Exploring the Sand Sheet, Dunes Trailhead, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado
Exploring the Sand Sheet - 10.5 miles
|Round-Trip Length:||10.5 miles (distance will vary by route)|
|Start-End Elevation:||8,160' - 7,910'|
|Elevation Change:||240' net elevation loss (total elevation gain determined by route)|
Exploring the Sand Sheet - 10.5 Miles Round-Trip
The Great Sand Dunes cover 30 square miles at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in the San Luis Valley. They're America's tallest dunes, formed through a complex interaction of geology, topography and water.
While the dunes are the Park's main attraction, few venture into the surrounding Sand Sheet, which holds approximately 90% of the area's sand mass and is the largest component of the dunes' geological system.
The San Luis Valley lies between the San Juan Mountains (west), and Sangre de Cristo Mountains (NE). Sediments from these mountains were carried down over millennia into the valley and covered by ancient lakes. As lakes evaporated, an expansive sand sheet remained that is the primary source of today's sand dunes.
Grass and shrublands stabilize the sand sheet, which extends from the base of the dunes for many miles into the valley. This subtly rich ecosystem supports deer, elk, pronghorn, burrowing owls, coyote, and rabbit.
No trails lead into the sand sheet; visitors are free to explore the open shrublands, parabolic dunes and nebkha dunes that form at the dune-sheet juxtaposition. There are several ways to access the sand sheet, each requiring cross-country travel for several miles.
One route begins at the Visitor Center, and runs south down Medano Creek into vast open space at the dunes' south end. This option is arguably the easiest, but offers limited perspective. Another begins at the Entrance Station, where you may park and walk through open prairie toward / around the entire dune complex (see map for routing).
This longer route offers terrific views of the dunefield, wildlife viewing, and a chance to examine all dune types in a short space (Reversing, Star, Parabolic, Barchan, Transverse, and Nebkha).
Visual navigation is quite simple, though hidden undulations and extended travel through sand requires effort. Visitors are responsible for knowing private property lines imbedded within Park boundaries. Carry a detailed map, and inform Park officials of your itinerary before setting out.
- N37 43.493 W105 31.148 — 0.0 miles : Park Entrance Station
- N37 43.774 W105 31.725 — .6 miles : Medano Creek overlook
- N37 43.823 W105 31.852 — .8 miles : Medano Creek bed
- N37 43.619 W105 32.446 — 1.4 miles : Travel south down Medano Creek
- N37 43.411 W105 33.094 — 2.1 miles : Travel south at base of dunes
- N37 43.423 W105 34.213 — 3.1 miles : Southeast edge of dune field
- N37 43.797 W105 34.597 — 3.7 miles : Westerly bend around edge of dunes
- N37 44.273 W105 35.051 — 4.5 miles : Sand sheet on south end of dunes
- N37 44.672 W105 35.281 — 5.0 miles : SW edge of dunes; Star Dune access
- N37 45.062 W105 35.382 — 5.5 miles : NW curl up base of dunes
- N37 45.403 W105 35.270 — 6.05 miles : West side of dunes
- The Sand Sheet is fully exposed to sun and wind. Carry layers, sun screen and a hat. Sturdy shoes are recommended for longer off-trail routes.
- The San Luis Valley is one of the largest high desert valleys in the world. It's about 125 miles long by 65 miles wide - almost 50% larger than Connecticut!
- Private property belonging to ranchers exists within Park boundaries. Visitors are responsible for knowing and honoring these lines.
Camping and Backpacking Information
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
- 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.
Medano Pass Primitive Sites
- There are 21 primitive campsites located on Medano Pass Primitive 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 the road conditions: 719.378.6399
Rules and Regulations
- There's a $3 entrance fee per person (age 16 and older). Children are free at all times. Entrance fees are valid for 7 days from date of purchase. Inter-agency passes are accepted.
- Dogs are permitted in the dunes and must be leashed at all times.
Directions to Trailhead
Great Sand Dunes National Park is located 245 miles from Denver, 165 miles from Colorado Springs, and 245 miles from Albuquerque.
From Denver, Colorado Springs, or Pueblo: Take I-25 south to Walsenburg, then west on US 160 to State Highway 150 (north). Highway 150 leads to the entrance station, visitor center, and campgrounds.
From Albuquerque: Take I-25 north to Santa Fe, then north on US 285 to Alamosa. From Alamosa, take U.S. Highway 160 east and State Highway 150 north to the park entrance.
Great Sand Dunes National Park
11500 Highway 150
Mosca, CO 81146-9798
Visitor Center, Interpretation and Visitor Services