Approaching through the San Luis Valley, you might at first think that the rolling sand dunes set against the towering Sangre de Cristo Mountains are some kind of fata morgana. The opposite, however, is true. This landscape, however surreal it may look, is actually real.
Blown up and trapped against the rugged Sangre de Cristo Range—13,000 feet (more than 3,900 meters) high and a part of the Rocky Mountains in south central Colorado—, these are the tallest sand dunes anywhere in North America. They’re the centerpiece, focal point and namesake of Great Sand Dunes National Park.
More Than Just Sand…
Although its name doesn’t give it away, Great Sand Dunes National Park is actually surprisingly diverse. It’s much more than just vast Sahara-like sand dunes. This is a place of sand, but also of rock and water.
There are no fewer than seven different life zones in the park, from wetlands and grasslands to salt plains, dunes, subalpine forests and alpine tundra. Each zone has its own specific fauna and flora, which, considering the area’s relatively small size makes this is hugely biodiverse place. Wildlife watching and photography is, therefore, a popular thing to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park.
If you’re both patient and lucky, you might spot American white pelicans, American beavers or American black bears. Other iconic animals include bobcats, peregrine falcons and the endemic Great Sand Dunes tiger beetle.
When you spend 24 hours in Great Sand Dunes National Park, you’ll notice this incredible variety in habitats and ecosystems yourself. The best example is Medano Creek, which flows from the mountains around the sand dunes. You’ll have to wade through its shallow and bubbling waters to get to the dunes, giving you a first-hand experience of the collaboration between sand and water in this fascinating national park.
…But Still a Lot of Sand
As diverse as the wildlife and scenery is in Great Sand Dunes National Park, it’s still mainly about the dunes themselves. Interestingly, these iconic hills of sand make up only 11% of a vast deposit of sand to the east of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. This enormous sand sheet covers 330 square miles (855 km²).
This is a landscape that seems pretty straightforward but is, in fact, very intricate and delicately balanced. As winds blow sand grains up against the mountains, Medano and Sand creeks, the two streams that envelope the dunefield, transport them back down. They effectively recycle sand.
Over time, these sand dunes grew higher and higher still. Now, they’re the tallest in North America, the highest dune—called Star Dune— reaching a height of 750 feet (229 meters). They’re much taller than, for example, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park.
24 Hours in Great Sand Dunes National Park
Spending 24 hours in Great Sand Dunes National Park is plenty of time to experience the park’s essence. Below, I’ve outlined an itinerary for a day in the park, based on my own visit.
Morning – Information and Logistics
I always recommend starting a visit to any of the national parks in America at the visitor center. The Great Sand Dunes Visitor Center is open every day of the year, except on federal winter holidays. This modern facility has drinking water, restrooms, vending machines and a park store.
Definitely make sure to catch the 20-minute park video, in my opinion always a superb introduction to any park. The visitor center also has additional exhibits while park rangers can offer more detailed information on things like trail conditions and weather.
Rentals and Groceries
The morning is also a good time to think about and plan the rest of your day. In addition to the free park newspaper and map you can pick up at all national park visitor centers, I use two particular books to plan my national park visits. Those are Lonely Planet’s National Parks of America and National Geographic’s Guide to the National Parks of the United States.
Besides the visitor center and the campground, there really aren’t any other facilities in the park. So, if you’d like to go sand boarding and cook a proper meal in the evening, you’ll need to take care of that before venturing further into the park (or waste precious time by backtracking later to get rentals and supplies).
Therefore, I recommend picking up a rental board or sled at Great Sand Dunes Oasis, situated just outside the park. You’ll pass this place on the way into the park, so make this the first thing you do in the morning. The Oasis also has accommodations, a gas station and grocery store, so it’s a good idea to pick up some food and beverages while you’re there.
Note that, unless you spend the night there, you must return your rentals before the store closes in the late afternoon. This is another reason to pick up your rentals as soon as possible, allowing yourself more time to actually enjoy using them.
Afternoon – Fun in the Dunes
Sand Boarding and Sledding
Now that you’ve learned about the park and taken care of all the serious stuff, it’s time for some unlimited all-brakes-loose fun in the dunes.
There are no designated trails in the dunes—they’d be impossible to maintain—so you can explore and wander around as you please. While, at first, lugging a wooden board or sled up a tall sand dune might seem unnecessarily exhausting, the delightful rush back down makes every step worth it.
You can do a lot of things during your 24 hours in Great Sand Dunes National Park, but this is the park’s undeniable highlight. Feel free to stay in the dunes as long as you want—or as long as your legs can keep carrying back up the dunes.
If you don’t feel like sandboarding or sledding, good old hiking is an option as well. If you’re feeling adventurous, try to make it to Star Dune, North America’s highest sand dune. This does, however, require a strong sense of direction and orientation skills, as well as an above-average fitness level. The hike to Star Dune is a 6-mile (10-kilometer) roundtrip that takes about five hours.
A shorter hike leads you to the top of High Dune. This 2.5-mile (4-kilometer) outing involves a calf-burning climb to the top of the tallest dune on the first ridge. The reward is magnificent: a panoramic view over the entire dunefield. A great afternoon activity, this is also an excellent sunset hike.
Make sure to bring plenty of water, sunscreen and a hat when boarding, sledding or hiking. This is a desert environment and, especially in summer, the sun can be scorching hot. Consider wearing either closed shoes or going barefoot (not recommended on hot days, though!). Sandals are more a nuisance than a comfort.
Evening – Sunsets, Fires and Stars
After several tiring but exhilarating hours in the dunes, kick back at your campsite at Piñon Flats Campground, the park’s only campground, with a well-earned meal and a beer. A campfire is, of course, a mandatory companion in any evening in a national park.
Before it gets dark, I suggest heading out again to catch the sunset, which has the potential to be phenomenal. You can either head back into the dunes from the campground, some sites of which overlook the dunes, or go for a drive south of the visitor center. From the side of the road, there are exceptional views of the sand dunes backed by the mountains.
Additionally, if your legs can handle it, a night hike in the dunes can be nothing short of sensational. When it’s a full moon, wandering through the dunes is a fantastic experience. A moon- and cloudless sky, on the other hand, brings out thousands of twinkling stars.
Earlier this year, I spent 24 hours in Great Sand Dunes National Park myself and absolutely loved my time there. It’s definitely an underrated, and a rather unknown, national park, but it provides tons of fun. Top that with striking landscapes and fascinating facts and you’ve got yourself a great destination.
Getting to Great Sand Dunes National Park
This is a pretty remote park and the nearest town is Alamosa, situated 33 miles (53 kilometers) to the southwest of the park. Beer lovers might be interested in visiting the San Luis Brewing Company in Alamosa.
Denver, the capital of Colorado and home to the nearest international airport, lies 240 miles (386 kilometers) to the north. Please be aware that public transportation in and out of the park is nonexistent and, therefore, you’ll need your own wheels.