Summer Vacation 2020 – The “Are We There Yet Chronicles?”

Last summer, while we were still camping near Mesa Verde and waiting to hit the road towards Arches, friends from Houston stopped by for a short visit before they settled in for their own Mesa Verde adventure. They had just visited Great Sand Dunes National Park, a national park that had not been on my radar and one I hadn’t considered in the plans for our already busy summer vacation. After all, I had already dropped White Sands and used Monahans Sandhills State Park as a substitute for our inability to see a series of seemingly inexplicable sand dunes nowhere near a large body of water.

When I planned our 2020 summer vacation to Colorado, we were not going to miss Great Sand Dunes for a second summer in a row.

I selected the Alamosa KOA for our basecamp, which was close enough to Crawford State Park that we were parked and unpacked by mid-afternoon. We played cornhole, the kids attempted volleyball, and we were able to make dinner with enough time to drive into Great Sand Dunes late enough that we could stargaze.

Sarah Styf | Accepting the Unexpected Journey

It was pitch dark as we drove into the park, weaving on the road towards the parking lot just next to dunes that we had never seen in the daylight. The moon was just bright enough that we could see the dark outline of sand dunes meeting the starlit sky. Both kids ditched their shoes and ran in the sand, our daughter eventually lying down to stare up while our son ran around, getting out much of his pent up energy from days of travel. He didn’t want to leave. He was convinced we could stay all night, especially after I mentioned that people were allowed to camp in the sand dunes if they were to hike far enough over the peaks.

We finally coaxed him away with a promise that we would return the next day and I would do everything possible to find sleds so they could sled down the dunes.

The second promise proved to be a little more difficult than I originally thought.

There are multiple places around Great Sand Dunes to rent sand sleds and sand boards, including one right outside of the national park, but one has to be quick to reserve. After making two phone calls, I decided to take a chance and drive the ten minutes to one of the locations on my list. The outdoor sports shop was carefully monitoring every customer who came in, and after getting thorough personal attention, it was clear to me why no one answered the phone when I called. Fortunately, they had four sleds left and I picked up two of them. They handed me wax, gave me instructions for how to use the sled, and I headed back to the campground to meet my family so that we could head into the national park.

We stopped at the visitor center, purchased some items at the gift shop, collected our stamps, and picked up the Junior Ranger books and badges for our kids to finish later.

Then we headed to the dunes.

Great Sand Dunes National Park is more than just the sand dunes, but it is clearly the main attraction. Our kids didn’t even want to bother with the hiking trails and with Medano Creek dried up for the remainder of the summer (it runs along the sand dunes during the late spring and is typically dried up by July), they just wanted to head towards the dunes and attempt sledding.

According to park information, the surface of the sand can approach 150 degrees in the middle of the summer, so even though the air temperature was comfortably in the upper 70s to low 80s, we all wore shoes to hike in the sand. As former Michiganders, Jeff and I are aware of the difficulties of climbing sand dunes, even in the best of conditions, but our kids had forgotten their own adventures climbing the sand dunes several years ago at Indiana Dunes where our family completed the 3-Dune Challenge.

I helped our son lug the sled to the top of the first small dune where we waxed the back of the sled and he headed down the hill. He worked his way through the dunes and further into the park in just that fashion, climbing to the top of one dune, sledding down, and then starting up the next one. He took to sand sledding like a champ and kept looking for better dunes to attempt.

Our daughter did not do so well, discovering that she preferred looking at the dunes because it was better than face-planting in the sand.

Our only major mishap of the entire day was when I headed back to the truck with our daughter, who was nursing a hurt head and wounded pride from her last attempt at sledding, and Jeff, his sister Kristen, and our son continued up the dunes.

When we returned from the truck and I tried to get our daughter to go back across the sand, she sat down and started digging instead. Our son had been told he could go back to the truck because everyone else was following. What resulted was a panicked mom who had no idea where her son was in the middle of the desert and a scared little boy because he had done exactly as his dad told him to and his mom still yelled at him.

Maybe taking walkie-talkies would have been a good idea.

An afternoon of climbing in the sand dunes may have been exhausting, but the views were glorious, and it turned out to be a perfect single-day national park adventure. Our son declared that it is his second favorite park, next to Arches.

I think it’s safe to say that I highly recommend the stop if you are ever driving through.

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