Not Exactly a Day at the Beach

Great Sand Dunes Recreation Choices
By Jan Bannan
Walking among the Great Sand Dunes
Walking among the Great Sand Dunes
Great Sand Dunes at a Glance

Attractions: Hiking, backpacking, horseback riding, sand skiing, photography, nature study, four-wheel-drive tour, campfire programs, ranger-guided tours
Hours/Season: Overnight; year-round
Fees: Entry fee and additional charge for developed campground use
Visitor Center: Information, exhibits, maps, books, terrace talks. The visitor center is being expanded in several phases and will offer more interactive, updated exhibits and facilities. Hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (except for federal holidays in winter), with extended hours from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Picnicking: Main picnic area is adjacent to dunes, near the visitor center. Two other sites are located along the Medano Pass Primitive Road (no water or restrooms available).
Camping: Pinyon Flats Campground is open all year (first-come, first-served); restrooms are available, but no showers or hook-ups (water is available only from April to October). Group site C and two individual campsites at the Pinyon Flats Campground are wheelchair accessible. With a permit (tags on parked vehicles required), varied backcountry camping (free permit required) is allowed at designated sites and in the dune wilderness (no open fires permitted). In 1994, a wheelchair-accessible backcountry campsite was constructed east of Medano Pass Road in Sawyer Canyon. The trail, picnic table, and vault toilet are all wheelchair accessible. Collecting firewood is prohibited, but wood can be purchased.
Access: 38 highway miles northeast of Alamosa, either north on CO 17 and then east on Six Mile Lane, or east on US 160 and then north on CO 150

Great Sand Dunes National Monument
11500 Highway 150
Mosca, CO 81146
(719) 378-2312


An obvious recreation choice is the challenge of climbing these massive, aerobically demanding dune formations, especially since they occur at 7,900 feet. Even if you cannot reach the high points, just a small excursion will capture some of the dune magic. And if the season is right, who can resist some cool wading, splashing, and sand-castle building in the creek area?

The dunes offer the solitude and exhilaration of backcountry exploring, with stargazing on crystal-clear nights, as well as dune fun that includes jumping, body surfing, private sunbathing, and even some skiing—yes, on the sand hills.

People with disabilities will be happy to learn that the "Friends of the Dunes" have provided an all-terrain wheelchair for negotiating sandy trails and the dunes (with assistance). This can be checked out free of charge at the visitor center.

Picture Point Trail

This short walk begins at the visitor center and leads to the picnic area.

Pinyon Flats Trail

This trail connects Loop 1 of the campground with the dunes. Another path branches off to the dunes parking area adjacent to the picnic area.

Montville Nature Trail

For hikers only, this easy 0.5-mile hike starts a short distance northeast of the visitor center. It offers an opportunity to get out of the sun and into the forest, an appealing walk featuring varied vegetation, dunefield views, and a crossing of Mosca Creek. Signs along the trail offer some interesting historical tidbits on early European settlement in this area.

Mosca Pass Trail

Accessed from the interior of the Montville Nature Trail, the 3.5-mile Mosca Pass Trail follows Mosca Creek through the Rio Grande National Forest and into the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness Area as it climbs to a pass in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains at 9,740 feet. Settlers coming west used this pass, which was once a toll road and gated. Near the beginning of the trail, a log cabin store and post office once stood.

Wellington Ditch Trail

The one-mile Wellington Ditch Trail—once an irrigation canal for pioneers—takes off north from the Montville Nature Trail and is a connecting route to Pinyon Flats Campground. It's an easy walk at the edge of the forest.

Little Medano Creek

Starting from the north end of Loop 2 at the campground, you can hike one mile to the Point of No Return Trailhead (PNR). Return to the campground via the primitive road or continue another 3.9 miles on the Little Medano Creek Trail. (Medano is Spanish for "dune.") Both hikers and horseback riders can use the trails north of the Point of No Return Trailhead. There is parking there.

Sand Creek Trail

This 6.4-mile trail continues from Little Medano Creek to Sand Creek. Marked by brown posts, it offers great dune and mountain views and traverses dunes, ponderosa forests, aspen groves, creeks, and timbered bottomlands. Habitat for elk, bear, cougar, and deer is passed along this 10.5-mile route from PNR, with four new backcountry campsites.

Medano Pass Primitive Road

This 12-mile, four-wheel-drive-vehicle-accessible road begins near the campground. It follows the eastern edge of the dunes, crosses Medano Creek, climbs to Medano Pass (10,030 feet), and takes you into the Rio Grande National Forest. The drive offers spectacular views of the dunes. Reduced tire pressure makes for easier negotiation of the soft sand. (Air is available near the campground.) From May to September, a park concessionaire operates tours on this road. In the mountains, this primitive road splits the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness Area.

Do wear shoes, or at least take them along on dune hikes, because sand temperatures can reach 140 degrees Fahrenheit under the hot sun (though nights in the dry air are cold). When it is hot, hike in the early morning or evening. Watch for ticks. Avoid the dune area during thunderstorms, because lightning frequently strikes the dunes. Off-road driving and mountain biking are prohibited in the park. Horses and llamas are not allowed in designated backcountry camping sites.

© Article copyright Fulcrum Books. All rights reserved.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »