Hiking Trails in Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park - Photos

Great Sand Dunes National Park - Camping

Pinyon Flats Campground
  • The Pinyon Flats Campground is located one mile north of the Visitor Center. There are 3 three loops:

  • Loop 1 (44 sites) is first-come, first-served year round. $20 per night. Maximum 6 people, 2 tents, and 2 vehicles per site. Check-out time is 1pm.

  • Loop 2 and Loop 3 are group tent sites (44 combined sites), and may be reserved up to six months in advance (May 4 -September 9). Reservations are strongly recommended. Prices vary by site selection.

  • For reservations, contact the National Recreation Reservation System: 877.444-6777 : Recreation.gov

  • Sites fill quickly, especially on weekends. Plan your trip well in advance. Contact the Park for additional information: 719.378.6395

Campground Information

  • Each site is equipped with a fire ring, cooking grate, picnic table and bear box. Campground restrooms have sinks, flush toilets, and a sink for dish washing.

  • Some sites in Loop 1 and Loop 2 can accommodate RVs or camping trailers up to 35'. However, there are no electrical, sewer, or water hookups. A dump station and water hoses are available in warmer months.

  • Firewood: Protect public lands by buying locally harvested wood. Firewood brought in from other locations can spread diseases that harm native trees. Local firewood is available at the Visitor Center; at Pinyon Flats during the summer; and at the Oasis Store (privately owned, just outside the park entrance). Collecting firewood is illegal.

  • Pets are welcome and must be leashed at all times.


  • There are 21 primitive campsites located on Medano Pass Road, which extends from the Juniper Flats Campground to Medano Pass. There's no fee. Water and electricity are not available.

  • Campfires are permitted in designated campsites with fire rings. Pets are permitted and must be leashed.

  • Medano Pass Road traverses soft sand and crosses Medano Creek nine times. Tire pressure must often be adjusted. 4WD vehicles only. Passenger cars and low clearance SUVs are not suitable.

  • Contact the Visitor Center in advance for road conditions: 719.378.6399


Free backcountry permits are required for all overnight backpacking trips. Permits must be obtained in person during Visitor Center hours: 9a - 6p (summer); 9a - 4:30p (fall, spring and winter).

Designated backcountry sites in the National Park are located along the Sand Ramp Trail, in the transition zone between the dunefield and mountains. These sites offer a measure of protection from wind and lightning, but many are over 1 mile from the nearest water source.

Dogs are not permitted in the backcountry, including the Sand Ramp Trail.


BUCK CREEK: 0.5 miles north of Loop 2 in the campground. This site is located for families with children who want a short hike into the backcountry.

ESCAPE DUNES: 1.4 miles north of Point of No Return in an open grove of ponderosa pines. The site is near small "escape dunes", that have left the main dunefield and buried and smothered trees, leaving ghostly skeletons behind (a "Ghost Forest"). The vast majority of the pines in this grove are tall, alive, and healthy.

INDIAN GROVE: 2.9 miles north of Point of No Return. Explore the area and look for several ponderosa pines with large scars where American Indians peeled their bark for food and other uses in times past. The Scarred Trees Grove is on the National Register of Historic Sites. This is the most popular backpacking site because it is close to the main dunefield and close to Medano Creek, but it is in a sheltered grove of trees. It is the only site with a solar-composting toilet.

LITTLE MEDANO: 3.9 miles from Point of No Return, or 0.7 miles from Sand Ramp TH (high-clearance 4WD parking only). This site is situated in montane woodlands below Mount Herard. Little Medano Creek provides an good water source in most years, but may be dry in drought years.

ASPEN: 5.7 miles from Point of No Return, or 2.3 miles from Sand Ramp TH (high-clearance 4WD parking only). Aspen Camp offers incredible views of the entire dunefield from a foothills aspen grove. At 9,240 feet elevation, it is the highest designated backcountry site in the park (backcountry camping is also allowed off-trail in the national preserve; see below).

COLD CREEK: 8.9 miles from Point of No Return, or 5.5 miles from from Sand Ramp TH (high-clearance 4WD parking only). A destination for the more adventurous backpacker, Cold Creek Camp lies in a rugged valley filled with ponderosa pines. Wildlife abounds in this area including elk, deer, bears, and mountain lions.

