great sand dunes bucket list, Great Sand Dunes Bucket List (All You Need to Do)

Great Sand Dunes Bucket List (All You Need to Do)

Nestled in the heart of the scenic state of Colorado, the Great Sand Dunes National Park offers a unique landscape of towering dunes set against the rugged backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Welcome to your Great Sand Dunes bucket list!

It’s a place where adventure converges with the tranquility of nature, attracting outdoor enthusiasts of all stripes. 

Whether you’re a first-time visitor or a seasoned park aficionado, the Great Sand Dunes National Park has something awe-inspiring for everyone.

This is for those of you who want to maximize your adventures when visiting this iconic natural phenomenon. Let’s get bucketlisting!

great sand dunes bucket list, Great Sand Dunes Bucket List (All You Need to Do)
The Bucket List Mermaid on the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado, United States.
great sand dunes bucket list, Great Sand Dunes Bucket List (All You Need to Do)

Sandboarding and Sand Sledding on your Great Sand Dunes Bucket List

Great Sand Dunes Sandboarding

One of the most exhilarating activities unique to the Great Sand Dunes is sandboarding—surfing down the sandy slopes on a special board. 

Unlike snowboarding, sandboarding can be enjoyed all year round and doesn’t require a thick winter coat! 

It is a very unique combination of surfing, skateboarding, and snowboarding.

  • You have to distribute your weight differently. You keep it towards your back. This was a little tricky for me.
  • I was lucky to go about 40 feet, but it wasn’t as daunting as snowboarding.
  • You have to use the wax every time you descend or you will get stuck.
  • It didn’t hurt as much as I thought to wipe out…you just might eat some sand. 
  • You will have sand everywhere for the rest of time! All jokes aside, I am still finding sand from this little adventure.

How to Sandboard

  1. Climb up the dune you want to sandboard down (this is going to be a workout!)
  2. Make sure all your equipment is good to go.
  3. Wax the board. The rental man told me it was like scribbling a crayon on the bottom of the board. 
  4. With the nose of the board pointing down the dune, lead with your dominant foot.
  5. Lean back and bend your back knee. Always look where you want to go.
  6. Apply pressure on your heels and toes to turn.
  7. You can maintain some balance by holding your arms out.
  8. If you start to feel unstable, bend your knees and try to carve for as long as you can. Then fall to your back.
great sand dunes bucket list, Great Sand Dunes Bucket List (All You Need to Do)
Sandboarding at the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Sand Sledding for Your Great Sand Dunes Bucket list

Sledding down these ancient dunes provides an equally thrilling experience for those seeking an easier challenge that doesn’t require as much balancing.

This is a great alternative for those who find sandboarding too daunting but still want to feel the exhilaration on the Great Sand Dunes!

Armed with a simple sled, adventurers can glide down the steep sandy hills, feeling the wind rush by and the sand shift under their sled. 

For those new to the sport, the dunes offer a variety of slopes catering to different skill levels—gentle inclines for beginners and steeper terrains for the daring. 

After an exhilarating ride, climbers are rewarded with breathtaking panoramic views of the dunes and valley, making every trudge back up the hill a worthwhile effort.

Sandboarding or Sand Sledding?

To start, I tried both sandboarding and sand sledding. 

Personally, I preferred sandboarding. However, I also actively snowboard and found sandboarding to be more exhilarating! 

I made the trek up to the very top dune and attempted to sand sled down. Weirdly enough, the sled just wouldn’t move! I tried waxing it and still no luck. So, I just walked down the mountain. Not ideal…but not the end of the world. 

Full disclaimer, you will still wipe out on the sled, because that’s the only way to stop yourself if you are going too fast. Fortunately, it is far less abrasive to roll off of the sled versus falling from standing on a board.

Whatever you choose, both activities are incredibly fun ways to connect with the natural wonders of the park and create memories that will last a lifetime. 

Just make sure you’re using specifically designed boards available for rent from local outfitters.

Great Sand Dunes Sandboard and Sand Sled Rental

Important! The Great Sand Dunes National Park does NOT rent sand sleds or sandboards. 

I ran into a lot of people complaining about this. They would ask where I rented my gear and then moan about how they wished they would have known and now they could not sandboard or sand sled. 

