A sandbox of epic proportions, the entire dune field encompasses 30 square miles and the tallest dune towers 750 feet high. The kid in every visitor loves to sled down the sandyear-round and plunge into the soft-sand tracks of those who climbed ahead of them.
THIS IS A GREAT PLACE TO GET AWAY FROM EVERYONE AND STILL LIVE A LITTLE
An inexpensive way to be greatly impressed!
The park’s elevation (8,200 feet) and rural location make it a favorite with dark-sky-loving stargazers, and it even offers special astronomy programs many evenings May–September.
The Junior Ranger program has different activities for kids ages 3–12, and they earn a badge once they’ve completed the educational and fun tasks.
Aside from the dunes, you’ll find picnicking, hiking and camping opportunities, the challenging four-wheel scenic drive on Medano Pass,
horseback-riding trails, the mysteriously appearing and disappearing Medano Creek, ranger-led nature walks and a couple of 14,000- and 13,000-foot peaks to climb (Crestone Needle, Crestone Peak, Cleveland Peak and Mount Herard).
Great for families on a budget that want priceless views and natural phenomenons!
CAMPING IN GREAT SAND DUNES NATIONAL PARK
There are a few options for camping in the area. The Piñon Flats Campground is run by the National Park Service, with 44 sites that are first-come, first-served and 44 that visitors can reserve in advance.
For those traveling in 4WD vehicles, there are 21 campsites along Medano Pass Roadwithin the park that are free and available on a first-come, first-served basic.
For those willing to haul their gear and everything else needed in backpacks, free backcountry permits (required) are available at the park’s visitor center. You can pitch your tent anywhere in the 30-square-foot dunefield that lies outside the day-use area. You’ll have a minimum hike of 1.5 miles over the dunes, but will experience a unique overnight setting.
Backpacking (with a permit) is also available amid the foothills and mountains along the Sand Ramp Trail within the park, where the dunes give way to the mountains.
There are also several private and public campgrounds within an hour’s drive of the park, including those at San Luis Wildlife Area, with facilities that range from primitive to luxurious (for camping!).
Choose your own calf-burning path up the dunes, particularly at dusk when the light gives them a rich gold color and shadows snake across their wind-sculpted ridges. Dig your toes into the sand or feel it run through your fingers, and you’ll realize their true enormity.
EXTEND YOUR TRIP
Close to Great Sand Dunes National Park, this peaceful park has 51 campsites with showers, electricity and laundry. Enjoy fishing, watersports, trails and wildlife viewing. Check with Park or Website for current conditions.
San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuges (Alamosa and Monte Vista)
Alamosa, Monte Vista, and Baca Refuges form the San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuge Complex. This Complex is a part of the Refuge System, a network of lands that conserve wildlife and habitat.
Fort Garland was built in 1858, ten years after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, during American expansion into the west. Today, visitors can explore life in a nineteenth century military fort by walking the parade grounds and touring five of the original adobe buildings. Learn about the Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th Cavalry who were stationed at the Fort from 1876 to 1879. Discover Colorado’s role in the Civil War in the West exhibit. Rich in military history, Fort Garland highlights the women and children who brought a bit of home to the fort. From the Fort, plan a visit to Pike’s Stockade, where Zebulon Pike and his men camped in the early 1800s.
Colorado Gators began in 1977 as a fish farm to raise tilapia for human consumption. The geothermal well is 2050 feet deep and 87 degrees. In 1987, the first alligators were brought in as “garbage disposals” for dead fish. Some of these original gators are now 11 feet long and weigh over 500 pounds. There are many species of exotic reptiles on our farm, most of which come from uninformed pet owners, or are sent by police and animal control agencies. We take care of these animals as best we can and display them for education of the public.
The Oasis Restaurant and Store, located at the main park entrance, is the only restaurant within 25 miles of the national park. The Oasis is open April through October. A wide variety of restaurants are available in Alamosa (38 miles southwest of Visitor Center). The towns of Hooper (30 miles northwest), Blanca (27 miles southeast), and Fort Garland (31 miles southeast) each have at least one restaurant. The Sand Dunes Swimming Pool, located 3 miles northeast of Hooper, has a grille restaurant on grounds.
PLACES TO STAY
TOWNS NEAR GREAT SAND DUNES NATIONAL PARK
The Medina River It Vanishes from time to time…
Coloradans don’t have to travel far to get to a beach with waves, according to National Parks officials.
Medano Creek is now approaching peak flow! This is the best time of year to experience ‘surge flow’, a globally rare natural phenomenon where creek water flows in waves across the sand.
For surge flow to occur, three elements are necessary: a sufficiently steep channel, a sandy creek bottom, and plenty of flowing water. This combination only exists in a few places on Earth, and Medano Creek is considered the best place in the world to experience surge flow!
Due to unusually cold, wet conditions in May, peak flow is occurring a little later than average this year.
Every year, melting snowpack creates a so-called surge flow in the Medano Creek in the Great Sand Dunes National Park. The surge can send waves up to three feet tall lapping onto the dune field, according to park official Eric Valencia.
What’s called “Colorado’s Natural Beach” draws tens of thousands of visitors during peak season.
“The stream surge is actually quite a unique phenomenon,” Valencia said. “As the water flows through the sand, the sand begins to kind of tumble down and eventually it will create a small dam. The pressure of the water will break that dam of sand and it forms a wave.”
The underwater ridges break around every 20 seconds to create a wave.
The dunes are located in the Southern Colorado Rocky Mountains. The water from upstream spreads out at the foot of the dunes into wide, shallow water.
