Five secret reasons to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park

Where desert meets mountain in Colorado

Not surprisingly, this national park draws tourists because the location features spectacular sand dunes, the tallest in North America.  And mountains frame the scenery at Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve in Colorado, making this destination one of my favorites.

Vacationers, however, often underestimate this park and relegate it to a one-hour stopover and a couple of selfies.  Great Sand Dunes National Park is much more versatile, though, than its reputation as a gigantic sand box. The park’s ecosystems include desert, grasslands, wetlands, conifer and aspen forests, alpine lakes and even tundra. It’s located near Alamosa, Colorado, and many tourists stop at Great Sand Dunes as part of their vacation route from Denver to Durango and Mesa Verde National Park.

Yes, the dunes provide the major appeal as they rise up in spectacular fashion. My favorite time to hike here begins at sunrise and several hours before sunset, when shadows make the dunes fun to photograph and create an almost supernatural panorama.

I’d like to offer up five additional reasons to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve that are worth adding a few days to your itinerary.

Great Sand Dunes National Park Medano Pass
We drove a rented 4X4 from the dunes up to Medano Pass at 10,000 ft. elevation.

Four-wheel drive up to Medano Pass

My wife and I rented a 4X4 Jeep and drove the primitive road up into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to Medano Pass, which sits at 10,000 feet elevation. What an adventure! We crossed Medano Creek nine times by driving our vehicle through the stream and cascades. The park service posts creek levels and our Jeep didn’t take on any water during the morning trek.

We rented our mountain Jeep from the only permitted 4WD tour provider, Pathfinders 4X4. The concessionaire delivered the vehicle and keys right to our lodge room.

A seasonal river popular with families runs through the dunes.
A seasonal river popular with families runs through the dunes.

Splash in Zapata Falls and Medano Creek

Just nine miles from the park’s entrance is Zapata Falls, overseen by the Bureau of Land Management and not the National Park Service. The three-mile drive off the paved road is rough and bumpy, so be sure to ask about current conditions. But the one-mile hike to the falls is easy going and you’ll probably get your feet wet. It’s a nice side-trip that offers cool relief from the summer sand dune heat.

Medano Creek – now you see it, now you don’t. It’s a seasonal riverway running past the dunes, fed by the melting snows high up in the nearby mountains. And not surprisingly, there’s nothing but sandy beach along the creek bed. It’s popular with families because kids can float on the creek during the months of May and June. By July, the creek begins to retreat back into the mountains and usually by August the creek will vanish from the main dune area. The park’s website usually provides updates on the creek’s flow.

Sand sledding and sand boarding are popular, but there are no chairlifts.
Sand sledding and sand boarding are popular, but there are no chairlifts.

Board and sled the sand dunes

On the surface, this seems counter intuitive to national park environmental management. But I’m not qualified to evaluate the activity’s impact on the dunes, so I’m trusting that experts have been involved in the review process. But I will state that we watched vacationers really enjoying themselves sand boarding and sledding the dunes.

You can rent special equipment nearby that’s specifically suited for sand versus snow. And if the dunes are wet, concessionaires will typically not rent out their equipment. One caution – there are no chairlifts or towropes. You have to hike up the dunes carrying your equipment. And dune hiking is much more difficult than traditional meadow and mountain trails.

We saw a diversity of wildlife near the dunes, like this black-headed grosbeak.
We saw a diversity of wildlife near the dunes, like this black-headed grosbeak.
We admired Rocky Mountain beeplant near the dunes.
We admired Rocky Mountain beeplant near the dunes.

Marvel the plants and wildlife

I’m always amazed how nature and wildlife adapt to harsh environments. I wasn’t expecting to see a lot of wildflowers in late August, but the landscape still featured patches of color such as Rocky Mountain beeplants. We also saw several groups of mule deer bucks foraging together before they split up during the autumn rut. We also encountered pronghorn, bighorn sheep, a kangaroo rat, rufus hummingbirds, black-headed grosbeaks and other birds while exploring the dunes and the park’s high country.

In addition, we explored two national wildlife refuges near Great Sand Dunes: Alamosa and Monte Vista. Both of the refuges offer short auto-tour wildlife drives, plus we parked the car and walked several short nature trails. We visited during a slower month at the refuges but we still saw interesting birds such as white-faced ibis, Wilson’s warbler, Swainson’s hawk, Wilson’s phalarope, plover, yellow-headed blackbirds and a large variety of waterfowl. Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge receives a huge increase in visitors during October when thousands of sandhill cranes stopover during their migration.

The Highway of Legends scenic drive is worth a side trip.
The Highway of Legends scenic drive is worth a side trip.

Drive the nearby Highway of Legends

This scenic drive (Colorado State Highway 12) is located about an hour east of Great Sand Dunes National Park, beginning off Highway 160. The Highway of Legends runs 82 miles from La Veta to Trinidad, CO, passing through the San Isabel National Forest and its aspens.

I highly recommend driving only the first 40 miles or so from La Veta to North Lake State Wildlife Area and then doubling back and enjoying the scenery in reverse. The rest of the drive from North Lake to Trinidad is, quite frankly, not nearly as scenic.

In addition, consider driving part of the side road – County Road 46 at Cuchara Pass, a dirt road – for several miles or so for the great views of the Spanish Peaks, Vista Point and Cordova Pass.


Add other Colorado parks to your trip

We’ve visited Colorado five times and explored many of its unique destinations: Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado National Monument, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado Springs and the Garden of the Gods. Add on the state’s scenic highways in autumn and the national forests and you’ll never run out of options for enjoying this mountain state.

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