Colorado is home to the tallest dunes in North America. The Great Sand Dunes National Park seems out of place amongst a diverse landscape of wetlands, grasslands, forests, and mountain ranges. We suggest a visit as part of a 6-day Southwest Colorado road trip loop.
Traveling the 35 miles northeast on US HWY-150 from US HWY-160, you’ll enjoy picturesque views on your right of the southern end of the Sangre de Cristo Range, a subrange of the more extensive Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Views include the 14,351-foot Blanca Peak, Twin Peaks, California Peak, North Zapata Ridge, and Mt Zwischen. If travelling from the west to the park from US HWY-17 on County Road 6, this panorama will be directly in front of you to the east.
You might dismiss the park as “just big piles of sand” but it is much more. A visit can include a day at the beach, hikes through the forested trails or dunes, sandboarding and sand sledding down the dunes, and exploring under a bright full moon enjoying views of thousands of stars and the Milky Way.
How to Get to the Great Sand Dunes National Park
Located in southern Colorado, the park is 234 miles from Denver and 246 miles from Albuquerque.
To access the main park area, drive 35 miles north of US HWY 160 on US HWY 150 to the gate. If traveling from the west from US HWY 17 turn east on County Road 6 to drive around 20 miles to HWY 150 and then northeast to the gate.
From Alamosa, the park is a short 30 mile drive.
What are the Entrance Fees for the Great Sand Dunes?
A basic entrance pass which is good for up to seven consecutive days costs $25. We highly recommend purchasing an America the Beautiful Annual Pass for $80 which will give you entrance to all Natioinal Park Service sites.
How to Get Around the Great Sand Dunes
The paved area of the park is a small region of the whole park. To explore this area, drive to one of the four parking lots. If you have a 4WD with high clearance, you can explore the unpaved, Medano Pass Primitive Road.
Hikes with Kids in the Great Sand Dunes National Park
The park offers fourteen hiking trails through dunes and forested trails with various mileage and difficulty. We recommend the three below easy hikes.
- Montville Nature Trail, 0.5 mile trail through trees and over a creek.
- Wellington Ditch, 2-mile trail between the visitor center and campground.
- Mosca Pass Trail, although 3.5 miles one way, your family can turn back any time.
- Sand Dunes – various end points.
Great Sand Dunes One-Day Itinerary
- Visit the park as early as possible as the sand can get very hot.
- Hike the Montville Nature Trail
- Park at the Dunes parking lot to explore the creek and dunes.
- If there’s water (spring-summer) in Medano Creek, change into swimwear at the changing station to play in the shallow water and make sandcastles.
- Hike to the Dunes – High Dune Trail – the most common destination for hikers. From the base to the top is 693 feet and can take over an hour to climb up.
- Sled or board down the Dunes
- Rinse off at the shower stations
- Stop at the Visitor Center to earn a Junior Ranger Badge
If you visit in the late afternoon or if you plan on camping in the park, don’t miss the opportunity to explore the park at night. Great Sand Dunes has been certified as an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association. To see the most stars, plan your visit for moonless nights. To hike the dunes, plan on visiting during a full moon. Be on the outlook for toads, salamanders, coyotes, and owls. Bring a red light instead of just a flashlight to minimize your use of lights. Check out the park’s night programs and don’t forget to have the kids become Junior Ranger Night Explorers.
18 Tips for Visiting the Great Sand Dunes with Kids
- Stop at Zapata Falls on the way to the park. The gravel road to the trailhead has recently been improved. The trail is less than a mile round-trip but requires trekking a rocky path and wading through the creek to get to the falls.
- If you plan on playing in Medano Creek, bring bug spray as mosquitos can be bad in the area.
- Bring sunblock and plenty of water. The higher elevation requires both.
- Pack sunglasses or goggles for everyone, especially if it’s windy to help keep any blowing sand out of your eyes.
- Bring shoes or hike in socks if you plan to hike the dunes, not sandals as the sand can be hot.
- Bring an empty backpack on your dunes hike to carry shoes in case some of your crew decide halfway to hike without theirs.
- Take plenty of breaks hiking the dunes, trekking through the sand is quite the workout.
- Rent a sled or board before you get to the park. Rentals are available at The Oasis, 4 miles from the park entrance. Traditional snow sleds and boards and cardboard do not work well with the sand.
- Hiking on the sand is like hiking on the beach, the movement of the soft sand makes the hike more strenuous. Hiking along the ridgelines is a little easier as the sand is firmer.
- Visit the San Luis Lakes Wildlife Area next door – buy a Colorado park pass in Mosca at the “Pit Stop”.
- Bring snacks or pack a lunch, there are no food services inside the park.
- In an average year, the Medano Creek starts as a trickle in April with May near the peak of the creek’s annual flow. During May and June weekends, the area is extremely crowded. By August and September the creek is usually completely gone.
- Bring inflatable floaties for the kids to relax in the water.
- The closest restaurant is at the Great Sand Dunes Oasis just outside the park in Mosca.
- In the spring and fall, over 20,000 cranes visit the valley. The birds usually feed and roost in the wetlands section of the park which is not currently accessible to the public. To get closer views of the cranes during these times, visit the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge or San Luis Lakes State Wildlife Area.
- The closest, open year-round, gas stations are in Mosca, 23 miles west and in Fort Garland, 31 miles southeast. The Oasis Store outside of the park entrance is open during business hours from April through October.
- If your crew is older and into hiking, plan an extra day at the park to explore some of the harder hiking trails. We suggest hiking to Medano Lake, Sand Creek Lakes, or Mount Herald.
- After the park, drive to Colorado Gators. Your kids will love it.
Where to Stay Near the Great Sand Dunes
- Camping inside the park
- Inside the national park is the option to camp at Pinon Flats Campground. The 88 individual sites for up to 8 people are available by reservatioin through recreation.gov and are open April through October. Individual sites can be reserved up to 6 months in advance and group sites up to one year. The campground has a restroom with flush toilets and a dumping station but no showers.
- Camping outside the park
- Nearby camping outside the park include the San Luis Lakes Wildlife Area, Oasis Campground, and Zapata Falls Campground.
- Nearyby hotel accommodations
- We recommend a hotel stay in Alamosa, the town has a couple of grocery stores and a Walmart to replenish your trip snacks and meals.
Visit as Part of our Southwest Colorado Loop
The Great Sand Dunes can be a stop as part of a 6-day, 3 National Park, Southwest Colorado Loop. You’ll explore Colorado’s breathtaking mountains, beautiful forests, high plains, spacious mesas, stunning canyons, plateaus, rivers, and desert lands. Enjoy stops at Garden of the Gods, Chimney Rock National Monument, Mesa Verde National Park, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.