The Great Sand Dunes is an amazing place you could spend all day at. You could spend hours just exploring and sand boarding the sand dunes. When done exploring the dunes stick around for the amazing view of the Milky Way.

Even though everyone can enjoy the Great Sand Dunes, the adventurous people will be able to get more out of the experience. The sand dunes can be hiked with any skill level, but just remember it is like doing a stair master in sand. Also, the mountain pass on the back side of the dunes is a 4x4 and hiking only road which limits the amount of people that can enjoy it.


Hiking the sand dunes

Hiking the sand dunes is a unique experience. These are the tallest sand dunes in North America reaching 755 feet from the base and hitting an elevation of over 8,600 feet. The dunes are complimented by a creek/river that must be traversed to get to the dunes. Do not worry though. The water is snow melt and is only present in the Spring.

The dunes can be as easy or as difficult as you want. You can find shallow routes that require a little stamina or steep routes that collapse when ascending. Just remember to take your time, and it is not a race. The sand dunes can be like doing a stair master in sand while at altitude.

There are no marked paths which means you will need to do your own route finding. Just remember that because everyone is going one route does not mean it is the best/easiest. If you think a slope is too steep and the sand might collapse, then it probably is. But, it does not hurt to challenge yourself and give it a try. When in doubt don't be afraid to make switchbacks and take the long route. The longer routes can be the quicker ones.

Be sure to check the warning section because of the lightning and sand tempurature dangers. Also, the dunes are best hiked during the non winter months. During the winter the dunes can be frozen or snow covered.

Helpful tip: when hiking through the sand dunes either bring an extra pair of shoes and socks or hiking gaiters. I always wear my $10 pair of hiking gaiters to prevent my boots filling with sand. With out them your shoes will collect a lot of sand. This makes them nice and heavy. Also, when the sand combines with any sweat it can be difficult to clean afterwards.

The park is also open 24/7, this means the dunes are open for star gazing (mentioned later on) or moon light hikes.

Surounding hikes

There are plenty more trails than the ones that go through the dunes. The dunes are only a small part of the park. The mountains to the north are all part of the preserve too. The forested trails are rewarding but rated from moderate to difficult.

Sand Creek Lake Trail

Sand Creek Lakes trailhead is accessed from the north east side of the preserve off of highway 69. These trails are a little longer but are well worth the hike. 4WD will have an easier time on the forest service road. 2WD users are recommended to park where Rainbow Trail crosses Music Pass Road which adds 2.5miles to the hike.

Once at the trail head, you can hike towards the lower, upper and little sand creek lakes. Each one is just as impressive as the next with great views of the steep winding mountains. The elevation gain to the Upper Sand Creek Lake is just under 2,000'. Once at the lakes you can summit any of the 13,000+ foot peaks that snuggle right up to the lakes.

Lower Sand Creek Lake 3 miles
Upper Sand Creek Lake 3.5 miles
Little Sand Creek Lakes 8 miles

Dunes Overlook Trail

This short out and back trail is just under 3 miles with a 472 foot elevation gain. It offers great a great view of the dunes without the drive and 8 mile hike required to get to Mount Herard.

Medano Lake and Mount Herard

If you have a 4WD vehicle take Medano Pass to the trail head. If you have a 2WD vehicle park at the point of no return and be prepared for a much longer hike. Medano Pass brings you to 10,000' and the trail is another 2,000' up to the alpine lake at tree line. For a challenge the Mount Herard summit is another 1,300' at 13,297'. The trail out and back from the lake is almost 8 miles which makes this a moderate trail.

The lake is a must stop for hikers. With the right lighting the water turns a beautiful green and blue color and is hugged by the surrounding cliffs. For spectacular view make sure to summit Mount Herard.

Sand Boarding and Sledding

Sand boarding is one of the many things that makes the sand dunes fun an unique. It offers a snow boarding like experience almost year round. There are various places to rent and the Park Service website has a lot of useful information on dos and donts.

Helpful tip: You can bring just about anything to sled down, but make sure it works well on sand. Sand boards are designed for sand and need to be continually waxed.

Star Gazing

In 2019, Great Sand Dunes became a certified International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association. The combination of the high altitude, dry air, and no light pollution makes it one of the best places in the U.S. to star gaze. Just make sure to come on a moonless night. You are encouraged to bring your own telescope or binoculars and use a red LED flashlight (to protect your night vision).

Along with star gazing you can observe the nocturnal wildlife in the dunes with some species being uniquely specific to the Great Sand Dunes. You can observe Tiger Salamanders, Owls, and kangaroo rats to name a few. Just try not to shine light on them as they are very sensetive to light.


