Home to the highest sand dune on the North American continent, Colorado’s gem of a national park is packed with amazing activities given its relatively small size. A much different experience than most other national parks, if you only have a few hours, you can easily explore much of what the park has to offer. But you won’t want to leave.
Visitor Center and Free Ranger Programs
A great way to acclimate yourself to Great Sand Dunes is to first go to the visitor center, where you can get up-to-date information about the area and certain programs. A gift shop is there, along with rangers on-site to answer any questions. Get an in-depth understanding of the unique environment of the dunes. Ranger programs are offered mostly late spring through fall, conditions permitting.
Hiking Great Sand Dunes National Park
What makes this national park unique is that there are no trails to speak of; you are free to roam any of the 30 square miles of dunefields. For those with disabilities, there is even a dunes-accessible wheelchair available free to loan at the Visitor Center. In the summer months, plan to hike the dunes in the early morning to around noon – later in the day temperatures can reach uncomfortable levels, making the sand too hot to the touch. To escape the heat of the afternoon, there are more forested trails, such as Montville Nature Trail, Mosca Pass Trail, and Sand Ramp Trail.
Summit the Tallest Sand Dune on the Continent
For the more ambitious, hiking to the 750-foot summit offers unique rewards in terms of scenery. However, if you’re not that ambitious, there’s plenty more dune to climb that won’t require so much of a workout. As of 2021, researchers have determined that Hidden Dune has surpassed Star Dune as the tallest in North America, at 742 feet, compared to Star’s 741 feet. To hike to it, plan on seven miles round trip over 6 hours, beginning from the main Dunes parking lot, then hike north/northwest to reach it.
Beginner, amateur, or professional, don’t forget to bring your camera. Play with the color, shadows, and angles of the landscape. Capture abstract sand shadows and patterns, the majestic views of the dunes with snow capped peaks, and a myriad of other wonders that the naked eye doesn’t always capture. The Great Sand Dunes provides opportunities for all styles of photography.
Go Sledding in the Summer
Sand sledding or boarding is popular here any time of year, and fun for the entire family. Rentals can be had at several locations throughout the area. Imagine gliding down a gigantic sand dune with the warm sun at your back and the sand sweeping you down for a thrilling ride. Adults can release their inner child; sledding on the dunes is sure to put a smile on even the most hardened of faces.
Where the Stargazing is Supreme
Out here on the dunes, half of the park is after dark! The combination of dry air, no light pollution, and high elevation make for spectacular stargazing. Under a full bright moon, it is magical to view thousands of stars in the night sky. Listen for owls along the foothills, or observe amphibians as they migrate on a wet night. As of 2018, the park has been certified as an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association.
Go Off-Roading on Medano Pass
If you have a 4WD vehicle, you can traverse this rough 22-mile road connecting Great Sand Dunes with the West Mountain Valley and Colorado State Highway 69. Keep in mind, this road is passable only in the summer months; be sure to check current road conditions before you go. The road crosses areas of deep sand, crosses Medano Creek several times, and you may just be passing through bighorn sheep territory. In soft sand conditions it is advisable to reduce air pressure in your tires about 20 psi, then reinflate before driving over rocks so as not to damage the tires. If you don’t have a 4WD, you can rent one in nearby Alamosa.
Camp on the Dunes
For a truly unique experience, pitch your tent in Great Sand Dunes National Park. Be sure to arrive early for backcountry camping permits and hike in about 1.5 miles. From there, you can pitch your tent anywhere. Sleep on the sand, gaze at the stars and watch the sunrise. However, if backpacking is not your forte, there is a regular campground, including RV sites.
Rob Decker is a photographer and graphic artist who studied under Ansel Adams in Yosemite National Park when he was just 19 years old. Now, he's creating iconic WPA-style posters for each of our National Parks. Click Here to learn more about his story and The National Park Poster Project.
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