When you first approach Great Sand Dunes National Park, you’ll notice a light discoloration at the base of the Sangre de Cristo range.
As you near the park, dunes will take shape, and it looks almost like an airbrushed landscape. You’ll see black mountains topped with white in the distance and in between the tallest sand dunes in North America.
The Science Behind Great Sand Dunes National Park
If you want to see a cyclical environment, you can’t get a much more perfect example than Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.
The formation of the dunes began in the San Luis Valley about 440,000 years ago. Glaciers melted, creating a lake.
When its water evaporated, sand and soil accumulated on the high desert plain. The Rio Grande and its tributaries contributed to those deposits, which were picked up by westerly winds.
When the winds came up against the mountain range they lost some of their oomph, and since they could no longer carry the extra baggage, they dropped it and the dunes were born.
The dunes continue to grow. At the base of these huge piles of sand are wetlands and streams that cascade from the mountains. As their water evaporates, the cycle continues.
Related: National Parks Checklist and tips for visiting
Things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
1. Hike the dune field
To get to the dunes from the Visitor Center, there’s a short trail through the sand sheet and over Medano Creek.
It’s an intermittent, seasonal stream. In March, when we visited, it was barely a trickle. After the snow melt and summer thunderstorms it can get up to a foot deep, but we were able to keep dry as we crossed over rivulets.
2. Go sandboarding or sand sledding
Sandboarding or sand sledding is one of the most popular things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park. Riders either bring boards themselves, or you can rent them.
There’s no rental facility in the park, but the seasonal Oasis offers rentals. If you visit during off-season, you can rent boards and sleds in nearby Mosca and Alamosa.
Great Sand Dunes National Park is quiet. In fact, this is one of the quietest National Parks in the United States.
With that silence, and the barrenness of the dunes, it’s tempting to think the park is devoid of wildlife. It most certainly is not.
It’s actually home to black bears, badgers, and other mammals; more than 200 species of birds; salamanders, frogs, and toads; tiny short-horned lizards; and more than 1,000 types of insects and spiders – that they know of.
Seven of those arthropods can be found nowhere else on earth. (Wearing shoes is advised.)
Visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is in an eye-opening, educational experience, illustrating just how much there is to learn about this country.
Where is Great Sand Dunes National Park?
Great Sand Dunes National Park is located in southern Colorado, at 11999 CO-150, Mosca, CO 81146. It’s about 236 miles from Denver and 234 miles from Albuquerque. Both are about a four-hour drive.
It’s also a little over four hours from Mesa Verde National Park in the southwest corner of the state.
What are the fees to enter Great Sand Dunes National Park?
A basic entrance pass is good for up-to seven consecutive days.
- Non-Commercial Vehicle and Occupants (normal car): $25
- Oversized Vehicle, 15+ passengers, age 16+ (large van): $15/person
- Motorcycle and Riders: $20
Great Sand Dunes National Park Camping
There are no campgrounds in Great Sand Dunes National Park, however, you can camp in the backcountry. Some sites are a quick mile walk from parking; others require navigational ability and are more than ten miles into the wilderness.
Primitive camping on BLM land is available at Zapata Falls Campground.