Tips for Visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park & Camping Nearby

“Wow, who knew this existed outside the Sahara desert!”  Josh said as we gazed up at the towering sand dunes, the tallest in North America reaching upwards of 750 feet. But it’s not just one dune…it’s the many dunes of varying height which shift with the strong winds and make this massive “dunefield” of over 30 square miles so fascinating.  Visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park had been on our National Park checklist for a while, so we were really excited to spend some time camping in our RV nearby the sand dunes and exploring the area with Hana (since we heard it’s super dog-friendly!).

The Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado

Colorado is home to some pretty amazing scenery, as we’ve discovered since living here.  In fact, I never realized there was a Great Sand Dunes National park until we moved here!  I’m not sure how I had never heard of it before, but it is a bit off the main tourist path.

Located in south-central Colorado, the park is nestled in the San Luis Valley between 2 mountain ranges just north of the town of Alamosa.  The valley floor is over 8,000 feet in elevation, and is the highest and driest valley in north America.  Winds blow quite heavily through the valley, and they take sand from the western mountains and in the valley and carry it east – where it ultimately rests against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on the east side of the valley. 

Josh takes a selfie of Liz and Hana (dog) standing outside the front sign of the Great Sand Dunes National Park

These natural sand dunes are a beautiful site resting up against the mountains, and you can actually see them up to an hour away when you are driving up to it!  It’s funny, we kept saying “I see them, we are almost there!” and then it still took another 30+ minutes to reach them!

Our Favorite Things to do at Great Sand Dunes National Park

Of course, one of the things you have to do at the Great Sand Dunes is climb them!  So that’s actually one of the first things we did after we arrived.  There is a large parking area just past the visitor center, but it fills up quickly during the summer months and weekends. 

After parking, we headed out toward the dunes – which are located across the seasonal Medano Creek bed.  This creek flows heavily with snow water that melts in the Spring months and into summer.  You actually have to cross the creek to get to the dunes – and there’s no bridge.  So you need to wade through the creek!!!

Photo of the Medano Creek, a seasonal creek at the foot of the Great Sand Dunes National Park - you can see the sand dunes in the distance across the creek with people wading through it.

Hiking the Great Sand Dunes is Tough Work!

Once on the other side you can begin hiking the dunes.  If you have never hiked up a sand dune, then you may be surprised how challenging it is! Be prepared, bring water, and take time to rest.  Also, in the summer months be sure to wear sunscreen and be careful of hot sand.  During our visit we hiked up about 3 or 4 of the ridges, but we didn’t go to the top.  However, we saw a number of other ambitious visitors going all the way to the top!

A lot of people also choose to do a bit of sand boarding or sand sledding! Typical snow boards and snow sleds don’t work well though, so be sure to rent some before you go out.  However for us, we enjoyed just watching others do the sledding…and wondering just how long it would take them to get that sand out!

Liz and Hana sitting on the top of the Great Sand Dunes for a rest after hiking up some of the dunes

Medano Creek – Our Favorite!

As it turned out, I think we actually enjoyed our time wading through the Medano Creek the most during our visit!  We visited this national park during the end of June, and the creek is nearing the end of its season (May is more of the peak season for the creek).  Later in July Medano Creek usually runs dry, and stays that way for the rest of the year.  But during the Spring, people love to play in the water and even go tubing!

The water was nice and cool, and actually works to move the sand all around. So it’s kinda fun walking around in the ever-changing currents and splashing about.   Some people bring chairs and just sit there in the water, or they have picnics and just hang out all day.  Really, hanging out for the day in the cool water and just gazing up at the dunes is a pretty awesome way to spend the day.  Or you can tire yourself out hiking those hot dunes…then come back down and cool off in the creek!

Visiting the Sand Dunes at Night is a Highlight!

Another thing that’s great about this park is that it’s technically open 24 hours a day…because at night time it is amazing!  This area has very little light-pollution, and the elevation is over 8,000 feet — so the star gazing is incredible!  Walking the dunes with the moonlight is quite the experience, but without the moonlight you can actually see so many stars – it’s quite amazing.  

Not All US National Parks are Dog-Friendly

It’s really important to know that not all US National Parks are dog-friendly. But we had researched and discovered that dogs are welcome in most areas of Great Sand Dunes National Park, so we were really excited to bring Hana here.  They even have a National Parks BARK Ranger Program! And we were not disappointed, because Hana had a blast!

Yellow labrador with a blue harness standing on the top of some of the dunes at the Great Sand Dunes looking out in the distance at people.

Great Sand Dunes is Officially Hana’s FAVORITE National Park!

As we learned last summer, Hana loves the beach.  And one things she loves about the beach is running in the sand.  So imagine her running and playing in a giant sand field and running up and down dunes!  Plus, the water in Medano creek was cool, shallow and refreshing.  So she loved even more being able to run about splashing in the water too.

