Sand dunes are like giant sandboxes for big kids to play in and hike on, so we came up with a list of our favorites from across the National Park Service (NPS) System. Unlike most NPS backcountry trails, dogs are allowed on many of these dunes if they are leashed and picked up after.
You might know gypsum as the white powder inside drywall panels. Gypsum readily dissolves in water, but here it forms sand dunes because no river drains the Tularosa Basin. The white color of the dunes does make for extra intense albedo, so be sure to bring sunglasses and carry plenty of water. Most of the wildlife here is nocturnal, but during the day you may spot a lizard species evolved to camouflage in the sand.
Dunes composed of gypsum make a great destination for snow sledding year round, especially after a rainfall. It is fun to see children wearing T-shirts and shorts sliding down the sparkling white slopes.
Follow markers on the five-mile round trip Alkali Flat Trail that goes up and down dunes with views of the San Andres Mountains.
The white dunes take on the colors of the sunset if you decide to backpack or take the ranger-guided Sunset Stroll.
Spring and fall, since it can be very hot in the summer.
Mostly paved and the packed dirt road is drivable by all vehicles.
Only backcountry camping is allowed in 10 designated sites for $3 per person, but that is dependent upon whether the military is conducting missile tests overnight so call ahead or check the schedule online. Oliver Lee Memorial State Park offers a full service campground south of Alamogordo.
Explore More – What happens to the deep root system of a soaptree yucca when the dune it is growing on blows away?
Death Valley is our favorite of the 9 National Parks in California. Ghost towns and abandoned mills abound throughout its 3.4-million acres, including Leadfield on the one-way dirt road through Titus Canyon. Most of the attractions are found in and around the historic Furnace Creek Inn: watch sunrise at Zabriskie Point or sunset at 5,475-foot Dantes View; hike through gorgeous Golden Canyon or under Natural Bridge; drive to the ironic Devils Golf Course or the colorful Artists Drive; and walk into Badwater Basin, which at -282 feet below-sea-level is the lowest point in North America, even more impressive since it sits directly beneath 11,049-foot Telescope Peak.
Badwater Basin, Zabriskie Point, Golden Canyon Trail, Devils Golf Course, Artists Drive, Salt Creek Interpretive Trail, Titus Canyon, Telescope Peak, sand dunes
Death Valley averages less than 2 inches of precipitation annually, yet less than 10,000 years ago Badwater Basin was the bottom of a massive inland lake, the remnants of which be found along Salt Creek Interpretive Trail. Here tiny desert pupfish survive in the salty, hot water. The related and endangered Devils Hole pupfish can be seen at a disconnected part of Death Valley National Park surrounded by Nevada’s Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge.
There are great trails throughout this park, but we prefer walking wherever we want on the many sand dunes. The best are the Panamint Dunes; tucked on a mountain slope they require a three mile hike to reach. That means when you drop your sleeping bag on top you will likely have the place to yourself. More centrally located are the popular Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. In the northern section of the park the steep Eureka Dunes have a free primitive campground at their base.
A dry, flat lakebed in the northwestern corner of the park provides a racetrack for rocks of all shapes and sizes. High winds and ice crystals are the key to their movement, which is clearly shown in their wake. Do not let the 26 mile dirt road stop you from visiting this spectacular site. It is passable by most vehicles when the road is dry (we drove our mini-van there)and when the Racetrack is wet you should refrain from walking on it anyway.
Spring and fall, with summer’s being incredibly hot except at the highest elevations. However, it can snow just about any month of the year.
The main roads are paved, but to really enjoy the park you should drive a high-clearance vehicle (rental 4x4s are available near Furnace Creek). As of December 2018, Scotty’s Castle is still inaccessible due to flood damage on the road.
There are campgrounds, but a unique aspect of this National Park is that you can disperse camp for free along many of its dirt roads. Backcountry camping is also free and does not require a permit.
Explore More – What is the connection between Death Valley, 20 Mule Team Borax, and Stephen Mather (who in 1916 became the first Director of the National Park Service)?
Amongst the phenomenal National Parks of southern Utah, sometimes Capitol Reef gets overlooked. Stretching along the geologic warp of Waterpocket Fold, Capitol Reef National Park is colorful in the extreme. Driving the miles of dirt roads that crisscross the park may be the best way to explore its hidden treasures and no visit should be completed without some back road driving, even if it is the easy drive down Caineville Wash Road to the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon.
Fruita Historic District, Hickman Bridge, Grand Wash Trail, Strike Valley Overlook
After exploring the Fruita Historic District and Grand Wash Trail, drive across Highway 24 to the petroglyphs and the trailhead for the steep one-mile hike to Hickman Bridge, a massive stone formation cut into a gorgeous canyon. Be aware, this is the busiest part of the park because it is one of the few places with paved roads.
Leaving from Strike Valley Overlook, the all-day trek through Upper Muley Twist Canyon offers many unnamed arches, slickrock slopes, narrow passages, sheer cliffs, and stunning views as it winds 10 rugged miles to form a lollipop loop.
Strike Valley Overlook offers an amazing perspective on Waterpocket Fold, but requires a high clearance vehicle to drive the last three miles after a long drive down Notom-Bullfrog Road or Burr Trail Road.
The only fee is on the paved Scenic Drive south of the Fruita Historic District, but the NPS accepts the America the Beautiful pass for that.
Most of the dirt roads (like Notom-Bullfrog and Caineville Wash) are passable to any vehicle, but high clearance is needed on the last bit to Strike Valley Overlook and to cross the Fremont River on the Cathedral Loop. However, there is not much infrastructure in this rugged and dry National Park, so you need to be well-prepared in case of emergency.
The Fruita Historic District offers camping along the Fremont River, close encounters with mule deer, and free apple picking in the fall. Dry sites are free at Cedar Mesa and Cathedral Valley Campgrounds.
Explore More – Why is the park named Capitol Reef?
The park is named for a curve in the Rio Grande which forms the international border with Mexico. This corner of Texas is not easy to get to, so when you do decide to visit plan on staying for at least a few days. The weather can be very pleasant in the winter months.
Chisos Basin, Hot Springs, Balanced Rock, Santa Elena Canyon Overlook
Located down a short dirt road from Rio Grande Village Campground, a quick walk takes you to a riverside hot springs, a great spot to relax after a day of hiking in the dry Texas desert. While soaking there, you are literally a stone’s throw from another country.
From Chisos Basin it is a short two mile canyon hike to The Window for a gunsight view to the west. This trail is especially popular at sunset.
The most popular back road is Grapevine Hills Road which accesses the short Balanced Rock Trail and passes a couple of the most accessible of the 70 primitive backcountry car campsites (which require a permit from a visitor center).
Spring and fall, but we have had good weather during visits in December and early March.