The Great Sand Dunes, and most of the forests, lakes and peaks of Great Sand Dunes National Preserve, are designated wilderness. These areas can be explored by day hikes or overnight backpacking trips.
Explore any part of the 30 square mile dunefield you wish; there are no designated trails in the sand. A dunes-accessible wheelchair is available for free loan at the Visitor Center. Summer air temperatures are pleasant at this high elevation, but during afternoon hours the sand surface can reach 150F degrees, and dangerous thunderstorms can develop. Plan to hike the dunes in early morning or evening to avoid heat exhaustion, burned feet, or fatal lightning strikes.
When there's water in Medano Creek at the base of the dunes, adults and kids alike love to splash in the stream. Watch for waves in the water, a phenomenon called "surge flow." As mounds of sand form and fall in the creek bed, water surges, similar to the action of waves at a beach. Watch a video, get detailed tips for enjoying the creek, and find current conditions and forecast flow on the Medano Creek page.
High Dune on First Ridge
There are five dunes over 700 feet tall. The high dune on the first ridge is neither the highest in elevation nor the tallest in the park, but it looks that way from the main parking lot. This is the most common destination in the dunefield, providing a great view of the entire dunefield. It is about 699 feet (198 m) from base to top. Cross a half-mile (1km) of the Medano Creek bed, then zigzag up along ridgelines to reach it.
Star DuneThe tallest dune in North America stands at 750 feet (229m) from base to summit. While it can be hiked from the summit of the High Dune on the first ridge, it's more direct, and less up and down, to access it via its base along the Medano Creek bed. From the Dunes Parking Lot, hike about 2 miles (3.2 km) south down the Medano Creek bed until the massive pyramid-shaped Star Dune comes into view. Follow a ridge to its summit.
Average round trip hiking time for High Dune is 6 hours and 8 miles. There is no formal trail and popular hiking applications do not show changes to the dune and are often inaccurate. Plan to take as much as 9 hours to hike roundtrip- if not acclimated to the high altitude and lower oxygen level.
Eastern Dune Ridge
By high clearance 4WD vehicle, drive to Sand Pit or Castle Creek Picnic Areas. Or, with 2WD vehicle, drive to Point of No Return, then hike 3/4 mile (1.3km) to Sand Pit or 1.5 miles (2km) to Castle Creek. Castle Creek Picnic Area offers an impressively tall, steep dune face. Both areas have access to Medano Creek, which usually flows gently through the months of fall in this area.
Montville Nature Trail
In summer, keep this hike as an option for afternoon as an escape from the heat of the dunes. Walk along a shady forested trail named for a late 1800s settlement, comprising 20 houses in its heydey. Rest near the trail's highpoint, where you'll find outstanding views of Mt. Herard, the dunes and the valley.
(Please be aware that hunting is permitted during legal seasons in Great Sand Dunes National Preserve, the higher mountainous areas above the dunes. Primary rifle seasons are in fall months. Check with a park ranger for details.)
This trail follows a small creek to the summit of a low pass in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, winding through aspen and evergreen forests. Allow 2-3 hours to reach the pass; the trail is 3 1/2 miles (5.7 km) one way. American Indians and early settlers used this route for travel into the valley.
Sand Ramp Trail
This 11 mile trail is most commonly used as an access to various backpacking sites along the foothills, rather than as a destination trail for scenery, since it stays at the same elevation along the base of the mountains. Begin hiking the Sand Ramp Trail in Loop 2 of the campground or at Point of No Return Parking area. After the first two miles, much of this trail is sandy soil or pure sand, up and down along the foothills, so this hike can be grueling. Allow for more time than the mileage indicates.
Driving this road requires 4-wheel drive (not recommended for small sport utility vehicles). A scenic drive any time of the year, it is especially spectacular in late September and early October when fall colors are at peak. Creek crossings can be hazardous in spring and the road is closed when winter conditions create hazards. For those without a 4WD vehicle, contact Pathfinders 4x4 for Jeep rentals and tours , the only authorized Jeep tour company in the national park and preserve. Check current road conditions and detailed information.
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You'll be surprised this alpine paradise is part of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve! July is the best month to visit for wildflowers and snowfields laced upon the cliffs. Check hiking details below.
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This high-energy 40-second video shows a climb of Mount Herard (13,297 feet / 4053 m) in Great Sand Dunes National Preserve. From the summit, you'll share their awe at the amazing view of the 30 square mile dunefield! Choose Broadband/HD at lower right for clearest video, or lower settings for slower connections.
Medano Lake and Mount Herard
Medano Lake Trailhead is accessed from the Medano Pass 4WD road. Beginning at 10,000' elevation, the trail climbs 2000' through lush meadows and forests, ending at an alpine lake at timberline. For advanced hikers, continue on to the summit of 13,297' Mount Herard for a spectacular aerial view of the dunes.
Music Pass, Sand Creek Lakes, and Other Alpine Peaks
A longer drive and/or a long hike is required for these destinations. However, the stunning alpine scenery is worth the effort. Check with a ranger for conditions before travel. Snow may block these trails from November into June. The trailhead for Music Pass from the east is accessed from Highway 69, 4.5 miles south of Westcliffe. Turn off Highway 69 to the west at the sign for Music Pass and South Colony Lakes Trailhead. At the "T" junction, turn left onto South Colony Road. At the end of the ranch fence on the right, you'll see another sign for Music Pass.
2WD drivers should park where the Rainbow Trail crosses Music Pass Road. From here, walk 3.5 miles to the pass.
4WD drivers may drive another 2.5 miles to the end of the road. From here, it is just a steep one mile hike to the pass.
Music Pass is at treeline, with a great view of the Upper Sand Creek basin. From the pass, hike farther to four alpine lakes, or to any one of the 13,000' peaks above the basin.
Hiking Mileages From Music Pass Summit
Lower Sand Creek Lake: 3 miles
Sand Creek Drainage from the West
Sand Creek and Sand Creek Lakes are also accessible from the west side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, but require long hikes. From Liberty Gate Trailhead, south of the town of Crestone on the north side of the national park, it is a 7 mile hike just to reach the lower part of Sand Creek where it flows around the dunefield. From there, it is an additional 10 miles hiking up the Sand Creek drainage to reach either of the Sand Creek Lakes, with 3,500 ft. elevation gain. The Sand Creek Trail crosses Sand Creek a few times as it ascends the drainage; in years of average to high streamflow, Sand Creek makes the trail uncrossable in early summer, generally the entire month of June.
Grasslands and Shrublands
The spacious grasslands and shrublands of the national park are the least visited area, yet they contain spectacular wildlife, migrating dunes, panoramic mountain views, and intricate beauty. See details on accessing grasslands in and around the national park.
Wetlands abound in the San Luis Valley, providing refreshing oases for wildlife and people in this high mountain desert. See details on accessing the wetlands in and around Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Last updated: April 5, 2020