Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Between the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Colorado, are the tallest sand dunes in North America. The dunes in Great Sand Dunes National Park reach up to 750 feet tall and cover more than 30 square miles. The adjacent preserve protects over 41,000 acres of pinyon-juniper forests rising to high elevation alpine tundra. Some peaks in the preserve rise to 13,000 feet.  

And if that wasn’t enough, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve also contains two wilderness areas – Great Sand Dunes Wilderness Area and the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness Area. The Sangre de Cristo WIlderness area is jointly managed with the US Forest Service, further expanding the areas open to the public.

And the best part about all of these magical places… Pets are allowed in the main use areas of the park, in all of the preserve, and in the national forest. Thus providing you with one of the most dog-friendly national parks.

Dog-Friendly Activities

Even though Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is very dog-friendly compared to other national parks, keep in mind the few restrictions. According to Great Sand Dunes official site (https://www.nps.gov/grsa/planyourvisit/pets.htm):

Pets are not permitted:

  • In the backcountry of the dunefield, beyond the first high ridge of dunes
  • Off of the Dunes Overlook Trail
  • Inside the visitor center
  • North of Castle Creek Picnic Area, except along Medano Pass Primitive Road
  • North of Point of No Return, including Sand Ramp Trail and national park backpacking sites

Now that the few restrictions are out of the way, we can talk about where you can (and will definitely want to) take your dog.

The sand dunes!

The highlight of any trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park are, of course, the dunes. Keep in mind that the sand can get hot, so plan to hike the dunes on a cool day or start early in the morning or later in the evening. The park is open 24 hrs, so you could even plan a night hike under a full moon.

Dogs are only allowed up to the first high ridge of dunes, but from our experience this was more than enough. We parked at the Dunes Parking Lot and took a moment to let the dogs dip their feet in Medano Creek. Medano Creek is a seasonal creek that typically flows starting in April with peak flow in late May and early June. Flow is dependent on how much snow melts down from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. During our trip, there were numerous families sitting around the river in the sand. What’s not to like about a sandy river beach?

From the river, we set our sights on High Dune, an approximately 650 ft tall dune approximately 2.5 miles from the parking lot. This dune is located just on the border of how far dogs can hike into the dunes, in the first line of high dunes.

We brought plenty of water and were glad we did. It was a long slow hike through the sand to make it up to the ridges at the top. As we hiked, we watched other people run, sled, or board down the side of the dunes. If you want to rent a board or sled, stop by the visitors center. Since neither of our pups appreciates sledding much, we opted to skip this experience.

The dogs loved the sand! As soon as they were in it, both began running and digging. Dogs are required to be leashed at all times in both the park and preserve, so the running was a bit limited. But they still had a great time.

It took us approximately 2 hrs to reach the top of High Dune. We were hot and tired by the time we arrived. But, we were so glad we had pushed through the climb as the view from the top was amazing! And heading back down was an entirely different experience. We ran down the side of the dunes and were back to our parking lot in about 30 minutes.

Sasha relaxing in the sand.

The preserve

Just to the east of the national park, is the preserve. Exploring the preserve offers an entirely different experience from the dunes.

Mosca Pass Trail is the most accessible mountain hike and begins near the Montville Nature Trail. This trail is 3.5 miles on way, offering the chance to walk up and/or down a rocky path surrounded by tall mountain pines and a small stream. We hiked partway up and then returned down and linked this trail with the Montville Nature Trail and the Wellington Ditch trail to obtain some views of the dunefeild.

The Montville Nature Trail is only about 0.5 miles long. And the Wellington Ditch trail is about 2 miles, connecting the visitor center and the campground. From the campground area, the Dunes Overlook trail (about 2.3 miles) heads north. You can hike that trail up to the Castle Creek picnic area and walk back in the sand along Medano Creek.

As you may know from previous posts, we explored this area of the country in an RV. But if you have 4WD, head up the Medano Pass Primitive Road to find additional trailheads.   

Camping

Great Sand Dunes National Park has one main campground – Pinon Flats. The majority of the visitors who camp in the park will park here, but there are additional camping options off the primitive Medano Pass road and in the backcountry.

We walked through Pinon Flats during our visit to Great Sand Dunes, and it appeared to be a lovely campground. However, we did not make advanced reservations and this campground was full by the time of our arrival.

There are a few other campgrounds in this area, but the closest one was an RV Park style campground. We typically avoid RV parks. So we hoped on freecampsites.net and found this gem on BLM land along Lake Como Road. It was a wonderful free spot to overnight in our RV. We didn’t drive beyond the first main parking area. However, we were able to explore further on a walk with the pups. There were several other campers enjoying lovely campsites for a couple of miles down the road. 

Another option, if you have a gravel road ready vehicle, is Zappata Falls campground. The site says that regular passenger cars should be able to navigate the road, but it is rough in sections. This sounds like a lovely campground and the hike to Zappata Falls sounds amazing. We wished we had our SUV (rather than the RV) with to experience this area. Find out more details at the national forest website.

Activities in the Surrounding Areas

We came straight from Mesa Verde National Park and headed to Estes Park, Colorado afterwards. But if we would have stayed longer in the area, and had better gravel road vehicle, there is so much to more explore.

As we mentioned above, Zappata Falls and other regions of the Rio Grande National Forest are just waiting to be explored. The Sangre de Cristo Wilderness is included in/adjacent to the park. And you are not far from the San Luis Lakes State Wildlife Area.

If hiking and primitive camping are things you enjoy, don’t hesitate to plan a trip to this area of Colorado.

Final Thoughts

We loved Great Sand Dunes National Park. While we have yet to visit the dog-friendly national parks east of Minnesota, Great Sand Dunes is definitely our favorite dog-friendly national park so far.

Have you been to Great Sand Dunes with your pet? What are your thoughts? What other activities did you do with your pups while you were in the area? Don’t hesitate to leave us your thoughts below.

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