Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve (GSDNPP) near Mosca, Colorado, should be on every family’s travel bucket list. In June of 2016, we spent less than 24 hours at GSDNPP and realized we needed to go back. We had just enough time on that first visit to do some sand sledding and hike up onto some of the higher dunes, then cool off in the Medano Creek on our way back to the car. But, GSDNPP is so much more than a hike on the dunes! We compiled a list of our Top Five Family Activities after returning to this incredible National Park in April of 2017.
Activity #5: Hang out until well after dark.
GSDNPP is an excellent place to observe the night sky! Depending on when you visit, there are ranger programs offered at night to assist your viewing. Kids can earn a special night explorer junior ranger badge as well! If you have a camera with night vision, you may catch owls, bobcats, and Ord’s kangaroo rats. But perhaps the most fun is hiking on the dunes under a full moon without the need for a flashlight!
Activity #4: Get your Junior Ranger Badge or Patch.
The Visitor Center is a wonderful stop. In the heat of the day or before taking a hike, check in here and have your kids pick up their Junior Ranger book. This park offers either a badge or patch (or both with a small donation) and much of the information for the booklet can be found inside the visitor center. In summer they also offer a junior ranger backpack option. Kids can do activities out in the park and share their experiences with the ranger to earn their badge!
Activity #3: Hike to Dunes Overlook.
Although hiking on the dunes themselves seems like the main attraction, the Preserve section of GSDNPP hosts some wonderful wooded trails that offer outstanding views. From the Pinyon Flats Campground, take the Sand Ramp Trail north to the Dunes Overlook Trail. From this overlook you can see the entire first ridge of the dunefield. The hike is around two miles round trip, but does have a 450-foot elevation gain, so be ready for several pit stops along the way! This trail is nice to take in the hotter part of the day, to get out of the sun.
Activity #2: Play in the creek.
Not that we have to tell you how fun it is to play in the water! The creek runs from around mid-March to mid-August as the snow melts from the surrounding Sangre de Cristo Mountains. When we visited in June, the water level was knee-deep in most places. In April, we were able to wear our waterproof hiking boots across and not get flooded. On hot days, this creek is a major draw to kids, dogs, and just about anyone else who is ready to cool off. Bring some sand toys and your kids will have instant play pals surround them!
Activity #1: Sand Sledding.
This is a blast. No, literally, a blast. Of sand. In your face and every other body part. But shaking sand out of your shoes and clothing (weeks later) is totally worth the trip down the dunes! However, don’t bring a sled of your own. They just don’t work. Let me repeat that. THEY JUST DON’T WORK. The GSDNPP website tells you this. The rangers tell you this. And they are correct. We watched four families over two mornings share the disappointment of not planning ahead and trying to get more than two feet down any slope on a saucer. Not happening! You can rent the proper sledding gear from two locations, including the Oasis Store right at the entrance to the park. For about $25 the rental covers one sled or board (for sand boarding) and two cubes of wax for the day (or a little longer in the off-season). Your kids will thank you, and it will keep them busy all morning.
Our “Perfect” GSDNPP 2-Day Family Itinerary:
Day 1: Arrive early, rent sand sled or board. Stop at visitor center to pick up Jr. Ranger books and check out displays, park movie. Go sledding. Return to have picnic lunch at Dunes Parking picnic area. Go play in the creek. Return to hotel or campsite, make dinner. Head back to park for night program, photography, or exploring by moonlight.
Day 2: Spend morning on dunes (sledding again if desired), play with a compass and/or magnet in the sand to discover magnetite, eat lunch along the creek north of parking area. Take afternoon hike to Dunes Overlook. Return to visitor center to get Jr. Ranger badges. Head in to Alamosa and order pizza from San Luis Valley Pizza Co. Yum!
What did we leave off our list that you think should be there? Leave it in the comments! We want to know, so we can plan it for our next visit to GSDNPP!