Great Sand Dunes National Park is a wild place. A visit to this park provides not only these unique dunes, but beaches, plains, mountains, and wildflower filled valleys. The park and its signature dunes doesn’t inspire greatness as you approach because they are dwarfed by the majestic Sangre de Cristo Mountains, but keep driving! Once you arrive at the park, you will realize how exceptional the dunes and the surrounding landscape is to explore.
Start your trip with a visit to the visitor’s center. Here you can chat with the rangers and find out about their favorite things to do in the park. There is also a museum where you can learn all about the geology of the area including the formation of the dunes- and why they are still here! In addition to all that, there is also a gift shop, water filling stations, and bathrooms with flush toilets and sinks- a must stop before you hit the dunes!
There aren’t very many marked hiking trails here, but you are able to walk on the dunes as much as you want. Even though there are no established trails or markers, it is not easy to get lost. You can always orient yourself with the mountains and if you climb high enough you can find the Medano Creek and the visitor center to guide you.
Things to do
Its like snowboarding- but in the sand! There are no sand boards available in the park itself, but there are a plethora of places you can rent them from for your dunes adventures. Most of these places also have sleds available if you prefer sitting to standing. We didn’t have enough time here to make renting boards worthwhile, but the people who were using them made it look really fun!
Hike the Dunes
Like we mentioned earlier, there are not any marked trails on the dunes, so you are free to hike wherever you want! The tallest dune is unnamed, and it is quite a challenge to hike. The rangers said plan to spend about 4-5 hours round trip to make it to the top of the tallest dune. Even the smaller dunes require much effort to traverse. We learned that the easiest way to scale these giant masses of sand are by walking up the ridges- not head on.
Splash around in the Creek
The Medano Creek flows seasonally through the park. The best time to visit the creek is in late spring and early summer. The waterflow primarily depends on snowmelt from the mountains, but is also influenced by the local weather. You can find the flow rate at the National Park’s website. This area is perfect for beach toys and a picnic, right at the base of the mountains! We visited in late May, and the creek was fairly shallow. It was a hot and sunny day, so the cool refreshing water was a respite to our dusty toes!
Hike the Mosca Pass
This is one of the more popular trails in the park, and it is marked! The entire trail is a little over 6 miles and gives you great views of the dunes and mountains. The trail winds through a valley forest filled with wildflowers. An excellent alternative to trudging through the sand.
Things to keep in mind
- The dunes can get scorching hot, so wearing closed toed shoes is recommended. Sandals tend to trap the hot sand on your feet and can cause burns if you are not careful.
- The Parking lots fill up fast, so get there early and be prepared to wait.
- Bring extra water!
- Dogs are allowed in the park, but you must pick up after you pet- leave no trace!