Great Sand Dunes to Mesa Verde National Park
These two national parks are located in the southern area of Colorado. Both parks are incredibly unique, beautiful, and a lot of fun.
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Here are your options for transporting from one park to the other, as well as really fun things to do along the way! These stop are great for families or just adults as they are unique and provide variety. So make the best of these fun stops from Great Sand Dunes to Mesa Verde.
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How to Get from Great Sand Dunes to Mesa Verde
The easiest way to get from Great Sand Dunes to Mesa Verde is to drive. Driving will take around 4-1/2 hours depending on construction and traffic, and will allow you to be on your own schedule. It allows you to spend some time at the Sand Dunes in the morning and/or evening, which is the best time to explore in the summer since midday can have burning temperatures.
To drive from Great Sand Dunes to Mesa Verde, head west on Lane 6 into Mosca. When the road ends, turn left on 17 and then right on Del Norte/Lane 5 N.
You’ll turn right onto 160, which is the main road that will take you west and then south toward Mesa Verde. You’ll go through Pagosa Springs and Durango on the way.
The entrance to Mesa Verde is right off 160. You’ll take a left into the park, which is about 35 miles past Durango.
Distance from Great Sand Dunes to Mesa Verde
The total distance from Great Sand Dunes to Mesa Verde is 220 miles when driving.
Take a Flight
This is not the most efficient way to get from Great Sand Dunes to Mesa Verde, but it is an option.
The San Luis Valley regional airport is 35 minutes away from the Great Sand Dunes National Park. There isn’t a direct flight to Mesa Verde, but you can make a connection flight in Denver and into Cortez, which is 1 hour away.
This is much less efficient because by the time you make your connections, it takes longer than just driving over.
Plus, you’ll need a rental car or other mode of transportation on each end to get you to/from the national park and the airport.
Great Sand Dunes to Mesa Verde Road Trip Stops
The drive from Great Sand Dunes to Mesa Verde National Park is gorgeous and takes you through some really great towns. This short drive alone could be a week’s worth of fun and activities.
We made this same trip during one spring break and had a blast!
Here are some fun, family-friendly stops from Great Sand Dunes to Mesa Verde that you must do!
1. Great Sand Dunes
Obviously, you need to spend a day at Great Sand Dunes. Rent a board and a sled and take to the sandy mountains. If it’s late spring or early summer, it’ll be hot, but you’ll be blessed with water running in Medano Creek at the bottom.
2. Colorado Gator and Reptile Park
While in the area, also check out the Colorado Gator and Reptile Park. This educational trip will get you up close to gators and turtles. If you go during egg-laying season, you may be able to catch a view of trained employees jumping in to collect the eggs (it’s too cold at night for them to hatch, so taking them out helps mama gator not be so aggressive and territorial).
While a tragic fire came through and killed many animals in spring of 2023, there are still plenty of gators, crocodiles, turtles, and more to see while rebuilding continues.
3. Revolution Rail
As you head west from Great Sand Dunes to Mesa Verde, stop at Revolution Rail for a really unique and fun experience. I mention this in my Pagosa Springs to Denver post as well for a fun stop.
Revolution Rail will allow you to pedal along the South Fork Railroad for miles. Different options let you choose between an out and back, one way pedal, or pedal and then paddle on a 6 mile rafting adventure.
4. Treasure Falls
After riding the railway, you’ll continue on toward Pagosa Springs. Before you get into town, you’ll come to Treasure Falls, a gorgeous waterfall that’s easy to access.
Right off highway 160 you can pull over and view Treasure Falls from the lookout point right at the parking area. If you’d like to go closer, you can take the short hike that ascends over 200 feet.
At under a mile, this is a great hike for families.
5. Pagosa Springs
This town deserves a post all of its own. But the quick version is that you can do some great hiking in Pagosa Springs, soak in the magical hot springs (both paid and free), walk along the trail, go rafting, check out the wildlife park, attend an event, and more.
There’s a bit to do here, so you may not get to all of it if you are just making a stopover. If you stay the night, then you’ll have more time to really soak in this town and explore the gorgeous outdoor paradise that it is.
