Secrets of the National Parks
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Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado
The setting: Picture the juxtaposition of the tallest dunes in North America with the 14,000-foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains behind them and the wet meadow below. It's a combination you'll be hard-pressed to find anywhere else on earth, and together these elements make up the country's newest national park.
The inside scoop: Charles Bedford—who, as state director of the Colorado Nature Conservancy, helped acquire the land and push through the legislation to create this park—calls Great Sand Dunes "one of the crown jewels in Colorado." Experiencing it isn't difficult: There's only one road into the park, which dead-ends at the main visitors center. Right beside the parking lot is an "enormous expanse of sand," says Bedford. "It's like a beach on steroids." Climb a dune, throw yourself off the edge, roll back down to the bottom, and you'll end up with just a little sand in your hair.
Plan B: Sign up for a dude ranch vacation at the Nature Conservancy's Zapata Ranch, which borders the park. You can wander into the dunes between horseback rides to round up cattle or to learn about the herd of 2,000 bison that graze nearby.
Money-saving tip: Call ahead to reserve a spot at Pinyon Flats, the single campground in the park. Bedford calls it "one of the primo camping sites in the country." Aim for a full moon, which will cast magical shadows across the dunes.
When to go: Since the park's altitude is close to 8,000 feet, summertime never gets very hot. In May and June, a river of snowmelt runs right across the dunes; in the fall, cottonwoods and aspens burst with color.