Backpacking in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

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Black and white map showing dunes and forest locations for backpacking
Click on this image preview for a full size image of the Great Sand Dunes Backpacking Map showing permitted options and locations.

NPS

Required Backpacking Camping Permits

A free backcountry permit can be obtained at the visitor center, daily between 9:00 AM -12:00 PM and 2:00 PM - 4:00 PM.

  • Permits are first-come, first-serve
  • Permits cannot be reserved.
  • Permits are limited to 6 people per permit.
  • No more than 2 vehicles per group.

Have the following information ready to obtain a permit:

  • Group leader (vehicle owner) name, address, cell phone number, and driver's license number
  • Vehicle(s) information including color, model, and license plate number
  • Names and cell phone numbers of all members of the party

Please note that permits are not available in advance, but must be obtained in person in the park during Backcountry Office hours. Rangers will not issue permits for groups arriving after 4:00 pm.

Be prepared with proper backpacking equipment, and plan to use Leave No Trace guidelines. Backcountry parking and sites fill up quickly on busy late spring and summer weekends, especially holiday weekends and weekends during Medano Creek's peak flow in late May/early June.

 

Backpacking Guidelines Video

 
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Duration:
2 minutes, 4 seconds

This short captioned video gives regulations as well as helpful tips for backpackers at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.

 
One tent rests deep in the dunefield with one hiker atop a dune in the distance.
Camping on the dunes provides a special wilderness experience of starry skies and the chance to see unique plant and animal species.

NPS/Kris Illenberger

Backpacking in the National Park


Backpacking in the Dunes Backcountry
The most popular and unique backpacking option, camping is permitted anywhere in the 30-square-mile dunefield- beyond the major dune ridgeline (about 1.5 mile hike minimum over dunes). Enjoy wide open views of the starry sky or a bright moonlit night.
  • The overnight stay limit within the National Park for all persons, groups, and organizations is 14 consecutive days and 21 total days per calendar year. The total days is to reflect time within the National Park and National Preserve combined.

  • Permits are first-come, first-served with a limit of 20 parties/ groups in the dunefield per night
  • Maximum of six people per party/ group at all times
  • Gas stoves only; no campfires or wood burning stoves allowed
  • Dogs are not permitted in the dunes backcountry. Please visit our Pets page for detailed information and maps of permitted pet areas.
  • Bears rarely visit the interior of the dunefield. Bear-proof containers are encouraged, but not required. Kangaroo rats are the common mammal of the dunefield, but there are normally no problems with these small, elusive creatures, or any of the other mammals that occasionally visit the dunes, such as coyotes and bobcats.
  • Sand stakes are encouraged- as most standard tent stakes do not work on the sand dunes. Plastic bags filled with sand can also help anchor your tent.
  • Plan to camp in the dunes only when weather is calm and clear to avoid blowing sand or dangerous thunderstorms with lightning; check the park weather forecast.
  • The dunefield sometimes fills to camping capacity on busy summer weekends, especially on holiday weekends and weekends in late May and early June during Medano Creek's peak flow.

 
Backpackers along the Mosca Pass Trail hike through a wilderness of aspens and Douglas firs.
Backpacking into the National Preserve up the Mosca Pass Trail provides a lushly forested contrast to the dunes. Campers must hike a minimum of 3 miles from the trailhead located inside the National Park before they can set-up camp. A parking permit is required.

NPS/Dirk Oden

Backpacking in the Foothills and Mountains

Designated backcountry backpacking camping sites in the National Park are located along the Sand Ramp Trail, in the transition area between the dunefield and the mountains. Slightly more sheltered from wind and lightning than the open dunefield, these sites tend to have excellent views and some shade, some sites can be more than 1 mile from a source of water. Plan to pack-in drinking water.

  • All permits are first-come, first-served.
  • There are only seven designated sites, with one party allowed per site (see list of sites below)
  • Limit of six people per party
  • Must follow Leave no Trace practices - pack it in; pack it out - including removing all trash, leftover food, toilet paper, and toiletries.
  • This is bear country. Plan to either hang all scented items in a tree at least ten feet (3m) above the ground and five feet (2m) out from the trunk, or use a bearproof container.
  • Gas stoves only; no campfires allowed.
  • However, a campfire is allowed at the Sand Creek backpacking site, where there is an established fire ring.
  • Dogs are not permitted in the backcountry of the national park, including the Sand Ramp Trail. View a map of areas where pets are permitted in the park and preserve.
  • Overnight parking and backpacking sites sometimes fill to capacity on busy summer weekends, especially on holiday weekends and weekends in late May/early June during Medano Creek's peak flow.
  • View a map of GPS coordinates for each backcountry site (.jpg, 1MB)
 

Campsite Descriptions

All distances are an approximation, and dependent on route.

