Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado


Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

Photo by: NAN ZHONG


Explore These Majestic Sand Dunes... In Colorado

By: Lucy Sherriff

Colorado; a place we usually associate with snow-capped mountains and green grassy meadows, winter skiing, and kayaking in its clear, mirror-like lakes. But did you know the state is also home to a 30-square-mile sand dune field?

December 02, 2021

Nestled on the eastern edge of the San Luis Valley, and beside the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, this surreal landscape features dunes that are up to 750 feet high and are perfect for hiking, camping, and photo opportunities.

The tallest sand dunes in North America are situated in the diverse landscape of wetlands, forests, alpine lakes, tundra, and grasslands – providing a patchwork of color. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is so unusual and unique, in fact, that it is a protected landscape under the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The four main components of the sand dune system are the mountain watershed, the dune field itself, the sand sheet – a flat plot of sand with large grains – and the sabkha – a coastal mudflat or sandflat. The dunes were formed over tens of thousands of years by sediments from the surrounding mountains that filled the valley. In addition, as the lakes in the valley receded, exposed sand was blown by the winds, resulting in dunes.

Sand dunes and mountain peaks lit with evening light. Great Sand Dune National Park, Alamosa, Colorado.


Evening light hits the dunes in Great Sand Dune National Park, Alamosa, Colorado.

Photo by: Dan Ballard

Dan Ballard

Evening light hits the dunes in Great Sand Dune National Park, Alamosa, Colorado.

The park was originally designated a protected area back in 1932, by President Hoover, after fears of gold mining or concrete manufacturing alarmed residents of the nearby Alamosa and Monte Vista cities, who then petitioned Congress asking for protection. The area was eventually upgraded from a national monument to a national park and preserve in 2004.

It contains a mind-boggling 1.2 cubic miles – or 5 billion cubic meters – of sand. Evidence of human habitation, however, dates back to 11,000 years, with the first historic peoples to inhabit the region being the Southern Ute Tribes.

Now, visitors have numerous activities to enjoy – from sandboarding and sand sledding to four-wheel driving. But the best adventure comes at nightfall; the adventurous can backpack over sand dunes to pitch a tent and enjoy the stunning starry night skies when the sun goes down. (Although backpackers will need a permit and can be required at the visitor’s center.) The park’s elevation at 8.200ft and rural location makes it a favorite with dark sky stargazers, with park officials offering special astronomy programs from May to September.


A pair of hikers trek the dunes.

Photo by: Cavan Images

Cavan Images

A pair of hikers trek the dunes.

Overnighters can bask in the still silence, indulge in this remote, isolated region of the county, and be soothed to sleep by the wind whistling through the dunes. If you want to camp out, but backcountry isn’t your style, Piñon Flats Campground is nearby and run by the National Park Service, with 44 sites that are first-come, first-served, with a further 44 sites that can be reserved.

By day, tourists can hike to the summit of Star Dune, the tallest dune in the park, while Crestone Needle, Cleveland Peak, and Mount Herard also offer challenging elevation climbs.

And, as the park also offers special sand wheelchairs (it’s recommended to reserve one in advance), everyone can enjoy this stunning, once-in-a-lifetime experience in the sand dunes of Colorado.

Next Up

Explore the California Redwoods

Coastal redwoods are a type of evergreen tree that can live to be more than 2,000 years old. They are the tallest trees on Earth, with some reaching more than 250 feet tall. Redwoods provide habitats for many forest creatures and pull more carbon out of the air than any other tree species. Where can you find these magnificent perennial plants?

Exploring the World’s Longest Cave System

The world’s longest cave system is a gargantuan labyrinth of 420 miles of twists and turns and nooks and crannies, with limestone travertine stalactites dripping from the ceilings.

Mt. Shasta, California’s Mysterious Volcano, is an Enigma Waiting to be Explored

At the northernmost tip of California lies the southern end of the dramatic Cascade mountain range. And the crowning glory of the range, which ripples down through British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon, before it comes to a stunning crescendo at Mount Shasta.

Washington’s Olympic Peninsula is a Natural Wonderland

Wild beaches, snow-capped mountains, dense woods, and lush rainforests can be found across America. But did you know that they can all be found within Washington’s Olympic National Park?

Belize's Jungles are Wild, Mysterious and Full of Discovery

More than half of Belize, a Central American country with as many as 2 million indigenous Mayan inhabitants, is covered in dense, sprawling jungle – meaning the region has adventures galore for any traveler wishing to explore.

A Canadian Teen Once Discovered an Ancient Temple – Using Google Maps

Most teenagers while away hours playing video games, scrolling TikTok, or texting friends. Not William Gadoury, a 14-year-old from Saint-Jean-de-Matha, Quebec. Back in 2016, Gadoury was holed up in his bedroom, plotting ancient Mayan constellations against modern satellite images and coordinates.

Three New Species of Snakes Discovered in Graveyards and Churches in Ecuador

A team of scientists led by Alejandro Arteaga, grantee of The Explorers Club Discovery Expeditions and researcher at Khamai Foundation, discovered three new cryptozoic (living underground) snakes dwelling under graveyards and churches in remote towns in the Andes region of Ecuador.

An Epic Plan to Build a Giant Green Wall in Africa

King Canute couldn’t stop the ocean's tide from rolling in – can Africa hold back the desert? That’s certainly what the continent is trying to do with its proposed “Great Green Wall”, 8,000km (almost 5,000 miles) worth of trees that officials hope will stop the advancement of the Sahara desert, which has been rapidly expanding southward.

Panama has Hundreds of Islands, Each More Beautiful than the Last

Panama is often overlooked for its more famous neighbors Colombia and Costa Rica, who are renowned worldwide for their biodiversity, colorful cultures, and jaw-dropping scenery. But Panama, which links Central and South America, has a few of its own gems to offer – including the 1,400-plus islands that dot its coast.

Fishermen Were Once Banned from These Protected Waters - Now That's All Changed

Fishermen in the South Atlantic will be able to cast their lines for black sea bass once more thanks to innovative new ropeless gear technology.