2016 is the Centennial Anniversary of the National Park Service. No better way to celebrate than visiting the Great Sand Dunes National Park, which is only a 3 hour drive from Colorado Springs.
The Great Sand Dunes National Park is home to over 30 square miles of desert-like environment, nestled right up against the mountains. There are hiking trails, camp sites, and picturesque views in this super kid-friendly national park.
From Colorado Springs it takes 3 hours (with no stops). With kids it took us 4 hours (we stopped several times). This route is I25 south, then west at the town of Walsenburg. Follow the signs to the park.
On the way home we took the longer but definitely more scenic route (north on Highway 17, North on 285, east on Highway 50 through Salida, Canon City, north on 115 back to Colorado Springs). We stopped so many times I am not sure how long it took us to get home, but the drive was breathtaking and runs along the Arkansas River for the entire stretch of Highway 50.
The Visitor’s Center is small but informative and the guides can help with any special requests. There is also a great view off of the back of the Visitor’s Center.
You enter the dunes through a walkway that leads to the creek. The creek is very shallow and I had no problem letting the boys run through the creek on their own. If our baby was walking (he’s 13 months, not really walking yet), I would have been comfortable letting him walk through it, too. The water is warm during the heat of the day and also was my middle son’s favorite place to dig. I’m pretty sure that the water levels change as the snow melts, so the creek could be different at another time of the year.
Tips while in the dunes:
- Sunblock, sunblock, sunblock. The elevation is high (7,520 feet) and if you’re in the creek the water will only reflect the sun even more. One of the worst sun burns of my life was here back when I was in college when I thought I was immune to sunburn.
- Go earlier in the day or later in the evening. The sun is less intense and it is less crowded
- Pack as if you’re going to the beach
- Swim suits, hats, swim shirts
- Sturdy sandals that can both get wet as well as provide protection from the rocks as well as the heat of the sand (the sand can be as hot as 155 degrees F)
- Beach umbrella
- Beach blanket
- Lots of water to drink
- Sand Toys
- Beach Towels
- More back up clothes than you think you need
- Picnic lunch- there are several different picnic areas and we had our lunch at the dunes on our first day
You can also rent a sand sled! We rented our sand sled at the Great Sand Dunes Oasis (which is a restaurant/gift shop) about 3 miles south of the main entrance. The fee was $20/day. Both of my older boys (ages 4 and 3) had no problem using the sled on their own.
While you can be there and back in a day, there was something nice about staying in town (Alamosa is the closest big town). This offered us the opportunity to not be rushed and not go during the heat of the day.
Camping is also an option, but we opted for the Hampton Inn in Alamosa. It’s a newer hotel with free breakfast in the morning and a swimming pool. The boys loved the hotel swimming pool as much as they loved the Sand Dunes. It was also a great way to get the sand off of the boys.
Boys’ ages at time of visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park- 4, 3, 1. The sand dunes are not stroller friendly. Baby was in the Ergo or thoroughly enjoying the sand.
Great Sand Dunes National Park at Sunset from the Zapata Falls trailhead
Other helpful articles:
Denver’s 5280 Magazine just featured Great Sand Dunes National Park on their cover. Check it out here
**Bonus: Zapata Falls**
Zapata Falls is a cave waterfall that can be accessed from a very bumpy road that is 8 miles south of the Great Sand Dunes National Park entrance. This is not apart of the park, rather BLM. There is no fee. To access the falls there is a small hike, then you have to wade through a creek, then climb up through a cave to see the falls. We did NOT take the kids to the falls, rather Erick went one evening by himself. Depending on the weather, creek flow/temperature, etc., and if your kids are older then they MIGHT be able to access the falls (please be safe!). I’m only mentioning these falls because it would be a shame to be so close and not see Zapata Falls!
Location: Visitor Center
11999 State Highway 150
Mosca, CO 81146
Price: $15/car. This pass was good for 7 days
Website: National Park Service