Want to stay the night? Consider the Springs Resort!
The Springs Resort
- Family Friendly
- Top Rated Hot Springs on site
- Expensive, but includes access to the gorgeous hot springs
- Sleep up to 6 in one room
6. Chimney Rock National Monument
Make your Great Sand Dunes to Mesa Verde extra special by adding another national park site to it: Chimney Rock National Monument.
Chimney Rock is open seasonally about 6 months of the year. It’s a great warm up to Mesa Verde as you’ll see lands once walked by the Ancestral Puebloan people.
Check out the monument, kivas, pit houses, ceremonial spaces, and buildings.
If you have a national parks pass (America the Beautiful), then stopping at Chimney Rock is no extra cost. The pass will get you into Great Sand Dunes, Mesa Verde, and Chimney Rock.
Durango is the next major stop on the way from the Great Sand Dunes to Mesa Verde.
To really experience the best of Durango, you’ll want a whole day. If you can’t, just get out and enjoy the town for as long as you have.
The TOP thing to do in Durango is take a ride on the Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. This is one of the most scenic train rides you’ll ever take as you experience what miners and travelers over 100 years ago did.
Durango offers plenty of outdoor activities as well. Try zip lining among the San Juans, taking a hike, or taking a family-friendly rafting trip down the Animas River, or discover the lakes and rivers of the San Juan National Forest.
8. Mesa Verde
The final stop, of course, is landing at Mesa Verde National Park. This park, like Great Sand Dunes, is one of the more unique national parks in the country. While it is beautiful, the purpose is to preserve, protect, and provide enjoyment and education to the public.
At Mesa Verde, you’ll find plenty of pit houses, kiva, sacred temple structures, cities and dwellings built into the mountain.
It’s a great place to take kids as you don’t have to walk a ton to see the highlights of the park.
However, if you don’t mind some walking and hiking, you can reserve a hike and Guided Tour of the park to get up close to the dwellings and see more details of the historic structures (up close hike when available/in season).
Check out my complete guide to seeing the park.
Guided Tour of Mesa Verde
- Your own guide to learn about the park
- Skip the entrance line
- Avoid the parking hassle
- Transfers from Durango for half-day tour
- Get up close to the dwellings (when available)
How Far is it from Great Sand Dunes National Park to Mesa Verde National Park?
It is 220 miles from Great Sand Dunes to Mesa Verde. The drive takes around 4-1/2 hours from one to the other.
Which is better, Great Sand Dunes or Mesa Verde?
They are both incredibly unique and great visits. If you just want a fun adventure, then Great Sand Dunes will provide hours of fun sledding and boarding around the dunes. If you want history and unique sites, then Mesa Verde is the best choice.
Why You’ll Love both Parks
Both parks are unique, and make for great national parks to bring kids to. Enjoy the fun of sledding on the sand one day and walking among cities made on the side of a mountain the next. There is enough at each park to really keep the kids interest.
My kids all loved both parks and had a hard time giving me an answer as to which they liked best. In fact, they never could choose one.
Additions to the Great Sand Dunes to Mesa Verde Trip
If you have extra time after your road trip from Great Sand Dunes to Mesa Verde, you can head north from Durango along the Million Dollar Highway into Ouray. Spend time here for great waterfalls and hot springs, and then make the short drive over to Black Canyon of the Gunnison to add another national park to the trip.
Colorado has one more national park, Rocky Mountain, but it’s quite a drive away and most likely not ideal to see all four in one trip unless you have a lot of time. However, if you choose to go to Black Canyon and then head back to Denver, take the route that leads you through Grand Junction so you can see Colorado National Monument.
Great Sand Dunes to Mesa Verde
As you can see, there is a lot to see and do as you drive from Great Sand Dunes to Mesa Verde. Stop in a few fun towns like Pagosa Springs and Durango, or check out some cool and fun roadside attractions, like pedaling along a railway or discovering more ruins at Chimney Rock.
With under 4 hours of total drive time, this makes a fun road trip from Great Sand Dunes to Mesa Verde. The 2 parks themselves are the main highlights and well worth a visit. But there are so many other things to do along the way, making this a great little road trip.
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