Colorado is home to many, many beautiful national and state parks. Great Sand Dunes National Park may be the most unique of these parks. Situated in southern Colorado, surrounded by the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, these tallest sand dunes in north America are remote, and surprising. In fact, the park recently earned a dark sky designation in 2019. Here’s what to know about the Great Sand Dunes National Park for families.
Because this area is the prettiest route from my home in Colorado to New Mexico, I have driven through here with my family on several occasions. It is the perfect stop on a roadtrip between my hometown of Vail and Santa Fe. Alamosa is located just a few minutes away. And, Salida and Buena Vista are an hour or so to the north. It is one of our favorite of the four Colorado National Parks.
Insider Tip: If you are looking for other areas to visit around Great Sand Dunes, check out this article from out friends at Traveling in High Heels on Southwest Roadtrips Tips and Destinations Not to Miss!
What makes Great Sand Dunes National Park so unique?
Starting early summer the seasonal Medano Creek runs through the base of the dunes. If you go in June after a big snow season you may have the opportunity to see the surge flow. This is an unusual natural occurrence when a stream flows in cadenced waves over the sand. Surge flow occurs when underwater sand ridges build up and then break every 20 seconds, sending down a wave. It feels exactly like ocean waves, except colder.
The Great Sand Dunes National Park is in the middle of a very diverse landscape of grasslands, wetlands, conifer and aspen forests, alpine lakes, and tundra. The snow melt off and Medano Creek feeds a natural underground reservoir. The water supplies a nearby tilapia farm turned alligator farm, as well as natural hot springs.
What is there to do at Great Sand Dunes National Park with Kids?
Hike the Sand Dunes, then Relax at the Beach
If you are visiting during peak season, arrive early and set out to hike the highest peak. Parking can be crazy. Best to get there early. The highest sand dune will be further than you expect. The views from the top go on forever and ever. Hike back down and enjoy a picnic lunch by Medano Creek while you watch the waves. Take in the juxtaposition of seemingly being at an ocean beach. At the base of a mountain. In Colorado. Let the kids play in the water if you can handle cold snow melt off swishing around your feet.
Sand Sled at the Great Sand Dunes
We didn’t have the opportunity to try this out, but saw people doing it, and it looked fun. You can rent sleds that are designed for sliding on sand. Then you bring these and hike up a sand dune and sled down, just like snow sledding except in the warm sun. What a fun activity for families visiting Great Sand Dunes!
Visit the Great Sand Dunes Visitor’s Center
Visit the Great Sand Dunes National Park Visitor’s Center on your way out of the park. There is an interesting short film about the sand dunes. It is a great place to cool off. There’s a back deck with spectacular views. We aren’t really into buying our kids souvenirs, except at national park gift shops. We can usually find some great educational activity books for kids. And, the purchase supports a great cause.
Where to Stay at Great Sand Dunes National Park: Lodging Options
Great Sand Dunes Lodge
This is a very remote area of Colorado. Alamosa is the nearest town. There are a handful of motels in the area. We stayed at the Great Sand Dunes Lodge. This is the closest hotel to the entrance to Great Sand Dunes National Park. It is basic but clean, and very convenient.
Great Sand Dunes Swimming Pool
The Great Sand Dunes Swimming Pool has an RV park and basic cabins for rent.The sites offer water and electric. A dump station is included. But perhaps the best part, is that the pool is half off. See more om the pool below.
Great Sand Dunes Camping
The Great Sand Dunes is an experience so I think it would be a fun place to stay. There is camping within the park. Tent and RV sites are available. But there are no hook ups.
Alamosa KOA Journey
If you are an RVer, then this is the place to stay. There are full hook ups, plus a park and pool for the kids and an enclosed dog park for the pup. Here you’ll find a community. Kids run around and make new friends. And, there are plenty of activities. You can also rent a basic cabin, or tent camp. The facilities are very clean.
What to Know Before Visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park
- The sand can get very, very hot. Be sure to keep you shoes on or at least with you. So that you can put them back on when your feet start to burn.
- If you wear sandals be sure to sunscreen the top of your feet. They will get lots of sun!
- Start early at the Sand Dunes and finish at the Visitor’s Center to beat the crowds during peak season.
- This is a remote area and there’s no luxury lodging. There’s camping and motels. One of the motels, Great Sand Dunes Lodge, is located right at the park entrance. We found it clean and the owners friendly.
- The town of Alamosa is located just a few minutes from the park and has many dining options.
- Dogs are allowed within the park, on leash. But beware of windy days and sand storms. Though I’ve had a giggle at dogs wearing goggles, this is the place where it would be very appropriate.
Things to Do Near Great Sand Dunes National Park for Families
If this natural wonder isn’t enough to make you want to visit, there’s also an alligator farm with many rescue animals. Natural hot springs. Many, many UFO sightings. And, it just received a dark sky designation. Truly an interesting place, though in the middle of nowhere.
Great Sand Dunes Swimming Pool
The Great Sand Dunes Swimming Pool is a great place to cool off after a day of hiking. It is very family friendly. The water is very warm. There are diving boards and even a slide feature in the back area of the pool for the kids. We were pleasantly surprised by how good the food was for what appears to be a pool snack shack.
If you go without the kids, be sure to visit the Greenhouse. It is an adults only pool. You enter through an American styled hallway with walls made of corrugated steel containers and neon light strings leading the way. When you enter, you find a tropical paradise. Even if you can’t leave your kids to enjoy it, it is worth a walk down the hallway just to poke your head in.
The Pool also has RV parking and tiny cabins for rent. I think the best lodging option in the area may be to bring your ow RV and park either here or at the Sand Dunes National Park.
Colorado Gators Reptile Park
This alligator farm started as a Tilapia farm. They originally procured an alligator to help dispose of the Tilapia waste, and then another. Eventually people started sending them rescue reptiles. It is crazy the stupid things people do. There is one alligator housed there who came to them from Summit County. Some people had gotten it as a pet and had no idea that it needed to eat the bones of animals for calcium. They were just feeding it chunks of meat. When it was finally sent to the reptile park to be saved, it couldn’t even open its mouth to eat because it was so calcium deprived. He is now named Mr. Humphrey after the large hump on his back caused by the calcium deficiency.
The alligator from Happy Glimore is also housed here, as are many others. There are also many different kinds of snakes and other varieties of reptiles and turtles.
This is one activity at the Great Sand Dunes National Monument that kids especially will enjoy.
Hike to Zapata Falls. Depending on the time of year and amount of snowfall these falls and river will vary greatly. Some years there may be not river or falls, and other you may have to make your way through ice cold rushing water to see the falls.
Insider Tip: While Great Sand Dunes is one of our family’s favorite national parks, you don’t want to miss out on these other Colorado National Parks!