Originally a national monument, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve was established in its current state in 2004. Today, the park encompasses some 44,000-plus acres, 19,000 of which are covered by the dunefield, and the adjacent preserve protects nearly 42,000 more. True to its name, Great Sand Dunes is home to the tallest dunes in North America, formed by deposits of sand and sediment from the Rio Grand River, then molded (and constantly evolving) thanks to the valley’s strong winds. The dunes rise as high as 750 feet, and there’s plenty of opportunity to explore them from the basecamp of the park’s campgrounds and backcountry sites.
What Makes It Great
Great Sand Dunes has several options for camping, each as beautiful—and with as many stargazing opportunities—as the last. If you’re car camping in a non-4WD vehicle, head to the Piñon Flats Campground, open April through October. Piñon Flats has two loops with 44 sites each plus a loop with three group sites; the sites in Loop 1 are first-come, first-served, while the sites in Loop 2 are reservable in advance. Many individual sites have giant cottonwoods for shade, and all have fire pits with grates and picnic tables, plus access to restrooms and potable water. If you’re in a burly 4WD vehicle, head up Medano Pass Primitive Road, whose 21 first-come, first-served sites each have a fire ring and a bear-proof box to lock up your food.
If you’re backpacking, pick up a permit at the Visitor Center for one of seven backcountry sites along the Sand Ramp Trail, located anywhere from half a mile to just under 11 miles from the trailhead at the end of Loop 2. Backpackers can also get a permit to camp in the dunefield—anywhere beyond the day use area (minimum hike for this is 1.5 miles) is fair game.
No matter where you pitch your tent, as the National Park Service puts it, "half the park is after dark!" Thanks to the park’s high elevation, lack of light pollution, and incredibly dry air, it’s the perfect spot to bring a telescope or take in the big picture of the night sky. To maximize your stargazing experience, check the moon calendar (moonless nights offer the best views of the stars) and watch the weather closely as you plan the timing of your visit.
Who is Going to Love It
Camping in Great Sand Dunes is accessible to all, whether you’re a family with small kids who’s up for camping at Piñon Flats, a novice backpacker looking for a short, relatively flat hike to a scenic campsite, or an experienced outdoorsperson looking for an off the beaten path adventure experience. Remember that summer temperatures in the San Luis Valley can get warm during the day, so plan the timing of your hike (and water supply) accordingly.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
From Alamosa, follow CO-17 north, then take a right on Lane 6 N. Take a left on CO-150 and follow signs for the park. Pay the entrance fee at the station, or, during the quieter shoulder seasons, at the Visitor Center. That’s also where you’ll pick up free, first-come, first-served backcountry permits for sites and dunefield camping. If possible, reserve a campsite at Piñon Flats in advance to ensure you’re able to get a spot; they fill up quickly during the high season (late May into early June). Dogs must always be leashed and aren’t allowed in all areas of the park; they’re permitted in Great Sand Dunes National Preserve but can only be in a few specific areas of the national park (see map).