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The Best Time to Visit Great Sand Dunes National Park in 2023

The Best Time to Visit Great Sand Dunes National Park in 2023

A trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park, nestled by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Southern Colorado, is guaranteed to provide incredible views, hours of fun, and unforgettable memories for every visitor.

But if you’re planning a trip to these tallest sand dunes in North America, it’s crucial to make the most out of your time in the park. Knowing the best time of year to visit can ensure that you have the best possible experience exploring this destination.

Whether you’re looking for warm weather and an abundance of activities, want to avoid crowds, or are searching for the cheapest airfare, there’s a time to visit the park that can meet your needs.

Here’s your guide to everything you need to know for the perfect Colorado adventure.

Why You Should Visit Great Sand Dunes National Park

Several people hiking on the Great Sand Dunes National Park while walking down the hill of sand

Yingna Cai/Shutterstock

Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado offers a unique, one-of-a-kind outdoor experience. The sand dunes are spread out across 30 square miles, with dunes reaching up to 750 feet high.

The diverse backdrop includes forests, wetlands, lakes, grasslands, and more, so there’s something for everyone to enjoy.

While the park is relatively small and rural compared to other national parks, there are countless exciting activities to explore while in the area. Outdoor enthusiasts will love this park’s extraordinary scenic views and adventures.

You can walk along the sand dunes, sled or sandboard down the dunes, ride horses through trails, hike one of the forested mountain trails, and even camp under the stars.

During the warmer months, visitors can relax and splash around in the shallow Medano Creek or relax on the seasonal beach. The park is open 24/7 year-round, so there’s always something to discover in this scenic destination.

When you’re not exploring the park, you can also stop by the nearby city of Alamosa to try some delicious local restaurants, visit a museum, or walk through a nature trail.

Overall Best Time to Visit Great Sand Dunes National Park

Two tiny people hiking a dune in the Great Sand Dunes National Park pictured during the best time to visit, in the spring

Andrew Repp/Shutterstock

To get the most out of your trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park, should plan plan your visit for the end of spring or the beginning of fall.

Early May is one of the best times to visit the park to enjoy an abundance of activities, avoid crowds, and experience mild, warm weather. Southern Colorado can have extreme wind, cold, and snow during the winter months up through March.

By late April/early May, these blustery conditions are generally over, and you can enjoy high temperatures in the 60s and 70s. The park’s peak season starts around the end of May and goes into the warm summer months.

During this busy season, the park can become crowded with tourists, and it can be difficult to find peace and quiet on the trails or dunes. Visiting in early May, before the crowds roll in, helps ensure that you can enjoy uninterrupted access to all the activities the park has to offer.

The seasonal Medano Creek also flows through the area starting in May, so visitors in the spring can splash around and float in the shallow water to cool off after a day of hiking.

And if you want an unforgettable night under the stars, the park’s campgrounds open in April and don’t get too busy until the summer. While you might miss out on a dip in the creek if you visit in early fall, late September or early November are also great choices when planning your Colorado vacation.

During this time, you can enjoy warm, mild weather and avoid the swarms of tourists that arrive in the peak summer season. The sand dunes can also reach extremely high temperatures during the summer months.

If you’re interested in hiking, exploring, or sledding down the sand dunes, the mild, cooler temperatures in May or September can help you avoid any extreme surface temperatures. 

Cheapest Time to Visit Great Sand Dunes National Park

Frozen lake pictured in the foreground with snow-capped dunes in the winter, the overall cheapest time to visit the Great Sand Dunes National Park

Marekuliasz/Shutterstock

The cheapest time to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park is in the cold winter season between December and March.

With fewer tourists visiting the park during these colder months, visitors can save money on the lodges and cabins near the entrance of the park.

Many of these accommodation options have seasonal pricing, so you can save money while exploring the park by visiting during the off-season.

