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Sand Sledding (Sort Of) At Great Sand Dunes National Park

Sand Sledding (Sort Of) At Great Sand Dunes National Park

Did you know that the tallest sand dunes in North America are nestled in central Colorado? The Great Sand Dunes National Park has dunes 800 feet tall. Still, at that impressive height, the dunes are dwarfed by the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan Mountain Ranges, with peaks reaching more than 14,000 feet. The park is a three-hour car ride southwest of Colorado Springs.

Our family took a trip to the site, managed by the U.S. National Park Service, and climbed the dunes, went sand sledding, and played in Medano Creek.

Sand Dunes Sign
Our kids take the obligatory picture in front of the entrance sign at Great Sand Dunes NP.

Formation of the Sand Dunes

How exactly did the dunes form in the middle of an alpine forest? They formed precisely due to the perfect convergence of grasslands and two towering mountain ranges. In prehistoric times, tectonic surface plates shifting in the Sangre de Cristos and volcanic activity in the San Juan range formed boulders. In addition, glacial melting and rain wore down the boulders over millenia into sand.

Today, predominant southwest wind patterns drive the sand dunes to the east. During storms from the mountains, reversing wind drives the sand back in the opposing direction, with sand accumulating vertically and the convergence of the two. Thus, the giant dunes form, hemmed in by mountains, creeks, and wind.

Great Sand Dunes Formation
Informational placard showing the types of dunes

Scientific explanations aside, the Great Sand Dunes impress as they climb out of a valley landscape, resting in golden hues against the snow capped mountains around them.

Getting Ready for the Dunes

We arrived at Great Sand Dunes late morning in late March. The weather in Colorado is highly unpredictable, and this is especially true in early spring. A pleasant spring morning can be followed by violent afternoon thunderstorms or a 6-inch snowstorm the next day. Fortunately, we experienced blue skies, a light breeze, and warm temperatures.

We checked in to the visitor’s center and the kids collected their Junior Ranger activity books. Just outside the visitor’s center is a viewing station for the dunes and some tables for picnicking.

Great Sand Dunes Visitor's Center
A view of the dunes from the visitor’s center. The dunes don’t look so challenging from here.

We thought about eating here, but decided instead to drive further on to the parking lot to the dunes, where we found picnic tables and benches. We ate our packed lunches while the kids began filling out the books. A couple of butterflies and some wasps flew by during our meal.

After eating, we prepared to tackle the dunes.

Facing the Giants

Although they did not seem too daunting from a distance, the dunes became more challenging as we drew closer to them. We realized that those small moving spots we saw were people climbing through the sand structures. I had originally thought we would be able to climb to the top of the peaks.

Doing online research, I discovered a earth geocache that required you to climb to the tallest dune and record your altitude at the top. Since the reversing dunes are always shifting (growing and shrinking) this altitude various daily.

Once we packed our lunch basket back in the car, I realized it was unlikely I would get our kids to the top of the structures.

Great Sand Dunes Mountains
Alpine mountain forests meet high desert sand at Great Sand Dunes

After applying sunscreen, we met Texans who were just leaving. They gave the kids the circular snow sleds they had purchased to sled down the sand. They said the sleds did not work well for them, but since my kids weighed less, they might have better luck.

Sleds in hand, we left the parking lot to touch the sand.

At the Dunes

Leaving the parking lot, we hit the sand and then had to cross Medano Creek. Formed by run-off snow from the surrounding mountain, the creek, like the dunes, changes in volume depending on when season. When we went, the creek was low and the water flow slight. We took off shoes and sock and rolled up pant legs to wade through the stream.

Great Sand Dunes Medano Creek
Medano Creek did not have a lot of run-off from snow during our late March visit.

Then the real work began.

We walked over yards and yards or flat sand until we reached the base of the dunes. We then arduously slogged through the hot sand, clumsily lifting out feet and ankles out of the piles to the next step. It was tiring work.

Great Sand Dunes Climb
My kids work their way up the mounds.

My plan of climbing to the peaks ended officially. I was unsure if we could climb the low peaks, sleds, shoes, and socks, in hand in order to glide effortlessly down the slopes.

Great Sand Dunes sledding
My kids packing sleds at the Dunes. By this time, I was carrying their water bottles and shoes.

The kids begged me to carry their sleds. We stopped frequently for rest and water. I continued to look upward at those brave soles ascending the tallest dunes and admired their wherewithal, knowing the low peaks were our only friends this day.

Great Sand Dunes Ascent
Our son as he makes his way up one of the lower of the Great Sand Dunes

During our rests, we tried to answer questions asked in the Junior Ranger books. We noticed that the sand was a mixture of several colors — black, yellow, brown, red, orange, white — a result of the erosion of sedimentary and igneous rocks. We looked in the skies above searching for hawks or eagles. Kangaroo rats make there home at the Dunes, so we searched for them to no avail.

We plodded on.

Reaching Our Cruising Altitude

Exhausted, we found a steep slope not too far up to try some sand sledding. The park advises using a sled built specifically for sand. These sleds are not available at the park but can be purchase or rented in Alamosa, about 30 miles from the park.

