Denver to Sand Dunes: The Practical Day Trip Guide

A Practical Guide for traveling to the Great Sand Dunes National Park from Denver. First things first, you want to prepare for your road trip.

If you need a rental car, we recommend Enterprise or Toro, and if possible, avoiding the airport location for better chances of getting a vehicle.

A yellow flower blooms in the Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

This guide takes you south through Pueblo, and returns passing Salida. Let’s start with a breakdown of what to pack for the Sand Dunes:

All Seasons:

  • Water: Stay hydrated regardless of the weather.
  • Snacks: Keep energized during long drives or outdoor activities.
  • Emergency kit: Colorado roads are long and often surrounded by mountains, making some areas difficult to get cell service in.
  • Phone charger: Ensure you stay connected, especially during long drives.
  • Personal identification and important documents: Driver’s license, insurance information, and emergency contacts.
  • Comfort items: Pillows, blankets, and travel games for added comfort during the journey.

Remember to pack it in and pack it out, leaving no trace of your visit behind. Keeping our natural landscapes clean ensures they remain pristine for future generations to enjoy.

Clothing:

  • Layered clothing: Adapt to changing temperatures throughout the day.
  • Jacket or fleece: Provide warmth during cooler weather.
  • Waterproof outer layer: Stay dry during rain or snow.
  • Hat and gloves: Protect against cold temperatures.
  • Comfortable shoes: Suitable for walking and exploring various terrains.
  • Swimwear: For spontaneous stops at lakes, rivers, or hot springs.

Miscellaneous:

  • Camera: Capture memories of your journey and scenic views.
  • Binoculars: Great for seeing far distances in the dunes.
  • Backpack or daypack: Convenient for carrying essentials during excursions. Bonus points for an Osprey day pack or CamelBack (for ease of water).
  • Travel-sized toiletries: Including sunscreen, insect repellent, and hand sanitizer.
  • Reusable water bottle: Environmentally friendly and convenient for staying hydrated.
  • Entertainment: Books, music, or podcasts for entertainment during downtime.


Summer:

  • Socks: The sand gets HOT! Prepare ahead.
  • Umbrella: There is little space for respite from the sun, especially up high on the dunes.
  • Sun protective clothing
  • Sunscreen
  • Swimwear

Fall/Winter/Spring

  • Layered clothing: Prepare for fluctuating temperatures throughout the day.
  • Jacket or fleece: Stay warm during cooler evenings.
  • Comfortable shoes: Ideal for walking and exploring outdoor attractions.
  • Boots for snow or muddy shoulder season

Begin Your Roadtrip to the Sand Dunes

Heading South through Pueblo

Whether a day trip or overnight, you’ll want to hit the road early. The drive is 3.5 hours, longer with stops. Depending on the time of year you want to visit the dunes, earlier can be better if the weather is supposed to get hot. If you’re trying to do the dunes in one day, we recommend getting on the road no later than 5 am.

This road trip takes you in a big circle, first south on I25 through Pueblo, then north past Salida up 285.

Stopping in Pueblo

Pueblo offers a glimpse into Colorado’s industrial history. Its downtown area has some local restaurants and shops, but nothing particularly noteworthy for tourists during this drive.

After a brief stop to stretch your legs, continue on your way towards the Sand Dunes. There’s not much reason to linger unless you’re hungry or need a longer break.

En Route to Great Sand Dunes

The landscape between Pueblo and the Sand Dunes gradually changes from flat plains to rugged terrain. The dunes themselves become visible on the horizon as you approach.

The Sand Dunes are a unique natural feature, but they’re remote. It’s essential to plan ahead, considering factors like operating hours and admission fees.

Exploring the Sand Dunes

Upon arrival, you’ll find yourself amidst vast stretches of sand.

Activities include hiking the dunes or trying sandboarding. Remember, it can get scorching hot in the summer.

In the spring and summer, Medano Creek is flowing. Kids and adults alike can enjoy splashing in the creek and enjoying reprieve from the Colorado sun.

Admission to the park costs $25 per vehicle, which grants access for seven consecutive days. Operating hours vary seasonally, so it’s wise to check ahead.

Bathrooms are only open during parts of the year, plan accordingly.

Returning through Salida

After dusting off the sand Salida offers a pleasant stopover on the return journey. It’s a small mountain town known for its arts scene and outdoor activities and is definitely worth a stop.

Wandering through Salida’s streets, you’ll find various shops and galleries. It’s a laid-back atmosphere, perfect for a leisurely stroll.

If you’re into outdoor recreation, Salida has opportunities for activities like kayaking or hiking. Otherwise, it’s a quiet town, ideal for unwinding before hitting the road again.

If you plan to stop for a night, this is a great place for layover before you hit the road again.

Stopping in Fairplay aka South Park

This quaint town has embraced its fame as the inspiration behind the iconic animated series, South Park. Pull over for a photo-op before hitting the road again.

Arriving Back in the City

Depending on the time of year, and how many stops you took, you’re most likely arriving back in the city at nightfall. Denver has a wide mix of drivers from all over, so it’s important to stay vigilant.

Once you make it home you’ll have a bunch of great new memories, and probably some sand in your shoes.