Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Guide

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Introduction

The tallest dunes in North America can be found here and are a main attraction among such a diverse landscape. The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve are both open all year-round and host a whole selection of outdoor recreation to enjoy. Go from wetlands to grasslands, to thick forests and rugged tundra. The array of ecosystems supported here provide not only a home to numerous species of both flora and fauna, but also support a landscape that begs to be enjoyed. The best part is that the park doesn’t have a closing time, so you can take in all there is to offer even after the sun goes down. For some, that’s when the most fun in the desert begins.

Winds rapidly carve through many of the sites and weather conditions should always be considered before committing to any strenuous activities. However, most seasons tend to be quite pleasant making it easy for many opportunities to get outside. It’s a rather accessible park and it promotes the ability to be enjoyed by all.

This place is more than a giant sandbox, but the famed dunes are certainly a good place to start your adventures through the park. Always keep yourself well-prepared and journey only when you have adequate supplies for your travels. It gets rather hot in the summer. Staying well-hydrated is a must during every season. These arid surroundings are a picture perfect setting for a western adventure.

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RV Rentals in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Transportation in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Driving

The Dunes Parking Lot, Visitor Center, and Pinon Flats Campground can all be accessed at the main park area off of Highway 150 from either the south or from the west off of County Road 6. Both of these ways are paved highways, though much of the areas surrounding the dunes will require vehicles with four-wheel drive capabilities.

Parking

Visitors often park their campers, RVs, or trailers at Piñon Flats Campground and then enjoy the rest of the park on foot, as much can be explored throughout the dunes. Another popular parking area is at Medano Pass Primitive Road where you will find access to the park’s backcountry sites along the Sand Ramp Trail.

Public Transport

There is no mention of a tram or bus service that runs throughout the park or preserve, however, most get around by alternate means such as hiking, horseback and pack animal riding. For an even more unique mode of transportation, visitors can enjoy some sandsledding or sandboarding.

Campgrounds and parking in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Campsites in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Reservations camping

Piñon Flats Campground

This campground is a National Park Service campground located about one mile north of the Visitor Center. The grounds are open from April through October and reservations can be made from May 1st until September 20th. Reservations can be completed either online or by phone. Any sites that are not reserved become first-come, first-served. Many of the sites here feature views of the dunes and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The campground offers restrooms with working sinks, flush toilets, a dishwashing sink area, and water spigots. These amenities can be found at all three of the loops. Each individual site contains a picnic table and a fire grate, with multiple grates at group sites. A few of the sites have areas for campers, trailers, or RVs up to 35 feet in length to park. There are no hookups, however, so it is best to come prepared. May through early June are usually peak times, when the campgrounds are full due to the flourishing creek. You can expect most all campsites to be reserved already around this time.

First-come first-served

First-Come, First-Served

Any sites at Piñon Flats Campground that have not been reserved are open to walk-ups. You'll have access to bathrooms, a dishwashing area, and water spigots, as well as a picnic table and fire grate at each site.

Alternate camping

Sawmill Canyon Backcountry Campsite

This backcountry site is only available through reservation and is fully accessible. It is located about 0.7 miles north on the Medano Pass Road and provides a space for two cars to park and camp. The space can also accommodate up to four wheelchairs. The hardened trail to the campsites is 0.1 mile long and has a max grade of 6% incline. There is an elevated tent pad, picnic table, fire grate, food storage container, and private accessible pit toilet provided.

Medano Road Camping

There are 21 numbered campsites that are permitted for roadside camping along Medano Road in Great Sand Dunes National Preserve. The sites start out once you’ve gotten a little more than 5 miles from where the road begins near Piñon Flats Campground. Roadside car camping is only permitted in certain designated sites in the preserve and vehicle access is only available from late spring through fall, depending on roadway conditions and weather. All sites are first-come, first-served and tend to fill up rather quickly on weekend holidays and summer weekends.

