Image: Great Sand Dunes
Thomas Peipert  /  AP
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve sits at the base of the 14,000-foot Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Mosca, Colo. The dunes can reach heights of 750 feet.
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updated 8/31/2010 11:41:51 AM ET 2010-08-31T15:41:51

Driving up to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, the view seems almost silly: Across from shallow creeks at the base of the 14,000-foot Sangre de Cristo Mountains sit the largest sand piles in North America, kept in place by wind and water.

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Melting snow, mountain creeks and storms regularly flush sand down the western side of the mountains, and southwesterly winds push the sand back on itself.

It's a cycle that has created dunes up to 750 feet high, with sweeping views of mountains and sky.

Slideshow: America’s lesser-known national parks (on this page)

Camping overnight at the park allows for unique views in moonlight, sunrise and sunset, but it's also possible to squeeze in a day trip from Denver or Santa Fe, N.M.

A water bottle or two, some sunscreen and a little planning is all you need for a hike up the sand. But first some tips.

Park officials aren't kidding when they say the high-altitude dunes get piping hot in summer, even though temperatures usually don't get much above the mid-80s. The sand can reach 140 degrees, so it's best to hike it in sneakers or closed shoes, either early in the morning or in the evening.

Sandals and flip-flops do come in handy for one thing though: In spring and early summer, melting mountain snow replenishes Medano and Sand creeks, which snake around the dunes. It's refreshing to wade barefoot or in sandals in the water before and after a hike. In springtime, some kids in swimsuits and armed with sand shovels end up playing on this temporary beach without ever hiking up.

The creeks are largely gone by August, but a nearby mountain waterfall offers a welcome cool-down. More on that later.

If you go ...

The park has alpine and forest trails, but one of the simpler sand hikes is up High Dune. Fill up water bottles at the visitors center and head to the next parking lot. There are no trails on the dunes. Any route is possible.

Following the ridges is the best bet to avoid heading downhill too much before getting to the peak and having to hike back uphill in sand that swallows footsteps.

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The Oasis shop right outside the park's main entrance rents boards for around $20 a day so you can slide down the dunes like a snowboarder, although some people choose to ride them like a sled.

Jackie McCuistion, 19, of Alamosa, Colo., strapped into one shoeless and tried it out with friends. "Bend your knees, lean back and then just have fun," she said after sliding down a ridge. Plastic sleds work too.

Plan on about 90 minutes to get to the top of High Dune, with breaks for photos and to catch your breath.

Slideshow: America's national parks (on this page)

Afterward, head a few miles south of the park to Zapata Falls. Brown road signs point the way to a gravel road that winds three miles uphill to the start of a half-mile hike to the falls.

The water is usually icy cold in May, more tolerable in late summer. If you don't mind getting your shoes wet, you can step into the shallow water to climb up a shelf back to a nook, right into a rocky hollow where you can watch the waterfall tumbling down from a mountain ledge and spattering you with a mist — a satisfying end to a day in the sun.

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Photos: America's lesser-known national parks

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  1. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado

    In this case, the name does not say it all. Sure, Great Sand Dunes features 30 square miles of flowing sand — Star Dune, the highest, is 750 feet — but within its 150,000 acres, you’ll also find forested trails, alpine lakes and the 13,000-foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The biggest “crowds” come in late spring to swim in Medano Creek, a short-lived snowmelt stream that flows across the sand. Come summer and fall, those with a taste for adventure (and a high-clearance 4WD vehicle) can enjoy high-country hikes and fall foliage via the primitive Medano Pass Road. (Stephen Saks / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

    With famous neighbors including Bryce, Zion and Arches national parks, it’s not surprising that some visitors to southern Utah completely miss Capitol Reef. That’s too bad because within its 400 square miles stand the white reef-like domes that give the park its name, the monoliths of Cathedral Valley and the 100-mile-long geological wrinkle known as Waterpocket Fold. The park is also home to the largest fruit orchard (2,600 trees) in the National Park system, so after a day in the outdoors, head to the Gifford Historic Farmhouse in the Fruita Historic District for fresh-baked pies of peach, pear, cherry, apple and apricot. (NPS.gov) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

