Vast stretches of sand dunes, hundreds of feet high, summon to mind Morocco, Saudi Arabia or some other exotic location. Did you know southern Colorado is actually home to North America’s tallest dunes? The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Mosca, CO lays claim to that, with dunes over 700 feet high! Surrounded by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the southernmost range in the Rockies, it’s a dramatic scene as you approach through the San Luis Valley and find monstrous dunes, backed by even bigger mountains!
Looking for a unique adventure stateside? This is it!
Where to Stay
Despite being by a national park, there are limited accommodations in Mosca. The park itself offers a campground and backcountry sites. The closest hotel is the Great Sand Dunes Lodge, right at the park entrance. It’s certainly the most convenient. For something a little more unique, check out the Rustic Rook Resort. About 15 minutes from the park entrance, Rustic Rook is a glamping resort with great amenities. Stay in a standard 14×16 tent, or upgrade to a larger one with an in-tent bathroom. They provide towels, linens, battery packs, lanterns and soap/shampoo. The public bathrooms are housed in a shower trailer, which is modern and perfectly clean.
It was so quiet and peaceful, enjoying our morning coffee on the tent’s deck. We stayed in Tent #5, which has an unobstructed view of the mountains. Breakfast is served in the ‘lobby’ (a teepee) around 7am each morning. You can also order a picnic lunch from the resort, which we did, since there are no concessions in the national park. After you’ve had a full day climbing the dunes and need to relax, you can order a grill dinner. From veggie burgers to steak, the camp will provide all the utensils and seasonings. Just cook it up at one of the gas grills onsite, and enjoy your view. The nearest restaurants are about 20 minutes away, so it’s a nice option to just enjoy the resort. All the meals are simple, but were tasty and fresh.
Each evening, the staff put on a campfire, complete with smores. We had some great conversation with fellow travelers, and funny enough, saw them again that week in the Rocky Mountain National Park!
The Great Sand Dunes National Park is designated an International Dark Sky Park, with allegedly beautiful starry skies. Both nights we were there, it was completely cloudy so I’ll just have to take their word on that.
Visiting the Great Sand Dunes National Park
Know Before You Go
There are no concessions within the park, although The Oasis Restaurant and Store is located outside the gate. If you want to spend the day inside the park, pack a picnic.
The most popular National Parks have begun instituting timed entry by advance booking. While that has its pluses and minuses, the Dunes are always open, no reservation needed! Even on an August weekend, there were only a few cars in line at the gate. The main Dunes parking lot can fill up, though we had no trouble around 9am.
Entry passes are good for 7 days, but the National Park Pass is worth your while if you plan to visit 2-3 parks in a year. If you visit popular parks, such as the Rockies, entry fees are daily, not weekly. It was going to save us to purchase an Annual Pass, since we were spending a week in the Rocky Mountain National Park after the Dunes. However, if you’re a veteran, active duty servicemember, a senior, or a 4th grader, you probably qualify for a free pass! Based on a new program released last year, we received a free annual veterans pass.
Inside the Park
Head straight for the main attraction- the dunes! There’s a large parking lot past the visitor center, where you can easily access the dunes. It’s also where you’ll find the Medano Creek, which flows roughly April to June. During our August visit, it was dry. The park is much busier when the creek is flowing, but along with bringing crowds, the water also brings heavy mosquito activity. Be prepared if you visit May-July.
Pack plenty of water, and go explore the dunes. I have an obsession with dunes, having spent many a summer weekend on the Lake Michigan Dunes. The Warren Dunes were my first experience, and I was wowed. Then I visited Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and those took my breath away. Well, they’re babies in comparison to Great Sand Dunes National Park!
There aren’t really any formal trails, as the sands are constantly shifting, but it’s so much fun just climbing through them. Dune sledding and boarding are popular, although I kept wiping out! Rustic Rook rents the boards, as does the Oasis Store. The park does not. Plan to sled or dune climb in the morning or evening, as the sands can reach 150° F during the heat of the day.
Had enough sand and sun? Explore one of the park’s mountain trails. There are some incredible hikes- these are the Rockies after all! If you’re an avid hiker or have a raised 4×4 vehicle, check out the Sand Creek Lakes. We didn’t make it on our weekend stay, but I’d love to go back. We did hike the Mosca Pass Trail, which is 7 miles roundtrip. It’s beautiful, beginning in the valley on a cacti rimmed trail, transitioning to aspen groves as you climb. For an easy walk, the Montville Nature Trail begins at the same trailhead, but is a short 0.5 mile loop. Catch some nice views of the dunes on your descent.
Beyond the Dunes
There is so much natural beauty to enjoy! In addition to the National Park itself, there are thousands of acres of the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) also operates a number of sites in the area, including Zapata Falls. BLM parks and land are free to visit, and offer both paid and free camping opportunities. Dispersed camping, boondocking or picking a campsite outside of a designated campground, is allowable on most BLM land, with a few exceptions.
In August, the San Luis Valley is a sea of prairie sunflowers. It took my breath away! There are moments that stand still, ones you can look back at and recognize as turning points. This was one of mine. Standing in the field of flowers stretching as far as I could see, I fell in love with America’s west, its wild and natural places. Translation to real life? Let’s buy an RV and explore this beautiful land!
This was my favorite experience around the Dunes! Go for the national park, but don’t miss this hike. Just 3 miles from the Dunes entrance, the falls hike is .9 roundtrip. A little forewarning, the road to the falls is a bit rough. In the scheme of Rocky Mountain roads, it’s tame, but it is full of loose gravel and some big rocks. With our loaded down SUV, I was a bit worried, but the VW bus in front of us made it, as did we.
Once you arrive at the parking lot, you’ll forget all about that. The views are fantastic- the valley and sand dunes below, mountains all around. It’s probably one of the best viewpoints.
The trail is slightly uphill and a bit rocky, but at 0.9 miles roundtrip, it’s easy. Once you arrive at the river, you’ll be hiking upstream through it. The water is oh so cold! Coming around the bend into the chasm, you’ll see the bottom of the falls. Wade in further, and you’ll get the full view. It is such a unique hike, I can’t recommend it enough. Trekking pole would be helpful for navigating the river, and as always when hiking, wear appropriate shoes.
From the road up, to the river and falls, I hope my video provides helpful insight!
After a day of hiking or dune surfing, you might not feel like cooking your own meals. Alamosa has a cute main street with plenty of dining options. From pizza to tacos to a local brewery, take your pick. The town is also home to chain restaurants like KFC and Chili’s.
The town hosts Artscape, local art scattered along Main Street. Scan the QR codes to learn about each one, or for purchasing information. Check out Alamosa’s Downtown Walking Tour for local history.
Visiting the San Luis Valley is all about incredible natural beauty, so you probably won’t linger long in town, but it’s nice to know creature comforts are nearby.