Setting out on one of the many Great Sand Dunes National Park hikes is one of the most unique trekking experiences in the United States. The park is home to the tallest sand dunes in North America, some towering more than 750 feet above the valley floor. These massive dunes offer a fascinating hiking experience for visitors seeking adventure and stunning views.
With over 30 miles of trails, Great Sand Dunes offers hikes for all skill levels, from beginner to advanced. Whether you’re looking for an easy stroll or a challenging trek through shifting sands, there’s a hike waiting for you at this remarkable national park.
In this article, we’ll explore some of the best hikes at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and important tips for hiking in this unique landscape that will take you on an unforgettable journey through this breathtaking national park.
Hiking Tips for Great Sand Dunes National Park
Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado is one of the most stunning natural wonders in the United States. It boasts towering sand dunes, serene lakes and rivers, and breathtaking mountain vistas. However, hiking in this park can be a challenging and risky experience if you are not adequately prepared for it.
Here are some important tips to keep in mind when hiking in Great Sand Dunes National Park.
- Entrance to Great Sand Dunes National Park: The National Park Service charges $25 for a normal vehicle for 7 consecutive days. You can also use a National Parks Pass like the America the Beautiful Pass for free entry.
- Safety: The safety of hikers should always be a top priority when exploring any national park. In Great Sand Dunes National Park, the terrain can be challenging, with steep slopes on the sand dunes that are difficult to walk on. Moreover, there is no shade on the dune field and the dry, hot climate means that staying hydrated is even more important. We recommend packing hydration powders like DripDrop or Liquid IV for your hikes in Great Sand Dunes National Park for this reason. Additionally, it’s important to bring a small first aid kit.
- Weather: The weather in Great Sand Dunes National Park can change rapidly, making it essential to plan your hike accordingly. You may encounter extreme heat during summer days or sudden thunderstorms in the afternoons. In winter, be prepared for snowy and icy conditions. We recommend bringing microspikes for hiking in the park in winter, particularly if you want to hike any of the trails that are not on the dune field, as those can become icy.
- Navigation: Hiking trails at Great Sand Dunes National Park, particularly those on the dunes field, are not easy to navigate. There are NO MARKED TRAILS on the dunes field, because of the ever-shifting nature of the sandy landscape. Bringing along maps, GPS devices or compasses will help you avoid getting lost while exploring this vast park. We usually use the AllTrails app on our phones.
- Pets: Great Sand Dunes National Park is one of the few national parks in the United States where the majority of hiking trails are also dog-friendly! Keep your pup leashed and enjoy the hikes with your pup! Note that dogs are not allowed inside buildings or on the Sand Ramp Trail.
- Leave No Trace: Always pack out all of your rubbish, including fruit peels and cores, when hiking in Great Sand Dunes National Park. As they say, leave only footprints and take only photos!
What to Pack for Great Sand Dunes National Park Hikes
If you’re planning a day hike in Great Sand Dunes National Park, packing the right essentials can make all the difference between an enjoyable experience and a frustrating one. Here are some essential items to consider when packing for your hiking trip:
- Hiking boots with good traction – the trails in Great Sand Dunes National Park can be steep so it’s important to wear shoes that can provide stability and support.
- Comfortable, moisture-wicking clothing – dress in layers so you can adjust to changing temperatures throughout the day. Avoid cotton as it retains moisture and can make you feel cold and damp.
- A hiking backpack is essential for carrying your gear and food on your hike in Great Sand Dunes National Park.
- Sun protection – wear a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen to protect your skin and eyes from the sun’s harmful rays.
- Plenty of water – bring at least 2 liters of water per person, as the trails at Great Sand Dunes National Park can be strenuous and dehydrating. We use a 2-liter reservoir or 3-liter reservoir in our backpacks for water and hydration, as well as electrolytes like DripDrop or LiquidIV.
- Snacks and lunch – pack some energy-boosting snacks like trail mix, fruit, and protein bars, as well as a lunch if you plan on spending the day on the mesa.
- Map and compass – it’s always a good idea to bring a map and compass to ensure you stay on the right trail.
- First aid kit – pack a basic first aid kit with essentials like bandages, antiseptic wipes, and pain relievers.
