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Visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park

by Grant
Great Sand Dunes

Located in south central Colorado on the east side of the Front Range, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is home to the tallest sand dunes in North America. It’s also a really cool place to explore, both on foot and in a trusty four-wheel drive vehicle. 

We visited on our way back from Pagosa Springs, which is located about two hours west of the park on the other side of the Front Range. We spent two half-days in the park in September, camping overnight nearby, and loved it. The park is gorgeous in the fall and the temperatures were quite reasonable. 

Great Sand Dunes National Park is about two hours east of Pagosa Springs.
Great Sand Dunes National Park

If you are not interested in doing any significant hiking or driving the primitive road, you could easily see the majority of the sights in one day, including some travel time. That said, there is a lot to see and explore in at Great Sand Dunes National Park. We recommend spending more time there if you can.

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What to Do in Great Sand Dunes National Park

As always, our first stop is the visitor center. Alas, due to COVID-19, we were not able to see the exhibits, etc. We were able, though, to check in with the ranger on the conditions of the Medano Pass Primitive Road, which was our plan for the next morning. 

Great Sand Dunes National Park visitor center
Great Sand Dunes National Park visitor center

The ranger said the road was in good condition and the sand was relatively firm, which is a good thing!

The other thing we were able to do at the visitor center was pick up a magnet from the park store. The store had set up window shopping. That allowed folks to choose what they want from the window display. Then you pay for them without ever stepping inside. Perfect!

Creative shopping during the pandemic.
Grant window shopping at the Great Sand Dunes NP visitor center for a magnet.

Hiking in Great Sand Dunes National Park

Right by the visitor center is Sand Sheet Loop, a short interpretive trail with great views of the dunes. This trail is quite easy. The signs almost make up for not being able to get into the visitor center. It is more than worth the time. 

Bonnie stopped to read the informational sign on the Sand Shelf Trail.
Bonnie stopped to read the informational sign on the Sand Shelf Trail.

That said, if you only have time for one trail while you are in Great Sand Dunes National Park, the Montville Nature Trail should be it. 

This half-mile loop is a bit more rugged than the Sand Sheet Loop with a 200-foot elevation gain. Just that little bit of elevation provides some of the absolute best views of the sand dunes in the entire park. 

The Great Sand Dunes from the Montville Nature Trail
The Great Sand Dunes from the Montville Nature Trail

If you are looking for something more strenuous, the Mosca Pass Trail ascends 1,400 feet in about 3.5-miles, making for a 7-mile round trip. We hiked about half the trail before turning back. 

We did make a point to hike into Great Sand Dunes National Preserve from the Nature Trail/Mosca Pass Trail. That is a separate park unit that surrounds the national park. The preserve has different rules than the park and allows more activities than the park does, like hunting and fishing. It also means there can be resource extraction, like mining or drilling, depending on the preserve.

Entering the Great Sand Dunes National Preserve
Entering the Great Sand Dunes National Preserve

Great Sand Dunes National Preserve encompasses the mountainous area on the east and north ends of the park. 

While it was a bit of a struggle, it was not too bad. We just knew we didn’t have that much time to spare. We were meeting up with Bonnie’s sister and father down by the dune fields a little later on.

Bonnie on the Mosca Pass Trail.
Bonnie on the Mosca Pass Trail.

Explore the Sand Dunes

The sand dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park cover 30 square miles. The Park Service estimates the dunes contain 1.2 cubic miles of sand. That’s a lot!

We parked at the Dunes Parking Lot and walked out toward the dunes. I am not going to lie… walking in sand is hard and we are not fans. 

Grant walking out to the dune fields at Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Grant walking out to the dune fields at Great Sand Dunes National Park.

We have been to several other sand dunes-related park sites, including Indiana Dunes National Park, White Sands National Park and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. So, we have hiked in a lot of sand. 

After several dune visits, hiking in the sand just isn’t something we enjoy. Indeed, Bonnie asked me if I wanted to hike up one of the dunes.

“I’ve got no desire to hike up that,” I replied. 

Now, don’t let me discourage you from doing cool stuff in the dunes, like hiking to the top or renting a sled/board and sand-sledding or boarding down the dunes. We did that in White Sands National Park and had a lot of fun doing it. 

Read more about White Sands National Park here.

But the hike to get to the dunes here is about half a mile. So, it’s gonna take a while to get there. Then you have to hike up. We went at the right time and it was nice and cool. In the warmer months, the sand can get really hot. Like 150 degrees hot. Be prepared if you want to hike the dunes in the summer. 

