Great Sand Dunes National Park and White Sands National Monument are both monumental marvels of sand. Both spread out for miles and miles, with a gorgeous mountain backdrop that would make Vinny Van Gogh pull out an easel immediately.
So, the question is of course, which one should you plan a visit to? The enormous Great Sand Dunes in Colorado…
Or the unbelievably bright White Sands in New Mexico…
That is a great question, and one that we cannot WAIT to answer! Without further ado, let’s start off on the sandiest journey of a lifetime.
Great Sand Dunes National Park
- Location: Southern Colorado
- Size: 233 square miles
- Yearly Visitors: 400,000 – 450,000 people
- Largest Dunes: 750 feet
The first thing we noticed about Great Sand Dunes National Park is the sheer SIZE of the dunes themselves. They are flipping ENORMOUS, stretching 750 feet up, each one a mini-mountain of sand in its own right.
We are 95% sure that these dunes used to be a Microsoft Windows home screen in the 1990s…
As you drive up to the dunes, you’ll be able to see them from miles away. You think you’re close once you spot them, but you still have a ways to go, and the dunes TOWER above you as you approach.
With the Rocky Mountains providing a stunning backdrop, these well-named Great Sand Dunes make for an incredible photo, displaying the power of Mother Nature in all her glory.
In that last picture of us with Kobe, do you see that dot in the distance on the ridge of a dune… It is circled below:
That is a person, hiking up the dune. A full-grown human being, looking like a speck of dust on your screen. THAT is how gigantic the Great Sand Dunes are. You will feel like an ant climbing up and sliding down each one.
Best Time to Visit
The Great Sand Dunes have some altitude to them. That means, even though they have some desert-like properties, they don’t get as hot as a typical desert might.
We recommend making your trip to Great Sand Dunes during a time when the typical average temperatures are very comfortable, somewhere between 70 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit as a high for the day. These months are ideal:
- May, June, July, August, September, October
We visited in May, when the weather was a high of 70 each day we were there. We couldn’t have asked for better weather, there was sun shining and the sand was a nice warm temperature on our feet.
Apparently during the summer highs, the sand can get very hot, upwards of 140 degrees Fahrenheit. This doesn’t mean you can’t go on the dunes, it just means you should wear shoes when you do! Bring shoes & socks just in case.
Current WeatherGREAT SAND DUNES WEATHER
We always check the weather a few days or a week before going somewhere, so that we can plan for what’s ahead of us. We recommend you do the same, though in our experience the weather at Great Sand Dunes is very consistent!
There is no shortage of activities to fill your days at Great Sand Dunes National Park. Do you like hiking and camping? Maybe you prefer beach days and sunbathing? Or you could be an extreme sports aficionado… Great Sand Dunes is THE place you’ll want to be.
As stated above, the tallest dune in the park is 750 feet up. A hike with a 750 foot elevation gain is significant, let alone a hike on SAND.
Hiking in Great Sand Dunes is not a walk in the park, it is much harder, but much more beautiful. Let’s start with the bad before the good.
Hiking uphill through sand is kind of like taking 2 steps forward, 1 step back. Every step you take, your foot slides backwards a bit. That makes you want to take large steps, which can tire you out.
How do you conquer the dune? Hike the crest. On the crest, the sand will have a much more shallow incline, and the sand will be packed down better. You will slide less and have a much easier time hiking the dunes.
Okay, we said the bad before the good, so what is the good? 2 things.
Number 1, the fact that hiking the dunes is difficult means that there aren’t many people doing it. The dune field is so vast, and the people so few and far between, that you can find secluded areas that you would never be able to find in many other natural wonderlands.
Number 2, the view itself. The fact that the dunes are so tall are what makes them difficult to climb, but that is also what makes them so stunning to look at. You can’t have one without the other, and we are glad Mother Nature made these the way she did.
Starting off with a confession: we did not go sand sledding here. We DID go sand boarding (more in a second) and talked with people who were sledding, but we never personally planted out butt cheeks on a board and slid down ourselves.
Sledding gives the opportunity for a day full of fun to people who may feel uncomfortable riding down the dunes standing up with their feet strapped to a board. Sledding is definitely the safer option, and is our recommendation to families with kids or anyone who hasn’t gone snowboarding before.
