camp store sells the basics, like ice and firewood.
In addition to Piñon Flats, there are seven designated backpacking sites along the Sand Ramp Trail and 20 nondesignated permits in the backcountry.
Just outside the entrance station, Great Sand Dunes Lodge offers comfortable, no-frills motel rooms, some with kitchens. Additional amenities include an outdoor cooking area with gas grills and hummingbird feeders that make for a cute hotel perk in the summer months. The lodge offers accessible accommodations, though you should call in advance (719-378-2900) to confirm availability.
Just 5 miles farther down Route 150 is Zapata Ranch, owned by the Nature Conservancy and open seasonally from March through October. At this working cattle and bison ranch, you’ll find a 17-bedroom lodge (in the original 19th-century homestead), with rooms decorated in a tastefully subtle Southwestern style. Rates are north of $300 per night and you can make your reservation beginning 30 days before your arrival date. Activities for guests include horseback riding through the 2,000-strong bison herd or the national park and hiking in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Beyond these options, the greatest concentration of hotels — including a budget-friendly Days Inn and Holiday Inn Express — can be found in Alamosa, about 38 miles southwest of the visitor center.
Pack snacks before visiting GSDNPAP, because there’s only one restaurant within 25 miles of the park, the Oasis Restaurant and Store just outside the park entrance. Open from May 1 through Sept. 30, the casual restaurant serves comforting dishes like Navajo tacos with green chile and black bean burritos.
Things to Do
Think of the Great Sand Dunes as a giant sandbox for you and your family to explore. With its choose-your-own-adventure vibe, the park is a fantastic spot for multigenerational travel, and family members of different fitness levels can explore the sands at their own pace — whether that means climbing to the top of these giants or simply spending a relaxing day at the “beach.”
Explore the dunes by foot: One of the first things you’ll notice about this park is the free rein you have over a whopping 30 square miles of dune fields, which are best accessed by a parking lot one mile beyond the visitor center. Since there are no marked pathways on the sand, you can ascend any dune from any direction, but heed this warning: The sand can be scorching at the height of the day, and storms can develop quickly. Consequently, it’s best to hike in the early morning or evening to avoid the risks posed from overheating or lightning.
Even those with mobility issues can join in the fun. The park offers a limited number of sand wheelchairs with oversized, inflatable tires that make them significantly easier than regular wheelchairs to push over the sand — easier, but not easy. They require some muscle! Reserve one for free by calling the visitor center (719-378-6395).
On the dunes, you’ll enjoy the unique sensations that make this place so special: the feeling of your feet sinking into the sun-warmed sand, the sound of birds calling, Medano Creek gurgling in the distance, and the scent of piñon pine and juniper. And listen for a phenomenon called “singing sands.” In much the same way that our vocal cords produce sound using vibration, the sands emit a gentle hum when air pushes through moving grains, either as the result of natural avalanches or guests pushing sand down the hillsides. The unique sonic experience even inspired the Bing Crosby tune “The Singing Sands of Alamosa.”
Go sand sledding or sandboarding: Channel your inner child by sliding down the dunes on specially made sandboards or sleds with extra-slick bases coated in a wax. (Note that sleds, skis and snowboards made for winter conditions will only work when the dunes are wet after rain or snow.) On its website, the park lists outdoor retailers in the vicinity who rent gear. The closest is the Oasis Store, four miles from the visitor center on Route 150.
Splash around in Medano Creek: Did we mention that the dunes can get hot? Cool off with a dip in seasonal Medano Creek, a shallow stream created when the snow in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains starts melting in April. Even during high season, the creek is only a few inches deep, but you might get to witness a unique phenomenon called “surge flow,” when underwater sand ridges cause small waves to flow. Even though the water may only be up to your ankle, you’ll often see kids whooshing by on inflatable tubes. The creek snakes down from the mountains along the western side of the dunes and can best be accessed with a quick stroll from the dunes parking lot.
Note that the creek is popular among locals, transforming these sands into a makeshift beach of sorts, often creating crowds on weekends in late May and early June.
Go stargazing: In 2019, the dunes were officially designated an International Dark Sky Park. Faz says one of her favorite activities is “hiking after sunset to experience the dunes when the sun goes down and a full moon or stars illuminate the sky.” From this vantage point, you can even witness the Milky Way, which looks like a creamy cloud stretching across the night sky. During the spring, it can be seen before dawn; come fall, it’s visible in the evening.
If you venture into the sands after dark, be sure to bring your own light; a red one is preferable because it won’t impact your night vision. You might be lucky enough to spot nocturnal creatures like bobcats and salamanders, but you’re more likely to hear them as they strike up their nightly symphony: the howls of coyotes, the hoots of owls, the croaks of frogs and toads. And if you hear a faint rumbling sound, those are Ord’s kangaroo rats, thumping their feet to warn other kangaroo rats about dangers.
Drive the Medano Pass: To see a different side of the area, head into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the “preserve” part of the park. “The alpine lakes and higher-elevation areas are lesser-known, as these require more time and planning to access the trailheads,” Faz says. One of the most scenic ways to explore this area is via the Medano Pass Primitive Road, a 22-mile stretch connecting the park to Wet Mountain Valley and state Route 69. Open only in the warmer months, this route is for expert drivers in four-wheel-drive vehicles only — you’ll be crossing over packed sand, through creeks and troughs, while avoiding enormous boulders. The rewards include bighorn sheep sightings and golden aspen leaves in the fall.
Or leave the driving to someone else by booking one of the guided Jeep tours offered by Mountain Master Off-Road Tours; a three-hour tour costs $360 for one or two passengers. You’ll meet your driver at the visitor center.
The closest thing to a gateway town in these remote parts is Alamosa, about 38 miles southwest of the park. Established in 1878 as a stop on the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, Alamosa now makes for a great home base for exploring the San Luis Valley. Don’t miss the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge, which teems with bird species, including eagles, loons, owls, pelicans and sandpipers; the main attraction, however, happens twice a year, when up to 20,000 sandhill cranes fly through on their spring and fall migrations.
Standout dining spots in town include Roast, a coffee roastery and restaurant with a killer breakfast menu (order anything that comes with locally made Gosar sausage or chorizo or green chile); and Locavores, a fast-casual option that sources nearly all its ingredients from the surrounding valley for a Southwestern-tinged menu of salads, quesadillas, paninis and more. The town is also home to three breweries: Colorado Farm Brewery, San Luis Valley Brewing Company and Square Peg Brewerks.
If you love kitschy roadside Americana, consider taking the long route to the park, which follows U.S. 285 before cutting south on state Route 17. In many ways, the vibe is pure Route 66–style nostalgia. Take a detour to the funky town of Crestone, a spiritual center that has been called “the Shambala of the Rockies,” after a mythical kingdom in the Himalayas. It’s home to such attractions as a climbable ziggurat built by the father of Queen Noor of Jordan, and a Hindu ashram. Continuing south along 17, you’ll see why this road earned the nickname the Cosmic Highway with a stop at the UFO Watchtower, an observation deck, gift shop and campground owned by alien enthusiast Judy Messoline. Next up is the Colorado Gators Reptile Park, with alligators, crocodiles, iguanas, pythons, tortoises and more. You can pet and pose with a baby alligator or even fish for carp to feed the grownups.
Nicholas DeRenzo is a Brooklyn, New York-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, The New York Times, Travel+ Leisure and numerous other publications.