Exploring the Great Sand Dunes National Park

A visit to North America’s tallest sand dunes has long been on our family’s extensive travel wish list. We flew to Colorado this past three-day holiday weekend and visited some amazing attractions but most of all, spent some time at the incredible Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.

Great Sand Dunes sign

We caught sight of the dunes that were dwarfed by the snowcapped Sange de Cristo Mountains from a distance. Rising from the valley, it almost looked like a mirage.  It was mind-boggling to see this huge sandpile, resembling a vast desert, in the middle of Colorado.

Great Sand Dunes with mountains

In the afternoon glow, it looked smaller from a distance. But, as we got closer and saw the people at the bottom, we came to realize its immense size. Can you see the people on the dunes in the photo below?

Great Sand Dunes with people

So, how did all this sand get here? Water and wind played a huge part in creating and forming the dunes. Lakebeds in this valley receded thousands of years ago leaving behind sand sheets.

Great sand dunes national park

Prevailing southwest winds carried the sand across the valley but were blocked by the mountains and accumulated on the foothills. Storm winds blew back the sand into the valley reversing  the flow and the resulting opposing action made the dunes grow vertically. For a wonderful illustration of how the sand dunes were formed, the National Park Service website has a brief animation with  more detailed pictures.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

The tallest sand dune measures up to 750 feet(229 m) but also extend below the surface. We saw a few people climbing the tallest dunes. We read that it takes approximately 75-90 minutes one way to climb the 1.1 mile trail. I’m sure those hikers had some breathtaking and unique views of the dunes from way up there. Our hike to the top will have to wait another day.

Great Sand Dune climb
The main dune field is about 30 square miles but with no new sand. Photo comparisons show that the location and size of the largest dunes haven’t changed much over the last century.

Great Sand Dunes national Park

During the warmer months, Medano Creek appears and flows by the dunes as snow melts. Of course during our visit, there wasn’t any sign of this creek flowing anywhere. We saw pictures of the creek in the summer filled with kids swimming and people in swimsuits. It looks like we’ll need to return to see this beach party at the sand dunes.

Great Sand Dunes medano Creek

We actually found out  that there were different types of dunes (reversing, star, transverse) based on their formations.  Ripples form as sand grains are blown across the dunes.

Great Sand Dunes sand ripples

Sandboarding and sand sledding at the Great Sand Dunes

This giant sandbox was every kid’s ultimate play area. The sand happens to also bring out the inner child in many of us. Walking through the soft sand, playing in it and doing uncommon activities like sandboarding and sand sledding were unforgettable experiences for us.

Great Sand Dunes shadows

We rented a sandboard which the kids also used as a sled. Specialized sandboards rented from a specific vendor in Alamosa (30 miles from the park) are the best equipment.  Bare feet or wool socks must be used with the boards. Cardboard boxes and snow sleds don’t work very well on dry sand. The bottom part of the sandboards also had to be waxed after each use but worth the trouble for some fun and excitement.Great Sand Dunes sandboarding

We chose the lower dunes knowing the taller dunes will result to more strenuous uphill climbs back to the starting point. The longer the downhill run, the harder the climb back up. Though the sand was very comfortable to walk in,  I never realized it’s a lot harder than it looks to climb. Great Sand Dunes sand sledding

Of course, my kids could have stayed here the whole day. Despite the constant sledding and climbing, my 7-year-old son surprisingly had such a burst of energy and didn’t seem to get tired with all the activity here. He made use of that sandboard more than the rest of us.

Great sand Dunes Jump

I was much more comfortable with the kids sand sledding than sledding in the snow. The sand was soft to fall on with no rocks, shrubs or trees in their way. Yes, you’ll get sand everywhere and possibly in your eyes and mouth but to them, totally worth it. We got lucky and there were no strong winds during our visit.

Great Sand Dunes with kids

The sand dunes don’t have to be a whirlwind of activity though. I was perfectly content sitting there and admiring the scenic vista that surrounded us. At one point, we were the only ones on the dunes which was a little suprising during a US holiday weekend. It was a bit eerie being there by ourselves but those clear blue skies were just marvelous to look up to. I can imagine how magical the sky filled with stars must look at night.

Great sand Dunes National Park

It had snowed days before and there were still remnants of them in the sand.  I was secretly hoping to seeing part of the dunes blanketed with snow but we did see some areas with melting snow. The undisturbed areas were beautiful with the snow crystals sparkling against the sun with hints of sand ripples.

Great Sand dunes snow

The pathways where snow had melted and people had walked on looked more like some sort of chocolate with icing dessert up close instead of snow and sand mixed together.

Great Sand Dunes snow detail

Being here also gave us a chance to do these fun shadow poses. The ridges distorted the pictures but who knows, this may end up on our Christmas card collage this year.

Great Sand Dunes shadow family
One of the other great things, and not often known, about this place is the diverse landscapes that make up the preserve that surround the dunes. Forest, grasslands and wetlands can be found throughout the preserve which makes this an ideal place to visit during the summer months for the many outdoor activities it offers.

Great Sand Dunes mountains

It wouldn’t be a visit to a National Park without some wildlife sighting. We spotted a couple of mule deer on the way out of the park and a coyote wandering around the following morning.

Great Sand dune wildlife

The Great Sand Dunes National Park was an extraordinary place to visit. These pictures can’t convey the amazing beauty of the dunes with the stunning snow-covered backdrop. We were here in the afternoon until the sun was setting during our first day and returned the following morning.  It gave us a chance to see the different light and the shadows moving across the sand dunes for some dramatic contrast.

Great Sand Dunes National park

Visiting the Great Sand Dunes Basics and Tips

  • Admission Price: $3 per per person; Kids under 18 are free. Some dates are designated for free park admission.
  • Go to the Visitor’s Center for maps, guides and interactive exhibits.
  • Get the Junior Ranger booklet for the kids to learn more about the parks, its ecosystem and wildlife. Kids can earn either a  patch or badge after completing the activities. My kids enjoyed the packet and were happy to add another badge to their  collection.
  • Rent a sandboard or sand sled from Kristi Mountain Sports in Alamosa.  Cost was about $18 per day.  This was worth the detour! Or bring your own but skis and sleds work better with wet sand.
  • From the visitor parking lot, the walk to the dunes is about a half mile with the creek flowing in warmer months.
  • Be aware that in the summer, sand can get very hot. Hiking should be done early and hydration is very important. The sand was  nice and cool during our winter visit.
  • There were no food services nearby other than vending machines so pack some snacks or picnic lunches.
  • Bring beach and sand toys for some fun in the sand.
  • The nearest major airport was Colorado Springs (where we flew) and was a three hour drive to the park.
  • Lodging options are limited to camping and tiny lodges usually available during the summer. We stayed at the city of Alamosa (30 minutes) away which had a few  chain hotel options.
Great Sand Dunes window quote

Looking out from the Visitor’s Center window

*Have you visited and enjoyed the Great Sand Dunes National Park or a similar sand dune?

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This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday at Budget Travelers Sandbox , Friday Daydreaming at R We There Yet Mom? and Photo Friday at Delicious Baby.  Do some armchair traveling and please visit the sites for other travelers’ wonderful photos and posts.