Denver to Great Sand Dunes National Park Road Trip

Denver to Great Sand Dunes National Park Road Trip

great sand dunes national park

This page contains affiliate links. Read the full disclaimer for more information.

When people think about visiting Colorado they often think of going to the mountains, going skiing or enjoying a Denver Broncos football game. All of these activities and spaces are wonderful to enjoy, but there is so much to do in Colorado and I wanted to introduce you to one of my favorite road trips to take from Denver. 

As always, I prefer to take the longer route and make some stops along the way. Instead of driving down I-25 and heading through Colorado Springs, I prefer to make my way via US-285. It’s my view that US-285 is one of the most beautiful roads in Colorado and it’s also an easier road to drive and typically has less traffic. 

Another Colorado trip idea: Denver to Telluride Colorado Road Trip Instead of Rocky Mountain National Park

Visiting the Great Sand Dunes National Park

Colorado is home to a lot of things, mountains, plains and deserts. It’s also home to Great Sand Dunes National Park, surprisingly the largest dunes in the United States. This park is located just under a 5 hour drive from Denver if you’re taking the slower route which I recommend. Visitors can hike their way up the mountains of sand, slide their way down and even go camping between April-October. For the following itinerary, I would suggest allocating 3 days and 2 nights so that you don’t have to rush while you enjoy your adventures. 

The best times to visit in my view are the months of May, September and October. May is ideal because the mountain snow is melting at that time and Medano Creek actually becomes a real creek to enjoy and splash around in. Visiting during September and October is ideal because the heat of summer is finally easing off and it’s a much more comfortable time to enjoy the Dunes. 

I also prefer visiting the Sand Dunes during the colder months of the year because it’s a perfect time to enjoy hot springs around the park. The Sand Dunes Swimming Pool and Hot Springs has a slightly dystopian sign that is literally just waves of water without words indicating that it’s time to turn onto the road heading to the pool. 

Don’t forget to wrestle alligators while you’re there! The Colorado Gators and Reptile Farm is located 45 minutes from the Sand Dunes and has an intriguing history. For those of you who remember the tilapia craze that seemed to take over the U.S. for years, the Colorado Gator and Reptile Farm’s origin story is directly connected to tilapia. The owner had a fishery focused on growing tilapia. Soon the owner wanted to find a way to naturally dispose of tilapia that couldn’t be frozen for sale. That’s when they brought in alligators to eat the tilapia.

Then the alligators grew. Once the alligators got bigger the owners realized that they had an opportunity to bring in folks who love reptiles and would like to get up close and personal with an alligator. You do have to pay for this wrestling experience a week before you arrive. It’s a fun and weirdly random experience that I’ve added to my list of things that I must do.

How to Get to Great Sand Dunes National Park

Before you begin your road trip double-check with CDOT to see if there is road work being done. I forgot to do that the last time I was on this road and ended up being delayed for hours waiting for the road to open up again.  Again, take my favorite road US-285 heading south and then stop in Buena Vista for breakfast  and then head over to Brown’s Canyon for a half-day of rafting.

Once it’s time to continue on I recommend heading to Del Norte and staying at Mellow Moon Lodge, a gorgeous property that could hold its own in L.A. or New York City. While in Del Norte, hike up Natural Arch Trailhead and just take it easy. Do note that Del Norte is a small town so keep that in mind. 

I would also strongly recommend taking another detour over to Royal Gorge Bridge and Park. The Royal Gorge Bridge is the highest suspension bridge in the United States. There are few ways to enjoy the bridge. My favorite is by train. The Royal Gorge Route Railroad traverses the bottom of the canyon that the bridge is suspended over. You can ride and dine or enjoy a high tea while taking in the views for the next two hours. 

Royal Gorge Via Ferrata 

Colorado has gone Via Ferrata crazy. What is it? It’s a route built typically onto the side of a mountain that you traverse using carabiners, luck and if you’re new to this-a qualified guide. The Royal Gorge is home to a Via Ferrata and for the adventure seekers, this could be a unique way to explore a beautiful part of the state. If you’re not a thrill-seeker, walk across the bridge, go up the gondola or explore the rest of the park. The Royal Gorge Bridge and Park is family friendly with something to offer everyone. 

It may seem like traveling down US-285 and visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park is a little bit off the beaten path, but trust me, it’s worth it.  

More road trip ideas:

Pin it for later!

pinnable image of great dunes national park with title text