Great Sand Dunes National Monument is in southeast Colorado as you cross from the flatland of the eastern part of the state to the start of the Sangre de Christo Mountains. As the highest sand dunes in North America, this national park site offers plenty of adventure for families with mountain hiking, overnight camping, and sand dune exploring. The mountain peaks nearby tower above 13,000.
Location Unless you are planing on camping, this is a “passing by” destination on your trip and about 15 minutes off the main highway toward the north. In south central Colorado, this national park is a more than two hour drive south of the city of Colorado Springs. The nearest town is Mosca, Colorado which boasts a population of 719 people; Alamosa is thirty minutes away and is the largest town in the area. If you’re looking for adventure, it’s worth detour.
Mom score 3/5 – This is a place I continue to return to solely for the joy of the kids. It’s one of their favorites even though they only last several hours. However, it’s a hard, hot day for those of us who get to carry bags and boards and shoes and water. If you’re an adventurous mom, this might just be the place for you though.
Kid score 5+/5 – The kids forget about the work to get to the dunes. All they focus on are sliding and surfing down the sand.
Cost $25 per car; If you are going just for the dunes, this is a relatively expensive visit for a short day when you add in the cost of renting boards. Consider buying a national park pass for the year which would make this trip not cost extra. If you are camping and staying a while, it’s very much worth it.
How Long Should We Stay This depends on your kids’ level of endurance, your patience, and the temperature at the site. We usually last two to three hours: hiking out to the dunes, sliding down the dunes, and getting cleaned up back at the car. If you want to see the visitor center or go off-roading out into the mountains, you could spend several days exploring.
BEST PART The delight the kids have going up and down the dunes on their boards.
Worst part This will be a difficult and very hot day. Before even arriving at the closest dunes, you will cross the stream and hike out across at least half a mile of flat sand.
While the Great Sand Dunes National Park is open year round, park activities change on the time of the year. The creek flow is is higher in the spring after the thaw and slows down toward the end of the summer, and the campground is only open April to October.
Weather is priority in my book. I’ve been there when hot, hard working kids almost pass out from the heat. Not doing it again. So, if surfing and boarding on the sand dunes is on your list, look at the temperature… and then add thirty degrees. Per the NPS website, temperatures at the sand dunes on a sunny summer day can reach up to 150 degrees even if 80 degrees in the rest of the park. Additionally, the board rental center outside the park is only available April to October when the dunes aren’t frozen, and they are not for rent when the dunes are wet. Best bet? Aim for a cool overcast early summer morning.
If you’re worried about crowds, remember that summertime at the park is the busiest time of year. And it gets even busier on the weekends. Aim for arriving early to get a parking spot easily.
The sand dunes vary in height from kid-approachable to 750 feet height of crazy-adult size. There’s something for everyone. Even though you aren’t achieving the speeds you would while skiing, the sand boards definitely allow you to go faster than you could go otherwise. They are enough for kids to tumble to a giggling stop at the base of the dune without physical injury. Prepare your camera for their mouth and hair full of sand at the end of a run.
As you cross the base of the sand dunes from the parking lot, there is a wide shallow creek formed by mountain runoff. The amount of water changes by the year and season. In 2019, there had been a lot of snow which led to a lot of runoff from the mountains. The stream was wide and flowing with families playing in the water with beach toys. However, the 2020 season was not as wet and the stream was nonexistent. Check online at the park website for the status of the stream and plan accordingly. If it’s flowing, allow enough time after dune play to rinse off and maybe even get wet after the dunes.
In a perfect world, you would be able to do both the sand dunes and the visitor center. I’ve never been able to get the kids to cooperate for this. When you arrive early, you want to get to the fun part, the dunes. When you’re done with the dunes, you’re all so exhausted that you don’t want to do anything but rest and cool off. Maybe people without kids have been able to explore the VC. Same for the Junior Ranger packet. In the battle match-up of kids fussing through the visitor center versus resting in the car, I have picked car air conditioning. The kids won’t get anything out of the visitor center when they’re mentally checked out anyway.
The dunes are surrounded by lovely mountains in the not-too-distant view. However, they are too far away to just walk right over from the dunes. Most of the hiking trails are longer and require a drive to the trailhead.
There are lots of campsites with short tree coverage to provide some shady areas and nice bathrooms. I think camping here for a couple of nights would be a great option because there are different areas to explore daily and more than you would probably have the endurance to see in one day.
Do you have to have sand boards? No. You can visit and just go hiking. I saw some people trying their luck sliding down the boards in laundry baskets and tupperware boxes even. Water boards won’t work. The online statement is that you have to have a sand board specifically for it to work, but no one is monitoring to tell you that you can’t use something else. I’m not an expert, but the most successful ones had boards that looked a lot like ours.
