There’s plenty to do at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, but sandboarding is without a doubt the most novel activity on offer. Nestled at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the park’s dunes (which encompass 19,000 acres) likely started forming nearly half a million years ago. Their shapes and patterns fluctuate constantly, depending on the valley’s prevailing wind pattern du jour, but the dunes remain the tallest in North America. Head to Great Sand Dunes between April and October for a chance to sandboard the Star Dune, which, at 750 feet from the valley floor, is the tallest formation around.
The Basics of Sandboarding
Hiking the namesake dunefield is among the most beloved activities in Great Sand Dunes National Park; sandboarding down it is even better. There aren’t any designated trails on the 30-square-mile dunefield—you can just take off from the Visitor Center and explore as you wish. The "High Dune," visible from the parking lot and the Visitor Center on the first ridge of the field, is a popular destination. At nearly 700 feet tall, it’s not the highest dune in the park, but it certainly provides an excellent view.
The best way to get back to the parking lot, though, is via sandboard or sand sled, which is allowed anywhere on the dunefield away from vegetated areas. It’s about three-quarters of a mile to get to the smaller slopes, and a mile and a quarter to get to bigger, longer slopes to board down. Look for slopes with a gentle runout at the bottom; that way, if you get going faster than intended, you won’t crash and burn.
It’s crucial to rent an actual sandboard for an excursion onto the dunes. Snow sleds, snowboards, and skis don’t slide unless the sand is wet, a rare occurrence at Great Sand Dunes; cardboard, saucers, and soft plastic don’t slide, period. Rigid plastic rectangles (those giant tupperware boxes, for example) may slide on the sand, but they’re not safe, since there’s no way to control or steer them.
You can rent sandboards at two local concessioners. The Oasis Store is immediately outside the park and rents boards between April and October. There’s also Kristi Mountain Sports in Alamosa, which rents boards as long as the sand isn’t frozen. (Frozen sand can break boards.)
Like hiking in the dunefield, sandboarding at Great Sand Dunes can be customized depending on fitness and how adventurous your group is feeling. Families with small kids or folks who’ve never experienced anything like this (no skiing or snowboarding experience, for example) can stick to smaller slopes near the Visitor Center. Those looking for a wild ride can hike up to the taller dunes and ride all the way to the bottom, though keep in mind that, thanks to spotty cell reception at the base of the Sangres, the farther you get from the Visitor Center, the longer it’ll take to get help in case of an accident.
Of course, no outdoor activity is completely risk-free, but sandboarding doesn’t involve the same fast speeds as snowboarding or skiing; you’ll likely be moving faster than you could run down the dunes, but not at breakneck speeds.
If you’re traveling with pets, they are technically allowed on a leash in the main day use area in the dunefield, but use caution: Their paws don’t have the protection ours do with shoes, so dogs have been burned on hot sand before, and you don’t want to end up chasing your pooch down the dunefield if they take off after a sandboarder.
The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve features one of the country’s most unique geographic formations—and sandboarding offers a fun way to really enjoy it. You don’t have to be an experienced skier or snowboarder to give it a try, and it just may be the most memorable part of your trip.
Originally written for Alamosa CVB.