You also cannot reuse your other equipment. For example, cardboard or snow sleds will not slide on dry sand. And please don’t ruin your expensive snowboard!

Below are some great local businesses that you can support and rent from:

  1. Oasis Store – near the park entrance on CO150. This is also where I stayed and parked my massive RV. Therefore, I rented from here and had no complaints! It is right on the way to the entrance. It is, unfortunately, only open seasonally.
  2. Spin Drift Sandboard Rentals – this is a little further away (25 miles) from the Great Sand Dunes on CO 160. It is only open seasonally.
  3. Kristi Mountain Sports – 35 miles away in Alamosa on US160, but is massive and open year round.
great sand dunes bucket list, Great Sand Dunes Bucket List (All You Need to Do)
Trying to sandboard and so that you can see some perspective of how massive these sand dunes really are!

Great Sand Dunes National Park Hiking

Hiking in the Great Sand Dunes National Park isn’t your ordinary trail experience. The park boasts the tallest dunes in North America, presenting a unique challenge and an undeniable allure for hikers. 

Hiking on Your Great Sand Dunes Bucket LIst

Before we start, I do have to be brutally honest and say that hiking the dunes can be brutal. It is at a high elevation, hot, and it is more work physically to climb the sand instead of a solid surface. 

This is not to say that they aren’t worth it, it is just a more intense physical challenge.

Here’s where you shake your head in disgust at me…but I decided to do the tallest one on a whim. That’s right. No planning, no water, just me and a sandboard. Do yourself a favor and don’t be like me. I make mistakes so you don’t have to, right?!

Plan ahead, bring sunscreen (maybe a small snack), and plenty of water! I did, however, like bringing the sandboard because I could stick it in the sand and use it to pull myself up. And then, if you are brave enough, you can attempt to ride the sled down once you reach the summit.

Also, it is worth noting that I would always opt to hike during the morning. This way you can avoid fatal lightning strikes and the heat as much as you can. 

great sand dunes bucket list, Great Sand Dunes Bucket List (All You Need to Do)
A view of the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado.

High Dune on First Ridge

Although this isn’t the tallest dune, it is the most popular. It looks pretty close to you from the main area which is why I started climbing with no preparation. 

Don’t be fooled, it takes a long time to go a short distance in the sand!

Distance: 2.5 miles (4 km)

Elevation Gain: 693 feet (211 m)

Average Time: 2 hours

Star Dune

This is one of the two tallest tunes in North America! If you are going to attempt this beast, I would bring a hat, sunscreen, lots of layers, and more water than you think. 

Just think of that adrenaline rush once you reach the top!

Distance: 6 miles (9.6 km)

Elevation Gain: 741 feet (225 m)

Average Time: 5 hours

To ascend to the summit, first go down 2 miles to the Medano Creek bed. 

Hidden Dune

This hiking gem has no trails and therefore is a great dune adventure for hiking enthusiasts. You get there by hiking west/northwest into the dune field from the Castle Creek Picnic Area. Or by hiking 3 miles north/northwest from the Dunes Parking Lot.

Distance: 4 miles (6.4 km)

Elevation Gain: 741 ft (225 m)

Average Time: 5 hours 

Note that there is a false summit that hides the real summit for the majority of the hike. Just pointing it out to prepare your mental health…

Eastern Edge of the Dunefield

This one is perfect for those who want great views of the dunes that rise from Medano Creek. 

You can access this hike by hiking to the Castle Creek Picnic Area and then continuing to the creek bed to Castle Creek. 

I liked this one because it was a mix of traditional and dune hiking. You can walk along the creek bed and then up to the ridge of the dunes for a view of the entire dune field. 

Distance: 3 miles (4.8 km) round trip, 1 mile (1.6 km to the top of the ridge)

Elevation Gain: 400 feet (121 m) 

Average Time: 1.5 hours

Hikes Around the Great Sand Dunes

great sand dunes bucket list, Great Sand Dunes Bucket List (All You Need to Do)
Passing the creek on many hiking trails.

Sand Sheet Loop Interpretive Trail

A short tail along the grasslands of the Great Sand Dunes National Park. 

Distance: 0.25 miles (0.2 km)

Elevation Gain: 50 ft (15 m)

Average Time: 20 minutes

Montville Nature Trail

A nature trail that goes through a forest and a small creek. Make sure to get a trail guide at the trailhead so that you don’t get lost. 

