See the Best of Great Sand Dunes National Park with this Two Day Itinerary
Are you looking for an unforgettable outdoor adventure in Colorado? If so, then look no further than this two-day Great Sand Dunes National Park itinerary! As Colorado residents and avid explorers of all the national parks in the state, we can confidently say that Great Sand Dunes is a must-visit destination. With towering sand dunes, stunning mountain views, and a unique landscape unlike any other, this park offers endless opportunities for outdoor adventure and natural beauty.
The park’s main attraction is its towering sand dunes, which rise up to 750 feet above the valley floor. These dunes are the tallest in North America and provide a stunning backdrop for hiking, sandboarding, and other outdoor activities. In addition to the dunes, the park is also home to alpine lakes, wetlands, and forests, all of which offer their own unique opportunities for adventure and exploration.
In this post, we provide a detailed itinerary for a two-day adventure in Great Sand Dunes National Park. Whether you’re an experienced hiker or just looking for a new outdoor experience, this 2-day Great Sand Dunes National Park itinerary will take you on a journey through the park’s diverse landscape, from hiking through the dunes to stargazing under the night sky. So get ready to experience the natural beauty of Great Sand Dunes National Park like never before, and let’s begin our adventure!
Day 1: Great Sand Dunes National Park Itinerary
We recommend getting to Great Sand Dunes National Park in the early afternoon to make the most of the activities available on your first day of your two-day itinerary in the park!
Arrive at Great Sand Dunes National Park
- Stop at the Great Sand Dunes National Park welcome sign for an iconic photo op with the dunes and the Sangre de Cristo mountain peaks beyond.
- At the Visitor Center, check out the exhibits on the park’s geology and history. We highly recommend the short film, which explains the dunes’ uniqueness and the incredible geological forces that created the tallest dunes in North America right here in southern Colorado!
Entrance Information for Great Sand Dunes National Park
The entrance fee to Great Sand Dunes National Park is $25 per vehicle for 7 days. If you plan to visit 3 or more national parks in a calendar year, we recommend buying a National Parks pass like America the Beautiful Pass, which gets you into every national park in the United States at no additional cost once you purchase the pass!
Hike on the Dunes
If you’re planning a visit to Great Sand Dunes National Park, hiking up the sand dunes is a must-do activity for an unforgettable experience. The park offers a range of trails that cater to hikers of all levels, with some trails offering stunning views of the dunes and surrounding mountains. The High Dune Trail is perfect for those who are looking for a shorter hike, while the Star Dune Trail is ideal for those who want a more challenging and longer hike.
Here are the best dune hikes in Great Sand Dunes National Park:
- High Dune Trail: 3 miles, 629 feet of elevation gain, 2 hours
- Star Dune Trail: 7.3 miles, 958 feet of elevation gain, 4 hours
It’s important to note that hiking in sand can be a strenuous activity, so be sure to pack plenty of water and snacks, wear comfortable shoes, and come prepared for changes in weather. For safety reasons, it’s recommended to avoid hiking during the midday hours when the sand can become uncomfortably hot.
Looking for more hikes in Great Sand Dunes National Park? >> Check out the best hikes throughout the park here.
Watch the sunset
The best places to watch the sunset in Great Sand Dunes National Park are on the dune field itself and on the Montville Nature Trail. On the dune field, the setting sun creates compelling shadows and abstract shapes in the sand. On the Montville Nature Trail, you can hike to an amazing lookout point that provides a higher vantage point over the entire dune field and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Get Dinner in Alamosa
If you’re staying in Alamosa, Colorado for the night, we recommend getting dinner in the downtown area. Here are the best places to eat in Alamosa near Great Sand Dunes National Park.
- Calvillos Mexican Restaurant
- San Luis Valley Brewing Company
- True Grits Steakhouse
- May Wa Chinese Restaurant
However, if you’re able to camp in the park and self-cater your food, we highly recommend it so that you can make the most of the dark skies in the national park. This brings us to the last activity on day one of this two-day Great Sand Dunes National Park itinerary…
Stargaze in Great Sand Dunes National Park
As an International Dark Sky Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park is not only known for its towering sand dunes but also its incredible starry night skies, making it an ideal destination for stargazing enthusiasts. The park is located in a remote area with little light pollution, providing a clear and unobstructed view of the night sky. Visitors can enjoy breathtaking views of the stars, constellations, and even the Milky Way.
For the best stargazing experience, visitors should head to the Dunes Parking Lot for unobstructed views of the sky. To enhance your stargazing experience, bring along a telescope or binoculars for a closer look at the stars and planets. However, no special equipment is needed to enjoy the beauty of the night sky at Great Sand Dunes National Park.
It’s essential to come prepared for stargazing by dressing warmly and bringing along a blanket or camping chair for comfort. Visitors should also consider bringing along snacks and drinks for a cozy stargazing picnic. Additionally, it’s recommended to check the weather conditions and moon phases before heading out to ensure optimal stargazing conditions.
Day 2: Great Sand Dunes National Park Itinerary
After a good night’s rest, it’s time to embark on the second and last day of this two-day Great Sand Dunes National Park itinerary! Here’s how you should spend your second day in Great Sand Dunes.
