Each season offers something special at North America's largest sand dunes, in Colorado
Every season is stunning at North America’s largest sand dunes so the best time to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park really depends on what you want to do and your tolerance for very hot or cold weather. Read on to learn about Great Sand Dunes weather, and what to see and do in each season.
The Largest Sand Dunes in North America
Great Sand Dunes National Park is located in southern Colorado, about 3.5 hours from Denver. The largest dunes in North America were millions of years in the making, but the newest park to receive “national park” status, in 2003.
The dune fields encompass more than 30 square miles beneath the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. As the lakes that covered portions of this valley dried up, sand was left behind and funneled by winds into a natural pocket between the mountains. It had nowhere to go, so accumulated into giant dunes over millions of years.
There is nowhere in the world quite like it.
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Great Sand Dunes Weather
Great Sand Dunes Park is open year-round and temperatures can be extreme here: the weather can be very cold and snowy in winter and hot in summer, although summer nights are cool thanks to the high elevation. In May, a popular time to visit if you want to swim in Medano Creek (more below) the average daily high is 66 degrees and the low is 37 degrees. So it can still be chilly for camping. Average July temperatures are 80 degrees during the day and 50 degrees at night. January is the coldest month at Great Sand Dunes National Park with daily average highs around 35 degrees and average daily lows around 10 degrees.
For more information on Great Sand Dunes Weather, this National Park Service page lists monthly highs and lows at the park.
Best time to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park
The best time to visit Great Sand Dunes depends on your priorities. First, do you want to camp? Camping is open April through October, but can be very cold at either end of the camping season, with summer the most pleasant camping weather, thanks to temps that tend to dip down in the evening. The busiest camping season is July and August, and late May and June bring lots of people who want to swim in Medano Creek (more on that below). So if you have flexibility, don’t mind cooler temps and want to avoid crowds, I think the best time to visit Great Sand Dunes is late spring or early fall.
We visited in mid-April and had very pleasant weather, with the added benefit of lighter crowds and lots of available accommodation. Temperatures for hiking were also ideal. Camping was open, but would have been too cold for us, so we opted for a ranch stay. (More on our ranch experience below).
Coronavirus update: As of the spring of 2021, the park and most of its hiking trails are open, including the Pinon Flats Campground and overnight backcountry access on some trails. There are no reservations required to visit Great Sand Dunes, and the visitor center is open.
When to Visit Great Sand Dunes - Hiking
The dunes are fun to climb and there are no designated trails which makes it fun for kids, and a great workout for everyone else. Summer air can be pleasant with an elevation of 8700 feet here. But the sand does get very hot so you will only be able to climb them early or late in the day.
The dunes are surrounded by meadows and forested hills, which offer a great variety of hiking, beyond the sand. Hiking would be very hot in July and August, so early morning hikes would be preferable if you visit in summer.
In spring, we enjoyed hiking in the nearby forest which had a wonderful view of the dunes and mountains. There were also some pretty waterfalls to see.
If seeing Colorado wildflowers is a priority, the best time to visit is June or July. The Sand Creek Lakes hike is supposed to be beautiful at that time. If lots of hiking is your idea of a perfect trip, I think late spring or early fall are the best times to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Sand Boarding & Sledding
We visited great sand dunes with our boys, who were young at the time. We brought plastic sleds, but learned that the surface is usually too dry for “snow sleds”; if you want to try sand boarding or sledding, you will need to rent special equipment with the right kind of surface and a special wax finish. Rentals are available in the nearby towns of Hooper, Alamosa and Blanca.
When to Visit Great Sand Dunes for Swimming - May & June
The Medano Creek at the bottom of the dunes comes to life as the snow melts from the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The water volume is greatest in late May and the flow continues into June (although this varies by year). May is very popular with families for this reason and campsites book up very far in advance. Plan ahead if you want to visit to enjoy Medano Creek.
When we visited in mid-April the water was just starting to accumulate and it was very cold. There was definitely no swimming.
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Where to stay in Great Sand Dunes National Park
Camping & Glamping in Great Sand Dunes
Camping at Great Sand Dunes is available at the park’s Pinon Flats Campground from April 1 to October 31. There are 88 sites for tents and RVs – these can accommodate up to eight people and two tents. A fire grate and picnic table are located at each individual site, and a campground store offers limited supplies.
