In May, we visited the Great Sand Dunes National Park (GSDNP) for the first time and discovered what a gem it truly is! All of our National Parks are awe-inspiring treasures to be explored, and each one has its own tone, shaped by the landscape and rules that govern it. If GSDNP were to have a defining character, it would be that of “Adventureland”. This is one of the very few National Parks that permits dogs, and it also encourages guests to explore the dunes in a free -range manner, either on foot or with a sand board/sled. While the park office may close in the early evening, visitors are welcome to hike the dunes by moonlight, an other-worldly experience. If you are planning to visit the Great Sand Dunes National Park, here are 10 tips we would have found useful as we prepared for our own visit:
1. To access the sand dunes, you will need to cross a shallow creek on foot (no overpasses). Be prepared with proper footwear. Depending on the time of year, the water will be at different height levels and temperatures. While the creek is wide, it is broken up by sandbars throughout. We went in early May, and the water was a bit higher from recent snow melt, and very cold, making it painful to stand in place for too long. It is a good idea to bring water shoes for crossing the river, or if you choose to cross barefoot, a rag to dry your feet afterwards.
2. Layer it up! True to form for a desert, the Great Sand Dunes get hot during the day, but once the sun sets, so does the temperature. Pack heavier layers for the cold as well as light layers and sunglasses to protect you from the sand when the wind picks up.
3. For those with a mobility impairment, the Park has wheelchairs with wheels capable of crossing the river and climbing some of the smaller sand dunes with the assistance of a pusher. More information on this can be found here.
4. If you are visiting GSDNP during the summer, the sand temperatures can get up to 150 degrees Fahrenheit during the peak of daylight hours. Going barefoot is highly advised against. Hiking shoes worked perfectly for us on the dunes, but if you prefer more of a “barefoot” experience, I would recommend thick socks to protect your feet from the heat.
5. As mentioned above, GSDNP is one of the few National Parks that permits pets! Fun for the whole family is encouraged, and pet owners are asked to keep their furbabies on a leash and come prepared to clean-up after them. Keep in mind sand temperatures and cover pet paws accordingly. More on the Park’s pet policy can be found here.
6. If you have light-weight sleds, consider bringing them with you; the flat plastic variety, not the bladed toboggan types. Boards are allowed at the Park, making for a more active and adventurous experience.
7. If renting sand boards, there is a nearby rental shop called “Great Sand Dunes Oasis”. They rent both sit-down sand sleds and stand-up sand boards. We rented two of their sand sleds, and learned the hard way to check the bottom of the board before accepting one. One of the sleds we were given looked brand new and had no scuff marks on the underside. The other, had visible worn marks from over use. The underside of the board should be all black- as this contains the plastic layer that will help you slide. Worn boards will have light brown patches from where the plastic has come off, revealing the wood base (see pictures below). The rental shop will give you pieces of wax to wax your board before each use to help it slide better, but no amount of wax made the scuffed up board perform anywhere near as well as the unscuffed one. One board soared down the dunes, and the other would frustratingly stop throughout the journey. You pay the exact same amount for a crap board as you do for a good one, so get your money’s worth and check the underside and request a different one if you don’t like what you see!
8. Pack a flashlight. We went out for an afternoon hike, and were so mesmerized with the terrain, that we found ourselves extending the hike until past sunset. Once the sun sets, the high dunes block out the remaining rays of light. A flashlight was essential in not only navigating our way back, but in helping to ensure that we didn’t misstep and tumble down a 300ft sand dune.
9. If you are camping or RVing, and happen to be staying at the same “Great Sand Dunes Oasis” mentioned in #7 (as we did), be careful about letting your pets walk around. Each time we walked through the park from the bathhouse back to the sites, we returned with sharp burs with strong stingers in the soles of our shoes. These would likely be very painful to pet paws.
10. Hydrate! This one is obvious for wherever you go into nature, but especially so for GSDNP, where you are in desert like conditions with hot, unobstructed sun. Bring lots of water, and pack out what you pack in. There are no trash cans in the dunes or any other conveniences. Just you and the spectacular setting.
We hope these tips are helpful to your explorations of the Great Sand Dunes National Park!