Exhaustive fun! That’s the best way to describe a visit to this family-friendly park in southern Colorado.
Among the 30+ national parks that my family has visited, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve ranks as one of our favorites! This park boasts several diverse ecosystems: grasslands, wetlands, aspen forests, and tundra, but it’s the 30-square-mile dunefield that’s the big draw. Climb to the top of the tallest dunes in North America, learn to sandboard, and splash in a creek that claims a strange phenomenon called “surge flow” - all in one day!
KidTripster Tip: Stop at the visitor center to pick up your child’s Junior Ranger book and loaner backpack. Also, make sure to watch the park movie, so you’re primed for your visit.
What to do?
If you’re visiting the Great Sand Dunes during the summer, you’ll want to start your day early; by the afternoon, the sand temperature can reach 150°F. I’d recommend a hike to High Dune (699 feet) at sunrise or certainly no later than 7:30 a.m. This dune on the first ridge is not the tallest in the park, but it looks that way from the main parking lot. There are no designated trails here; just cross the flats and zigzag up the ridgelines. It takes about an hour to get to the top, or 40 minutes, if you’re two teenaged boys trying to show up your parents. We saw families with young children make this climb; you’ll just have to be prepared to make more frequent stops or carry them when their little legs give out. Not to worry, they’ll be fully recovered when it’s time to run down.
KidTripster Tip: Be sure to bring plenty of water and your camera as the views are breathtaking… as is the climb!
KidTripster Tip: The highest dune in North America is Star Dune (750 feet). The average round-trip hike is five hours. I would not recommend it.
KidTripster Tip: Plan your visit for a full moon and take a surreal walk on the dunes with no need for a flashlight.
After you’ve recovered, it’s time for some fun: sandboarding and sand sledding! You’ll have a choice to make - either rent your boards and sleds the day before (and pay for two days) and have them ready to go in the parking lot. Or drive just outside the park entrance to the Oasis store to rent them that morning (April to October). Cost: $20/day.
KidTripster Tip: The rented boards and sleds are specially-designed for sand. Trust me, snow sleds, snowboards, round saucers, and cardboard will not work. Don’t even bother.
Sandboarding is very much like snowboarding. And if your family is anything like mine, the kids will master it more quickly that the grown-ups. By his second run, my 11-year old son was cruising to the bottom without falling. Me, not so much, but it was fun and challenging. My older son actually preferred the sledding. Click here for a how-to video from the National Park Service.
KidTripster Tip: Bring socks to wear when boarding and sledding, mostly to protect your feet for the heat of the sand. The sandboards have foot straps, but you don’t have to wear shoes.
After an hour or so of climbing up and down the smaller dunes, you’ll be wiped out. Head to Medano Creek at the base of the dunefield to spend the remainder of your day. This creek is a great water playground. Its depth varies based on the snow melt and time of year. Peak flow is in late May and June (expect crowds), when it’s even possible to float. But what’s most interesting is the periodic waves that ripple through the stream in a phenomenon known as “surge flow.” Medano Creek is one of the only places in the world where it occurs.
KidTripster Tip: Great Sand Dunes is one of the few parks that allows dogs, even on the dunefields. However, be smart and only take your pets out in the early morning or evening when the sand won’t be too hot on their paws. Dogs can also play in the creek. Our lab was in heaven!
If you have any energy left, head to Zapata Falls Recreation Area about eight miles south of the park. Here you can take in excellent views of the dunes, mountains, and San Luis Valley. Hike about a 1/2-mile over slippery rocks and into a rock crevasse to the waterfall itself. Don’t forget your camera!
In the evening, take in a stargazing ranger program at the amphitheater. You can pick up a free star chart and sun/moon calendar at the visitors center. In addition to the regular Junior Ranger program, your child can also earn a Night Explorer badge (ages 5 to 12).
Where to stay?
I think that Piñon Flats Campground in the park is the best option, allowing you to explore the dunes and creek area in the evening, as well. Tent and RV sites (no hookups, up to 35 feet) are available, but the loop is tight for larger RVs. Cost: $20/night.