Sled and board rentals are available at 2 locations, both outside the park, so you need to plan ahead. The first is in Alamosa at Kristi Mountain Sports and the second is Great Sand Dunes Oasis right outside the park. Sleds and boards are each $20 for a full day rental, and come with a block of wax (and a lesson on how to use them safely).
While we didn’t go sledding, we absolutely DID jump on a sand board and try our luck heading down the steepest, longest dunes we could find!
We had some experience snowboarding (we suck, but we can make it down the hills without crying, sometimes…) before sand boarding, so we were relatively confident.
5 or 6 butt flops later, we weren’t so confident. Steering in sand is a bit different than steering on snow, and the board goes much slower on sand than snow. With that being said, sand doesn’t hurt to land on, and more importantly it is warm.
Falling on your sand board in Great Sand Dunes is actually kind of fun! We plopped onto our butt and slid to a stop on the soft, warm sand. Only negative is you might be picking sand out of weird places a few hours later…
Even our little chihuahua, Kobe, tried his hand at sand boarding! Don’t worry, he only went 5 feet or so before coming to a stop and walking off the board with a saunter that made all the female dogs in eyesight swoon.
Sand boarding was in our opinion what set Great Sand Dunes apart from other beautiful places in the United States. There aren’t many places where you can slide down a mountain in the summer, but this is one of them! The best one for boarding and sledding, in fact.
Many visitors to Great Sand Dunes weren’t coming for hiking or adventure at all, they were coming for a nice day at the beach!
A very short walk from the parking lot, there is a creek that slows through the sand field. This creek, not more than 6″ deep when we were visiting in May, made for a wonderful place to set up a chair and umbrella and enjoy a day at the beach! One with an incredible view…
Great Sand Dunes National Park IS dog-friendly. Bring your pooch for a fun day exploring the dunes, or hanging by the creek!
Our recommendation is to take it one step further and pack a beach-side picnic! You will have the most relaxing time soaking up the sun, munching on some yummy goodies, and taking in the sights and sounds of Great Sand Dunes National Park.
The Great Sand Dunes, like many national parks, has more than a few options for where to stay. Of course, there are lodging options within a few miles of the park, however we, as we always do, recommend camping!
Now, when it comes to camping, the more primitive the better in our opinion. However, we will say that if you prefer developed campsites, they have those as well.
The primitive campsite we found was right outside the park, not more than a few miles. It was right off Lake Como road, click for more information on this site. Why did we love it? Number 1, the price: free.
Number 2, the site had a stupidly stupendous view of the surrounding mountains and countryside. Going to sleep under the starry sky and waking up to a beautiful Southern Colorado sunrise will leave anyone refreshed and ready to take on the day!
White Sands National Monument
- Location: South New Mexico
- Size: 225 square miles
- Yearly Visitors: 600,000 – 650,000 people
- Largest Dunes: 60 feet
White Sands National Monument is truly unlike any other place we’ve ever been, or even seen pictures of. The sand is truly a brilliant color of white, so much so that it looks unnatural, like it was from some other planet.
Fun Fact: Much of ‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen‘ was filmed at White Sands!
As you drive through the New Mexico mountains and countryside on your way, White Sands sneaks up on you. This is especially crazy because you can see for MILES and MILES as you approach.
Once you do enter the National Monument, there is a 5 mile drive to the edge of the road. From here, all exploration is on foot! Or by sled… More on that in a minute.
The bright white color of the sand in this National Monument is the alkali that makes up the sand. Interestingly, this is the material used for commercial purposes in the production of drywall! We are VERY glad that this piece of land was preserved…
Best Time to Visit
White Sands is in New Mexico. New Mexico gets a LOT of sun during the summer. Do you like sun? That should VERY MUCH decide when you visit this sandy wonderland.
During the summer, the weather averages over 90 degrees, which is NO joke in the desert. Our best recommendations as to when to visit are when the temperature highs are in the 70s and 80s. These months:
- March, April, May & September, October, November.
We personally went in April, and had absolutely GORGEOUS weather. The sand was not incredibly hot on our feet, but we were still out there in tank tops and shorts soaking up the sun.
