A One Day in Great Sand Dunes National Park Itinerary

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by Duncan McHenry

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Formed over by erratic wind patterns in Southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, travelers planning a one day in Great Sand Dunes National Park itinerary will find many activities available here that can be enjoyed year-round and are mostly doable in “DIY” fashion.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve 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.

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.

If you’re wondering how to best plan your time here, follow this route to see the highlights and enjoy this spectacular place!

Beautiful Great Sand Dunes National Park
Beautiful Great Sand Dunes National Park

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.

Entrance to Great Sand Dunes National Park
Entrance to Great Sand Dunes National Park

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.

Autumn in Great Sand Dunes National Park
Autumn in Great Sand Dunes NP

Getting To and Around Great Sand Dunes NP

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.

RV Camping in Great Sand Dunes,
RV Camping in Great Sand Dunes

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 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.

Sunrise Hike

No itinerary 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. 

Great Sand Dunes National Park at dawn
Great Sand Dunes at dawn

Dune Sledding/Boarding

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 sand 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, sand 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.

Getting ready for dune sledding!
Getting ready for dune sledding!

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.

It 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.

Visitor Center in Great Sand Dunes National Park
Visitor Center in Great Sand Dunes NP

Afternoon Sightseeing and Photography

From lunch at the visitor’s center, the most logical next move when you spend 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 nothing is 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 which is one of the tallest sand dunes in North America can also be reached on foot by anyone willing to devote the time and effort.

Piñon Flats Aea in Great Sand Dunes National Park
Piñon Flats Area

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 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?

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

The 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.

The Great Sand Dunes
There’s plenty to explore in Great Sand Dunes NP!

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

Best Western Movie Manor – This hotel, located in the town of Monte Vista, is a great jumping-off point to visit Great Sand Dunes NP. 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!

Dunes Inn Alamosa – Another great option located in Alamosa, this is a fabulous place to get some rest before exploring. They have several clean and comfortable rooms available and breakfast available each morning.

Private Rental – If you’d like to have your own self-catering place, then a private holiday rental is a great option. There are lots of places to choose from – including this cosy cabin.

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more hotels near Great Sand Dunes!

Great Sand Dunes National Park at sunset
Great Sand Dunes NP at sunset

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.

Are you spending a day at Great Sand Dunes? Have any questions about visiting? Let us know in the comments!

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Duncan is a writer for The World Was Here First. He lives in Colorado and also works as a fly fishing guide and instructor when not editing or writing. He has spent time in Costa Rica and has made numerous trips exploring the Western states of the Rocky Mountains.

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