Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Is it a desert? Is it an alpine wilderness? Is it a swimming beach oasis?
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is nothing short of a natural wonder even among a diverse terrain of grasslands, wetlands, conifer and aspen forests, alpine lakes and tundra. This national park lies less than 5 hours from Denver, on a drive that can pass through flat land, mountain ranges (like the Sangre De Cristo Mountain Range) and canyons, with views along the way of many of Colorado’s famous 14ers (mountains exceeding 14,000 feet above sea level).
None of Colorado’s famed 14ers lies within the park, though—park elevations range from 7,515 feet to 13,604 feet above sea level. Still, there’s no shortage of awe-inspiring scenery. If it weren’t for the towering alpine peaks in every direction, you might imagine you’re lost in the Arabian Desert. But is this a desert? Or is it an alpine wilderness? Is it a swimming beach lined with inner tubes and splashing kids?
Because the area is so diverse, so are the visitor activities. In early spring to late summer (the only months water flows through the area), activities include skimboarding (which is sort of like surfing in very shallow water) and building sand castles on the shore of Medano Creek. After traversing the creek, you can hike up the dunes to “sand-sled” down, or hike above tree-line into wilderness.Yet with all these options, the park offers exceptional solitude and quiet and, according to the National Park Service website, some consider it to be the quietest national park in the 48 contiguous United States.
The park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Pinyon Flats Campground is a first-come-first-served campground and the only campground at the park. Sawmill Canyon Backcountry Campsite is available in person or by reservation (719.378.6399).
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View this Denver Itinerary to learn about many of the federal lands, recreation areas, national parks, and historical and cultural sites in the Denver area.
Read more about these Denver-area spots:
- Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge
- Bear Creek Lake
- Rocky Mountain National Park
- White River National Forest