Sand probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Colorado. But don’t be fooled. This state full of mountains, snow, and epic landscapes does indeed have sand. In fact, lots of sand if you look in the right place.
The Great Sand Dunes National Park is full of giant, rolling sand dunes. The tallest dunes in North America. You can climb for hours, feet sinking in deep with each step, and still just barely reach past the edge of the dunes.
Rent a sand-board for some increased adrenaline or just hike around to soak in some incredible views. If you come at the right time of year, you may find one of Colorado’s elusive “beaches.”
Whatever the case, don’t miss out on visiting this beautiful spot in Colorado. You can go camping in the Great Sand Dunes National Park or camp outside the park at quite a few options. This post has all you need to know about where to stay and what to do while camping at the Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Where to Stay – Great Sand Dunes National Park Camping
Most people agree that the best way to visit the park is by camping as close as possible. The development in the area is minimal, but there are quite a few camping choices. We’ll go over those in detail below.
On the other hand, if you are not into camping and want to find a hotel near the Great Sand Dunes National Park, you’re in luck. If you really want to be close to the park, your only option is the Great Sand Dunes Lodge (located just behind the Great Sand Dunes Oasis). Or if you don’t mind being a bit farther away, you can see the listings in Alamosa for more options.
Be warned: this park is BUSY during peak season (late May through July). Most of the campgrounds and campsites within 20 miles of the park book up over the weekends. So make sure you reserve something or get there early and be prepared for a search. But this post will give you a big advantage on where to look.
If you like to keep your electronics charged while camping, check out our post on Camping Solar Panels. You can ditch the noisy gas generator and add some serious power to your camping gear without breaking the bank.
Pinon Flats Campground
For many, the obvious choice is camping at the Pinon Flats Campground, the only campground within the park itself. One major benefit of staying at Pinon Flats is that you have the opportunity to see the dunes under the night sky – more difficult to do if you stay at the other camping areas nearby.
The Pinon Flats Campground is open April 1 through October 30, has 88 campsites, and costs $20 per night. RVs up to 35 feet long can fit. There are a few group sites.
Each campsite at Pinon Flats has a picnic table and a fire pit with a grate. There are flushing restrooms and water spigots available in the campground. A dumpster and waste station is nearby.
These spots go quickly in peak season (early summer). They can be reserved 6 months in advance and they are often booked over most weekends. If you can, plan your visit for a weekday to avoid the crowds.
Please PLEASE cancel your reservations if you are unable to use them. The campground host told us they get about 20% no-shows regularly and they are unable to allow others to use the sites unless the reservations are canceled. So the host has to turn people away even though there are open sites.
Primitive Road on Medano Pass Camping
But for us, the campground is usually not the first choice. And if you have a high-clearance 4WD vehicle, then you are in for a treat! There are more primitive camping areas for free that are deeper in the park, technically just outside of the park’s boundary in the Great Sand Dunes National Preserve.
There are 21 campsites along Medano Road, also known as the “primitive road.” And this road means it. Once you go past a point aptly named “the point of no return” you are going to be driving in spots with deep, soft sand. You’ll also have to cross over streams which may be well over a foot deep. This is not for sedans, period. When we visited, we saw a very nice AWD Subaru sedan stuck in the sand, waiting for a tow truck to come to the rescue.
But if you have a high-clearance 4WD (like a truck, large SUV, or a jeep) and want to camp near the park for free in an awesome setting, then look no farther. Just be prepared. Check the road conditions too. We arrived just after a major repair was completed, but the road was closed for weeks prior due to flood damage.
Check out our cool camping gadgets for some ideas on new gear to bring with!
To get to this camping area near the Great Sand Dunes National Park, you will enter the park, then drive just past the Pinon Flats Campground. Take note of the small parking area which has dumpsters, a water fill station, and an air fill station. All free. It is a 5-mile drive from this area to the first group of campsites.
You can get to this area from the northeast as well, just south of Westcliffe, without going through the park entrance. But this takes you over an 18-mile mountain pass that isn’t that well maintained. Only go this route if you enjoy off-road adventures.
