Formed over the eons by erratic wind patterns in Southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, Great Sand Dunes National Park is home to North America’s tallest dunes and rests at the foot of the endlessly diverse Sangre de Cristo mountain range and the Rio Grande and San Isabel national forests. Travelers looking for things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park will find many activities available here that can be enjoyed year-round and are mostly doable in “DIY” fashion.
For starters, access to the dunes is excellent, as anyone willing to hike can either follow a well-marked route such as the Sand Ramp Trail or simply strike out from their parking spot and wander into the vast expanse of piled sediment.
Other things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park include going on an ever-popular session of “dune sledding” (the name speaks for itself), heading out after dark to enjoy stargazing in some of the country’s best “dark sky” conditions, wildlife watching on ranger-guided nature walks, and much more.
Opportunities at both dispersed camping and car camping are also in good supply, and backpackers willing to haul their gear can obtain free backcountry permits at the park’s visitor’s center.
But for those who don’t have enough time to stay here overnight, read on for even more ideas on how to plan your one day in Great Sand Dunes National Park itinerary.
How Many Days in Great Sand Dunes National Park?
The good news for travelers who are passing through on a longer road trip (for instance from Denver to Albuquerque or even Denver to Durango) and looking to spend just a short time at the dunes is that this national park can easily be done justice in one day.
Anyone wondering how many days to spend in Great Sand Dunes National Park might easily choose to spend an entire week here backpacking or car-camping and sightseeing, but even a single day is plenty to enjoy all the area has to offer.
For starters, while it’s recommended that you get away from the paved areas and the visitor’s center and do some exploring among the dunes, some of the best, up-close views of the dunes can be seen from the visitor’s center and the Piñon Flats Campground without even having to walk far from your vehicle.
For this reason, photographers and sightseers who aren’t prioritizing hiking around and feeling the sand between their toes (this is all but guaranteed when hiking the dunes) can enjoy this natural area with little effort or time spent.
Best Time to Visit Great Sand Dunes National Park
The Great Sand Dunes and its roughly 5 billion estimated cubic meters of sand will be there for you at any time of year, and timing a visit depends largely on your goals.
If your priority is having the greatest available number of things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park, then you may want to consider making your visit land between May to September, when conditions tend to be warmer and often dryer, depending on weather patterns.
With that said, you can easily access the dunes and enjoy the national park in the wintertime, and popular activities like dune sledding are doable year-round except on days with especially harsh weather (high springtime winds can be challenging, for example).
The nearest towns to the Great Sand Dunes include Alamosa, Blanca, Mosca, and Fort Garland, among others, and all of them have good access to services throughout the year.
As with all national parks in the Southwestern US, keep in mind that this is a dry climate and Colorado weather can be unpredictable, so come prepared with plenty of warm layers and extra drinking water.
Getting To and Around Great Sand Dunes National Park
Great Sand Dunes National Park is located at a near halfway point between Denver and Santa Fe, and getting there from either city means an easy drive of some four hours on Interstate 25.
Access via major highways is generally good no matter which direction you come from, and once you’ve arrived at the Great Sand Dunes, getting around in the park is very easy thanks to a well-maintained network of paved roads.
Great Sand Dunes is a small national park when compared to others like Yosemite or even medium-sized ones like Canyonlands or Rocky Mountain National Park, however, so this makes it even more suited to a short visit.
One exciting option for covering ground in the park is to take a 4×4 vehicle on the Medano Pass Primitive Road, where soft sands and treacherous terrain make having a high-clearance four-wheel or all-wheel drive vehicle mandatory.
But assuming you’re just driving in on the main road past the visitor’s center and getting out of the car for some light hiking and sightseeing, a good pair of hiking or athletic shoes with high ankle support is a good idea.
Some visitors to the dunes even wear gaiters and long pants to help keep the sand out of their shoes when hiking off-trail.
A final note on footwear: keep in mind that the sands in this area can get extremely hot (in the neighborhood of 150°F/65°C) at the peak of summertime, so close-toed shoes are a better idea than flip-flops. Also be mindful of these temperatures when visiting the dunes with pets.
If you need to rent a car for this trip, you can check out Rentalcars.com for deals across major suppliers. Alternatively, browse Outdoorsy if you prefer to rent an RV or campervan for a longer road trip.
One Day in Great Sand Dunes National Park Itinerary
Though the main dune field here spans approximately 30 square miles, Great Sand Dunes is a much more manageable national park to explore in a short time than other massive ones the likes of Yellowstone, Glacier, or Yosemite.
This Great Sand Dunes National Park itinerary will leave you with a framework for how to structure a one-day visit without feeling like you’ve rushed things or not had enough time to do everything you planned.
No list of things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park would be complete without an early hike to see the sunrise in the San Luis Valley.
The tall and sometimes snow-capped peaks of Cleveland Peak and Mount Herard loom in the distance as you enter the park where the Medano Creek Drainage runs along the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
There’s a good amount of trailhead parking just north of the visitor’s center, and hiking to an elevated viewpoint atop a dune is as easy as striking out towards the nearest one that looks inviting. These dunes often reach 750 feet in height, so be sure to bring a good camera when climbing to the top of one.
The 360-degree views of the valley and the jagged mountain peaks beyond are really something to behold in the morning light.
This might arguably be one of the most popular things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park these days, and it’s easy to see why: sliding down an immense sand dune on a boogie board or sled is sure to be an experience you won’t forget anytime soon.
