As a Colorado native, it’s strange that this was my first trip to the Great Sand Dunes, a gorgeous National Park about 3.5 hours outside of Denver. But we added it to our spring Colorado knowing that it would be a highlight. We’re now at our 3rd stop and the Dunes is the one place that Mike and I agreed that we could visit it year after year. As the girls grow, we’ll get to do more of the sand sledding and hiking. But for now, with them being 5, 7, and 9, we had a big day that felt just perfect for us. I did learn a few things that I wanted to pass along hoping they’d be helpful for you too should you ever get to visit the Great Sand Dunes.
If you can, time your trip around the Medano creek, a seasonal creek at the base of the dunes that flows with runoff snow. Late May and June are when peak flow is happening, check out more on the creek HERE. Our day wouldn’t have been nearly as fun without the water. We brought sand toys and they all just dug and splashed all long. We did of course trek over to the dunes but just briefly compared to the time we spend in the water. It was frigid around 4 or 5:00 but warm during mid-morning and afternoon when we went.
Bring a tent or something for shade. We came over the Memorial Day weekend and it was the perfect weather- low 70’s so it was warm enough that our screened in tent came in handy so could lay down a picnic blanket to eat and just spend some time relaxing away from the sun. When we came back from sledding in the sand, we returned to our tent for a snack, some water, and to regroup out of the sun and it was perfect. Several people walked by and remarked at what a good idea it was. It helped keep us cool and able to stay longer.
Go early. This time of year, the weather is calm in the morning and windy in the afternoon. Around 2:30 we felt the wind kick up so we left. It’s just not fun to sit in the middle of sand while it’s windy so hit it early so you have a full day before the wind chases you off.
…And speaking of sand, bring sunglasses, swim goggles, or ski goggles. All were common especially from those who want to ride the dunes over and over without getting sand in their eyes.
Parking isn’t great. There’s one lot for all of the dunes which fills up early, then you line the street leading to the lot with cars jammed in like a concert. It can be a long walk compounded by having a lot of stuff in tow so maybe bring a wagon or just know you’ll possibly be carrying things a long way.
We heard from people at our campground that they bought tickets the night before to save time, but there was nobody manning the both upon entry both times when we went. The sign read that you should buy a ticket for re-entry but everyone who drove through at those times just didn’t pay. Strange, but not completely uncommon it seemed so maybe skip the ticket.
Pack lots of food and water and bring trash bags. On the dunes, there are no trash cans that we saw, just in the parking lot which is far from where you’ll be.
Don’t wear sneakers. You can do flip flops but the ultimate for us was water shoes that went with water, wet sand, and even the dry thick sand up in the dunes. They were perfect for all of us. If you’re there while the water is flowing, it travels and will take your flip flops off when you cross it, and you have to cross it to get to the dunes.
Everyone rents wooden sleds for sliding the dunes, they’re made for the sand and offer the best experience. We camped at the Oasis which is the only game in town for renting them. The only problem is that they open at 9:00 and the park opens at 8:00. It’s also very busy with a line around the building each morning we were there which was over Memorial Day weekend, but they did say it was typical during high season. Someone from our campsite said that they would let you keep the sled overnight for an extra $20, so if you’re able to grab them the day before and willing to pay, that’s an option.
And speaking of the Oasis, they had tiny cabins, a little lodge (hotel), along with RV camping. They also had a take away restaurant with an amazing breakfast and homemade salsa. In case you didn’t pack enough food or if you need something in a pinch, it’s a decent place for breakfast or lunch. When we went it was take-out only and you had to order at the window. There isn’t anything else around since you’re in the middle of nowhere, so keep it in mind as an option.
Pack a lot of water. Just know how absolutely exhausting it is to walk in sand and especially that far. We completely misjudged how far the dunes were from where we set up by the water. It’s just taxing and I ended up giving Lola a piggy back on the way back to our area. If someone in your party needs a wheelchair, the visitor center on site will loan you one. Just call ahead to make sure they have one available for you.
I have more photos from the trip saved in highlights on Instagram HERE if you’d like to see more, and inbox me if you have any tips to add. Enjoy the Dunes! I know you’ll love it as much as we did.