Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park sees more than 440 thousand visitors each year

The tallest sand dunes in North America, up to 750 feet (230 m) tall, were formed by deposits of the ancient Rio Grande in the San Luis Valley. Abutting a variety of grasslands, shrublands, and wetlands, Great Sand Dunes National Park also has alpine lakes, six 13,000-foot mountains, and old-growth forests.

Geology

How were the Great Sand Dunes formed?

The story of how the Great Sand Dunes were formed is continually evolving, as new research discoveries occur each year. Below is a basic summary of what most geologists currently understand to be the broad series of events that took place in the formation of these massive dunes.

You may also learn about geological components of the Great Sand Dunes system, hydrology of Great Sand Dunes, and the variety of dune types in the park.

Basic Geological Story
Through the breaking apart and movement (rifting) of large surface plates on Earth’s surface, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains were uplifted in the rotation of a large plate. Fossils from the bottom of an ancient sea are now preserved in high layers of rock in the Sangre de Cristos. The San Juan Mountains were created through extended and dramatic volcanic activity. With these two mountain ranges in place, the San Luis Valley was born, covering an area roughly the size of the state of Connecticut.

Sediments from both mountain ranges filled the deep chasm of the valley, along with huge amounts of water from melting glaciers and rain. The presence of larger rocks along Medano Creek at the base of the dunes, elsewhere on the valley floor, and in buried deposits indicates that some of the sediment has been washed down in torrential flash-flood events.

In 2002, geologists discovered lakebed deposits on hills in the southern part of the valley, confirming theories of a huge lake that once covered much of the San Luis Valley floor. They named this body of water “Lake Alamosa” after the largest town in the valley. Lake Alamosa suddenly receded after its extreme water pressure broke through volcanic deposits in the southern end of the valley. The water then drained through the Rio Grande River, likely forming the steep Rio Grande Gorge near Taos, New Mexico.

Smaller lakes still covered the valley floor, including two broad lakes in the northeastern side of the valley. Large amounts of sediment from the volcanic San Juan Mountains continued to wash down into these lakes, along with some sand from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Dramatic natural climate change later significantly reduced these lakes, leaving behind the sand sheet. Remnants of these lakes are still found today, in the form of sabkha wetlands.

Sand that was left behind after these lakes receded blew with the predominant southwest winds toward a low curve in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The wind funnels toward three mountain passes here – Mosca, Medano, and Music Passes – and the sand accumulates in this natural pocket. The winds blow from the valley floor toward the mountains, but during storms the winds blow back toward the valley. These opposing wind directions cause the dunes to grow vertically. See an animation showing how reversing dunes are formed.

Two mountain streams, Medano and Sand Creeks, also capture sand from the mountain side of the dunefield and carry it around the dunes and back to the valley floor. The creeks then disappear into the sand sheet, and the sand blows back into the dunefield. Barchan and transverse dunes form near these creeks. Learn more about the hydrology of Great Sand Dunes.

This combination of opposing winds, a huge supply of sand from the valley floor, and the sand recycling action of the creeks, are all part of the reason that these are the tallest dunes in North America. There are other dunes in Colorado, and in most western states in the US, but none as tall (750 feet) and none as dramatic. Here giant dunes rise in front of the alpine Sangre de Cristo Mountains, while streams flow across the sand seasonally, making for an unusual and unexpected sight.

Are the dunes still growing? How much do they change over time?

Currently, there is enough vegetation on the valley floor that there is little sand blowing into the main dunefield from the valley. However, even today there are still some small parabolic dunes that originate in the sand sheet and migrate across grasslands, joining the main dunefield. At other times, some of these migrating dunes become covered by grasses and shrubs and stop migrating. Thus, the dunes system is currently fairly stable.

Compare the two photos below showing the Great Sand Dunes’ stability over 138 years. Opposing wind directions balance each other out over time. Also, the main dunefield is moist beneath the thin layer of dry surface sand. In windstorms, the top few inches of sand blows around, and the moist sand remains largely in place.

While smaller individual dune ridges show changes over 138 years, larger dune forms have remained fairly constant. Thus, either the Great Sand Dunes grew and changed very slowly and uniformly over vast time – or they formed relatively quickly during an era of extreme drought, and are now relatively stable.

How old are the dunes?

Scientists don’t yet know a precise age. Many scientists estimate that Lake Alamosa disappeared about 440,000 years ago, but the dunes themselves apparently originate from sand deposits from later, smaller lakes.