When it comes to booking your flight, planning a trip for the winter offers cheaper flight options compared to the busier summer seasons. January specifically is one of the cheapest times of year to fly to Colorado, so be sure to take advantage of the low prices when planning your trip.

The region experiences cold weather between December and March, with low temperatures and frequent snowfall or blizzards throughout the week.

If you’re looking to save money during your vacation, there’s also plenty to enjoy during the winter. You can sled down the sand dunes, go snowshoeing, or keep an eye out for wildlife such as elk, pronghorns, and cranes.

Least Busy Time to Visit Great Sand Dunes National Park

Single camper in a beige tent that's zipped up in the shadows of a sand dune, camping during the least busy time to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park

Patrick Lienin/Shutterstock

To avoid crowds while exploring Great Sand Dunes National Park, you can visit the area during the quiet winter season between December and February.

The winter months bring snow and below-freezing weather to the sand dunes. During this time, many of the main highlights of the park aren’t as accessible.

There’s limited access to hiking trails, the seasonal beach isn’t available, and the Medano Pass Primitive Road is closed to all traffic.

Because many of the park highlights aren’t available due to weather conditions, not as many tourists flock to the sand dunes when the weather gets cold. Despite the temperatures and closures, however, there’s still plenty to enjoy at the park if you’re trying to avoid crowds.

During the winter, you can participate in snow sports throughout the park, including:

  • Snowshoeing
  • Cross-country skiing
  • Sledding down the dunes

While mountain hiking trails are generally closed, there are also some foothills trails with shallow snow that are still available for hiking.

And best of all, you can explore the park and discover all this incredible destination has to offer while enjoying the peace, quiet, and solitude of this rugged and rural park.

Worst Time to Visit Great Sand Dunes National Park

Road leading to the mountains during the winter during the worst time to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park with storm clouds on the horizon above the mountains

Brian Wolski/Shutterstock

No matter what time of year you choose to visit Great Sand Dune National Park, you’re guaranteed to find activities to keep you busy and happy.

But with limited activities and freezing weather, January is one of the worst times to visit.

January is the coldest month of the year in Southern Colorado and often brings below-zero temperatures and deep snow throughout the sand dunes. This means that many of the more challenging mountain hikes are closed, and you can’t enjoy full access to all of the park’s activities.

From hiking to horseback riding to swimming, we think that this park is an ideal vacation spot for any adventurous traveler.

But with the beach, trails, scenic roads, and more unavailable in January due to harsh weather conditions, there are significantly fewer things to discover throughout this national park.

Spring, Summer, and Fall bring significantly more activity options, with the seasonal beach, alpine lakes, sand dune hikes, and so much more. But if you want to avoid crowds, you also might want to avoid a trip between June and August.

During these months, the dunes become crowded with families and other visitors. The sand surface can also reach temperatures of 150 degrees during the summer, so be sure to plan around the weather to avoid discomfort and extreme heat during the day.

Despite the middle of Winter and Summer both posing some challenges while planning a visit, it doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to enjoy while there during these times of the year. During the summer, you can enjoy access to all the seasonal activities, especially camping under the starry sky.

And winter sports enthusiasts will find plenty of options throughout the park during the winter months. For a cozy winter visit to the park, you can also stop by the January Rio Frio Ice Festival in the nearby Alamosa.

Things to Consider

Woman in shorts and a short-sleeved black shirt walking along the top of a sand dune during the best time to visit the Great Sand Dunes National Park

Andriy Blokhin/Shutterstock

Now that you know the best and worst times to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park, you’re almost ready to get started planning your trip. But before you book your flight, check out some of the other key things to consider.

