National parks can have all kinds of natural highlights, from geothermal features like Yellowstone‘s Old Faithful, to the ancient hunks of frozen ice in Glacier National Park, to the caverns of the Grand Canyon, to the peaks and waterfalls of Mount Rainier.
For a handful of national parks, the standout natural features are sand dunes!
While some of these sand dunes are in desert-laden states where you might expect to find them (California, Texas), others are in places that are not normally known for sand dunes (Indiana, Alaska.)
Some of these dunes are unspectacular, but others are among the best sand dunes in the U.S. If you really want to play in the sand – or even pitch a tent and camp on the sand! – head to Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. It may be the very best sand dune in the U.S.
I’ve personally visited all of these parks and had a lot of fun playing in the dunes. I wonder how many people can say they have visited all seven?
These are the seven national parks with sand dunes, presented in random order.
1 White Sands National Park, New Mexico
White Sands NP is so awesome that it was upgraded from a national monument to a national park just a few years ago. The sand here is unique because it’s white gypsum sand.
This type of sand isn’t found in very many places on the planet, because it dissolves in water. Here, the park gets so little rain that the sand remains.
The dunes here reach as high as 60 feet, and the NPS even encourages guests to buy plastic sleds at the visitor center gift shop for sledding down the dunes.
I tried sledding and found it somewhat difficult, as it was hard to pick up enough speed to make it all the way down the hill.
But it was still really fun here, seeing the endless expanse of white sand, and checking out the few plants that can somehow survive in these dunes.
This park also holds the distinction of having the oldest fossilized footprints in North America. Just recently, they were estimated to be 23,000 years old!
2 Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska
Nobody would expect a sand dune in Alaska. Especially not all the way north above the Arctic Circle! Yet here it is in Kobuk Valley National Park.
The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes reach as high as 100 feet tall. Glacial deposits and winds created the dunes, which once covered more than 200,000 acres.
Trees and tundra grasses now cover more than 90% of the original sandy area, as they have reclaimed most of the land. But that still leaves about 16,000 acres of sand today, mostly located in three dunefields.
The mountains of sand are such an unusual sight as they are surrounded by the forest landscape of the Arctic.
The cool thing about these sand dunes is that, because of their location, they get all sorts of cool wildlife walking on them, including wolves, grizzly bears, moose, and caribou.
There are no roads or airports in this park at all. The only way here is by river, or by bush plane. That’s why it’s regularly number one or two on the list of national parks with the fewest visitors.
Bush planes can land right on the dunes and drop off passengers to camp for a night or two. That’s exactly what I did – I camped for two nights in the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes!
3 Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado
Here it is, the best sand dune in the U.S., in my estimation. While there are plenty of interesting things to do at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, including hiking and camping, this park is centered around the dunes.
These are the tallest dunes in North America, topping out around 700 feet high. That makes for some really cool photos, because everyone looks tiny standing next to so much sand.
The main dunefield is 30 square miles, but there are many other smaller dunes around it. Sledding is allowed here, but the park doesn’t rent sandboards, so you have to use outside vendors.
Getting out on the sand requires walking nearly one mile from the visitor center, taking your shoes off to wade across Medano Creek, and then walking onto the sand.
I came here on an extremely windy day, which repeatedly blew sand into my face and down my pants. Oops!
The sand here gets very hot – up to 140° F – during the summer, so wear close-toed shoes (no flip flops!) if you visit in July or August. The elevation of the park is more than 8000 feet, so stay hydrated and don’t over-exert yourself.
4 Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas
Another under-the-radar national park, Guadalupe Mountains NP is known mostly for its hiking and its historic buildings and century-old ranch structures in the Pine Springs and Frijole Ranch areas.
But tucked way off in the far western edge of the park are the Salt Basin Dunes, a 2000-acre section of land with dunes ranging from 3 to 60 feet high.
This is one of the rare national park sand dunes that is still growing in size. Winds continue to carry gypsum from a nearby dry lake bed onto the dunes, adding up to one-third of an inch of deposits per year.
To visit, you’ll need to drive down an 11-mile gravel road, then hike for 1.5 miles to the edge of the dunefield. Watch for rattlesnakes!