While there are several rental options, the closest one is only four miles outside the dune entrance, Great Sand Dunes Oasis, with a gas station, supply shop, port-a-potty, sandboard rental shop, and a campground. For rentals, you have your choice between a sandboard and a sandsled. Sand sleds have a pad for your bottom, and you sit to slide down. To use a sandboard, you will strap your feet in, stand up, and surf down the dune like a snowboard. Each of these cost $20 per board for the whole day, no matter how long you keep them. Additionally, be prepared to have to pay a deposit for the day on top of your rental fee – when you bring the board back, they tear up this receipt so it won’t get processed. Of note, online it says the Oasis is in the nearest town Mosca, Colorado; boasting a population of 719 people, this isn’t a big town to stock up on groceries and grab a fast food lunch.
See the link for other rental sites and board information link.https://www.nps.gov/grsa/planyourvisit/sandboardingsandsledding.htm
The visitor center is closer to the park entrance and has its own parking lot, restrooms, and water bottle filling station. This is not where you park to explore the dunes.
There is a big parking lot at the foot of the dunes. However, it’s also very crowded and both times we’ve visited, it’s been full with cars lining the roads by the time we left. If you are camping in the park, there is a trail that leads over from the campground.
There are quite a few roads that lead from the campground up into the mountain, but from what I can tell, they require a 4-wheel drive vehicle. You can’t just go visit the dunes and have a scenic drive around unless you’re prepared to go off road.
Dedicated adventurers hike up the dunes of the top of the tallest dunes. This will not be an easy hike for the unprepared. There are also some hikes into the mountains, but they do not have easy or quick access from the main road.
- Bring sunscreen, hats, and appropriate clothing. This is not a go-in-your-swimsuit sand day. If there is water in the creek, there were some smaller kids playing in the creek with their parents while the bigger kids went to the sand. That’s the only situation in which I would bring a swimsuit.
- Good shoes are essential. You do not even wear sandals out onto this sand for safety reasons. It is way too hot, and you will burn your feet. They actually recommend hiking boots. If your shoes aren’t waterproof, prepare yourself to remove them to cross the creek and have to put them back on.
- Prepare for a crowd. You will wait outside the park to get your boards and wait in line in your car to get into the park. When you’re trying to get there early, plan to show up even earlier. When we arrived at Oasis Rental for store opening in June, we still had to wait for a board.
- Take lots of water and snacks. Other than some restrooms where you can fill up your water bottles, there are no other restaurants or snack bars.
- Take something for other kids to do to occupy themselves. Most likely one or two kids are going to want to keep going down the dunes while the others are exhausted quickly. They are going to be ready to leave, you’re going to want to get your money’s worth, and the other kids will get upset if they have to leave too soon.
- There is at least one sand rinsing station in the parking lot. Additionally, you can take a short trip into the campground if you want to be able to strip down all the way and use the restroom.
- Bring extra clothes and towels. Unless you are staying in the park, you will be visiting this park when driving through to your end destination, and the park isn’t really close to any main towns. Your kids will be either very sandy or very wet for awhile unless able to change clothes.
The sand gets hot. Not a little warm. Like “your kid will pass out from the heat and has to keep shoes on to not burn his feet” so prepare yourself. There is no shade. Add about 30-40 degrees to the temperature to estimate the sand temperature. Even if surfing, they will need to wear shoes.
Since you’re going to have kids wanting to rush right to the dunes, teaching parents won’t have time to go read up at the visitor center to answer the questions the kids will ask. Here’s what you need to know.
“Why is there sand here in the middle of Colorado, Mom?” Your answer, there used to be two lakes in the area many years ago which dried up and left sand. There is also sand in the area from runoff that comes from the nearby streams. The winds blow the sand which gets stuck in the San Luis Valley, can’t go over the mountain, and forms dunes. Even though this sand continues to be blown around, it has been stable for more than a hundred years. Additionally, this valley gets very little rain which causes desert like conditions at the dunes.
If you look closely at the sand, you will notice different colors which initially look like shadows from the clouds. However, some of these dark, blackish areas are actually composed of black magnetite which leaves black grains in patches. Wish I had known that when we were there since my oldest argued with me, and I told her they were just shadows! This website says that they are magnetic, can be picked up by a magnet, and will mess up your compass reading. Sounds like an experiment for next time.
- Why are the dunes at this site?
- What causes the different colors of the sand?
- Throw in some physics… What’s the fastest I can go down the dunes? Are different types of boards better for sand and why?
- Where are there other sand dunes and why are they located there?
- How does this change the way you think about caravans across other deserts?