The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Duncan, Colorado, is open year-round and hosts a full selection of outdoor recreation to enjoy. The Great Sand Dunes boast the tallest dunes in North America, and they are the main attraction in this diverse, mountainous landscape.
Visitors to this park will see a transition of landscapes from wetlands and grasslands to thick forests and rugged tundra. The array of ecosystems supported here provide not only 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 that 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 often whip through the park, so all visitors should be aware of rapidly-changing weather conditions before committing to any strenuous activities outdoors. Most seasons in this area of Colorado tend to be enjoyable, thus making it easy to get outside. The Great Sand Dunes National Park is an accessible park, promoting the ability to be enjoyed by all.
This place is more than a giant sandbox, but the famed dunes are certainly an excellent 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.
Just a couple hours from Pueblo and Colorado Springs, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is not too far off the beaten path. The Dunes Parking Lot, Visitor Center, and Piñon 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.
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.
Although there is no mention of a tram or bus service that runs throughout the park or preserves, many visitors get around by alternative means such as hiking, biking, horseback, and pack animal riding. For an even more unique mode of transportation, visitors can enjoy some sand sledding or sandboarding. Or try taking a fat bike for an exciting ride up one of the dunes.
The peaceful Royal Gorge/Canon City KOA campground rests 6,300 feet above sea level in the Rocky Mountains and boasts easy access to the Royal Gorge Route Train, the Arkansas River, the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park, the Royal Gorge Dinosaur Experience, and world-renowned digs, numerous antique shops, and more. Outdoor activities nearby include golf, whitewater rafting, horseback riding, hiking, and climbing. Campground amenities include a shuttle, a seasonal pool, miniature golf, a Kamping Kitchen, daily breakfasts in season, a dog park, and planned activities for all ages. Free cable television and Wi-Fi are also available to help you stay connected.
The Pueblo South/Colorado City KOA campground is ideally located near Pikes Peak, Royal Gorge, the Great Sand Dunes National Monument, the Historic Arkansas Riverwalk, Bishop's Castle, the Frontier Pathways Scenic and Historic Byway, and the City of Pueblo. You will also find golf, fishing, hiking, and off-roading nearby. The campground itself offers a heated pool, an adults-only hot tub, miniature golf, a snack bar, a covered pavilion, and indoor social room, a playground, a dog park, and planned activities, including barbecues, breakfasts, and dessert socials. Wi-Fi and cable TV are also available free of charge to keep you connected.
The Arkansas River town of Cotopaxi is known for its world-class whitewater rafting. Stay at Cotopaxi/Arkansas River KOA, and you can also head south to the San Isabel National Park, where there are plenty of hiking trails and so much to see. At Cotopaxi/Arkansas River KOA, dive into the swimming pool, putt through a round of mini-golf, take the pup for some playtime at the dog park, or hang out at the pavilion with the family. Wi-Fi and cable TV are also available to keep you connected. Firewood and propane are available on-site for purchase, and pull-through sites can accommodate rigs up to 65 feet in length.
If exploring spectacular trails and wildlife watching near the base of Colorado’s fourth-tallest mountain, Blanca Peak, sounds like the kind of trip you might be looking for, check out Alamosa, Colorado. Located in the San Luis Valley, Alamosa KOA is a great location for your base camp during your next adventure. Just minutes from the campground is the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, which is perfect for hiking or, if you are feeling extra adventurous, check out sand sledding. The campground can provide you with discounted tickets for some of the local attractions, including a nearby alligator farm. With museums, golf courses, hot spring pools, trails, and wildlife near the campground, fun for everyone is just a short drive away. On-site, guests at Alamosa KOA, can enjoy a pancake breakfast each Saturday and Sunday through the summer months, and a snack bar that regularly offers fresh pizza and other tasty treats. Many of the RV sites accommodate big rigs, with a max pull-through of 100 feet. Fifty-amp hookups are available, and the campground offers Wi-Fi to keep you connected during your stay. Unique amenities at Alamosa KOA include a heated outdoor swimming pool, rental bikes, and a recreation hall. Propane and firewood are available for purchase on-site as well.
The Piñon Flats Campground is a National Park Service campground located about one mile north of the Visitor Center. The campground is open from April through October, and reservations are allowed from Memorial Day through Labor Day weekend. 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. All three loops of the campground have restrooms with working sinks, flush toilets, a dishwashing sink area, and water spigots. Each site contains a picnic table and a fire grate to cook on. Both Loop One and Loop Two 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. Pets are welcome, but you must keep them properly restrained and supervised at all times. Bears are frequent visitors, which is why the campground supplies a bear-proof food box at each campsite. When Medano Creek flows, between May through early June, the campgrounds fill quickly. You can expect most of the campsites to be reserved. The campground also has a Camp Store that sells firewood, camping supplies, food, snacks, drinks, and ice.
