Colorado’s majestic Rocky Mountains receive the majority of attention from any visitor to the state. There’s skiing, hiking, and just the pure beauty of it all. Nestled at the base of the southern range of the Rockies’ gorgeous peaks is one of America’s most unique national parks. The Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve is home to the largest sand dunes in North America. While playing in a giant sandbox may not sound like an adventure you need to experience, I’m here to convince you otherwise.
Just to give you an idea of what awaits you at this hidden gem, the main dune field is six miles wide at its widest point and eight miles long. The appropriately named High Dune, which is on the first ridge, is 699 feet tall. The tallest dune is Star Dune which is 755 feet high, but you must cross the first ridge to get to it.
We took the scenic route to the Great Sand Dunes. When you look at a map, you may think that’s the only option – and you would be correct. No matter which way you approach the dunes, the drive is pretty.
Our drive took us from Santa Fe, New Mexico, north on Highway 285. The sand dunes are so huge that you can see them from 30 miles away. As you get close, you’ll want to pull over and take pictures. Don’t. Just keep going. The closer you get, the better the view becomes, and there are several places to pull over. Before you know it, you’ll start to wonder how you went so long without hearing about this place.
If you’re traveling south from Denver, avoid the Interstate. There’s nothing wrong with it, but the trip through the mountains is fantastic and it’s just a few minutes longer.
My first experience at the Great Sand Dunes involved a somewhat stern park ranger. In his defence, I did exactly what the brochure tells you not to do.
We showed up at around 2 p.m. on an August afternoon. I had just survived a three-hour car ride from Santa Fe with my husband and twin 4-year-old boys. So, before we embarked on another four-hour drive to Denver, I was pretty determined to experience the park.
Here are the three things the ranger told me before I hurried off to play in the sand for a few hours. 1) On a summer afternoon, the sand can reach 150 degrees. Therefore, you should only hike in the morning or the evening, and you should always wear closed-toe shoes. 2) Since you’re at risk of exhaustion or heat stroke, bring plenty of water. 3) If the sand isn’t too hot, it’s probably because there’s cloud cover, which means there’s a chance of an afternoon thunderstorm. If you’re stuck on a dune when a storm rolls in… you make a mighty soft target for lightning.
You also face the risk of intense winds out there. There’s nothing fun about being pelted in the eye, or really anywhere, with grains of sand. You may need eye protection and long sleeves and pants unless you want an experience that’s similar to a giant pumice stone rubbing against your skin.
Now that you know to pay attention to the weather, let’s talk about all the fun you’re going to have!
To get to the dunes, you’ll cross Medano Creek from the parking area, which is just down the road from the Visitor Center to the left. There may be water in it, there may not. It depends on the snow melt and whether it’s rained recently. If there is water down there, people will bring their beach chairs and set up next to the creek. You’ll appreciate the cool water on your feet when you’re ready to leave.
The hike to the High Dune on the first ridge is about 2.5 miles. We never made it because our boys decided running and rolling down the dunes was more fun than climbing. If you do hike to the top, it should take about two hours if you stay on the ridges.
You don’t have to hike to the top to enjoy the park; the whole thing is a riot. One of our best memories was dumping out our shoes before crossing the creek to return to the car. The boys got the biggest kick out of how much they had accumulated.
Hiking isn’t the only way to hit the dunes. You can also pretend you’re a kid again and sled down them! We didn’t rent a sand sled but I really wish we had. Make sure you wear longer pants if you decide to try it, otherwise you’ll get a backside full of sand. If you’re a snowboarder, you can also rent a sand board and carve up the dunes like an Olympian.
Great Sand Dunes Oasis, Kristi Mountain Sports, and Sand Dunes Recreation all rent sleds and boards for about $20 a day. Great Sand Dunes Oasis is very close to the park’s entrance. The other two are in nearby towns, which in rural Colorado means a good 30 or 40-minute drive – but you may pass them on your way to the park. By the way, you can’t just grab a piece of cardboard or a sled from home. That won’t work.
The advice from the park ranger about only hiking in the morning or evening has a benefit: photo opportunities. The rising or setting sun adds another dimension to the dune. If you’re along the entrance road at dawn or dusk, keep an eye out for elk, mule deer, and pronghorn (similar to antelope). You can sometimes spot these animals from the pullouts along the road.
While the dunes are impressive during the day, it’s the sky that steals the show once the sun sets. During a new moon, visitors say the stars are some of the brightest you’ll ever see! You can pick up a star chart at the Visitor Center.
If you happen to visit during a full moon, the stars won’t be as bright, but you will be able to hike on the dunes at night without a flashlight, and the moon’s reflection in the sand is awe-inspiring. You may hear an owl or even a (distant) coyote. There are also animals called kangaroo rats that thump out distinctive messages to each other at night.
Park rangers recommend you only use a red light if you need it, because a regular flashlight can hurt the wildlife. They also say to plan your route to the parking lot because you may not be able to see the trail at night.
Other Things To Do
Once you’ve experienced the sand dunes, there are several other trails nearby.
The hike to Zapata Lake is a bit demanding, but doable, at 10-miles round trip.
The trail to Zapata Falls is popular. It’s a mile round trip, but depending on which time of year you’re there, you’ll be hiking through cold, and possibly swift-moving, water and over wet rocks. You’ll need a walking stick to help balance and sandals or water shoes.
If you’re looking for something nice and easy, try Montville Nature Trail. It’s just a half mile round trip and will give you a view of the first ridge of dunes. You can continue on Mosca Pass Trail from there if you’re interested in a longer hike.
There are also three National Wildlife Refuges near the park. Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge is about an hour away. It’s home to thousands of sandhill cranes in the spring and fall.
There are several places to stay near the park. The lodging isn’t glamorous, but you can’t beat the location of Great Sand Dunes Lodge and Great Sand Dunes Oasis. The Oasis includes spots for tent camping and RVs, while the Lodge offers an indoor pool.
If you’re up for adventure and don’t mind splurging, you should consider Zapata Ranch. It’s owned by The Nature Conservancy, but it’s an all-inclusive working ranch on the border of the park. You can help herd cattle, take guided hikes, ride a horse along the sand dunes, or just relax. The accommodations are rustic, but nice. There’s a 3-night minimum stay.
One more push
If you’re still not convinced you need to put the Great Sand Dunes on your list, allow me to share this quick story.
When I was a sophomore in high school, my dad told me we were going to Niagara Falls. My reaction was, “It’s just a waterfall.”
“No,” he said, “it’s a gigantic waterfall!”
So if your response to the Dunes is, “It’s just some sand,” I’ll leave you with this: Our trip to Niagara Falls was one of the best we ever took as a family, and you’ll say the same if you visit the Great Sand Dunes. All three of my boys were ready to go back as soon as we drove away, and so was I.