Behind the scenes at Great Sand Dunes National Park
Behind the scenes at Great Sand Dunes National Park

All of that said, if we are ever in the area during the spring, we are gonna come back out to play in Medano Creek when the flow is really going and you can go tubing in the snowmelt-swollen creek.

Still, the sand dunes are amazingly pretty. It is worthing walking out into the sand to see them up close, especially if you have never been to a site like this. 

There is also a really nice picnic area that we took advantage of for lunch. 

Great Sand Dunes National Park
Great Sand Dunes National Park

Visit Zapata Falls Recreation Area

Located about eight miles south of Great Sand Dunes National Park, Zapata Falls Recreation Area is on Bureau of Land Management land at the end of a very rough road. 

The Zapata Falls Trail has great views of Great Sand Dunes National Park.
The Zapata Falls Trail has great views of Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Seriously, the road is one of the rockiest I have ever taken and I had to go quite slow in our truck. You can drive this in a passenger car but take it very easy and pay attention.

Once you get up to the parking lot, the trail to the falls is a relatively easy and short (about half a mile). Be sure to look back to the north for great views of the sand dunes. 

Grant stepping carefully in the Zapata Creek coming back from the falls.
Grant stepping carefully in the Zapata Creek coming back from the falls.

Once you get up to the creek, you are going to need to wade the creek into the crevasse to get to the waterfalls. We are quite glad we wore Tevas for the hike but boy was that water COLD! Waiting for warmer afternoon temperatures would have been a bit more comfortable. Alas, our schedule did not allow for that.

Still the falls are really cool and more than worth the trip and freezing cold feet! 

Zapata Falls
Zapata Falls

The Medano Pass Primitive Road

While seeing the sand dunes really excited me, tackling this road in our truck quickly became one of the things I was most looking forward to. 

The Medano Pass Primitive Road is a rough 22-mile road that crosses the Medano Creek nine times on the way up to Medano Pass at 9,982 feet. The road skirts around the dune fields but there is about four miles of deep sand to traverse.  

The Medano Pass Four-Wheel Drive Road has some pretty stringent requirements.
The Medano Pass Four-Wheel Drive Road has some pretty stringent requirements.

The Park Service requires high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicles that must be street legal, so no side-by-sides or four-wheelers. Indeed, the Park Service also bans All-Wheel-Drive vehicles because most of them do not have enough clearance. 

Our truck is by no means a rock crawler but it is a capable vehicle on rugged roads, as proven by our treks through the unimproved roads of Big Bend NP in 2018. Still, I was a little concerned about getting through the sandy sections of the road. I borrowed a couple of traction boards from a buddy who has a serious overlanding rig and made sure to follow the Park Service recommendations of airing down my tires to 20 PSI.

Read more about driving the primitive roads of Big Bend NP here.

Grant airing down the tires to avoid getting stuck in the sand... It wasn't necessary for this drive.
Grant airing down the tires to avoid getting stuck in the sand… It wasn’t necessary for this drive.

The problem with airing down your tires on this road is the sand is early on, just past the aptly named Point of No Return. After that, the road turns a lot rockier where you will want to air your tires back up as you traverse the canyon. 

I have a Ryobi Power Inflater which I use to top off the air on the camper. I thought it would be enough to handle inflating the tires on the truck. While it did the job, it was quite slow and I should have brought a second battery. Still, it worked in a pinch. 

But enough of the talk about prepping, let’s get on the road.

Driving the Medano Pass Primitive Road

Once you get past the Point of No Return, the road immediately turns sandy. While the sand was reasonably deep, it did not feel difficult to traverse at all. We were in four-wheel-drive high throughout and the truck powered through the sand like it wasn’t there. 

As we got closer to the Sand Pit, there were a couple of brief moments where the drive felt a bit squirrelly but as long as we kept up our speed, we were fine. 

The road is a bit sandy in spots.
The road is a bit sandy in spots.

“Go fast for the sand, slow for the creeks,” the ranger I had spoken to about the road said. It is good advice. 

The biggest difficulty of the road is running into vehicles coming the other direction. While there are a few turnouts, sometimes, it was difficult to find one. Still, we made it through to Castle Creek easily. 

Not knowing the road, I aired back up based upon the Park Service guide. We didn’t expect any more sandy conditions and wanted to make use of the pull-off to air back up out of the way.

Grant airing the tires back up after handling most of the sand.
Grant airing the tires back up after handling most of the sand.

Between the time it took to air down the tires and the time to air back up, we probably spent about an hour stopped addressing tire pressure. A vehicle equipped with a better air compressor would have handled it much faster. 

As we kept on, we encountered more deep sand and, again, the F-150 made it through just fine, even with our tires aired up. I would wait to air up after mile four if I knew better.

