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I’m not sure where I first heard of the Great Sand Dunes National Park, but I do know that as soon as I did hear of it, I wanted to go. I’m not entirely sure why I wanted to go, other than the fact that it intrigued me. Giant sand dunes pushed up against a backdrop of mountains. That doesn’t sound particularly impressive, does it? Or… does it?
The short story of the dunes is that long ago winds drove the sands from an empty sea bed northward, and the mountains stopped the sands at their base, causing the formation of the dunes. It doesn’t sound very impressive until you look at the photograph above and consider that the mountains behind the dunes are around 14,000 feet, and the dunes are pretty much at their base. When you have that perspective, the dunes suddenly become much more interesting. They are definitely more than just some piles of sand.
The Great Sand Dunes National Park is located southwest of Pueblo, Colorado, in south-central Colorado. The nearest town, Mosca, is about 23 miles west of the visitors center, so this park is a little bit off the beaten path, but well worth the detour.
My parents had taken my boys several years before. Even though they were quite young when they went, they continued to talk about the dunes, and ask when we would return. When our original plans to travel to Utah got rearranged by wildfires, we decided to hang out in southern Colorado and see what it had to offer. The Great Sand Dunes suddenly went from my list of “someday” to “let’s go here now.”
This park is pretty straightforward. Drive up to the (very nice and new) visitors center. You can see the dunes driving in, so you’ve already got a taste of what’s in store. The back of the visitors center is a wall of glass, and beyond that is a porch with benches and floor mounted binoculars. If this is the only thing you do at the Great Sand Dunes, it’s still impressive. But don’t stop there! A short drive from the visitors center takes you to the main parking lot where you’ll find the best entrance to the dunes.
When we visited, the walk to the actual dunes was just a large expanse of sand. Usually, what you’ll find there is a wide, shallow creek, called Medano creek, that separates the parking lot from the dunes. We visited during a time of heavy drought, and unfortunately, Medano creek was dry.
Try to go early in the morning or late in the afternoon, when the sand will be cooler. If you’ve ever been to the beach at midday, you’ll understand why. That sand gets HOT! Regardless, wear shoes. We chose to put on our Chacos for this excursion, and they were the perfect idea for this particular outing. Further, wear clothes that will help keep you cool. For instance, Little Bit is a big fan of her Patagonia baggies, which are quick drying and comfortable.
Speaking of hot, if you go in the summer, it will most likely be dry. Always have a good water bottle handy. You will need much more water than you realize. I was very thankful that we were there with the Monkey Barrel, because I had to go back to the Airstream to refill our water bottles while we were hanging out in and around the dunes.
You can rent boards for sandboarding, which is a very popular activity here, and there were a lot of people doing that. Because we go there late in the day, and because it was overcast and threatening to storm, we did not rent the boards. Further, the rangers will close the dunes if there is a threat of lightning, so be prepared to change your plans if that happens.
One of our favorite activities at any park is animal and bird watching. We never leave home without our binoculars, and if you don’t have a really good pair, I highly suggest you add some to your list of travel gear before your next adventure. We not only used our binoculars at the park, but then again at the campground.
There is camping within the park, but since we got there late in the day, the campground was full. Instead, we stayed just a short distance outside the park at the Great Sand Dunes Oasis Campground. The campground offers clean, level sites, laundry facilities, sand board and sled rentals, a gas station, a restaurant, and many other amenities. It also offers great views of the dunes, which we enjoyed as well.
Have you ever visited the Great Sand Dunes National Park? What was your favorite memory? I’d love to return someday when the creek is full, and when we have more time to rent some sand boards. I’d also love to hear from you in the comments section!