Colorado Vacations 
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Your Guide to Visiting Colorado with the Kids
Best Attractions for Families at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Family Attractions at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve:

The Great Sand Dunes offer attractions for families like no other place in America: giant sand dunes, cool burbling creeks, sand castle opportunities galore, hiking trails, spectacular mountain views, and a chance to learn about one of the most complex geological and biological systems in the world.

Kids would just say the biggest attraction is the fun.

Photo: The world's biggest 
sandbox is in Colorado. 

At the
Great Sand Dunes
National Park
and Preserve
kids can play
for hours
in Medano Creek,
near the base
of the dunes.

Photo: The dunes have been piling up for centuries near the base of the mountains. 

Did You Know?

The Great Sand Dunes National Park offers the best place in North America to see a rare hydrological phenomenon called surge flow.

During the spring runoff, when the creek at the foot of the dunes swells, ripples grow into sand waves or bores, which can be an inch high or a foot deep.

These bores roll downstream, and create endless entertainment for kids and their parents playing in the water.

Photo: Kids love to play on the biggest attraction at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve: the dune field itself.

Dune Field

Before our first trip to the Sand Dunes, I told my then two-year-old that we would be going to a place with a sandbox that was bigger than our whole neighborhood, and piled higher than tall buildings. He looked at me, puzzled, not sure that he could believe me. When we got there, he understood.

The heaps rise into the heavens, and slope gently down to greet visitors. They are as inviting to climb upon as a sleeping lioness is to her cubs. And they are just as slippery and easy to fall off of. A favorite visitor activity is to hike to the top of the highest dunes. Early in the morning you can see the pilgrims, winding their way up the ridges, to stand, silhouetted specks, against the sky. Others bring cardboard, snowboards, and skis, for sliding down the steep, leeward slopes of sand. Always, folks who venture very far have shoes or boot on. The sand is fairly dark in color, and surface temperatures can reach 140 degrees.

Hiking on the dunes feels ethereal, otherworldly. Their steepness creates a burn in your thighs, the unending wind sucks the water out of you, and the blowing grit scours your skin. The dunes’ vastness and height swallows you, and their curves make you want to lie down on their grainy skin. How can you resist a sandbox like that?

Medano Creek

Snowmelt from on high runs into Medano Creek, which skirts the dune field’s eastern edge. As it spreads out over the sands at the base of the grainy slopes, the stream makes a perfect spot for sandcastles and engineering projects. Cottonwood trees arch over the water here and there, creating lovely spots for a picnic or to cool your toes after a burning climb up the dunes.

During the spring runoff, especially in years when there has been heavy snowfall, the creek swells, carving into the foot of the sand pile. This is the best time and place in North America to see a rare hydrologic phenomenon called surge flow. The flowing water creates ripples, like tiny, wet dunes on the sandy streambed. These build as the water flows over them, depositing sand. Eventually, they form little dams, holding back more and more water as the grains pile up beneath the stream’s surface. When the sand can no longer withstand the weight of the water it is holding back, the little dam breaks all at once, sending a flood of water downstream.

These sand waves, technically known as a bore, can be an inch high or a foot deep and full of whitewater. Add a floaty toy plus a thick layer of sunscreen, and the spring runoff can keep your teenager out of trouble all day. A pail and scoop are more than enough equipment for younger folks.

By the middle of summer, Medano Creek dwindles to barely a trickle, and by fall it usually disappears beneath the sand. In drought years, it may never run along the face of the dunes at all.

Visitor Center

The New Mexican Territorial architecture of the Great Sand Dunes Visitor Center fits well in the scrubby landscape of the San Luis Valley here. Inside, a large lobby greets visitors. Interpretive displays introduce families to the dunes, themselves, plus the plants and animals that live in the area. You can view a 15-minute video as well. A large, thoroughly stocked bookstore offers a variety of titles on the human and natural history of the area in addition to posters, post cards, and gift items. Although there are no diaper decks in the men’s or women’s rooms, there is a family restroom for parents and their small children. A large porch with benches offers a gathering place, and several times a day during the summer, rangers conduct porch talks under the portal.

Mosca Pass Trail

This 7 mile round trip is a popular venture into the high country of the Great Sand Dunes National Preserve. Following splashy Mosca Creek, the trail climbs to a low pass that was a historical avenue across the Sangre de Cristo range. The pass also plays a role in channeling the winds that drop their load of sand on the dunes. Along the way, hikers can view the dunes and surrounding countryside from an ever-broadening perspective.

Montville Nature Trail

This peaceful, half-mile trail offers families a break from the harsh exposure of the dunes. The loop trail starts from the same trailhead as the Mosca Pass Trail. Winding through the lush vegetation along Mosca Creek, the points of interest and accompanying pamphlet reveal the remnants of frontier town of the late 1800’s. Pick up the booklet at the visitor center.