More sand along the road.
More sand along the road.

I don’t mean to second guess the Park Service because they see a lot more varied conditions on the road than we did but we could have made the entire sandy stretch without airing down at all. That said, if the sand was less firm, we would have had problems. Still, I think having the traction boards would have gotten us out.

Crossing Medano Creek in Great Sand Dunes National Park

Then we hit the first creek crossing. This particular crossing can be quite deep but the F-150 powered through it just fine. But that was just the first of nine crossings of the Medano Creek. 

The first of nine times the road crossed the Medano Creek.
The first of nine times the road crossed the Medano Creek.

From there, the road started to get more rocky and head up the 2,286 feet to the top of the pass. The road also passes out of the park and into the preserve. Once you enter the preserve, you will find plenty of roadside camping spots. It would have been really cool to camp out here for a couple of nights.

The road really got fun at this point, with several nice rocky sections to navigate, plus a few tight spots where Bonnie spotted for me to make sure I didn’t scrape up against some of the larger rocks. 

A bit of a tight spot on the road.
A bit of a tight spot on the road.

As we got closer to the top, the alpine scenery just got more and more gorgeous. The aspens were starting to turn and there was plenty of gorgeous yellow color to enjoy. 

Each of the creek crossings were easy at this time of year but I can imagine they would be quite difficult after a rain. Definitely be sure to check with a ranger on the road and creek conditions before starting your drive.

Medano Pass Road
Medano Pass Road

Still, the gorgeous views are more than worth the drive. We spent a bit more than two hours on the road before getting to the pass and that includes the time we spent airing down and inflating the tires. 

From there, we continued on Forest Service roads for another hour until we got to Colorado 69. The Forest Service roads had a few interesting spots but nothing to worry about compared to the Medano Pass Primitive Road. 

Getting close to Medano Pass
Getting close to Medano Pass

Honestly, if you do not have an air compressor, the best way to take this road is to take the Forest Service roads to the pass and come down the pass into the park, traveling east to west. That way, you only have to deflate once you get past the last creek crossing and then use the air compressor the Park Service provides at the amphitheater by the Pinon Flats Campground.

Where to Stay at Great Sand Dunes National Park

The nearest town with anything in the way of food or lodging to Great Sand Dunes National Park is Alamosa, 35 miles away. That means the limited options located right outside the gate are pretty much it.

There is only one place to stay inside Great Sand Dunes National Park and that’s the Pinion Flats Campground. The campground has 88 sites for tents and small RVs (no longer than 25 feet). There are no connections nor are there any showers at the bathrooms. 

A campsite in the Pinon Flats Campground in Great Sand Dunes National Park
A campsite in the Pinon Flats Campground in Great Sand Dunes National Park

Outside the park, there are a couple of basic hotels plus a really expensive guest ranch, so we opted for something a bit different: the Rustic Rook Resort

Glamping at the Rustic Rook Resort

The Rustic Rook offers glamping platform tents. These walled tents are large enough to walk around in, had a really comfy king-sized bed, a couple of chairs and a wood-burning stove. Add in a front porch with amazing views and we were really happy we chose this spot to glamp while we visited Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Our tent at the Rustic Rook glamping campground
Our tent at the Rustic Rook glamping campground

There are bathrooms and showers and a delicious breakfast and s’mores are provided. You can also order grill packs to cook your own dinners at one of the grill areas to save you the drive to Alamosa.

We loved staying at the Rustic Rook. The tent was quite comfy, other than being invaded by moths while we were out to dinner. 

Bonnie enjoying the view and a Nolan the Wanderer.
Bonnie enjoying the view and a Nolan the Wanderer.

My one piece of advice: go ahead and get a second bundle of firewood if it is going to be cold that night. You will want to it to keep the fire going all night and make sure you are warm in the morning. 

Final Thoughts on Visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is one of the more unique areas in the Rockies. With massive dunes stretching for miles, the park provides some unique opportunities for things like sand sledding and sand boarding. 

It also has some nice hiking trails leading into the mountains, including ones in the backcountry we really want to come back to explore.

Great Sand Dunes panorama
Great Sand Dunes panorama

While you can easily see the main sights of this park and get out and play in the dunes in one day, there is certainly enough to occupy an overnight stay or longer without getting bored. 

If you have a four-wheel drive and a little bit of experience driving on rough roads, the Medano Pass Primitive Road is great and more than worth the time. 

Medano Pass Road selfie
Medano Pass Road selfie

In all, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve has a lot to offer to both the casual visitor and someone looking to spend a lot more time exploring the park. 

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