Distance: 0.5 miles (1 km)

Elevation Gain: 200 feet (61 m)

Average Time: 30 minutes

Mosca Pass Trail

A perfect trail for hikers who enjoy a harder hike with forests and wildflowers. 

Distance: 7 miles (11 km)

Elevation Gain: 1400 feet (427 m)

Average Time: 3.5 hours

Wellington Ditch Trail

This intermediate hike is known for its view of the first ridges of the Great Sand Dunes.

Distance: 2 miles (3.2 km)

Elevation Gain: None

Average Time: 1.5 hours (including Montville Trail)

Dunes Overlook

This was one of the most popular and recommended hikes that I found in the dunes, especially for beginners who want a nice challenge. 

If you couldn’t figure out by its name, it offers a specular overlook of Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Distance: 2.3 miles (3.7 km)

Elevation Gain: 450 feet (137 m)

Average Time: 2 hours

great sand dunes bucket list, Great Sand Dunes Bucket List (All You Need to Do)
Nothing but endless sand and dune fields for this adventurous mermaid!

Camping at the Great Sand Dunes

Odds are that if you are venturing into this natural wonder, you might as well sleep there too! 

Camping in the Great Sand Dunes is a quintessential activity for visitors aiming to fully immerse themselves in the park’s nighttime serenity. 

It is important to note that this is seasonal from April to October within the National Park. You might be able to find camping outside of the park during the winter, but you need proper gear and experience to do this.

Piňon Flats Campground

Piňon Flats Campground is the main campground of the Great Sand Dunes National Park. 

It is open from April to October by reservation only. I have yet to be able to secure a reservation in this elite camping spot, so I would heed their warnings and book as early as you can. It is normally filled by May and June. 

You can book up to 6 months in advance for normal spots or up to a year in advance for group spots. 

Individual sites are $20/night for 8 people and two vehicles. And group sites range from $65-80.

There are also a few RV sites for vehicles 25 feet and under. These are not hookups, but the park has fill and dump stations. And don’t worry – each loop has flush toilets and sinks. 

They even have a camp store between Loop 1 and 2. 

Although I try to stay up to date on pricing and information that was taken directly from the National Park, please stay updated through the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Backpacking for your Great Sand Dunes Bucket List

If you are down for a more intense nature adventure, the Great Sand Dunes National Park also offers backpacking permits. These are available year-round and are by reservation only.

You can choose from designated sites along the Sand Ramp Trail at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains or camp on the tallest dune in North America! Talk about incredible bucket list ticks!

great sand dunes bucket list, Great Sand Dunes Bucket List (All You Need to Do)
Enjoying nature in the back woods of Great Sand Dunes National Park.

4WD Camping on Medano Pass Primative Road

If your car can handle it, there are also 21 free, first-come first-serve, campsites all along the jaw-dropping Medano Pass Primitive Road. 

See the next section for more information on this, since driving this is a bucket list idea in itself. 

You can access these campsites late spring through fall if the weather holds up. If you are planning this, I would highly recommend stopping at the Visitor Center for road details, current conditions, and a map. 

Driving on Medano Pass Primitive Road

For the 4WD lovers, the Medano Pass Primitive Road is a bucket-list adventure. This rugged track winds through some of the park’s most scenic areas, crossing creeks and challenging soft sand. 

This route is not for the faint-hearted driver but is sure to offer an exciting and memorable experience. 

When I first experienced this, I thought that any normal car could drive it and everything would be fine. I was WRONG. This road is an adrenaline junkie’s paradise! There were even a few times when my heart dropped a little bit, and adventure runs through my veins.  

It needs to be able to handle soft sand, rocks, uneven roads, and even stream crossings. Aka it needs to be a high clearance 4WD vehicle. The road signs and Visitor Center will tell you everything you need to know.

During the dry times, you might have to reduce your tire pressure to drive through the sand. This is why they have a free tire pressure station in the Ampitheter during the warmer months. 

As I mentioned before, I would advise you to check the conditions before you head out and make sure your vehicle is equipped for the journey.

For my fisherman, the park offers catch-and-release fishing for the Rio Grande cutthroat trout.

great sand dunes bucket list, Great Sand Dunes Bucket List (All You Need to Do)
The Point of No Return for Medano Pass.

