Great Sand Dunes National Park…
Great Sand Dunes National Park is one of the least talked-about, most underrated national parks in America. I lived in Colorado for five years, & somehow never heard about it. One of the beauties of social sharing sites like Instagram is that is propels some of these little-known places into super-stardom….& I have no doubt that is what will happen one day soon with Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Map of Great Sand Dunes
Great Sand Dunes Visitor Center
Great Sand Dunes Lodge
How to Get to Great Sand Dunes
From Denver to Great Sand Dunes National Park: 240 miles, approx. 4-hour drive. Take I-25 South for approx. 158 miles (depending where you start in Denver). Take Exit 50 in Walsenburg for U.S. 160 West. Stay on 160 West for approx. 60 miles. Turn right onto CO-150 North. In 19.4 miles, reach Great Sand Dunes National Park.
From Colorado Springs to Great Sand Dunes: 169 miles, approx. 3-hour drive. Take I-25 South for approx. 90 miles. Take Exit 50 in Walsenburg for U.S. 160 West. Stay on 160 West for approx. 60 miles. Turn right onto CO-150 North. In 19.4 miles, reach Great Sand Dunes National Park.
From Albuquerque, NM to Great Sand Dunes National Park: 237 miles, approx. 4-hour drive. Take I-25 North towards Santa Fe, NM for approx. 60 miles. Exit on US Highway 285 North for approx. 136 miles, towards Alamosa. In Alamosa, turn right onto U.S. 160 East for 14.5 miles. Turn left onto CO-150 North. In 19.4 miles, reach National Park.
Fast Facts About Great Sand Dunes!
- Entrance Fee: $15 per vehicle, valid for 7 days.
- Visitor Center Address: 11999 State Highway 150, Mosca, CO 81146
- Hours: Great Sand Dunes National Park is open 24 hours per day, 7 days per week year-round. If you arrive when a ranger is not at the station, you can simply enter the park on your own (including for star-gazing at night). Visitor’s Center open 8:30-5:00PM Memorial Day thru Labor Day weekend; 9-4:30PM the rest of the year.
- Weather: Elevation at Great Sand Dunes is 8,200 feet (2,470 meters), which means nighttime year-round is going to be chilly! Bring layers. Daytime temps in the summer can reach the 80’s, but it feel hotter because of the sun’s reflection on the sand. The rest of the year, expect cooler & variable weather. It was VERY WINDY when we visited in October, & we got some major sand exfoliation: so be prepared with bandanas, hats, and/or sunglasses to protect your face from the wind!
- Best Places to Stay Inside Park: There are only two hotels right near Great Sand Dunes National Park: Zapata Ranch (owned by the Nature Conservancy) & Great Sand Dunes Lodge. Both of these hotels shut down around mid-to late October & offer lovely, rustic rooms with private baths ($100+). You also have the option to camp directly in the park, less than a mile from the dunes & close to the Visitor’s Center. Check the Great Sand Dunes website here.
- Best Places to Stay in Alamosa: If you want to stay in more of a town, try Alamosa ~ where you’ve got a wide range of comfortable budget hotels. It’s about a 40-minute drive from Alamosa to Great Sand Dunes National Park. Your best bet for clean, comfortable, & highly-rated hotels in Alamosa are 1) Comfort Inn Alamosa, 2) Holiday Inn Express Suites Alamosa, & 3) Fairfield Inn & Suites Alamosa. Search all hotels in Alamosa here.
Photos of Great Sand Dunes
GWTW Tip: Bring a sand board, card board, a plastic disc or ANYTHING you can think of so that you (& your kids) can slide down the dunes! There is NO RENTAL of sand boards within the park ~ the closest place to purchase or rent gear would be in Alamosa, which is more than a 30-minute drive. So BE PREPARED when you enter the dunes!
Things to Do at Great Sand Dunes!
- Go Sand-Boarding! The sand dunes here are the tallest in North America ~ so make sure you don’t forget to bring a sand board (your snow board won’t work here), card board, or even a simple plastic disc to whisk you down the dunes! Then you’ll get your workout climbing back up the dunes for your next run. Note: they do NOT sell or rent board inside Great Sand Dunes National Park!! Either bring your own gear, or rent gear in nearby Alamosa or at Great Sand Dunes Oasis for $20/day. Sand-boarding is something you can only do a few places in the world on dunes of this size ~ so don’t miss out on this opportunity!
- Hike to High Dune or Zapapta Falls: High Dune is the one of the tallest in the park ~ so if you are intrepid, adventurous, & in good shape: give this one a try. From the parking lot, it should take you about an hour to reach. If you really want a sand challenge, try hiking Star Dune ~ the tallest dune in the park, at 755 feet. This is a six-mile hike, so plan to spend at least five hours & start early, bringing lots of water! If it’s too hot or you prefer shade, try hiking to Zapata Falls, which are located just a few miles outside the park (look for the sign off 150). You’ll walk a half-mile thru cool water (prepare to get wet) or by balancing on a log bridge, in order to see the hidden Zapata Falls.
- Go Horseback Riding or Ride a Fat Bike: Fat bike tires work here where regular tires will definitely not ~ so if you’re an avid biker, give some fat bike tires a try. Or if improving horsemanship skills is on your bucket list, I’d highly recommend an overnight stay at Zapata Ranch (just a few miles from the park). Zapata Ranch is a working cattle & bison ranch, & they are the only operators licensed to give horseback tours thru the dunes ~ a once-in-a-lifetime experience. My friend & I stayed at Zapata, in a lovely room with views of the dunes, & the people we met there absolutely RAVED about horseback riding through the dunes. Horseback tours are only offered to overnight guests at the Ranch. Check out what it’s like to stay at Zapata Ranch here.
- Go Star-Gazing! Finding great places to star-gaze is getting harder & harder because there are simply so few places without humans & lights. Well, Great Sand Dunes National Park is one of the BEST places I’ve ever found for “seeing stars!” My friend & I took a bottle of wine into the hot tub at Zapata Ranch, & enjoyed the finest night of star-gazing I’ve had all year. NOWHERE else I’ve been this year even comes close to how piercing & bright the stars looked here. My friend, who was recently in Africa, said that the stars we saw at the ranch rivaled what she saw in Africa ~ & perhaps were even a little better! Dry air, high altitude, & very little light pollution makes the area around Great Sand Dunes absolutely spectacular for star-gazing.
Great Sand Dunes at Night…
Visiting the Great Sand Dunes at night is an other-worldly, slightly mysterious experience ~ & is a great reason to stay inside the park rather than all the way out in Alamosa! Because the park is open 24 hours, you can simply come & go any time you like. And if it’s a moonless night (like when we went), you’ll be able to see what feels like millions & trillions of stars! It’s absolutely breathtaking. On the other hand, if you visit during a full moon, you’ll be able to walk the dunes without a flashlight because it will be so bright.
At night on the dunes, you may be able to see or hear some of the following animals: camel crickets, kangaroo rats, toads, salamanders, coyotes, bobcats, and owls. While walking back from the hot tub at Zapata Ranch, we heard a pack of coyotes howling after catching some prey: it sounded like a veritable feeding frenzy. It was electrifying. Check out the video below, courtesy of the Great Sand Dunes National Park Service, to get an idea of what it’s like at night in the park….
Goodbye, Great Sand Dunes…
Have you been to Great Sand Dunes National Park? Where did you stay ~ at Zapata Ranch like we did? How about sand-boarding…did you give that a try?! Was it really windy when you went? Let me know in the comments below!