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Your Guide to Visiting Colorado with the Kids
Considerations for Families Visiting the Great Sand Dunes
Families planning a trip to Colorado's Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve should keep in mind a few precautions.

Not complicated, these safety considerations can make the difference between a magical or a miserable vacation.

Photo: Kids play in Colorado's biggest sandbox at the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Did You Know?

The tallest sand dunes in North America are in Colorado, at Great Sand Dunes
National Park
The dune field  covers more than 30 square miles. The dunes themselves stretch over 700 feet high in places.

Harsh Elements

As beautiful as the sand dunes are, remember that they are here because of a combination of rather harsh elements. Sand, of course, is a big one. It is gritty and tiny, and finds its way into everything.

The next biggest thing is invisible, but it is, in fact, what piled the dunes so high in the first place. The Great Sand Dunes National Park is a windy, windy place. And what does the wind blow around? Sand. Now those little grains are in even more places than they were before. You and your kids just have to learn to live with it in shoes and sleeping bags and food. But eyes are a bit more sensitive. Bring saline solution for irrigating eyes, and a box of tissues for blowing noses. On the other hand, all that moving air and open space make for fantastic kite flying. Tuck some string and a collapsible kite in your pack before you head out.

Sunburn City

The San Luis Valley is a desert and there aren’t often clouds to provide shade. Not only that, but at 8,500 feet above sea level, there is less atmosphere to filter the ultra-violet rays. When they bounce off the dunes and water, it’s sunburn city. Lay the sunscreen on thick and often. Tie wide-brimmed hats to your kids’ heads and threaten them with no TV for their entire visit if they take them off. Slather on lip balm and encourage them to drink lots of water to keep them hydrated. And although bathing suits are most practical for grubbing around in Medano Creek, hiking on the dunes dressed like Sahara traders isn’t a bad idea. And don’t forget good shoes or boots and socks for venturing into the dune field. Burned feet are no fun.

Nitty Gritty

On the other hand, the park and preserve are pretty high in elevation, and the wind can be cold, even in the summer time. Bring coats, hats, and long pants for chilly days. Also be aware that sand, especially blowing sand, will eat your camera’s insides before you can say, “Scoot together a little more.” Keep cameras off the sandy surface and if it is windy, just put them away. Think twice about throwing it in the bottom of your daypack, sand likes to hang out there, too. A zip-closure plastic bag can help some to protect photographic equipment.

Wild Abandon

If you are here when Medano Creek is running, warn your kids to be careful about getting the water in their mouths. The water quality is high, but dogs, deer, and toddlers are walking around in it, and it isn’t drinking water. Families who are big into sandcastles should bring their own pails and scoops. The visitor center doesn’t sell them.

Medano Creek at the base of the dunes and the dune field, itself are very resilient ecosystems. It is one of the few places in Colorado’s national parks where you can run all over in wild abandon without worrying about messing up the landscape for future generations. Even throwing your sweaty, sunscreen-covered body in the stream is pretty harmless. The water just soaks into the sand downstream and is well filtered by the time it comes up in the sabkha years later.

However, the rest of the park and preserve are a bit more fragile. Rangers ask folks to stay on the trails when hiking in the mountains or across the sand sheet. The hike from the campground to the creek follows a well-beaten path through this wildlife community, and it can be pretty interesting, but please watch your step.