Sites Description Parking Distance Difficulty
Dunes Backcountry Camp in low areas beyond the highest ridge of the dunes, out of sight of High Dune and Star Dune. Dunes Parking

Amphitheater or Horse Parking
1.5 miles

1.5 miles
Moderate
Buck Creek Located along a drainage with cottonwood trees. Seasonal water available in Buck Creek. Loop 2 Parking

Amphitheater Parking (vis Dunes Overlook Trail)
0.6 mile

1.0 mile
Easy
Escape Dunes In an open grove of ponderosa pines, with small dunes nearby. Carry in water. Loop 2 Parking

Amphitheater Parking (vis Dunes Overlook Trail)
2.4 miles

2.8 miles
Moderate
Indian Grove In cottonwood and pine trees beside dunes and Medano Creek. Usually reliable water. Outdoor toilet. Amphitheater (via Sand Ramp Trail)

Sand Pit (4WD only)

Castle Creek (4WD only)
4.1 miles

20. miles

1.3 miles
Moderate
Little Medano In a grove of ponderosa pines. Seasonal water in Little Medano Creek, 0.3 miles away; reliable water in Medano Creek 0.5 miles away. Horse Parking (via Sand Ramp Trail)

Sand Pit (4WD only)

Castle Creek (4WD only)
5.0 miles

3.4 miles

2.7 miles
Moderate
Aspen Aspen grove overlooking dunefield. Seasonal water in Little Medano Creek, 0.3 miles away; reliable water in Medano Creek. 2.3 miles away. Amphitheater or Horse Parking (via Sand Ramp Trail)

Sand Pit (4WD only)

Castle Creek (4WD only)

Sand Ramp Trailhead (4WD only)
7.0 miles

5.3 miles

4.6 miles

2.3 miles
Difficult; route-finding skills required.
Cold Creek In a grove of ponderosa pines. Seasonal water in Cold Creek, 300 feet away; reliable water in Sand Creek, 1.5 miles away. Amphitheater or Horse Parking (via Sand Ramp Trail)

Sand Pit (4WD only)

Castle Creek (4WD only)

Sand Ramp Trailhead (4WD only)
10.1 miles

8.5 miles

7.8 miles

5.5 miles
Very difficult; route-finding skills required.
Sand Creek In a cottonwood grove near Sand Creek with generally reliable water. Fire ring and bear box at site. Horse Parking (via Sand Ramp Trail)

Sand Pit (4WD only)

Castle Creek (4WD only)

Sand Ramp Trailhead (4WD only)
11.6 miles

10.0 miles

9.3 miles

7.0 miles
Very difficult; route-finding skills required.
 
Escape Dunes Backcountry Camp Site
View from the Escape Dunes Backpacking Campsite located within the National Park.

NPS/ Ian Knoerl

Descriptions of each backpacking campsite are below. Click on the title of the site for a photo.

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

ESCAPE DUNES: 2.4 miles north from the Piñon Flats Campground, 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: 3.9 miles north from the Piñon Flats Campground. 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: 4.9 miles north from the Piñon Flats Campground, 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: 6.7 miles north from the Piñon Flats Campground, 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: 9.9 miles from the Piñon Flats Campground, 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: 11.5 miles from the Piñon Flats Campground, 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.

 
Buck Creek is one of the easier sites to get to. It is great for beginning backpackers.
Buck Creek backpacking campsite is one of the easier sites to get to. It is great for beginning backpackers and is only a half mile from the campground.

NPS/ Ian Knoerl

New to backpacking?

These seasonal checklists will help you gather the recommended supplies to make your first backpacking trip more safe and enjoyable here at Great Sand Dunes:

Summer Gear Checklist
Winter Gear Checklist

 
Proper bear hang in a cottonwood tree helps keep local black bears wild.
A bear hang in a cottonwood tree helps keep local black bears wild.

