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A 2-Day Itinerary for Your Trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park

A Guide to Exploring Nature’s Sandbox in Only Two Days

How can you explore Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in just two days, you might ask? Either you finally have your two days off of work after a long forty hour week and you’re located in Colorado, or you might be on your next great American road trip and only have two days to explore Nature’s Sandbox before moving on to your next stop. With 149,028 acres available to explore, it might seem impossible to visit this park for only two days but with a little planning and not being opposed to some spontaneity, you will make your two-days in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve one you will never forget (especially when you find sand in places sand isn’t supposed to be a few days later…).

About Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Panoramic view of Great Sand Dunes National Park

Designation as a National Park and Preserve

Great Sand Dunes National Park features the tallest sand dunes in North America. The tallest sand dune in the park, Star Dune, stands at 755 feet. The park was originally designated as a National Monument by President Herbert Hoover in 1932. It was not until 2000 that the park was designated as a park and preserve. The park itself covers 107, 342 acres while the preserve protects an additional 41,686 acres.

Geological History of the Great Sand Dunes.

There are a variety of sources that have contributed to the formation of the Great Sand Dunes. The dunes themselves cover an area of about 30 miles rising from the floor of the San Luis Valley. The San Luis Valley is the area between the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan ranges. The Sangre de Cristos were formed when there was an uplift in the tectonic plates while the San Juan range was created due to volcanic activity. Sediment from the mountains filled the valley along with large amounts of water from melting glaciers and rain. There is also evidence that there was a lake that lied in the valley called Lake Alamosa which receded and drained down the Rio Grande. This lake and other small lakes left sand behind. Additionally, wind blows sediment from the three mountain passes– Mosca, Medano and Music passes–and Medano and Sand Creeks that reach peak flow in May and June, leave sediment behind.

Planning Your Trip to the Great Sand Dunes: Finding a Place to Stay

Choosing a place to stay largely depends on your personal preferences and how far you are willing to drive. If you are up for camping the park itself as three great options: Medano Pass Primitive Road, Pinyon Flats Campground, or backpacking. You can also camp at Zapata Falls Campground. If you are not up for camping be prepared for a 45 minute drive to the nearest town to find a place to stay. 

Medano Pass Primitive Road

Great Sand Dunes National Park offers a free option for camping but it requires a high-clearance 4WD vehicle and a portable air compressor. Medano Pass Primitive Road is a 19.9 mile road and features deep sand. Depending on sand conditions, you may have to get out and deflate your tires to make it through the sand, this the portable air compressor so you can fill them back up when the time is right. If this doesn’t deter you, this free, no-permit necessary option will give you the remote experience you are looking for with the comfort of your vehicle at your fingertips. For more information on Medano Pass Primitive Road and current conditions, visit the NPS.gov website.

Piñon Flats Campground

When I visited Great Sand Dunes National Park, my sister and I stayed at Piñon Flats Campground. Located right in the park, this campground offers tent and RV sites with a picnic table, fire pit, and a bear locker to protect your food. There are also bathrooms you can use but no showers. The campground also features a quaint camp store with the amenities you might have forgotten as well as some delicious treats. This is the perfect way to spend your two days in the park because you have close up views of the sand dunes and can hike right to the dunes from the campground. This campground tends to be full during the summer, so make sure you plan your trip accordingly if this is where you want to stay. You can reserve a campsite on Recreation.gov for $20 per night. I would recommend reserving a site at least a month in advance to guarantee you have a spot. For more information visit NPS.gov.

Backpacking the Sand Dunes

For a truly immersive experience in Great Sand Dunes National Park, backpacking would be the way to go. This unique and popular option is allowed anywhere in the 30-square-mile dune field past the day-use area (about 1.5 miles into the dune field). Backpacking permits are required but are free on a first-come, first-serve basis. For more information on rules and regulations, visit https://www.nps.gov/grsa/planyourvisit/backpacking.htm.

Zapata Falls Campground

If you want spectacular views of Great Sand Dunes National Park, sunrises, sunsets, and mountains, then this campground is the campground to choose. Located about 10 miles from the park on a rough road, this campground sits at 9000 feet in the Rio Grande National Forest. There are 23 individual campsites at $11 per night and one group site at $20 per night. There are also restrooms. For more information on this campground, visit https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/riogrande/recarea/?recid=74116.

Lodging Near Great Sand Dunes National Park

If camping is not up your alley, then consider staying at one of the lodging establishments near the park entrance or in one of the gateway towns near the park. The National Park Service website offers a wide range of suggestions here.

Planning Your Trip to the Great Sand Dunes: Your 2-Day Itinerary

This 2-day itinerary is based on the recent trip my sister and I took during our time off. This is merely a suggestion and you can rearrange this list or add other items based on your desires. 

Fees: Please keep in mind that there is a $25 daily entry fee to enter the park regardless if you’re camping or not. For a complete list of passes you can purchase, visit https://www.nps.gov/grsa/planyourvisit/fees.htm.

