Clear sky over the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado

Great Sand Dunes National Park (Ultimate Guide for 2023)

👉 Jump to: How to Visit Great Sand Dunes | Things to Do | Where to Stay | History | Tips | FAQ

I’m a Colorado local who can help you make the most of your trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park, one of the four Colorado national parks.

This Great Sand Dunes guide features information on transportation, costs, and sights.

I also share park history, where to stay, and tips for having the best experience. Learn how to prepare for hiking trails, the ideal time to visit for can’t-miss activities like beachgoing and sandboarding, and much more! 

Disclosure: Travel Lemming is an independent reader-supported blog. You can support us by purchasing via the affiliate links on this page, which may earn us commissions. See our Advertising Policy for further explanation. Thank you!

How to Visit Great Sand Dunes National Park

Getting to Great Sand Dunes National Park

Travel Lemming editor, Abigail Bliss with her brother taking a jump shot at the top of High Dune
Travel Lemming editor Abigail and her brother at the top of High Dune

Great Sand Dunes National Park is a can’t-miss Colorado destination! However, there are fewer transportation options because this park is more remote than, for example, Rocky Mountain National Park. You’re going to want to rent a car for this trip! 

✈️ Fly – The San Luis Valley Airport is the closest airport to the sand dunes. You can catch commercial flights from Denver on Boutique Air to this airport, which is a 45-minute drive from the park. Denver International Airport is about a 4-hour drive from the park. 

🚗 Drive – You can rent a car at the San Luis Valley Airport to drive to the park. It is a very small airport, so your options may be limited — definitely book ahead of time! You can also rent a car at DIA for a half-day road trip to the sand dunes. 

🚌 Bus – Greyhound Bus Lines drives to Alamosa and Blanca, Colorado. You will need to rent a car in one of those cities to get to Great Sand Dunes National Park. 

Important Visiting Info for Great Sand Dunes National Park

Travel Lemming editor, Abigail Bliss with her family smiling for a photo with the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Signage
Don’t pass up the visitor center near the entrance — there’s lots to learn there!

🎟️ Entrance – You will need to buy a pass to enter Great Sand Dunes National Park. A 7-day vehicle pass is $25. An annual pass for just this national park is $45. You might want an America the Beautiful Pass if you plan to visit multiple US national parks in a year.

There are also several days with free entrance at all national parks. In 2023, this includes January 16, April 22, August 4, September 23, and November 11. 

🕐 Park Hours – Great Sand Dunes National Park is open 24 hours a day and 365 days a year if the weather permits.

🚻 Facility Hours – The Visitor Center is open every day of the year except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Visitor Center hours are 9:00 am to 4:30 pm every day.

🅿️ Parking – There is parking at the Visitor Center. There is also parking at the main dunes parking area along Medano Creek. There are signs directing you to your site if you’re camping, and you can walk or drive to the dunes from there. 

🏞️ WebsiteNational Park Service – Great Sand Dunes National Park

📍 Google MapsGreat Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, 11999 State Highway 150, Mosca, CO 81146

🏠 Visitor Center – There is one visitor center near the entrance to the park. The Visitor Center has information about the park, a diorama showing park ecosystems, and an exhibit on nighttime at the dunes. 

☎️ Phone – (719) 378-6395

🧑‍🤝‍🧑 Tours  – The park offers ranger-led programs which sometimes involve hikes and exploring the park. There are also some commercial tours available to visitors, including horseback riding and Jeep tours. One private company also offers flight tours over the sand dunes! 

🦮 Pets – Great Sand Dunes National Park is one of the most pet-friendly national parks! Leashed dogs are allowed in the main use area. This includes campgrounds, along the Medano Pass Primitive Road, and even High Dune. See park regulations for further details. 

Things to Do in Great Sand Dunes National Park

Hiking Trails

Overlooking view of the Great Sand Dunes National Park from a hiking trail
Several hiking trails provide unique perspectives of the Dunes

Hiking is a great way to experience the tallest sand dunes in North America. Be sure to go early in the morning if you plan to hike the dunes in the summer. Late mornings and afternoons get hot! There are also many hiking trails through the mountains near the dunes, as well as to nearby lakes and waterfalls. 

  • ⛰️ High Dune: There aren’t designated trails through the sand dunes because the wind and sand are constantly shifting. High Dune on the First Ridge is the first dune you can tackle from the parking lot. 

High Dune is a popular hike, offering sweeping views of the dunes with the mountains beyond. The elevation gain is just under 700 feet. Remember sand hikes can be challenging because you slide a bit with each step! 

  • 🌟 Star Dune: Star Dune is a very challenging, 8-mile hike across the sandy peaks. However, it’s one of the best hikes in Colorado! It’s also one of the two highest sand dunes in North America. 
  • 🌲 Montville Nature Trail: This shady trail is a great option if you visit in the heat of summer! The trail is just a half-mile, so it’s also a good option for kids or those adjusting to the altitude.

You can see Mt. Herard from the highest point, along with beautiful views of the dunes. Hunting is permitted in season near this trail, so you may want to check with a ranger before heading out. 