Sunrise at whichever location you didn’t go to for sunset
For sunrise, head to whichever of the recommended sunset locations you did not get to do the previous night. Both the dune field and the views from the overlook on the Montville Nature Trail are awesome places for sunrise.
Note that it can be chilly year-round early in the mornings before the sun rises, so be sure to bring a jacket and a mug of hot coffee if that’s your vibe!
Breakfast and Sandboard Rental Pick-Up
After the early morning sunrise in the park, drive just outside of the park boundaries to Great Sand Dunes Oasis to pick up your sandboard rental for the day, because today you’re going sandboarding on the dunes!
We recommend reserving your board at least a month in advance. These specialized boards are designed to glide smoothly over the sand, making for an unforgettable ride.
While at the Oasis, grab breakfast at their restaurant if you didn’t eat before your sunrise mission. They also serve lunch, and dinner, and even have a small grocery to pick up food for the rest of your day.
Great Sand Dunes National Park, including the Visitor Center, does NOT rent sandboards. Great Sand Dunes Oasis is the closest location to the park where you can pick up a rental sandboard. There are also many options in Alamosa, about a 45-minute drive away.
Sandboard on the Dunes
Even if you have never sandboarded before, you can have an awesome day sandboarding at Great Sand Dunes National Park, as it’s a very beginner-friendly activity. To start sandboarding, visitors will need to hike up to the top of the dunes, which can be a challenging but rewarding climb. Once at the top, it’s time to strap on the board or sled and get ready for a thrilling ride down the dunes. As you sit on the board with your legs extended in front of you and your feet on the board’s edges, you’ll feel the rush of adrenaline as you glide down the sand.
While sandboarding is an exciting activity, safety should always be a top priority. To avoid injury, it’s recommended to wear proper protective gear, such as helmets and pads. It’s also important to be mindful of other riders and avoid crowded areas to ensure everyone’s safety. Lastly, remember to pack plenty of water and sunscreen to stay hydrated and protected from the sun.
Note: If you visit Great Sand Dunes National Park in the winter, you may not be able to sandboard due to snow on the dunes. In that case, go sledding instead!
Explore the Medano Creek
One of the most unique features of Great Sand Dunes National Park is Medano Creek. This seasonal stream flows between the sand dunes and is a popular destination for visitors during the summer months. When the creek is flowing, it provides an oasis in the midst of the sandy desert landscape, offering a cool respite from the hot sun and a fun place to play and relax.
To visit Medano Creek, head to the dunes’ main entrance and follow the signs to the Dunes Parking Area. Once you arrive at the dunes, you can hike to the creek, which is located at the base of the sand dunes. Be sure to bring water, sunscreen, and sturdy shoes for the hike, as the sand can be hot and difficult to walk on.
Once you arrive at the creek, you can wade in the shallow water, build sandcastles on the banks, or simply relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery. Be sure to bring water shoes or sandals with good traction, as the creek’s bottom can be slippery and rocky. Keep in mind that the creek’s water level and flow can vary greatly depending on the time of year and weather conditions, so be sure to check the park’s website for current conditions before planning your visit.
In addition to playing in the creek, there are also several hiking trails that start near the creek, offering stunning views of the sand dunes and surrounding mountains. The Medano Lake Trail is a moderate 8-mile round-trip hike that takes you to a beautiful alpine lake nestled in the mountains above the sand dunes.
Hike to Zapata Falls
After leaving Great Sand Dunes National Park, drive to the parking area for Zapata Falls, a short drive out of the park. This easy hike offers a stunning reward in the form of a beautiful waterfall in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness. As you embark on the 0.9-mile hike, you’ll be treated to stunning views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. The trail winds through a picturesque forest, with the sound of the rushing water in the distance.
Upon arriving at the falls, you’ll be rewarded with a breathtaking view of the 30-foot cascading waterfall, nestled within a narrow canyon. The mist from the falls creates a refreshing and invigorating atmosphere, perfect for cooling off on a hot summer day.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can explore the rocky terrain around the falls or even take a dip in the frigid pool below. Just be sure to wear sturdy shoes with good traction, as the rocks can be slippery.
If you visit in winter as we did, bring microspikes for your hiking shoes so you won’t be as likely to slip on the ice! Zapata Falls is absolutely stunning even when frozen, as you can see!
If You Have More Time to Add to Your Great Sand Dunes National Park Itinerary
Here are some additional adventures we recommend tacking onto your Great Sand Dunes National Park itinerary if you have more time in the Alamosa area!
Drive the 4×4 Route on Medano Pass
This rugged 4×4 drive on Medano Pass takes you through some of the park’s most remote and beautiful areas, including high mountain passes, alpine lakes, and breathtaking vistas. Along the way, you’ll navigate steep switchbacks, ford rushing streams, and cross over rocky terrain, all while enjoying stunning views of the surrounding mountains and sand dunes.
