Family activities at Great Sand Dunes National Park are as abundant as they are diverse. While the tallest sand dunes in North America are the most obvious and popular attraction, the park offers a wide range of activities that are perfect for families of all ages.
We visited Great Sand Dunes National Park as the first park on our 21-park, 31-day National Park road trip. It was a great way to start off our tour of America’s National Parks and surprised us in many ways. Our kids, ages 10 through 16, had a blast!
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Great Sand Dunes National Park Rating and Facts
Here’s the Family Adventure Awaits Ratings for Great Sand Dunes National Park:
- Landscape: 7
- Campsites: 6
- Adventure: 7
- X-Factor: 6 (Medano Creek)
- Recommended stay: 3 days, 2 nights
- Best for: all ages
Best Family Activities at Great Sand Dunes National Park
Here are our favorite family activities at Great Sand Dunes National Park:
Sandboarding and Sand Sledding
This activities was probably what our kids were looking forward to most. We watched YouTube videos and read the park’s info about sand boarding and sand sledding, and were anxious to try it. From this research, and from our own experience, here are a few tips:
- Use sandboards and sand sleds specifically designed for the sand. These boards have a special material and wax that helps them glide over the sand. You can rent them at Kristi Mountain Sports in Alamosa or at just outside the park fro around $20. Don’t fool yourself and think you can use a regular snow sled, inner tube, or other homemade contraption; they just don’t work as well.
- Head out in the morning or evening to have the best weather, temperature and to avoid the thunderstorms that can be common in mid-afternoon summers.
- Goggles and a face mask or bandanna can be helpful in keeping sand out of your eyes and mouth. Some of us used them and some did not.
- Experiment with different levels of steepness. We found a sweet spot at “medium steep”; too steep and we were going way to fast and not steep enough and we couldn’t get the boards to move.
- Use sunscreen, especially on your feet, and reapply constantly.
Ride the Surge Flow at Medano Creek
HINT: Get to the parking lot at Medano Creek early. It was completely full by 10:00 am when we were there mid-June on a weekday.
We were also excited about experiencing the unique “surge flow” at Medano Creek. This unusual phenomenon happens when underwater sand ridges accumulate upstream and then break, releasing a stream of water and sending a wave downstream. We showed up with boogie boards, which were fun for the smaller kids but didn’t provide enough flotation for the older ones. We saw people with inflatables, which seemed to work better.
Check the Great Sand Dunes National Park website for current creek conditions. The best time to play in Medano Creek and experience the surge flow is late May through June. We were there in the second half of June and had a great time.
Play in the Sand at Great Sand Dunes
With all that sand, this one may seem like a no brainer, but it was seriously a ton of fun. We had planned on sandboarding and Medano Creek as our main activities, and didn’t anticipate how much all our kids would enjoy the simple act of playing in the sand. Even our 16 couldn’t resist it. It was especially fun after playing in Medano Creek (chilly water) and the lounging in the warm sand. Bring lawn chairs and kick back and relax by the creek.
HINT: There are no private showers, but there are rinse showers at the parking lot outside the dunes and a changing area.
Camping at Piñon Flats Campground
We were camping most of the time during our 31-day National Park road trip, and Piñon Flats Campground was our first National Park campground on the trip. It was a great stop, with great campsites overlooking the sand dunes and good bathroom facilities. Keep in mind there are no showers at Great Sand Dunes National Park. The campsites fill up quickly, especially during the summer weeks when Medano Creek is high, so reserve them early at recreation.gov.
Be prepared for a chilly night and potential rain (we had a downpour for about an hour). Each campsite has a bear locker and fire-ring (bring your own wood).
HINT: Campsites 21 and 22 are the best ones!
We were thrilled by the amazing sunset views afforded by the campground’s location. The creek and dunes made a beautiful backdrop.
Hike the High Dune
While playing in the sand after sandboarding, our oldest son suddenly piped up that he wanted to hike to the top of the tallest dune. He quickly recruited the other kids to his cause and away we went. We weren’t prepared for a long hike and still had our backpacks, sandboards and sand sleds in tow, but we were game. We started up the dunes with our eye on the tallest one we could see.
After about an hour of hiking we reached the summit. This was after several false alarms where we crested a summit that we thought was the final summit, only to see another, taller summit ahead. The views from the top were incredible. We later learned that this dune is called High Dune and is not the tallest dune in the park, but looks that way from the creek.
We had plenty of water and completed the roundtrip in about two hours. It would have been a lot easier if we didn’t have our sandboards and sleds in tow and were prepared for a hike, so we’d recommend a bit more planning for your hike.
P.S. Trevor and Reed LOVED running down the dunes on the way down. They could take huge bounds downhill and slide into the sand with each leap. They made the descent in about 20 minute this way. Super fun, but use caution when running downhill (right?!?).
Visit the Great Sand Dunes Visitors Center
All National Park Visitors Centers are amazing, and Great Sand Dunes National Park is no exception. The rangers were super helpful in helping us plan our time and activities, and the park store had the goodies we needed. It also offered a 20-minute video about the park and some fun exhibits. The best part for us was the amazing views available from the back patio area.
Other Family Activities at Great Sand Dunes
We only stayed one night at Great Sand Dunes National Park and were not able to see everything the park has to offer. Here’s a few things on our list for our next visit:
- Drive up the 4WD Medano Pass Road – we wanted to do this but the creek was still to high.
- Hike the forested and alpine trails.
- Catch the park on a moonless night to experience the dark sky (certified in 2019 as an International Dark Sky Park).
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