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.
Jean Lafitte was a New Orleans “privateer” (a.k.a. pirate) who assisted General Andrew Jackson in the fight with the British after the War of 1812 had officially ended. In addition to three Acadian Cultural Centers spread throughout southwestern Louisiana and a small visitor center in New Orleans’ French Quarter, the NPS also offers trails and boat tours (fee) through the bayou.
Barataria Preserve, Chalmette Battlefield, French Quarter, boat tours
Every American needs to visit the French Quarter at least once in their life, but also make sure you visit the 24,000-acre Barataria Preserve to experience the bayous of Louisiana, whether you hike or take a boat.
South of downtown New Orleans off Highway 45 in the Barataria Preserve, keep your feet dry by hiking the boardwalks on the Bayou Coquille Trail.
Look up when hiking in the bayou to find huge spiders, like this golden silk orb-weaver.
Summers are muggy and buggy, but the park’s many visitor centers are closed only two days per year: Christmas and Mardi Gras.
Usually sand dunes are associated with deserts, but in southern Colorado they sit at 8,200 feet and are surrounded by snowy mountains, pine trees, and Medano Creek where kids splash and make sandcastles. These dunes are the tallest in North America, up to 750 feet in height, blown in grain by grain from the San Juan Mountains, 65 miles to the west.
Medano Creek, High Dune, Medano Pass Primitive Road
The height and steepness of the dunes makes them a great place to try sandboarding or sand sledding, which works best when the sand is wet. If you don’t have a homemade sandboard, you can rent one in the nearby town of Alamosa or bring a plastic snow sled (round saucers seem to work well).
Blaze your own trail to the top of 650-foot tall High Dune. The 2.3-mile roundtrip climb is quite a workout at this elevation while sliding backwards in the sand, but bounding downhill makes up for it. This park is unique because it allows dogs on the dunes, but bring foot protection for your canine on sunny days.
Stay in the dune field at sunset for long shadows on the dunes. A major bonus if you visit in the spring or fall for a backdrop of the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Due to its high elevation (8,200 feet), summer is the best time to spend the night, otherwise it can be very cold.
$20 per vehicle or America the Beautiful Pass, but it is typically not collected in winter months.
Other than the four-wheel drive road over Medano Pass, passenger vehicles can access all trailheads. The park provides specialized wheelchairs are available for crossing Medano Creek and exploring the sand dunes.
Pinyon Flats Campground (fee) has two 44-site loops frequented by mule deer. Backpacking permits are free to overnight on the dunes where the stars shine brightest. First-come, first-served campsites are available along the high-clearance Medano Pass Primitive Road. Dispersed camping is allowed in the neighboring Rio Grande and San Isabel National Forests.
Explore More – What time of year can visitors “boogie board” the waves in Medano Creek?
At 13.2-million acres, Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park and Preserve is the largest unit in the National Park Service system, but most of it is remote wilderness. Some of the tallest peaks in Alaska and several active volcanoes are held within its borders, between Fairbanks and Valdez. The main visitor center is located along the Richardson Highway, north of the turnoff for the 92-mile long (mostly dirt) road connecting McCarthy and Kennecott to the rest of the state.
The discovery of the richest copper ore in the world led to the building of the Kennecott mining town and railroads to transport its products across the Copper River in the 1910s. The beautifully preserved and restored town is partially owned privately and publicly by the National Park Service, and it is continually undergoing renovations. You can only enter most of the iconic red buildings on a private guided tour (fee).
Take the Root Glacier Trail from Kennecott with a guide to learn the basics of glacier route-finding. A guide company provides the crampons required for walking and detours around dangerous moulins, which can be hundreds of feet deep.
The deep blue ice of Root Glacier makes for otherworldly photos, especially if you pay for a tour into an ice cave underneath the glacier.
Summer is the only time of year McCarthy is accessible by car instead of snow machine.
The park is free to enter. We paid $110 per person for a full-day guided tour with St. Elias Alpine Guides.
Two dirt roads enter the park and are passable for all vehicles when snow free: the 92-mile long McCarthy Road and the 42-mile long Nabesna Road in the north. A pedestrian bridge is the only access from McCarthy across the Kennicott River, where you can pay for a van ride into Kennecott.
There are private campgrounds on the McCarthy Road, as well as one at Liberty Falls State Park. No permits are required for backpacking, but it is recommended to file a trip plan with the NPS.
Scott on the footbridge over the Kennicott River on the way from McCarthy to Kennecott
Mt. Blackburn (16,390 feet high) revealed from its usual cloudbank
Mt. Sanford, Drum, and Wrangell are visible from the main visitor center on a clear day.