Great Sand Dunes National Park: A One-of-a-Kind Family Adventure

Great Sand Dunes National Park

As I watched my daughter dancing on the sandy beach, I looked up at the snow-capped mountains and the largest dunes in North America. The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Reserve is located in southern Colorado, and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Medano Creek

We went to the park mid-day on Memorial Day, so I was relieved when we got into the park without a long wait at the entrance and we were able to find a good spot in the popular Dunes Parking area. We were very lucky! During peak season it’s better to avoid crowds and afternoon storms by arriving early in the morning.

Medano Creek runs in late May at Great Sand Dunes National Park

To get to the dunes, we had to cross Medano Creek which flows each season when the snow melts off the mountains (typically in late May). The water was freezing cold, but it was so much fun to take off our shoes and run laughing and splashing across the icy stream.

Sand, water, mountains at Great Sand Dunes National Park

We played in the sand, which was nice and cool on our bare feet. During summer months, the sand can be as hot as 150 degrees Fahrenheit!

Dancing in the sand at Great Sand Dunes National Park

We witnessed some visitors carrying sand sleds and sandboards which can be rented out at local equipment stores.

Wind at Great Sand Dunes National Park

Wind created the formation of the Sand Dunes over time, so it’s not surprising the Sand Dunes can be windy. We experienced a little bit of the wind which can blow sand and make hiking less enjoyable. The park recommends using sunglasses, long sleeves and pants during high winds.

Our visit to the Great Sand Dunes National Park was short, but amazing. I hope we can go back soon to explore more of the park and surrounding areas.

You can learn more about the Great Sand Dunes National Park in the online visitor’s guide.

How to Survive a Long Family Road Trip

Tis the season for family road trips. If you are like many Midwestern families, you will be bundling up the kiddos and driving at least a couple of hours to visit loved ones this holiday season. How do you make this part of the holidays a little less stressful so you can focus on the festivities?

We’ve learned a lot from our frequent treks from our home town near Kansas City, MO to Estes Park, CO. This trip takes about 10.5 hours each way. One of the things we hear the most from friends with young kids is that they are intimidated to make long drives. We get it, driving all day is tough on us and really tough on the kiddos, but they usually do great.

Prepare for Traveling Day in Advance

The day before we go on our trip we make sure all of our electronics are charged, filled with downloaded content, and ready to go with car adapters. We recently bought the girls new Kid’s Kindle Fire tablets, but limit their use to road trips, so it feels like a special treat.

how to survive long car ride with family

We also stock up on snacks and drinks for the road. While we often still end up buying odds and ends at gas stations (we try to buy something when we pop in for restroom breaks), its great to have a cooler full of milk for the girls and water/Gatorade for us. While it’s a tough balance to avoid too many extra bathroom breaks, we’ve found it to be important to stay fully hydrated on the trip out to fend off altitude sickness at our final destination. For us, it helps driving in to Colorado rather than flying in because our bodies can acclimate a little more gradually to the change. Altitude impacts everyone differently, even those in great physical condition,  so we often advise family and friends who know that they struggle with the adjustment to stay near the Denver area for a night before going further up in the mountains.

Road Trip Backpacks with Activities

Each girl gets their own backpack filled with coloring, activity books and art supplies.  We often listen to toddler radio stations to sing along to before switching to relaxing tunes around nap time.

Our Toddler Travel Bags Include:

  1. Amazon Fire with a kid-proof (pink!) case
  2. Our kids favorite books like Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do You See?
  3. Tracing books to practice our preschooler’s emerging writing skills
  4. Snacks, snacks and more snacks. You can’t have too many snacks
  5. Water Wow! this is a mess free art activity that the girls can do again and again
  6. Color Wonder Mess Free Coloring our girls love to draw and we love when we don’t have to worry about what they are coloring on because these markers only mark on the special color wonder paper.

Timing

We’ve tried several theories on the best way to time the long trip including leaving late and driving through the night or stopping half way and staying at a hotel. Surprisingly, we’ve found leaving mid-morning works best for our family. Here is our basic time-line:

7:00AM girls wake up, eat breakfast, play to burn off energy and we pack the car
9:00AM leave after making sure everyone has used the restroom and/or has fresh diaper
10:00AM we typically try to make it out-of-town before we start any electronics
12:00PM stop for lunch, bathroom and gas fill-up break
12:30PM get back in the car and hope for nap time
3:00PM stop for snack, bathroom and gas fill-up break
5:00PM we make a game time decision to stop for dinner or keep going
6:00-7:00PM estimated arrival. We gain an hour of sunlight when clocks change to Mountain Standard Time.

Route

Without traffic it’s just about as fast going through Denver and Boulder to get to Estes Park, but we typically take E-470 up by the airport to bypass most of the city. E-470 is a toll road and they will mail you a bill if you plan on going once, but if you plan on going to Colorado frequently, it might make sense to get an express toll pass.

Restroom Breaks

We bring along our own potty training toilet for the girls to use when we are in need of breaks between towns (which is common in the middle of Kansas and Eastern Colorado) or when we decide the toilets that are available are not clean enough to use.

Weather

We pay close attention to weather and road conditions using COtrip.org, KanDrive.org and our weather apps. In the spring and early summer we are concerned about pop up storms that can produce tornadoes. In the late fall through early spring we pay attention to icy roads and snow.

Whether you are going on a 1 hour trip or 10 hour trip, planning ahead, having lots of distractions including loads of snacks, and thinking through potential hiccups will help reduce the stress of traveling with young kids. We hope you enjoy happy and safe travels this holiday season.

We’d love to hear your opinion too. Do you have any road trip survival tips we missed?