  • 🥾 Zapata Falls: This hike is just under a mile long, but is moderately challenging because you need to climb over rocks and ford a creek to get to the falls. Water shoes or water-proof hiking boots are recommended!  
  • ⛰️ Medano Lake: You’ll need a 4WD vehicle to get to the Medano Lake Trailhead off Medano Pass road. The trail is almost 8 miles with a 2,000-ft elevation gain.

Trek through meadow and forest areas before reaching the lake. You can also continue on to the 13,297-foot summit of Mt. Herard. Check with a ranger on snow and trail conditions before attempting this hike.

Sandboarding & Sand Sledding 

A man enjoying sandboarding at the Great Sand Dunes National Park
When it works, sandboarding is a whole lot of fun!

You’ll want to rent special sandboards or sand sleds to guarantee a good sledding experience! Your own sled or snowboard likely won’t work, unless the sand has been packed down by rain or snow. 

You can rent sleds and sandboards at the Oasis Store, about 4 miles from the visitor center and near the park entrance. There are also some places in Blanca and Alamosa where you can rent equipment. The National Park Service does not rent this gear. 


The author's kids exploring at the Medano Creek in Colorado
My kids exploring Medano Creek, which can be flowing or nonexistent depending on the season

Yep, Colorado has a beach! In fact, it has been named one of the best beaches in the country by Travel & Leisure

Medano Creek flows between the Dunes Parking Lot and the sand dunes. The peak flow is usually in late May and early June and the creek is often gone by mid- to late summer. See the national park website for creek conditions.  

Scenic 4-Wheel Drive

View of the Medano Pass Primitive Road in Colorado
You’ll encounter sandy roads and at least 9 creek crossings on Medano Pass Primitive Road

Only 4WD vehicles with high clearance can manage the Medano Pass Primitive Road. Some places in Alamosa provide Jeep tours of the area if you don’t want to attempt the drive yourself. 

You’ll encounter soft sand and creek crossings on this 22-mile road. Medano Pass connects the park with the Wet Mountain Valley, and you’ll end up on Colorado State Highway 69. Watch for bighorn sheep along the route. Plan on 2 ½-3 hours to do this drive. 


Great Sand Dunes National Park is one of the best places to camp in Colorado! There is only one campground in the park and I highly recommend it. Make reservations early if you want to stay on-site. There are other places to camp within 40 miles of the park as well.

  • Piñon Flats Campground: This is the only developed campground inside Great Sand Dunes National Park. It’s open from April – October and I can’t recommend it enough! There are views of the dunes from most campsites. You can walk to the dunes, making it convenient to watch the sunset or stargaze in the evening. 

There are restrooms with sinks, flush toilets, and potable water spigots, but no showers. Note that many of these restrooms are being renovated during the summer of 2023. Porta-potties and hand-wash stations are currently available. There are no hookups, but RVs up to 35 feet long can dry camp in some sites. 

  • 🏕️ Oasis Campground: This campground is just outside the entrance to the park and it’s open from April – October. RV sites have full hookups. There are also tent sites and camping cabins. There are showers, laundry, a restaurant, and a camp store. 

Where to Stay in Great Sand Dunes National Park

Looking to stay in a nearby town? You’ve got several options near the park! The most convenient town is Alamosa. It’s big enough to have several options for hotels, food, groceries, and anything else you might need. 


Aerial view at Downtown Alamosa in Colorado
An aerial view of this southern Colorado town

Alamosa is about a 30-minute drive from Great Sand Dunes National Park. It’s one of the larger towns in the area, so you’ll have more choices for lodging and places to eat.

The best places to stay in Alamosa for visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park are: 

  • 🏠 Holiday Inn Express: The Holiday Inn has an indoor pool and hot tub so you can relax after a day at the park. You’ll also get a free breakfast in the morning. 
  • 🍽️ Comfort Inn & Suites: The Comfort Inn & Suites is near Splashland Hot Springs, which is a geothermal outdoor public pool. The hotel has an indoor pool and hot tub and free breakfast. 
  • 🏠 Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott: This hotel has an indoor pool and fitness center. Rooms have a sitting area and work desk. The Fairfield Inn is just 4 miles from the airport so it makes a convenient home base.


View of the san dunes from Mosca, Colorado
Enjoy distant views of the sand dunes from Mosca (photo: Ryan J Long / Shutterstock)

Mosca is just outside of Great Sand Dunes National Park. It’s much closer to the national park, but there are very few places to stay. 

The best places to stay in Mosca for visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park are: 

  • 🏞️ Great Sand Dunes Lodge: Rooms at the lodge overlook the sand dunes. You can also rent sandboards and sleds on-site to use at the park. You can stay in a standard room, a larger room with a full kitchen, or in a 5th-wheel trailer set up on site.
  • 🛏️ Secluded 2-Bedroom Cabin: This spacious cabin is located just minutes from the park entrance. Take in views from its wrap-around deck and balcony, and enjoy private access to Zapata Falls. 

Monte Vista

Scenic view at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado
The Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge is a beautiful spot!

