Sand Dunes in one day
It's a little off the beaten path to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. A popular destination for over 300,000 visitors annually, Great Sand Dunes features a diversity of resources and something of interest for all ages. Explore desert to forest to tundra, an unusual combination of landscapes found within a single National Park Service unit.
If You Only Have Time for a Short Visit
If you have only a very short time to enjoy the park, try to take in the contrast between wind-swept dunes and craggy Rocky Mountains. Make your first stop the Visitor Center: watch the 20 minute film and take a peek at the exhibits. Then head into the dunes. Watch for animal and insect tracks in the sand. Is Medano Creek flowing? If you see water on the surface, moisture levels have been average or high in the preceding months.
More options for a quick visit
Attend a terrace talk or nature walk during summer months; check the interpretive schedule at the Visitor Center for times. All interpretive programs are free and open to everyone-please join us!
Explore Medano Creek, flowing at the base of the dunes. During dry years, the creek disappears. In years of adequate snow and rainfall, the creek flows in spring and early summer. Observe the creek closely. Do you see anything unusual? Medano Creek exhibits a phenomenon called "surge flow." Its surges may remind you of waves at a beach. Each time a surge occurs, a mound of sand (which had temporarily damned some of the water in the creek bed), collapses. If you'd like more information on surge flow, ask for a handout at the Visitor Center. If you have youngsters in your group, you may have a difficult time prying them out of the creek and the wet sand. We encourage you to spend time with them building sand castles, flying a kite, or sliding down the dunes. When you're ready to call it quits find the footwash just outside the rest room building in the dunes parking area. Your pets are welcome to play with you-but please keep them leashed at all times, and clean up after them!
Bring a picnic lunch and enjoy awesome views of the dunes from the picnic area. You may have magpies scavenging around you, large black and white birds, iridescent in hues of green or purple in the sunlight. Remember, keep wildlife wild! Never feed the birds or animals, no matter how persuasive they are.
Hike the Montville Nature Trail, a ½ mile jaunt beginning at the Mosca Pass Trailhead Parking Area. Take along a trail guide and learn a little natural and human history of the area. The trail gets its name from a late 1800s settlement at the foot of nearby Mosca Pass, consisting of 20 houses in its heyday.
If you have half a day
Spend a little more time exploring the dunes, and watch for the interactions of sand, wind, water, and animals. Climb the "High" Dune, the prominent dune visible from the Visitor Center. Though it is neither the highest in elevation above sea level, nor the tallest from top to bottom, it appears that way from the main visitor area. Elevation gain to the top is 650 feet. There are no trails to the summit; begin at the base and zigzag up the dune ridge lines. From High Dune are splendid views only motivated hikers are privileged to see. Another skyrising dune can be seen to the southwest: the spectacular Star Dune which rises 750 feet. Star dunes have three or more arms and are created by complex wind patterns. Star dunes are also very photogenic, so make sure you take your camera.
Wildlife watching is a popular past time at Great Sand Dunes. During the day, watch for coyotes, mule deer, pronghorn, ground squirrels, and chipmunks. At night, wander the dunes in search of giant sand treader camel crickets or kangaroo rats. In fall, winter, and spring, also watch for elk along the entrance road. Remember, everything at Great Sand Dunes is protected, so please do your part to keep wildlife wild--observe wildlife only from a distance, and never feed wild animals!
Consider a walk on the dunes around sunset; what better way to watch the closing of the day than from a dune ridge line? Moonlight walks on the dunes can be enchanting, and the night sky may amaze you with its brilliance! No need to worry about poisonous snakes and scorpions-they are not found in these high-elevation dunes. However, be sure you stay oriented and can find your way back to your vehicle when you're ready. Save some time for quiet contemplation. You may find the dunes to be a place where you can set aside the challenges of everyday life, a place where uninterrupted solitude can be found.
For a walk with great views but more solid footing, walk the Sand Ramp Trail beginning in the campground near the second bathroom in Loop 2. Hike north to Point of No Return. Along the trail are majestic views of the dunes. Take a short spur trail to the Dunes Overlook. The openness of the landscape provides excellent views in all directions.
Hike the Mosca Pass trail, which winds up Mosca Canyon and the national preserve. Summertime wildflowers are abundant in moist areas along Mosca Creek. Mosca Canyon also is a favorite area for birders. In the lower reaches of the canyon you'll find pinyon, juniper, cottonwood, and aspen trees thriving. Higher up grow spruce and fir groves. Watch for bristlecone and limber pines as well. The top of the pass reveals views into the Wet Mountain Valley on the east side. The elevation at the top of the pass is 9,413 feet. Experienced hikers, consider a bushwhack to the top of Carbonate Peak, south of Mosca Pass.
On a hot summer day, hiking to nearby Zapata Falls can be a "chilling" experience, but is not for anyone unsteady on their feet. The trailhead is located outside the park on highway 150. From the Visitor Center, drive south about 8 miles, then turn left (east) onto a gravel road. Drive about 3.5 miles to the trailhead. To view the falls, hike about 1 mile, crossing the creek, climbing a short ladder, and traversing the stream into a cavern where the falls cascade onto a ledge. Be careful! In winter, the falls freeze, creating an icy sculpture capturing the motion of the falling water. Watch for slippery trail conditions in winter.
Driving Options and Driving Tours
Please see link below: "Activities like Sliding, Sandboarding, Off-Road".