great sand dunes, Great Sand Dunes: Ultimate Guide for Your Bucket List

Great Sand Dunes: Ultimate Guide for Your Bucket List

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Nestled against the rugged Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Colorado, the Great Sand Dunes National Park unveils a landscape of surreal beauty and nature’s handiwork! 

This unique and dynamic land formation offers a spirited challenge to adventurers and an unexpected oasis to explorers. 

The majestic dunes, sculpted by winds over thousands of years, provide a stunning backdrop for a variety of recreational activities such as sandboarding, dune sledding, and stargazing. 

A trip to the Great Sand Dunes is an encounter with the raw power of nature, promising unforgettable experiences that merit its place on your lifetime bucket list.

great sand dunes, Great Sand Dunes: Ultimate Guide for Your Bucket List
The Bucket List Mermaid and the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado.

Watch The Great Sand Dunes Guide on YouTube

Bucket List Review of The Great Sand Dunes

Who Should Add This to Their Bucket List?Nature enthusiasts who don’t
mind getting sand everywhere
Best Time to GoLate September to early October
Traveling DifficultyEasy
Physical DifficultyModerate to difficult
Popularity Rating7/10
Tour RequiredNo
Wheelchair AccessibleYes! They have special wheelchairs
that can roll over sand.
Favorite Place to StayGreat Sand Dunes Lodge
Traveler’s InsuranceGet Quote with VisitorsCoverage

If you need more information about the categories of this table, please check out the Bucket List Reviews guide.

What Are the Great Sand Dunes?

Nestled against a backdrop of alpine peaks, Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes are a testament to nature’s artistry.

When I first visited this iconic Colorado destination, I was so blown away by this natural phenomenon! And, even though I hate to admit it, I still don’t really understand why they are there (or at least why there aren’t more of them).

Towering as the tallest dunes in North America, the Great Sand Dunes are a playground for the adventurous and a sanctuary for those seeking tranquility.

Their grandeur is a sight to behold—a destination that deserves a spot on your bucket list. In this post, we explore why and how to make the most of your visit.

How Were the Great Sand Dunes Formed

As I mentioned previously, this natural occurrence is too much for my brain to comprehend so I am going to do my best. 

They just seem…so…out of place to me. How could you find an obscene amount of sand in the middle of the mountains?!

If you are visiting the Great Sand Dunes anyway, I would highly recommend paying a visit to the Visitor Center. Here, they have endless information about how the Great Sand Dunes were formed. 

I talked to rangers, watched an educational video, and read all about it in their small exhibit gallery. Here was the general consensus: 

According to the Rangers…

There was a wetter time thousands of years ago when lakes covered most of the valley. 

Streams carried eroded materials from the San Juan Mountains and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. This was then deposited into the lakes. 

Because of climate change, the lakes dried up, leaving a crap ton of sand on the valley floor. 

Winds from the southwest then cause the sand to funnel into a low curve. Storm winds push the sand back, forming the dunes. 

Fun Fact: Because the sand originates from over 200 different minerals and rocks from the mountains, the sand is colorful! 

Types of Dunes

One thing that I found fascinating when visiting the Visitor Center was that there were several types of dunes. 

I always thought it was…well…just sand. Turns out that I was wrong! And it was quite enjoyable to learn about the different types and then identify them while on the dunes!

  • Star Dunes
  • Barchan Dunes
  • Parabolic Dunes
  • Reversing Dunes
  • Nebkha Dunes

Make sure that you stop in the Visitor Center to snap pictures of all of them so that you can spot them on your Great Sand Dunes bucket list adventure! I personally found mostly reversing dunes. 

great sand dunes, Great Sand Dunes: Ultimate Guide for Your Bucket List
Looking out over the Great Sand Dunes in my mermaid tail.

Great Sand Dunes from Denver

Embarking from Denver, prepare for a scenic journey to the heart of Colorado‘s wild beauty. 

There are two main ways to get there: 

One involves going through Colorado Springs and Pueblo. 

This is about 3 hours and 40 minutes and is the fastest route. The first part of your journey might be a little boring but gets more interesting once you hit Pueblo.

The other option is to go through the mountains and Beuna Vista. This option might be longer, putting you around 4 hours. However, this might be a bit more scenic as it goes through more of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. 

If you are driving through the mountains, always be prepared: an emergency kit, chains if required, 4WD if necessary, etc. 