And while you might wonder if any average person can walk right up to a dune with a plastic saucer you might have seen at the neighborhood sledding hill in the wintertime, the answer is no, you typically need a more specialized sandboard or sand sled to really pick up speed on the dry surface of the dunes.
Sandboarding, sledding, and skiing are permitted anywhere on the dunefield as long as you’re not directly on any vegetated areas. There are a lot of nearby retailers and mountain sports outfitters that sell or rent sandboards and sand sleds that have specialized footstraps and padded seats.
Plan for a hike of between a half of a mile and a mile to the medium-sized and larger sand slopes, though some smaller “bunny”-sized slopes that may be more appropriate for younger children are closer to the main Dunes Parking Area.
Lunch at the Visitor’s Center
After having worked up a sweat climbing the dunes and sliding down again, the park’s visitor’s center is open year-round every day except for major holidays and has facilities including restrooms and drinking water, a park store, a back porch with a viewing scope, and plenty of places to set up a picnic-style lunch. Rangers are also typically on hand to answer questions and sometimes give special presentations.
After you’re done eating lunch, families will especially enjoy the interactive exhibits featured by the park in the visitor’s center lobby, which range from a video microscope to a rock and mineral observation table.
Afternoon Sightseeing and Photography
From lunch at the visitor’s center, the most logical next move on your one day in Great Sand Dunes National Park is to venture further in toward the Piñon Flats area near the Escape Dunes. Along the main road are several trails and exploratory routes that are perfect for some afternoon hiking and photography.
One of the best options that’s closest to the visitor’s center is the Montville Nature Trail. This well-shaded forest trail has the added bonus of being a good escape from the heat during the peak of the summer, and it’s also one of the park’s better areas to see native birds and other wildlife.
Another very easy possibility for an afternoon hike that offers great panoramic views of the surrounding landscape is the Wellington Ditch Trail.
Always remember that there’s nothing stopping you from simply charting your own path to one of the named or unnamed dunes that lie out in the open space area of the dune field.
A dune on the first ridge commonly called “the high dune” is a popular destination for casual hikers, but others like the Hidden Dune and the famed Star Dune can also be reached on foot by anyone willing to devote the time and effort.
Dark Sky Stargazing
In the evening, assuming you’re able to stick around until after dark, the Great Sand Dunes—and the entire San Luis Valley in general—has a reputation among avid stargazers and dark sky enthusiasts as one of the nation’s best stargazing destinations.
Anyone who lives within an hour or less of a major US city like Denver knows how much “light pollution” can show up in the night sky, and this phenomenon is not a factor at all in the wilderness of southern Colorado.
Getting to a good vantage point for stargazing in Great Sand Dunes National Park is as easy as walking out a good distance from the main parking area and spreading out a blanket on a flat spot.
Just bring a flashlight or headlamp so you can see obstacles like the waters of Medano Creek in the dark, and also bring along a good pair of binoculars and your night sky map if you have one.
Have More Time Than One Day in Great Sand Dunes?
If you have a bit more than one day to spend and are wondering what to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park, then these are some great suggestions:
Participate in Ranger Programs
Great Sand Dunes National Park offers a good selection of free “ranger programs” that range from presentations in the park’s open-air amphitheatre space to hands-on field experiences and nature walks.
Commercially guided birding, hiking, backpacking, horseback riding, and off-road driving tours are also available through private outfitters located nearby. The National Park Service’s website for the Great Sand Dunes is a good source of information where this is concerned.
Four-Wheel Drive Medano Pass
The Medano Pass Primitive Road is one of those vehicle routes where you’re sure to run into “point of no return” signs and end up driving through water that might be neck-deep for a person, depending on the time of year.
But for anyone with a high-clearance 4×4 vehicle in the right conditions, this road that passes through areas of deep sand will take you to some of the most scenic, remote areas of the Great Sand Dunes.
Some of these zones are excellent habitats for wild animals such as bighorn sheep. Fat bikes are also an option for traversing this road, though sand conditions can make this impossible at times when the ground is too soft and moist.
Where to Stay Near Great Sand Dunes National Park
Because of its location away from some major cities, even if you’re only spending a day at the National Park, it’s probably best to find a place to stay nearby. Fortunately, there are lots of accommodation options available and if you’re looking for a great place to rest your head, check out these suggestions:
Best Western Movie Manor – This hotel, located in the town of Monte Vista, is a great jumping-off point to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park. They have a range of comfortable rooms available, a hearty breakfast included each morning and there is even a classic drive-in movie theatre on site! Click here to see their availability
Sandhill Inn & Suites – Another great option also located in Monte Vista, this is a fabulous place to get some rest before exploring the National Park. They have a number of clean and comfortable rooms available and also a swimming pool and fitness center on site. Click here to see their availability
Private Rental – If you’d like to have your own self-catering place to stay near the national park, then a private holiday rental is a great option. There are lots of places to choose from – including this house at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo mountains – and you’re sure to find something that suits your needs. Click here to browse more private rentals!
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more hotels near Great Sand Dunes National Park!
Whether you choose to dive into more daring activities like sandboarding, offroading, or hiking or you simply climb the “high dune” near the parking area and snap some photos at sunset, there are plenty of things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park on a one-day visit.
These towering mounds of sediment are unlike any other wilderness area or national park, and they should be on everyone’s list of things to see if they plan on traveling throughout the American West.
Are you wondering what to do at Great Sand Dunes National Park? Have any questions about visiting? Let us know in the comments!