Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, located in Colorado, is a breathtaking natural wonder that boasts of the tallest sand dunes in North America. It is a must-visit destination for nature lovers, adventure enthusiasts, and anyone who wants to marvel at the beauty of nature. While visiting this amazing place may seem like it requires a large amount of time, it is entirely possible to experience it all in just one day. In this post, we will provide you with a comprehensive itinerary to make the most of your one-day trip to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.
One of our first trips we ever made in our second Sprinter van conversion was to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. We went straight from our home in Tennessee to Colorado and our first stop of the trip was this national park. It was the first national park we ever visited in Colorado and besides briefly passing through Colorado and past road trips, it was the first time we'd really ever spent dedicated time in this state. I'm not really sure why we started by visiting this spot first, but it ended up being a highlight so I'm glad we did!
We spent several days bopping around this desert region of Colorado going back and forst between the park and dispersed camping on nearby public lands. Compared to much busier tourist attractions in Colorado like Rocky Mountain National Park or Pikes Peak, Great Sand Dunes was relatively quiet. Not only was it peaceful, but it was incredibly easy to visit since it's dog friendly and there are no designated trails. To some the lack of structure the park offers might be annoying, but to us it was freeing because we were able to go and do and not worry too much that we were missing something incredible by not hiking the longest or highest rated hike in the park.
All in all, we thoroughly enjoyed our time in this national park and we're excited to share some of our favorite things about Great Sand Dunes National Park with you!
Where is Great Sand Dunes National Park?
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is nestled in Southern Colorado's high-desert landscape. The park is about 230 miles southwest of Denver and approximately 165 miles north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. It's a beautiful drive regardless of the direction you're coming from, with scenic routes that take you through some of Colorado's picturesque landscapes. The park's address is 11999 State Highway 150, Mosca, CO 81146, USA. If you're using a GPS, this should get you right to the Visitor Center, your first stop in the park.
Denver, CO to Great Sand Dunes National Park: 236 mi | 3 hr 49 min | Google Maps
Rocky Mountain National Park to Great Sand Dunes National Park: 299 mi | 5 hr | Google Maps
Santa Fe, NM to Great Sand Dunes National Park: 171 mi | 3 hr 7 min | Google Maps
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park to Great Sand Dunes National Park: 190 mi | 3 hr 38 min | Google Maps
How did the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado form?
The formation of the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado is a fascinating tale of nature's power and persistence. It all began years ago when eroded mountain rocks were carried by water and wind towards the valley. During drought periods, the sand dried up and was blown by predominant southwestern winds towards the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Over centuries, these sand particles piled up, creating the dunes we see today. The process continues even now, so the landscape is ever evolving, making each visit to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve a unique experience.
Where to stay near Great Sand Dunes National Park
Whether you're seeking a cozy Airbnb, an off-grid campsite, or a family-friendly hotel, you'll find a variety of accommodations near Great Sand Dunes National Park to fit every budget and style. Let's dive into some options to rest and recharge after your adventurous day in the park.
Camping options near Great Sand Dunes National Park
This is the only official campground inside the national park that RVs are able to camp at. Open April-October every year, this campground is basic in amenities (similar to other national park campgrounds), but gets you up close to the sand dunes which are the main attraction in the area. Reservations can be made up to 6 months in advance for individual sites and 12 months in advance for group sites. Reservations go fast so be sure to book in advance if you're hoping to camp here!
Backpacking through the Great Sand Dunes National Park offers a unique and rewarding outdoor adventure. Upon securing your free permit from the Visitor Center, you can set up camp anywhere in the 30 square miles of dunes, away from day-use areas. This allows you to experience the surreal atmosphere of the dunes at dusk, under the starlit sky, and at dawn, when the sand takes on an ethereal glow. Be mindful that the walk can be strenuous, carrying your gear, and climbing the moving sands. It's an adventure meant for the resilient and environmentally respectful traveler.
Free dispersed camping near Great Sand Dunes National Park
Like many national parks in the USA, Great Sand Dunes National Park is near lots of free dispersed camping on public lands. We chose to camp for free about 20 minutes from the park and had amazing views of the mountains in the surrounding area. Not only were the views awesome, but we saw very few people and had the area almost entirely to ourselves. To find free campsites like we did we'd recommend checking out our entire guide to finding free (and epic!) campsites in the USA.
The Great Sand Dunes Lodge provides a front-row view to the beautiful dunes and the breathtaking Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The lodge includes spacious and comfortable rooms, all equipped with modern amenities. After a long day exploring the park, you can relax in the indoor heated pool. This Lodge positions you perfectly for an early morning start, which is essential to beat the crowds and make the most of your one-day trip to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Bonus: the Great Sand Dunes Lodge is dog friendly!
Situated at the base of the dune field just 4 miles away from the national park, the Zapata Ranch - Ranchlands Stay offers a unique ranch experience. This working cattle and bison ranch offers comfortable rustic accommodations that blend beautifully with the natural surroundings. Visitors can enjoy a range of activities such as wildlife viewing, horseback riding, and guided tours. Waking up to a stunning view of the Great Sand Dunes and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains is a wonderful way to start your one-day adventure in the park.
The Alamosa Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott offers a comfortable and convenient stay for visitors to the Great Sand Dunes National Park, being just a short drive away. The hotel features modern rooms, free WiFi, a fitness center, and an indoor swimming pool, ensuring a relaxing stay after a day of exploring. An added advantage is the complimentary breakfast served every morning to start your day right.
Address: 721 Mariposa St, Alamosa, CO 81101 | Google Maps
Remember to book in advance, especially during peak visitor times, to secure your preferred accommodation.
This dog friendly home sleeps up to six people comfortably. It's a two bedroom, one bath home with an additional bed being the pull out couch. The home features a fully equipped kitchen, mountain views, dedicated workspace, washer and dryer, wifi, and free parking on premises.
This charming 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom adobe style home will be a constant reminder of the culture and place you are in when visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park. With private parking, wifi, fully equipped kitchen, and wonderful front porch, this Airbnb is the perfect place to soak in all that this region of Colorado has to offer.
This cabin with detached dome is the perfect place for large groups who are looking for a home to truly relax, unplug, and enjoy time in a comfortable setting. Between the cabin and the dome this Airbnb comfortably sleeps 8 people across 4 bedrooms and 1.5 bathrooms. The property features mountain views, a hot tub, dedicated workspace, free parking, wifi, TV with Roku, and it's pet friendly!
What to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park - 1 day itinerary
You've found your accommodation and you're ready to explore the majestic landscapes of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve - but how do you make the most out of just one day? Fear not! We've curated a one-day itinerary for you that ensures a memorable experience, capturing the essence and beauty of the park. Get ready to immerse yourself in a day of adventure and discovery in one of Colorado's most unique natural wonders.
Begin your day at the visitor center
Begin your day at the Visitor Center. Here, you can get information about the park's history, wildlife and most importantly, tips on hiking on the dunes. Pick up a map and plan your day ahead. Watch the park orientation video to get an overview of the park. Before heading out to the dunes, stock up on water, sunscreen, snacks, and other essentials that are available in the gift shop.
Hike the dunes
Embark on an unforgettable hiking adventure on the dunes, the main attraction of the Great Sand Dunes National Park. The park doesn’t have designated trails on the dunes; instead, you have the freedom to explore and blaze your own trail. Start early in the day to avoid the intense midday heat and aim to reach the highest point, Star Dune, which promises a breathtaking panoramic view of the park. Be prepared for a strenuous trek as walking on sand can be challenging, but the awe-inspiring landscape makes it all worthwhile.
Because the dunes do not contain marked trails, hikers should constantly be aware of their surroundings and should travel equipped with maps to find their way. We also recommend traveling with a Garmin InReach Mini 2 for all backcountry adventuring.
Go sandboarding and Sand Sledding
After a challenging hike across the dunes, it's time to slide back down with some thrilling sandboarding and sand sledding! These activities are a unique and enjoyable way to experience the vast sand dunes. Rental gear for both sandboarding and sand sledding is readily available at the Oasis Store right outside the park's entrance. It's important to remember that only specific types of boards work on sand, regular snow sleds or cardboard pieces won't get you very far.
Cool off in Medano Creek
Medano Creek is a must-visit spot to cool off after an intense dune hike, especially during the peak flow in late May and early June. This perennial stream offers a beach-like experience with its shallow flowing water that's perfect for wading, splashing and sand-castle building. Kids particularly love the surge flow, a phenomenon where waves are formed in the creek. So, don't forget to pack a picnic, a bathing suit and plenty of sunblock for a relaxing afternoon at Medano Creek.
Take a 4x4 scenic drive
Embark on an exciting off-road adventure on the Medano Pass Primitive Road. This 22-mile 4x4 trail weaves through a diverse landscape of forested hillsides, crossing Medano Creek multiple times and offering stunning views of the dunes and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Remember, this road is not for the faint-hearted or inexperienced drivers as it requires a high-clearance, 4-wheel drive vehicle. Along the way, there are multiple campgrounds and picnic areas perfect for a mid-journey break. Be sure to check the current road conditions at the Visitor Center before you set out, as the road can be impassable during or after stormy weather. This drive will be a thrilling highlight of your one-day itinerary in the Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Watch the sunset on the dunes
Wrap up your one-day itinerary at the Great Sand Dunes National Park by watching the sunset on the dunes. The spectacle of the setting sun paints the sky with vibrant hues, casting a magical glow over the dunes, making this an unforgettable sight. It's a serene and peaceful way to end your day of adventure, reflecting on the beauty and grandeur of nature. Remember to bring a blanket or a chair, as the sand can get cool after sunset. Also, pack a flashlight for your trip back to the parking lot.
Camp under the desert stars
After an action-packed day at the Great Sand Dunes National Park, there's no better way to complete your one-day itinerary than by camping under the vast desert sky. As night falls, you'll be treated to a mesmerizing display of stars, unobstructed by city lights or pollution. It's a chance to connect deeply with nature and unwind, making it the perfect conclusion to your visit. The nighttime views at Great Sand Dunes is one of the highlights of this national park so be sure you stick around long enough to enjoy the sites and sounds of this unique experience.
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is a one-of-a-kind destination that's worth a visit. While it might seem impossible to cover all the park has to offer in just one day, our suggested itinerary shows that with proper planning, it is entirely doable. By starting your day at the visitor center, taking on the dunes, cooling off in Medano Creek, taking a scenic drive, and culminating your experience with a magical sunset, you will leave the park with unforgettable memories. We hope our itinerary has helped you plan your one-day trip and get the most out of your Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve experience.
Like this article? Checkout our other Colorado travel guides.
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We're Chris and Sara
A creative husband and wife duo from a small-town in Tennessee with passion for all things travel. Checkout the links below to join us on our past, present, and future adventures!