Article Overview: Things to Do at Great Sand Dunes National Park
I’ll never forget the hype of driving to this mythical place for the first time with the burning question in my mind – is Great Sand Dunes National Park real?
I had seen a single mesmerizing photo that led me on a deep dive search as to whether such a place could exist in Colorado. Since visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park (now numerous times), I can now confirm that it is real and full of incredible things to do (& see).
In my opinion, simply staring at the dunes could be a top rated item on this list of things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park. They are otherworldly. When explaining this place to friends who have inevitably never heard of it I liken Great Sand Dunes to a magical meeting of the Sahara Desert and the Rocky Mountains.
Don’t worry though, there is more to do in the park than just look at the dunes – a lot more. In this article I’ll cover the top 20 things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park to give you an idea of the kinds of activities you can experience in the park.
I’ll also cover the basics of what you need to know before visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park and some tips based on my travels here.
Sound great? Let’s get started.
Table of Contents
Things to Do in Great Sand Dunes National Park
- Things to Know Before Visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park
- Things to Do at Great Sand Dunes National Park
- Top 20 Best Things to Do at Great Sand Dunes National Park
- Top 15 Best Things to Do at Great Sand Dunes National Park
- Top 10 Best Things to Do in Great Sand Dunes National Park
- Top 5 Best Things to Do at Great Sand Dunes National Park
- Map of Things to Do at Great Sand Dunes National Park
- Summary of the Top Things to Do at Great Sand Dunes National Park
Things to Know Before Visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park
Entrance fees to Great Sand Dunes National Park are $25/vehicle. But if you plan to visit more National Parks within the next 12 months I suggest you go ahead and purchase the America the Beautiful Pass (which can be found at the entrance gates to most national parks). This pass gets you into all National Parks, Forests, Monuments, and more including 2,000 sites for free after a one time $79 fee.
Use it. Lots of it. Especially this one which I never leave the house without because it plays nice with our dear friend, earth 🙂
Fuel up fully before you get into the park. There are no gas stations within Great Sand Dunes National Park. The good news is that there is not much driving to be done in the park itself so you probably won’t burn much gas here.
Cell Service is spotty in the park.
The Best Guide Book for Great Sand Dunes National Park is this one.
The Best Map: I like this map best for Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Drink it. Lots of it. Don’t forget it in the car.
Best Time to Visit Great Sand Dunes National Park
The Best Time to Visit Great Sand Dunes is late May through September.
Restaurants & Food Options
Food options are limited in the Great Sand Dunes area so I recommend getting food beforehand in Alamosa and packing it into the park.
Maps of the National Parks
National Parks Checklist Map: This beautiful National Parks Checklist Map can be ordered to your house.
Framed National Parks Map: We’re a sucker for maps, this framed national parks map is the best.
Where to Stay in Great Sand Dunes
Planning a trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park? If you haven’t decided where to stay here’s my favorite hotel in the area.
Things to Do at Great Sand Dunes National Park
Top 20 Best Things to Do at Great Sand Dunes National Park
20. Explore the Dunes
Of all the things to do at Great Sand Dunes National Park I figured we’d start with the most obvious one – checking out the dunes!
If you’re wondering whether or not hiking is allowed on the dunes the answer is yes. Anyone is allowed to hike anywhere they’d like on the dune fields at Great Sand Dunes National Park.
However, you shouldn’t head out into the dunes without the proper preparation – these dunes are much larger than they look and quite difficult to hike.
Most folks don’t realize that the main dune field at Great Sand Dunes National Park is approximately 30 squares miles. For reference, that’s roughly 30% larger than the size of Manhattan.
Tips for Exploring the Dunes
- Make a game plan beforehand and decide how long (time) you want to be out there. Set a timer and when you hit the halfway point turn around and start heading back.
- Lather up the sunscreen! The sand magnifies the heat and will find a way to burn you.
- Bring more water than you think you’ll need. Trust me when I say you’ll end up spending more time out there then you planned on originally. Even if it’s not a hot day, the sun will zap it right out of you.