This challenging drive is not for the faint of heart, but for those who are up for the adventure, it’s an unforgettable way to experience the beauty and wildness of Great Sand Dunes National Park. Be sure to drive a high-clearance 4×4 vehicle, as well as bring plenty of water, food, and supplies, as there are no services along the way. If you need to rent a 4×4 vehicle, we recommend doing so at least a month in advance. And always remember to practice Leave No Trace principles, to help protect this beautiful and fragile wilderness area for generations to come.
Take a big day hike in the park
There are several day hikes that make a great addition to any Great Sand Dunes National Park itinerary, including a variety of hiking opportunities beyond the iconic dune field. One such hike is the Mosca Pass Trail, which takes you over a mountain pass with stunning views of the surrounding landscape. For a more challenging adventure, try the Sand Creek Trail, which takes you through a remote and rugged canyon with towering walls and a rushing creek.
Looking for even more hiking options in Great Sand Dunes National Park? >> Check out this guide to the best hikes in Great Sand Dunes National Park!
Ranger programs in Great Sand Dunes National Park
The national park service offers a number of ranger programs in Great Sand Dunes National Park. These educational and entertaining programs are led by knowledgeable and passionate rangers who will help you deepen your understanding and appreciation of this amazing natural wonder. Whether you’re interested in learning about the geology and ecology of the dunes, the history, and culture of the area’s indigenous peoples, or the night sky above, there’s a ranger program for you.
What to Pack for This Great Sand Dunes National Park Itinerary
If you’re planning to visit 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 visit:
- 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.
Where to Stay Near Great Sand Dunes National Park
- Piñon Flats Campground – Located inside the national park, Piñon Flats is the only campground in the park. It offers 86 campsites with picnic tables, fire pits, and nearby access to restroom facilities. Rates start at $20 per night.
- Great Sand Dunes Oasis – Great Sand Dunes Oasis is an RV park and campground located just outside the park entrance. It offers tent camping, RV camping, cabins, and a variety of amenities including a store, laundry facilities, and a hot tub. Rates start at $40 per night.
- Zapata Ranch – Zapata Ranch is a working bison and guest ranch located on the eastern edge of the park. It offers a variety of lodging options including guest rooms, cabins, and camping. Amenities include guided tours, horseback riding, and home-cooked meals. Rates start at $250 per night.
- Hampton Inn Alamosa – The Hampton Inn is located in Alamosa, about 35 minutes from the park entrance. It offers comfortable rooms, a fitness center, and a complimentary breakfast. Rates start at $130 per night.
Best Time to Visit Great Sand Dunes National Park
While the park is open year-round, each season offers a unique experience and comes with its own pros and cons. Here’s a breakdown of what you can expect during each season:
While summer is the most popular time to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park, we personally think summer is not the best time to visit the park. Temperatures can be extremely hot, with the heat on the dune field radiating up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. But, the days are long and nights are cool, which makes for good hiking and camping conditions. Plus, the park’s shallow Medano Creek is at its fullest during the summer months, offering a refreshing escape from the heat. However, be prepared for crowds and make sure to bring plenty of water and sunscreen.
Fall is a great time to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park if you’re looking to avoid crowds and enjoy cooler temperatures. The leaves on the aspen trees turn golden yellow, creating a stunning contrast against the backdrop of the dunes. Plus, you’ll have a better chance of spotting wildlife like elk and bighorn sheep. Just be aware that the weather can be unpredictable, so bring layers and be prepared for sudden changes.
While the idea of hiking in the snow may not be for everyone, winter can be a magical time to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park. It’s actually our favorite of the times we’ve visited. The snow-covered dunes create a serene and otherworldly landscape, and you may have the park all to yourself. Just be sure to check the weather and road conditions before you go, as snow and ice can make the park difficult to access.
Spring is a transitional time at Great Sand Dunes National Park, with fluctuating temperatures and weather conditions. However, it’s also a great time to visit if you’re looking for wildflowers and birdwatching opportunities. The creek may also be flowing, though not at the same level as in the summer. Just be aware that spring storms can bring sudden changes in weather, so come prepared with layers and rain gear.
Final Thoughts on Great Sand Dunes National Park Itinerary
In conclusion, Great Sand Dunes National Park is a true gem in Colorado’s outdoor landscape, offering stunning sand dunes, majestic mountain views, and a unique landscape that is unmatched anywhere else in the state. With this two-day itinerary, you can experience the park’s diverse offerings, from hiking through the dunes to stargazing under the night sky.
To summarize, here is the perfect 2-day Great Sand Dunes National Park Itinerary:
- Explore the exhibits and watch a short film at the Great Sand Dunes National Park Visitor Center.
- Go on a hike on the dune field.
- Watch the sunset on the dune field or the Montville Nature Trail.
- Get dinner in Alamosa
- Stargaze late into the night
- Watch sunrise at either the dune field or Montville Nature Trail
- Have breakfast and pick up a sandboard rental
- Sandboard on the dunefield
- Splash in Medano Creek
- Hike Zapata Falls
Whether you’re a seasoned outdoor adventurer or just looking for a new and exciting experience, Great Sand Dunes has something for everyone. So what are you waiting for? Plan your trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park today and get ready for an adventure you’ll never forget!