Backpacking in the Dunes

Outside of the day use areas of the 30 square mile dunefields, many hikers choose to camp in a unique setting - the dunes. It’s a wonderful setting for wide, open views of the night’s sky. Permits for overnight backpacking are first-come, first-served and can be obtained for as many nights as you would like to enjoy out among the sand.

Backpacking in the Foothills

The designated sites for backcountry camping in the National Park are all located along the Sand Ramp Trail, between the dunefield and the mountains. These sites have excellent views and some decent shade, but some are more than a mile from any water source. Permits for camping are all first-come, first-served and can be obtained for as many nights as you would like to stay. No campfires are allowed in these sites.

Seasonal activities in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Spring

Explore The Dunes

The beauty of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is that it is so freeing. There are no strict trail lines and you can freely explore any portion of the 30 square mile dunefield. The dunes are even made accessible to those who travel best by wheelchair. A dunes-accessible wheelchair is provided for either adult or child and makes it easy to be pushed across the sands. The park believes everyone should get a chance to enjoy such beautiful surroundings. This portion of the park is where you will witness such areas of interest as the Star Dune, the tallest in the park.

Photography

The park provides an outstanding backdrop to capture all sorts of picture perfect shots. The Great Sand Dunes are a setting where photographers can flourish. From majestic snow-capped peaks to smiling faces splashing in the creek waters, you’re sure to get the shot.

Four-Wheel Drive Tour

These tours are perfect for visitors who have come to the park with no four-wheel drive vehicle. Tours provide the perfect way to experience Medano Road and are provided by Pathfinders 4x4. They are the only permitted four-wheel tour provider in the area and do their best to take mild to wild during your stay.

Horseback Riding

Traveling and exploring the National Park is on a whole other level on horseback. Travelling with pack animals can be incredibly rewarding and a uniquely fun experience. Going out will require a bit more preparation, as it is important to keep not only yourself but your animal companion safe and well-hydrated. Zapata Partners is the only available licensed provider for horseback riding in the National Park.

Fishing

Medano Creek is an important natural habitat for such fish as the Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout, Rio Grande Suckers, and Fathead Minnows. Big Spring Creek and Indian Spring are also popular fishing spots. The trout are catch and release only. It is best to check in with the Visitor Center if you plan on enjoying some fishing during your stay, to ensure you abide with wildlife safety regulations.

Summer

Medano Creek

The creek is a popular seasonal stream that is enjoyed by many of all ages. Whenever there is water at the base of the dunes, you can be sure to find both kids and adults alike splashing around. Many come here to enjoy the waves, created by what is called a “surge flow”. The flow is likened to waves along a beach and is caused by mounds of sand being formed and falling within the creek bed.

Montville Nature Trail

This is a perfect hiking option for hot summer days. Walking along the forested, shady trail is a welcome escape from the heat of the sand dunes. The trail’s high point has an inviting resting area where you can enjoy outstanding views of Mount Herard in the distance. From this vantage point, you are also privy to views over the dunes as well as the valley.

Ranger Programs

Throughout the summer and into fall, free Ranger Programs are held as often as staffing permits. Schedules for events and topics are usually posted every Friday to highlight the following week’s programs. Special programs can be requested for larger groups. The Ranger Programs are a fun and interactive way to dive deeper into the park and provide a variety of topics to be a part of.

Night Programs

Summer night programs are a fantastic way to experience the how Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve comes alive when the sun goes down. Not only can you learn about the stars, but also the creatures who venture out in the cool of the night. Moonless, clear nights provide the best times to view the most stars, while an evening under the full moon creates surreal surroundings among the dunes - no flashlight needed.

Zapata Falls

While not actually part of the park, the trek to Zapata Falls is a popular hike located on BLM land just south of Great Dunes National Park and Preserve. This is a perfect getaway hike to avoid hot summer afternoons when the sand temperatures are high. The hike to Zapata Falls requires a bit of rugged hiking and wading over slippery rocks. If you’re not up for the hike, even a drive to the trailhead provides an excellent view of the entire dune field and the San Luis Valley.

