Great Sand Dunes
November 18, 2018
October 29, 2022
Written By: Kayla & Colin
AZ to MI
Sand dunes are not a foreign concept for us, since growing up in Michigan means you are required to read “The Legend of Sleeping Bear Dunes” by the age of eight (joking...sort of). However, if there is one thing I have learned while traveling to these National Parks, it is that our ideas on what the park is going to look like, and the journey to get there, is often different than expected. The Sleeping Bear Dunes, for example, appear nothing like a bear when you are standing in front of the mountain of sand. Similarly with Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, we expected to be driving along the road for miles looking at sand, shoreline and maybe even a few beaches.
The Road To The Great Sand Dunes
Instead, you are driving along mountain ranges and farmland. The last thing I expected to see while a little less that 2 miles from the dunes was a cow chewing on some grass. To add to our confusion, the location we rented equipment from (we will get to this soon) was a few miles away, and there wasn’t a speck of sand in sight. While driving, we kept looking at the map and GPS, double checking that we were heading in the right direction. We didn’t see sand for the longest time, then finally, the slopes and lines of dunes appeared in our vision.
The Final Approach
We stopped into the visitor center to grab a sticker and magnet and we spoke with a ranger. We asked about hiking lengths and difficulties and sadly realized we didn’t have time to hike all the way to the top. We had our sandboards though, and were excited to experience something new!
It's Sandboarding Time!
There are a few common options while visiting this National Park. High Dune on First Ridge and Star Dune trails are the highlights of this park. When you arrive to the parking lot, you will see High Dune on First Ridge and it appears to be the tallest point. However, it is Star Dune, that is actually the tallest dune in North America.
The ranger informed us that the High Dune on First Ridge could take a little over four hours, up and back. North America’s tallest dune, Star Dune, stands at 750 feet tall. This one can take up to five hours round trip. As awesome as it would have been to explore one of these trails, we decided to explore the smaller ridges and stick to the sandboarding, in order to stay on schedule.
Great Sand Dunes National Park
A Whole 'Lotta Sand!
Kids and adults alike will love the sandboard, or even sand-sled, experience! Note: you don’t rent equipment from the visitor center. There is a rental location only a few miles away, open April through mid-October. However, we were visiting in November and used Sand Dunes Recreation. Be sure to check here before heading to the park.
Sandboarding Was A Blast!
Boards and sleds are $19 each and are worth every penny. This equipment is different than your typical sled or snowboard, so be sure to rent the gear that is made for the sand. We had a blast boarding down the dunes, even with our numerous wipe outs. It takes a few times to get used to how the sand and board work together, but I am not very athletic and picked it up pretty easily. It can be intimidating looking down the dune from the top, so we recommend starting small and work your way up to the larger dunes. The rental includes 24 hours, so take your time and enjoy it!
Two Thumbs up!
Going to the park in November was wonderful because we had the smaller dunes all to ourselves and we weren’t too warm. In fact, as we crossed Medano Creek, we walked over snow. We had just changed into shorts after feeling the temperature and laughed at the sight of snow. Climbing up the dunes can be very strenuous, so we warmed up quickly. While going down on the board is really fun, it also means climbing back up! We had to take a few breaks and drink some water between each ride down.
Swimsuit + Snow = Great Sand Dunes In November
While we didn’t stay in the park for long, we had a blast getting to experience sandboarding and the beautiful views of the Rockies. You are surrounded by mountains and dunes in every direction. Everywhere you look is stunning. We definitely recommend some type of sand activity while visiting the park. If you have at least a half day or more, you could also take on the challenge of one of the higher dunes and race to the top!
One Unique Park!
FIRE UP CHIPS!
Although Great Sand Dunes may be a little further than a day-trip to Rocky Mountain, we are still thrilled at our ability to make a quick weekend trip out of this park. Our second visit to the park was only a few weeks earlier in the year than that of our first trip, but visiting without any snow made a big difference.
JoJo's first PARK as a Bark Ranger
We recently upgraded our vehicle to a more rocky mountain friendly SUV and were itching to get out and enjoy the new ride. We enjoyed a half-day at the park before finding a beautiful spot for some car camping. We also officially entered into the Preserve area of the site. The Montville Nature Loop Trail was a great little loop that gave us a taste of the Preserve, along with stunning panoramic views of the Park. At the same trailhead, you can continue on along the Mosca Pass Trail, a 7-mile round-trip trek through a shaded forest.
Welcome to the Preserve!
Park views from the Preserve
Continued excitement of the new ride took us down Medano Pass Primitive Road. This semi-rough dirt road has some camping along the way and at the Point of No Return, becomes impassable without true 4WD. We stopped here and did the short Sand Pit hike down to Medano Creek. JoJo really enjoyed the hike down, but it definitely knocked her out on the way up.
We enjoyed the exploration of these two new areas of the park and some dune climbing, of course. We were also able to visit Zapata Falls during this trip. When we visited in 2018, we were in a Chevy Cruze and we made it about 2 minutes down the rugged dirt road before turning around. I was definitely excited to take the trek in the new SUV, but to our surprise, the road is now paved! It was a challenging, slippery hike to the falls and was too cold for the full experience, but was worth it none-the-less.
Freezing cold waters and slippery rocks.
If you’re looking for a less rustic lodging option, we thoroughly enjoyed our evening in Alamosa during Halloween weekend. We had a great meal at San Luis Valley Brewing Co. and enjoyed some good beers next door at Square Peg Brewerks. Being the holiday, it was pretty crowded and everyone was dressed up. It was definitely a good time and we would love to return to the town. The ROAST. Craft Coffee and Libations was also a great stop, giving us the morning push we needed.