11 Best Things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park
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There are so many things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park; luckily, we’ve rounded up this post with all of the can’t-miss activities!
Great Sand Dunes National Park is a must-see part of Colorado. Nowhere else in the state (or the country, really) will you get to see actual sand dunes nestled between mountains and plains. It’s surreal.
Though the sand dunes may seem like they’re out in the middle of nowhere (because, well, they are), there are plenty of activities to keep you busy during your visit. Camping, hiking, sand sledding, stargazing, a hot spring—and did I mention aliens?
With so many things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park, it’s well worth the four-hour drive from Denver. Keep reading to learn all about them!
Stargaze & See the Milky Way
One of the best views in Great Sand Dunes National Park is at night. The dry air, high elevation, and low light pollution make this a perfect place for stargazing. It’s been a certified International Dark Sky Park since 2019.
The sky here is beautiful on most nights, but for the best stargazing possible, plan your visit on a moonless night with no rain in the forecast. If you’re looking for the Milky Way, it’s easiest to view in late summer and fall.
Keep your eyes peeled, and you might see more than just stars. After dark, the dunes come alive with animals like toads, salamanders, kangaroo rats, coyotes, bobcats, and owls. These animals are highly sensitive to light, so turn off your flashlight and use red light instead.
Camp Overnight on the Sand
Camping is another fun thing to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Piñon Flats is a relatively developed campground, with potable water and flush toilets, but its location in the middle of the desert will make you feel like you’re the only human for miles around. It’s a great way to connect with this special place on a deeper level—feeling the sand beneath your sleeping bag, trying (and failing) to count the stars as they come out.
You must reserve your campsite in advance, and you can make reservations up to six months ahead of time for individual sites or a year ahead for group sites.
For an even more rugged experience, you can get a permit online to backpack through the park. This will give you a sense of true solitude—just you and the dunes.
Learn at the Visitor Center
The visitor center is worth a stop on your way into the park. You can get basic information like the weather forecast and creek conditions, as well as learn about the park’s history and geology. The visitor’s center offers educational exhibits, a park movie, and a souvenir shop. In the warmer months, you can also sign up for a free ranger program.
The visitor center is currently closed for renovations, with plans to reopen with bigger and better exhibits in spring 2023. Until then, a temporary visitor center is open in a double-wide trailer.
Hike up High Dune
Hiking a sand dune is an experience like no other, and High Dune is a must-do activity in Great Sand Dunes National Park. It’s way harder than it looks—prepare to be sore the next day!
Trudging up a steep hill in nothing but sand is literally an uphill battle. The sand’s friction works against you, and for every step you take, your foot sinks back down half a step. Make sure to pack plenty of water—between the challenging workout and the lack of tree cover on the dunes, you’re going to need it.
Once you make it to the top, you’ll be glad you did. The panoramic views of the surrounding dunes are worth the trek, as is the sense of accomplishment you’ll feel. Plus, plenty of people have climbed mountains, but who else can say they’ve conquered the High Dune?
Go Sandboarding (or Sand Sledding!)
Sandboarding and sand sledding are two of the best things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park, partly because there aren’t many other places where you can do them.
Sand sledding is the easier option, requiring less skill and smaller dunes. Sandboarding is trickier, unless you’re an experienced snowboarder, and you’ll have to hike farther to find a big enough dune. Either way, keep in mind that you’ll first have to hike all the way up the dune carrying your gear before you get to slide back down.
You also need the right gear, designed for sliding over dry sand. Snowboards, snow sleds, or anything made out of cardboard won’t cut it. The National Park Service doesn’t offer any sandboards or sand sleds, so you’ll need to rent one before you get to the park.
Cool Off in Medano Creek
When you arrive at the Great Sand Dunes parking lot, you’ll have to trek a little way over flat sand before you reach the foot of the first dune. Flowing across this flat patch is Medano Creek, a popular spot for wading, inner tubing, and cooling off after a hot day on the dunes.
If you want a chance to splash around in Medano Creek, plan your visit for spring or early summer. The water, fed by snowmelt, usually arrives as a trickle in April, peaks in late May, and dries up again by July.
Drive Medano Primitive Road
Medano Primitive Road is a fun thing to do at Great Sand Dunes National Park for those who have (or rent) a high-clearance 4WD drive vehicle. It’s a 22-mile drive through sand, ditches, creek crossings, and beautiful scenery. This road is open seasonally, typically from May to November.
Snap Photos of the Dunes
Great Sand Dunes National Park’s bizarre hodgepodge of landscapes makes for some amazing photos. Nowhere else can you get rolling scrubland, craggy mountains, and a sea of golden sand dunes all in one shot.
Make sure to snap a pic from the top of the High Dune, with other dunes rolling away on all sides—it’s one of the best views in Great Sand Dunes National Park. You can also get some amazing views of the dunes from the trailhead of Zapata Falls.
Hike to Nearby Zapata Falls
Just a few miles south of the Great Sand Dunes is Zapata Falls, a waterfall that crashes 25 feet down a rocky crevice. The hike from the trailhead is short and fun—about half a mile of wading through the creek, navigating over slippery rocks, and crossing a log bridge. Bring your water shoes!
The water, fed by snowmelt, is frigid, so this is a welcome respite after a summer hike on the dunes. Zapata Falls is also beautiful in winter when they freeze over into a natural ice sculpture.
Fair warning: After you turn off CO-150 toward Zapata Falls, the road gets pretty bumpy. If you don’t have a suitable vehicle (or are prone to carsickness), you can park here and walk about 3.5 miles along the road to reach the trailhead.
Soak in a Hot Spring on Your Way Out
This is another fun thing to do around Great Sand Dunes National Park. In the nearby town of Hooper (though the term “town” feels a bit generous) is a hidden gem called Sand Dunes Rec that offers lodging, food, and, most importantly, a hot spring.
There’s a big, naturally heated swimming pool that’s perfect for families, as well as an adults-only option tucked away in the greenhouse. The latter has several small pools of varying temperatures, surrounded by lush foliage, with a full bar and kitchen just steps away—the perfect place to relax sore muscles after a tough hike up the dunes.
Ride the Cosmic Highway
Yep, this is a thing.
Highway 17, which leads north away from Great Sand Dunes National Park, is known as the Cosmic Highway. It’s supposedly a hotspot for extraterrestrial activity—mostly UFO sightings, but I’ve heard rumors of alien abductions too. I’ve never seen anything suspicious, but I get a kick out of the hand-drawn alien signs along the road.
It’s also worth stopping at Colorado’s wackiest attraction: the UFO Watchtower. For a few dollars, you can climb to the top of the watchtower and search the sky or explore the “healing garden,” where people leave behind mementos to add to the energy of the “vortex.” I don’t know what that means, but it’s a worthwhile thing to do around Great Sand Dunes National Park.
The Great Sand Dunes are one of my favorite places in Colorado. There are a ton of fun things to do at Great Sand Dunes National Park, as well as nearby, that make this a perfect weekend getaway or a worthwhile stop on a long road trip. If you find yourself driving the Cosmic Highway, let me know if you spot any UFOs!
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