Great Sand Dunes National Park has a lot of fun activities for the whole family. This park in southwestern Colorado has epic sand dunes that are perfect for sledding, boarding, and hiking. There are many things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park, including star gazing and even fishing!
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Where is Great Sand Dunes National Park
Great Sand Dunes National Park is just east of Alamosa, in the southern part of Colorado. It’s about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Colorado Springs, CO, and three hours from Santa Fe, NM.
We drove to Great Sand Dunes from Denver and then headed on to Santa Fe.
If you’re headed to Santa Fe, don’t miss Exploring Meow Wolf with Kids: The House of Eternal Return.
Spending more time in Colorado? Mesa Verde is one of our favorite National Parks. Check out: The Best of Mesa Verde with Kids.
What is Great Sand Dunes National Park Known for?
Great Sand Dunes National Park is known for its huge sand dunes. It has the highest dunes in North America at around 750 feet. These dunes cover 30 square miles- the park also includes the seasonal river at the base of the dunes and the varying terrain that surrounds the dunes.
People come from all over the hike, sled, and board down the dunes, as well as play in the shallow Medano Creek, which you have to cross in order to reach the dunes.
Not sure when to visit? Check out The Best Time to Visit Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Things to Do in Great Sand Dunes National Park
There’s more than meet’s the eye at this National Park! Here are all the best things to do at Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Explore the Sand Dunes
To get to the dunes, drive past the visitors center and take the next left for the Great Sand Dunes parking lot. In the peak season, this fills up quickly, so best to come early. From the parking lot, follow the signs and cross Medano Creek, you’ll see the dunes stretching out in front of you. In the early summer, the creek may be 10-30 feet wide and 1-3 inches deep.
After you cross the creek, you will have about a 1/3 mile walk to get out to the dunes. The highest dune visible from the parking lot is High Dune and this is on the first range of dunes.
High Dune is currently about 690 feet high and the average round trip takes around 2 hours, covering about 2.5 miles. If you are not used to the higher elevations and lower oxygen levels, allow for four hours round trip. If you have older kids, this is certainly doable, but I would not recommend it for families with small kids.
Currently, Star Dune and Hidden Dune are tied for the honor of the highest dunes in the park, at around 741 feet. Star Dune is typically a 6-hour round trip hike and covers 6 miles. Hidden Dune is named for its more remote location at 7 miles round trip and will take around 6 hours. Neither of these hikes is good for young kids.
The bindings for sandboards are similar to snowboards, though designed to be worn barefoot or with socks. However, there are no chairlifts, so choose your runs carefully.
Also, waxing your board is important, but too much wax can be just as bad as too little. Regular light waxing between the bindings tends to work best, but weather, temperature, and sand moisture will play a part as well.
You can rent a board or a sled from Kristi Mountain Sports. They have good prices, friendly and knowledgeable staff, and are just off Main Street in Alamosa.
We suggest picking up your rental the evening before you go so you can get up early and head straight to the dunes and avoid the lines, easily get a parking space and avoid wait times.
We highly recommend sand sledding for those who may not be experienced sand boarders or just want to have some easier fun. Sand sledding has a shorter learning curve, so the average person will have a lot more fun sledding than trying to learn to control a sandboard.
You can find good runs closer to the parking area, and this is also better for the younger kids. As you do not need as long a run, you can get in a lot more runs and not have to climb as high into the dunes.
This isn’t just for kids- these boards get going fast! All four of our family members had a lot of fun sledding down the dunes, and we all ended up with sand everywhere! We also saw a few people take tumbles and need some minor first aid, so it’s best to come prepared.
We wrote a post of tips to help you have the best sand sledding experience: Tips for Sand Sledding in Great Sand Dunes National Park
Hike the Tallest Dune in North America
Currently, there are two dunes tied for the tallest dune. Both Star Dune and Hidden Dune are currently around 740 feet. Round-trip to either is about a 6-hour hike, so make sure you dress appropriately and bring plenty of water and snacks.
Hike the Great Sand Dunes Overlook Trail
We hiked this trail the first day we got to Great Sand Dunes National Park and it is a great way to start your visit and get a sense of the place. The trail is fairly easy and is about 2 miles round trip.
From the visitor center, drive to the northeast corner of Piñon Flats Campground where you will find parking and the trailhead to Sand Ramp Trail. About half a mile down the trail you will see a sign for Great Sand Dundes Overlook Trial to your right.
The trail winds its way up the hill and comes to an end with views overlooking the dunes and the greater San Luis Valley beyond.
Play in Medano Creek
June is typically the best time to enjoy Medano Creek as the weather is warm, and the water is flowing. This year (2022) saw a longer than usual season, due to continued rainfall in July and August.
The creek is great for kids and adults alike, with shallow waters and a sand bottom. You can find people with inner tubes and inflatable rafts cooling off or enjoying the water after hiking in the dunes.
Piñon Flats campground is open from April through October. Located a mile north of the visitor center, individual sites are $20 per night (2022) and there are three group sites, from $65-$80 per night. Reservations must be made through the park’s website. Be aware that this campsite can fill up months in advance, so best to plan ahead. Individual sites can be reserved up to six months in advance and group sites up to a year in advance.