- Footwear: If you just plan on walking around a bit as opposed to hiking up the dunes then you’ll be fine barefoot (in the dunes will require footwear to get to them). Personally I prefer hiking in sandals with straps like these & these which I love and allow my feet to breathe on the dunes. Other folks prefer high ankle shoes or boots like these to prevent sand from getting into their footwear.
- Bring a hat even if you don’t usually wear one. The sun is intense on the dunes.
19. Go Fishing in Alpine Lakes
Most folks who visit Great Sand Dunes National Park don’t realize that there’s anywhere to go fishing. There is actually a creek that seasonally runs past the dunes, Medano Creek (but no fishing here), as well as several lakes within the park boundaries.
The lakes are technically in the Preserve part of Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, high above the dunes themselves. The two best lakes for fishing are Upper Sand Creek Lake and Lower Sand Creek Lake (more on these below).
The prize fish here is the beautiful Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout which is native to southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico. The park recently reintroduced this species back into the Sand Creek Lakes & drainage. Check out the NPS page to learn more about fishing in Great Sand Dunes National Park.
18. Elk Viewing
Another great activity in Great Sand Dunes National Park revolves around the park’s wildlife population. It’s estimated that more than 4,000 elk call the San Luis Valley home. Typically those with keen eyes can spot elk roaming in the grasslands along the drive into the national park.
Occasionally they can be spotted crossing the dunes themselves which makes for quite a photo opportunity. Pronghorn antelope and mule deer are two other prominent mammals that live within the park boundaries.
If hunting is on your list of things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park I’ve got bad news and good news for you. While there is absolutely no hunting permitted within Great Sand Dunes National Park, the greater Preserve opens up seasonally.
17. Venture Out to Sand Creek Basin
Exploring the Sand Creek Basin falls squarely into the hidden gems category of things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park. While most people visit for the dunes the mountainous regions above are spectacular and see only a small fraction of the visitors that the dunes see.
The top attractions here are Upper Sand Creek Lake and Lower Sand Creek Lake. Getting to this can be a bit tricky as there’s no easy access point from within the main park entrance.
The easiest way to access these lakes is by making the roughly 2.5 hour drive around the other side of the Sangre De Cristo Mountains to Music Pass Trailhead.
From here, the hike to Upper Sand Creek Lake is just under 8 miles round trip with about 2,000 feet of elevation gain. If you want to bag both lakes you’re looking at just about 10 miles with 2,400 feet of elevation gain.
In August the wildflowers are really incredible and mosquitoes less than their July savagery. Read on for backcountry & camping information.
NOTE: If you do not have 4WD then park where Rainbow Trail crosses Music Pass Road as the next 2.5 miles are rough.
16. Sand Dunes in the Snow
Falling into the breathtaking category of things to do at Great Sand Dunes National Park is seeing the landscape transform in winter to a snowy wonderland. The typical golden-yellow hue of the dunes is coated in white making for a stunning scene. While in the summer this area is quite hot, during the winter temperatures plummet to near 0 degrees allowing for snowy conditions.
Great Sand Dunes sees snow typically from December through March so if you want to see the dunes with a blanket of white, those are the months to go!
Top 15 Best Things to Do at Great Sand Dunes National Park
15. See the Bison
Another surprise at Great Sand Dunes is finding America’s national mammal on full display, the American Bison. There are currently over 2000 bison that live within the boundaries of Great Sand Dunes National Park.
While I wouldn’t say finding them is always easy, it’s certainly memorable.
The Nature Conservancy helped to bring the bison back to Great Sand Dunes as part of a great wildlife comeback story.
Today if you want to see them you have to get somewhat lucky as the main area they hang out is not currently open to the public. I recommend driving over to the San Luis State Wildlife Area, Dollar Lake, or checking out Zapata Ranch.
A word of caution: We visited this area (San Luis State Wildlife Area) in early April and encountered savage mosquitoes which we captured on video. We were afraid to get out of the car.
14. Check Out Zapata Ranch
If you want to see bison up close, ride horses out onto the dunes, and experience ranch life in a luxury setting then add Zapata Ranch to your list of things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Zapata Ranch is located adjacent to Great Sand Dunes National Park and the bison the ranch manages roam the park lands.
The ranch was acquired by the Nature Conservancy back in 1999 as part of an effort to help conserve the area. Today you can book all inclusive stays here for around $350/night and experience everything ranch life has with the added bonus of gourmet food and luxury accommodations.
13. Drive Medano Pass 4WD Road
If you’re into off-road adventures and more do it yourself type of traveling then driving Medano Pass Road is a great addition to your list of things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park. The twenty mile drive from Piñon Flat Campground up to Medano Pass (10,040 feet above sea level) should take about 60 – 90 minutes depending on stops and road conditions.
While the scenery from the road is breathtakingly beautiful providing some of the best views in the park, the drive itself requires the drivers full attention passing across a multitude of terrains and including 11 creek crossings.
One of my favorite parts of the Medano Pass Road is that there are 21 free designated campsites along the way that are first come-first served, most of which are picture perfect.
Driving Tips for Medano Pass Primitive Road
At certain times of year you will need to actually lower your tire pressure to 20 psi to make it across the dry and soft sand.
You should know that it is absolutely mandatory to have 4WD to drive this road. All wheel and 2 wheel drive vehicles will get stuck in the sand and uneven terrain. Be sure to reduce speed while crossing creeks to avoid flooding your engine.
Check out the NPS page for current road conditions on Medano Pass prior to making the drive.
NOTE: You can rent 4WD Jeeps if you don’t have one at the Great Sand Dunes Lodge.
12. Sandhill Crane Migration
Every year over 20,000 Sandhill Cranes spend part of their fall and spring in the San Luis Valley where Great Sand Dunes National Park is located. They begin to arrive in February each year and depart in late March after feasting on barley and aquatic species of the area.
According to the National Park Service, “Cranes mate for life, but each spring they renew their bond through a courtship ritual that includes dancing, bowing, chortling, and throwing tufts of grass in the air.”
Seeing the great Sandhill Crane Migration is a bucket list item for every proper birder making it one of the best things to do at Great Sand Dunes National Park.
This brings us to the next item on our list of best things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park. For avian aficionados out there, Great Sand Dunes National Park is a must-see.
On top of the 20,000 Sandhill Cranes that pass through the valley each year, more than 250 bird species have been spotted in the park!
Among these you’ll find familiar favorites such as the bald eagle, golden eagle, peregrine falcon, heron, and mountain bluebird.
You’ll also find a plethora of rare and exotic birds that are found few other places in North America including the American Avocet, Ruddy Duck, White Faced Ibis, Wilson’s Warbler, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and many more.
Top 10 Best Things to Do in Great Sand Dunes National Park
10. See the Fall Colors
Seeing amazing fall foliage is probably not high on your list of things to do at Great Sand Dunes National Park but let me tell you, it should be.
Every Autumn this park explodes with kaleidoscopic fall color – reds, yellows, and oranges blanket the often overlooked mountainous regions of this park.
For the best fall foliage viewing opportunities hike the Mosca Pass Trail (more on that below), drive the Medano Pass 4WD road up to Medano Pass, or go around the backside of the park and hike into the Sand Creek Basin from Music Pass Road.
9. Backcountry Adventures
Most of my personal favorite things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park require a backcountry permit.
There are an incredible amount of backcountry adventures to be had including camping out in the dunes themselves (more on that below), backpacking up to Mosca Pass (more on that below) or Sand Creek campground, and so many more.
These are the type of adventures you hold onto for a lifetime (I know I have!). There are 8 great designated backcountry campgrounds to pitch your tent and explore the park. Check out the NPS website for everything you need to know about these campgrounds and backpacking in the park.
If you love the night sky then stargazing is a definite addition to your list of things to do at Great Sand Dunes National Park. In 2019 Great Sand Dunes National Park was named an International Dark Sky Park meaning it has some seriously dark skies, perfect for astro photographers like myself.
Looking up at the night sky here is downright mesmerizing so be sure to pack a chair that reclines or prepare for a sore neck.
Park Ranger Patrick Myers puts it nicely, “Besides seeing countless stars, our other senses open up and we become aware of the unique sounds of owls and toads, the scent of piñon pines, and the soft feel of polished grains of sand.”
7. Sunset from Zapata Falls Recreation Area
The best place in to soak in a sunset of Great Sand Dunes National Park is from high above the dune field itself at the Zapata Falls Recreation Area.
Getting here from the park visitor center takes about 30 minutes (depending on traffic) and requires driving up a steep, gravel road. 2WD vehicles are OK to drive this road but should be on the lookout for potholes.
From the top, the views of the dunes are magnificent. If you’re taking photos you’ll need a zoom lens to get “the shot” of the dune field from here. Sunset is by far the best time as the light sweeps across the dunes and up the mountains.
Yep, you read that right – one of the top activities in Great Sand Dunes National Park is “sandboarding”. I’ve seen folks do this with all sorts of contraptions including sleds, modified skateboards, snowboards, trash can lids, bare bellies, bottoms, and more.
It’s pretty simple. Basically you hike up a dune with your “sandboard” and then slide down while screaming some sort of noise that indicates to others that you’re having a good time.
Running down the dunes full speed can also be pretty exhilarating but knowing when and where to stop is the key.
The dunes access behind the visitor center is the most popular area to do this giving folks easy access to the dunes and their vehicle. For a more secluded experience you might try the Sand Pit Picnic Area.
Top 5 Best Things to Do at Great Sand Dunes National Park
5. See Zapata Falls
While Zapata Falls are technically not located inside the boundaries of the national park, there a short drive from the visitor center and totally worth adding to your list of things to do in Great Sand Dunes.
The falls can be viewed year-round but totally change depending on the season. During spring the falls have a large amount of water volume while by the end of summer they’ve receded quite a bit.
My favorite time of year to visit Zapata Falls is in winter when they totally freeze over. You can even climb up parts of the falls with the right footwear (crampons).
To get to Zapata Falls just drive south from the visitor center and follow the signs up to the falls. It’s hard to miss.
4. Hike the Mosca Pass Trail
I remember backacking up Mosca Pass Trail my first time visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park. Along with my brothers we hiked up this trail from valley floor and what a time it was. As you ascend up into the mountains the scenery changes rapidly as sand and pines give way to rocks and aspens.
The Mosca Pass Trail follows the small Mosca Creek up toward Mosca Pass itself. I found the trail to be moderate but be prepared for constant incline the whole way. Also don’t forget to take water breaks and look back down at the valley floor and dune field below. The trail is about 6.4 miles round trip with just under 1500 feet of elevation gain.
Depending on the time of year you go will determine what the bugs are like. We encountered pretty savage mosquitoes in early-mid April for what it’s worth. If you’re looking to backpack like we did and camp up there be sure to check in at the visitor center for a permit.
3. Play in Medano Creek
If you’re visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park with kids, there’s no better activity than having a day at the beach. In this case we’re substituting the ocean for Medano Creek but there’s just as much sand to play with I can assure you.
During the spring and summer you’ll find the creek full of families with children playing in the gentle water of Medano Creek which flows seasonally around the dunes. Depending on the time of year will determine where exactly you can enjoy the creek.
Best Time to Visit Medano Creek
Late May and early June are the best time time to experience Medano Creek at it’s peak levels where you can actually float short distances on inflatables. Just know that if you’re visiting during this time, especially on a weekend, expect crowds!
The later in the season you go the less water and crowds you’ll find.
2. Camp Out in the Dune Field
As far as this list of best things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park goes, my favorite item is this one – camping out in the dune field. Add this one to your national parks bucket list of adventures (sounds like a great article in the making).
I’ve camped in the dunes twice now and will certainly go back and do it again. The first time I went with my brothers and while we had to make multiple round trips (3 miles) back to the car for things we forgot (like the tent, then the food for the night) it was still such a great time that I came back with my wife years later.
As you start the hike you’ll see the epic mountain back drop but the further you get into the dunes the more it all fades away leaving you with seemingly endless dunes as far as the eye can see. At night this place is pure magic with some of the darkest skies in America.
