Road Trip: Colorado’s Sandbox

Never been to the Great Sand Dunes? This month is a great time to go.

Visitors "sandboard" at the Great Sand Dunes.
Photo by Glenn Oakley

Can I climb them? If you’re a first-time visitor to the Great Sand Dunes in southern Colorado, that will probably be your first question. These unearthly hills, rising from the plains like an impossible mirage, are irresistible, and there’s a high likelihood that you won’t be able to lay eyes on them without wanting to scramble to the top. Good news—you’re encouraged to do so.

Though protected as a National Park and Preserve, every inch of this 30-square-mile sandbox is open to the public. But take note: There’s more to this unique area than just the eponymous main attraction. If you’re planning a trip this season, make sure to carve out time for these additional highlights.

Stay at Zapata Ranch

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Located just a few miles from the entrance to the park, this 103,000-acre working ranch, owned by The Nature Conservancy, offers luxury lodging, high-end amenities, prepared family-style meals, and special workshops—including horsemanship, wildlife photography, and cattle branding—throughout the year. Guests are welcome to get a taste of true ranch life by hopping on a horse and herding bison (the ranch is home to more than 1,000) alongside Zapata’s wranglers. For those seeking a slightly less dusty option, massages and yoga sessions are also available.

Rent a sandboard (or sled)

Hit the slopes in a T-shirt and bare feet. Sandboards—like snowboards, but smaller and lighter—are available for rent at the nearby Great Sand Dunes Oasis shop, or at Kristi Mountain Sports in Alamosa, roughly 40 miles to the southwest. Wax the bottom of your board to ensure proper slippage, strap in (without shoes), and you’re ready to go. If board sports aren’t your forté, try a sled instead. Just remember: no chairlifts on the dunes, so once you get to the bottom, you’ll have to hoof it to the top for another lap.

A visitor walks across a sand dune.

Go fat biking

Regular mountain bikes won’t cut it in deep sand. To ride the Park’s only bikefriendly route—Medano Pass Primitive Road, a rugged byway inaccessible to most cars— borrow yourself a fat bike, a type of cycle with a wide fork and extra-thick tires. Available for rent from Kristi Mountain Sports in Alamosa.

Go hiking

The park gets crowded at midday, so consider waking before first light for an early-bird hike to the top of the dunes. You can watch the sun rise over the Sangre de Cristos, and you’ll get a chance to see the dunes at their most beautiful: wiped blank and clean by the night wind. As the sun climbs higher, leave the sandbox to the late risers and head off to explore some of the park’s many forested trails.