Stargazing for Your Great Sand Dunes Bucket List

Lay down a blanket and prepare for a celestial show in the clear Colorado sky. 

This means that it is renowned for its dark nights and is an ideal spot for astronomers and star lovers alike to observe the Milky Way galaxy stretch across the sky above. 

To make the most of the stars at the Great Sand Dunes National Park, plan to come on a moonless night preferably in late summer. This way the Milky Way is bright and high in the sky. 

You can either head to the Amphitheater for a paved viewing experience or head out onto the dunes themselves. I chose the dune option and it was nothing short of magical. 

If they are accessible to you, you can bring a telescope, camera, or binoculars. Honestly, I brought my camera to try astrophotography and my own eyeballs. It was spectacular!

If this is something that does interest you, I would scope out the Visitor Center first. There, they have star charts, kits and models, and even red LED flashlights to protect your night vision.

great sand dunes bucket list, Great Sand Dunes Bucket List (All You Need to Do)
Trying to capture the night sky over the Great Sand Dunes in the United States.

Great Sand Dunes Bucket list Evening Programs

During summer and fall, there are free ranger programs at the Amphitheater. 

These programs differ and range, so make sure to check the schedule upon your arrival. 

Exploring with the Full Moon

If you happen to come on a night with a full moon, don’t panic. This can still be an incredible bucket list experience!

You won’t see many stars, but you can still explore the dunes without any artificial lights. 

Since this is a high-elevation and dry environment, the air makes the moonlight brighter. I would still bring a flashlight for safety, but basking in the Great Sand Dunes in nothing but moonlight is a surreal experience! 

Night Wildlife at the Great Sand Dunes

Since this is a natural spot, you can bet that you might run into some natives! 

Most of these creatures include amphibians such as Tiger Salamanders or various species of toad. When the sun rises, they will burrow down into the sand and wait until it rains. 

You might also spot one of the nine species of owls that inhabit the park (or hear them). These will more likely be found on the trails surrounding the Great Sand Dunes. 

Other animals that you might spot are the Kangaroo Rats or Giant Sand Treader Camel Crickets.

Just be careful not to blind them (and yourself) with hefty flashlights and opt for a red light instead.

Staying Safe while Checking off Your Great Sand Dunes Bucket list

Because this is a Dark Sky Park, there are virtually no lights illuminating anything. Therefore, it is recommended to always carry a flashlight, but use it at a minimum to avoid blinding animals and preserve your night vision. 

Or, even better, using a red light that can be bought from the Visitor Center. Avoid using your phone’s flashlight because you need to preserve battery life in case of emergency.

It can be a little tricky to find your way back to your car, so take care when exploring the Great Sand Dunes at night. 

One thing I noticed was that temperatures tend to drop significantly at night, even during summer. I wish I would have brought more layers and warmer clothes for a more comfortable experience. 

Keep an eye out for wildlife! Black bears and mountain lions are more active at night. Know what to do in this situation and always go out with a buddy. 

Although I didn’t encounter this, still keep an eye out for storms and lightning. 


Photographers, professional or amateur, will find an endless source of inspiration in the park. Capturing the perfect shot of the sun rising or setting over the dunes, or the dynamic shadows that play across the sand, can be an exciting challenge for any shutterbug.

With such a dynamic landscape, every moment at the Great Sand Dunes makes for a potential masterpiece.

Photography Ideas of the Great Sand Dunes

  • Landscape Photography
  • Wildlife Photography
  • Adventure Photography
  • Wild Flower or Plant Photography
  • Astrophotography

If you are looking to capture some of the beauty of the Great Sand Dunes National Park, I would recommend bringing a tripod, a telephoto lens (for capturing far-off details of the dunes), a macro lens (if photographing flowers or plants), an ultra-wide lens (for astrophotography).

great sand dunes bucket list, Great Sand Dunes Bucket List (All You Need to Do)
One of my many photographs that I captured with my camera.


The Great Sand Dunes National Park is not just an immense playground; it’s also a living classroom. 

Breathtaking geography, diverse ecosystems, and rich history await those keen on learning more about this natural marvel. 

Visitor Center

The visitor center provides interactive displays and educational exhibits, making every visit both an adventure and a learning experience.