Where to Stay Near the Great Sand Dunes

Hotels Near the Great Sand Dunes

For those seeking comfort, various hotels nearby cater to different budgets and preferences.

Here are the top-rated hotels closest to the Great Sand Dunes National Park:

  • Great Sand Dunes Lodge – A simple hotel that has great proximity to the dunes.
  • Cozy Remote Retreat – For a more rustic cabin feel, 6 miles from the dunes.
  • Hampton Inn Alamosa – A standard hotel in a cute Colorado mountain town, but is farther away from the Great Sand Dunes (about 45 minutes). 

RV Parks Near the Great Sand Dunes

RVers are in luck with parks offering various RV amenities and stunning views as your morning backdrop.

I am especially biased on this one because I live full-time in an RV

Luckily, there is space for RVs in the National Park itself. There is even a dump station and fill station, but no full hookups. There is a limit of 25 feet, so it’s only for small ones. 

I, however, have a mac daddy RV, spanning a whopping 42 feet! Therefore, I ended up going to the Great Sand Dunes Oasis

Funny Story: I once had photos of my RV go crazy and endless comments were asking me where I was. I was at the Great Sand Dunes!

great sand dunes, Great Sand Dunes: Ultimate Guide for Your Bucket List
Our view of the Great Sand Dunes National Park from our RV.

Camping Near the Great Sand Dunes

Pitching a tent under the starry skies can be a second-to-none experience if you are visiting during the warmer months.

There is one campsite inside the National Park called Piñon Flats.

You can also backpack year-round with reservations. Or, you can camp, first come first serve, on Medano Pass Primitive Road. 

Entrance Fees and Visitor Center

Visitor Center

As soon as you enter the park, the road will take you to the Visitor Center on your left. It is hard to miss and you won’t want to miss it. 

It is worth a visit just to talk to the rangers and learn about the dunes. Kids can even get a little “passport stamp.” 

Plus, the back area from behind the building is a great place to take a photo of the Great Sand Dunes from farther away.

It is open year-round and has designated daily hours. 

Entrance Fees

To preserve their majesty, entrance fees apply—it is a small but necessary price to pay to invest in an unforgettable experience.

Park passes can be purchased online or at the entrance station when you arrive. 

7-Day Pass

Non-Commercial Vehicle and Occupants – $25

15+ passenger vehicle, age 16+ – $15/person

Motorcycle – $20

Annual Pass

Annual Pass – $40

Interagency Annual Pass – $80

Interagency Senior Pass – $20

Active Military, 4th Grader, Veteran, Gold Star Family – Free

Lifetime Pass

Interagency Senior Lifetime Pass – $80

Interagency Access Pass (permanent disability) – Free

*Rates are taken from the official visitor’s guide pamphlet. Please check the website for any updated information.

great sand dunes, Great Sand Dunes: Ultimate Guide for Your Bucket List
Stunning view of the dunes and the mountains in the background.

When to Go to the Great Sand Dunes

Technically the dunes are open all year, but some facilities close during the winter.

Below you will find each season’s pros and cons. At the end, I’ll give my opinion of what I think is best.



  • Milder Weather: Spring brings comfortable temperatures perfect for exploring without the summer heat. You can also visit Medano Creek for a refreshing splash when the water is at its highest (late May).
  • Fewer Crowds: Most people don’t want to visit the Great Sand Dunes when it is windy and snowing. Therefore, not a lot of people will travel to the dunes at this time. The peak season will start to pick up in May. 


  • Variable Conditions: Weather can be unpredictable, with the possibility of late snowstorms or rapidly changing temperatures. Winds are especially volatile in March and April and you might get sand-blasted. Plan to visit the dunes in the morning if you can.
  • Chance of Snow: March and April are the snowiest months of the year here. And being caught in a blizzard at the Great Sand Dunes doesn’t sound like the greatest time for exploring and bucketlisting.



  • Full Access: All the park’s facilities and areas are open, and most areas are free of snow. This is also prime time for tent camping!
  • Night Sky Programs: Take advantage of the ranger-led astronomy programs to gaze at clear summer night skies. Visit later in the summer to see the Milky Way before midnight!