Medano Creek has exhibited some surge flow despite cold temperatures and slow snow melt this spring, according to the park.
The pressure of the water flow is measured in cubic feet per second. As of May 31, the flow is only 22 cfs. The park calls this small surge flow. The flow typically peaks in late May or early June with around 40 cfs.
Snowpack in Medano Pass is currently over 160 percent of normal. Because of that above-average snowpack, peak flow for Medano Creek is forecast to be sometime in the first half of June rather than the typical late May. The park also expects some shallow flow through July.
Peak flow weekends tend to bring the highest number of visitors each year to the park. Valencia said visitors play in the water, skimboard, raft and make sand castles.
As of March 27, 2020, snowpack in Medano Pass is a little less than average for this date. However, March and April are the two snowiest months of the year in Colorado, so final snowpack totals won’t be known until the end of April. If snow accumulates at an average rate through March and April, Medano Creek will be close to average in depth and duration in the 2020 season. See ‘Medano Creek Month-by-Month in an Average Year’ below for details on planning in advance for Medano Creek’s seasonal flow.
Check Up-To-The-Minute Flow
See the current flow and trend of Medano Creek as a graph.
Medano Creek Month-by-Month in an Average Year
April is the second snowiest month of the year at Great Sand Dunes, but there are also some sunny days with highs in the 60s. Spring is the windy season throughout the southwestern United States, especially afternoons, though mornings are usually calm. The creek begins to trickle down as the snow on the Sangre de Cristo Mountains melts. By late April the creek may be a few inches deep. Cottonwood trees and willows along the creek are not yet leafed out.
Late May is near the peak of Medano Creek’s annual flow. While it is still springtime and winds may arise, especially in the afternoon, May temperatures are generally moderate, with highs in the 60s-70s F. However, snow is still possible at this elevation in May! Trees and bushes along the creek leaf out. There may be some “no-see-ums” (tiny biting gnats), but mosquitoes are rarely out in May. Late May and early June are the best opportunity to experience “surge flow”, where waves up to about 20 inches (50 cm) high flow down across the sand. In wet years with good peak runoff, children can float down the waves on flat inflatable toys. Water comes out of the mountains cold, but warms up significantly when the sun shines on it for a few hours as it spreads across the sand. Because of the creek’s popularity, late May and early June weekends are extremely crowded, with long lines of traffic, overflowing parking lots, a crowded beach, and full campgrounds. If possible, plan your visit on a weekday this time of year.
June brings warmer temperatures for water play and generally pleasant conditions the first week of June. But as the creek becomes much lower and warmer around the second week of June, mosquitoes emerge in large numbers. Move away from vegetation, to the far side of the creek to avoid the worst of the mosquitoes: they don’t like open sand, but prefer to be near shady bushes and trees. By late June, the water level will be fairly low, only 1 or 2 inches (1-5cm). Because of the creek’s popularity, late May and early June weekends are extremely crowded, with long lines of traffic, overflowing parking lots, a crowded beach, and full campgrounds. If possible, plan your visit on a weekday this time of year.
In July, unless there are significant ongoing rains, the creek will begin to retreat back toward the mountains, drying up at the main visitor area near the Dunes Parking Lot. It will continue to gently flow (1/2″ – 1″ deep) along the eastern edge of the dunefield, near the Castle Creek picnic area. Castle Creek is accessible by high clearance 4WD vehicle on the Medano Pass Primitive Road. Visitors without 4WD may also access the creek in late summer by hiking approximately 2 miles (3.5 km) up the creekbed from the Dunes Parking Lot, or approximately 0.7 miles (1km) from the Point of No Return parking area. Mosquitoes usually disappear after the water retreats. July is the warmest month at the park, with average highs in the low 80s F.
In August and September, the creek will likely be completely gone from the main visitor area near the Dunes Parking Lot. It may continue to gently flow (1/2 to 1 inch or 1-2cm deep) along the eastern edge of the dunefield, near the Castle Creek Picnic Area. Castle Creek is accessible by high clearance 4WD vehicle on the Medano Pass Primitive Road. Visitors without 4WD may also access the creek late summer by hiking approximately 2 miles (3.5 km) up the creekbed from the Dunes Parking Lot, or 0.7 miles (1km) from the Point of No Return parking area. Mosquitoes typically disappear along with the creek.
Medano Creek Activities
Depending on water level, visitors may do any non-motorized and non-mechanized activities in the creek, including splashing, surfing, wading, skimboarding, floating (works only in small raft or tube with a child at peak runoff), sand castle building, and sand sculpting.
To protect this riparian habitat, please do not disturb living plants or animals, and keep water resources clean.
Directions to Trailheads
Montville/Mosca Pass Trailhead: Drive 1/8 mile north of visitor center.
Point of No Return: 1 mile (1.6km) on Medano Pass Primitive Road, beyond Piñon Flats Campground. This parking area provides access to national park backcountry sites along the Sand Ramp Trail.
Sand Ramp Trail Access: 5 miles (8km) on Medano Pass Primitive Road, beyond Pinon Flats Camp- ground. This small parking area is accessible by high- clearance 4WD vehicles only, providing access to national park backcountry sites along the Sand Ramp Trail.
Medano Lake Trailhead: Follow sign after driving 10.5 miles (17km) along Medano Pass Primitive Road, beyond Piñon Flats Campground. This trailhead is accessible by high-clearance 4WD vehicles only, providing access to Medano Lake.
Music Pass Trailhead: This trailhead is accessible
TOWNS NEAR GREAT SAND DUNES NATIONAL PARK
PLACES TO STAY
SO UNIQUE AND SO MUCH FUN!