Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is home to the tallest dunes in North America, covering close to 19,000 acres of constantly changing landscape. The dunes—including the famed Star Dune, which rises 750 feet from San Luis Valley floor—aren’t the only thing to recommend the park, though: Great Sand Dunes encompasses another 65,000 acres, including six peaks more than 13,000 feet.
This stunning juxtaposition of high desert and the craggy peaks of the Sangre de Cristo range is all just a 40-minute drive from Alamosa, and while the park has something to offer no matter when you visit, the shoulder seasons—particularly fall—make an ideal time to make a pilgrimage to the quietest national park in the Lower 48.
Hiking is allowed on the dunes year-round, though summer temperatures, which regularly hit in the high 80s between June and August, can heat the sand to 150 degrees. Remember to wear shoes with good soles on them. Things cool down beginning in September, which means the dunes themselves are no longer apt to burn visitors’ feet. Absent in the fall, too, are the afternoon thundershowers, which can leave hikers exposed.
Though you might see footprints where other hikers have made their way through the sand, no official hiking trails exist on the dunes. Bring a compass or stay within sight of the Visitor Center to avoid spending more time out than intended.
Sandboarding and sand sledding are also popular activities—a regular sled or snowboard won’t work, so pick up a rental at the lodge just outside the park entrance until October, or year-round at Kristi Mountain Sports in Alamosa.
See the Park’s True Colors
Thanks to its proximity to the Sangre de Cristo mountains—the East Range, to San Luis Valley locals—Great Sand Dunes boasts gorgeous colors when the leaves start to turn. Aspen trees render whole hillsides vibrant gold, three-leaf sumacs become brilliantly red, and the namesake trees of Cottonwood Creek gild the park’s best backcountry campsite in orange and yellow.
Fall colors in the park tend to peak between late September and early October.