Great Sand Dunes National Park is an International Dark-sky Park. With the combination of high elevation, low humidity, and minimal light pollution, Great Sand Dunes is a great place to see the night sky and stargaze.
If you are there in the summer months, ask a ranger or check out the program schedule to see what evening programs are available during your visit. They often run programs in the parking lot to highlight these sides of the park.
Become a Junior Ranger
Stop by the Visitor Center to grab your Junior Ranger packet! These packets are so much fun and help to teach a few facts about the park as you explore.
Once your kids (or you, there’s no upper age limit) have finished the packet, return to the visitors center to be sworn in and receive your Junior Ranger badge.
Junior Ranger Night Explorer
In addition to the Junior Ranger activities, kids from 5-12 can become a Junior Ranger Night Explorer and earn a Night Explorer patch by completing an activity booklet.
The book activities are divided into several age levels. Get your free booklet at the visitor center! This is a cool extra for kids who love earning ranger badges.
Hike to Zapata Falls
Zapata Falls is just outside of Great Sand Dunes National Park. When you leave the visitor center, head south and out of the park. About 9 miles down you will see a left turn and signs for Zapata Falls Camp Ground.
Follow the road up the hill to the campground and parking lot. The hike itself is about two miles round trip and our four-year-old at the time had no problem with it.
You’ll reach a rushing creek, that even in the hottest months of summer is freezing! To continue up to the actual waterfall, you’ll need to walk through the stream.
We highly recommend water shoes, as the rocks are slippery. We ended up carrying the kids and taking breaks to let our feet warm up on rocks mid-stream.
Above and around the dunes are many trails for hikes and backpacking.
Before you go, be sure to get your $6 permit online at Recreation.gov. The fee is non-refundable, and you can no longer get free permits in person.
Both Upper and Lower Sand Creek Lakes are stocked with Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout which are for catch and release only. You can reach these lakes by more serious hikes or by vehicle, from the east side of the San Cristobol Range.
The grasslands and shrublands surrounding the dunes are the least visited part of the park. This area is also home to a wide range of wildlife and migrating herds of Elk. You’ll see them the most often in the spring and autumn. Sunrise and sunset are when they are most active.
Sand Hill Crane Migration
Sand Hill Cranes are one of over 250 species that live in or migrate through Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. These large, beautiful, majestic creatures are worth seeing if you can.
The birds start to arrive in early February and leave in late March, then return in autumn in late September and leave by late November.
More than 20,000 cranes come through the San Luis Valley each spring and autumn and some 500 can be found within the preserve, though this area is currently not accessible to the general public.
To best see the cranes, head to Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge just west of Alamosa. Head northwest from Alamosa on 285 to Monte Vista, then south 6 miles on Highway 15. You can find pullouts on Highway 15 and Road 8S.
When to Visit Great Sand Dunes National Park
Summer is high season at Great Sand Dunes National Park, with the largest crowds and wait times. You will find lines to get in and the parking lot fills up quickly. But this is also the warmest time and for most of the summer, you can also enjoy Medano Creek. if you do come in the summer, be sure to get there early in the morning. You can beat the heat and the lines.
For more information check out the details in: The Best Time to Visit Great Sand Dunes National Park.
How Much Does it Cost to Visit Great Sand Dunes National Park?
The entrance fee for a non-commercial vehicle is $25 with passengers and is good for up to seven days. Oversized vehicles with 15 or more passengers, 16 and older are $15/person and motorcycles and riders are $20.
If you will be combining this visit with other National Parks, be sure to get an America the Beautiful Pass– this annual pass costs $80 and gets you unlimited access to National Parks for one year. This pass covers entrance fees, it does not cover tour fees or lodging fees.
How Many Days Do I Need at Great Sand Dunes National Park?
We recommend two days in the park. This allows you one day for checking out the dunes, sand boarding, or sledding, and another day for hiking and seeing the surrounding area.
Where to Stay to Visit Great Sand Dunes National Park
The town of Alamosa, Colorado is just half an hour from the entrance of the park and has lots of lodging and dining options.
We stayed at the Best Western on Main Street. With breakfast included and an indoor pool, the rooms were clean and the price was good.
Where to Eat Around Great Sand Dunes National Park
Alamosa has a lot of great places to eat with something for everyone, from breweries and burgers, to authentic Mexican, BBQ, to Thai and Chinese. Here are a few of our favorites.
- If you like Mexican, we highly recommend Calvillo’s Mexican on the southwest corner of Main Street and Denver Ave in Alamosa. Some of the best tacos I have ever had. We got takeout, but they have a lovely dining area and outside seating as well.
- For wood-fired pizza and pasta, check out The Purple Pig in downtown Alamosa on Main Street. Good prices and large portions. We got a pizza and pasta and shared them between us.
- San Luis Valley Brewing Company has a nice variety of excellent beers, great burgers, large salads, and your typical American fare and comfort food. You will find something here for everyone.
There You Have It: 15 Things to Do in Great Sand Dunes National Park
There are so many things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park, whether for a weekend or a week-long excursion. It’s a great park for families- whether you want to splash in the creek or tackle a half-day hike out to the top of a sand dune.