Things to do
Think of the Great Sand Dunes as a giant sandbox for you and your family to explore. With its own adventure-packed vibe, the park is a fantastic place for multi-generational trips, and family members of different fitness levels can explore the sand at their own pace – whether that means climbing to the top of those giants or just spend a relaxing day at the “beach”.
Explore the dunes on foot: One of the first things you’ll notice about this park is the freedom you have over 30 square miles of dune fields, best accessed from a parking lot a mile beyond the visitor center . As there are no marked trails on the sand, you can climb any dune from any direction, but heed this warning: the sand can be scorching hot during the height of the day and storms can grow rapidly. Therefore, it is best to hike early in the morning or in the evening to avoid the risk of overheating or lightning.
Even people with reduced mobility can join in the fun. The park offers a limited number of sand wheelchairs with oversized inflatable tires that make them much easier than regular wheelchairs to push across the sand – easier, but not easy. They require muscle! Reserve one for free by calling the Visitor Center (719-378-6395).
On the dunes, you’ll enjoy the unique sensations that make this place so special: the feeling of your feet sinking into the sun-warmed sand, the chirping of birds singing, the gurgling of Medano Creek in the distance, and the smell of pine and juniper piñon. And listen to a phenomenon called “singing sands”. In the same way that our vocal cords produce sound using vibrations, the sand emits a slight hum when air pushes through the moving grains, either as a result of natural avalanches or as a result of guests pushing sand down the slopes. The unique sound experience even inspired Bing Crosby’s song “The Singing Sands of Alamosa”.
Go sand sledding or sandboarding: Channel your inner child as you glide over the dunes on specially designed sandboards or sleds with extra-smooth wax-coated bases. (Note that sleds, skis, and snowboards designed for winter conditions will only work when the dunes are wet after rain or snow.) On its website, the park lists nearby outdoor retailers that rent equipment. The closest is the Oasis store, four miles from the visitor center on Route 150.
Splash around in Medano Creek: Did we mention the dunes can get hot? Cool off with a dip in the seasonal Medano Creek, a shallow creek created when the snow in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains begins to melt in April. Even in high season, the cove is only a few inches deep, but you might witness a unique phenomenon called “peak flow,” when underwater sand ridges cause small waves to flow. Even if the water is only ankle-deep, you will often see children passing on inflatable buoys. The creek meanders from the mountains along the west side of the dunes and is easily accessible on foot from the dune parking lot.
Note that the cove is popular with locals, turning these sands into something of a makeshift beach, often creating crowds on weekends in late May and early June.
Go star gazing: In 2019, the dunes were officially designated an International Dark Sky Park. Faz says one of his favorite things to do is “after-sunset hiking to experience the dunes when the sun goes down and the full moon or stars light up the sky.” From this vantage point, you can even observe the Milky Way, which looks like a creamy cloud stretching across the night sky. In spring, it can be seen before dawn; in the fall, it is visible in the evening.
If you venture into the sand after dark, be sure to bring your own light; a red one is best because it won’t impact your night vision. You may be lucky enough to spot nocturnal creatures like bobcats and salamanders, but you’re more likely to hear them as they begin their nocturnal symphony: the howls of coyotes, the hoots of owls, the croaks frogs and toads. And if you hear a faint rumble, it’s Ord’s kangaroo rats, stamping their feet to warn other kangaroo rats of danger.
Drive the Medano Pass: To see another side of the region, head to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the “unspoilt” part of the park. “Alpine lakes and high-altitude areas are less well-known, as they require more time and planning to access trailheads,” says Faz. One of the most scenic ways to explore this area is via the Medano Pass Primitive Road, a 22-mile stretch connecting the park to Wet Mountain Valley and State Route 69. Open only during the warmer months, this The route is reserved for expert drivers in four-wheel-drive-only vehicles – you’ll cross packed sand, streams and hollows, while dodging huge boulders. Rewards include bighorn sheep sightings and golden aspen leaves in the fall.
Or leave the driving to someone else by booking one of the guided jeep tours offered by Mountain Master Off-Road Tours; a three-hour tour costs $360 for one or two passengers. You will meet your driver at the Welcome Center.