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A Short Guide to The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

I’m a sucker for a hot sea of sand.

There is this image of myself I hold in the recesses of my mind. I’m wrapped head to ankle in a dirty, torn, sand-filled blue darra’a. My mouth is dry and sticky. The harmattan swirls at my bare feet. A camel grunts over the dune behind me and all I can see before me are days and days of sand and desert. That’s the image. That’s the dream.

My kids aren’t quite as turned on by that image as I am. “Could you get ice-cream?” my daughter asks.

“I’m afraid not.”

“What’s the point.”

So we load our little tent, sleeping bags and some coolers of food and drink and ice-cream into the car and hustle a quick two hours north on Highway 522 from our home in Taos, New Mexico, into Colorado and to the 85,000-acre Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.

The kids? They are elated.  The Sand Dunes in Colorado are made for kids.

These are the biggest sand dunes in North America. Sitting in a high desert, crescent-shaped basin against the rugged Sangre de Cristo mountains, this 400,000 year old sand box was formed from sand carried by the ancient Rio Grande and its tributaries as they flowed out of the Rocky Mountains and into the San Luis Valley. Through millennia, winds pounding out of the west scooped up the flood plain deposits and deposited them on the eastern edge of the valley at the base of the mountains. Its still happening. These dunes are growing.

Several streams flow at the base of the dunes. It doesn’t take much digging to fine water gurgling up through the sand. All this ephermal water erodes the dunes, carries the sand down-stream where the water disappeares into the ground, the sand is picked up again by the winds and dropped again on the crest of the dunes.

We rarely keep it to a day trip. There is just too much to do. I haven’t yet taken my little ones back into the dunes for a night out so we settle into the Pinyon Flats Campground among the pinyon, juniper and ponderosa trees then head off to play in Medano Creek, a wide, very shallow intermittent water course where you can dig holes and watch them fill up, get covered in a sandy mud or just cool your sand burned feet.

The rest of the weekend is spent climbing the dunes and sledding down them into the creek.  Quiet, cool mornings are for animal watching and then some sand play. An afternoon nap and campfire dinner are followed by some fabulous photo opportunities at sunset when the sand has cooled again.  Evening Ranger-led programs are great fun for kids.

I’m a lucky guy.  Of all the fabulous places within a short drive of my home in Taos, New Mexico the Sand Dunes tops the list.  As a matter-o-fact, writing this makes me think we’ll just head on up there this next weekend.

If You Visit:

The Great Sand Dunes Colorado can be found 35 miles NE of Alamosa, Colorado off of U.S. Highway 160 and State Highway 150 from the south, or from State Highway 17 and County Lane 6 from the west.

From Denver:

Head south on I-25 to Walsenburg. Go west on US 160 over La Veta Pass and thru Ft. Garland to State Highway 150. Go north. Total miles: 243

Alternatively, drive through the mountains on US 285 south into the San Luis Valley. Take State Highway 17 south. Go east on County Lane 6 from Mosca.  Total miles: 243

From Albuquerque:

Take I-25 north to Santa Fe where you pick up US 285 north to Alamosa, Colorado. From Alamosa, you have a choice to take either US 160 east and State Highway 150 north, or State Highway 17 north and County Lane 6 east from Mosca.  Total miles: 246

Hours: 24/7/365. Visitor Center winter hours: 9:00-4:30 (closed on Federal holidays), summer hours:830-630. Call 719.378.6399 for specific information

Camping and RV Hookup Available. Camping at Pinyon Flats (44 sites) and limited backcountry camping. More Camping information here

Rest Rooms:yes

Fees: $3/adult, valid for one week. Camping fees are $20/night (and well worth it!)

More information: Call 719.378.6399 or visit the excellent National Park Service site

PDF visitors guide is available here

Maps available here and here.

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