Here, I learned about the Great Sand Dunes from exhibit areas and educational visitors. This made my Great Sand Dune experience more memorable since I had an idea of what they are and how they got there. 

Hint: It is still a bit of a mystery to me!

Ranger Programs

Free ranger programs are offered in various locations around the park in the summer and fall. 

Kids 3 and older can also pick up a free Junior Ranger activity booklet at the Visitor Center. This takes about 30 minutes to an hour to complete and they earn a badge or patch upon completion.

You can get Junior Ranger memorabilia and collect badges from over 400 national parks around the continent. 

Wildlife Viewing on Your Great Sand Dunes Bucket List

I go into more detail about the various animals you can find here in my Ultimate Great Sand Dune Guide. 

You can attempt to find a wide variety of animals that can the dunes “home”.

I would keep an eye out for the 4 types of colorful beetles living in the Great Sand Dunes. Or the cute Kangaroo rats that emerge at night. 

As far as flora, the Scurfpea and Skeletonweed blossom during the early summer. You can also see thousands of prairie sunflowers bloom in mid-August. 

great sand dunes bucket list, Great Sand Dunes Bucket List (All You Need to Do)
Spotting some deer in the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Medano Creek

If you happen to be around Great Sand Dunes National Park in late May, Medano Creek is at its highest water level. 

This brings in families and crowds looking to escape from the heat uniquely and refreshingly. 

You can access this part of the Great Sand Dunes from the Dunes Parking Area or the Sand Pit and Castle Creek Picnic Areas (with 4WD, high clearance vehicles). 

You may witness an incredible natural phenomenon known as “surge flow”. This is when water flows across the ‘antidunes’ or when dams made from sand form on the creekbed. This gathers water until the pressure is too high and sends the water in the form of a wave every 20 seconds or so. 

Just be warned that if you do plan to go during this time of May and June, it is extremely popular and crowded. When the water levels lower during June and July, this also brings mosquitoes. 

The sand also tends to get very hot during this time, so make sure to pack closed-toed shoes and pet booties! 

great sand dunes bucket list, Great Sand Dunes Bucket List (All You Need to Do)
Beautiful views and rivers to see while exploring.

Planning Your Time at the Great Sand Dunes

So you may be asking? What if I have a limited time to spend at the Great Sand Dunes? Where should I prioritize my time? 

Luckily, the Great Sand Dunes National Park recognizes this and gives recommendations. Here is what they say:

2 to 3 Hours

If you have a short amount of time, the Great Sand Dunes National Park Recommends several short things. 

It is a given that you should explore the dune fields from the Dunes Parking Area or splash in Medano Creek (seasonal). 

This is a perfect amount of time to hop on those sandboards or sand sleds like we previously discussed. 

It is also recommended to check out the Montville Nature Trail or drive on Medano Pass Primitive Road.

3 to 5 Hours

If you have a few more hours to kill, you can explore the east side of the dune field. You can get there from the Sand Pit, or Castle Creek Picnic Area. 

Feeling like a physical challenge, check out the Star Dune hike!

If you are here during the nighttime, it would be a perfect few hours to watch the sunset over the dunes or go stargazing. 

If you have more time or are camping…

For those of you where time is not an issue, I would attend a ranger program or go stargazing.

And, of course, I would also check off the options mentioned above. 

great sand dunes bucket list, Great Sand Dunes Bucket List (All You Need to Do)
The Bucket List Mermaid posing with her tail on Medano Pass Primitive Road.

Final Word on the Great Sand Dunes Bucket List

As your journey through the Great Sand Dunes National Park comes to a close, I hope that you found a true adventure on your bucket list. 

When it comes to unreal natural phenomena like this gem, you can’t go wrong! From the thrill of carving down dunes to the tranquility of stargazing in pristine night skies, I hope that you can immerse yourself in all that the Great Sand Dunes National Park has to offer.

Embrace the beauty, respect the habitat, and carry the spirit of adventure with you long after the sand is shaken from your boots. 

The Great Sand Dunes are not merely a bucket list destination, but an awe-inspiring adventure that will leave you with a profound appreciation for nature’s wonders.

Remember to practice Leave No Trace principles, keeping this majestic environment pristine for generations to follow. 

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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