Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve: A User's Guide

This photographer's description says it all: "... mountains of sand oddly plunked in the middle of a massive flat valley/basin. They are just so inexplicably ... there.". Zach Dischner/Shutterstock
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The nation’s sandbox is found in southern Colorado. The heart of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is a dune field that spreads out for nearly 30 square miles. The park’s main dune field — there are other, smaller ones — is six miles across at its widest point and up to eight miles long. Great Sand Dunes has the tallest dunes in North America. Star Dune rises 750 feet from its base and High Dune rises 650 feet.

But, as they say on TV, that’s not all. Elevations in the park range from 7,520 feet above sea level to 13,604 feet at Tijeras Peak. In between you’ll find stands of aspen, spruce and pine, tundra, alpine lakes and six mountain peaks higher than 13,000 feet.


President Herbert Hoover established great Sand Dunes National Monument in 1932. The U.S. Congress passed the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Act of 2000, which authorized the expansion of the national monument into a national park almost four times its original size. Great Sand Dunes National Monument was designated as a national park in September 2004.

Things to do

Who needs snow to sled or ski when you have thousands and thousands of sand dunes?

You’re allowed to blast down dunes anywhere there isn’t vegetation. You have to walk a little more than half a mile from the visitor’s center to get to some smaller slopes. The Castle Creek Picnic Area — accessible by Medano Pass Primitive Road — is where you park to do some high-speed sledding down a 300-foot slope. A cardboard box won’t do. Rigid, slick, flat-bottomed plastic sleds, skis, sandboards or snowboards are the only things that work on sand. (And if you've never seen sand sledding, check out this video, which also includes some handy tips for the uninitiated.)

And when there is snow? All the better.

Great Sand Dunes tiger beatle

The 22-mile Medano Pass Primitive Road takes you into the high country of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. There are several trailheads along the route and driving the road is an adventure in itself. There is a two-mile stretch of soft sand and nine creek crossings. This road demands a high-clearance four-wheel drive.

Why you’ll want to come back

You have to be here at the right time — mid-May to June — to play in Medano Creek. The seasonal flow varies with the snowpack.

Flora and fauna

Pikas, marmots, ptarmigans and bighorn sheep roam the alpine tundra of the higher portions of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.

The forests, meadows and grasslands lower down the mountains are home to black bears, pine martens, Abert's squirrels, mule deer, beavers, elk, pronghorns and mountain lions.

The sands of the park harbor at least seven endemic species of insects — bugs found here and nowhere else. You may see the Great Sand Dunes tiger beetle (pictured above) scurrying across the sand. Look for an iridescent green-blue head and violin pattern on the back.

By the numbers:

  • Website: Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
  • Park size: 150,000 acres
  • 2010 visitation: 283,284
  • Funky fact: Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is one of the quietest places on the planet. A 2009 study measured a nighttime existing ambient sound level of 11 decibels. The sound of human breathing at a distance of three meters is about 10 decibels.

This is part of Explore America's Parks, a series of user's guides to national, state and local park systems across the United States. W e'll be adding new parks all summer, so check back for more.

Inset photo of tiger beatle: NPS photo