With all the United States National Parks for us to explore and enjoy with our families, there are probably certain ones that pop to mind first: Yosemite, Yellowstone, Acadia, Sequoia, the Grand Canyon. But if you haven’t heard of Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, we opted to go there for our own family vacation this summer and I can’t recommend it enough. And yes, I’m biased as a Colorado resident, but I couldn’t wait to tell you about it.
If you think that strolling on soft, warm sand and hiking a ten thousand foot mountain pass can’t be done in the same glorious day, you haven’t yet visited Great Sand Dunes. It’s terrific for a budget-conscious family vacation, filled with family-friendly activities, and plenty of knowledgeable staff to answer questions and offer recommendations–as are all of our country’s National Parks. But I think Great Sand Dunes is extra special, and here are the reasons why it should be bumped to the top of every family’s vacation bucket list.
Great Sand Dunes National Park: Getting There
The Dunes are located in south central Colorado, about a four-hour drive from Denver. You can fly into Albuquerque but the ride is even longer, so I’d recommend landing in Denver, Colorado Springs, or Alamosa. The good news is that the route is really scenic, but you’ll still need to be prepared with entertainment. (Good thing we’ve got great ideas for travel essentials for you.)
Where to Stay in Great Sand Dunes
If you’re seasoned tent campers, then by all means plan on roughing it. We stayed at the Piñon Flats campground in the park, which has a variety of drive-up campsites with shared restrooms, water pumps, and dishwashing sinks. Many of the sites can accommodate an RV, if you have or plan to rent one.
If you’d rather have four walls and a roof over your head (and I wouldn’t blame you; storms at the Dunes can be wicked), there are other lodging options just outside the park. Both The Oasis and the Great Sand Dunes Lodge offer cabins featuring bunks only without linens, and actual motel rooms with TVs and microwaves. Don’t expect slick websites either.
If you really want to get fancy but still stay in touch with your surroundings, check out nearby Zapata Ranch which is owned by the Nature Conservancy and offers all-inclusive dude ranch vacation packages on this 103,000-acre bison preserve. [Zapata Ranch image above via Gallivant]
Tip: In the spirit of getting in touch with nature and unplugging a bit, consider opting for a cabin. It’s a great compromise between pitching a tent and hotel maid service.
What to Wear in Great Sand Dunes
Colorado weather is always a little crazy, but we found the weather at the Dunes to be especially unpredictable. Blazing sun, gusty winds, and sudden thunderstorms all took place during our time in the park, and we were glad to have prepared well.
Bring enough clothing to dress in layers any time of year, including a waterproof windbreaker and two pairs of shoes for sure, should one pair get soaked. Which it probably will. We were comfortable in shorts and t-shirts during the day in July, but by late afternoon I was ready to break out the sweatpants and a hoodie.
Tip: Although you may hear thunder, a storm could be miles away and bypass you entirely. Still, stay off the dunes if the sky looks stormy and find something fun to do elsewhere. There is no cover out there on the sand.
What to Eat at Great Sand Dunes
Park campsites have fire pits with grills, and bear-proof boxes to store all of your food and food-related items. I’d definitely recommend planning out your meals and shopping for groceries in advance. The Oasis has a small market, but the prices are sky high as you can imagine, and you don’t want to spend your vacation driving miles and miles to the nearest small towns in search of groceries.
We packed cold items in a rolling cooler that we kept in the back of our car, and we stored our dry goods and cooking gear in two large plastic totes that fit perfectly in the bear-proof box, along with our firewood.
As for what exactly to pack–it’s a campout! So whatever suits your family. Check out our 10 great ideas for camping recipes if you want to go beyond hot dogs on a stick and oatmeal. And if s’mores are a must for you, we’ve got an awesome one here that changes things up from the traditional.
By the way, don’t be freaked out by the idea of a bear-proof box; it is actually a super convenient feature, and the only large wildlife we ever saw in the campground were deer. Using the boxes properly helps ensure that bears aren’t attracted to the campground because that’s only cute in cartoons.
Tip: Get creative! You’d be amazed at what you can cook over a fire with a cast iron skillet. My kids swear the pancakes we made are the best they’ve ever had.
About The Dunes
Going to the Dunes is like going to the beach, but in many ways it’s even better. For younger kids, you can take beach toys down to Medano Creek, splash and build sand castles. Even babies and toddlers can have a blast — just don’t forget the sunscreen.
In fact, slather the sunscreen on everybody, especially if you’re going to hike the dunes. The best time of day to hike is morning, right after a big breakfast, because it’s hard work. The winds that continually reshape the dunes create ridges and bowls, which make for beautiful scenery and a challenging scramble to the top. But the views really do make it worth the climb.
You can also rent sand sleds and sand boards and go careening down the dunes. (Yes, that’s me up there.) It takes a little time to get the feel for it, so don’t carry your sand sled up to the longest, steepest slope for your first go. Work up to it, and have younger kids go with an adult to start. Soon they’ll be flying down on their own, and hopefully carrying their own sleds back up too.
One cool thing I discovered on the park website: They have two dunes-accessible wheelchairs that can be reserved for free. That’s pretty awesome.
And because the sand can get really hot starting around mid-day, wear closed toe shoes until you reach the creek. Even if it’s comfortably warm when you start out, it can be scorching when you head back. I speak from painful experience.
Tip: Carry reusable water bottles or fill up a Camelbak before heading out, and tuck some dried fruit or other compact snacks into your bag. A combination of almonds and dried apricots are great for energy.
The Hiking Trails at Great Sand Dunes
When the sand grows hot, head east toward the Sangre de Cristo mountains to hike in the shady forest. The trailhead for Mosca Pass Trail and Montville Nature Trail is between the campground and the park entrance. Be warned: There’s no restroom, so go before you get there.
The Montville Nature Trail is a half-mile loop, ideal for the littlest hikers because it’s short, mostly flat, and still filled with trees, wildflowers, and Mosca Creek.
The Mosca Pass Trail is a 3.5 mile out-and-back trail along (and sometimes high above) the Mosca Creek through the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Some parts of the trail are wooded, and others are open and grassy. One section is particularly rocky and a bit steep, but it offers an absolutely incredible view of the Dunes through the pass, and you can look down on the treetops growing up along Mosca Creek at the bottom of the pass. The wildflowers were especially gorgeous too.
We brought our six-year-old on the Mosca Pass Trail, and he hiked nearly all of it on his own. But not every kid (or parent) is prepared for a seven-mile hike that climbs to nearly 10,000 feet, so feel free to turn around before reaching the summit. The good news is that the return trip is easier since it’s downhill. And no matter how far you go, don’t forget snacks and water.
The Sand Ramp Trail is another hiking option that heads north from the campground along the perimeter of the dunefield. My twelve-year-old and I hiked a few miles of this trail, and it was definitely a challenge. I’d recommend walking the Medano Pass Primitive Road instead; just watch for occasional 4WD vehicles.
Tip: We motivated our six-year-old son to keep hiking by offering a mini marshmallow for every 100 steps he took. Hey, it worked.
We absolutely loved our time at Great Sand Dunes National Park. While the weather at night made tent camping a little rougher than usual, the days were incredibly full and fun. Our coastal states may have soft, sandy beaches, but only in Colorado do we have beaches in the shape of mountains! A National Park vacation is super affordable too, especially if you already have camping equipment or you rent a cabin and cook all of your own food. Plus it’s an amazing way to appreciate the beauty of nature and reconnect with your family.
For more outdoorsy vacation ideas for families, from beaches to ski resorts to small southern cities and New England towns, visit our archives.