Camping in the dune field requires an easily obtainable backcountry permit by visiting the Great Sand Dunes National Park Visitor Center. The ranger there will go over the dos and don’ts which includes packing out your trash, not camping on ridgelines or visible places, and more.
1. Hike the Tallest Dunes in North America (Star Dune & Hidden Dune)
Hiking the tallest dune in North America has to be at the top of your list of things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park. While challenging, this is a unique and epic feat that you’ll remember forever.
It used to be that Star Dune was the clear tallest dune in the park but now there is ongoing debate whether Star Dune or Hidden Dune is taller. The reason for this is the precise height of the dunes are constantly changing based on season and winds. At present, the National Park Service maintains that both dunes are the exact same height.
Star Dune & Hidden Dune are the tallest dunes in North America at 741 feet (225 meters) from base to summit.
Hiking Star Dune
Hiking to Star Dune is challenging and usually takes about 6 hours to complete the roughly 6 mile hike. That means an average of 1 hour per mile which may sound crazy but because of the elevation change and the difficulty of hiking through sand, this is typically accurate.
There is no trail for this hike as the dunes are constantly erasing human footprints which adds to the difficulty and adventure depending on how you want to look at it.
GPS coordinates for Star Dune: 37.7517639, -105.5580583
Great Sand Dunes National Park Itinerary for Visiting
1 Day Great Sand Dunes National Park Itinerary
8:00am: Start your day by getting an early start and heading to the park. If you’re coming from a distance, you may want to spend the night in a nearby town or city, such as Alamosa or Colorado Springs. Alternatively, you can camp in the park itself, either in the campground or in the backcountry.
9:00am: Arrive at Great Sand Dunes National Park and stop at the visitor center to get a map of the park and learn more about the park’s history and natural features.
10:00am: Take a hike through the park’s dunes, starting at the Dunes Overlook trailhead. The hike will take you to the top of the dunes, where you’ll have a stunning view of the surrounding landscape.
12:00pm: Take a break for lunch at the picnic area near the visitor center.
1:00pm: Go sandboarding or sand sledding on the dunes. You can rent sandboarding equipment at the park’s rental shop or bring your own.
3:00pm: Take a scenic drive through the park, stopping at various points along the way to take in the views and learn about the park’s natural and cultural history.
5:00pm: If you’re camping in the park, set up your campsite and start a fire for cooking dinner. If you’re staying in a nearby town or city, head back to your accommodations for the evening.
8:00pm: After dinner, head to a spot with a good view of the night sky, such as the overlook near the visitor center. Great Sand Dunes National Park has some of the darkest skies in the country, making it an excellent place for stargazing. Bring a pair of binoculars or a telescope, if you have one, to get a closer look at the stars and constellations.
10:00pm: Retire to your campsite or accommodations for the night.
Map of Things to Do at Great Sand Dunes National Park
Summary of the Top Things to Do at Great Sand Dunes National Park
- Star Dune & Sand Dune (highest dunes in North America)
- Camp Out in the Dunes
- Play in Medano Creek
- Hike Mosca Pass Trail
- Zapata Falls
- Sunset from Zapata Falls Recreation Area
- Stargazing Night Sky
- Backcountry Adventures
- Autumn at Great Sand Dunes
- Picnic at Castle Creek
- Sandhill Crane Migration
- Drive Medano Pass 4WD Road
- Ranger Programs
- See the Bison at Dollar Lake
- Sand Dunes in the Snow
- Sand Creek Basin
- Elk Viewing
- Explore the Dunes
About the Folks Behind More Than Just Parks
We’re Jim Pattiz and Will Pattiz, collectively known as the Pattiz Brothers (and sometimes the Parks Brothers) and we absolutely LOVE the national parks.
We’ve worked with the National Park Service, the Department of Interior, USDA, and the U.S. Forest Service for years creating films on important places and issues. Our work has been featured in leading publications all over the world and even some people outside of our immediate family call us experts on the national parks.
Our goal here at More Than Just Parks is to share the beauty of America’s national parks and public lands through stunning short films in an effort to get Americans and the world to see the true value in land conservation.
If you’d like to follow along our journey we’d be delighted to have you!
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