A split-second after bending over to tie my shoe, I realize I’ve made a horrible mistake, as the relentless wind sends a rush of sand against my back and down my pants.
Don’t worry, it’s not always this windy here, I later learn from a ranger. I just happen to be here in mid-April on a chilly and extremely windy day. One of the windiest of the year, in fact. Lucky me!
I knew that exploring the tallest sand dunes in North America at Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park would be a challenge, but I didn’t quite realize the sacrifices I’d have to make.
Walking around with sand puddles in my underwear was a small price to pay for this unique experience.
Climbing the giant sand dunes tops the list of things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park. But there are other options, including some good hiking.
Read on for activity suggestions and an account of my recent visit to the park!
Things To Do in Great Sand Dunes National Park
First, some brief background info: The sand dunes are situated on the western side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, part of the Rockies in southern Colorado.
The dunes are believed to have been formed less than 440,000 years ago. They cover a whopping 19,000 acres and the highest ones are over 700 feet tall.
It doesn’t take long to climb the highest dunes in the U.S., but getting there requires some effort. The dunes are clearly viewable from the Visitor Center, and the walk is less than a mile from there to the base of the sand.
The elevation here is about 8200 feet above sea level – much higher than Denver’s mile-high status!
Like the Everglades, the vast majority of Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado is not accessible by vehicle. The main road only goes a couple miles into the park, and then it becomes a dirt road requiring a 4-wheel drive truck, and then the road ends entirely.
The scope of the dunes can only truly be conveyed by photos that show people walking in the distance. They look like tiny specks against the sand hills.
So if you’re searching for Great Sand Dunes activities, what options do you really have? Let’s go over the options.
1. Climb the dunes themselves. Spend at least a couple hours enjoying the dunes. Climb, run, jump… maybe even try sledding down the dunes!
2. Hang out at the Visitor Center and look at the exhibits or scan the dunes through binoculars.
3. Camp at the park campground, or even within the dunes themselves (get a permit in advance).
4. Hike some of the trails.
Let’s go over each of these options, one by one.
Climb the Tallest Sand Dunes in North America!
As noted, I visited on a chilly, windy day. It was fun, but challenging. I had to face east during the whole hour I was up there to avoid being blinded with sand.
Several other tourists were there, including several families with kids. Some were jumping and sliding down the dunes as if they were sledding.
The tricky part? There’s a small waterway, Medano Creek, flowing between the Visitor Center and the Dunes, and there are no bridges or paths to avoid it.
The creek varies in size depending on the season, but there’s no way around it: If you want to explore the Dunes, you’ve got to get wet. Take off your shoes and scramble across the water.
Once I made it across, I was free to begin climbing. Go forth!
I chose to keep my shoes on since I didn’t want to carry them, and I knew they’d become full of sand either way.
But I did have the option of going barefoot. That is not the case during hot summer days, when the National Park Service says that sand temperatures can reach 140° F and guests are urged to wear closed-toe shoes.
I headed out to the dunefield, choosing a medium-height dune to ascend. I only needed a minute or two to reach the top, which provided some cool views of the Visitor Center, the nearby mountains, and the other guests who also chose to spend this chilly spring day here.
Even though weather conditions weren’t ideal, I loved being out in this massive sea of sand that felt more like the Sahara Desert than anywhere within the continental United States.
The dunes here are not nearly as crowded as the famous Dune 45 in Namibia, so you’ll have a lot more time to explore on your own and take cool pics without hundreds of other tourists surrounding you.
Due to the wind, this was not a great day for me to try to take selfies. Or maybe it was?
Whenever I stopped to look back at my footprints, they were already being covered over by the fresh sand being blown across them. My footprints lasted maybe 20 seconds tops, before they were completely hidden. It took no time to completely hide any trace of my presence.
The dunes seemed remote and devoid of life, but evidently there is some life here: a few scattered plants, some insects and one mammal, the kangaroo rat, that somehow lives in the sand.
I saw no evidence of any of this during my visit. The only variance I observed in the sandy landscape were a couple of pockets of snow that hadn’t yet melted and an occasional patch of dead vegetation blowing atop the surface.
Despite the wind and the chill, Great Sand Dunes National Park was a great time. I felt refreshed running around on the sand mountains and breathing in the crisp air.
The dunes are a 4-hour drive from either Denver or Albuquerque, so they’re easily accessible for anyone visiting the area.
And that means the dunes will be here for many more years to come, for other visitors to enjoy just as I have.
A note about trying to sled in the dunes: Winter sleds typically don’t work here, since the sand is so dry. You should probably bring or rent a sand board.
The NPS doesn’t rent sand boards, but some retailers outside the park boundaries do.
Explore the Great Sand Dunes National Park Visitor Center
The park has only one visitor center. You can’t miss it – it’s right on Route 150, the only road entering the park.
The visitor center has bathrooms, but does not have public wifi. It offers several exhibits that are worth looking through, a 20-minute video about the park, and a new diorama depicting common plant and animal life in the area.
The patio area behind the visitor center is a good place to get a wide view of the dunes. Especially if you have binoculars.
Great Sand Dunes Activities: Camping at Pinon Flats
As mentioned above, camping is one of the coolest sand dunes activities. There is one campground inside the park – Piñon Flats Campground.