NPS/ Ian Knoerl

Backpacking Trip Planning To Do List

Months Ahead

  • Decide who is going on the trip
  • Decide when and where you are going
  • Outline your hiking route
  • Call the backcountry office (719-378-6395) for likely snow, trail or campsite conditions at time of trip
  • Do not plan too early. Be cautious regarding snow conditions when planning trips in April, May and June.
  • Check permit regulations and vehicle requirements
  • Order maps and guidebooks and compass
  • Begin breaking in new boots
 
Post for trail turn off near the Medano Pass Primitive Road
Post for trail turn off near the Medano Pass Primitive Road

NPS/ Ian Knoerl

Three Weeks Ahead

  • Confirm group gear with hiking partners
  • Go over checklist of backpacking gear
  • Make sure your gear works and replace or repair
  • Plan your menu

One to Two Weeks Ahead

  • Buy and repackage food
  • Check weather forecast

Days Before

  • Check weather forecast
  • Pack gear, checking each piece off list as it enters the pack
  • Verify departure plans with hiking partners
  • Give a copy of itinerary and return time to a friend or relative (not going on the trip with you)
 
Indian Grove Backcountry Camp Site
Indian Grove Backcountry Camp Site

NPS/ Ian Knoerl

Day of Trip

  • Check weather forecast
  • Pack gear, checking each piece off list as it enters the pack
  • Verify departure plans with hiking partners
  • Give a copy of itinerary and return time to a friend or relative (not going with you)
  • Recheck gear when you meet with your group
  • Stop at backcountry office to check trail conditions, animal sightings, weather forecast, current wilderness information, and to verify proper permits are in place.
  • Put car keys in safe place and give a duplicate to your hiking companion
  • Head for wilderness and have a great time!
 
A hiker stands at the edge of Medano Lake- an alpine tundra lake in Great Sand Dunes National Preserve
A hiker stands at the edge of Medano Lake, a high alpine tundra lake that is covered in snow and ice most of the year. Located in Great Sand Dunes National Preserve, most of the alpine lakes are not easily accessible until July or August. Always check trail and weather conditions before backpacking.

NPS/Art Hutchinson

Backpacking in the National Preserve


The Great Sand Dunes National Preserve is part of the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness area, a federally designated wilderness where nothing mechanical is allowed.

Backpackers will need a parking permit and a backcountry camping permit from the backcountry office only if accessing the National Preserve through the National Park (along State Highway 150 or the Medano Pass Primitive Road within the National Park boundary.

Other Roads leading to remote areas within the National Preserve (like Music Pass) often require High Clearance 4WD vehicles. AWD vehicles are not advised.

The mountainous portion of the park and preserve, is available in most areas off-trail, as long as you are following Leave No Trace Guidelines and national preserve regulations.

  • Please Leave No Trace of your visit.
  • Must camp a minimum of 200 feet away from trails, 300 feet from water
  • Gas stoves only; no wood fires
  • Maximum of 15 people per party, one party per campsite.
  • Dogs and pets must remain on a short leash at all time.
  • Trail access is limited and extra preparedness is required.
  • Hunting is permitted in the national preserve by license and in season - use extra caution if you hike during hunting season.
  • The overnight stay limit within the National Park for all persons, groups, and organizations is 14 consecutive days and 21 total days per calendar year. The total days is to reflect time within the National Park and National Preserve combined.
 
Woman standing on dunes wearing a backpack
Hiker in the Great Sand Dunes Wilderness of the dunefield

NPS/Patrick Myers

For hiking trail information, please visit the Hiking page.

Vehicle Camping in the Backcountry

Camping in or beside your vehicle is available only in the National Preserve in designated campsites along the Medano Pass Primitive Road. This does not require a backcountry camping permit. Roads to these remote areas require High Clearance 4WD vehicles. AWD vehicles are not advised.

Questions About Backpacking?

Call the Visitor Center at 719-378-6395 during Backcountry Office hours,
9:30am - 4:00pm; or send an e-mail.

Guided Backpacking Trips

For a current list of commercial hiking/backpacking guides authorized to lead trips into the national park and preserve, please contact the Chief Ranger at 719-378-6321.

Last updated: August 4, 2020

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

Visitor Center
11999 State Highway 150

Mosca, CO 81146

Phone:

(719) 378-6395

Contact Us