Camping can be done along the Medano Pass 4WD Road, and backpacking is allowed with in the national park and preserve.

Pinon Flats Campground


closed winters

This campground has 88 sites for tents and some have RV spots up to 25ft with no hook-ups. Some sites might only be able to accomodate 1 vehicle and tent, while others can accomodate 2. Each of the three loops has their own bathroom with running water, but no showers.

The single reserverations can accomodate up to 8 people while group sites can accomodate up to 40.

Please take a second to read their fire wood guidelines to help protect the park.

Click here for a full list of camping, RV sites, and cabins

Off Roading

Medano Pass is closed during the winter, but for the rest of the year it offers a great experience. It is a 22 mile mountain pass going to 10,040' and connects the dunes with highway 69. It is open to only to high clearance and 4WD vehicles. The road crosses deep sand, rocks, and medano creek nine times. It is recommended to reduce tire preasure (20psi) when the sand is dry and soft. The park provides a free air station near the south entrance. To drive the road will take 2.5 to 3 hours. There are 21 camping sites along the road that provide bear boxes. Camping is only permitted within 40feet of the bear box at each site.


0.0 End of Paved Road: start of Medano Pass Primitive Road.
0.2 Garden Creek: flows until mid-summer
0.5 Buck Creek: intermittent stream
1.0 Sawmill Creek: flows until mid-summer.
1.1 Point of No Return: 4WD vehicles ONLY past this point. Sand Ramp Trail access.
1.4 Ponderosa Point Picnic Area: view of Mt. Herard (13,297’) and dunes.
1.8 Sand Pit: DEEP SAND! Reduce tire pressure to about 20 pounds if sand is soft
2.6 Castle Creek Picnic Area: picnic tables, vault toilet. Park only in designated areas.
3.3 Horse Canyon: views of eastern dunes and foothills.
4.5 1st Crossing of Medano Creek: spring runoff can be very deep! Use caution.
4.6 Old Fire Road: closed to vehicles. 1/2 mile walk to ridge with good views.
5.0 Sand Ramp Trail: trail crosses road. Overnight backpacking permit required.
5.2 Park/Preserve Boundary: roadside campsites begin, numbered by mileage from
boundary. 8 campsites over next 0.3 mile.
5.6 2nd Crossing of Medano Creek
5.9 More Campsites: 2 campsites over next 0.5 mile.
6.1 3rd Crossing of Medano Creek: look for bighorn sheep in meadows and cliffs.
6.2 Herard family’s 1870s homestead site (only foundation remains).
6.4 4th Crossing of Medano Creek
6.8 5th crossing of Medano Creek: 4 campsites over next 0.9 mile.
6.9 Tight squeeze: narrow roadway, boulders on roadsides. Use caution!
7.2 6th crossing of Medano Creek
7.7 Crossing of a Tributary Creek
7.8 Two alternatives: left side usually best.
7.9 7th Crossing of Medano Creek: road steeper ahead.
8.4 More campsites: 1 campsite within next 0.3 mile.
8.6 Creek Crossing of a Tributary Creek.
8.8 Beaver Dams: long meadows, marsh, and beaver dams.
9.0 Three Cabins: burned in 2010 wildfire.
9.5 More Campsites: 6 campsites over next 1.5 miles.
9.6 8th Crossing of Medano Creek
10.6 Creek crossing of a Tributary Creek.
10.7 Medano Lake Trailhead: trailhead at end of short spur road.
11.0 Irrigation ditch: steep section ahead.
11.2 Medano Pass: elevation 10,040’ above sea level.

Source: NPS

This article gives good first hand knowledge of the trail during multiple seasons.


Fishing can be done in a variety of places, but none of the places are easily accessable. The Sand Creek Lakes, Medano Lake, and Medano Creek can all be fished. The lakes require a multi mile hike to the alpine lakes while the creek requires a 4WD vehicle. See above for access information. Please check the Park Service's Website for fishing restrictions. For example, in 2020 an invassive species was found in Sand Creek so the lakes were closed until Trout could be reintroduced.


  • Lightning: The sand dunes contain a lot of iron from the surrounding mountains. This can make them a frequent spot for lightning.
  • Sand temp: On hot days the sand temperature can reach 150 F. Make sure to check with park rangers before starting your hike.
  • Weather: check the local and surrounding weather conditions. For example, it might be clear but a snow storm can cover highway 160 and limit travel back to the east.
  • Gas: Make sure you watch your gas tank. The dunes are in a very rural area and gas stations can be limited.
  • Snow melt: during the spring months water levels are high.
  • Winter: During the winter the dunes may be covered in snow and/or the sand may be hard and frozen.