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How to Spend One Day in Great Sand Dunes National Park

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Are you wondering how to spend the perfect one day in Great Sand Dunes National Park? Well, you’re in luck! I’m a Colorado local, and I’ve taken many trips to this park from Denver.

If you’re looking for an otherworldly experience unlike any other, a visit to Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado is a must.

The park is home to the tallest dunes in North America, reaching heights of over 650 feet. And thanks to its location at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, the views are simply breathtaking.

So, what are you waiting for? Keep reading to learn how to spend one day in Great Sand Dunes National Park, the perfect day trip from Denver.

Where is Great Sand Dunes National Park?

large sign at the entrance to the great sand dunes national park

Great Sand Dunes National Park is located in southern Colorado, about 3.5 hours from Denver. The closest town is Alamosa, which is about 30 minutes away. The park is open year-round, but the best time to visit is during the fall (more on that later).

How to Get to Great Sand Dunes National Park

There are many ways to get from Denver to Great Sand Dunes National Park. The most common way is to take I-25 south to Walsenburg and then head west on Highway 160. This route takes about 3 hours and 30 minutes, depending on where in the city you’re located.

Another option is to use Highway 285 south, but this can take closer to 4.5 hours. With a day trip, it’s better to try to use the shorter route so you can spend less time on the road and more time having fun at the park!

Best Time to Visit Great Sand Dunes National Park

Many people think that the best time to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park is in the summer. The weather is warm and the days are long, so you can enjoy all the park has to offer. However, this is the time of year that it’s busiest, and the sand dunes get so hot they can burn your feet.

This park has little to no shade at all. Sometimes there are occasional breaks from the shade when the clouds cover parts of the dunes, but that’s very rare and short! The heat is only elevated in the summer months.

My personal recommendation and favorite time to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park? Fall!

Fall is a great time to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park! The weather is cooler, making it more comfortable to hike and explore the dunes. The crowds are also thinner, so you’ll have more space to enjoy the scenery.

Fall is also a great time to see the changing leaves in the nearby mountains. When we visited in the fall, we even saw a deer roaming around the parking lot. It was truly a magical sight, and the lack of visitors made it feel like a more personal experience.

Whether you’re looking for a new adventure or just want to enjoy some peace and quiet, Great Sand Dunes National Park is the perfect place to be this fall!

Best Places to Stay Near Great Sand Dunes National Park

large sand dune on a sunny day

Even though you’ll be spending just one day in Great Sand Dunes National Park, it doesn’t mean that you won’t need a place to stay nearby.

The top place to stay near Great Sand Dunes National Park (besides camping directly in the park) is in Alamosa. Below, find some great options!

Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott Alamosa

With room options ranging from a king room for two up to a studio queen room with a sofa bed, the Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott Alamosa is a great place to stay near the park. This hotel is 38 minutes from the park’s entrance. Guests can enjoy a continental breakfast and a swimming pool right on-site.

Click here to check out current rates and book the hotel!

Great Sand Dunes Lodge

The closest hotel to the park is Great Sand Dunes Lodge, a two-minute drive from the park’s entrance. It’s in Mosca and is a bit more expensive, but you’re truly paying for the location.

Rooms can host up to four guests, and some also have a mountain view. Guests can enjoy continental breakfast, and some rooms even have a kitchen.

Click here to check out current rates and book the hotel!

Hampton Inn Alamosa, CO

The Hampton Inn Alamosa, CO is 40 minutes from the park and is another great place to stay near Great Sand Dunes National Park. Some of the rooms can host up to five guests at a time, and there’s continental breakfast and a swimming pool right on site.

Click here to check out current rates and book the hotel!

trees at the edge of the sand with the mountains behind

One Day in Great Sand Dunes National Park Tips

By spending just one day in Great Sand Dunes National Park, you’ll want to make sure you come prepared. Note that one day is more than enough time to explore this park, but keep these tips in mind!

Start Your Day Early

If you want to experience all that Great Sand Dunes National Park has to offer, you need to get there early. This is moreso true if you are visiting in the summer months when it gets busy. By getting there early, you can avoid the crowds and have the place practically to yourself.

You’ll also want to get an early start because the temperatures can get pretty hot later in the day. The sand dunes are fun to play on, but they can be tough on your feet if you’re not used to walking on them. We visited in July once, and it felt like the sand was burning our feet. It’s best to tackle the dunes when it’s cooler out.

Finally, getting to the park early will give you a chance to see some of the amazing wildlife that lives there. The deer and elk are often out grazing in the morning, and you might even spot a coyote or two.

If you happen to be visiting in the fall or other seasons, you can pretty much get there any time, but note that sandboards are usually only rented out from the nearby Oasis store until around 4 p.m. The earlier you get there, the more time you can spend sandboarding and get your money’s worth because they are rented out for the day.