    Mt. Rainier may be more imposing, but if you want to get a sense of the explosive energy beneath your feet, Lassen’s the place. (It also gets one-third as many visitors.) From the main park road, you can view the results of the 1915 eruption in the aptly named Devastated Area, experience ongoing hydrothermal activity amid the bubbling mud pots of Bumpass Hell or make the 2,000-foot climb to the summit for the big-picture view. For a more remote experience, head to the northeast corner of the park, where the 700-foot-high Cinder Cone rises above a moonscape of lava beds and painted dunes. (Witold Skrypczak / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota

    Talk about a water park: With just a few short roads that barely pierce its borders, this park in northern Minnesota is a boater’s paradise of bays, islands and passages. Those without their own watercraft can rent canoes to paddle to remote islands and campsites, visit historic sites via a pair of large tour boats or recall the days of the 17th-century voyageurs by joining a 26-foot North Canoe voyage. This year, the park is celebrating its 35th anniversary with a variety of special events, including several nighttime Starwatch Cruises on Rainy Lake on board the Voyageur tour boat. (QT Luong / terragalleria.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska

    Less than 2,000 visitors last year, but almost 500,000 caribou each spring and fall. In other words, the only crowds you’ll experience at Kobuk will likely have antlers and four legs apiece. In fact, this roadless expanse, just north of the Arctic Circle, is so remote that the U.S. Geologic Survey still hasn’t named some of its river drainages. But for those who are prepared for a true wilderness experience, rafting the Kobuk River, hiking the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes or climbing among the Baird and Waring ranges that ring the park can be the adventure of a lifetime. (Tom Walker / AccentAlaska.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Big Bend National Park, Texas

    The “Big,” of course, refers to the sweeping arc the Rio Grande makes along this park’s southern border, but it also applies to the park’s approach to diversity. At 800,000 acres, Big Bend is home to more species of birds (450), butterflies (180) and cacti (60) than any unit in the National Park system. It’d take years to see it all, but for a quick trip, hike the high-country trails of the Chisos Basin, float the Rio Grande between the sheer walls of Santa Elena Canyon and bone up on local history along the new Dorgan-Sublett Trail near Castolon. (Witold Skrypczak / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Channel Islands National Park, California

    The five islands of this park — Anacapa, Santa Cruz, San Miguel, Santa Rosa and solitary Santa Barbara — are just a boat ride or scenic flight from the sprawl of Southern California, yet feel worlds away. In fact, while 350,000 people visited the park’s visitor centers on the mainland last year, only one quarter of them actually made it to the islands themselves. Add in 125,000 acres of protected waters and you’ve got a park that’s part American Galapagos (145 species are found here and nowhere else) and part playground for hikers, divers, boaters and whale watchers. (Stephen Saks / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

    With its cliff dwellings and stone villages, this park in southwest Colorado features some of the best-preserved remnants of the Anasazi people, who lived here from A.D. 600 to A.D. 1300. Unfortunately, many visitors zip in and out, driving the Mesa Top Loop Road or visiting well-trod ruins like Balcony House and Cliff Palace. This summer, however, the park is offering three new ranger-guided tours, including a two-hour, three-mile hike to Mug House; a six-mile, six-hour tour of the Wetherill Mesa area, and an eight-hour, eight-mile hike to several remote dwellings hidden in the recesses of Navajo and Wickiup canyons. (Doug Pensinger / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Biscayne National Park, Florida

    Although Biscayne lies on the doorstep of Miami, it’s actually part of the Florida Keys, a 172,000-acre expanse of crystalline water dotted with sea-grass shallows, patches of coral and 30 keys and islets. In summer, when winds are calm and the bugs are bad, stay on the water with a guided snorkel trip to the natural aquaria around Shark Reef or Bache Shoal; when fall winds pick up (dispelling the mosquitoes), take a three-hour tour to Boca Chita Key where you can climb the 65-foot ornamental lighthouse for panoramic views of the park, Key Biscayne and downtown Miami. (NPS.gov) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, Alaska

    No roads, no visitor facilities and no designated trails — if it’s solitude you seek, this 13,000-square-mile park above the Arctic Circle has your number. (Total number of visitors last year: 9,975.) Some visitors arrive by bush plane; others hike in via Anaktuvuk Pass, but all would be advised to plan ahead, either by using a guide service or being appropriately self-sufficient and wilderness-savvy. The rewards? Endless days under the midnight sun in summer, caribou migrations in spring and fall and panoramas of wild rivers, glacier-carved valleys and the craggy peaks of the Brooks Range year-round. (Lee Foster / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Great Basin, Nevada

