This is a nice half-day trip for anyone in southern Colorado. Would I make a trip down to the Great Sand Dunes from Denver? No, it just isn’t worth it in my opinion, I would rather make a trip down to one of the 14ers in southern Colorado. However, I WOULD make this a stop along a trip. My family took a trip from Denver to Glenwood Springs (Hanging Lake) to Aspen (Crater Lake) to Gunnison (where we visited the Black Canyon) to Ouray (Mt. Sneffels & Corkscrew Gulch) to Durango (where we did some white water rafting) and back to Denver. I would HIGHLY recommend following a similar trip, but exercising caution on tackling the 14er if you are not experienced, as this trip was a great trip around western Colorado in the mountains. A difficult class 2 can be a nasty trail to get stuck on if you lack the experience to make the necessary maneuvers and line-choosing – be sure to try a class 1 and 2 before trying a difficult class 2 or class 3.
As I said, we stopped here on our drive from Durango back up to Denver, and that made this a very worthwhile stop along the way. It’ll be a half-day adventure most likely, as there are a couple things to do at the sand dunes! While there was a hike up the mountains behind the sand dunes, but we didn’t quite have enough time for that. We ended up stopping at the small shop outside of the park and renting a sand board (there are lots of obvious signs about renting sand boards or sleds at this stop). It costed maybe $10 for a board for the day plus some wax that works well in hot temperatures.
You may think that you can make a full day out of the dunes, but you would likely be wrong; granted, my brother and I had hiked hanging lake, crater lake, Mt. Sneffels, and white water rafted all within a week. We would take the board, wax it at the top of a steep dune, and one guy would film the other board down. The steeper dunes (about the equivalent steepness of a single black diamond run at a Colorado ski resort) are a small hike back, probably about a mile into the actual dunes (and it is maybe 1/4-1/2 of a mile from the parking lot to the start of the hills of the dunes. This will make you pretty tired to begin with. I don’t think it necessarily takes experiences to board the steeper dunes, because if you fall you will just roll down the dunes until you get to the bottom, no real threat of fatalities.
On that note, there are a couple of things I was VERY glad I brought. A wide brimmed hat, sunglasses, sunblock, LOTS of cold water (the dunes can reach up to 120 degrees, and it certainly felt that way when we were there!), and a change of shoes. I would put on my trail runners to board down the dunes so I could carve (I should say TRY to carve, as you really have to stay either toe or heel side, whichever you start on, as switching to the other side is pretty tricky in sand believe it or not!). Once at the bottom of a dune, I would take out some sandles from my backpack and throw those on. Keeping runners on while hiking up will pour the desert into your shoe. And while your feet burn a little from the hot sand wearing sandles, it was worth it over the sand that inevitably made its way into my runners.
Be sure to wax up before each run down, as the wax will wear off after each run from the heat and you’ll notice it if you don’t wax up well. After 5 hikes up a dune, you’ll be pretty tired and thirsty and ready to call it a day. It was lots of fun to find the steepest hill out there and just go straight down it – inevitably wiping out, but having fun doing so!
The other thing that was popular to do was sit at the “creek” that ran through the dunes. Just after the parking lot is a small stretch (the 1/4-1/2 mile stretch previously mentioned) that was wet with small little “creeks” of water running through the sand. It was pretty weird. The water was warm, as one might expect, but it was nice to dip your feet in. Lots of people set up some shade and had lunch with their feet soaking in some water. It looked quite relaxing, but my brother and I opted for boarding the dunes.
My concluding thoughts are that this was a half-day well spent IF you happen to be in southern Colorado for other reasons. On another thought, the night sky would be phenomenal at night (since there are no nearby cities for light pollution) if you are in to astronomy. I enjoy astronomy myself, but had no room in our car for a telescope nor camping equipment. THAT might be worth a solo trip down to the dunes (but I would probably still sneak over to a 14er).