Great Sand Dunes National Park: 1 Day Adventure

The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is located in Mosca, Colorado, about 2.5 hours southwest of Colorado Springs.  The park was created to protect the 5 billion cubic meters of sand nestled just below the majestic Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  And while the park and preserve are home to the tallest sand dunes in North America (some dunes reach as high as 750ft!), it’s expansive landscape will also have you exploring wetlands, forests, alpine lakes and even the tundra!  There is so much to do and explore at this park, that it very quickly became a favorite of ours!  Below is 1-day itinerary to get your adventure started! Please reach out if you have any questions😊

Entrance Fee: $25 for non-commercial vehicles.  If you are visiting multiple parks, and are not traveling with a 4th grader, I highly recommend an America the Beautiful Pass.  It covers the entrance fees for over 2,000 federal recreation sites, including all national parks.  It also makes your entrance into most parks a little quicker😊

Lodging: There is one campground located inside the park, and two motels located just outside the park.  Pinon Flats Campground is open April through October, and reservations must be made at, beforehand.  The park also allows backcountry camping, a permit is required prior to arrival.  To check out all backcountry camping sites, click here- Backcountry Camping.  Reservations for the Great Sand Dunes Lodge can be made here- Great Sand Dunes Lodge.  And reservations for the Oasis Duplex Motel can be found here- Oasis Motel.  Both are located within a mile of the park entrance.  There are also MANY other hotel options in Alamosa, CO about 35 outside the park. 

Dining: The only dining option within 25 miles of the park is The Oasis Restaurant and Store located just outside the park entrance.  Alamosa, CO is the best place for more restaurant and grocery options.  Some of our favorite restaurants in Alamosa include- The Purple Pig Pizzeria & Pub and Calvillo’s Mexican Restaurant.   

Must Know Before You Go: 

1. You must rent equipment for sandboarding and sand sledding outside of the park.  The Oasis Store, immediately outside the park has rental equipment.  Also, if you are staying in or near Alamosa, I highly recommend renting your equipment from Kristi Mountain Sports.  They were great to work with and the equipment was reasonably priced!

2.  The sand can get up to 150 degrees with the afternoon sun in the summer.  Bring layers, sun protection, and close toed shoes and consider hiking in the mornings or evenings during those months.      

3. There can be extremely high winds on the dunes- even if it doesn’t feel windy near the parking lots.  I highly recommend wearing long sleeves, pants, and eye protection when hiking or sledding the dunes to avoid getting sand blasted.  When it is windy, we even wore a face shield over our mouths and noses.  If you have a Bluff face mask, that is what our family uses, and they work great!  Also, ski goggles are excellent at keeping the sand out of your kiddos eyes while they sled or tumble down the dunes😊

4. Review all park wildlife safety here- Great Sand Dunes Wildlife

5. The park is located at elevations of 8,000 to 13,000 feet.  Make sure you know signs and symptoms of altitude sickness- headaches, shortness of breath, and nausea.  Hike slow, rest often, and stay hydrated.  Check out more information on altitude sickness here- Altitude Sickness

6. The dunes are prone to lighting strikes, particularly in the summer months.  If you see a storm coming in, please seek shelter off the dune field. 

7. This park is one of the few national parks that allow pets😊 Just make sure to hike on the sand early or later in the day to avoid burning paws on the very hot sand!

8. If you plan on staying in the park for stargazing, I recommend bringing a red headlight or flashlight.

9. And, as always, please remember to Leave No Trace.   

Cell Service: There is no cell service or Wi-Fi inside the park.

One Day Itinerary

Day 1

Visitor Center- After making it through the entrance station, I would make the Visitor Center the first stop.  There are informational exhibits, a gift shop, and rangers on duty if you have any questions.  If your kiddos would like to become Junior Rangers, this is also where you can pick up a book and speak with a ranger about the program. 

Hike to High Dune- If you are going to explore the dunes in the summer months, I highly recommend hiking them in the early mornings or evenings.  There is no shade on the dunes, so you will want to explore during the cooler parts of the day. Despite its name, High Dune is not the tallest dune in the park, but it is roughly 2.5 miles roundtrip, with 700 feet of elevation gain, and will give you spectacular views of the dunefield the whole way.  The “trail” to High Dune is not marked but you can pick up coordinates at the Visitor Center before heading out.  Make sure to rest often and take plenty of water with you- approximately 1 liter, per person, per hour. 

Sand Pit/Medano Creek- After hiking High Dune, there is two ways to get to the Sand Pit and Medano Creek depending on the type of vehicle you have.  If you have 2WD, take the unpaved Medano Pass Primitive Road to the Point of No Return lot.  From the Point of No Return lot, follow the 0.6-mile trail through the sand to Medano Creek.  If you have a 4WD vehicle, you can continue on the primitive road to either the Sand Pit or Castle Creek- wherever is easiest to find parking😊 From those lots, head down to the creek for lunch, playing in the water, sand sledding, and hiking.  This area has no shade.  In the summer months, I would bring some kind of pop-up shade, if possible.  I would also recommend bringing chairs or a blanket, because the sand will be extremely hot in the afternoon. 

When we visited the dunes in July, the Medano Creek water levels were fairly low, so we ditched our hiking boots and ended up walking several miles through the creek before heading back to the Sand Pit, and our vehicle.   

Zapata Falls Trail- This trail is about 9 miles outside the park.  If you are coming from the park, the turn in will be on your left, about 5.5 miles up CO-150.  Once you turn in off CO-150, it will be another 3 miles up the mountain to the trailhead.  There are restrooms and a beautiful overlook just off the parking lot.  This trail is 1 mile roundtrip to the falls.  There is about 200 feet of elevation gain, up a gravel path, to a creek bed.  You will have to cross back and forth over the creek several times before you reach the cave opening and pass through to the 30-foot waterfall.  This is such a fun hike, but I would be prepared to get wet and take it slow, especially with small kiddos, as you make your way over the creek’s slippery rocks.

After Zapata Falls, we went to rest and grab dinner, before heading back to the dunes for sand sledding and stargazing in the evening. Also, you may not have time for this if you are visiting in the winter months, when sunset is significantly earlier in the day. If that is the case, you could either bring dinner with you or grab a late dinner after stargazing.

Sand Sledding/Stargazing- Our favorite part of this whole adventure was making our way to the dunefield in the evenings.  Park in the Dunes Parking area, on the left, just past the Visitor Center.  There are restrooms off the parking area to use before heading out.  Make sure to dress for cooler weather.  In the evenings the temps drop fast, and the wind really picks up.  We were in bathing suits during the day but sweatshirts and hats by evening, so you will want to plan accordingly.   

After walking out, past the creek, have so much fun sledding and boarding down the dunes until nightfall!  *Sled tip- don’t forget the board wax!  And be patient.  It will take a few tries to get the hang of it!  Also, the adult boards worked much better for our 8- and 9-year-olds.  The youth boards worked better for our 6-year-old. 

The park is a certified International Dark Sky Park, so there are no outdoor lights.  Make sure you bring a red-light flashlight to help you find your way back to the parking area.  Red-light flashlights will help preserve your night vision, while still lighting the way off the dunefield.  If you want to know exactly what stars are up above you, we love the Sky Guide app for stargazing😊

Hope you have a wonderful adventure😊

family photo for Always Exploring

Meet the Johnsons

Welcome to Always Exploring! We are the Johnsons. We would love to have you follow along as we explore the world one adventure at a time! Here you will find itineraries to all of our explorations that will hopefully be helpful in your own adventure planning!

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