These include:

  • Plan for the weather. From blizzards to extreme heat and hot sand, the park sees a wide range of intense weather conditions. Even in the warm summer months, temperatures can quickly drop at night.  When you’re booking your trip, be sure to take a look at the weather forecast so you can be prepared for all the elements while exploring the great outdoors. Bring extra layers, water, sunscreen, and weather-appropriate clothes for any adventure through the park.
  • Book your trip around major holidays. The park is essentially a giant sandbox, making it a perfect vacation for families, particularly with school-aged kids. While this leads to magical and unforgettable family memories, it also means that the park gets extremely busy during holidays. If possible, plan your trip around these school holidays to save money and avoid crowds.
  • Find creative ways to save money. Besides visiting the park during the off-season, there are so many ways you can save money while booking your trip. Throughout the year, you can usually find deals and savings on airline tickets, accommodations, and attractions. Many places also offer student, senior, veterans, or other discounts, so be sure to ask!  You can also set price alerts to find the best deals on flights to Colorado. During the off-season, in particular, it’s simple to find fantastic discounts on flights and accommodation options.
  • Don’t stay confined to just the park. The park offers so many scenic views and exciting activities to explore. But when you’re in the area, be sure to venture outside the park and discover everything else the San Luis Valley has to offer. This beautiful, unspoiled region boasts countless activities to explore, from scenic walks to reptile parks. If you want to escape the summer crowds or escape the snowy winter weather for a day, you can head to Alamosa or other nearby towns and learn all about the area’s rich history.

Frequently Asked Questions

Woman holding a sandboard on her shoulders behind her and looking left while wearing yoga pants and a backpack

David Spates/Shutterstock

What are the best things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park?

The highlights of Great Sand Dunes National Park greatly depend on the season. But no matter when you visit, there are so many activities to discover throughout the park.

Some of the best things to do in the spring and summer include:

  • Hiking along the tallest sand dunes on the continent
  • Floating in the Medano Creek
  • Sledding down the dunes
  • Driving the scenic Medano Pass Primitive Road
  • Booking a campsite for an incredible night under the stars

In the winter, you can also enjoy skiing, snowshoeing, and other winter activities.

When should I visit Great Sand Dunes National Park?

Great Sand Dunes National Park is open year-round, 24/7, so there really is no bad time to visit the park. But if you’re looking for plenty of activity options, fantastic weather, and fewer crowds, late spring or early fall are two of the best times to visit.

During these seasons, visitors can enjoy mild weather, peaceful and quiet hikes, and plenty of seasonal activities such as swimming and hiking.

Do I need a reservation to enter the park?

Great Sand Dunes National Park doesn’t require any permit, fees, or reservations to enter the park. If you are planning on camping at one of the 88 campsites, however, you will need to reserve a spot and pay a fee at the visitor center.

What’s the weather like at Great Sand Dunes National Park?

The diverse landscape at the national park sees a huge range of weather conditions throughout the year. Between the Spring and Fall, weather conditions are generally mild, with occasional rain, wind, and thunderstorms. The temperature also drops quickly at night, so come prepared with layers if you’re camping at the park.

During the winter, the park experiences snow and frigid weather at least once a week. However, when it’s not snowing, the winter days are often mild and sunny, and the snow clears quickly from the dunes.

Is Great Sand Dunes National Park worth a visit?

While Great Sand Dunes National Park is more off-the-beaten-path than other parks, it has so much to offer and is worth a visit at any time of year.

From outdoor adventures to winter sports and festivals, this area truly has something for everyone. If you want to experience the great outdoors with unforgettable views, you can’t go wrong with a visit to Great Sand Dunes National Park.

So, What’s the Best Time to Visit Great Sand Dunes National Park?

Overall, the best time to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park is in May or September, when the weather is still warm, and there are fewer summer crowds.

During these months, you can enjoy all the seasonal attractions without the drawbacks of traveling during the peak summer months. If you’re looking for a budget-friendly trip or a peaceful vacation away from crowds, you can visit in the winter as well.

While some activity options might be limited, an off-season trip to the park guarantees plenty of space to explore, cheap accommodation options, and unique wintertime activities in both the park and surrounding cities.

Now that you have a full guide for visiting this serene and unique park, you’re ready to make your itinerary for an unforgettable vacation. So what are you waiting for — book your trip today!