Tips to Visiting the Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado
With the rugged Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the Great Sand Dunes seems out of place in the snow-peaked Colorado Rockies, but yet there they are, part of a National Park and Preserve in southern Colorado.
An all-season, year-round national park, any time you visit you’ll discover something fun to do for the entire family. Camp, hike, backpack, sand sled, backcountry skiing, snowshoeing, photograph gold aspens in the fall — the activities at the Great Sand Dunes are endless.
My multigenerational family traveled at the end of May, coinciding with the seasonally appearing and disappearing Medano Creek. This creek runs in the “valley of the Sand Dunes,” late spring into early summer, before disappearing until the next season.
Where is the Sand Dunes National Park Colorado?
The Great Sund Dunes National Park is located in southern Colorado, 37 miles from Alamosa, 234 miles from Denver, and 167 miles from Colorado Springs. Those driving from Denver and the Springs most commonly take I-25 south to Walsenburg, west on US 160, north on State Highway 150.
Road tripping families who prefer a more scenic mountain drive from Denver with the same 234 miles, drive south on US 285, then south on Colorado State Highway 17 to County Lane 6 east from Mosca.
*DO NOT USE COMPUTER MAPPING PROGRAMS IN THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS FOR HIGHWAY TRAVEL.*
According to the park’s website: “The most commonly used web and dashboard mapping programs have directed visitors to drive over hiking trails or primitive 4WD roads to reach the park. Numerous visitors have become stranded in snow or stuck at a remote trailhead trying to use GPS to reach the main park area.”
Closest Gas Stations?
The park website reports that the closest year-round, 24-hour gas stations are in Mosca (23 miles west of Park Visitor Center) and Fort Garland (31 miles southeast). At the park entrance, the Oasis Store also offers a gas station, but it is only open during business hours from April through October.
Arrival at the Sand Dunes National Park Colorado
Upon entering from The Dunes Parking Lot, hear the squealing of children’s laughter and an occasional bark from the leashed four-legged creatures at this dog-friendly national park.
From the parking lot, you walk down the short trail through some foliage to the awe-inspiring sight of the sand dunes, with the creek flowing below, and children, parents, and dogs splashing around in the creek (which was only a few inches deep!).
This super-sized sandbox spreads out across 30 square miles, and kids of all ages want to sink their toes in the sand. (CAUTION: The sand can get really hot in the summer, up to 150 degrees!)
And let’s not forget the super fun sand sledding! You can rent a board at the nearby Oasis, not affiliated with the National Park.
Is Sand Dunes National Park Open?
The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve are open year-round.
However, during COVID-19, national parks are phasing their openings, and Sand Dunes has recently announced phased reopening beginning, June 3. Before visiting a park, please check the park website to determine its operating status. In addition, not all facilities and activities may be available. Updates about the overall NPS response to COVID-19, including safety information, are posted on www.nps.gov/coronavirus.
Start at the Great Sand Dunes Visitor Center
The Visitor Center (8,200 feet elevation) is also open year-round (except for federal holidays), with range assistance and a 20-minute movie. Pick up a free Junior Ranger Program booklet (ages 3-12) to create a hands-on experience for your family. Ages 13 and older can become Park Explorers.
Camping at the Great Sand Dunes
Camping open dates are April 1 to November 1. Camping Rates: Primitive Wilderness Tent sites: $25.00 per night for 2 persons (no reservations available), additional person rate $2.50. There are also RV sites and cabins. Good news for your four-legged friends: pets are allowed at no additional cost.
However, before making your plans, do check their website for any camping restrictions.
What to Wear to the Park
Closed-toe shoes are recommended. The sand can get really hot, (up to 150 degrees!). We visited early in the season and wore (or carried) our flip-flops. Surprisingly, the water was refreshing, not too cold, not too hot, and the sand was bearable, although sometimes very hot even in May. But not always the case later in the season.
If your arrival coincides with the running of the Medano Creek, bring a change of clothes for the kids to splash around in the cooling waters. Better yet, bring a change of clothes regardless as the sand, like visiting any beach, will find its way all over your vehicle.
Plan to Hike!
Hiking! So many trails, so little time! From Medano Lake Trailhead to Sand Creek Lakes, from alpine scenery to forested canyons, many trails to choose here at Great Sand Dunes. Look around and you’ll see plenty of peaks to climb, too – 13,000 – 14ers, such as Crestone Needle, Crestone Peak, Cleveland Peak, and Mount Herard.
The park also offers picnicking and ranger-led nature walks. Check at the Visitor Center for details.
Hiking? Trail Safety Tips
Discover more Great Sand Dunes Adventures.