Colorado’s Mountain Wonder Offers Outdoor Adventures and Education
- Colorado’s Mountain Wonder Offers Outdoor Adventures and Education
National park visitors enjoy camping, hiking, horseback riding, and sand adventures at North America’s tallest sand dunes in southern Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Nestled in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of southern Colorado, lies the Great Sand Dunes National Park. This 150,000-acre national park provides visitors with spectacular mountain and sand dune scenes and hours of adventure and fun. The contrast of mountains and sand dunes makes for breathtaking views. The sand dunes also provide diverse activities and adventure. Great Sand Dune National Park experiences over 300,000 visitors yearly, according to the National Park Service. Due to Colorado’s climate, visits peak during the spring and summer months.
Tallest Dune in North America
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve offers diverse hiking, primitive 4WD roads, developed and backcountry campgrounds, and even a swimming beach in summer.
Formed over 44,000 years ago by opposing wind currents, a dried-up lake bed, and the convergence of three mountains, the 150,000+-acre Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve was established in 2004, and never fails to astound and excite the outdoors enthusiast.
Visitors find themselves surrounded by giant 750-foot tall dunes which rise and plunge, curve like a dinosaur’s back, challenging the hiker to lose themselves in the endless grains, beckoning the young and old to roll, surf, sled, and slide down with abandon. 30 square miles of dune field with no designated trails give a sense of vast possibility for the trailblazer. No matter which direction is taken, footprints are soon washed away by the wind. In the optical illusion made by the waves, peaks, and valleys of the dunes, what appears as a short walk may take hours of trudging in soft, fine sand.
Albert Einstein warned, “Never lose a holy curiosity,” and in this setting, with these extremes of natural forces and the depths of the sweeping, pillow-soft sand, it is impossible to do so.
Reaching High at the Great Sand Dunes
The Great Sand Dunes contain the tallest sand dune in North America, reaching heights of 750 feet. The elevation at the park ranges from 8,000 to 13,000 feet above sea level. Visitors not accustomed to this high elevation should proceed slowly and make sure to stay hydrated. Weather at this high elevation is also extreme, with drastic changes in temperature occurring within a single day. Visitors are informed to dress in layers in case a mountain storm develops. It’s not usual to have both warm sun and pouring rain and hail storms within an hour or less.
Outdoor Activities at the Dunes
The great outdoors is what a visit to the Great Sand Dunes is all about. Hiking, camping, mountain climbing, horseback riding, sandboarding, wading in the creek, and or driving the trail with a 4WD vehicle. A visit to the sand dunes is not complete without an attempted or successful climb up the dunes. The climb to the top of the first dune summit averages an hour or longer so visitors should be prepared. The view from the top of a sand dune is extravagant, giving the park a whole new perspective. On hot days, Medano Creek is a favorite place to cool off and splash in the shallow water of the mountain creek. Sandboarding and sledding are more extreme options for enjoying the sand dunes at a faster speed.
Surfing at Sand Dunes
The magnitude of the dunes is only surpassed by the surrounding peaks of the Crestone Range in the Sangre de Christos. In late Spring, Medano creek, at the base of the dunes, grows wide and rhythmic with runoff from these mountains, turning this high desert landscape into a sunny beach, complete with gentle waves. Bathing suits, towels and Frisbees are in abundance. Campgrounds fill up with families and nature-lovers, all here to explore this unique ecosystem.
A Range of Activities
The winds rise up in the afternoons, making mornings the better time to hike on the dunes. This leaves time for other adventures. Picnicking at one of the many tables near the base of the dunes is a popular choice. Information on history, science, and camping, 4WD drives, and hiking is available at the Visitor’s Center, just inside the park entrance. Here, kids can earn Junior Ranger badges after just a couple of hours of exploration and study. The Medano Pass Primitive Road offers 4WD explorers a chance to peek into the backcountry on a ruggedly picturesque sand dunes adventure. 25 primitive campsites along the road allow for escape from civilization, complete with fire rings and bear-proof boxes.
Camping at the Great Sand Dunes
Pinyon Flat Campground is a first-come, first-served campground located within the park boundary. The campground’s 88 sites typically fill up from May through September for weekend stays. Weekdays are usually less crowded. Oasis Campground and Motel is located just south of the park, offering camping sites, RV sites, and cabins.
Along with bears, the park is home to mule deer, coyotes, ground squirrels, and chipmunks.
Adjacent to the National Park, the wetlands of the San Luis Lakes is a nesting ground for many species of birds, including sandhill cranes, white-faced ibis, American avocets, pelicans, snowy plovers, great blue herons, and countless others. Elk and bear have been spotted in the area, and tiger salamanders, toads, and frogs are also found in the wetlands.
From Denver or Colorado Springs, the fastest route is south on I-25 to Walsenburg, west on US 160, and then north on state highway 150. For a more scenic drive through South Park and along with the Collegiate Peaks and through the Arkansas River Valley, take US 285 south to 17 south, and then County Lane 6 east, following signs to the park. From Albuquerque, drive north on I-25 to Santa Fe, then north on US 285.
Campgrounds and Other Places to Stay
There are several lodging options, from barebones to upscale:
- Medano Pass Primitive Road Campsites require high clearance 4WD.
- Pinyon Flats Campground (719) 378-6399 is first come, first served, and fills up on weekends during the warmer months.
- San Luis Lakes State Park offers a campground 15 miles west of the park, on County Lane 6. (719) 378-2020 for reservations.
- Oasis Campground and Motel (719) 378-2222 has showers, a restaurant, and a store, and is open April-October.
- Great Sand Dunes Lodge, a modern motel located just outside the park entrance on Highway 150, (719) 378-2900 is open generally April-October.
- Zapata Ranch offers rustic, elegant rooms a few miles south of the park.
The best times to go are between May and November. Visit the park’s website for more details on planning a trip.
National Park Information
Great Sand Dunes National Park is open year-round, every day, 24 hours. The visitors center is open most days during business hours. School groups may apply for an educational fee waiver if the curriculum is directly related to the Great Sand Dunes. Free permits may be obtained for overnight camping on the dunes. Park entrance fees are $3 for adults 16 and older, and children are free. The park is located 35 miles northeast of Alamosa.
*National Park Services does not allow the commercial use of photographs of the Great Sand Dunes.