When coming from the main entrance, the road turns to a hard-packed sand right after you pass the Pinon Flats Campground. After you drive about a mile, you will reach the point of no return.
Once here, you need to deflate your tires so that you get better grip in the sand and don’t sink as quickly. Most people drop down to about 20 psi. Do not go lower than 15 psi unless you have bead-lock tires. You can inflate your tires after you get back using a portable compressor (this Viair one is AWESOME to have while camping on your own) or at the free air fill station by the dumpsters in the park.
After you’ve aired down, you’ll drive through deep, soft sand for another 4 miles (took us about 30-40 minutes going nice and slow). If the sand is very soft, keep your speed up through the softest spots and only stop on the downhill sections. You’ll pass by some daytime picnic areas, a hiking trail, and a restroom.
At some point, you’ll cross over the Medano Creek and just after that is the boundary separating the National Park from the Preserve. This is where the campsites begin and there are 8 sites within the first quarter mile.
The campsites in this area are great. Some of them have quite a bit of privacy, they all have bear boxes and fire pits. And the landscape is beautiful. Large ponderosa pines and aspens grow all over. The trees are denser here than basically anywhere else in or around the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Most of the other areas – Pinon Flats included – are in a desert-like environment with small juniper trees and other short bushes.
The Medano Creek rushes past these campsites in a small ravine behind them. It can be a challenging hike to get to, but it’s available if you need it. We enjoyed soaking our feet in it after a good day of exploring.
As you keep driving up the road, you’ll see 13 other campsites over the next 5 miles. They will all be marked and have the bear box and fire pits. And once again, they are all FREE. Not a bad deal for some awesome camping.
We chose a spot in one of the first groupings of campsites, right near this area. But when we visited in early September during the week, we were the only people out on the primitive road. Seriously. We didn’t see another camper the entire 48 hours we were there, meanwhile, the campground was 100% reserved. It’s a great way to get away from the majority of the crowds.
So if you’re up for a bit of a 4WD adventure, then head down the primitive road to the free campsites in dense trees with a river running nearby. It’s our top spot for camping near the Great Sand Dunes National Park.
More information and current conditions on the road and the Medano Creek can be found here.
If the Pinon Flats Campground and primitive road camping don’t do the trick for you, there are a few other options for Great Sand Dunes National Park camping.
To stay close to the park (and if you don’t mind being bunched up with other campers), then you can look at the Great Sand Dunes Oasis’s camping options. This is a gas station, restaurant, board rental, small hotel, and campground all in one that is located just outside the Great Sand Dunes National Park entrance.
Another popular option is the Zapata Falls campground. This is actually on BLM land in the Rio Grande National Forest, but it is a paid campground. It costs $11 per night and is pretty close to the entrance to the Great Sand Dunes.
The views at the campground are very nice, but the road going there isn’t so great. It doesn’t require anything crazy like the primitive road does, but it’s full of large stones and big ruts in the road, making it very slow going. I preferred driving on the soft primitive road sand rather than the incredible bumpy road to Zapata Falls.
There is no water at this campground, but a hike to the actual Zapata Falls is located nearby. They are a modest set of waterfalls tucked in a small canyon.
Another option for camping near the Great Sand Dunes National Park is in the San Luis State Wildlife Area. This is an odd place. What started with big plans now remains in place, but is essentially a defunct campground. The water has been shut off, but as of this post, the electricity was still running. They say that you have to get a state wildlife pass to stay for free.
If neither one of those does the trick – or if you’re looking for free camping without the 4WD requirements of the primitive road – then have no fear. There are a few roads that go into BLM land and offer free, dispersed camping.
Just be aware that these roads offer very little shelter since there are basically no trees. And of course, like all dispersed camping, there are no restrooms, water, or trash stations.
One of the most used places for dispersed camping near the Great Sand Dunes National Park is Lake Como Road. It is located here and is nothing more than a long forest road with tons of campsites off of it.
