Table of Contents
This spectacularly unique national park is in south-central Colorado, not far from I25, which runs from Denver, Colorado to Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Rent your Sand Board or Sled
About 4 miles before you get to the park, you’ll come across Oasis store. This is your closest and last chance to rent sand boards and/or sleds. There are other options farther from the park, and you can see the full list here on the park’s website.
We rented a single sand sled, and it was perfect for sharing among our family, kids aged 6, 8, 9, and 10. Walking up and down the dunes is EXHAUSTING, so nobody had any qualms with waiting for their next turn by resting for a while.
The sleds are big enough for two people to go down the dune at a time, although we did find that the extra weight could make it a bit more difficult to get going.
When you first arrive, you’ll want to visit the small visitors center to learn more about the dunes and history of the area, and also pick up any souvenirs (my favorite thing is a small pin for my backpack from each park we visit). Outside the visitors center, there’s also a nice place to view and take pictures of the dunes and mountains.
Getting to the Dunes
After you leave the visitors center, you’ll drive a short way to the main parking lot for the dunes. There are some good restrooms there, too. It is a surprisingly long walk from the parking lot to the dunes in deep sand, which is especially tiring for little legs.
Just past the parking lot, you’ll cross Medano creek, which may or may not have water in it depending on the time of year you visit. It seems to mostly only flow from April to June each year as the snow melts off the mountains nearby. When we visited in mid-Jude, it was completely dry.
On the Dunes
Once you get to the dunes, you have a lot of choice about how far you want to go. You can go literally anywhere you want, and there are no trails or paths. You just take off in whichever direction you want and go as far as you want.
Some people hike for hours and summit the tallest dunes. You can see in the background of many of our pictures little ant-sized people all over the distant dunes. But for us, we found the closest small one and decided it was perfect. It is a lot of work walking in the deep sand, and we were perfectly content to enjoy ourselves on a small dune rather than wear ourselves out hiking to a bigger or more distant one. (The small one ended up wearing us out plenty!)
We packed our water bottles, a lunch and snacks, sunscreen, and our favorite XL packable picnic blanket in our backpacks and set up a picnic spot at the bottom of our chosen dune. This worked out great for us, as any of us could refuel at the picnic spot whenever we needed, and fed kids are happy kids.
Great Sand Dunes National Park is one of the few national parks that is very pet-friendly! Pets are welcome in most parts of the park as long as they are leashed and properly picked up after when they do their business.
They do warn, however, to be sure to protect your pet’s paws from the sand when it’s hot. The sun can heat the sand up to 150 degrees F (65 degrees C), which could burn their paws. Either avoid the hot times of the day, or make sure your pet is wearing shoes on the sand.
To see more about bringing your pet to GSNP, check out this page of the park’s website.
Time to Spend There
The cool thing about this park is that you could easily spend only 2-3 hours there and feel like you really got a good experience from it. That’s what we did. We stopped for a few hours on our way south after a few days at Rocky Mountain National Park, and it was great. After a couple of hours of sledding, we were all worn out and ready to head back to the van.
But if you have more time, there are definitely plenty more things to do here! There are some traditional hiking trails in the forest near the dunes, a 4×4 scenic drive, playing in Medano creek part of the year, and I hear it’s unbelievable to be out on the dunes at night. You can see a full list of things to do and more information about each one here on the park’s website.
Tips for Your Visit
- Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen! There is NO shade on the dunes, and the sand reflects the sun’s rays back up at you as well. Protect yourself and your kids. Hats are also helpful.
- I’ve seen it widely recommended to wear good shoes on the dunes, because the sun can make the sand extremely hot. Thankfully the day we were there was cloudy and the sand was cool, but I don’t want anyone to be misled by our shoeless pictures.
- Bring lots of water and snacks. As I’ve said, it’s really exhausting walking on the deep sand, especially if you’re going up and down a dune a lot of times on a board or sled. The last thing you want is tired, hangry, grumpy kids.
- You will find sand in every crevice of your body, clothes, and vehicle for days… weeks maybe? It seriously gets everywhere.
This fascinating and fun little National Park in the middle of nowhere is totally worth a stop in our opinion! Let us know if you’ve been or are planning a visit!