How to Spend 2 Days in Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park is full of amazing activities. Camping & Hiking expert Hannah K. shares her recommendations for a perfect weekend trip.

Photo by Matt Noble
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Great Sand Dunes National Park in Southwest Colorado is known for holding the tallest sand dunes in North America. The park has multiple ecosystems that often go unnoticed—ranging from wetlands to forests to tundras filled with their own wildlife. There is a lot to see and it can be overwhelming to plan a trip. To help, here is how I spent two days in Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Note: Avoid going in the summer when temperatures rise. Try spring or fall instead.

Day 1

Morning Hike: Mosca Pass Trail

We arrived at the park early in the morning and first on our list was a morning hike to wake up our bodies. This trail takes you near a small creek through aspen and evergreen forests. You will reach the summit of a low pass in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. This trail is 3.5mi one way and should take around two to three hours.

If you want a different hike, the Montville Nature Trail is a great shaded trail named after a settlement in the 1800s. This trail offers beautiful views of Mt. Herard, the valley, and of course the sand dunes.

Interested in some backpacking? Check out the Sand Ramp Trail, an 11mi trail that stays at consistent elevation near the base of the mountains. This trail offers access to other backpacking trails. The first 2mi are fine but the last nine are all loose sand and can be more strenuous to hike.

Sand Sledding

After our morning hike, we took a short lunch and went to hit some sand sledding/boarding. You can rent sleds that have handles to hold onto or boards that have hooks for your feet. Keep in mind that the National Park does not rent these items, but they can be rented from the nearby Oasis Store outside the park. They will not, however, rent sleds if the sand is wet.

If you sled, it is recommended to avoid going face first (read: don’t want to eat sand). We spent about an hour enjoying the warm sand and the effects of gravity. You can sandboard, sled, or ski anywhere on the dunefield that is away from vegetated areas. From the Dines Parking Area, it is a 0.7mi hike to the small slope, which is great for younger kids. Exactly 1.25mi away from the parking lot is a larger slope. Just keep in mind that once you ride down you have to hike back up!

Bring water—hiking up sand dunes is strenuous on the body.

Grasslands

After we shook off as much sand as we could, we went to the Grasslands. The Grasslands and Shrublands are the park's least visited area. This region is referred to as the sand sheet and varies from wet meadows, to cool-grass prairies, to desert shrubland. This depends on the location of groundwater as well as soil type. Elk and pronghorn hang around here as well as burrowing owls that nest in the ground. Lizards, kangaroo rats, and mice are also native to this area.

We were feeling a bit tired by now, so we did a 0.25mi trail near the visitor’s center that has educational signs about the grassland ecosystem along the way. It was a short trail but offered a glimpse into the grassland world. I even spotted a short-horned lizard.

Set Up Camp

After we learned about the Grasslands, we set up camp at Pinon Flats Campground, which closes for the winter and reopens April 1st. There are many tent-only sites and RV sites, but reserve in advance to avoid not getting a spot! Campgrounds will be reserved when it gets warmer and people want to swim in Medano Creek.

This campground has bathroom facilities (including flush toilets, but no showers), dishwashing sinks, and water spigots.

After setting up our tents, we made a delicious campfire mac n’ cheese and waited for the stars to come out. We ended up driving out of the campsite to get better stars and they did not disappoint! If you can, plan your trip on a full moon and walk on the sand dunes. You won’t even need your headlamp.

Someone stands on a ridgeline and shines a beam into the night sky. The Milky Way shines bright and the sky is crowded with stars.
Photo by Josh Gordon

Day 2

Medano Lake & Mount Herard Alpine Trail

After a few hours of sleep, we woke up bright and early (read: 3am) and got ready to hike Mount Herard. FYI, you need 4WD to drive on Medano Pass Road, which is a very beautiful and scenic road.

On the road you can splash in Medano Creek if the water temperature is to your liking!

Mount Herard is 13,297ft up, requiring intense and steep climbs. The trail starts at 10,000ft of elevation and the trail climbs through lush meadows that make you feel like a fairy. After the first 2,000ft of gain you will first make it to the alpine lake, before climbing an additional 1,000ft up to the peak of Mount Herard.

We took our time, enjoying the fairy-like meadows and gorgeous trees along the way. I brought a 2L water reservoir and an additional Nalgene and it was the perfect amount for me. In warmer months I would suggest 4L of water per person depending on how much water you typically drink on a difficult hike.

Always check weather conditions and check with park rangers before attempting this trail for adequate preparedness.

We took a long lunch break and then made our way to the wetlands for the afternoon before heading home.

A flat plain lies in the foreground of the photo and a slightly snow-topped mountain rises in the distance. The sky is pale blue.
Photo by Ian Dooley

Wetlands

There are wetlands inside and outside the park. Some of the wetlands within the park are Cotton Lake, Twin Lakes, Little Spring, Indian Spring, and Dollar Lake. However, these are not open to the public at the moment.

Instead, we went to a wetland right outside the park in San Luis Lakes State Wildlife Area, which has a large lake at the entrance and is open year round. On the shore, some wildlife you may see include American avocets, night herons, elk, bear, great blue herons, and more. Amphibians such as toads, salamanders, and frogs thrive in this environment. Listen to the chorus frogs sing if you can!

Another great wetland to visit nearby is the Blanca Wetlands, which have been described as otherworldly. They are wide and shallow lakes surrounded by alkali salt flats.

Drive Back to Boulder

After our visit to the wetlands we left the southwest section of Colorado and drove three hours back to Boulder.

Heading to Great Sand Dunes National Park? Hit me up with your trip details and let’s chat about all things outdoors.

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Written By
Although I've been hiking for most of my life, I didn't start backpacking and camping until college when I joined the University Outdoors Club at my school. My first backpacking trip was ambitious, the Batona Trail in the Pinelands in New Jersey done in two days. To do that, we had to walk a maratho...

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