The Great Sand Dunes National Park is located in southern Colorado, outside of the town of Alamosa. Driving there from Raton, New Mexico after our stay at Vermejo took about 3 hours. It was located a solid hour+ after pulling off the highway and while the scenic drive is beautiful I kept thinking- where the heck are we going? We are in the middle of nowhere!
Middle of nowhere we were, but sure enough as we saw the sign for the town of Alamosa, all kinds of signs of civilization popped into view- a variety of delicious looking Mexican restaurants, motels, hotels, shops, a movie theater, a Walmart, and even a small airport. That’s one thing I think is so neat about out west- it goes from wide open country to a full blown town in a matter of minutes.
We stayed at the Fairfield Inn and Suites in Alamosa. The rooms were snug but clean. From our hotel it was about a 40 minute drive to the gates of Great Sand Dunes National Park, which appears to be about par for the course from a lot of the available place to stay.
We arrived on Thursday afternoon and went straight to rent sandboards at Kristi Mountain Sports. The woman working there was a wealth of information and prepared us well for a day on the dunes. Afterwards we met everyone at Calvillo’s for dinner. The place was very busy and the staff was struggling to keep up with the demand, but the food was fantastic!
The girls and I tucked into bed early that night to get ready to prepare for an early wake up while David hit up Walmart with the rest of the crew to buy groceries for the next day. Apparently I fell asleep and locked him out of the room- whoops! But alas, we all got a good night sleep and woke up at 6:30 the next morning to beat the crowd and the heat.
It wasn’t too far once you got past the gate to get to the main parking lot for the dunes and we got a great parking spot. We wandered through the little bit of vegetation and arrived at a most magnificent site- the dunes!
It’s hard to convey in pictures just how majestic looking they are in person. It’s other worldly. For context, to reach the top of the pictured dunes is about an hour to an hour and a half hike. We walked shoeless across Medano Creek.
Medano Creek, which you see trickling across the forefront of the image below, has a seasonal “surge’ and high flow is typically in May through early June. According to the website, this year’s flow was only 1/4 of average, making at a great little spot to walk across to cool down, but not so much a spot you could tube.
We were instructed to wear long, light weight leggings or pants, tall socks to protect our feet from the warm sand, no shoes because they’ll get weighed down with sand, and sun protection. We opted for sun shirts and hats.
The temperature was cool and dry as we set off up the dunes. There were two board options, one is a sled that you sit on and another was a board, similar looking to a snowboard, that you stood on. Our group got a mixture of boards, but we stuck mostly to the sled style.
It was about a 30 minutes walk until we got to a spot that Hailey and Kaitlyn could take their first ride. Now, something to know about Hailey is that she HATES sand. She has hated sand since she was a baby and would scream and pull her legs up when I tried to put her toes in it at the beach. So she was pretty much living her worst nightmare by climbing and sledding down a giant mountain of sand. However, she put on a brave face and decided to go for it.
Both girls went hard for about 45 minutes. Hailey actually enjoyed the hiking, but not so much the riding down- too sandy. Kaitlyn ran up and rode down small sides of dunes several times. Then they both hit a metaphorical wall and completely melted down. Maybe they were sick of sand or the fact that it was starting to heat up or that they had run out of water, but they were done. We sent them walking back to Mema and Grandpa so David and I could take on a few runs.
Our first run was the steepest we had encountered and quite long by dine standards. I was excited to have a turn all to myself, so I set myself up in perfect riding stance, feet on the black strips, hands out to me side and slightly back, and leaning back. And off I went!
Oh my goodness yall, it was like a TIDAL WAVE of sand that flew over me and soon enough I had no choice but to close my eyes and mouth, dig my hands into the sand as much as possible, and pray I’d make it safely to the bottom. It was hard to do because I was also cracking up laughing the whole time, but not nearly as hard as I was when I reached bottom and realized I was coated in a thick layer of sand and that my sleeves were weighed down with buckets of sand that had infiltrated them.
I looked back up at David and was going to encourage him to take another route, but off he went, following my same path with the same result. By the time he reached the bottom, we were both a little shell shocked and dying with laughter.
We made a few more runs before returning to our chairs to share our stories and check on the kids. Luckily the kids had changed into bathing suits and couldn’t be happier to be splashing in the creek, creating castles and lands with drippy sand.
We went out with Mema for a ride and she showed us how it was done- no crazy coating of sand for her! My nieces and nephews (ages 11-17) LOVED the experience. They went to the top of the dunes multiple times and couldn’t seem to get enough. Just for some reference if your curious about which ages the experience is best for.
While the sand making up the dunes got very hot, the weather at the base was very pleasant. We had chairs set up along the creek to watch the kids. It got steadily busier but there was still a lot of room for everyone to spread out. It was reminiscent of a beach day and we hauled our cooler out to make sandwiches and distribute cold drinks.
After lunch we drove to see the visitor center to earn our junior ranger badges. A lot of the exhibits were still plastic wrapped and shut down from Covid and there was no AC in the place, so the girls worked hard and quickly to earn their badges, then we took off in search of cooler temperatures.
We were told Zapata Falls, just outside the park entrance, was worth a stop, so we drove out of the park to check it out. The trail is short, perhaps a half a mile long, but it is steep and dusty. The payoff though is completely worth it!
As you reach the trail end, you see the creek, which is clear and cold, bubbling over rocks. Their are trees providing shade and the temperature immediately drops about 20 degrees. It felt incredible.
Following the stream up a short bit (Keens are ideal for this, as you will walk through the water on the rocks), the stream takes you inside a cave and to a tall waterfall. It was such a reviving and beautiful experience! I didn’t bring my camera, but snapped a few quick pictures with my phone.
After the falls, it was closing in on the evening, so we headed back into the park to find a good place to set up dinner. There are several picnicking sites available and we were pleasantly surprised to find most of them empty. We picked one and got to cooking up bratwursts and hotdogs with potato salad, coleslaw, apples, and chips. Smores for dessert!
After dinner we went back to the dunes for sunset. My nieces and nephews did a few more sand dunes runs while the rest of us watched them and took in the incredible views of the sun setting behind the dunes, creating a gorgeous twilight.
We headed out of the park after the sun was down to head back to the hotel where we all thoroughly enjoyed our evening shower. Days later I was still finding sand in places where sand didn’t belong, but it was well worth it, as the Great Sand Dunes National Park ended up being one of the definite highlights from our trip!