Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is a national park in the state of Colorado. In addition to the eponymous dunes, the park has attractive high country in the Sangre de Cristo Range of the Rocky Mountains.
Great Sand Dunes National Monument was one of the many United States national parks and monuments created during the Great Depression (1932). In its original form it covered only the dunes themselves. However, it has expanded significantly since its roots, due in large part to concern among residents of nearby communities about the need to protect the watershed containing the dunes. In 2000, a "preserve" adjoining the monument as created, and in 2004 the combined monument/preserve eas designated as a national park.
The park includes North America's tallest dunes, which rise over 750 feet high against the rugged Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The wind-shaped dunes glow beneath the rugged backdrop of the mountains. This geologic wonderland contains over 30 square miles of massive dunes, and also includes alpine lakes and tundra, six peaks over 3,000 ft (910 m) in elevation, ancient spruce and pine forests, large stands of aspen and cottonwood, grasslands, and wetlands—all habitat for diverse wildlife and plant species.
Flora and fauna
In the summer, daytime air temperatures rarely reach 90 °F (32 °C), with average temperatures in the 70–80 °F (21–27 °C). Summer nights are surprisingly cool thanks to the elevation of 8,200 ft (2,500 m) above sea level, with lows sometimes dropping into the 40 °F (4 °C). Afternoon thundershowers are common in July and August with associated winds and lightning. Be prepared to leave the dunes promptly if thunderstorms threaten: lightning strikes are common and may be fatal.
Fall is generally mild, with Indian summer days. Highs average in the 60s - 70s °F, with chilly nights in the 20s - 30s °F. Be prepared, though, for the occasional cold fall storm, bringing icy rain or even snow.
Cold temperatures are the norm in winter, even though sunshine is generally abundant. The lowest temperature recorded at Great Sand Dunes was -25 deg;F in 1963. Average highs are in the 20s-40s °F, with lows averaging -5 to 15 deg;F. Snow may fall and high winds may occasionally occur, so bring warm, layered clothing and sturdy footwear.
Spring can bring high winds; March, April, and May winds are unstable and can be unusually strong. Temperatures can vary widely: highs may reach into the 60s °F, or only into the 30s °F with an even colder windchill. Lows can also vary from 0 deg;F to the 30s °F. March and April are the snowiest months of the year, but some days in spring can also be swimsuit weather.
The average annual precipitation is 11 inches including an average snowfall of 37 inches. Overall, precipitation increases in all directions as you leave the heart of the San Luis Valley. Yearly there are only 30–40 days when clouds obstruct the sun the majority of the day. The valley is known as the "Land of Cool Sunshine", and lives up to that name throughout most of the year.
Road access to Great Sand Dunes is limited by its position on the west side of the rugged Sangre de Cristos. It is most easily reached via a side road from Colorado SR 17 between Poncha Pass, at the north end of the Sangres, and the town of Alamosa to the south. Another access route is via US 160, which crosses a high pass through the Sangres between Alamosa and Walsenburg on Interstate 25, and then onto SR 150, reaching the same access road as the SR 17 route.
Great Sand Dunes is a long way from a major airport (Denver is about 150 miles away as the crow flies, considerably further as the car drives), but nearby Alamosa's airport has regular commuter service to Denver on Great Lakes Airlines.
Fees and permits
All fees are for 7-day passes, which allow unlimited re-entry for the week. The Great Sand Dunes Annual Pass also allows free access to the park for one year. Fees as of 2020 are:
- $20 Motorcycle and Riders
- $25 Non-Commercial Vehicle and Occupants
- $45 Great Sand Dunes Annual Family Pass
There are several passes for groups traveling together in a private vehicle or individuals on foot/bike that provide free entry to Great Sand Dunes National Park and all national parks, as well as some national monuments, national wildlife refuges, and national forests:
- The $80 Annual Pass (valid for twelve months from date of issue) can be purchased by anyone. Military personnel can obtain a free pass by showing a Common Access Card (CAC) or Military ID.
- The $80 Senior Pass (valid for the life of the holder) is available to U.S. citizens or permanent residents age 62 or over. Applicants must provide documentation of citizenship and age. This pass also provides a fifty percent discount on some park amenities. Seniors can also obtain a $20 annual pass.
- The free Access Pass (valid for the life of the holder) is available to U.S. citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities. Applicants must provide documentation of citizenship and permanent disability. This pass also provides a fifty percent discount on some park amenities.
- The free Volunteer Pass is available to individuals who have volunteered 250 or more hours with federal agencies that participate in the Interagency Pass Program.
- The free Annual 4th Grade Pass (valid for September-August of the 4th grade school year) allows entry to the bearer and any accompanying passengers in a private non-commercial vehicle. Registration at the Every Kid Outdoors website is required.
