Visiting the Great Sand Dunes National Park
The Great Sand Dunes National Park is such an incredible place to visit; not only is it one of the lesser known National Parks, it is also definitely one of the lesser crowded ones! It is honestly so astounding as you drive into the park and see the massive dunes come into view, with the mountains rising above them in the background. It’s like finding the Sahara in the middle of the mountains in Colorado – so strange but so cool! Keep reading if you want some ideas on what to do and where to stay if you decide to visit the dunes – and *bonus* where to find some amazing hot springs hidden inside of a greenhouse nearby!
Where to Stay:
> AirBNB: So the dunes are kind of out in the middle of nowhere, which can make it hard to find a place to stay nearby. We opted to stay in a cuter airBNB even though it meant being about 40 minutes away from the park – and oh boy did it work out in our favor! This little cabin was the perfect place to stay and the sweet host was so accommodating – she even took our breakfast order so that she could make us breakfast the next morning! The cabin had everything you could possibly need – a cozy bed, bathroom, kitchenette area and THE most beautiful view outside our window, it honestly didn’t even look real. If you want to go off-grid and just enjoy some relaxing time out in nature, this is a great option!
> Camping: If you are planning on spending quite a bit of time at the dunes, or just want to be in closer proximity, there are campsites that you can stay at, either in tents or RVs. I looked into this about a month out from our trip (which if you’ve ever planned a trip to a National Park, this is very last-minute planning), and the sites were, unsurprisingly, all booked up – so definitely reserve a campsite farther in advance if that’s something you’re interested in! You can reserve sites at the dunes through Recreation.gov with this link:
> Lodge: If camping isn’t your scene but you still want to be closer to the dunes, they also have their own lodge!
> Alamosa, CO: Another option to look into would be Alamosa; it is the nearest town to the dunes and there were a few airBNB locations there as well.
When to Go:
We went to the dunes over the second weekend in August, and I was preparing myself for massive crowds since we were arriving on a Saturday; although there were still quite a few people there, it was much less crowded than I had anticipated.
*BIG TIP* The time of day you go to the dunes makes a huge difference. During the summer the sand can really heat up during the day and be extremely hot on your feet if you’re not wearing closed toe shoes. It’s best to go early in the morning or evening because the sand is cool enough to walk on barefoot (or in sandals) PLUS there tends to be less people during that time. We went around 6:00 PM on a Saturday (a couple hours before sunset), and most people were leaving the dunes for the day.
Another huge plus: We didn’t have to pay the $20 entrance fee because we arrived after 5 and the check in office was closed for the day! Free national park = big win in my book right there.
What to Do:
- Hike the dunes: The best views of the dunes are at the top! Hiking in sand is no joke, but luckily there is plenty of variety with the heights of the dunes – you can still get a great view from the shorter ones or you can go for the tallest one at 750 feet! (Which may not sound that tall but let me tell you that is a lot of sand)
- Sand board: If you are hiking up the taller dunes, you might as well take a sand board up there with you for a fun ride down! You can actually rent a sand board for the day for $20 at The Oasis store, which you pass on your drive into the park.
- Watch the Sunrise or Sunset: This is a great activity because 1) the sand won’t be as hot and you can walk barefoot, 2) it’s less busy during this time, 3) if you’re going before 8 AM or after 5 PM it’s FREE, and 4) the sunrise and sunsets are beautiful over the dunes making it the best time for photographing them! (on the day we went it was too cloudy for a great sunset BUT it was still beautiful, so you really can’t lose).
- Zapata Falls: On your drive up to the dunes, there are signs on the right for a place called “Zapata Falls.” We opted out of the hike because we did not have enough time to explore, but it’s definitely a hike I’d love to try out if I go back!
- Hot springs: Okay so as cool as the dunes were, this was by far my favorite part because it was such an unexpected hidden gem! Not too far down the road from the dunes in Hooper, CO, there is the “Sand Dunes Swimming Pool & RV Park.” From that name alone I will say my expectations were not too high. And from the outside looking in, it doesn’t look like much; this place is literally in the middle of nowhere and looks a little run down at first glance. When you walk in to the entrance of the pool, there is an outdoor pool with a lovely view of the mountains and dunes in the distance. This would be a great place to take kids if they’re traveling with you!
The best part however, is “The Greenhouse.” We asked where it was and they instructed us to go down a long hallway, and for an additional fee you can access “The Greenhouse.” It is a 10,000 square foot greenhouse filled with tons of tropical plants, 4 soaking pools of varying temperatures, a sauna, and a little bar that serves snacks and drinks! Basically it’s all you need for a relaxing time after visiting the dunes. *It is 21+ only because they serve drinks with alcohol, so if you’re traveling with anyone under 21, they’ll have to chill at the outdoor pool!
Overall, the Sand Dunes were a great experience and I definitely want to come back and explore more in the future!