Get a Map at the Entrance

This national park isn’t like the others, but it’s very worth it to grab a map. The map will tell you about the park, the trails, and any other updates that you may not have heard about without chatting with a park ranger.

large sand dunes at the end of a long flat area leading to them

Bring Your Own Lunch

Great Sand Dunes National Park is located in a remote area and there are no restaurants nearby. The closest spot to grab a snack is at the Visitor Center (which has granola bars usually) or the Oasis store. So, save yourself time and money by packing your own lunch. We usually grab something in Alamosa to bring with us, or will pack subs in a cooler back home in Denver.

Additionally, the park is open from sunrise to sunset, so you will need to pack enough food to last you all day if you plan on staying there long. We are usually fine with subs, granola bars, and chips.

Things to Pack for a Trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park

To have the best day in Great Sand Dunes, these are the things you should absolutely pack.

Hiking Boots or Sneakers

This park isn’t like other parks because it’s all sand. However, the sand can burn your feet. We’ve worn sandals before, and it was worse than wearing sneakers or boots, so be sure to bring shoes that you can tie onto your feet. This is especially true if you’ll be doing any hiking.

The park is also home to some of the tallest sand dunes in North America, and hiking is the best way to explore them. Boots will protect your feet from the hot sand and make it easier to hike up and down the dunes without hurting your feet.

There’s more to the park than just sand dunes, though. Boots will also come in handy for exploring the forests that make up the nearby areas. So whether you’re looking for a challenging hike or a leisurely stroll, be sure to bring your boots!

footprints in the sand leading towards large dunes

Cooler (to Keep Your Snacks Cold)

If you’re planning on spending a day exploring Great Sand Dunes National Park, be sure to pack a cooler! This may sound obvious, but it’s not.

The park can get hot, and there’s nothing worse than having your food and drinks be hot. Plus, a cooler will come in handy if you want to picnic lunch.

Backpack

A backpack will help you carry all the necessary snacks, water, and other hiking accessories for a day of exploring. Truly, any backpack will do. It can even just be a large tote bag. It’s a long hike out to the sand dunes, and without bringing your bag, you’ll have to constantly go back out to your car to get anything you need.

mountains behind large sand hills

Water Bottle(s)

A water bottle will obviously help you stay hydrated while you’re exploring the park. I recommend bringing at least a few so that you can stay cool. When sandboarding, you’ll be shocked at how tiring and dehydrating it is, especially going up and down the dunes.

It will also save you money – bottled water is expensive! So next time you head to Great Sand Dunes National Park, make sure to pack a reusable water bottle. Your body (and the planet) will thank you!

Portable Charger

Be sure to pack a portable charger! With so many things to see and do in the park, your phone is bound to run out of battery quickly. A portable charger will come in handy for taking photos, staying connected with your group, and navigating your way around the park.

In addition to being a great resource for visitors, a portable charger can also help in an emergency situation. If you get lost or injured while hiking, your phone could be the only way to call for help. Having a fully charged phone will give you peace of mind and could potentially save your life.

mountains with a flat field of sand in front

Sunscreen

This seems like a given, too, but don’t forget to pack sunscreen. We forgot sunscreen during our trip in July and completely regretted it.

The sand reflects the sunlight, which can cause sunburns. There is also little shade in the park, so it is important to wear sunscreen to protect yourself from the sun. I always prefer sports sunscreen so it’ll stay on even when you get sweaty.

Sunglasses

Be sure to pack a pair of sunglasses if you’re spending one day in Great Sand Dunes National Park. The sun reflects off the sand and can be very bright. The sunglasses will help protect your eyes from the sun and will make your trip more enjoyable.

small road surrounded by trees and dead grass

Camera

In order to capture the beauty of Great Sand Dunes National Park, pack a high-quality camera!

This breathtaking park is full of photo-worthy sights, from the towering sand dunes to the rushing waters of Medano Creek. A camera will help you capture all the memories of your visit to this one-of-a-kind national park.

Here are the cameras that we always travel with:

Places to Eat Near Great Sand Dunes National Park

Similar to the closest place to stay, most of the great places to eat near Great Sand Dunes are back in Alamosa. Find some perfect options for dining below.

The Great Sand Dunes Oasis Restaurant

The closest place to eat near Great Sand Dunes is The Great Sand Dunes Oasis Restaurant. This is also the place where you can rent sleds and sandboards. They serve sandwiches, burgers, fries, and the like. You can even see the dunes right from the restaurant’s parking lot.

large sand dunes on a clear day

Calvillo’s Mexican Restaurant

Located in Alamosa, Calvillo’s Mexican Restaurant is a great place to eat if you’re in the mood for Mexican food. They have everything from nachos and quesadillas to tacos and guacamole. Be sure to check out their house specials for a real treat.

Woody’s Q Shack

Woody’s Q Shack is also located in Alamosa and is an incredible restaurant for some tasty BBQ. Everything on the menu is incredible, from their BBQ nachos to their pitmaster rolls (which have mac and cheese, green chile, and pulled pork). They also have meat plates if you don’t want one of their more specialty items.

