You might be surprised to learn that the tallest sand dunes in North America are nowhere near either coast; they are spread across 30 square miles of the San Luis Valley in southeastern Colorado. These sand dunes are part of Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, a protected high-elevation area that shelters several diverse ecosystems; from wetlands and grasslands, to pinyon pine and juniper forests, to alpine lakes and tundra. A large portion of the park is rugged wilderness accessible only on foot or by high-clearance, 4WD vehicles, but the area around the sand dunes is the most hospitable and very beautiful. It is worth visiting to enjoy the scenery if you are in the area, maybe take a picnic lunch!
The park is located 37 miles from the town of Alamosa, CO (see map). Take US-160 east to CO-150 north. From Albuquerque it’s 246 miles to the park via I-25 and US-285 through Alamosa. From Denver it’s 234 miles to the park via I-25 and US-160 west to CO-150. There is an airport at Alamosa, CO and at Pueblo, CO (127 miles). A gas and convenience market just outside the park on Route 150.
Food and Water
Keep in mind that there is no food service at this park, so bring your own snacks and plenty of water. I did see a vending machine at the Dunes Parking Area, and the Visitor Center gift shop might possibly offer trail bars and water.
Weather and Elevation
The sun will be intense here year-round and there is very little shade near the dunes; come prepared with a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen. If you aren’t used to high elevations, be alert for symptoms of altitude sickness. The park is at high elevation (7500-13,600′).
Weather can change quickly; wear layers and be prepared for cold, wet conditions any time of year. The best times to visit this park are spring (May) and fall. Medano Creek passes between the parking lot and the dunes and is at its deepest and swiftest in the months of April-July; after that it dries out. Snow is possible in March and April and spring afternoons can be windy. Summer high temperatures average 80 degrees, but the sand surface temperature can reach 150 before afternoon thunderstorms develop. The park is also very busy in the summer while school is out. Fall conditions are usually sunny with calm, pleasant days in the 60s-70s.
There is a fee per adult to enter the park that is collected at the entrance station where rangers will give you a map and brochure. Children are free, and the park accepts the Access Passport. As you enter the park, watch for wildlife – a doe with a tiny fawn walked right in front of our car! From the entrance it’s just a short distance to the Visitor Center. There is handicapped parking and the building and restrooms are wheelchair accessible. You can view exhibits and an informative film, visit the gift shop, and get information from friendly rangers.
There is a concrete patio on the back of the building that has a stunning view of the incredible sand dunes. A nature trail departs from the patio, but I do not recommend this trail for wheelchairs because it is a narrow, uneven gravel foot path through grassland peppered with cacti. Before you leave the visitor center, if you decide you’d like to try to explore the sandy dune area then there are two sand wheelchairs are available for loan: one for adults and one for children. The sand wheelchairs would help one venture out closer to the creek and dunes, but I don’t think they would be able to traverse the steep, sandy hillsides of the dunes. They are not self-propelled so you will need a helper. For more information or to reserve one in advance, call 719-378-6395.
When you’re finished at the Visitor Center, follow the park road for one mile to the Dunes Parking Area located right at the base of the colossal dunes. Here there is handicapped parking, accessible restrooms and an accessible, shaded picnic site. Sidewalks wind through the picnic area and from the parking to a small, accessible viewing platform where you can enjoy the scenery and watch the people who are hiking and sand-boarding on the dunes. There is also a rubber mat laid on the sand for a short distance from the parking lot that allows wheelchairs to get a little closer, but beyond that is deep, loose sand and the shallow waters of Medano Creek.
If you’d like to camp at the dunes, you can go online to reserve an accessible campsite in loop 2 at Piňon Flats Campground (discounted fee for Access Pass). Two accessible campsites are also held for first-come, first-served availability in loop 1. Facilities include accessible restrooms, hardened trail surface, picnic tables and fire rings.
If you prefer a roof over your head, there are several hotel choices at Alamosa, CO. I stayed at the Hampton Inn and I was quite satisfied with the accessibility. My room with 2 queen beds had a bathtub with removable seat. They also offer a king room with a 3×3′ shower that has a seat.