These three colorful year-round sand destinations will ensure you get sand into everything.
WHITE SANDS NATIONAL MONUMENT
Alamagordo, New Mexico
Elevation: 4,235; square mileage: 275
It’s “all systems go” at White Sands National Monument, unless a scheduled missile test has the road closed to this must-see of the sand destinations. It happens. But when the planet’s largest gypsum dune field is accessible, which is most of the time, there’s a lot to see and do here in a desert area roughly 30% larger than the size of Albuquerque.
If you’re looking to hike into the magnificent white dunes, the rangers at the visitor center will point you to the five established trails that reach into the monument. The trails vary in difficulty, but each will take you away from the crowds and into solitude where you can marvel the dunes rolling to the surrounding mountains. The trails, all but the Interdune Boardwalk, are marked with color posts to help you find your way.
The monument offers a special backcountry camping experience that actually requires you to get away from it all. To get to a primitive campsite, you get a permit at the visitor center then hike self-supported to a campsite at least a mile into the dunes. Backcountry camping is the only way to camp in the monument. Campgrounds outside of the monument provide options for other types of camping.
If you’re ready to rip, the dunes offer endless sandboarding and sledding. Sledding is so popular here that the monument gift shop sells sleds.
Wherever you are in the dunes, keep your eyes open for the more than 800 animal species, including seven species of amphibians, over 220 species of birds and one species of fish, the White Sands pupfish.
Bicycles and motorcycles are also a good option to see the monument, but they’re limited to Dunes Drive, an 8-mile drive, of which the first five miles are paved and the last three miles are hard-packed gypsum. The road does offer good views, but be prepared to share the road with vehicles of all shapes and sizes including RVs and buses. The amenities along the road cater to the traffic, with stops at picnic areas, exhibits, vault toilets and parking areas. There are a total of 62 shaded first-come, first-served tables in three designated public picnic areas, each with a grill and some that are ADA accessible.
Horses are also allowed in the monument, although they must be steered clear of the roadway, trails, boardwalk, and picnic areas.
Nearest Town: Alamagordo is 13 miles east of the monument.
Treat Yourself: Alamagordo is having a big year with two new breweries coming to town. The Picacho Peak Brewing Company, which originates in Las Cruces, is opening a brewpub by the end of summer and the 575 Brewing Company, Alamagordo’s first original brewery, is expected to open in October. Until they open, the next closest brewery is the Cloudcroft Brewing Company in Cloudcroft, where pizza and tapped brews top the menu.
GREAT SAND DUNES NATIONAL PARK
Elevation: 8,200 feet; square mileage: 30
Great Sand Dunes National Park has enough to its dune field that you can easily find a spot that is all yours, with or without crowds. After cresting the first dune you’ll find yourself in a landscape with a view that’ll suck the wind right out of you. If that doesn’t do it, clear the sand from your eyes and look again, because framing the north side of the tallest dunes in North America are the rugged 14,000-foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
If near the vehicle is your limit, just out from the visitor’s center you can cross Medano Creek, which is generally dry in the fall, and play on the nearby dunes. For artists, there’s enough material along the creek for an endless metropolis of sand castles and sculptures. For some high-adrenaline action, carve some turns with a sand board or simply scootch on your butt or tumble down the dunes for fun.
If you have a high-clearance vehicle, take a spin toward the Sangre de Cristos on Medano Pass Primitive Road. It’s a rough road that crosses Medano Creek in nine places; but in 11.2 miles you arrive at Medano Pass, where you can opt to turn around or keep ahead to descend to the Wet Mountain Valley and Colorado State Highway 69. There are plenty of picnic areas and hiking opportunities en route, leading to scenic views and into forest and alpine. If you do plan to drive the road, you may need to reduce the tire pressure in your tires to cross soft sand. There’s a free air station near the south entrance when you return but if you’re heading to Medano Pass you’ll need an air compressor or a beefy tire pump to reinflate tires before traveling the rough road.
Fall is a great time to camp along Medano Creek but the 21 designated sites can fill up quickly over holidays. However, they’re free and first-come, first-served.
Nearest Town: Alamosa is the closest town, located just 25 miles southwest of the park.
Treat Yourself: Check out the San Luis Valley Brewing Company and its selection of staples and seasonal brews. The Valley Caliente is a chili-infused lager and Valle Especial is an award-winning Mexican-style lager, both worthy of an end-of-day toast. The menu has burgers, sandwiches, salads and tacos. Or try something new that takes family farming to a new level. The Colorado Farm Brewery is the only brewery on the planet where every ingredient in its estate beers comes from the brewery’s farm. Two favorites, Batch #1, a Belgian-style blonde ale, and Wheatverly, a German-style wheat, are 100% estate beers that top the beer menu.
CORAL PINK SAND DUNES STATE PARK
Elevation: 6,000 feet; square mileage: 6 (3,730 acres)
Pack your bag or start your engine, the dunes of Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park has an adventure for everyone. The entire dunes are open to hiking, exploring, sandboarding, goofing around and about 90% of the dunes are open to ATV riding. The place can hum with riders. At first glance of the dunes you get a visual hit of their pinkish hue. The color is a gift from the minerals and iron oxides in the nearby Navajo sandstone, the same sandstone found in areas across the Colorado Plateau and the red rock country of Sedona. It’s notable that Coral Pink Sand Dunes is the only major sand dune field on the Colorado Plateau.
Across the dune field, the mounds of sand take on a life of their own. The notch between the Moccasin and Moquith mountains channels strong winds that increase in velocity, creating what is known as the Venturi Affect. The winds subside when they hit the open valley, depositing sand eroded from the Navajo sandstone. The winds have been known to move the sand dunes by as much as 50 feet per year.
But that’s just geology, a big subject that can be explored in the visitor’s center and across the dunes. Fun seekers take to the dunes year-round for thrills, whether it’s picnicking in the dunes or on a picnic table, sandboarding, sightseeing throughout the dunes including a stop at the overlook, hiking the trails, photography, nature study or ATV riding. Keep an eye out for the Coral Pink tiger beetle, an insect that is found nowhere else on the planet.
The park has a 22-site campground (reservation only) if you plan on staying a while.
Nearest Town: Kanab, Utah, is located 22 miles east of Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park.
Treat Yourself: The Iron Horse Restaurant & Saloon touts itself as the only full-service bar in Kanab County and the Rocking V Café has a satisfying list of craft brews.