To reserve a Great Sand Dunes campsite, visit the federal booking portal recreation.gov. Reservations can be made up to six months ahead. Dogs are permitted. For larger groups of between 18 and 40, you can reserve up to one-year ahead.
For a more upscale “glamping” experience, check out the Rustic Rock Resort, located 19 miles from the park entrance. Their 2021 season starts May 27.
If you would like to splurge on a special experience, and let me emphasize SPLURGE, I recommend The Zapata Ranch, located Great Sand Sand Dunes park.
My family and I stayed at Zapata Ranch when our boys were young. When we visited in April, it was very quiet, just us and a herd of 2,000 American Plains bison which roam the property’s 50,000-acre pasture.
The charming ranch is set amongst a grove of cottonwoods, and the original homestead was built here in the 1800’s. The rooms reflect that heritage with the rustic charm of an old log cabin… an old cabin that someone with great taste thoughtfully appointed, including plush beds and beautiful linens. The common areas are very welcoming and comfortable and every window has a gorgeous view.
In summer they require a minimum three-night stay, and prices are inclusive of meals and activities. You could easily and happily fill three days here, and if you are looking for an authentic western ranch experience with fantastic food, this would make a wonderful holiday. The ranch is open March through October in 2021.
Bison at Zapata-Medano Ranch
Bison originally numbered in the tens of millions through the vast plains of the western U.S., but were almost wiped out by 1900. Today Bison numbers have grown close to half a million, much of that is livestock, but there are also conservation herds, such as at Zapata Ranch.
The reintroduction of bison enables land which had been overgrazed by cattle, to rebound, when properly managed. Bison actually aerate the soil with their hooves and support the return of native plants such as buffalo grass and cottonwood groves.
The process is explained by the ranch: “We use (bison) as a tool to disturb the surface of the land to achieve conservation goals by recycling nutrients and improving the water cycle, mimicking the symbiotic relationship between the North American High Plains grasslands and the great bison herds of the past.”
The property and 17-room lodge is owned by the Nature Conservancy. I had not heard of them before our visit but this organization is remarkable. An environmental non-profit founded in the U.S. in 1951, it has grown to operate in 79 countries, with more than a million member supporters. They are actively addressing climate change, land conservation and food and water sustainability. As well as sustainable growth of cities. More than 400 scientists are on staff and have protected more than 125 million acres of land to date.
That means that your stay at the Zapata Lodge and the adjoining Medano Ranch helps support the preservation of this beautiful landscape of dunes, wetlands, meadows and cottonwood groves – as well as the bison.
Best time to visit Zapata Ranch
Activities & Dining on the Ranch
If you’ve dreamed of experiencing the life of a Colorado wrangler, a working ranch experience is available here and all levels of riders can be accommodated. Beyond exploring the sand dunes and horseback riding, there is hiking, fly fishing and rafting, all of my favourite Colorado experiences in one beautiful place. To get the most of the all of these experience, the best time to visit Great Sand Dunes and Medano ranch is the summer.
Although there was less going on, our spring visit was very enjoyable. Our children were quite young at the time, and Medano is excellent at accommodating families.
The ranch has delicious home-cooked food, including the chance to try bison, if you wish. Otherwise, the meat and produce served is locally sourced, to the extent possible. They will pack a lunch for you to take along on your daily adventuring.
Solo Travel & Zapata Ranch
If you are planning to travel on your own, or with a group of women, you might consider one of the special themed events at Zapata Ranch. I would love to attend the week-long Birding Workshop; this area has phenomenal birding. Details of other workshops are here: Zapata Ranch. For fall 2020 those include painting, photography and horsemanship. Inquire for more information.
I would love to return to the sand dunes and beautiful Zapata Ranch in fall, when the days are warm and the nights are cool. Then again, it would be fun to visit in late May, to swim in Medano creek and camp in the park. The summer would be great fun as well, with so many activities.
I think the answer is that there is not a single best time to visit the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Anytime you have the chance to go, you will enjoy fun activities, and admire the unique geography of the giant sand dunes trapped between the mountains.
If you are interested in exploring other national parks, you might like to read about my trip to Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, or my L.A. to Denver Road Trip Guide, with stops in Arches National Park and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Or if you are planning more Colorado travel, and interested in camping, check out this guide to Yurt Camping in Colorado State Parks.