Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve

Location: Colorado

Park Tally: 9/59

Orientation: Nestled against the rugged Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is home to the tallest dunes in North America. Visitors can access the park via a 4-hour drive south of Denver or a 3-hour drive north of Santa Fe. Great Sand Dunes has three unique ecosystems – alpine desert, grassland, and forest. Each section of the park has a range of activities for visitors to immerse themselves in. Be prepared to get out of breath – the park begins at an altitude of 7,520 feet above sea level, and rises to 13,604 feet (Tijeras Peak), with a total of 6,084 feet in elevation change!

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Most iconic view:  The dunes themselves are the most well-known view in the park. Visitors can view the dunes at a distance from the Visitor Center and can easily access the sand via a short walk from the Dunes Parking Lot. The most prominent (and tallest) dune is 755-foot “Star Dune” and it takes about 5-hours to make the round-trip hike to-and-from the parking lot.

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Accessible activity:  Many visitors choose to admire the dunes from along the Medano Creek. Water flows down from the mountains and through the creek between April and June every year. The creek offers opportunity for paddling, tubing, and cooling off (all dependent on the depth of water and time of year).

Exploring the lower dunes is relatively easy and visitors can choose how high they want to trek. Sand-sledding and boarding is a popular and fun activity for those that are young or young at heart. Note – sledding equipment can be rented from outside of the park (Oasis Store or Kristi Mountain Sports). Be sure to begin your dune hike early in the morning or in the evening, as the sand can reach temperatures of 150 degrees Fahrenheit at certain times of the year.

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Adult and child sand wheelchairs are available upon phone reservation or in-person at the Visitor Center. These special chairs can be used at the Dunes Parking Lot, which has an accessible mat to the creek as well as a viewing platform.

It is definitely worth exploring the forested areas of the park for a change of scenery. The Montville Loop Trail is a 0.5-mile roundtrip hike through the forest and along a small creek. The hike provides a view of the first ridge of the dunes.

For the adventurous: There are numerous options in the park for those wanting a to get out and explore a little more. Hiking the tallest dunes (Star Dune and High Dune) will satisfy the most adventurous souls. Visitors also have the option of backcountry camping overnight on the dunes. A wilderness permit is required for any backcountry camping and can be obtained at the Visitor Center.

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Best photo opportunities:  Sunset is particularly beautiful on the dunes. It is best to hike further up and into the dunes for magnificent views and pristine conditions. Smooth sand without footsteps will make for the best photographs.

Many visitors also come to the Great Sand Dunes for clear dark skies, stargazing and astrophotography. There is minimal light pollution in the area so when it is clear be prepared for epic night skies!

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Quick facts

  • Great Sand Dunes was made a national monument in 1932, protecting only the main dunefield. It was expanded into a national park and preserve in 2004 to safeguard the entire natural system of the dunes, alpine watershed, creeks, grasslands, sand sheet, and wetlands.
  • Congress has protected nearly 90 percent of Great Sand Dunes National Park and National Preserve as wilderness under the 1964 Wilderness Act. The Great Sand Dunes Wilderness is 33,549 acres in the national park, and 41,676 acres of the national preserve are in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness.
  • Park elevations range from 7,515 feet to 13,604 feet above sea level. The Visitor Center and Piñon Flats Campground are at approximately 8,200 feet.
  • There are 58fourteeners (peaks topping 14,000-feet) in Colorado. Five of these can be found in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
  • Amazingly, the dunes are probably less than 440,000 years old. They have been formed by wind and water moving the sand and continually forming the dunes.
  • Indication of human life in the park dates back 11,000 years, which is among the oldest recorded human history in North America.
  • A range of wildlife can be found within the park and preserve, including beaver, elk, bobcat, bear, bighorn sheep, sandhill crane, kangaroo rat, squirrel, falcon, pika, and short-horned lizard. The park also boasts many insects that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
  • Research projects conducted by the National Park Service find that Great Sand Dunes has the lowest level of noise pollution in all of the national parks in the contagious 48.
  • Nearby Zapata Falls Recreation Area is a popular spot for visitors to spend time before or after they explore the Great Sand Dunes.
  • In 2016 the park had 388,308 visitors, 145,467 more than in 2013.

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