  • Crowds: This is the peak season, so expect more visitors and potentially crowded conditions. Always try to come on a weekday and make reservations for camping as early as you can.
  • Intense Sun: The heat can be oppressive with strong ultraviolet rays reflecting off the sand. Translation: the sand is HOT HOT HOT…like up to 150°F hot!
  • Mosquitoes: Since the water recedes, mosquitoes like to hang around, especially from mid-June through July.
  • Afternoon Storms: In the warmer months (especially July and August), there are more lightning strikes. If you do the math, there is not much else out there but you and sand if you are on the dunes! Avoid fatal lightning strikes at all costs by coming in the morning and not venturing outside during thunderstorms. 



  • Colorful Scenery: The surrounding landscape is a marvel with autumn colors from the aspen trees. 
  • Ideal Weather: The sweltering summer heat gives way to a cooler and more comfortable climate. The sand can still get hot in the afternoon, but it is not nearly as bad as in the summer.
  • Great Stargazing: During the late summer and early fall, the Milky Way is in prime position earlier at night. Some of the park’s evening ranger programs are also still running during this time. I had the opportunity to see the Milky Way in early October and I almost cried. Words can’t explain. Just go do it. 
great sand dunes, Great Sand Dunes: Ultimate Guide for Your Bucket List
My first and only attempt at astrophotography at the Great Sand Dunes.


  • Too Cold for Camping: I visited in an RV and was pleased with the weather during the day. The night brought cooler temperatures that would be a bit brisk for most folks to tent camp.
  • Changing Operational Hours: As the season progresses, some facilities may reduce hours or close for the winter.



  • Serene Solitude: Fewer tourists mean you can enjoy the tranquility of the dunes blanketed in snow.
  • Winter Activities: Unique winter sports like snow-sledding or cross-country skiing on the dunes become possible.


  • Cold Conditions: It can be quite cold, especially when the wind picks up. This is the coldest time of the year. So proper gear is essential. Luckily, the roads are normally plowed quickly if there are snowstorms. 
  • Limited Services: Some of the park facilities might be closed or offer limited services due to the season. For example, most of Medano Pass Primitive Road and the campgrounds close for winter. 

If you are still undecided, I found this resource describing month-by-month conditions to be especially helpful.

The Great Sand Dunes in October – My Favorite Time to Go

Now that we’ve got all the seasons out of the way, let’s talk about my favorite month to go to the Great Sand Dunes: early October (or late September). 

Personally, I wouldn’t go to the Great Sand Dunes any other time, unless I was tent camping. And here’s why:

  • The temperature was incredible. It was mid to low 60s the entire time. 
  • The sand didn’t burn my feet off. I still would go in the morning as it tends to be hotter in the afternoon. 
  • The Aspen trees were like something out of a dream. I think this might be some of the best fall colors I’ve seen in Colorado…no joke. They were the best on the Medano Primitive Pass. 
  • No lines whatsoever. I’ve heard horror stories of crowded beaches, lines of cars, and overflow parking. I experienced none of that in October
  • We never had trouble parking or getting anywhere. 
  • It was crowded in the main section, but you could walk farther to escape people. This was especially nice when I was a full-on mermaid rolling around in the sand and nobody was around to see it! 
  • The stars were unreal and we were the only ones stargazing.  
  • I hiked the dunes and didn’t get heat exhaustion
  • There was no snow, only endless views of sand and mountains. Cause you can BET that I’m not driving my beast of an RV on snowy mountain roads. 
  • We tried to stick to exploration during the morning anyway, but we did not see a drop of rain throughout our entire trip. 
great sand dunes, Great Sand Dunes: Ultimate Guide for Your Bucket List
Submerged in a sea of yellow with my mermaid tail bag!

Great Sand Dunes Weather

It is important to note that the sand might be hot, but it normally runs 60°F hotter than the air temperature. This is also mountain terrain, meaning that temperatures can change quickly and there is an impressive difference in the highs and lows. 

In the summer, temperatures run anywhere from 45-80°F with virtually no snow. 

Spring and fall see lower temperatures, ranging from 32-70°F.

As far as winter goes, it can range from low 40s to sub-zero temperatures.

During winter and spring, snow falls on the dunes about once per week and melts within a few days. The problems come when the hiking trails get buried in deep snow, but some of the foothills may still be accessible. 

great sand dunes, Great Sand Dunes: Ultimate Guide for Your Bucket List
Stunning fall weather at the Great Sand Dunes of Colorado, USA.