A relatively new dating process, Optically-Stimulated Luminescence (OSL), is still in development. This method takes core samples of sand from deep within a dune, and attempts to measure how long quartz grains have been buried in the dark. If the deepest sand deposits can be accurately dated, the age of the dunes could be determined. Samples of sand from deep in the dunes have returned OSL dates varying between a few hundred years to tens of thousands of years old.

see original article here: https://www.nps.gov/grsa/learn/nature/sanddunes.htm

Native American History

Home of the Ute, Apache, and Tiwa

Although we don’t know the names or languages of those earliest people, modern American Indian tribes were familiar with the area when Spaniards first arrived about 400 years ago. The traditional Ute word for the Great Sand Dunes is Saa waap maa nache, “sand that moves.” Jicarilla Apaches settled in northern New Mexico and called the dunes Sei-anyedi, “it goes up and down.” Blanca Peak, just southeast of the Dunes, is one of the four sacred mountains of the Navajo, “Sisnaajini”. While these various tribes were here at the dunes, they collected the inner layers of bark from ponderosa pine trees, using them as food and medicine. For the people from the Tewa/Tiwa-speaking pueblos along the Rio Grande, it is a different spiritual link. They remember a traditional site of great importance located in the San Luis Valley near the Dunes: the lake through which their people emerged into the present world. “Sip’ophe” (“Sandy Place Lake”) is thought to be the spring(s) and/or lake(s) immediately west of the dunefield.

see original article here: https://www.nps.gov/grsa/learn/historyculture/index.htm

Park History

How Great Sand Dunes became a National Park

Spanish Explorations

In 1694, Don Diego de Vargas became the first European known to have entered the San Luis Valley, although herders and hunters from the Spanish colonies in present-day northern New Mexico probably entered the Valley as early as 1598. De Vargas and his men saw and hunted a herd of 500 bison, apparently in the southern part of the Valley, before returning to Santa Fe. In 1776, Juan Bautista de Anza II and a huge entourage of men and livestock probably passed near the dunes as they returned from a punitive raid against a group of Comanches. At this time, the San Luis Valley was a travel route between the High Plains and Santa Fe for Comanches, Utes, and Spanish soldiers. For some of them, the dunes were likely a visible landmark along the trail.

Zebulon Pike
At age 27, Zebulon Pike led a group of US soldiers in mid-winter over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Though he and his men were frostbitten and hungry, he found the inspiration to write down in poetic language the first known written words about Great Sand Dunes.
Independence National Historical Park

Westward Expansion: Zebulon Pike, 1807

The first known writings about Great Sand Dunes appear in Zebulon Pike’s journals of 1807. As Lewis and Clark’s expedition was returning east, U.S. Army Lt. Pike was commissioned to explore as far west as the Arkansas and Red Rivers. By the end of November 1806, Pike and his men had reached the site of today’s Pueblo, Colorado. Still pushing southwest, and confused about the location of the Arkansas River, Pike crossed the Sangre de Cristo Mountains just above the Great Sand Dunes. His journal from January 28th, 1807, reads: “After marching some miles, we discovered … at the foot of the White Mountains [today’s Sangre de Cristos] which we were then descending, sandy hills…When we encamped, I ascended one of the largest hills of sand, and with my glass could discover a large river [the Rio Grande] …The sand-hills extended up and down the foot of the White Mountains about 15 miles, and appeared to be about 5 miles in width. Their appearance was exactly that of the sea in a storm, except as to color, not the least sign of vegetation existing thereon.”

Old Spanish Trail 1830-1849

When you visit Great Sand Dunes, you also visit the Old Spanish National Historic Trail, a part of the diverse cultural heritage of the San Luis Valley.

Westward Expansion:
John Gunnison, 1853

In 1848, John C. Fremont was hired to find a railroad route from St. Louis to California. He crossed the Sangre de Cristos into the San Luis Valley in winter, courting disaster but proving that a winter crossing of this range was possible. He was followed in 1853 by Captain John Gunnison of the US Topographical Survey. Gunnison’s party crossed the dunefield on horseback: “Turning the southern base of the sand-hills, over the lowest of which we rode for a short distance, our horses half burying their hoofs only on the windward slopes, but sinking to their knees on the opposite, we for some distance followed the bed of the stream from the pass, now sunk in the sand, and then struck off across the sandy plain…The sand was so heavy that we were six hours and a half in making ten miles…”

