the dunes is a popular but strenuous activity, while sand boarding,
sledding and skiing are popular activities with kids and lighter adults
(about the only ones who can make any speed on the sand). Be sure
you are appropriately equipped before trying these exhilarating sports.
By the way, grabbing some cardboard and trying to use it as a sled, will
In addition, to its dunes, the adjacent Medano Creek wetlands, nearby grasslands and scenic
trails extending into the surrounding mountains make Great Sand Dune
National Park a special place to visit
The Great Sand Dunes area was once a lake bed separating the Sangre de
Cristo Mountains on the east from the San Juan Mountains on the west.
The Sangre de Cristo were uplifted during ancient times and are what is
known as a fault block mountain range. Conversely, the San Juan’s were formed from volcanism
over extended periods of time. The two mountain chains coalesced at
their southern edge and contained a plain that eventually filled in with
melt water from glaciations. The lake formed was roughly the size
of the state of Connecticut. Sediments from the mountains began to fill
the valley and the lake become progressively shallower as the climate
Eventually, runoff from the mountains
eroded through the
deposits that had dammed the southern end of the valley, draining the
lake and leaving a large plain of sand. Due to a wind pattern that
is predominately from the southwest, dunes began to form along the curve
of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The other part of the story is that
storm winds in this area are usually from the northeast.
These winds blow
over and down the slopes of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain and against
the accumulated sand, helping the dunes to grow vertically in a continual
game of “to and fro”.
The Park features a broad range of elevation. Near the San Luis
Lake it is approximately 7,500 feet, the Visitor Center is at 8,170 feet
and Tijeras Peak is around 13,600 feet. If you have breathing
difficulties you should discuss the sensibility of visiting this and
other attractions in high elevations.
The entrance fee to the park is $3 per adult (age 16 and older). The
entrance fee is valid for 7 days and you can exit and re-enter the park
during this period at your convenience.
Great Sand Dunes National Park is open 24 hours a day, every day of
the year. The Visitor Center is open in
winter from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily, except for federal holidays, when the
building is closed, and from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the summer. See the official
Great Sand Dunes
National Park Website
for more details on visiting.
In-park camping at the Pinyon Flats Campground is available year
round, although only one-half of the camp's 88 sites are available in
winter. Camping is an attractive option here and the campground is
in high demand in peak season, especially when Medano Creek is flowing.
Visit this section of the Great Sand Dunes National Park website for
details on camping.
Spring can be windy and cold. Summer is generally pleasant but
the temperatures on the dunes can be above 130 F on otherwise warm,
sunny days. Even at this time of year the Park is cool in the
Fall is usually the best season for a visit, although nights can be
cold and snow can be expected anytime the calendar turns to October.
In winter, the Park is often just too cold for touring.
The nearest major airport is Denver (approximately 250 miles) or
Albuquerque, which is about the same distance south.
There is a small, rustic hotel just outside the park entrance (the
Great Sand Dunes Lodge). In addition, the nearby Zapata Ranch
offers vacation packages.
Alamosa at 35 miles distance is the closest
town with lodging. Denver is 234 miles,
Colorado Springs 167 miles, Pueblo 183 miles and Albuquerque 246
miles. If you approach from
the east, we recommend spending the night in Colorado Springs or Pueblo
and making the drive to the park in the early morning. (Alamosa is a
small town and you will find more choices for lodging and cuisine in the
Springs or Pueblo).
If you are planning to vacation in southern
Colorado, you should consider making the drive across the Rockies
Mesa Verde (228 miles). An alternative is to head north and
explore the Rocky Mountain National Park (about 184 miles) and the
Colorado ski country. Conversely, you might consider touring iconic
Taos, New Mexico (125 miles south) and continuing down to
Carlsbad Caverns National Park (392 miles). If you do so,
consider adding stops in Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Roswell (only if you want
to see its Flying Saucer Museum).