SAND CREEK: 10.5 miles from Point of No Return, or 7 miles from the Sand Ramp TH (high clearance 4WD parking only). The campsite lies in a beautiful grove of cottonwood trees on the edge of the main dunefield. This is the only backcountry site where campfires are permitted. Collect dead and down wood only, and build your fires in the grate. Be absolutely certain the fire is out before you leave the site.

Camping is permitted anywhere in the dunefield outside of the day use area (about 1.5 mile hike minimum over dunes). Anticipate wind, bowing sand and the possibility of strong thunderstorms.

Dogs are not permitted in the dunes backcountry.

Camping in the mountainous preserve is permitted in most off-trail areas. The national preserve is part of the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness area, a federally designated wilderness.

You will need a permit from the Visitor Center only if you are accessing the preserve through the national park's main access area. Trail access is limited and extra preparedness is required. Hunting is permitted in the national preserve by license and in season. Be mindful of hunters and take necessary precautions.

Great Sand Dunes National Park - Ecology

Great Sand Dunes National Park ranges from 7,500' on the San Luis Valley floor to well over 13,000' in the surrounding Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Its 150,000 acres support 8 distinct ecosystems and sub-systems that include North America's tallest sand dunes and a wide range of plants and animals:


The alpine tundra ecosystem ranges from 11,700' up to the highest peaks in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Marmot and bighorn sheep are primary residents, with elk frequently appearing during peak summer months.

Strong wind, cold temperatures, poor soil, extended snow cover and a short growing season limit what plants can grow here.

Many flowering plants of the tundra have dense hairs on stems and leaves for wind protection, or red-colored pigments that convert sunlight into heat.

Some plants take two or more years to form flower buds, which survive winter below the surface. These buds will open and produce fruit with seeds all within just a few weeks of summer.

Lichens are comprised of two organisms: a fungus that provides structure, and an algae within the fungus that stores water and gives it color. Lichens need only a rock, sunlight, and some water every few years to survive.

Enclosed algal cells can photosynthesize above 32 F, and the outer fungal layers can absorb more than their own weight in water.

A 1" diameter lichen may be hundreds of years old; some lichens can live for thousands of years. Lichens help turn rock into soil by secreting acids that dissolve it into minerals.

Cushion and mat plants help build soil by capturing organic debris in their foliage, plots in which grasses and taller plants can eventually root. This turns fellfield into alpine turf, a process that can take centuries.

Alpine vegetation is very fragile, and can take centuries to recover from a disturbance.

SUBALPINE ECOSYSTEM: 9,500' - 11,500'

The Subalpine Ecosystem ranges from 9,500' - 11,500' and changes dramatically over this span. Primary constituents include lodgepole pine, subalpine fir, aspen and Engelmann spruce.

Lodgepole pine is found at the lower range, and in burned or logged areas where they respond well to sun. Once the forest is re-established, lodgepole will be succeeded by spruce and fir.

Limber pine is found in the subalpine's highest, most exposed elevations. They're specifically adapted to adverse conditions with flexible limbs and a short, gnarled trunk to stabilize the tree.

Bristlecone pine is the oldest living tree species on earth, and arguably the hardiest subalpine resident. The bristlecone's short, twisted trunk facilitates nutrient flow and stabilizes the tree in strong winds. They can survive with minimal bark, and produce a resin that resists disease and infestation. Bristlecone may take a century to add just 1 inch in diameter, and can become nearly dormant during a drought.

Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir become shorter and stunted at the top of their range. Poor soil, thin air, strong wind, extreme weather and a shorter growing season limit growth at higher elevations.

Exposure limits new growth on the windward side of spruce and fir, leaving new growth to the lee side. Trees with branches on only one side are called banner trees or flag trees. Near treeline, seedlings may germinate on the lee side of rocks and grow only as tall as the rock's protection.

Krummholz - a German word meaning twisted or bent wood - describes the stunted, irregular growth patterns of trees in the ecological transition zone from subalpine forests to alpine tundra. Well-established krummholz trees may be several hundred to a thousand years old.