Day 1: Exploring the Sand Dunes

If you want to hike the sand dunes, I recommend being up and ready to go by 6AM if you’re staying in or near the park. You will want to plan on leaving earlier than 6AM if you decide to stay in a town 45 minutes away. This might seem early but the sand can reach temperatures of up to 150 degrees on a sunny day and can burn your feet. It is important to note that while the sand feels cool in the morning and going barefoot makes walking through the sand easier, make sure to bring shoes and socks to protect your feet if you plan on staying out on the sand dunes well into the afternoon.

Hiking the Sand Dunes is the definition of taking one step forward, and two steps back. With each step up, you slide back down. If you’re just looking to explore the dunes, head down any of the trails and go as far as your heart (and your legs) want to carry you. Great Sand Dunes National Park features five dunes that are over 700 feet tall. If this is your goal, be prepared for a strenuous journey. Also, maps tend to be incorrect because the dunes are constantly changing. When you make it to the top of your destination, make sure to run and jump off the sand dune. While it might seem scary, it is exhilarating and makes a funny sound.

High Dune: When I visited, we set our sights on High Dune. High Dune looks like the tallest dune in the park but it is not, standing at 700 feet. However, this is the most popular destination. Plan on about two to three hours, or four miles of hiking round-trip to reach this dune.

Star Dune: Star Dune is the tallest dune in the park, standing at 750 feet. While this dune can be reached from High Dune, it will be about eight miles round-trip, or six to eight hours of hiking, and features quite a few ups and downs that can be exhausting. For a more direct route, start this hike from the base of the dune from the Medano Creek bed.

If you want to add additional adventure to hiking the sand dunes, consider bringing a sandboard or sand sled. On our trip, we saved this for day two because we decided trying to sandboard/sled the higher dunes when we haven’t done it before was too much. (We also may have taken a spontaneous trip to New Mexico.) Depending on your hiking plans on Day 2, sandboarding/sledding might be a better option for Day 1. Check out Day 2 for our suggestions on sandboarding/sledding.

After a day of hiking the sand dunes, depending on the time of year, you can head over to Medano Creek to splash around in the water. This activity is a very seasonal activity because it is fed by melting snow from the mountains. The creek starts appearing in the park around April and reaches peak flow in May and June. By July, it starts receding back towards the mountains and is completely gone by August/September. If the creek is flowing, make sure to throw on a swimsuit and enjoy cooling off. Many visitors bring chairs and pool floaties. 

If you are visiting after the peak flow, head back to your campsite or place of lodging and enjoy some food and relaxation time.

Day 2: Hiking Nature/Alpine Trails and Sandboarding/Sledding

Hiking

On your second day in the park, consider exploring one of the nature/alpine trails in or near the park. On our trip, we drove nine miles outside of the park to hike Zapata Falls. While it is only a one-mile round-trip hike, the trail takes you to a waterfall oasis that makes you feel like you are in a fairy wonderland. Be aware, the road is rough up to the trailhead and should be navigated with a 4WD vehicle. It is possible with a FWD vehicle but be prepared for a bumpy ride.

Zapata Falls Trail

Zapata Falls

If you want more of a longer hike, consider hiking one of the nature or alpine trails in the park. For more hike suggestions, click here. The park is also close to a few Colorado 14ers including Challenger Point (14,018 feet), Kit Carson (14,170 feet), Crestone Peak (14,295 feet), and Crestone Needle (14,203 feet). If this is the kind of hike you are looking for, make sure to plan accordingly and start early. Colorado is famous for its afternoon thunderstorms and you don’t want to be caught above the treeline during a thunderstorm. A good rule of thumb is to be below treeline by noon.

Sandboarding/Sledding

We saved sandboarding/sledding for our final day in the park because we did a shorter hike in the morning, and there are a great selection of smaller dunes to choose from just past the Medano Creek bed that are great for beginners. If you choose to sandboard/sled, you can either rent your boards on your way to the park at one of the shops in the nearby towns or you can swing by the Great Sand Dunes Oasis four miles outside of the park to rent your boards. We chose the latter option. If you choose to go to the Oasis, plan on getting there right at 9AM when it opens because it gets very busy right away. You can rent boards for about $21 each. Please be aware that if there are storms or rain, they will not rent out their equipment.

Lysianne boarding down a sand dune

After getting your boards, head out from either the campground or the Dunes Parking Area and find your first dune. Sandboarding is like surfing or snowboarding, so if you have done neither of those, plan on a bruised booty or hip because you WILL fall….A LOT. Similarly, sand sledding is VERY different from sledding in snow. Even on the smaller dunes, you can almost guarantee that you will crash land (see the video below).

After getting your boards, head out from either the campground or the Dunes Parking Area and find your first dune. Sandboarding is like surfing or snowboarding, so if you have done neither of those, plan on a bruised booty or hip because you WILL fall….A LOT. Similarly, sand sledding is VERY different from sledding in snow. Even on the smaller dunes, you can almost guarantee that you will crash land (see the video below).

Conclusion

With 149,028 acres to explore, 30 square miles of sand dunes, and a variety of activities to choose from, your two days in Great Sand Dunes National Park are sure to bring about feelings of awe and inspiration.

Originally published on HIKEspiration.com

Cover photo: Lyrica Marks

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!