Have you heard of Great Sand Dunes National Park? If you haven’t, you are missing out on an incredible geological phenomenon in the southern part of Colorado. The Great Sand Dunes are one of few National Parks where you’re actually encouraged to climb around and play off the trail (well, there isn’t really a trail in the first place.)
Let’s Jet, Kids! uses affiliate links. As an Amazon (and other networks) Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. It is no extra cost to you.
So grab the kids and some sunscreen and plan a trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park.
All About the Great Sand Dunes National Park
The dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park are the tallest sand dunes in the US at over 700 feet tall. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains form a beautiful backdrop and surrounding to the dunes.
All sorts of environmental factors helped create the dunes. Over time, this 330-square-miles of sand deposit went through the process of freezing, thawing, winds, and streams to create the dunes you see today.
Though dry and barren on the dunes themselves, the area is surrounded by nature, wildlife, flowers, birds, forests, mountains, and other eco areas.
Where is Great Sand Dunes National Park?
Great Sand Dunes National Park is located in the southern part of Colorado in the U.S. It’s technically in a town called Mosca, but the closest city is Alamosa.
Great Sand Dunes National Park is home to Star Dune and Hidden Dune, which reach 741 feet high. These sand peaks make the Great Sand Dunes the highest sand dunes in North America.
Can you see the sand dunes in front of the mountains?
What Major Airport is Closest to Great Sand Dunes National Park?
There are many regional airports near the Sand Dunes, but that isn’t always (or ever) ideal. The closest major airports to the Sand Dunes are:
Albuquerque International Airport (ABQ)– about 4 hours drive away
Denver International Airport (DEN)– also just about 4 hours drive away
Colorado Springs Airport (COS) is about 2-1/2 hours away. Airlines like Frontier, Southwest, United, Delta, and others fly into Colorado Springs, though it may not be as affordable as the major airports.
Santa Fe, New Mexico also has a regional airport that United flies into, but it’s still about a 3 hour drive to the Sand Dunes
Great Sand Dunes National Park Hotels
Lodge- Right outside the entrance of the Sand Dunes is Great Sand Dunes Lodge. It has limited rooms, so book in advance. If you’re lucky enough to snag a room, you’ll be treated with amazing views of both the mountains and the Sand Dunes. Plus, hotel guests are able to rent sleds from the lodge. *Staring at $155
Glamping– Also right outside the entrance to the park is Rustic Rook Resort. More of a camping resort, reviews love the isolation at night where you can really get a glimpse of the night sky. It’s just a short distance from the Sand Dunes.
In town– the nearest main town to the Sand Dunes is Alamosa. Here, you’ll find plenty of standard hotels to choose from.
We stayed at the Comfort Inn and Suites. We chose this because we are a family of 6 and, with a pullout couch, we were all able to stay in one room. It has a small indoor pool, serves a hot breakfast (included), and was nice and clean. *Starting at $93
The Best Western has a larger indoor pool if that’s important to your family (Starting at $93)
The Fairfield Inn & Suites is among the top rated hotels in Alamosa. It has an indoor pool and included continental breakfast. *Starting at $139
Check out Why I Always Book with Hotels.com
Best Time to Visit Great Sand Dunes National Park
As with anywhere in Colorado, if you visit in winter, you might be surrounded by snow. It’ll be colder and the dunes may even be covered in snow.
Spring will still bring snow, but you can find sunny days when the snow will begin to disappear off the sand. We went in mid-March and the hike out to the dunes was covered in snow. Once up on the dunes, we were able to find plenty of south-facing sand to play on that didn’t have snow.
The day we went had snow on the ground, but was plenty sunny. By the next day, the majority of the snow was melted.
Late spring and summer is the popular time to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park. By the time you get to late June and July, it’s also the hottest time. If you visit mid-summer, be sure to go early in the morning or in the evening to avoid burning sand temperatures.
Visiting earlier in the morning will also help you avoid afternoon thunderstorms that can roll in quickly, and you don’t want to be caught high on a dune when it does.
What to Bring to Great Sand Dunes National Park
First, you’ll need a pass to visit. You can purchase this when you enter, or if you’re going to be visiting multiple National Parks in a year’s time, we recommend the America the Beautiful pass. This interagency pass is $80 and gives you entrance to all the National Parks and federal recreation sites for a year.
You’ll really want some sunscreen as well. The sun is strong in Colorado, so even if you visit off-season, sunscreen up! One thing we learned is that if you crash on your sled and wipe sand off your face, you need to sunscreen again. Wiping the sand off your face takes off the sunscreen, which we learned the hard way.
Lots of water, for obvious reasons. It’s hot and it’s work climbing up the dunes.
Snacks to refuel.
A Hat, for the same reason as why you need sunscreen.
A Sweatshirt, especially if you go in spring/fall. It can get really windy on the sand dunes, causing the temperature to change.
Towels and water (extra)– if you visit in late spring or summer, chances are you’ll be lucky enough to play in Medano Creek. But even if you don’t sit and play, you’ll have to cross it to get to the sand dunes. Take your shoes off, cross the shallow creek, and then use some water and towels to clean your feet off on the other side.
A Sand sled or snowboard for sand. Hiking around the Dunes is fun, but sledding down them is way more fun! See below for where to get a sled.
Where to Rent a Sled for Great Sand Dunes National Park
Please realize that you can NOT rent sleds at the park. You must rent a sled at a retailer or other location before you get to the park. Some of these places are a significant drive away, so make sure to grab one before you go!