There are five named alpine lakes and several tarns in Great Sand Dunes National Preserve. These small-medium sized bodies are a vital part of the local watershed.

MONTANE ECOSYSTEM: 8,000' - 9,500'

Montane forests are found along the drier foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from 8,000' - 9,500' (2896m). Pinyon-juniper and ponderosa pine woodlands are found on open, drier slopes, while cottonwood and aspen trees favor wetter soil beds and drainages.

Montane forests support the greatest diversity of wildlife including bear, mountain lion, deer, grouse, turkey and owls. Elk occasionally migrate here in warmer months to escape the heat.

Grasses and shrubs fill the gaps between widely spaced trees in ponderosa parks, and are some of the best places to find wildlife.

North-facing slopes of the Montane hold more moisture; here trees grow closer together and competition for sunlight produces a tall, slender growth form.

Douglas fir, lodgepole pine, ponderosa pine and the occasional Engelmann spruce compete for resources on these colder slopes. A few shade-tolerant plants also grow on the forest floor.

Montane soil with high moisture content may support aspen, distinguished by their white bark and spectacular autumn colors. Willow, mountain alder and water birch can be found along riparian corridors.


The riparian ecosystem flanks creeks that flow through all elevations at GSDNP.

Cottonwood, aspen, red osier dogwood and alder favor this wet environment, providing critical shade and water for local wildlife along its path. Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout and the endangered Rio Grande Sucker are found in Medano Creek.

THE DUNEFIELD: 7,900' - 8,700'

The Great Sand Dunes are North America's tallest dunes, spanning 30 square miles where the San Luis Valley meets the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

These dunes are a place of extremes: the sand surface can reach 150 degrees F on a summer afternoon, and drop to minus 20 degrees F on a winter night. Though few animals are permanent dune residents, many cross portions of the dune complex to reach food and water.

The dunes' 7% moisture content enables a handful of specialized grasses and shrubs to survive in the heart of the dunes.

Medano Creek recycles sand each spring along the southeast edge of the dunefield, while Sand Creek resupplies the west side. Medano Creek's heavy deposits are responsible for creating the tallest dunes, which are located directly above the creek.

The surrounding Sand Sheet extends from the dune base for many miles into the valley. The Sand Sheet holds approximately 90% of GSDNP's sand mass and is the largest component of the dunes' geological system.


Grasslands and Shrublands surround the dunefield on three sides and stabilize the Sand Sheet.

This vast expanse includes wet meadows, cool-grass prairie and desert shrub communities (depending on proximity to groundwater and soil type).

Elk, deer, pronghorn, bison, burrowing owls, kangaroo rats and short-horned lizards are primary residents of the Sand Sheet and supporting grass-shrub lands.

SABKHA: 7,500'

The sabkha is a wetland region where groundwater rises and falls seasonally, leaving white alkali deposits on the surface. These shallow wetlands and alkali deposits can be seen from many miles as thin, shimmering bands on the horizon.

Sabkha wetlands are held at the surface by a high water table, and are subject to sub–surface changes in the aquifer. Without regular saturation and evaporation, the sabkha would slowly disintegrate. Rare shore birds, mammals, amphibians and the globally threatened slender spiderflower depend on these desert wetlands for survival.

Inland saltgrass is common in this area. Toads can reproduce in Sabkha wetlands when seasonally filled with sufficient fresh water. Shore birds such as the American avocet hunt tadpoles and insects in the shallow water. The Sabkha is located at approximately 7,500' and extends from the Sand Sheet for many miles into the San Luis Valley.

WETLANDS: 7,500'

Wetlands dot the San Luis Valley, providing critical habitat for sandhill cranes, shore birds, amphibians, dragonflies and freshwater shrimp. Ungulates rely heavily on these micro-habitats for food and water throughout the year.

Great Sand Dunes National Park - Wildlife

Great Sand Dunes National Park encompasses 8 distinct ecosystems and sub-systems that include North America's tallest sand dunes and a rich collection of wildlife.

Ecosystems of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
  • Alpine Tundra

  • Subalpine

  • Montane

  • Riparian Corridors

  • Sand Dunes

  • Grasslands - Shrublands (Sand Sheet)

  • Sabkha

  • Wetlands

Though elk are typically associated with mountainous or wooded habitat in Colorado, elk in GSDNP prefer the open grasslands of San Luis Valley.

San Luis Valley is one of the largest high desert valleys in the world - about 125 miles long by 65 miles wide. An estimated 4,000 elk inhabit the eastern San Luis Valley.

While some elk herds do migrate up to montane forests and subalpine meadows to escape summer heat, others never leave the valley floor. Habitat fragmentation has the greatest impact on elk population and distribution in the San Luis Valley.

Over 1,000 bison are managed within park boundaries by The Nature Conservancy. This private inholding is accessible only through guided tours.

Adult bison stand 5 - 6.5 at the shoulder, are 10-12' long and weigh 900-2100 lbs. Females are about half the size of males and sport narrower horns, a smaller hump, and smoother summer coats.

Bison have poor eyesight, but acute hearing and smell. They can run 35 mph and are surprisingly nimble over short distances. Lifespans range 12-20 years in the wild, and over 30 in captivity or managed herds.

A hierarchy of females (cows) generally lead family groups, while males (bulls) distance themselves in small bachelor herds. The two come together in very large herds during the height of summer for the mating season, which peaks July-August.

Bison are part of the natural grazing cycle and play an integral role in grasslands ecology.

Pronghorn are the fastest land mammals in North America, with top speeds over 55 mph and sustained trots of 25 mph. Though often referred to as antelope, the pronghorn is not closely related. In fact, pronghorn are different enough from other hoofed animals that they've been placed in their own taxonomical family (Antelocapridae).

Adult pronghorn stand 2.5 - 3.5' at the shoulder, averaging 105 - 120 lbs (female and male, respectively).

Pronghorns range across the plains and grasslands of North America feeding on grasses, sagebrush and other locally available vegetation.

Pronghorn amass herds in the winter that can number a few dozen to hundreds. Large herds and incomparable speed enable pronghorn to rest throughout the day. The herd moves as one, a technique aimed at deflecting and confusing predators.

Herds disassemble in the spring as bucks break off into bachelor groups or strike out on their own in an attempt to establish a small territory

Mule Deer are common throughout the Park, distributed across grasslands, montane forests and subalpine meadows.

Mule deer stand 3 - 4' tall, 4.5 - 7' long, and average 120-250 pounds. Mule deer have exceptional smell, up to 1,000 x stronger than humans. They can detect water 2' below ground, a vital attribute in this oft-arid habitat.

Mountain lions inhabit the foothills and montane forests of Great Sand Dunes National Park. Mountain Lions are the largest wild felines in North America - full grown males can exceed 200 lbs.

Mountain lions are primarily nocturnal and sightings are infrequent, though finding tracks is not uncommon. They primarily hunt mule deer, but will also tackle vulnerable elk or settle for smaller game in rabbits and grouse.

Bighorn sheep are found across the Park's highest elevations on mountainsides, alpine valleys and steep cliffs. They're most commonly see from the upper reaches of Medano Pass Primitive Road.

A mature male's horns can weigh over 30 lbs, measure over 30 inches in length and 15 inches in diameter. The big horns of a male are considered a sign of rank within the herd, but males will often deliberately shorten their own horns by scraping them on the rocks if the horns impede vision. Males (rams) in this region and can weigh 175 - 240 lbs.

Black bears primarily inhabit montane forests, subalpine meadows and riparian corridors. Bears in these more arid climates favor riparian habitats where food is generally more abundant.

Bears occasionally wander down into the lower foothills and campgrounds of GSDNP, though sightings are more common along Mosca Creek at higher elevations.

Badgers inhabit the shrub and grasslands of the dune perimeter and San Luis Valley. Badgers are notoriously tenacious predators, hunting rabbits, kangaroo rats, lizards, and other small animals. Insects and seeds from prairie sunflowers supplement their diet.

Beavers inhabit riparian corridors of the montane and subalpine forests above the sand dunes. On several occasions beavers have followed drainages down into Medano Creek along the base of the Sand Dunes.