    Given Great Basin’s location — just off U.S. 50, aka The Loneliest Road in America — it’s hardly surprising that the park accounted for a measly .03 percent of visits (85,000) to the National Park System. Most visitors come to tour the limestone wonderland of Lehman Caves or hike amid the gnarled, 4,000-year-old bristlecone pines on Wheeler Peak. It’s also popular (relatively speaking) with stargazers who come to the park because it boasts some of the darkest night skies in the Lower 48. Consider joining them August 6–8, when the park will hold its first-ever Great Basin National Park Astronomy Festival. (NPS.gov) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

    Seventy miles west of Key West and surrounded by the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Dry Tortugas saw just 52,000 visitors last year — probably because you have to take a ferry, seaplane or private boat to get there. Once on site, visitors can tour the hulking Civil War–era Fort Jefferson, stroll the beach of Garden Key (most of the other islands are closed to the public) and snorkel amid conchs, corals and kaleidoscopic fish. (Park personnel are monitoring the local waters for oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill, but are currently reporting no evidence of contamination.) (Eddie Brady / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska

    The largest park in the National Park system spans 13.2 million acres, features nine of the 16 highest peaks in the country and boasts the continent’s greatest assemblage of glaciers, yet received less than 60,000 people last year. Crowds? Not a problem. Most visitors drive the 60-mile McCarthy Road to visit the rustic town of the same name, tour the Kennecott Mill site or hike up to the toe of Root Glacier. If that sounds too busy, opt instead for the lesser-traveled Nabesna Road, which offers equally stunning scenery and more chances to see wildlife. (NPS.gov) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado

    Rocky Mountain National Park got 2.8 million visitors last year. Black Canyon of the Gunnison? Less than 175,000. Cut steep and deep by the thundering Gunny, the canyon’s near-vertical walls rise as high as 2,700 feet above the water and provide a vivid (and vertiginous) view of 2 billion years of geology. Most visitors stick to the more-developed, easier-accessed South Rim, so consider the more primitive North Rim for equally impressive views with even fewer people. “There’s only a quarter of a mile between them,” says Chief of Interpretation Sandy Snell-Dobert, “but it’s so much quieter.” (Jim Wark / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

    Let’s face it, without Teddy Roosevelt, the U.S. would probably have far less protected space than it does, so a visit to his one-time homestead is more than appropriate. (Besides, it gets half as many visitors as the better-known Badlands.) Most visitors hit the South Unit, snapping pictures of T. Roo’s cabin and the Painted Canyon, while others venture to the North Unit to see prairie dogs and river views. Only a handful make it to the remote Elkhorn Ranch Unit, which Chief of Interpretation Eileen Andes says features “the best view of the Little Missouri and maybe the best view in North Dakota.” (NPS.gov) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

    Closer to Ontario than Michigan, this island park in Lake Superior is only accessible by boat or seaplane, which probably explains why it saw only 15,000 visitors last year. For day trippers, easy trails around Windigo and the lodging and tour services at Rock Harbor offer scenic views and glimpses of island history; for canoers, kayakers and backpackers, the bays, interior lakes and backcountry trails are as wild as they come. Ferries and water taxis can transport you to remote docks scattered along the 45-mile-long island; after that, you’re on your own. (NPS.gov) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas

    Heading to Carlsbad Caverns? If so, consider adding a visit to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which sits just an hour away, sees less than half as many visitors and offers some of the Southwest’s most surprising topography. Check out the unexpectedly lush vegetation in McKittrick Canyon, the 265-million-year-old marine fossils along the Permian Reef Trail and the backcountry trails off the park’s remote Dog Canyon entrance. Prefer some company? This summer, the park is offering its first Hike with a Ranger program, which will offer full-day backcountry hikes with a ranger on the last Sunday of the month. (NPS.gov) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. National Park of American Samoa, American Samoa

    They don’t come much more remote — or more scenic — than this little beauty, which is located 2,600 miles southwest of Hawaii, spread across four islands and blessed with tropical rainforests, pristine beaches and gin-clear waters teeming with fish. Start your visit with a scenic drive to Vatia on the main island of Tutuila, then hop a flight to Ofu or Olosega for beachcombing and snorkeling. More intrepid visitors should also visit Ta’u, the fourth island, which is considered the birthplace of the Polynesian people. “Access is difficult,” says Park Ranger Sarah Bone, “but the reward will pay for itself several times over.” (NPS.gov) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
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    Above: Slideshow (18) America’s lesser-known national parks
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    Slideshow (28) America's national parks

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