- Insect repellent – the national park is home to a variety of insects, so bring insect repellent to ward off mosquitoes and ticks.
- Rain gear – Colorado weather can be unpredictable, so bring a rain jacket or poncho just in case.
- Camera – don’t forget to bring a camera or smartphone to capture the stunning views and unique geological landscapes in Great Sand Dunes National Park. We shoot with Sony a7iii.
By packing these essentials for your day hike in Great Sand Dunes National Park, you’ll be prepared for whatever comes your way – whether it’s unexpected weather changes or an impromptu picnic lunch on top of one of the park’s stunning sand dunes!
Preparing for the Weather in Great Sand Dunes National Park
Great Sand Dunes National Park is a beautiful and unique destination, but it’s not without its dangers. Extreme weather conditions can pose serious risks to visitors who are unprepared or unaware of the potential hazards. Here are a few tips for staying safe during extreme weather in Great Sand Dunes National Park.
- Heat: Summer temperatures in Great Sand Dunes National Park can reach well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, so it’s important to be prepared for the heat. Bring plenty of water and wear lightweight, breathable clothing that covers your skin. Avoid strenuous activity during the hottest parts of the day, and take frequent breaks in shaded areas.
- Lightning: Thunderstorms can develop quickly in the mountains surrounding Great Sand Dunes National Park, and lightning strikes are a real danger. If you hear thunder or see lightning, seek shelter immediately. Avoid tall trees and other high objects that could attract lightning strikes, and stay away from bodies of water.
- Wind: Winds in Great Sand Dunes National Park can be strong enough to cause sandstorms that reduce visibility and make it difficult to breathe. If you encounter a sandstorm, cover your mouth with a scarf or bandana to protect your lungs from dust particles. Seek shelter if possible, or lie flat on the ground until the storm passes.
- Flash Floods: The park’s arroyos (dry creek beds) can become deadly flash flood zones during heavy rainfall events even miles away from where you stand. Always check weather forecasts before heading out into remote areas of the park, especially at night when flash floods may occur without warning- never camp overnight inside an arroyo as they are designed by nature specifically for moving water – do not attempt any ‘exploration’ deeper into these channels than necessary.
- Wildfires: Wildfires have been known to occur within NPS boundaries due to natural causes like lightning strikes as well as human negligence such as careless disposal of smoking materials. Pay attention to fire restrictions in the park, and always extinguish campfires completely before leaving them unattended.
Always be prepared for heat, lightning, wind, flash floods, and wildfires by checking weather forecasts prior to visiting Great Sand Dunes and bringing appropriate gear with you. We always recommend checking with a park ranger at the visitor center if you are unsure!
Best Hikes in Great Sand Dunes National Park
Great Sand Dunes National Park is a unique and awe-inspiring place, and one of the best ways to experience it is by hiking. There are a variety of trails to choose from, ranging from easy to strenuous, so you can find one that’s perfect for your fitness level and interests.
Here are a few of the best hikes in Great Sand Dunes National Park:
1. Montville Nature Trail
|Distance: 0.5 miles
Elevation: 88 feet
|Time: 30 minutes
The short and easy Montville Nature Trail is our favorite hike in the park for views over the entire dune field. Because it is dramatically shorter and less steep than other hikes that go above the dunes, we think it’s one of the best options for hikers of all fitness levels.
The hike covers the area of an 1800s settlement that had 20 houses in its heyday. At the trail’s high point, you can enjoy amazing views of Mt. Herard, the dunes, and the valley below.
Because of this wide view of the landscape, we especially recommend the Montville Nature Trail for sunrise and sunset. We hiked at sunset and it was a perfect way to end our first day hiking in Great Sand Dunes National Park.
2. Wellington Ditch Trail
|Distance: 2.3 miles
Elevation: 150 feet
|Time: 30 minutes
The Wellington Ditch Trail is another easy, family-friendly option for hiking in Great Sand Dunes National Park. This is a great introductory hike to the park and provides good views over the sand dunes. The trail follows an irrigation ditch that was built by the Wellington family in the early 1900s. The trail winds through a forest of pinyon pine and juniper trees, and it offers stunning views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. If you’re looking for a short, easy hike in the park, it’s hard to beat the Wellington Ditch Trail!
