To me, this place is the worlds greatest sandbox. This sandbox is a long drive from almost anywhere with the nearest big cities being several hours away by car. Getting here takes some effort. Many people who stop here are on their way to somewhere more popular like Mesa Verde or the Grand Canyon but Great Sand Dunes National Park can be a destination in and of itself. As you drive north on Colorado Highway 150, there are interesting sights in all directions. To the east is the 14,344′ Blanca Peak rising sharply from the San Luis Valley. To the west is the San Luis Valley completely surrounded by mountains. In the rear view mirror is Northern New Mexico. Your destination is to the north where you can begin to see the light tan colors of the sand dunes off in the distance. Maybe you’re thinking “they don’t look so big”?!?! As you get closer, you realize that they are very big!!! The tallest dune is around 750 feet tall.
I first came here as a teenager with my parents and have since been here with every single member of my immediate family and many friends too. So what keeps us coming back? This is a place to play in the sand, first and foremost. Hikes up the dunes are fun and very tough. The sand is hard to walk through, especially when walking up the dunes. The sand can also get very hot and will burn your feet. It doesn’t sound like much fun but it is. There is a Lawrence of Arabia feel to the place sans (pun intended) the fighting armies. It is also very rewarding to make it to the top of the biggest sand dune, being the Star Dune being that most people want to conquer. The views of the surrounding peaks of the Sangre de Cristo mountains are almost surreal while standing on top of a 750 foot tall sand dune.
If you have kids with you, it is the kind of place where you can let them go around at their own pace. There are no rocks, lions, barbed wire, or anything else that can hurt them. We just let our nephews run around and kept them within eyesight without having to worry about much other than the heat, and making sure they had enough water. They had fun just picking their own line up the sand and had an even greater sense of accomplishment when they made it to the top of a high dune with little or no help (or supervision) from anyone else.
Another popular park activity is sandboarding, essentially snowboarding on the sand (as if you wouldn’t have figured that out yourself). This is a pretty unique opportunity to check another box on the adventure bucket list. The biggest problem with sandboarding, in my opinion, is that there is no ski lift to take you to the top. Have fun with that! It does look like fun though.
Hiking up the sand dunes can be very hot and tiring, so cooling off in a mountain stream is just the thing to help you recover. There is a very wide yet shallow creek running just in front of the big dunes called Medano Creek and it is a great place to cool off when it’s hot out. Lots of people just hang out here and never make it onto the dunes proper. The water is just right if you’re there in early summer, but can be quite chilly before that with the creek barely trickling by late summer. If you like to walk but climbing the dunes isn’t your thing, try walking in the creek. It’s shallow, feels good on your feet, and is just about as flat as you can find in the park. One of our favorite pastimes is playing smashball in the ankle deep water, it just feels like a beach thing to do. Some people are content to just sit in the water to cool off. Kite flying is always fun and there’s usually plenty of wind to keep the kite up high (the wind is how the sand got here in the first place).
During some alone time while I was walking along the creek, I noticed some very steep looking sand “cliffs” and there were people trying to climb up them. I started thinking that they might be fun to jump off of, at night! It wasn’t hard to convince my family to join and after dark, we put our headlamps on and headed out from the campground back to the jumping off point that I had seen earlier in the day. The best part about jumping off of the sand ledges is that the landing couldn’t be softer. There are very few rocks, trash, or any other debris to land on…just soft grains of sand to pad your landing. After maybe an hour of jumps and sticking landings, we headed back to the campground and hardly needed the headlamps to see our way back. We even saw a few satellites passing overhead. The sky here is very clear and light pollution is almost nonexistent due to the long distance from any large cities.
If you go, there are a few things that could help make your time on the sand a little bit more enjoyable. The elevation at the park is 8,200 feet so be prepared for that to have an affect on you. Drink lots of water for both the elevation and for the heat. Do not try to hike the dunes without something on your feet as the sand gets very hot. I’ve tried all types of footwear and have yet to find the perfect defense against both the heat on your feet and keeping the sand out. The closest I’ve found to something that keeps you safe and keeps the sand out are called sand socks, something that some beach volleyball players wear for similar reasons. These worked well for awhile but then got really hot and filled with sand. The bottom line is just to keep something on your feet so you don’t burn them, sand getting in your shoes is really better than burning your toes. Mosquitoes can be very bad in the summer and are plentiful around the campground. Once you cross the creek on your way to the sand, the mosquitoes won’t follow you. And as always, don’t forget the sunscreen!
P.S. – Most of the “tourists” hang out within a hundred yards or so of the main parking area. Be a “traveler” and experience more than just the sand castles people build within the direct vicinity of the parking lot. Head upstream!