Five ways to have a kick-ass trip to Great Sand Dunes National ParkThe Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is one of those "holy sh*t" destinations. Tucked away at the foot of the mountains in the middle of Colorado is something seemingly transported from stereotypical visions of middle-eastern deserts.
In terms of the dunes themselves, you can easily spend a day there, but probably no need for more (unless you plan on exploring the trails and nearby mountains, or just REALLY like sand). Beyond that, I've put together a few tips that should make your visit awesome as hell.
1. Gas up in Fort Garland
Fort Garland is a small town about 30 minutes away from the dunes. If you're coming in from the interstate, this is likely the last beacon of civilization you'll see for a while. If you're coming from the west, top off in Alamosa. Either way, just be sure to get a full tank. There's one convenience shop/gas station/RV park/restaurant right outside the park called Great Sand Dunes Oasis, and of course the prices are fully inflated to "it's your only damn choice" levels.
2. Be ready for lots, and lots, and lots of sandJoe Morahan via Getty Images
This should be obvious, but you've probably never actually hung around on sand dunes all day. It's, like, a lot of sand. Mountains of it, literally. I chose Doc Marten boots for footwear, which worked well for hiking around and for the most part kept my feet protected. No matter what, you'll spend some time dumping piles of sand out of your shoes every 30 minutes.
And if you're visiting during the summer, don't think you'll just be prancing around barefoot. The sand will get hot enough to turn your feet into scorched stumps of pain and hatred.
You can bring snacks and drinks, etc., but again, be ready for sand to get into everything. It's also about a half mile walk just to get from the parking lot to the base of the dunes, so don't overpack.
Generally speaking, just imagine as much sand as possible getting into and on everything — then imagine lots more. Then prepare for 10x more.
3. Rent a sand-sledYvette Cardozo/Getty
The Great Sand Dunes Oasis just outside the park rents out sleds and boards that you can use to ride down the dunes. It's $20 for 24 hours. Just remember that you'll have to schlep it with you up every dune you want to ride down. So if you're planning on doing some legit hiking, you might want to leave it in the car for a bit. Just be sure to grab it before you enter the park if you're even thinking about using it — it's a pain in the arse to come back later.
4. Hike up the High DuneWitold Skrypczak/Getty
Although it's actually not the highest dune in the park (that would be Star Dune, at 750 feet), the one that looks the tallest when you pull up is the one that's the easies to hike while offering an amazing view of the entire landscape at the summit.
On average it takes about two hours round trip to hike up and back down from High Dune, which is perfect so you can take advantage of enjoying the rest of the park. It's doable with kids, just remember to bring water (which I stupidly forgot).
There's a plaque that clearly points out which dunes are which, and you'll also likely see a line of people hiking up. It's just a bunch of sand, so there's no official trail. Scope out your path beforehand, keeping in mind it's easiest to walk along the crests of the dunes.
5. Eat at Calvillo's after your visit
Shut up and just go there. It's not only one of the best buffets you'll ever go to, it's some of the best Mexican food I've ever had in my life. (And to those of you saying, "They have more than the buffet": See above statement about shutting up.)
It's authentic, delicious and provides a ton of variety. The perfect way to reload all those calories you burned reenacting Aladdin.
James Kerley is a Senior Editor at MapQuest.