During April and October, all campsites at the Great Sand Dunes National Park are on a first-come, first-served basis. You must get there early to get a campsite, especially on weekends. Although there are 88 campsites, the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is a popular place to visit, and is often full by noon. During the rest of the peak season, all sites at the campground are available on a first-come, first-served basis if they are not reserved when you arrive. However, if the spot you are in becomes reserved while you are there, you may be asked to move.The same rules and amenities apply no matter whether you have reserved your site or not. There are two restrooms with running water and potable water spigots in each loop. If you need anything, the camp store is between the two loops where you can purchase snacks, ice, firewood, and other camping needs. Pets are allowed but must be restrained and attended, and you have to keep food and other scented items in a bear box or your vehicle.
Outside of the day-use areas of the 30-square-mile dune fields, many hikers choose to camp in a unique setting —the dunes. It’s a beautiful setting for extensive, open views of the night’s sky. Permits for overnight backpacking are given on a first-come, first-served basis, and they can be obtained for as many nights as you would like to enjoy camping out among the sand.
Twenty-one first-come, first-served numbered campsites are permitted for roadside camping along the 22-mile Medano Road in Great Sand Dunes National Preserve. These free sites begin once you’ve past approximately five miles from where the road starts near Piñon Flats Campground. The sites are each marked with a brown post with a camping symbol, and each site has a campfire ring and bear-proof food storage box. Make sure your tent is located within 40 feet of the bear box at your site. 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. You can bring your pet with you as well, but you must supervise them at all times and keep them properly restrained during your visit to the park.
The designated sites for backcountry camping in the national park are all located along the Sand Ramp Trail, between the dune field 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.
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.
Though hunting is not permitted in Great Sand Dunes National Park, licensed hunters are allowed to hunt in the preserve around the park during the 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.
The Visitor Center hosts all sorts of fun, interactive exhibits that both adults and children can enjoy. Some exhibits include a rock and mineral table and a video microscope. Fine art paintings and photography are 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, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
Fat bikes are a fun way to get around the Medano Pass Primitive Road. These bikes are 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 always to remain vigilant and to also stay up to date with current weather and sand conditions. Biking is not permitted off-road.
Sandboarding, sand skiing, and sand sledding are all popular ways to enjoy the greatness of the dunes. These activities are permitted anywhere on the dune field 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.
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 the wildlife, including elk, which can be seen in the grasslands during sunrise or sunset in quieter months. Observing wildlife isn’t all there is to look forward to out here. These spacious landscapes also sport panoramic mountain views and migrating dunes.
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. The Zapata Falls hike 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.
Summer night programs are a fantastic way to experience 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.
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 programming is offered upon request for larger groups. The Ranger Programs are a fun and interactive way to dive deeper into the park, and for people to learn about the Great Sand Dunes as well as the surrounding area.
The Montville Nature Trail 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.
The creek is a popular seasonal stream that is enjoyed by people 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 this flow is caused by mounds of sand forming and falling within the creek bed.
Gators in Colorado? Yes! This family-friendly educational gator farm is a fun place to spend a few hours while visiting the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. You can get up close and personal with the big gators, even petting some youngsters, or for more adventurous visitors, taking a gator wrestling class. Many of the gators here used to be somebody’s pet, and if you feel brave, you can help the gator wranglers capture one so that the medics can check the gator out. You can go from capturing the small gators to grabbing an eight-foot-long giant if you desire. If you help capture a gator, the people who run the gator farm will give you a “Certificate of Insanity” for your help.
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.
The park offers 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 perfect shot to share on your social media pages.
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 by wildlife safety regulations.
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 dune field. The dunes are even made accessible to those who travel best by wheelchair. A dunes-accessible wheelchair is available for either adults or children, and the thick tires make it easy to wheel across the sand. 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 dune in the park.
Traveling and exploring the national park on horseback is a wild and exciting way to see less-visited areas of the park. Traveling with pack animals can be an incredibly rewarding and uniquely fun experience. Going out will require a bit more preparation, as it is vital to keep not only yourself but also your animal companion safe and well-hydrated. Zapata Partners is the only available licensed provider for horseback riding in the Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Take an educational trip back to the 19th century. You are never too old to learn new things, and at the Fort Garland Museum and Cultural Center, you can see history come to life with live historical events, dioramas, and exhibits. The museum is open all year long, and it is here where you can visit Pike’s Stockade to see where Zebulon Pike camped with his men in the 1800s or tour the infantry and cavalry barracks exhibits. Then head back to your campsite for dinner and s’mores around the fire.
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 give access to Medano Creek, as well.
Medano Pass is another portion of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve that will require a four-wheel-drive vehicle, as the road is rough and rugged. This scenic drive can be enjoyed at any time of year, but fall provides an especially spectacular display of the surrounding landscape, with colors fiery and at their peak.
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 Two 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.
The sand dunes are a perfect playground for children of all ages. There is a whole list of activities to be enjoyed just within arm’s 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, and since the weather is cooler during the fall, everyone will want to stay and play for hours at a time.
Backpacking overnight in the dunes is a unique option for people who want to see the park from a different perspective. Backpacking is a popular excursion, and the early fall months are the best times of the year to experience this overnight adventure. Camping is permitted anywhere in the 30 square mile dune field outside of the day-use area. In the wilder areas of the park, 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 to avoid blowing sand and dangerous thunderstorms.