Great Sand Dunes National Park Family Guide

Colorado has 4 national parks. Rocky Mountain and Mesa Verde are quite well known, because they’ve been around for more than a hundred years, but Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Great Sand Dunes are much newer. We decided to check out these national parks so we could let you know how to plan your adventure.

There is A LOT of sand!

About Great Sand Dunes

Great Sand Dunes National Park is named for the large dunes just behind the Visitor Center, and this is the main attaction. This park can be a little frustrating, though, because it is much larger than just the sand. There is also a massive mountainous area that is more like the national parks that we are used to, but this area is only open to four-wheel drive vehicles with good clearance. This means that a lot of what we wanted to see was unavailable to us.

It makes you wonder how all of this sand got here next to the mountains.

Sand Boards

So most people go for the sand. Sandboarding is the main activity at the park. You can take your own sandboard if you have one, but we rented them just outside the gate. They are not available in the park, and we saw numerous people who hadn’t done research asking about them at the Visitor Center. We also saw people attempting to ride cardboard boxes and snow sleds, neither of which worked. Those trying gave up on these after just one or two attempts.

This was the highlight of the trip.

We stopped just outside the gate and rented a sand sled and a sandboard at Great Sand Dunes Oasis. It was very convenient since it was on our way into the park. But there was a line when we showed up, so make sure to arrive early. They do not accept reservations. Great Sand Dunes National Park lists all of the local options for renting boards on their website.

We sat on the sand sled and rode it just as you’d expect. The sandboard was more like a skateboard or snow board, and this was more challenging, but far more fun. Our boys mastered the basics after just a few runs. We all had so much fun sledding and boarding down the sand dunes.

This is a sand board.
This is a sled.

When you arrive with your board, park at the area signed “Dunes Parking.” It is a walk of around a quarter mile, which we weren’t prepared for, over to the dunes. Take water, footwear, and sunscreen before you start the hike because you will not want to hike back to your car. The sand will burn your feet if you try to go barefoot.

From the parking area, walk through the trees.
Then start your hike across the sand to the dunes.

We spent a few hours on our rented boards sailing down the dunes. We arrived at the sand dunes in the morning as our first stop, and we are so glad that we did. By 10:00 am the sand was already heating up. Sand boarding and sledding will need to be a morning or evening adventure.

We had so much fun playing in the sand.
There were plenty of crashes.
Don’t skip this adventure.

Medano Creek

In the spring and early summer, there is water that flows through the Great Sand Dunes. Medano Creek is a seasonal water area and it is directly in front of the dunes. People love to splash and play here. We walked through this area on our way to where we sand boarded, but when we visited in August there was no water. If you are deciding when you’d like to visit the Great Sand Dunes National Park, you might consider going when you have a chance to cool off in the creek.

This is where the creek would be if there was water.

Hiking

We also tried a few family friendly hikes. There were not a lot of options, but we wrote about all of them here. There are other trails (most of them quite long) higher up into the mountains where 4WD is required. We drove the roads in the park that are van friendly, but they probably don’t total 5 miles. There is one dirt road that you can take out to “the point of no return” before it becomes four-wheel drive only. There wasn’t much to see, but it did convince us that they weren’t kidding about the high clearance.

We found a few trails to enjoy in Great Sand Dunes National Park.
This picture does not show how rough the road was.
There is a turn around here for 2WD vehicles.

Visitor Center

There is a small Visitor Center when you first enter the park. You can walk through the exhibits and learn about the wildlife and plantlife in Great Sand Dunes National Park. There is a park video as well as a small gift shop. We, of course, stopped to turn in our Junior Ranger books. You can print them out online and work on them while in the park, or stop in and ask a ranger for a booklet.

The visitor center has a small display.
We always participate in the Junior Ranger program.

There are not a lot of services in the park, but they do have a campground. There is a place to get air for your tires, and water. You can find restrooms by the campground, the dunes parking area, and at the Visitor Center. There are a lot of nice picnic tables near the Dunes Parking lot, too. But don’t plan on a restaurants or stores.

Night Sky Viewing

Many people visit Great Sand Dunes National Park because it is such a dark park, so the stars are amazing. We did come back to the park to enjoy these views, and it was true. There were tons of stars and you could see a beautiful look at the Milky Way. Some night there are ranger programs, so make sure to ask at the visitor center.

Can you see the constellation Scorpius?
The Milky Way was beautiful.
Then the moon came out and it was almost too bright for our camera.

One Day Itinerary

Great Sand Dunes National Park is a great place to spend a day if you’d like to try sandboarding. Here is a quick run down of what we did in one day (times are estimates):

  • 8:00 AM: Rent sandbars at Great Sand Dunes Oasis
  • 8:30 AM: Hike out to the dunes
  • 8:45-10:30: Sandboard and sled
  • 10:30-11:00: Drive to Point of No Return
  • 11:00-11:30: Montville Nature Trail
  • 11:30-12:00 Visitor Center
  • 12:00: Picnic Lunch
  • Return Sandboards on way out of park.
  • 1:00-2:00 PM Hike to Zapata Falls (this is outside of the park)
  • 3:00-5:00 PMVisit the Monte Vista or Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge
  • 5:00-6:00 PM Dinner back in Alamosa
  • Return to Great Sand Dunes National Park
  • 7:00 PM: Hike Dunes Overlook Trail (about an hour before sunset)
  • Stay in park until dark for night sky viewing.

We felt like you could fit everything into one day at Great Sand Dunes National Park. If you have a 4WD vehicle, you will be able to do a lot more. Make sure to read about other roads and trails in the park. We enjoyed our time exploring this national park.

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