Fall

Eastern Dune Ridge

It is well advised to visit this portion of the park with a high clearance four-wheel drive vehicle. You can drive along to either the Sand Pit or Castle Creek picnic areas to enjoy a nice lunch. If your car isn’t quite up for the rugged ride or you’re feeling like taking a nice walk, drive to the Point of No Return instead, and then hike about three quarters of a mile to Sand Pit or 1.5 miles to Castle Creek. No matter which way you choose to get there, a destination at Castle Creek will provide an impressive display of a steep dune face. Both picnic areas provide access to Medano Creek as well.

Sand Ramp Trail

This trail is typically not one that is used as a destination trail for scenery, but this 11 mile stretch is more commonly used as an access to various backpacking sites that rest along the foothills. The hike along Sand Ramp Trail begins in Loop 2 of the campground or at the Point of No Return parking area. After the first two miles, the trail becomes mostly composed of sandy soil or pure sand. The sand makes this hike a little more grueling, as it tends to slow those who aren’t used to walking through it.

Scenic Medano Pass

Medano Pass is another portion of the park that will require a four-wheel drive vehicle, as the road is rather rough and rugged. This scenic drive can be enjoyed any time of year, but fall provides an especially spectacular display of the surrounding landscape, with colors fiery and at their peak.

Overnight Backpacking In The Dunes

Backpacking overnight in the dunes is definitely a very unique option, yet is a rather popular excursion out here. Camping is permitted anywhere in the 30 square mile dunefield outside of the day use area. Out here, you can easily enjoy vast starry skies or feel like you’re under a spotlight with the bright moon. You’ll want to camp only when weather permits so as to avoid blowing sand and dangerous thunderstorms.

Giant Sandbox

The sand dunes are a perfect playground for children of all ages. There are a whole list of activities to be enjoyed just within arms reach. Endless hours can be spent playing in the sand, especially during Fall’s reasonable temperatures. It’s like a giant sandbox that can be enjoyed by anyone of any ability.

Winter

Grasslands And Shrublands

The grasslands and shrublands provide their own splendor, though they tend to be a much less frequented portion of the park. These areas are perfect for witnessing wildlife, including elk, which can be seen in the grasslands during sunrise or sunset in quieter months. Witnessing wildlife isn’t all there is to look forward to out here. These spacious landscapes also sport panoramic mountain views and migrating dunes.

Sandboarding

Sandboarding, sandskiing, and sandsledding are all popular ways to enjoy the greatness of the sand dunes. These activities are permitted anywhere on the dunefield that is away from vegetated areas. From the main Dunes Parking Area, an almost mile-long hike will get you to the small and medium-sized slopes. A little farther, and you can climb to higher ridges and longer slopes. While the National Park Service doesn’t rent sleds or sandboards, they can be easily purchased or rented from retailers in the nearby San Luis Valley.

Fat Bike

Fat bikes are a fun way to get around the Medano Pass Primitive Road. These bikes are basically mountain bikes with extra wide tires, perfect for the sand. It’s important to note that as you ride around Medano Pass, you may come across overnight camping sites as well as other vehicles. It’s best to always remain vigilant and to also stay up-to-date with current weather and sand conditions. Biking is not permitted off-road.

Interactive Exhibits

The Visitor Center hosts all sorts of fun, interactive exhibits that children can enjoy. Some exhibits include a rock and mineral table and video microscope. Fine art paintings and photography is also viewable here and can be enjoyed by anyone. The back porch provides a viewing scope and there is a park store with a whole selection of goodies. The Visitor Center is open year-round, with the exception of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day.

Hunting

Though hunting is not permitted in Great Sand Dunes National Park, licensed hunters are allowed to hunt in the Preserve during designated legal seasons. Registering with the National Park Service is not required to hunt here, but you should be familiar with hunting accesses, transport corridors, and all guidelines. Hunters can access the Great Sand Dunes National Preserve via either Music Pass Trailhead, Medano Pass Primitive Road, Mosca Pass, Sand Ramp Trail, or Liberty Trailhead. Guided hunts are also permitted here. It’s best to check in the with Visitor Center for more information before beginning any hunt.

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