What to Do in Great Sand Dunes National Park

With just one day in Great Sand Dunes National Park, there are so many fun things to do. Here are some of our top recommendations!

Go Sandboarding (or Sledding)

Easily, the best thing to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park is to go sandboarding or sledding.

Sandboarding is a unique activity that allows you to board down sand dunes. Great Sand Dunes National Park is the perfect place to try sandboarding because of its large dunes and breathtaking views.

Sandboarding is similar to snowboarding or surfing, but it requires less equipment and can be done year-round.

If you’re not up to try sandboarding, get a sled instead. This is a summer fun way to enjoy the fun without wiping out while standing on a board! It can take a while to get used to sandboarding. Rent your boards at the Great Sand Dunes Oasis which is right by the park.

Stargaze

There’s something special about spending a clear night under a blanket of stars. And there’s no better place to do it than Great Sand Dunes National Park!

This national park is home to some of the darkest skies in the country, making it an ideal spot for stargazing. On a clear night, you can see thousands of stars, including the Milky Way Galaxy. You can learn all about it right in the visitor center.

So why not add stargazing to your list of things to do when you visit Great Sand Dunes National Park? You won’t regret it!

green grass and trees in front of sand dunes

Go on a Scenic Drive

There are many reasons to go on a scenic drive in Great Sand Dunes National Park. The views are breathtaking, and the experience is unlike any other. The park is also home to a variety of wildlife.

You can pretty much see the dunes from anywhere in the area, so just drive around and take in the view. You never know what you might find, and it’s a great way to stay cool in the air conditioning if you happen to be visiting in the summer.

Whether you’re looking for an adventure or simply want to enjoy some of the most beautiful scenery in the country, a scenic drive in Great Sand Dunes National Park is sure to please.

Cool off in Medano Creek

Many people don’t know, but there is actually a creek right by the park where you can hop in and cool off. It’s usually only there in the summer months when it’s warmer.

When temperatures soar in Great Sand Dunes National Park, there’s no better way to cool off than by taking a dip in Medano Creek. This shallow creek is always refreshingly cool.

The creek is surrounded by the view of the tall dune walls, which create a serene and peaceful setting.

So whether you’re looking to cool off or just enjoy a peaceful setting, be sure to make your way to Medano Creek in Great Sand Dunes National Park.

while clouds over large field of sand dunes

Hike to High Dune

For an incredible hike in Great Sand Dunes, be sure to hike up to High Dune. As you may guess, it’s the highest dune in the park.

High Dune in Great Sand Dunes National Park is a popular hiking destination for many reasons. The views from the top of the dune are simply breathtaking. On a clear day, you can see for miles in every direction.

While the dune may not seem that far, it’s grueling walking up in the sand, so be sure to put aside a few hours. The trek is always different, too, because the sand is always moving. If you were to visit twice, it’d be a different hike each time.

If you want to do this hike, be sure to start early in the day. It can get very hot at the top of the dune, and you don’t want to be stuck out in the sun for too long.

Wear sunscreen and a hat to protect yourself from the sun, and bring a backpack with snacks and water. There is no water available on the trail, so you will need to carry all that you need with you.

Take a Photo at Zapata Falls

The Zapata Falls Trail is a short yet beautiful hidden gem of a trail near Great Sand Dunes National Park. It’s only about a mile out and back, but it’s tranquil and beautiful, especially when the sun breaks through.

If you want a hike that’s not directly in the park and therefore isn’t as hot because it’s not on the dunes, then be sure to head out to Zapata Falls. Keep in mind that the trail is fairly rocky so it can be slippery if it recently rained.

expansive sand dunes and a bright blue sky

Suggested Great Sand Dunes National Park One Day Itinerary

Here’s what we recommend for spending one day in Great Sand Dunes National Park.

  • Begin the day as early as possible especially if you are heading there from Denver.
  • Spend the morning hiking up to High Dune. If that’s too much of a trek, do at least a hike up to any of the dunes in the park so you can take in the view away from other visitors.
  • After your hike, go rent a sand board or a sled and begin a scenic drive through the park as you eat your lunch.
  • Dip your toes into the creek for a while. This is around the hottest part of the day, so be sure to cool off. Consider hiking over to Zapata Falls because it’s a short hike.
  • Head back over to the park and spend the afternoon sand boarding or sand sledding! Don’t forget your sunglasses and sunscreen, plus your water.
  • If you want to stay until the evening, go back to return your rental in time and then go to Alamosa for dinner. There are tons of great places to eat there.
  • Finish up by stargazing over the dunes. Once you’re done, either head back to the hotel or Denver!

Enjoy your one day in Great Sand Dunes National Park!

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4 Comments

  1. This is a great post! I’m a Colorado native too but have never had a chance to make it out there yet. I want to try sand boarding there sometime. Thanks for all the great pointers!

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