While many national parks offer infinite adventures, only a handful include dunes. These natural formations can become playgrounds for all ages to enjoy.
You’re missing out if you’ve never experienced a towering pile of sand. The possibilities are endless, whether you want to climb up, sled down, or photograph them.
Today, we’re looking at three great national parks with dunes. So grab your camera and get ready for an unforgettable adventure.
Let’s hit the road!
Why Visit National Parks With Sand Dunes?
Dunes are landforms made from winds blowing sand grains into piles. As we mentioned, these natural wonders are perfect for the whole family. Some epic locations have attracted enough attention to receive national park status.
Many visitors challenge themselves to hike up or down these massive formations. However, an arguably more fun way to experience them is on a sled. If you’ve yet to go sledding, here’s your chance.
Due to their soft and steep construction, you don’t need snow to fly down these hills. Grab a cheap saucer sled and rub some surfing or snowboarding wax on the bottom. This will create a thin layer that minimizes friction and helps the individual soar down the dune.
Even if the idea of sledding doesn’t convince you, these spots are still worth visiting. Walking through these areas can feel like you’re exploring a different planet.
Speaking of saucer sleds: Flexible Flyer Metal Sand Slider.
#1 Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve covers roughly 30 square miles. Many refer to it as North America’s largest sandbox. It was designated a national monument in 1932 and promoted to a national park in 2004.
It’s a one-of-a-kind unit in southern Colorado, home to a massive 750-foot pile of sand. The views throughout the area are breathtaking, with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the background.
It contains not only massive dunes but also six peaks over 13,000 feet. You can also walk through various habitats, including aspen, cottonwood, and spruce forests.
Best Things To Do at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
One of the most popular activities at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is sand boarding or sledding. Don’t worry if you don’t bring your own. You’ll find several nearby retailers where you can rent them. Unfortunately, all of these locations are outside of the NPS boundaries.
Aside from sledding, it has a variety of other activities to enjoy. Another popular attraction is Zapata Falls. Accessing this 24-foot waterfall requires a short hike along a relatively steep trail. However, a hidden cave behind the waterfall can be an incredible way to experience the falls.
The Great Sand Dunes area is also trendy for stargazing and those passionate about astronomy. It received the designation as an International Dark Sky Park. On a clear, moonless night, you can see more stars than you ever imagined.
Where To Stay Near Great Sand Dunes
You’ll want to stay close to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Piñon Flats is one option, but it fills up quickly and offers no hookups. If you’re looking for a few more amenities, you’ll want to stay at San Luis Lakes Campground.
They have approximately 50 campsites that are first-come, first-serve. While this campground is free, it does require guests to possess a hunting or fishing license. Officials check that everyone has these, so ensure you acquire yours before setting up camp.
We’ve got more details for you here: Free Camping at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado.
#2 Indiana Dunes National Park
This destination sits on Lake Michigan’s banks in the state’s northwestern corner. While previously a national lakeshore since 1966, it received its designation in 2019. It’s one of the newest National Park Service (NPS) family members.
Dunes here tower upwards of 200 feet above Lake Michigan and the surrounding area. It covers roughly 15,000 acres and is home to more than 350 species of birds. Approximately two million visitors each year experience the beauty of this location and its sandy beaches.
Best Things To Do at Indiana Dunes National Park
Indiana Dunes National Park provides a beach-like experience in the heart of the Midwest. Here you can enjoy many of the same activities you would at an ocean beach. Popular activities include swimming, building sandcastles, and boating or fishing.
In addition, there are plenty of hiking and biking trails. These are great ways to explore the area and appreciate its natural beauty. However, take on the Three Dune Challenge for a more heart-pumping adventure. This is a 1.5-mile hike with a vertical climb of over 550 feet. Once you complete the challenge, head to the visitor center and get a bumper sticker or some merchandise to remember the experience.
A unique experience is the Century of Progress Historic District. The homes in this district were in the 1933 World’s Fair, which took place in Chicago. Five homes got moved into a resort community along the lake. Four of them have since received upgrades and have full-time residents. Read the plaques and snap some photos if you visit, but give the owners their space.
Where To Stay Near Indiana Dunes
Dunewood Campground is your best option to stay close to the national park. They have 67 total campsites, with a dozen reserved for tents. While this may be the most convenient location, the state campground is a step up yet still suitable.
The Indiana Dunes State Park campground offers all the amenities guests expect, water, power, and a dump station. In addition, it’s within walking distance of the lakeshore. Unfortunately, this makes it a trendy spot and fills up very quickly. If you want to stay here, you’ll likely need to plan to snag a spot months in advance.
#3 White Sands National Park
White Sands sits in southern New Mexico and has been a national monument since 1933. It wasn’t recognized as a national park until 2019.
It’s a 275-square-mile gypsum field, unlike anything most people have seen. However, only 115 of the square miles are on public land. The rest sit on grounds managed by the military. It goes without stating that we don’t recommend wandering across the border between the two.
The massive formations are constantly shifting and changing due to the wind and weather conditions. It stands out from the rest due to the drastic contrasts between the white sand and bright blue skies.
Best Things To Do at White Sands National Park
One of the most popular activities at White Sands National Park is dune sledding. The visitor center rents everything you need. Once you acquire the necessary gear, you can pick your favorite place in the sand to start. In our experience, the steeper, the better.
Whether you like sledding or not, it’s also great for hiking and enjoying a scenic drive. One of the most famous drives is along Dunes Drive, a 16-mile packed road.
It’s a relatively smooth road, meaning almost any vehicle can handle it. We’ve seen everything from massive RVs to compact cars cruising along this road. It’s a great way to see the landscapes and experience as much as possible.
Where To Stay Near White Sands
Unfortunately, White Sands National Park is very remote, so you won’t find many accommodations. As a result, the best place to stay will be at Oliver Lee Memorial State Park, about 30 minutes away in Alamogordo.
This campground is open year-round and has 44 campsites. However, remember that October through April is peak season, and these sites can go quickly. In addition, not all sites offer electric or water connections. Some require users to dry camp, but restrooms and shower houses are available.
We have several other options in The Best Camping at White Sands National Park.
These Parks Are Just the Beginning
While we’ve shared three great national parks with dunes with you, they’re not the only ones. The US has many more in state and federal sites nationwide.
They can be an exciting place to explore. If you’re considering your next adventure, check out any one of these locations.