Beavers weigh 40 - 60 lbs and have specialized teeth that can gnaw down trees to create dams. Beaver dams are designed to pool water into ponds, which creates a new, favorable micro-habitat and hunting ground for the animal. Beavers use aspen, willow and cottonwood trees to build dams, and as food.

Great Sand Dunes National Park - Geology

The Great Sand Dunes' origin is a complex interaction of geology, topography and water:


The San Luis Valley lies between the San Juan Mountains (west), and Sangre de Cristo Mountains (northeast). The valley covers an area roughly the size of Connecticut.

In 2002, geologists discovered lakebed deposits on hills in the southern part of the valley, confirming theories of a huge lake that once covered much of the San Luis Valley floor. This body of water is named Lake Alamosa after the largest town in the valley.

Lake Alamosa later receded from climate change, and from its water cutting through volcanic deposits in the southern end of the valley. With the southern end of the valley breached, Lake Alamosa may have drained through the Rio Grande River, forming the Rio Grande Gorge near Taos, New Mexico.

Smaller lakes still covered the valley floor, including two broad lakes in the northeastern side of the valley. Further climate change significantly reduced these lakes, leaving behind a large sheet of sand geologists call the sand sheet. Remnants of these lakes are still found today, in the form of sabkha wetlands.

Sand that was left behind after these lakes receded blew with the predominant southwest winds toward a low curve in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The wind funnels toward three mountain passes here - Mosca, Medano, and Music Passes - and the sand accumulates in this natural pocket.

Winds typically blow from the valley floor toward the mountains, but during storms the winds blow back toward the valley. These opposing wind directions cause the dunes to grow vertically.

Medano Creek and Sand Creeks also capture sand from the mountain side of the dunefield and carry it around the dunes back to the valley floor - where it is again carried back into the dunes by wind.


Reversing Dunes

Reversing Dunes and Star Dunes are the most common dune types in the dunefield. Reversing dunes can reach great heights but migrate very little because seasonal / circumstantial shifts in dominant wind direction cause it to move equally in opposite directions, thus neutralizing movement.

Chinese Walls - or narrow vertical ridges - form on the tops of reversing dunes where the winds are primarily from one direction, but occasionally reverse direction.

Star Dunes

Star Dunes form where wind blows from alternating directions over the course of a year. At Great Sand Dunes, a large star dune complex occurs in the northeast corner of the dunefield. The tallest dune at Great Sand Dunes is 750', known simply as The Star Dune.

Parabolic Dunes

Much of the sand sheet is covered with vegetation. If strong winds erode a section of the vegetated sand (commonly referred to as a blowout), a parabolic dune may form.

Leeward motion occurs if sand from the blowout is deposited on the opposite slope of the parabolic dune. Vegetation holds the 'arms' of the dune in place as the leeward 'nose' of the dune migrates forward and toward the main dunefield. Parabolic dunes are common in the sand sheet southwest of the main dunefield.

On the sand sheet, parabolic dunes are still migrating today toward the main dunefield. Vegetation on the valley floor causes them to become parabolic dunes rather than barchan dunes.

Barchan Dunes

If conditions were perfect - flat landscape, winds blew from only one direction, vegetation could not grow, and sand was available but limited - barchan dunes would dominate a sandscape. Though such conditions are rare Great Sand Dunes, barchan dunes form, including directly across from the main Dunes Parking Area.

As the sand supply increases, barchan dunes begin to connect with others forming barchanoid ridges. If the ridges become fairly straight, scientists call them >i>transverse dunes.

Transverse Dunes

Barchan dunes can become aligned together along a plane perpendicular to the wind. If the line becomes somewhat straight, dune scientists refer to these forward marching ridges as transverse dunes. They progress forward as their leeward slipfaces release sand one avalanche at a time.

A series of transverse dunes are fed by recycled sand transported by Medano Creek along the southern boundary of the dunefield.

Nebkha - Coppice Dunes

Nebkha dunes (or coppice dunes) are simple dunes that form around vegetation, primarily on the sand sheet. Clumps of shrubs and grass begin to gather windblown sand; as the sand gets deeper, the plants also grow taller, allowing more sand to gather around them.