At one time, lakes covered much of what we now call the Great Sand Dunes. When those bodies of water dried up, predominant winds blowing sand and lake sediment southwest toward the Sangre de Cristo Mountains struck storm winds blowing east. Centuries of opposing gusts in the natural hollow of the San Luis Valley created huge peaks of sand.
Today, the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve spans 150,000 acres and includes lakes, grasslands, wetlands, deep backwoods trails, AWD-only roads, and, of course, the dunes.
If you don’t have a lot of time to spare, you can limit your exploration of the main dunefield. Located just off Highway 150, about a four-hour drive from Denver, this area hosts the tallest sand dunes in North America. The highest, Star Dune, is 750 feet from base to crest. The trek from the main parking lot, up and down Star Dune, and back to your car likely will take as long as the drive from the Mile High City – unless you opt to sled, ski, or snowboard down the peak. In that case, be sure to wear protective clothing, because sand can burn even in cool weather.
Spending $20 to $30 on a hard plastic sled is worth the investment since inner tubes, cardboard, and other makeshift vehicles either will get stuck in the sand or break apart on the way down.
The park never closes, so you can meditate under the stars or venture out for a midnight hike. Under the glow of a full moon, the dunes’ eerie pale humps, juxtaposed starkly against the Sangre de Cristos, are sights you won’t forget.
If you’d rather sleep than hike, you can car camp at Pinyon Flats campground for $20 or drive to a remote site along Medano Pass Primitive Road. Primitive is the operative word, though. You’ll need an AWD vehicle to access the area. (Reserve a space at recreation.gov.)
If indoor housing is more your style, check out the Great Sand Dunes Oasis, Great Sand Dunes Lodge, or any of the hotels in Alamosa, 35 miles away.
For more information about the park, go to nps.gov/grsa.