That’s about it for camping options near the Great Sand Dunes. The land is flat and a lot of it is privately owned nearby. You can always make the trip to the park during the day and camp or stay at one f the towns a bit farther away, such as Alamosa or Walsenburg.
How to Get to Great Sand Dunes
The Great Sand Dunes National Park is located in the town of Mosca in the south-center area of Colroado. Santa Fe, NM is about 3.5 hours away driving and Denver, CO is about 4 hours away driving.
If you’re coming from Denver, you can go straight south on I-25 and eventually go west at Walsenburg. Or you can take 285 and go through Buena Vista for a more scenic route.
You can fly into Denver, Colorado Springs, or Santa Fe, but you’re still going to have a drive ahead of you unless you can charter a plane into a small regional airport near the dunes. Check Skyscanner to get the best deals.
When you get near the park, you will approach from the southeast on 150. When you pass the Oasis gas station and store, you are almost to the park gates. The visitor’s center is about a half-mile inside the park.
The main parking lot to explore the dunes is another mile into the park. There are multiple restrooms here, along with beach-like showers to rinse the sand off when done. This is the spot to park for hiking, sledding, or do whatever it is you want to do on the sand dunes. The picnic area is next to it.
Great Sand Dunes National Park Hours and Information
The Park is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. So feel free to get there for excellent sunrise, sunset, and even night-sky photography. The main parking area is on the eastern side of the park, so you can see the sunset while viewing the dunes.
Entrance fees are $25 per vehicle, $20 per motorcycle, or $80 for an annual pass valid at all National Parks. Discounts apply for senior citizens.
The Visitor’s Center is open 9:00 AM – 4:30 PM, and as most National Parks, has a few exhibits, a short movie, and rangers on hand to help you explore the park and plan your visit. There is a viewing deck on the backside of the building, but you’re still pretty far away from the dunes.
Dogs ARE allowed in the National Park. And they’re not completely prohibited from joining in the fun! See this NPS page for more details. But generally, dogs are allowed in the dunes up to the first major ridgeline. That means they can play in the Medano Creek and hang out at the beach! But watch out for hot sand.
One of Colorado’s Finest Beaches
In my mind, the true beach in Colorado is at Arapahoe Basin Ski Resort. But there’s another beach at the Great Sand Dunes National Park too.
During the annual snowmelt – sometime around May to July – the Medano Creek floods the area at the base of the sand dunes. The river flows wide across a very flat patch of sand, creating a large area that’s often just barely underwater. It’s a fun place to hang out.
You can see the water flow current conditions by checking the NPS website.
You have no choice but to hike through the water when you go to hike in the dunes.
Hiking, Sledding, and Other Activities
The sand dunes are spectacular to look at. Even if you have mobility issues, I think it’s worthwhile to go to the park just to witness their beauty. (Not to mention there is a sand-capable wheelchair available for use at the visitor’s center!)
But if you can push it and go hike the dunes, you won’t regret it. Ok, maybe you will because it’s not an easy hike. But the views from the top are spectacular. And it’s a very fun, memorable hike.
As it starts, you cross over the Medano Creek riverbed. When we went in early September, there was no water and it was nothing more than a flat area of sand.
Eventually, you come face to face with a giant pile of sand. And I mean giant. As you start to climb, you find a bunch of areas where your feet sink in over a half-foot deep with each step. You might get lucky and find a hardened down area.
And here is where the crowds will be. The first dune. Dogs are allowed up to the top, it’s the first spot to hike to, so expect children and more crowds here.
But keep going, if you can. And eventually, you’ll be isolated, hiking along the ridgeline made of sand. As the dune collapses under each footstep, you look down either side and see nothing but hot sand stretching hundreds of feet into a small valley.
And by hot, I mean VERY hot. The sand can reach temperatures over 150° F (66° C). So you do want to hike in something other than your barefoot, unless you’re one of those who goes barefoot everywhere.