Great Sand Dunes Bucket List – Best Things to Do


Sandboarding and sand sledding are the most iconic activities to do in the Great Sand Dunes. 

You have to figure out that many Coloradans are snowboarders, and they need to do something during the summer! 

I decided to do both during my visit and loved it! Although I preferred sandboarding, I think that sledding might be better for younger visitors or beginners. 

great sand dunes, Great Sand Dunes: Ultimate Guide for Your Bucket List
Attempting to sandboard at the Great Sand Dunes.


There are a wide variety of hiking trails all around the national park to choose from and explore. 

I am going to be brutally honest, this is not for the weak. To put it in perspective, I hiked 7 days in the Andes and reached over 17,000 feet. But hiking those dunes…it kicked my butt! 

Always bring water and sunscreen no matter what hike you do. And remember–slow and steady wins the race!


If you are in the dunes during those summer months, it is an adventure to go camping in the national park. 

Just remember to make your reservation early!

Adventure Driving

One of the coolest things I did when visiting the Great Sand Dunes was take an adventure drive on Medano Pass Primitive Road

This is for high-clearance, 4WD cars ONLY! My first thought was, “It can’t be that bad. They are probably just exaggerating for CYA.”

No. This road was crazy! It was like four-wheeling in my truck! I drove through my first river, got stuck in the sand, and then was greeted by narrow bumpy roads lined with nothing but yellow aspens. 

That is worthy of a bucket list right there!

great sand dunes, Great Sand Dunes: Ultimate Guide for Your Bucket List
Getting ready to cross a stream on Medano Pass Primitive Road with the Big Boy truck!


The Great Sand Dunes National Park is a certified International Dark Sky Park.

Translation: the stars are clear and beautiful! You might even get lucky and see the Milky Way!


This area is gorgeous–there is no denying it. This makes it a nature photographer’s dream! 

Whether it’s capturing wildlife, epic nature scenes, or delving into astrophotography, the Great Sand Dunes is a perfect time to whip out that camera!


As previously mentioned, the Great Sand Dunes is a natural wonder! 

Luckily, the staff at the Great Sand Dunes are aware of this and offer several educational programs if you are interested. 

Plus, the Visitor Center’s exhibits and various resources give you plenty to learn about the Great Sand Dunes.

great sand dunes, Great Sand Dunes: Ultimate Guide for Your Bucket List
Pulling off on Medano Pass Primative Road to get a shot with the fall leaves and my tail.

Can you bring your pets to the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado?

Pets are indeed welcome at the Great Sand Dunes, but with certain restrictions to help preserve the delicate natural environment and ensure the safety of all visitors. 

According to the National Park’s policy, pets must be leashed at all times in developed areas, campgrounds, and along park roads. 

They are allowed in the Preserve (including Mosca Pass Trail) and all of the main areas of the park (including the campground, the Dunes Overlook Trail, and Medano Primitive Pass Road). 

However, they are not allowed in the backcountry of the dune fields or wilderness areas to protect wildlife habitats. They are also not allowed in any common areas such as restrooms or buildings.

Pet Safety

Pet owners should be mindful that the sandy landscape can reach scorching temperatures, particularly in the warmer months, which can be harmful to a pet’s paws. 

Therefore, it’s highly advisable to equip your furry friend with protective pet boots when visiting to ensure their paws are shielded from the hot sand. 

Always carry sufficient water for both you and your pet, and be sure to adhere to the Leave No Trace principles during your visit.

Do your best to keep your pet away from any wildlife or vegetation such as cactus spines. And never leave your pet unattended in your car.

Wildlife at the Great Sand Dunes National Park

When you visit the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, you will find yourself immersed in an ecosystem teeming with diverse wildlife. 

The park serves as a sanctuary for a variety of species, so keep your eyes peeled for some wildlife when checking this off of your bucket list. 

  • Great Sand Dunes Tiger Beetle
  • Over 250 Species of Birds
  • Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout, Rio Grande Sucker, and Fathead Minnow
  • Ord’s Kangaroo Rat
  • Mule Deer (be careful not to hit one on the road!)
  • Black Bear
  • Mountain Lion
  • Pronghorn
  • Bighorn Sheep
  • Beavers and Badgers
  • Bison
  • Short-horned and Plateau Lizards
  • Garter and Bullsnakes
  • A wide variety of frogs and salamanders (I love the Tiger Salamander)
  • Several other beetles, spiders, centipedes, and millipedes (I didn’t see any of these…and I’m kinda glad)

Although some of these animals might be rare or hard to spot, there is a good chance that you will see something. There was a mule deer two feet from my car. 