The National Park Service offers free admission to all national parks on five days every year:
- Martin Luther King Jr. Day (third Monday in January); next observance is January 18, 2021
- The first day of National Park Week (third Saturday in April); next observance is April 17, 2021
- The National Park Service Birthday (August 25)
- National Public Lands Day (fourth Saturday in September); next observance is September 25, 2021
- Veterans Day (November 11)
If you are going to be in the Crestone/BACA and Moffat area Windhorse Transportation is a great service that will give you great tours and is also a taxi service.
- 1 Great Sand Dunes Visitor Center (just inside the entrance station). 8:30AM - 5PM Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend, 9AM - 4:30PM the rest of the year. The Visitor Center features a 20-minute movie about the park, interactive exhibits for all ages, a park store, an exhibit area of fine art paintings and photography, a back porch with viewing scope, restrooms and drinking water, simple snacks, and rangers to answer questions and help you plan your visit.
Hike. The dunes themselves are a very short distance from the visitor center, and you can reach them by simply following the obvious path. Once you're in the dunes, there are no marked trails; you simply wander among them until you've had your fill. (Either keep the visitor center in sight, or bring a compass.) You'll get sand in your shoes; dress accordingly and have a change of clothes, or at least shoes, waiting at the car. Trails into the high country are reachable from farther up the road, beyond the dunes.
A guidebook with details on numerous hikes in the area, as well as other activities, food, and lodging, is The Essential Guide to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, ISBN 097244131X.
During spring and early summer, runoff from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains coalesces in a little creek that runs along the south side of the dunes, past the visitor center. Where Mosca Creek passes through the dunes, a remarkable beach-like atmosphere results that draws families doing precisely the things you'd expect at any other beach—with the obvious exception of swimming, since the creek is only about six inches deep. You'll see picnics, small children wading in the creek (which is warmed by the sun), Frisbee tossing, maybe even a little beach volleyball. Come prepared to participate, and bring a change of clothing, particularly shoes; there is a changing room and rinse station near the visitor center to get the sand out of your clothes (and you) before you get back in the car. Flow in the creek is seasonal, and by the end of the summer there may not be enough water left for some of these activities.
AJ's Truck Stop is a truckerschoice.com truckstop. AJ's is family friendly. AJ's has Brazen Cafe and various other accommodations. It's a mile north of the Mosca entrance/exit on highway 17 in Hooper before the State Highway 12, north of the sand dunes. Major credit cards are accepted. Showers are available.
Brazen Cafe in Hooper on Highway 17. Ask for the truckers plate... it's the locals' favorite!
Billy's Bar. Great pizza, great beer.
No lodging is available in the park. Alamosa, about 30 miles to the southwest, has a reasonable assortment of motels and motor inns. Some of the tiny towns on Highway 17 (Mosca and Moffat) have motels that seem to come and go:
- Great Sand Dunes Lodge, ☏ . Just outside the park entrance. Open seasonally.
- Crestone has B&Bs.
- 1 Piñon Flats Campground (at the north end of CO Highway 150, one mile north of the visitor center). 91 sites, 3 group sites. 47 sites can be reserved in advance, 44 sites are first-come, first-served. Loop 1: 44 first-come, first-served sites. Loop 2: 44 reservable sites (reservations for summer only). Reserve through recreation.gov up to 6 months in advance, but at least 4 days in advance. Loop 3: 3 Group Sites (A, B, and C). $20 per site (2020 rates).
The high country is good for backpacking (free permit, available at the visitor center, required). In addition, the rugged 4-wheel-drive road to Medano Pass at the eastern edge of the park offers opportunities for "backcountry car camping," if the term isn't an oxymoron. No permit is required for camping along this road.
Backcountry camping in the dune field itself is also possible, with a free permit, and is a truly mind-blowing experience. Sitting atop a dune, watching the sunset along the Rocky Mountains over the high dunes is simply magnificent. The climb in with a pack is rough on the steep sands, so be prepared for a real workout. The best time of the year to camp in the dunes is undoubtedly late Spring, since sand temperatures are too hot in the Summer, and even in the Fall. During the winter, the high altitude will make the sand extremely cold, and you definitely don't want to camp in both sand and snow. Temperatures in the dune field swing wildly throughout the day, as sand reacts to temperature changes very rapidly. Wear sandals for the day, and prepare for cold nights. And don't forget to prepare for the bizarre environment. That means proper sand gear for your tent (otherwise you will blow away in the rough night winds), and learn how to tie a turban—they're extremely useful for keeping your head cool in the day, warm at night, your face protected from airborne sand, and keeping your head cushioned in any crazy dune descents.
The Great Sand Dunes is generally safe. The Park Rangers are usually in the main parking lot, looking out for your safety. If you are in real need call the sheriff +1 719 655-2544. The dunes are extremely large and easy to get lost in. If you are going to venture deep, bring navigation equipment.
- Colorado Gators, +1 719 378-2612. Remarkably enough, an alligator farm set in the San Luis Valley, off SR 17 just north of the road to the park. It's set up as a reptile garden and welcomes visitors (Daily 9AM - 5PM, open until 7PM in the summer, $10 admission with senior and youth discounts).