In the southeast corner of Colorado you’ll find Great Sand Dunes National Park, home to North America’s largest sand dunes. But it’s also home to much more, including 13,000 foot mountains, backcountry mountain passes, beach-like creeks and cascading waterfalls. As the Park is surrounded by National Forest and Bureau of Land Management Lands, there are even more hiking opportunities with an hour’s drive. Here are 9 of the best hikes near Great Sand Dunes National Park.
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An Intro to the Best Hikes Near Great Sand Dunes National Park
Great Sand Dunes National Park is a unique place, and there are a few important things you should know before you arrive.
First, keep in mind that this elevation lies in a high alpine valley, most of which is at an elevation of 7,500-8,000 feet above sea level. Take time to acclimate and get used to this elevation, drink lots of water, and be ready for the effects of high altitude.
Second, this park is unique in part because the sand dunes are constantly changing in response to the blowing wind, allowing you to chart your own path through the sand without any trail. This also means you’re allowed to try out sand dune sledding, a popular park past time. Bring a sled from Walmart to save money, as they charge a premium at the park.
Third, don’t forget to explore the mountains of this park. While it’s known for the Sand Dunes, there are beautiful alpine meadows, stunning mountain peaks, and powerful waterfalls to explore as well. Now, here are the best hikes near Great Sand Dunes National Park.
1) Hike to High Dune
This is the premiere, most well-known hiking destination in the park. The sand dunes are constantly shifting due to the erosive wind and water, so you can pick your own way to hike there through the dunes – there is no solid trail to mark the way. This makes bringing a map and compass or GPS app on your phone; the dunefield can get quite hard to navigate. It’s a fantasttic half-day hike.
2) Mosca Pass Trail
Mosca Pass is a high mountain pass to the East of the Sand Dunes themselves. Climbing the 1,500 or so feet to reach this vantage point provides spectacular views of the sands far below, along with stunning sights to the east, north and south of the mountains around you. This is a moderate hike with some serious elevation gain. Plan to spend at least a half-day, up to full-day, on this moderate-difficulty hike.
3) High & Star Dune Loop
This hiking loop strings together High Dune, the tallest sand dune in the national park, with Star Dune, another famous dune with a star-like shape. It’s a longer day in the dunefield with much more elevation gain – it’s a full day hike and better for older, more experienced hikers and adventurers. The 8 mile listing is an estimate, since you can choose your own route out here on the dunes. You’ll get to experience not one, but two high vantage points from these two large dunes.
4) Upper Sand Creek Lake Trail
This trail takes you deep into the mountain backcountry of the national park, rising high above the dunefield to the south. Ascend up above tree line to reach Upper Sand Creek Lake, surrounded by icy snowfields and alpine meadows. This is the one of the only few best hikes near Great Sand Dunes National Park with a trailhead east of the park, Additionally, getting there requires a 4WD, high-clearance vehicle, plus solid hiking and navigating experience, and a full day to hike.
5) Medano Pass Primitive Road
This hiking trail is actually a 4WD road that climbs up and over Medano Pass to the Park’s northeast. If you have a jeep, you can drive along it and park to access the backcountry more easily – or you can just start hiking the road from either of its two ends. As it passes through deep sand, you may need to deflate your tires slightly if you want to drive without getting stuck. The road makes for a great overnight backpacking trip if you can secure the proper Wilderness permit, or you can hike part of the trail for a good day trip.
6) Montville Nature Trail
This easy trail is great for kids and families that aren’t up for a long dune field hike in the sun. Located just near the main Visitor Center, the Montville Nature Trail has great examples of many of the different types of wildlife and plants you can find throughout the dunefield and mountain environment. It’s only a half-mile, so you can do this family-friendly hike in an hour or less, depending on how many of the educational signs you stop to read along the way. This is the shortest and easiest of the best hikes near Great Sand Dunes National Park.
7) Zapata Falls Trail - Outside of Park
This fantastic waterfall hike and trailhead is found about 30 minutes south of the national park, also located on public land. Follow a 1 mile hike along the trail, with a final section of rock-hopping and wading required to reach the bottom of the waterfall itself. While you can hike this in the winter too to see the frozen falls, you need special gear like microspikes to stay safe. This is the only major waterfall among the best hikes near Great Sand Dunes National Park.
8) Lake Como Road - Outside of Park
9) Willow Lake Trail - Outside of Park
Willow Lake is north of the National Park, with a trailhead just east of the town of Crestone. The trail ascends switchbacks before bringing you along a gorgeous mountain meadow, up a steep gorge, before finally presenting Willow Lake. This is a stunning alpine lake, with a large waterfall feeding it from the upper basin, and dwarfed by Kit Carson Peak and Challenger Point, two 14ers, below. It’s one of my favorite valleys in Colorado, without a doubt.
For more resources to help plan your trip, visit the National Park official site here.
The Best Hikes Near Great Sand Dunes National Park
As you can see, only a few of the best hikes near Great Sand Dunes National Park actually bring you out into the dunefield. Some of the best gems in and around this national park explore the mountains, waterfalls, and other natural wonders in the backcountry around the park’s sand dune core. No matter which of the best hikes near Great Sand Dunes National Park you pick, I am sure you will have a fantastic experience exploring this amazing area of Colorado. Safe travels on the trails!