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Sand Dunes in the National Parks | Visit these Five Scenic Dunes

The best thing about the National Parks is the diverse landscapes that you'll find. Each park is so different and has a unique experience to offer.

Something that I didn't expect there to be so much of through the country is sand dunes. When I think sand dunes, I immediately think Death Valley. But it turns out that there are more dunes throughout the country than I thought and some are in places I would not have expected.

Today, I'd like to share with you five different sand dunes you can explore throughout the National Parks.


A Dune of a Different Color

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

This park is home to the world's largest gypsum sand dunes with 275 square miles of white sand.

Unlike the sand at most dunes, Gypsum sand is a clear crystalized mineral. It then gains its white appearance from the scratches on its surface it gains when rubbing against each other. This particular form of sand (especially in dunes) is considered rare because of its solubility. Since it easily dissolves in water, it tends to be washed out with any rainfall or seasonal creeks. However, these dunes have what's called closed basins, which means the water doesn't flow out of the basin. Any water that reaches this dunefield collects in the sand or forms shallow pools and evaporates before it has a chance to wash the sand away. When the water evaporates, it leaves behind the gypsum crystals. This is how these dunes have stayed intact and not just melted away.

There are lots of things to do at this National Park besides exploring the white sand. Between the camping, bike riding, scenic drives, and sledding, there is something to entertain everyone.

To make the white sand dunes accessible to everyone, there is a boardwalk suitable for wheelchairs and strollers. This boardwalk is only a half mile round trip which makes it an easy walk for all visitors. Along the walk, you'll find informative signs that give you a better understanding for the dunes. Once you reach the end of the walk, you'll find a great view of the dunefield along with the Sacramento Mountains in the background.

Tourists aren't the only ones who find the white sand fascinating to look at. More than 20 major movies (including The Mule, 2018) have scenes filmed in these dunes along with commercials, music videos, TV shows, and other commercial filming.

Are they Dead Or Alive?

Death Valley National Park, California

While the name of this National Park, Death Valley, implies a lack of life, this park is actually teeming with life.

This park is home to over 1,000 species of plants and 440 species of animals. Many of these plants, such as the Shining Milkvetch, are unique to Death Valley. These types of plants are called "endemic" which means native or restricted to one area. The reason these plants haven't spread throughout the dessert is because of the drastic measures the plants face. The mountains and high dunes block the way of any seed that could blow in the breeze. These plants have adapted to the land and, quite honestly, probably wouldn't survive well outside of these conditions.

Another thing this park is known for is its natural phenomenons such as the humming sand and moving rocks.

When the steepest face of the tallest dune avalanches or slides down, the dune vibrates making a deep sound that resembles a cello or pipe organ. The reason this happens is not clear, though people have guessed it to have to do with how dry the sand is and the friction when the grains of sand are rubbing against each other. Conditions have to be just right in order for this to happen, so you may or may not be able to experience this during your visit to the park.

Another oddity of the park that is not fully explainable is the moving rocks. In an areas of Death Valley known as the Racetrack, you can see rocks that have been slowly moving around what used to be the bottom of a lake (called a playa) along with the tracks they've left behind. In 2014, a research team from Scripps Institution of Oceanography UC, San Diego may have solved the mystery. To learn more about this phenomenon, check out what the National Park Service has to say about it here.

While the dunes look fun to sled or sandboard down, these activities are only permitted on some dunes. Death Valley, because of its unique position, is home to some very rare and very protected plants. To best protect this environment, for the sake of preservation and research, off-road vehicles and sand sledding type activities are not permitted in some places. Make sure to check which activities are allowed at which dune before you go.

Dunes on the Beach

Indiana Dunes National Park, Indiana

This National Park includes 15 miles of the southern shore of Lake Michigan and is home to some of the world's longest lakeside dunes. In addition to the dunes, this 23 square mile park has multiple ecosystems including wetlands, forests, and prairies.

Within these many ecosystems, you'll find a vast array of plants and animals. One of the favorites of the area is the great blue heron, for which a section of the park is set aside as breeding grounds. Walking through the park, you are likely to spot many small animals including chipmunks, shrews, squirrels, and woodchucks. The largest animals that you will find here are deer and coyote.