Routes into the Valley

In the years that followed, the Rockies were gradually explored, treaties were signed and broken with resident tribes, and people with widely differing goals flooded into Colorado from the United States and Mexico. In 1852, Fort Massachusetts was built and then relocated to Fort Garland, about 20 miles southeast of the Great Sand Dunes, to safeguard travel for settlers following the explorers into the San Luis Valley. Although many settlers arrived in the San Luis Valley via the trails from Santa Fe or La Veta Pass, several routes over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains into the San Luis Valley were well-known to American Indians and increasingly used by settlers in the late 1800s. Medano Pass, also known as Sand Hill Pass, and Mosca Pass, also called Robidoux’s Pass, offered more direct routes from the growing front-range cities and dropped into the San Luis Valley just east of the Great Sand Dunes. Trails were improved into wagon routes and eventually into rough roads. The Mosca Pass Toll Road was developed in the 1870s, and stages and the mail route used it regularly through about 1911. That year, the western portion was badly damaged in a flash flood. Partially rebuilt at times in the 1930s through the 1950s, it has been repeatedly closed by flooding and is now a trail for hikers.

Fort Garland, 1852-1883

Diverse soldiers from Fort Garland, including African American Buffalo Soldiers (see below), patrolled the area around Great Sand Dunes from 1852-1883, protecting both settlers and American Indian tribes. Originally called Fort Massachusetts and built on the side of Blanca Peak in 1852, the fort was moved to the valley floor and renamed in 1858. Now a state historic site, Fort Garland features original buildings and artifacts, dioramas, exhibits, and scheduled living history events. Browse Fort Garland’s website for details, and view photos of Fort Garland and its living history events on Flickr. Located in the town of Fort Garland, Colorado, on US Highway 160.

Black Buffalo Soldiers, 1876-1879

African American Buffalo Soldiers patrolled the Great Sand Dunes region from 1876-1879, courageously working to protect both settlers and tribes during a volatile era. Though they faced prejudice and poor treatment from some, Buffalo Soldiers overall served their country with honor and bravery, and were awarded more Medals of Honor than any other American military unit during that era.

Based at nearby Fort Garland, the 9th Cavalry once even evicted white setters who had encroached on recognized Ute tribal lands. Today, we can only imagine the three-way cultural tension in that moment. Learn more about Buffalo Soldiers at nearby Fort Garland Museum.

Making a Home: Homesteaders

The Herard family established a ranch and homestead along Medano Creek in 1875, using the old Medano Pass Road to travel to and from their home. The modern road, open only to 4WD, high clearance vehicles, follows the old route, skirting the dunefield before rising to Medano Pass and continuing east into the Wet Mountain Valley. The Herards grazed and bred livestock in the mountain meadows, built a home, raised horses, cattle, and chickens, and established a trout hatchery in the stream. Other families homesteaded near the Dunes as well, including the Teofilo Trujillo family, who raised sheep west of the Dunes, and Frank and Virginia Wellington, who built the cabin and hand-dug the irrigation ditch that parallels Wellington Ditch Trail, just south of today’s campground. Their son, Charles, ran a sawmill on Sawmill Creek, just north of the campground. As people established homes, they often petitioned the US Postal Department for post offices to serve their tiny villages. Zapata (1879); Blanca or North Arrastre; Orean (1881); Mosco (1880); later called Montville (1887-1900); Herard (1905); Liberty (1900); Duncan (1892) and others helped connect isolated homesteaders with the larger world.

see original article here: https://www.nps.gov/grsa/learn/historyculture/index.htm

Attractions

The best things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park

  • Stand on the Tallest Dune in North America. Hiker high on the dunes. …
  • Go Sledding… in July!? Sledding on the dunes. …
  • See the Milky Way. Milky Way over the dunes. …
  • Go for a Drive. The view from Medano Pass Primitive Road. …
  • Release your Inner Child. …
  • Go to a Ranger Program. …
  • Sleep on the Sand. …
  • Go on a Sunset Hike with a Ranger.

Vegetation

There are hundreds of plant species in Great San Dunes National Park

There are hundreds of plant species in the park and preserve, adapted for environments as diverse as alpine tundra and warm water wetlands. View the 2005 List of Plants for Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Note: recent field surveys have discovered additional plant species; this list will be updated with these species and included as part of a vegetation mapping project of the entire park.

Common Plants of Great Sand Dunes has color photos and descriptions to help visitors identify some of the frequently seen plants in the main day use area of the park, including the dunes, grasslands, and montane woodlands.