Great Sand Dunes Lodge– Mosca
As noted above, if you are staying at the Great Sand Dunes Lodge, you will be able to rent sleds there (guests only.)
Oasis Store- Mosca
4 miles from park
7800 Highway 150 North, Mosca
Open seasonally, Spring-Fall. Check dates to make sure it’s open before you drive all the way there.
Kristi Sports- Alamosa
36 miles from park
3223 Main Street, Alamosa
We rented our sleds and a board from Kristi Mountain Sports in Alamosa (right off the main road). Here, they explain how to wax the board and how to use it for best results. The staff is really helpful and friendly. Each board cost just under $20 to rent.
You need to return the sled/board to the store by 5pm (hours may vary), however, if you end up being out longer than the established return time, they have partnered with the Fairfield hotel. You will be able to return your board to the hotel after hours. OR, you can return the boards to Kristi the next morning when they open for no extra charge.
That’s 3 options for returning your board so you never feel rushed during the day! We said we’d return ours by 5, but ended up spending a lot longer in the park than we thought. We just called them up and let them know we’d return it to the hotel instead. No problem!
What to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park with kids
There is a parking area at the Sand Dunes. I could see this getting really packed in summer, so make sure to get an early start. The parking area has some bathrooms.
Once you are at the parking area, you’ll have to walk through the sand about a half-mile before you get to the base of the sand dunes. In warmer months, it’s likely that you’ll have to cross over Medano Creek, so be prepared with a towel to dry your feet off on the other side.
Sledding and Boarding on the Sand Dunes
Sledding and sand boarding on the Sand Dunes is a really fun way to enjoy the park. You are able to go anywhere on the dunes. It’s best to find a spot that is completely dry. The friction from any water will make it really hard to slide down on a sand sled
If you go in spring, there may be snow on parts of the dunes. Snow is not useful to sled on with rented boards, and actually can ruin the wooden boards. Only sled on the snow if you bring a snow sled.
To start the sled, you have to shift your weight back and forth a few times, or have someone give you a little push. Then enjoy the ride down! Drag one hand or another in the sand to help you steer.
Hiking back up the sand with a sled in hand is hard work, but worth the ride down over and over.
Hiking on the Sand Dunes
Visitors are free to roam any of the 30-square-miles of sand dunes when they visit. There are no set trails, as the sand is ever changing.
Walking in sand is hard work. Make sure to bring plenty of water. More than you think. Not only is it hard work hiking up and up, but it’s hot. Summertime is especially hot, and if you tire, you’ll have a ways to hike back to the car (depending on how far in you go).
Wear good, solid shoes. It seems like going barefoot in sand is a good idea (and in March, it feels just fine.) But in summertime, the sand can reach temperatures of 150 degrees F.
Wear a hiking pack that can fit lots of water and snacks. And remember to Leave No Trace. Pack out what you pack in!
Play in the Sand
My youngest child tried the sled a time or two, and then decided she just wanted to relax and play in the sand all day. And while I thought hiking up the side of the dune (after sledding down) was the worst part, she seemed to enjoy just running up and down.
Catch a quick highlight reel of Great Sand Dunes National Park:
Play at Medano Creek
Most of the year, Medano creek is dried up. In March and April, it’ll most likely be covered in snow. But in late spring and early summer, it’s a great place to cool down and find relief from the heat at Great Sand Dunes National Park. Bring a tube and float around and ride the flow at Medano Creek. Splash around or just relax by the water.
Have a Picnic Off the Dunes
Right before you pull into the main sand dunes parking lot, there is another parking lot allotted to the picnic area. There are some great, covered picnic tables that can bring relief from the sun. It’s a great place to open a picnic lunch and relax after a hard morning of sand-hiking.
View From Zapata Falls Hike
Take a Hike (off the Dunes) kid-friendly
Montville Nature Trail is a great hike with kids in Great Sand Dunes National Park. It’s only about a half-mile and will give you great views of the dunes, without having to trek around in the sand. Plus, it’s through a nice and shaded forest, so it’ll grant some relief from the heat. Access to the trail is just past the visitor’s center on the east side of Highway 150.
The Sand Sheet Loop is short as well (around a half-mile), but still gives views of the dunes and surrounding mountains. You can access the trail from the Visitor’s Center.
Zapata Falls isn’t technically in the park, but it’s on highway 150 on your way into (or out of) the park back to the main highway. The hike has some incline, but nothing too strenuous. It’s about 1 mile roundtrip and leads you to a creek with high mountain walls and a waterfall inside the walls.
We hiked this in March when it was snow packed (a little slippery, but not too bad). Since the creek was covered in snow, we were able to hike inside the walls at the top where the waterfall was frozen over. We even saw some ice climbers ascending the falls.
Check out more info on hiking Zapata Falls in winter.
Check Out The Milky Way
The Sand Dunes are a great place to experience the night sky. They are so far from any city lights that the location is ideal for star gazing. In spring, the best time is early morning. Summer and Fall have the best starry views at night.
Great Sand Dunes National Park is such a great spot for star gazing that it was even certified as an International Dark Sky Park.
*Make sure to bring a flashlight on your starry adventure, as there are no lights on the dunes for navigating.
Visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park
Great Sand Dunes National Park is such a fun family vacation destination. Spring and fall will bring better temperatures, while summer will bring Medano Creek to life. Kids will love sledding, hiking, and playing on this magnificent creation by the Sangre de Cristo mountains in Colorado. I hope this helps you plan a perfect family trip to the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado.