This unique, 150,000 acre National Park is flanked by the Sangre de Cristo mountain range to its east and the San Juan Mountains to its west. The forces of plate tectonics forming the surrounding mountains, winds, and sediment redistribution by water combined 440,000 years ago to form the 30-square mile dune field that lends the park its name. There are six types of dunes in the park—Reversing, Star, Parabolic, Barchan, Transverse, Nebkha)—and the tallest reaches 755 feet above the valley floor.
In addition to iconic sand formations, more than 41,000 acres of wilderness are also protected within the boundaries of the National Park. Expect forested mountainsides, alpine lakes and streams, and a multitude of wildlife, including mule deer, elk, and black bear. It’s not, however, all that easy to access. The two main entryways are the Mosca Pass Trail (accessed near the visitors center) and the Medano Pass Primitive Road (high clearance vehicle required).
In the 6,400,000,000 cubic meters of sand that is estimated to make up the 30-acre dune field, there is only one mammal—the Ord’s kangaroo rat—that lives its entire life on the sand and 1,000 known kinds of spiders and insects.
Options are limited in and around Great Sand Dunes National Park.
- To ensure a campsite near the sand dunes, make a reservation well in advance of your trip at the Piñon Flats Campground located one mile north of the visitors center.
- 10 permits are issued daily on a first come, first served basis to visitors wishing to sleep on the sand dunes. The permits are free but must be obtained in person from a ranger at the visitors center. Campsites must be outside of the day-use area (a minimum of a 1.5 mile hike) from the parking lot. Trust us, it’s totally worth the trouble. Think: Amazing sunsets, unobstructed views of the Milky Way, and total solitude.
Our Favorite Activity:
If you’re a shorts and t-shirt kind of skier or rider, then sandboarding is the sport for you. Find a slope with at least a 20 degree gradient, and let it rip. But be careful in summer because the sand can reach temperatures upwards of 150 degrees Fahrenheit during the day!
The dunes are often best enjoyed at night after a spectacular sunset. Rangers lead regular night hikes and night events focused on stargazing and nocturnal wildlife.
Recommended season(s): Park is open year round and daily. Some sites may be inaccessible in winter.