The first time I drove to Winter Park Ski Resort, some 25 years ago, I…
The Great Sand Dunes National Park is located in the southern part of central Colorado. Covering an area of about 30 square miles, the sand dunes in Colorado are both the tallest and most extensive sand dunes in North America.
The national park is open 24 hours a day, which means that night adventures are an option. And the sand dunes in Colorado are an exceptional star-gazing spot. A number of backcountry camping permits are available on a regular basis, which means you can sleep right on the dunes if your heart desires.
Why you need to visit the sand dunes in Colorado
The most alluring part of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is the variety of terrain you’ll see in a very small area. Ecosystems are incredibly diverse due to the unique location of the sand dunes. And the park is lined with magnificent mountains.
In order to make your way to the sand dunes, you have to cross Medano Creek. Medano Creek is a seasonal creek and typically flows pretty low. You might get your feet wet while crossing it, but it’s generally no deeper than 3-4 inches. And it runs completely dry in the late summer and fall.
Highlights of the Sand Dunes
- High Dune (699 ft) offers views of all the dunes
- Star Dune (755 ft)
- Sand Pit (1.5 miles to picnic area)
- Medano Creek (seasonal)
Ecosystems in and around the sand dunes
The Great Sand Dune National Park is located in the high-elevation desert. The San Luis Valley is part of what makes the ecosystems so unique. Ecosystems are particularly diverse including grasslands, wetlands, conifer forests, aspen forests and alpine tundra.
Alpine tundra is one of the fiercest ecosystems in the park due to the elevation. This is the area where the altitude creates an incredibly cold and windy climate and can support very little tree growth. The highest variety of wild and plant life can be found in the subalpine forests.
11 things you can do in or near the Sand Dunes in Colorado
- Mountain bike
- Sand sled and sand board
- Participate in free Ranger Programs
- 4wd Medano Pass Road
- Horseback ride
Suggested attire for the sand dunes
Prepare for high winds. Bring layers, goggles, and lots of water.
The sand can get up to 150°F in the summer. And lightning is a threat to be conscious of while hiking.
Colorado Sand Dune Elevations
They range from 8,200 feet to 13,604 feet. If you’re not a high-country dweller, be careful at these heights. Drink a lot of water. Altitude sickness is very real and can be life threatening.
The park does not rent or sell sand sledding and sandboarding equipment but Kristi Mountain Sports in Alamosa will. If you’re looking to spend time hunting or fishing in the area, be sure to check on state requirements.
Great Sand Dune National Park Camping and Hotels
There are camping options within the park and public land nearby. The nearest town is about a 40 minute drive from the park but offers all necessary services (groceries/automotive/lodging).
8 miles south of the park. From Zapata Falls Recreation area, you can hike 10 miles (round trip) to an Alpine Lake. Blanca Peak, Colorado’s fourth highest mountain, is 8 miles from South Zapata Lake.
San Luis State Park
In 2017, the park actually became a wildlife area rather than a state park. But the area provides a habitat for wildlife like coyotes, elk, and kangaroo rats. It’s located south of Highway 150.
Colorado’s Sand Dunes are incredibly unique, and definitely worth a visit. But if you don’t take proper precautions like watching the weather and bringing goggles, they can get pretty uncomfortable. Make sure to be prepared before you head out into the sand dunes.
Further reading on things to do in Colorado
- Hiking the Devil’s Thumb Bypass Trail near Boulder, Colorado
- My All Time Favourite Boulder Flatirons Hike
- 5 of the Best Hikes Near Boulder, Colorado
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Mary Beth (Mouse) Skylis is a freelance journalist and long-distance backpacker who specializes in personal narratives, and gear reviews. While she spent most of her life near Detroit, Mouse is a mountain girl at heart and can currently be found residing in Denver, Colorado.