During the summer, popular activities include hiking, fishing, horseback riding, and swimming. The park also makes a great viewing spot to watch the sunsets. At the tail end of summer and the beginning of fall, biking along the scenic bike trails is at its best.

Winter also offers fun activities such as cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

While this park includes 15 miles of beach, they are not consecutive. There has been a constant battle between preservation and commerce. Part of the lakeshore is occupied by the Burns Harbor Port where the steel milling industry has been since the early 1900s. Another part of the lakeshore is managed by Indiana Dunes State Park.

The Country's Tallest Dunes

Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

This park deserves its name of "Great Sand Dunes" because it is home to the country's tallest sand dunes. Measured from the base of the dune to the crest, Star Dune is 750 feet tall. Right behind it is High Dune which takes second place at 699 feet tall. However, since the base of this dune starts higher than that of Star Dune, it's crest has a higher elevation.

Visitors are free to climb around all 30 square miles of the dunefield. You can also sandboard or sled down the dunes, though motorized vehicles are not allowed.

Another favorite activity in the park is rafting down the seasonal Medano creek. The peak season for rafting is late spring and early summer. The source of the water that fills the creek is snow from atop the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. If you plan on playing in the creek during your visit, make sure to plan accordingly since the water is all dried up by winter.

Having the country's tallest sand dunes isn't the park's only claim to fame. It has also served as testing grounds for NASA rovers in preparation for use in space. The two Viking spacecraft that were sent to Mars proved their capabilities in this dunefield.

Dunes In an Unexpected Place

Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska

Located 35 miles north of the Arctic Circle, these sand dunes clash with the normal perception of Alaskan National Parks.

Covering an area of roughly 20,500 acres, these dunes rise 100 feet into the sky. Another thing that gets into the 100s is the summer temperatures here, though it isn't always that hot. Being in the harsh Arctic conditions, summers can be brutal. You may experience extreme heat, snow, or long periods of cold and rain. Additionally, the sun doesn't set between the dates of June 3rd and July 9th.

Between the constantly changing conditions, the odd sun rising/setting patterns, and the dramatic landscape, Kobuk Valley is not to be taken lightly. You will need to be very well prepared and equipped for this trip. Depending on what your goals are for your visit, you may want to join a tour group to make the trip safer.

Not surprisingly, this park made it on the list of least visited National Parks. Kobuk Valley only receives 10,000 visitors or so each year.

While the dunes don't see many tourists, it sure gets its fill of Caribou. Twice each year, nearly 250,000 Caribou from the Western Arctic Herd pass through the dunes. This is not the only heard in the area, but notably the largest.


Plan Your Trip

It should be on your list to visit at least one of these sand dunes. So start planning your trip!

Here area some things to consider before heading out.

1. Go at the right time of year.

With sand dunes comes hot, dry dessert conditions (usually). In some places, the sand surface temperatures can burn your skin in the peak of summer. Additionally, some activities may be closed during different seasons which could affect your trip. Lastly, some months of the year are going to be super crowded. To see when the best time to visit each national park is, read this post.

2. Bring the right gear.

Walking through sand is difficult no matter what. Wearing tight fitting closed-toed shoes is recommended to help keep sand from getting in your shoes and causing uncomfortable friction. Also, make sure to bring lots of water and sunscreen!

While going up the dunes is difficult, going down doesn't have to be. Bring a sand sled or sandboard with to make your trip a little more fun.

3. Figure out what you want from your trip.

While these five National Parks all have sand dunes, they are still vastly different. If you want to sunbath on the dunes with a view of the water, then Indiana Dunes is the park for you. If you want the opportunity to take an off-road course through the middle of the desert to see dunes, then Death Valley is the way to go.

On a similar note, not all activities are permitted at all dunes. Some are highly protected and activities such as sand sledding aren't allowed.

For more information about the National Park you'd like to visit, head over to the NPS website. Here you will find local information, activity suggestions, and park regulations.

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Meet the Author


Hey! I'm Kaitlynn, a lover of the outdoors and all things travel. I quit my job to travel full-time with my husband, Matthew, in our skoolie. 

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Matt & Kate

Project 63 

Bringing you travel information and inspiration as we travel to all 63 National Parks.

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