With every visit, you stand a chance to witness the delicate balance of life that adapts and thrives in this unique landscape.

great sand dunes, Great Sand Dunes: Ultimate Guide for Your Bucket List
Spotting a deer with the Great Sand Dunes in the back.

Safety Tips for the Great Sand Dunes

*these safety tips are all taken from advice from the Visitors Center and my personal experience. I am not a doctor or expert, so if you have any questions or concerns, please contact Great Sand Dunes National Park.

  1. Call 911 or the Visitor Center in an emergency, though cell service can be spotty.
  2. Be careful on hot sand. If you choose to come in the summer, wear closed-toed shoes and get boots for your pet. 
  3. Watch out for lightning during summer. You should remain inside for 30 minutes after the last sound of thunder. If you are caught outside, crouch on top of a backpack or another item to prevent ground charge. Try to stay in areas with trees.
  4. Be careful of wildlife on the road! I can speak from personal experience since I saw many deer while driving.
  5. High winds might cause sand to shift and blow. I wore sunglasses, layers, and long pants and was comfortable the entire time. 
  6. Pay attention to signs and always follow the rules. One example is on Medano Primitive Road. They really don’t mess around and everything is there for your safety.
  7. This is a high-elevation area. Depending on where you are, you might be at 8,000 to almost 14,000 feet! Watch out for symptoms of altitude sickness (shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, etc). Always remember to go slowly and stay hydrated. If you start feeling sick, descend slowly, rest, and hydrate. 
  8. Know the laws. There are some *substances* that are legal in Colorado. This is still illegal on federal lands, so please refrain. 
  9. Never feed or approach wildlife. Just please don’t.
  10. If you do need anything first-aid related, odds are that they have it at the Visitor’s Center. 
great sand dunes, Great Sand Dunes: Ultimate Guide for Your Bucket List
The Bucket List Mermaid looking over the Great Sand Dune National Park.

Final Word on the Great Sand Dunes National Park

The Great Sand Dunes is an epic undeniable addition to any adventure or outdoor enthusiast’s bucket list!

I hope that this guide helps you navigate, savor, and ultimately cross the Great Sand Dunes off your bucket list. And for those of you who are wondering, I am STILL finding sand in my clothes and my mermaid tail😜.

Adventure Bucket List Resources

I am here to help your travel adventures go as smoothly as possible! That way you can check off that bucket list with minimal complications and spending!

AIRFARE – It is no surprise that like many travelers, I have found that Hopper is one of the best resources to use when finding cheap flights. 

ACCOMMODATION – My two favorites are Booking.Com for hotels and VRBO for rentals. 

GUIDED TOURS –  If you are looking for quick and easy tours, check out GetYourGuide and Viator

MULTI-DAY TOURS –  For more in-depth tours that span several days, TourHub has many great options with reputable travel companies. Use my code (ALEXANDRA1GURU) for up to 5% off your next bucket list adventure. 

TRANSPORTATION –  You can either rent a car yourself with Discover Cars or do a guided bus tours like Big Bus Tours

CREDIT CARD –  I always use my Chase Freedom Unlimited card for all of my purchases. There is no annual fee and you get 1.5% cash back and 5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Travel. 

SIM CARDS –  Avoid expensive roaming charges with an eSim card with Airalo.

TRAVELER’S INSURANCE –  Check out VisitorsCoverage for affordable insurance plans.

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great sand dunes, Great Sand Dunes: Ultimate Guide for Your Bucket List

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  1. Gabby Leopard says:

    Looks like I need ti add Colarado to my America bucket list. I keep reading about such amazing places there! Never seen sand dunes before but would love to These look amazing!

  2. Thanks for this comprehensive guide! I’ve always been curious to visit the Great Sand Dunes especially since I’m out in CO for awhile. I’ll have to check it out!

  3. Wow, I love your mermaid outfit and the scenery is also very beautiful. Thanks for the tips for visiting the Great Sand Dunes, glad to know that it is also pet friendly. Well done article

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