It’s open from April 1 to October 30, and campsites can be reserved up to 6 months in advance. The campground offers cool views of the great sand dunes and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Piñon Flats Campground can host up to 88 sites for tent or RV campers. There are restrooms with sinks and toilets, but no electric hookups.
Black bears live in the area, so campers should exercise caution and keep their food away from their tents.
The NPS warns that all spots in the campground will be full in May and June, when Medano Creek is at its strongest. People come to play in the water, and sometimes even float with intertubes if it’s deep enough.
Some campgrounds exist outside the park boundaries, but those also fill up during peak summer months. The NPS strongly suggest visiting on weekdays if possible.
You can also camp in the backcountry, which means right in the dunes themselves! Permits are required in advance. The NPS has a page showing the best backpacking camp options.
I’ve gotten to camp in sand dunes one time, in Kobuk Valley NP in Alaska, and it was a cool life experience that I would recommend. Make sure to bring enough water!
Hike the Montville & Mosca Pass Trails at Great Sand Dunes NP
After playing in the dunes, I decided to embark on a hike. While the sand dunes cover a massive sea of sand that extends for 330 square miles and features pretty much nothing but dry sand, next to the dunes sits the Sangre de Cristo Mountain range, home of various ecosystems from montane forest to subalpine environments.
Also present is wildlife like black bears, coyotes and bobcats.
Lacking a 4×4 vehicle, I went to the one major hike that is accessible from the Visitor Center – the Montville Nature Trail.
This forested trail is only a half-mile long, but it connects with the Mosca Pass Trail, which starts at around 8300 feet elevation and goes up about 1400 feet over a span of 3.7 miles to a peak of 9737 feet at Mosca Pass.
The beginning of the Mosca Pass Trail was mostly trees with barren branches, since it was too early in the season for new leaves to grow.
There were scattered pockets of snow on the trail, which was strange since there were also cacti and other desert-style vegetation. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cactus next to snow before.
It is estimated that humans first crossed Mosca Pass around 12,000 years ago. A tablet on the trail is dedicated to the pioneers who traveled across the pass to settle in the San Luis Valley.
A toll road was established in the 1870s to charge $2 to any wagon that came by. Back then, $2 was the equivalent of two full days of wages, so that was a hefty toll.
As I continued upward on the Mosca Pass Trail, which exits Great Sand Dunes National Park and moves into Great Sand Dunes National Preserve, I noticed more pine trees and more of a ‘cold weather climate’ kind of feel.
I went a mile or two up the Mosca Pass Trail before I had to turn around, but I definitely got my money’s worth out of the hour or so I was able to spend hiking in the forest.
Then it was time to go back down, and that’s when things got interesting – and not just because I could spy the dunes from far away.
I was the only one on the trail, which was surprising since national park hiking trails are usually fairly crowded.
The solitude was cool, but then I started to became worried about bears. Even though black bears aren’t as fierce as grizzlies and usually run when they spot humans, you never know what can happen.
Especially since it was April, around the time that bears come out of hibernation. The last thing I needed was a starving bear to decide that I’d make a fine meal to replenish some of those lost winter pounds.
Of course, my fears were totally unfounded. Or were they?
On my way back down the trail, I saw this:
Scat from an undetermined animal. Why didn’t I see this on the way up? Had it been deposited there in the 20 minutes since I walked past – and if that’s the case, where exactly was the animal that left it behind?
This was somewhat fresh – flies were buzzing around on it. It could be a dog, but why would a dog owner leave his pet’s waste right on the trail in a national park? No, it would have to be something else – maybe a coyote, mountain lion, or bear.
The mountain lion option terrified me, because throughout the hike I had seen numerous rock formations and small caves and dens that would make for absolutely perfect lion habitat.
In situations like this, I can never keep my mind from running through potential headlines (“First hiker ever killed by mountain lion in Great Sand Dunes National Park.”) and subsequent message board discussions (“It’s his own fault… he shouldn’t have been hiking alone!”)
In any event, I went back down as expediently as possible and never saw the critter that chose to defecate in my path.
After some further Googling, I’ve surmised that the scat most resembles that of a bobcat. I could be wrong, but that’s what I’m going with.
Off the Beaten Path Activities in the Great Sand Dunes
If you have a 4WD vehicle, you can explore some of the park’s dirt roads. This is a great way for the off-the-beaten-path adventurer to get into some of the more remote sections of Great Sand Dunes National Park that most visitors never see.
For a more relaxing experience, stop at one of the picnic spots around the park. Horseback riding is another of the coolest sand dunes activities, but it’s only available to overnight guests of the Zapata Ranch.
Great Sand Dunes National Park weather can vary, but expect it to be chillier than you may think. That’s because the visitor center sits at 8200 feet elevation.
Nights are always cool, even in summer, generally getting down into the 40s F. See this chart for average Great Sand Dunes National Park weather data by month.
This is one of the best sand dunes in the U.S., so enjoy the visit!
PRO TIP: If you love road trips, do what I did and plan a road trip to several of Colorado’s parks, including Rocky Mountain National Park and Black Canyon of the Gunnison, which I consider America’s most underrated national park!
What are your favorite things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park?