Sledding on Sand and Stargazing: Visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park

By Courtney Johnson

All images courtesy of the author.

When you approach the tallest sand dunes in North America at Great Sand Dunes National Park, you almost feel like you are on the set of Star Wars. From a distance, they appear much smaller than they are—the tallest point on the dunes is approximately 13,604 feet (4,146m) above sea level. When we got our closeup look from the visitor center in July, my four-year-old daughter Emma's mouth dropped open.

Originally designated as a national monument in March of 1932, Great Sand Dunes was named a national park in September of 2004. Within the San Luis Valley, between the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan Mountains (both of which run north from Santa Fe), sand dunes have been forming for over approximately 440,000 years. Multiple conditions have created and sustained the dunes. The sand is in part remnant of an ancient lake that is larger than the state of Connecticut, formed from plate shift and uplift. More sand blows into the area due to wind erosion of nearby rocks and mountains. Sand and soil blow into the valley from the Rio Grande and its tributaries. Since the southwestern winds blow almost constantly, the dunes continue to change and grow. Comparing the photos from my first visit with my husband in 1999 to photos we took this past July, we could see many of the changes.

With the consistent winds, each visit to the dunes is unique. But, the wind also brings frequent changes in weather. Be prepared for a variety of temperatures, clothing wise, depending on the length of your visit. Wind tends to pick up in the afternoon. Afternoon storms are also likely in the summer months—a cardinal rule of summertime in Colorado is to get out in the morning, to avoid cooler temperatures and storms brewing in the mountains.

With 360 days of average sunshine a year in Colorado, you can expect to have plenty of sunny days. We happened upon a cooler weekend, but even so the dunes warmed up quickly. Don't take the recommendation for closed toe shoes lightly. Sand temperatures can reach in the upwards of 140 degrees, and there is no shade on the dunes.

Wearing hats and closed toe shoes, our day packs contained lightweight jackets, plenty of water and snacks, wipes, bug spray and sunscreen. We also brought shoes (Chacos in particular) for crossing Medano Creek (a must to get to the dunes) and for post dune water play. Many people chose to take their shoes and socks off. Medano Creek runs from April to late July depending on the snowmelt levels and rainfall. The surge is mid-May into early June where you can enjoy taking a tube ride down the creek. There was just enough water to enjoy putting our feet in, splashing around and making some sand castles. Emma also enjoyed chasing the logs downstream through the mellow current.

We were lucky that the recent rainfall meant that the creek was running again, but a note of caution—the recent rains brought the mosquitoes out. Morning and evening were especially prime for bites down by the creek and wooded areas.

There are no designated trails on the actual dunes, adding to the fun and adventure. We had to dump sand from our shoes a few times as we climbed up and down. You could see people all around climbing the ridges of sand. The few visitors that did adventure all the way up to the top looked like ants.

One of the highlights of a trip to the dunes is the ability to ride and/or sled down them. You can rent a sand sled or board just outside the park at the Oasis. One tip is to get there early the morning you want to rent (they open at 8 ), particularly during the high season/summer. Important to note is that the Oasis is outside the park, so plan accordingly when it comes to getting a sled or board based on where you are staying.

We rented a board on the Saturday of our stay, picking it up right at 8:00 a.m. We knew a high chance of rain was in the forecast for the afternoon, so we wanted to hit the dunes early. Riding or sledding is not permitted if the dunes are wet.

Another tip, to use a pack that you can connect the sled or board to for easier carrying up the hills when moving from location to location. The dunes are tough enough to climb, not to mention when you are trying to carry a sled or board.

We saw many people attempting to ride down the dunes with cardboard boxes and plastic snow, with little luck. Our sledding adventure began on some mellower hills. The Oasis gave us wax, and it was key to use it after each run to keep the sled moving along the sand.

My daughter quickly found her need for speed, and we graduated to some steeper hills quickly. We learned quickly that the way to control the sled and to keep yourself from spinning out is to have your arms out to your sides. The three of us took turns flying down the hill. I just wish the ride down lasted longer since the walk up the dunes carrying the sled was slow going!

All the sand climbing tired my daughter out quickly. Covered in sand from head to toe but smiling, we headed back to the main parking lot to rinse off in the showers and change before having lunch creekside.

Before the rain came in, we took the opportunity to start filling out Emma's Junior Ranger book. Just as I recommend at any national park, stop by the visitor center to pick up a Junior Ranger book for activities from animal bingo to connect the dots. The book at Great Sand Dunes took us on the hunt for areas of black sand made from deposits of iron, magnetite and black oxide to Yucca plants. The many ecosystems of the park from, subalpine to sand sheet, bring about a diverse plant, insect and animal life. Elk roam the hillsides. Mule deer are abundantly found next to the road and feel at home to roam through the campgrounds. Marshy areas bring opportunity to catch some toads and frogs.

Insects are the main animal life on the dunes, especially the beetles who especially liked to visit us at night by the campfire as we roasted s'mores. The diverse nocturnal wildlife that come out to play as the sun sets is abundant. We were fortunate that one of the favorite parks nighttime guests—the great horned owl—swept in to land on a tree as we kept warm by the fire. With our headlamps on, we walked the paved road through the campground looking for more nighttime visitors. We could see bats overhead, but the kangaroo rat, the only mammal that lives full time on the dunes, remained elusive.

Great Sand Dunes is special to stargazers since it is open 24 hours, offering 360 degree views of the night sky. Unfortunately, the clouds didn't cooperate for us over the weekend, and we only managed to see a few twinkles.

When the rain began, we took time to retreat to our tent to rest. We recommend staying within the park at the Pinon Pines Campground. The proximity to the dunes along with nearby alpine hikes makes it an idyllic place. The Dunes Overlook/Sand Ramp Trail that begins within the campground offers a perfect place for a sunrise or sunset trail run or hike. Be prepared to book your campsite way in advance as the seasonal campground fills fast. You can book six months out at recreation.gov.

Right outside the park, the Oasis (where you can rent boards and sleds) has RV and tent sites, cabins and motel rooms. There is also the Great Sand Dunes lodge in Mosaca and the neighboring town of Alamosa also has lodging.

After a short rest, we headed back to the Oasis to return our sled and to spend some time at the visitor center, since the rain wasn't letting up. This particular visitor center had a collection of animals (now stuffed) that once called the dunes home. My daughter especially enjoyed looking through the magnifier at samples of the rocks and minerals that make up the dunes. She also enjoyed moving the machine back and forth to see how the dunes are formed and change.

On Sunday, we broke down camp after breakfast. Before heading home, we did an hour long hike on the Mosaca Pass trail within the park. Next summer's plans include a return trip to the park hopefully closer to peak flow of Medona Creek. Fingers crossed that the night skies shine brightly for us.

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Courtney Johnson is a freelance sports and parent writer based in Erie, Colorado. She enjoys spending time outdoors with her husband AJ and four year old daughter Emma. The three visited five national parks and three national monuments alone this past summer.