3. Zapata Falls Trail
|Distance: 0.9 miles
Elevation: 213 feet
|Time: 30 minutes
This short, easy hike takes you to Zapata Falls, a beautiful waterfall that cascades into a rocky cavern. It’s a great place to cool off on a hot day, and an otherworldly ice palace in winter. This hike is not located within Great Sand Dunes National Park itself but is on the main highway that leads to the park. Because it is such a short hike, it’s an easy and worthwhile addition to a hiking trip at Great Sand Dunes.
The trail is located about 12 miles from the Great Sand Dunes National Park entrance. It’s a 0.9-mile out-and-back trail that’s mostly flat. In summer, your shoes will get a bit wet in the creek, while in winter you will absolutely want microspikes to walk on the ice without slipping!
4. Dunes Overlook Trail
|Distance: 2.7 miles
Elevation: 472 feet
|Time: 1.5 hours
The Dunes Overlook Trail trail takes you to a scenic overlook that offers panoramic views of the dunes. It’s a great place to take a break and enjoy the view.
The trail is located in the Pinyon Flats Campground, and it’s about a 2.7-mile round-trip hike. The trail is mostly shaded, making it a good option on a hot day.
The overlook is located at the top of a small hill, and it offers stunning views of the dunes and the surrounding mountains. You can also see the Medano Creek, which flows through the dune field. The views from the overlook are truly breathtaking, and they’re a great way to get a sense of the scale of the dunes.
5. Mosca Pass Trail
|Distance: 6.2 miles
Elevation: 1407 feet
|Time: 3.5 hours
For those looking for a longer hike with more varied terrain, Mosca Pass Trail is an excellent option. The trail begins at the base of the sand dunes and winds its way through forests and meadows until it reaches Mosca Pass itself, which sits at an elevation of over 9,500 feet above sea level. Along the way, hikers can expect stunning views of both sand dunes and mountain ranges.
The Mosca Pass Trail is a 6.2-mile out-and-back trail that takes you over Mosca Pass, a high mountain pass with stunning views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. You can also see the Great Sand Dunes National Park, the San Luis Valley, and the Rio Grande Valley. The views from the pass are truly breathtaking, and they’re well worth the hike.
The trail begins at the Mosca Pass trailhead right across the street from Great Sand Dunes National Park Visitor Center parking lot. It follows Mosca Creek upstream for about 2 miles, then climbs steeply up to the pass.
6. Sand Ramp Trail
|Distance: 6.7 miles
Elevation: 508 feet
|Time: 2.5 hours
The Sand Ramp Trail is most often used by backpackers heading into more remote destinations in the foothills beyond the dunes. Unless you’re backpacking, there is not much benefit to hiking the Sand Ramp Trail over one of the other hikes on this list of best hikes in Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Although this trail is relatively flat, there is little shade on the lengthy route, and people frequently complain about the deep sand. Note that dogs are not allowed on this trail.
7. High Dune Trail
|Distance: 3 miles
Elevation: 629 feet
|Time: 2 hours
This is the most popular hike in the park and for good reason. It’s a difficult hike that takes you to the top of High Dune, one of the tallest dunes in the park. From the top, in the heart of the dune field, you can enjoy stunning views of the dunes and the surrounding mountains.
The High Dune Trail is a 3-mile out-and-back trail that begins at the High Dune Parking Lot, and it follows a sandy path that leads up the side of the dune. The sand is very soft and slippery, so it’s important to wear sturdy shoes or boots with good traction. The hike to the top of the dune is about 1.5 miles, and it takes about an hour to complete each way. GPS coordinates for High Dune on First Ridge as of 2021:
If you’ve never hiked on deep sand before, expect to slide back one step for every two steps forward you take. We wish this were an exaggeration, but hiking on sand is much more challenging than on more solid terrain.
Once you reach the top of the dune, you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the surrounding mountains and dunes. You can also see the Medano Creek, which flows through the dune field. The views from the top of the dune are truly breathtaking, and they’re well worth the hike.
8. Medano Lake Trail
|Distance: 7.9 miles
Elevation: 2,290 feet
|Time: 5 hours
This difficult hike takes you to Medano Lake, a beautiful alpine lake nestled in the mountains.