“Yeah, sure,” I thought, “It’s just some local tourist racket to get your money. We don’t need their stinkin’ sleds. Ours will do just fine.”

Great Sand Dunes girl sledding
Our daughter hits the sand slopes for some sledding

I was wrong. While our round snow sleds did work somewhat successfully, it is clear that you need a sled designed for sand for the best experience.

Our paper-thin daughter, who weighs more dripping wet than dry, was most successful, gliding slowly down most or our chosen slope. The boy got some distance, but not much speed since he weighs more than she.

Great Sand Dunes boy sledding
Our son tries his luck on our sand slope

I inched along and was able to see my shadow moving quicker than I was. Undaunted, I slid my rear in the against the sled, trying to get momentum, while watching my daughter pass me on her descent. Still, we were able to knock sand sledding off of our bucket list. Given the chance, however, I would go back and rent those stinkin’ sand sleds from Alamosa. It’s not a racket.

Great Sand Dunes sledding
Don’t laugh. My son, socked foot in view, snaps a shot of my attempted sledding.

Of course, our failed sledding was a blessing in disguise. Once down slope, we had to wade through the steep sand up to our mini-summit again.

The wind was picking up, blowing sand into our faces, and we knew it would be a long walk back to the car, so we packed up shop and headed down.

Playing in Medano Creek

After we got down off the dunes, the kids took some time to play in the frigid waters of Medano Creek.The spring run-off had not start in full force, so the water level was low. It was a great way for them to clean off all the sand from the dunes (although our son was more dirty after the creek than before).

Great Sand Dunes Medano Creek
The kids wash off and play in Medano Creek after our trip up the dunes.

The kids then finished completing their Junior Ranger books and we returned to the visitor’s center for the Rangers to check off the kids’ work and present them with their Junior Ranger badges. The Junior Ranger program is available at almost all of the 400+ NPS sites.

I also purchased a National Parks Passport at the gift shop. At each national park site, I can stamp my passport with a dated stamp of that site. It provides one more fun way for our family to recall our visits to the national parks.

Camera Tip

Of course, you’ll want to snap pictures of your visit to Great Sand Dunes. But, one word of caution. More than a year after our visit, our camera still has sand lodged in parts of the lens. we’ve tried with no luck to get rid of the sand. Whether the wind blew sand into the lens, or my son or I managed to knock the sand in is not important. You will want to take precautions with your camera.

Have you been to the Great Sand Dunes? What is your favorite National Park site? We would love to hear your thoughts. Leave us a comment below.


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19 thoughts on “Sand Sledding (Sort Of) At Great Sand Dunes National Park”

  • Walking on sand is hard! I would be exhausted by the time I reached the smallest peak too. I would have assumed any sled would do and skipped the rentals as well. It’s good to know to do a bit of research before you arrive.

  • I loved this!!! I went to Great Sands Dunes a few years with several friends. We actually made it to the very top and I think that may have been one of the hardest hikes I’ve ever done! Climbing a mountain of sand is an entirely different ball game from climbing a normal mountain haha. I saw people sledding, but we didn’t have any sleds. Looks like a ton of fun though! If I go back there, I’ll make sure to grab real sand sleds in Alamosa!

    • We are impressed with your drive to reach the top of the dunes. I keep thinking we’ll go back and try it again some day.

  • Had no idea there was this kind of landscape in the US, and I’ve driven through the state, but saw more of the rockier landscapes. Sand sledding is something I mentally associate with Africa and the MIddle East but how cool that you could have a bit of a play in Great Sands and the creek as well.

  • OMG walking on sand is sooooo hard, walking UPHILL on sand must be excruciating!! I would be so disappointed if I actually climbed up those sand hills and then my sled didn’t work, I totally feel for you. Glad you made the best of the day despite that. With our family, it’s always been the ‘failed’ events that make the best memories, so hopefully, this will be something you’ll talk about and commiserate over together for a long time!

  • This looks sooo beautiful! I admire your hike on the sand – I did it at some other dunes and it was torture. I totally get that the kids had fun sliding down the dunes – it is a lot of fun. But like I said, I’m most impressed by the beauty of this ‘desert’.

  • i have not heard of Great Sand Dunes National Park before but wow i just love it. How much fun does sanding sledging look and sound, I’m definitely adding to my list. Who would of ever thought that there was dunes 800 feet tall in Colorado? Such a beautiful area.

    • Yes, who would have thought there were such tall dunes in Colorado. That’s why we love traveling. We learn new stuff all the time.

  • I would love to visit Great Sand Dunes. And sledding must be fun, but I understand that you might need special boards for sand. I like the sound of kangaroo rats, would love to see them too!

  • I never knew these dunes existed! I’ve just come from visiting the dunes in Maspalomas on the south of Gran Canaria and we had such a blast climbing up and sliding down them, though luckily in Maspalomas the sea is right beside them, so it’s easy to cool down afterwards! It’s a shame the sleds weren’t ideal, but I’m sure the kids had a great time anyway!

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