Yellow labrador (Hana) and Josh play in the seasonal Medano Creek at the foot of the Great Sand Dunes - a very dog friendly National Park!

 

It is important to know that well behaved and leashed dogs are allowed in the Great Sand Dunes National Park.  So we had Hana on a leash in all the major areas, where we were near other people and other dogs.  However, after venturing out further away from people it seemed many people with well-behaved dogs would let them run a bit more free without the leash.  While this isn’t recommended, I must admit that we did let Hana run free for a bit, although she always stayed close to our side or within a few feet of us.  

** NOTE:  Be careful not to bring your dog on the sand in the middle of summer during the day. The sand can get upwards of 150 degrees F and burn their feet! So it’s best to visit in the morning or at night.

Great Sand Dunes National Park Camping Nearby

There is only one official sand dunes campground inside the National Park. But there are a few other options for campgrounds near the Great Sand Dunes, if you don’t mind driving a bit. That’s what we did. We decided to stay nearby the Sand Dunes Park, about a 30 minute drive. 

Pinon Flats Campground at the Great Sand Dunes

There is one campground inside the Great Sand Dunes National Park, Pinon Flats Campground.  It’s in a convenient location just past the Medano Creek parking lot and some of the sites offer spectacular views of the dunes!  There are walking trails that lead from the campground down to Medano Creek and the dunes as well.

View of and RV and campsites at the Pinon Flats Campground inside the Great Sand Dunes National Park - great views behind the sites to the large dunes in the background.

This campground within the National park does not have any hookups, just dry camping.  But they do have a dump station and water available at the base of the campground.  It’s a popular campground, so be prepared to make reservations in advance because it fills up!

San Luis Lakes Wildlife Area – Not Far From the Great Sand Dunes

Less than 10 miles away from the Sand Dunes is this wildlife area.  I believe it actually used to be a State Park, but now it’s been downgraded to a wildlife area.  They do still have camping available, and I’ve heard that there is even a dump station and electricity!  You will need a Colorado park pass, which you can buy in the nearby town of Mosca at the local “Pit Stop” (it’s literally the only business in town).  It’s a great location which is close to the dunes and also inexpensive and not nearly as crowded.

Sand Dunes Hot Springs – Our Favorite Option to Camp Near the Sand Dunes!

This is where we actually stayed, and we LOVED it!  While it’s about 20 miles away from the dunes in Hooper, Colorado (north of Alamosa).  The highlight here are the great hot springs pools they have onsite as well as a number of activities and a restaurant.  With 10 electricity & water sites and about 10 other dry RV sites – they also have a number of tent sites too.  There is a dump station on site as well.  At $30 per night for electricity and water we found it very reasonable.

Plus, the Greenhouse is an adults-only pool area that we LOVED!  We spent nearly every evening there relaxing, having a few drinks, some tasty food, and enjoying the various hot springs pools.  At night the ambiance is awesome with all the lights too. Highly recommended!

If you are ok with staying outside the Great Sand Dunes National Park, we highly recommend staying at the Sand Dunes Pool hot springs. 

When is the Best Time to Visit the Great Sand Dunes?

The Great Sand Dunes National Park is open all year; although, the Pinon Flats Campground is NOT open all year long. When you visit really depends on what you are interested in doing and your weather preference. The weather fluctuates quite dramatically at the Great Sand Dunes due to its higher elevation of Colorado. The Spring and Fall months will have less crowds and the temperatures will be mild, with decently warm days and quite cool nights. However, the Medano Creek is not flowing during these times – if that’s something you are interested in enjoying.   

The peak summer months can be quite hot at the Great Sand Dunes, making the sand extremely hot (will burn your feet or your pets feet!).  Also, late in the summer the seasonal Medano Creek will be dried up. So if you want to play in the water, then you should go earlier in the summer (before mid-July). 

During the late Fall, Winter, and Early Spring you will also not be able to drive the entire journey along the primitive road due to conditions. But you may at least be able to get to the Castle Creek picnic area if you have a good 4WD with high clearance. The middle of winter is quite a beautiful and quite time at the park though, if you don’t mind the cold temperatures. It will snow a good bit, but in the early morning hours you can see all kinds of wildlife such as Elk and Pronghorn.

Visiting the Great Sand Dunes Was More Fun Than We Imagined!

We always have fun when we visit our National Parks here in the USA, which is why we’ve made it a point to travel in our RV to as many as we can!  We had a blast at the Great Sand Dunes, and so did Hana.  We drove a bit on the primitive road in our 4WD Jeep, and hiked up some of the dunes.  But the highlight for us was just wading around in the refreshing Medano Creek and just gazing up at the dunes.  Until next time!

 


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