Below are selected plants found in ecosystems of the park and preserve, beginning with alpine tundra.

see original article here: https://www.nps.gov/grsa/learn/nature/plants.htm

Animal Life

There is a thriving ecosystem within the dunes

Hiking Trails

Dunes? Wetlands? Forest? Pick your setting…

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.

Dunes Exploration
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. Average round trip hiking time is 2 hours.

Star Dune
Plan on about 5 hours round trip to hike Star Dune, the tallest dune in North America at 750 feet (229m). 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.

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.

Forested Trails
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.)

Mosca Pass Trail

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.

Medano Pass 4WD Road

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 4×4 for Jeep rentals and tours , the only authorized Jeep tour company in the national park and preserve. Check current road conditions and detailed information.

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. 

Alpine Trails
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
Upper Sand Creek Lake: 3.5 miles
Little Sand Creek Lakes: 8 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.

From the main use area of the national park, Point of No Return Trailhead provides standard 2WD access to the Sand Ramp Trail. This grueling 11-mile trail, up and down through foothills woodlands and dunes, accesses Sand Creek on the north side of 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.

With high-clearance 4WD, you can reach the Sand Ramp Trailhead along the Medano Pass Primitive Road. From this trailhead, it is a grueling 7 mile hike, mostly up and down through sand, to Sand Creek on the north side of 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.

Climbing the Peaks of Great Sand Dunes National Preserve

“The Essential Guide to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve”, available in the Visitor Center store, has detailed climbing information for the peaks. Marble Mountain is a gentle tundra hike to the north from Music Pass, but the other peaks require significant route-finding with potentially dangerous exposure to steep cliffs.

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
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.

Backpacking
Most hiking areas listed on this page are open to overnight backpacking. Free backcountry permits are required for overnight backpacking trips originating in the national park: inquire at the Visitor Center Backcountry Office for site availability, current conditions, and your permit. Please note that permits must be obtained in person during Backcountry Office hours: 9:00 am to 4:30 pm Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend, and 9:30 am to 4:00 pm September through May. Permits are not available in advance, or after Backcountry Office hours. Permits may be obtained for as many nights as desired. Be prepared with proper backpacking equipment, and plan to use Leave No Trace guidelines. Backcountry parking and sites fill up quickly on busy spring and summer weekends, especially holiday weekends and weekends during Medano Creek’s peak flow in late May/early June.

 

Backpacking in the Dunes
The most popular and unique backpacking option, camping is permitted anywhere in the 30-square-mile dunefield outside of the day use area (about 1.5 mile hike minimum over dunes). Enjoy wide open views of the starry sky or a bright moonlit night.

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.
Limit of 6 people per party, and limit of 20 parties in the dunefield per night
Permits are first-come, first-served
Gas stoves only; no campfires
Bears very rarely visit the interior of the dunefield. 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. Bear-proof containers are not required in the dunefield.
Permits may be obtained for as many nights as desired.
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.
Dogs are not permitted in the dunes backcountry. Please visit our Pets page for detailed information and maps of permitted pet areas.

Backpacking in the Foothills and Mountains
Designated backcountry 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 dunes, these sites tend to have excellent views and some shade, but some are more than 1 mile from a source of water.

All permits are first-come, first-served. Permits may be obtained for as many nights as desired.
Gas stoves only; no campfires in these sites, except for Sand Creek backpacking site, where there is a 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.
Limit of 6 (six) people per party, and 1 (one) party per site.
This is bear country. Plan to either hang all scented items in a tree at least 10 feet (3m) above the ground and 5 feet (2m) out from the trunk, or use a bearproof container.
View a map of GPS coordinates for each backcountry site (.jpg, 1MB)
Descriptions of each backpacking site are below. Click on the title of the site for a photo.

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

ESCAPE DUNES: 1.4 miles north of Point of No Return 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: 2.9 miles north of Point of No Return. 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: 3.9 miles from Point of No Return, 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: 5.7 miles from Point of No Return, 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: 8.9 miles from Point of No Return, 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: 10.5 miles from Point of No Return, 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.

Camping in Great Sand Dunes National Preserve, 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. Campfires are permitted only in established fire rings. The national preserve is part of the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness area, a federally designated wilderness. You will need a permit from the Visitor Center only if you are accessing the preserve through the national park’s main access area. Please Leave No Trace of your visit. 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.

see original article: https://www.nps.gov/grsa/planyourvisit/hiking.htm

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