• Hannah Smentkowski

The Most Unique National Park in America: Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Updated: Dec 16, 2021

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve behind a field of sunflowers in August

As part of an epic 2-week road trip around Colorado, I was able to experience one of the most unique National Parks in the entire United States. Great Sand Dune National Park and Preserve in Alamosa Colorado.


This amazing park is home to the tallest sand dunes in the America which stand right in front of the beautiful Sangre de Cristos Mountains in the San Luis Valley of Southern Colorado. Each time you visit this marvel you'll see a different landscape. From a flowing river in the spring, to sunflowers in the summer to sandhill cranes in the fall, you could come to this amazing destination and see a new natural scene every time.


On my trip, I was able to go backpacking, sandboarding, and see endless fields of sunflowers at this amazing National Park. While it's not the biggest or most famous, the great sand dunes are definitely a rare sight to see Colorado. Here, I'll give you my tips on how to make the most of the park and my experience with backpacking and hiking into the dunes.



 

Table of Contents


Things to do Outside of the Park

Places to Stay

Things to do Inside the Park

Miscellaneous Tips


 

Things to Do Near The Great Sand Dunes


The Great Sand Dunes National Park is located in Alamosa, Colorado about 4 hors south of Denver in the San Luis Valley.



Alamosa is a tiny town without a ton of exciting things to do besides the park. They do have two breweries, The San Luis Brewing Company and Square Peg Brewerks, a small train museum, and a Wildlife Refuge that was pretty small but has a nice drive-through tour.



The best attraction near town is Zapata Falls, a short uphill hike to a beautiful slot canyon waterfall that is an absolute must-do just outside of the park.


You can also check out the surrounding hot springs in the area, Joyful Journeys and Valley View have camping spots you can stay at as well as the hot springs, but they are about an hour out from the park. For a more kid oriented experience you can try out Splashland that has larger hot spring pools with slides, but not as relaxing as the other two.



If you're headed to Alamosa from the North there is a super quirkey UFO watchtower to check out for a quick roadside stop. The woman who owns it has been there since 1993 and says there have been hundreds of UFO sightings across the San Luis Valley, so you can try your luck and see if you find something strange in the sky.


 


 

Places to Stay near Great Sand Dunes National Park



While there are a few hotels in Alamosa, this isn't "trip advisor" so I'm only going to give you the good camping spots in the area. First, there are the two hot springs I mentioned above (Joyful Journeys and Valley View), but there are also a couple of dispersed areas near the park, I stayed at Sacred White Shell Mountain. This is a single road that goes right up the side of the mountain about 15 min outside of Great Sand Dunes National Park. The spots were fairly open and the road starts to get pretty rough about half a mile in, but the location was so perfect and there were pleanty of spots when I got there.


There is also a traditional campground just outside of the park called "Great Sand Dune Oasis", this is 5 min from the park entrance and can easily accommodate larger rigs and those looking for a bit more comfort than dispersed camping.


If you're lucky enough and plan far in advance you can get a camping spot inside the park. They have a campground inside the park called "Pinon Flats" that has spots for RVs and tents, or you can try one of their 8 different backpacking spots. One of which is basically anywhere on the dunes! So if you're looking for a super unique camping experience, backpacking is the way to go.


 


 


Things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park


A sunset view of Great Sand Dune National Park and Preserve

This is not your typical National Park with tons of trails to amazing landmarks. At Great Sand Dunes National Park, the monuments are all around you. You can hike all over the massive dunes wherever you want, with no trails to follow! There are two of the biggest dunes, Star Dune and Hidden Dune that make for popular destinations, but since I had a backpacking spot I had to get to I didn't end up hiking directly up the dunes.



There are also actual hiking trails over sand and through forests that are very unique to this area. I hiked the very sandy 4WD Medano Pass Road out to my spot and took the Sand Ramp Trail Back. The Sand Ramp Trail was very interesting because you get to walk alongside the dunes while seeing the mountains in the back and walking through fields of sunflowers followed by woods and then back to the sand, just all over the place.



My backpacking spot was called Indian Grove, and it was a fantastic location. I knew I didn't want to camp directly on the dunes (because sand) so I ended up getting this spot that is in the more wooded area right next to Medano Creek. It was also only 4 miles out and I could still hike over to the dunes once my camp was set up, it's a perfect spot to be by water and the dunes with the protection of some hills and trees. I highly reccommend it!


A rented sandboard on a dune in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

One of the most fun things to do in the park is sandboarding or sand sledding. This involves renting a specialized board from the Great Sand Dune Oasis Campground just outside the park and sliding down a dune either on your feet with the board or your butt with the sled option.

While I'm normally such a wimp for this sort of thing, I just knew I had to give it a try. I backpacked with my sandboard out to my camping spot to attempt sandboarding and it was so much fun! The boards are $20 a day and they come with wax, they don't go too fast but I would still take it slow and figure out the board before you go all out. I started off with the tiniest dune and worked my way up, totally worth the money, sandboarding really made the trip.



 


Miscellaneous Tips for the National Park


Hannah Unbound wearing socks in Great Sand Dune National Park

  • When walking on the dunes DO NOT go barefoot!! The sand can get very hot and unwalkable, ankle socks are the best option

  • Hiking anywhere in Great Sand Dune National Park is very difficult! The sand is so thick that you will be working twice as hard to get anywhere so be prepared for the extra effort

  • As always, bring water and sunscreen while out on the dunes, it is still possible to get lost or further out than you thought without a trail system to follow

  • Staying overnight isn't necessary to get the whole park experience, but if you want some back dunes to yourself and a quiet camping spot then it's a great choice

  • You need to rent the specialized sandboards from a rental location, regular snow sleds will not slide on the sand