Colorado's Great Sand Dunes May Be The Most Underrated National Park In America

Rocky casts a big shadow.

By: Sonja Saxe
April 29, 2016

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Although Great Sand Dunes is one of the lesser visited national parks, unique experiences and beautiful views abound in its 30 square miles of undulating dunes nestled below the Sangre de Cristo range. Read on to see what this southern Colorado park has to offer:

1. The Tallest Sand Dunes in North America

Great Sand Dunes National Park is home to the tallest dunes in North America. The tallest in the park is Star Dune, peaking at an impressive 755’ and taking the average person about an hour to ascend (in a zigzag pattern, of course). As you first drive into the park the dunes may look insignificant compared to the 13,297’ peak of Mount Herard in the background, but as you get closer you’ll start to notice tiny specks dotting the dunes. Then you will realize: those are people! Once you make it to the base of the dunes, you will finally be able to appreciate their true scale.

Explore Great Sand Dunes National Park | Photo: Sonja Saxe

2. Beautiful Night Sky

The combination of high elevation, little light pollution, and dry air creates the perfect conditions for Great Sand Dunes’ dark night sky. It is the ideal place to try your hand at night photography or to just stargaze and marvel at the endless expanse of stars. If your goal is to see the most stars and the famous Milky Way, be sure to pick a night with a new moon. However, a full moon offers a great opportunity for exploring the park at night with no need for a flashlight. During the summer months, the park offers night programs (check here for the latest program schedule).

3. Solitude

Great Sand Dunes only sees about 300,000 visitors annually, whereas Yosemite sees almost 14 times that number of visitors each year. Since Great Sand Dunes sees so few visitors, chances are you will have at least a corner of it to yourself, if not more. You can choose to camp overnight and if you’re the only group that picks up one of the 10 permits the park grants for the backcountry per night, you may have the entire dune field to yourself!

Explore Great Sand Dunes National Park | Photo: Sonja Saxe

4. Sandsports

The park offers the unique opportunity of sand-boarding or sand-sledding. There is nothing like hopping on a sled and barreling down the face of a steep sand dune. However, don’t bring cardboard, sleds, snowboards, or skis from home as they will not slide on the sand. You can rent the proper gear for sand from Kristi Mountain Sports in Alamosa year-round or the Oasis Store from April through October.

5. Great Sand Dunes National Preserve

The dunes that make up the Great Sand Dunes National Park are impressive, but the preserve portion of the park is beautiful as well! Summer is the perfect time to visit the forested area of the national preserve because it offers respite from the heat of the dunes and is clear of the snow that blankets the trails of the preserve through June. The preserve is also a popular horseback riding destination.

Explore Great Sand Dunes National Park | Photo: Sonja Saxe

6. Photography Opportunities

The sprawling, sinuous sand dunes offer unique compositions for photography as you can use the ridges coming in and out of frame as leading lines. It is also fun to use people for scale in photographs to show just how massive the dunes really are. While golden hour is universally a beautiful time of day for photography, golden hour in the dune field feels extra memorable as the low sun casts the dunes in a dreamy sort of glow and the sand takes on a buttery appearance. Even after dark the photography opportunities are endless as the dark sky of Great Sand Dunes offers the perfect conditions for night photos!

Cover photo: Sonja Saxe

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Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.