The trail begins at 10,000 feet of elevation on the Medano Pass 4WD primitive road. This road is a true 4×4 road with several water crossings and portions with deep sand. Do not attempt this drive if you don’t have the right vehicle, as you risk getting stuck. If you do have a 4×4 vehicle, you’ll park at the trailhead on Medano Pass. From there you begin the 2,290-foot climb to beautiful Medano Lake nestled amidst panoramic mountain views.
Hiking Medano Lake is an all-day hiking and 4WD adventure not for the faint of heart. But for those who make it, it’s a rewarding and challenging hike!
9. Upper Sand Creek Lake Trail
|Distance: 7.4 miles
Elevation: 1965 feet
|Time: 4.5 hours
The Upper Sand Creek Lake Trail is a 7.5-mile out-and-back trail that takes you above treeline to a beautiful alpine lake that reflects 13,357′ nearby Music Mountain. The trail is located in Great Sand Dunes National Park and requires a 2.5-hour drive from the Great Sand Dunes Visitor Center with a 4WD vehicle. The trail is best hiked in mid-summer when patches of snow are still present on the peaks and flowers dot meadows and tundra. Check with a ranger for conditions before travel. Snow may block these trails from November into June.
The Upper Sand Creek Lake Trail is a strenuous hike that requires good physical fitness. It is above the tree line and can be exposed to the elements, so be prepared for all types of weather conditions. The trail is not well-marked and can be difficult to follow, so let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be back. There is no cell phone service on the trail, so be sure to bring plenty of water and snacks. We recommend downloading the trail map on AllTrails before you go.
You can access this trail without a 4WD vehicle by parking where Rainbow Trail crosses Music Pass Road and hiking the remaining 2.5 miles to the Music Pass Trailhead where the Upper Sand Creek Lake Trail begins.
Despite the challenges, the Upper Sand Creek Lake Trail is a beautiful and rewarding hike. The views from the lake are stunning, and you may even see some wildlife, such as elk, deer, and mountain goats. If you are looking for a challenging but rewarding hike, the Upper Sand Creek Lake Trail is a great option.
10. Star Dune
|Distance: 7.3 miles
Elevation: 958 feet
|Time: 4 hours
Difficulty: Very Difficult
If bagging the tallest sand dune in the park, and North America, is on your hiking bucket list, then you need to hike Star Dune. Like High Dune, there is no designated trail and you will be hiking on the sand the entire time, which makes it quite challenging. But, if you make it to the top, you’ll be rewarded with even more spectacular views of the dune field.
Star Dune is tied with Hidden Dune in the park for the tallest sand dune in the United States at 741 feet. The hike to Star Dune is about twice as long as that to High Dune, so be prepared with extra water and food.
We recommend starting this hike early in the morning as well, to avoid getting caught in the hot sun out on an exposed dune field. Since there is no marked trail, you will need to use a GPS and map to navigate to Star Dune. The most direct route to the summit starts at Medano Creek. GPS coordinates for Star Dune as of 2021: 37.7517639, -105.5580583.
11. Mount Herard Trail
|Distance: 8.8 miles
Elevation: 3,707 feet
|Time: 5 hours
Difficulty: Very Difficult
The extremely difficult trail to the summit of Mount Herard is a steep 8.8 miles up 3,707 of elevation gain. A continuation of the Medano Lake hike, this trail continues past the lake up to the summit of the 13,345-foot tall peak. At the top, the mountain rewards hikers with stunning views over the sand dunes below and surrounding mountains.
Because of the length and elevation gain of this hike, you should be sure you are in good physical shape for hiking when you attempt this trail. Pack plenty of food and water, and let someone back at home know about your plans. This applies to all hikes, but even more so for hikes that summit 13,000-foot mountains like the Mount Herard Trail!
Final Thoughts on Hiking in Great Sand Dunes National Park
In conclusion, Great Sand Dunes National Park offers a unique and unforgettable hiking experience for visitors of all skill levels. With its towering sand dunes, diverse ecosystems, and stunning mountain views, the park provides endless opportunities for adventure and exploration. Whether you’re looking to tackle one of the challenging summit hikes or simply enjoy a leisurely stroll through the dunes, Great Sand Dunes has something for everyone.