People driving through the San Luis Valley, located 16 miles north of Alamosa on Colorado highway 17,  hardly notice the sign that says: Great Sand Dunes National Park.

The Great Sand Dunes with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains looming in the background. Photo taken from Zapata Falls, located 2.8 miles from the Hwy 150 turn-off.

Bruce and I have driven this 50 mile gun barrel road ad nauseam on our way to Colorado ski destinations. The road is so boring that we flip a coin to see who has to drive while the “winner” gets to sleep.

How the Great Sand Dunes look as you drive along the road to the entrance gate of the national park. The Sangre de Christo Mountains in the background have 10 mountain peaks that are in excess of 14,000 ft. (called Fourteeners).

Then, all that changed. On a recent trip, we read an article in the Mountain Guide newspaper about the Great Sand Dunes National Park.  It was National Parks Week (April 20-28) and entrance into the National Parks was free. Who can turn down Free? We left Leadville early and decided to take a quick detour to learn more about these Great Sand Dunes.

Sign at entrance to County Lane 6 off Colorado 17. The distance from Hwy 17 to the intersection of Hwy 150 is 16 miles. From Hwy 150 to the entrance gate is 5 miles. It’s a two lane road.

That’s when the WOW moment happened. What looks like your childhood backyard sand pile from Hwy 17, grows larger and larger as you drive down County Lane 6  toward the looming Sangre de Christo mountains. Suddenly you’re face to face with mounds of mountains of SAND.

Getting things in perspective: the tiny dots in the photo are people climbing the sand dunes.

How did this happen?

Thirty-five million years ago, to the west of what is now the San Luis Valley, volcanoes spewed forth the San Juan Mountain range, the largest mountain range in the U.S.Rockies. Then, 19 million years ago, the Rio Grande Rift pushed up the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, sinking the land between the San Juan’s and the Sangre’s, forming the San Luis Valley. Wind and melting snow from the San Juan’s carried “grit” across the San Luis Valley swirling it fiercely until it hit the insurmountable Sangres.  Against these majestic mountains, the sand accumulated for millions of years into giant sand dunes.

The Medano River flows along the base of the sand dunes. Easy to cross on foot.

Great Sand Dune Fact Check:

  • These are the tallest sand dunes in North America. 750+ feet tall.
  • Park’s campgrounds are open from April 1st to November 1st. The Park is open year-round.
  • Admission is $25 for a 7 day pass.
  • The Dune field is 30 sq. miles
  • NASA tests robots here because the terrain is so much like Mars
  • Sand temperatures can reach 140+ degrees during the summer months, be sure to bring water and a hat.
  • A group of students from Adams State University in Alamosa enjoying a day on the dunes.

What’s the Big Deal?

Hiking? Definitely a big deal. The Park offers everything from half mile hiking trails, like the Montville Nature Trail to a day hike to Medano Lake.

Bruce applying wax to the sleds. Before every “run” down the dunes, you need to “wax-up.”


Sand boarding is a Big Deal.  If sand boarding is your next adventure, here are some tips that will help.

  • Clothing preparation is key.  Closed toe shoes (a must), pants that have “give” so your legs can bend easily. Layer, layer, layer. Weather and season will determine the need for jackets. When Bruce and I began our climb up the dunes, it was about 63 degree. By the time we were ready to leave, snow flurries were beginning to fall at the upper altitudes. Be prepared!
  • Sunscreen is a MUST.
  • You need a board that works on sand. One of those plastic sleds that works in snow, doesn’t work well on sand. Fortunately, these boards or sleds can be rented at three different places close to the Dunes.
    • Oasis Store (just outside the park entrance), rents for $20/half-day. On the weekends, you’ll probably have to stand in line to rent your board. Be sure to have your driver’s license. They accept all credit cards.
    • On the weekends, at the Oasis, there is a line for renting boards or sleds. The line moves quickly. Cost: $20/half-day.

    • Kristi Mountain Sports in Alamosa
    • Sand Dunes Swimming Pool near Hooper
  • Access to the Dunes is from the Main Use Area. From the well-maintained parking lot, the Dunes are only a short walk across the Medano Creek. The shallow Medano Creek flows at the base of the dunes. Adults and children alike splash in the rippling waters.
  • Adults and children play in the sand along the Medano River, building sand castles.

  • Now, up you go!  You’re on your own from here.

Camping and Lodging:

Pinon Flats Campground is open April 1st to November 1st. Make reservations at Individual sites $20/night for a max of 8 people and 2 vehicles. Seniors with access card pay $10/night. Flush toilets and sinks are available in each loop.

Great Sand Dunes Lodge is just behind the Oasis Store where you rented your sand board. They offer rooms and casitas. Make reservations through the website: or call (719) 378-2900.

Casitas available for rent at the Great Sand Dunes Lodge.

Room Rates – Off Season 2019

February 1st through April 30th, & October 1st through November 30th

Room Type: 1 Guest 2 Guests 3 Guests 4 Guests 5 guests
Standard Rooms $130 $135 $140 $145 $150
Deluxe Rooms $150 $160 $170 $180
Deluxe Plus Rooms $170 $180 $190 $200

Room Rates – Peak Season 2019

May 1st through September 30th

Room Type: 1 Guest 2 Guests 3 Guests 4 Guests 5 guests
Standard Rooms $145 $150 $155 $160 $165
Deluxe Rooms $165 $175 $185 $195
Deluxe Plus Rooms $185 $195 $205 $215

Don’t Miss These Perks:

The Visitor Center is located just past the entrance gate. Important information, restrooms, and back-country permits.

  • Guided sunset hikes
  • Free Ranger programs: offered mid-May through October
  • Evening programs at the outdoor amphitheater
  • Solar-scope – a filtered telescope to look at the sun
  • Vistor’s Center (hours 9 am – 4:30 pm) for park video, exhibits, restrooms, and back country permits.
  • Start your adventure here. Lots of free brochures, video, and helpful people to keep you safe.

Summer is quickly approaching. Be sure to add a visit to the Great Sand Dunes National Park to your agenda for an unforgettable experience.  For additional information on Ranger programs, camping and evening activities, visit the national park website.

About the Author:

Bruce and Annie at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

In 2010, Annie Coburn created Fab Placez.  In 2014, she changed the name of her website to FAB Senior Travel to better define her target audience, mature travelers. In order to provide diversity of locations and topics for her subscribers, she publishes travel articles from other writers, as well as her own.

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