10 Unique National Parks

Though they may not be the most famous national parks, each of these has something special worth a visit

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Unique national parks: Great Sand Dunes

Dune field and Mount Herard at sunset, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado.

The tallest sand dunes in North America

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado includes the tallest dunes in North America. Providing a great backdrop, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, snowcapped for most of the year, form the “National Preserve” part and are also worth exploring via four-wheel-drive roads and trails.

Spring and autumn are the best times to visit. In the summer, sand surface temperatures can soar to 150° Fahrenheit, even though air temperatures are usually around 80°, and thunderstorms can make hiking in the dunes dangerous in the afternoon. Winters, which last from November through March, are cold, with lows of -20° recorded on the dunes.

It is easier to convey a sense of the height of the dunes from a distant viewpoint, and you’ll find excellent views starting from the Oasis lodge up to the first few pullouts after the entrance station. You can vary the alignment of dunes with the rugged 14,000-foot Crestone Peak and use a telephoto lens to compress the perspective.

For more varied photos, hiking into the dune field is a must. From the Dunes parking area, High Dune on the first ridge appears to be the highest. Just short of 700 feet, it is neither the highest in elevation nor the tallest; it does, however, provide the most easily accessed high view of the entire dune field. It is only about 1 mile from Medano Creek, but hiking up in the sand is quite a workout, especially when you factor in the relatively high elevation. Be sure to stay on the ridges for better footing and set aside at least one hour for your hike.

The nearby Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the east block the first light of sunrise, whereas the distant San Juan Mountains in the west allow the light of the setting sun to drop low. To take advantage of the more dramatic light, I hiked in the late afternoon.