After hiking for about an hour and a half, you’ll reach High Dune. The views from the top of High Dune are well worth the trek up. You can see around 360-degrees with the dunes stretching north and west and the mountains to the east. Once you’re up there, you really get an idea of how massive the Great Sand Dunes National Park is.
High Dune looks like it’s the tallest in the park from the parking lot. But it isn’t. High Dune is about 699 feet (213 m). Which obviously isn’t Everest nor a 14er, but trust me, this hike will get your heart pumping. The sand is soft. So just like hiking in deep snow, each foot gets trapped and it takes much more energy to move.
Star Dune takes about 5 hours to hike out too. It is the tallest sand dune in North America at 750 feet (229 m). There are five peaks that get over 700 feet tall.
You can rent sandboards and sleds from the Great Sand Dunes Oasis located just outside the park gates. It costs $20 plus tax per day for either (8 AM to 7 PM rental). Be warned, the sandboarding is extremely difficult. We saw plenty of people try and very few succeed. The sleds look like fun too and you can get some serious speed if you want to.
You can also go on 4WD adventures with Pathfinders 4×4. They are the only 4WD tour operator with a permit to use Medano Road and they will take you on an authentic 4WD excursions.
Backpacking in the Great Sand Dunes National Park
Want to push the adventure? Go backpacking and stay almost anywhere you want on top of the sand dunes! No kidding.
A free permit is required, which must be picked up during office hours in person at the park. But once you have shown you have proper backpacking gear, can demonstrate bear awareness (bear cans are not required, but always nice to have), and leave no trace principle knowledge, you’ll be good to go.
After hiking past the busy day-use area (about 1.5 miles in), you can camp anywhere your heart desires on the sand dunes themselves. Anywhere in the entire 30-square-mile Great Sand Dunes National Park can be your campsite. Talk about options.
Just remember that it will be sandy, likely a bit windy, and there is no water. Difficult conditions even under the best circumstances. Check the weather forecast carefully too because you will be exposed.
For more information on hiking and backpacking in the Great Sand Dunes National Park, visit the National Park Service information.
Other Tips for Visiting the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado
A few other random tips to keep in mind: cell phone service is basically nonexistent and there is no wi-fi in or near the park. Some report Verizon service near the visitor’s center, but other than that, you’re likely to be off-grid most of the time. The one place where I actually got service was on top of High Dune when we were hiking.
The Great Sand Dunes Oasis is the only shop, gas station, and restaurant within 25 miles of the park (40 km). It’s located right by the park entrance. It has a good amount of supplies, but it’s better to come with everything you need. If you’re coming from Denver or Colorado Springs, you can make a final pitstop in Walsenburg or Buena Vista, depending on the route you take.
Another general tip for the park: It can be relentlessly hot. Bring lots of water. Wear sunscreen, a hat, and potentially long-sleeved shirts and pants. We LOVE our UPF long-sleeved shirts for adventures like this. You’ll also want decent shoes to hike the dunes. Be prepared to cross the Medano Creek on your way. And don’t forget sunglasses.
Summary for Camping at the Great Sand Dunes National Park
And that does it for all you need to know for Great Sand Dunes National Park camping. You can hang out in the Pinon Flats campground, right next to the main hiking area. You can explore the 4WD primitive road to camp with more seclusion. Or you can get a backcountry pass and pitch a tent anywhere deep within the dunes themselves.
Come out for summertime fun in one of Colorado’s only beaches during the high flow season. Or grab a board and slide down the mountains of sand. If you prefer, just take it all in with your camera in hand (just don’t forget to come back at night for the astrophotography).
Can you believe the sand dunes are that big in Colorado? When did you find out that this park existed? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts.
Plan Your Trip to the Great Sand Dunes National Park
Pack Your Bags and Get Your Gear Wondering what to pack? Read our Ultimate Guide to Packing Light for a list of travel essentials and check out our cool camping gadgets post to see what new tech you’re missing out on. Ever considered camping solar panels?
Get Covered World Nomads is travel insurance designed by travelers. They cover medical and dental emergencies, trip cancellation, delayed bags, and more.