Guests are asked to stay on the non-vegetated dunes, because those with vegetation have a fragile crust that is necessary to prevent erosion and stabilize the soil.
5 Death Valley National Park, California
Visiting the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes is one of the top activities in Death Valley. Especially for Star Wars fans!
A lot of the original Star Wars was filmed in Tunisia, but the scene where R2D2 wanders off from C-3PO after they crash in Tatooine was partially shot in the Mesquite dune.
Death Valley actually has several sections of dunes, but Mesquite is the easiest one to visit. The tallest dune is about 185 feet and can be reached with a two-mile hike from the Stovepipe Wells Village area.
These dunes are named after the twisty, spindly mesquite tree, whose trunk twists and turns to keep from getting buried by sand in this environment.
The park urges visitors not to hike in the dunes past 10 am in the summer, because it gets crazy hot here.
6 Indiana Dunes National Park, Indiana
Indiana Dunes NP is one of the newest national parks in the country, though it was a protected lakeshore area before that.
This park is very near some urban and suburban population centers, so it’s not a remote, peaceful, dune like most of the others on this list.
It can get quite busy, with tourists and local families coming by to hike around, slide down the sand dunes, and swim in the lake. That excitement is part of the appeal.
So it’s fun even if the dunes aren’t as tall as those in other parks. The tallest dune here is just under 200 feet high.
This national park is right on Lake Michigan. From the top of the sand, I was able to see the skyline of Chicago 50 miles away. The park is one of the coolest places to visit in Indiana!
7 Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
The Grand Canyon sometimes has a small number of sand dunes down along the Colorado River. I didn’t see the dunes in person myself, and as far as I can tell, most are temporary and do not not have formal names.
In 2008, for instance, a small dune (less than 10 feet high) formed along the river after a flood. These barely qualify as national park sand dunes, but I’m including them here in the interest of completeness.
One sand dune in the Grand Canyon that is more permanent can be found at the bottom of the Bright Angel Trail. Hikers have to walk for more than a mile on the exposed sand to reach Bright Angel Campground. Read more details here (PDF).
What About Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan?
Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan is often regarded as one of the best sand dunes in the country. Sleeping Bear Dunes is officially a National Lakeshore, rather than a National Park.
So it misses this list based on a technicality. But it’s still part of the National Parks System, and it’s a truly awesome dune, so it’s worth visiting!
Other National Parks With Sand
While those are the only seven national parks that have sand dunes, a few other parks do have sand – mostly in the form of beaches. You might not find dunes here, but they deserve a mention.
Located off the coast of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico, Dry Tortugas is a series of tiny subtropical islands, one of which contains historic Fort Jefferson. There are a couple of great beaches for swimming and snorkeling. I saw some massive fish here!
Meanwhile, California’s Channel Islands also have some awesome beaches, such as Smugglers Cove Beach on Santa Cruz Island. I hiked here early in the morning and had the beach entirely to myself for an hour!
The only sandy beach in Maine’s Acadia is known simply as Sand Beach. It’s one of the most popular attractions in the park, as families come to swim during the summer months. It’s right near the Thunder Hole natural formation.
The Everglades in Florida have a few sandy beaches you can reach via kayak or canoe. Swimming is not permitted in the park, and it wouldn’t be safe anyway, given the abundance of alligators. Biscayne NP in the Florida Keys has some sandy shores as well.
Olympic in Washington state has some nice beaches, including Kalaloch Beach, where I saw humpback whales swimming just offshore.
Both Hawaii national parks – Haleakala and Volcanoes – have small sandy beaches on the Pacific Ocean, though they require a bit of effort to get to.
Big Bend in Texas borders the Rio Grande. While most of the river shore is rocky, there are a couple small sections of sand, such as near the Hot Springs Trail. They’re more like sandy patches, rather than actual beaches.
Katmai and Lake Clark in Alaska both have miles and miles of beaches. Most have rocks or gravel along the shore, but some areas have a bit of sand.
Finally, I’d be remiss in not mentioning my visit to one of the most famous and popular sand dunes in the world – Dune 45 in Namibia. Exploring the bright orange desert sands was quite a thrill!
What’s your favorite sand dune in the U.S. national park system?