Current WeatherWHITE SANDS WEATHER
Of course, check the weather a week or so ahead of your trip, and plan accordingly. This area does not receive much rain, but Murphy’s Law is Murphy’s Law. You will more-than-likely get some wonderful sunshine, but still best to plan ahead!
White Sands is an ENORMOUS place. A person could spend an entire week exploring the park and not see it all.
However, we think that 2-3 days is enough to do everything in White Sands, and have an incredible experience along the way.
Whether you are into extreme sports or a walk on the beach, a wandering nomad or a settled family, White Sands has something for you.
White Sands has many short trails that make for an easy walk, however the biggest (and best in our opinion) hike in the park is Alkali Flats.
Alkali Flats is a trail through the ENORMOUS expanse that makes White Sands such a visually powerful experience.
The San Andres Mountains work together with the New Mexico sky to make a distant background, while the salt flats spread for MILES making photos a once-in-a-lifetime capture.
In addition, the wind is constantly moving and re-shaping the dunes and surrounding landscape. What does this mean? That every person who lays eyes on White Sands has a new visual, something different than anyone who experienced the dunes before them.
Sand Sledding was perhaps the most raw fun we had at White Sands. We felt like kids again in the Midwest, only we traded in snow and winter jackets for sand and tank-tops! A trade we’ll make any day of the week…
Sand Sleds can be rented from the White Sands Visitor Center at the entrance to the grounds. They are very cheap, only $10 or so, and you get some of that money back when you return the sled at the end of the day.
Full disclosure: hiking up the dunes every time to sled down is NOT easy. Walking in White Sands, just like in Great Sand Dunes, is TOUGH. If you’ve ever ran on the beach you know what we mean.
Our recommendation is to get 1 sand sled for every 2-3 people in your group. That way some can rest while others hike up the dunes and sled down!
Whatever you do, whoever you are, you MUST have a picnic at White Sands. There are two options: either stop at one of the many picnic areas throughout the park or pack a picnic on your hike and eat on top of a dune!
What did we do? The latter. And we had a BLAST doing it!
We love whenever we get the chance to have lunch in nature, especially in somewhere as unique as you see while hiking White Sands. We had a sandwich and some apples in front of a sand/mountain/sky panorama that was pulled straight from that 1000 piece puzzle your uncle is still working on.
However, we were definitely in the minority in this regard. We saw many families and groups having picnics in the picnic area, having the time of their lives.
What is super cool about the picnic areas is that they are right by the dunes. Therefore, if you came with your kids and have a few sleds, you can go sledding, have lunch, and spend the day all in one spot!
The second trail (first on the left) as you drive through White Sands is the Dune Life Nature Trail. This trail is a 1 mile loop through the part of White Sands that has more vegetation, and thus more opportunity for wildlife.
Unfortunately, we were not lucky enough to see wildlife on our journey, however we did leave the trail very educated on different species present in the park! There were signs every 100 yards or so, each explaining where a different species lives and how they are able to survive in the desert climate.
We recommend doing this trail more towards dusk, as that is the most likely time to spot wildlife, that is what we were told by Rangers at least. Enjoy!
However, we are always trying to save a buck, so we chose to camp at some BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land on Holloman Lake right outside the park! Camping here is free, and offers an awesome opportunity to camp lakeside at a location very close to White Sands.
We personally didn’t go swimming, and recommend that you don’t either. Don’t treat Holloman Lake as a lakeside park that is great for picnicking and spending a day at the water, treat it as a campsite, nothing more nothing less.
Great Sand Dunes National Park and White Sands National Monument each are uniquely beautiful, and offer a visitor a wide array of incredible experiences.
Our final verdict depends, of course, on your own personal interests! And on the time of year:
- In the middle of Summer, we say Great Sand Dunes
- In the late-Spring and early-Fall, go for White Sands
- Are you an extreme sport aficionado? Great Sand Dunes is your jam
- Would you prefer a day walking a trail through the dunes? White Sands has your name written all over it.
Really to be perfectly honest, you can not go wrong either way. Both of these places are natural wonders, and you should see them both!
There’s your answer. Go see them both. You will one hundred percent not regret a single minute.
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