Monte Vista is about a 45-minute drive from the Great Sand Dunes. It’s a smaller town than Alamosa, but you’ll be near the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge if you want more things to do in the area!

The best places to stay in Monte Vista for visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park are: 

  • 🏨 Rio Grande Motel: A well-rated, basic motel with clean rooms, a private bathroom, and, in some cases, a sitting area along with the bed. 
  • 🎥 Best Western Movie Manor: A unique hotel with a drive-in movie theater and restaurant. You can even see the drive-in movies from some of the rooms.
  • 🏨 Sandhill Inn & Suites: These spacious rooms each have a private entrance, a seating area, and a work desk. 

History of Great Sand Dunes National Park

Blue sky over the Great Sand Dunes National Park
The sand dunes have been around for a very long time!

First Evidence

11,000 years ago – The first evidence of humans in the area of the Great Sand Dunes is from about 11,000 years ago. The original people in the area were nomadic hunters and gatherers who followed the mammoths and prehistoric bison herds. They lived in the San Luis Valley when plants thrived and hunting was good, and went elsewhere during droughts. 

Indigenous History

Until 400 years ago – Modern Indigenous tribes were in the area when the Spanish arrived 400 years ago. The Ute had a word for the Great Sand Dunes: Saa waap maa nache. It means “sand that moves.” Jicarilla Apaches, Navajo, and people from the Tewa/Tiwa-speaking pueblos all roamed the sand dunes area. 

Spanish Explorers

1694 Don Diego de Vargas was the first European known to enter the San Luis Valley. However, herders from Spanish colonies in what is now New Mexico likely came into the valley about a hundred years earlier. 

Westward Expansion

1807 – Zebulon Pike first wrote about the Great Sand Dunes in his journals. He described the sand dunes in January of that year, when he was exploring the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

1848 – John C. Fremont was hired to find a railroad route from St. Louis to California. 

1853 – Captain John Gunnison crossed the dunes on horseback while working for the US Topographical Survey.

Old Spanish Trail 

1830-1849 – The Old Spanish National Historic Trail was established and ran through the San Luis Valley. The trail was a trade route from Santa Fe to Los Angeles, and it also wound through Colorado, Utah, and a total of six states. 

Gold Rush

1853 – Gold and silver rushes happened in the Rocky Mountains after 1853. Miners had small strikes around the San Luis Valley.

Buffalo Soldiers

1876-1879 – Black Buffalo Soldiers patrolled the region. The Buffalo Soldiers were awarded more Medals of Honor than any other American military unit during that time. 

National Park & Preserve Designation

2004 – The Great Sand Dunes became a national monument under President Hoover in 1932. The area was designated a national park and preserve 71 years later. 

Tips for Visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park

Travel Lemming editor, Abigail Bliss with her husband at the Medano Creek
Abigail and her husband enjoying Medano Creek
The Great Sand Dunes National Park from afar
Distant views of the Dunes

Arrive Early

Get to Great Sand Dunes National Park around 8 am or before for the best experience during the summer. You’ll beat the heat and the crowds that arrive later! You could also visit after 5 pm as the heat is lessening and people are going home.

Wear Special Shoes or Socks

Try these Vibram FiveFingers shoes when hiking the dunes, as recommended by Abigail, a Travel Lemming editor. You can even hike in just socks if the sand isn’t too hot! Your feet will be somewhat protected, but still flexible and you won’t have to deal with sand in your shoes. 

Wear Sunscreen

Don’t forget the sunscreen! The lowest point at this park is over 7,500 feet up so you’ll want to be protected. 

Bring Lots of Water

Stay hydrated! You want plenty of water while you’re out so you can combat the elevation, possible heat, and exertion from hiking. I love my plain old Nalgene bottles much more than the fancier water bottles I’ve tried, and I bring them everywhere!

Plan Your Gas Stop

Gas up at the Oasis Store near the park entrance during business hours from April to October. Otherwise, the next closest gas stations are in Mosca (23 miles away) or Fort Garland (31 miles away). 

FAQs About Great Sand Dunes National Park

What is special about Great Sand Dunes National Park?

Great Sand Dunes National Park is special because it has the tallest sand dunes in North America. It also features Medano Creek, a seasonal beach that is one of the most unique in the country. 

What is the best time of year for Great Sand Dunes National Park?

The best time of year for Great Sand Dunes National Park is late May or early June. Medano Creek is at its peak flow, so you can enjoy the park before the water dries up for the summer. 

Late September or October are also good months to see the park. Shoulder seasons are some of the best times to visit Colorado, and you’ll get beautiful views of fall foliage in the mountains. 

Do you need 4WD for Great Sand Dunes National Park?

You do not need 4WD for Great Sand Dunes National Park. You can get to the most popular areas of the park without a 4-wheel drive vehicle. But Medano Pass Primitive Road requires 4WD, as you’ll drive through challenging sandy sections and creek crossings.


Hopefully, this guide has inspired you to take a southern Colorado trip to see Great Sand Dunes National Park! It’s truly one of the most distinctive places to visit in Colorado

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