“Wait, they’re no trails we need to stay on?” The Younger Fives were in utter disbelief as we parked the car at Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park and informed them they could hike anywhere they wanted. Being used to narrow, set trails that minimize the impact on fragile ecosystems, they thought maybe we were trying to trick them. However, Great Sand Dunes National Park is a wonderful anomaly in many ways, from allowing the freedom to blaze your own path to being able to leave your name (or any other design) behind in the ever-shifting sand.
The fun begins with a crossing of Medano Creek, a seasonal stream fed by melting snow on the Sangre de Cristo Range. We noticed immediately the stream was quite shallow, so we expected an uneventful fording. As we got about a quarter of the way across, we looked upstream to notice a small wave surge heading toward our sand bank. In a moment’s time we were ankle deep in water, scrambling to reach the next island of sand. After some observation we realized the water regularly dams behind small sand bars only to burst through, sending small waves to collect at the next sand obstruction. Trying to predict where the next patch of dry sand would be while outrunning the waves was absolutely delightful, and we had huge smiles on our faces as we reached the other side (albeit with soggy boots).
The sand dunes themselves are a giant sandbox where just about anything goes. We all branched off to find our own paths up the dunes, and we soon realized climbing up the sand can be a bit of a workout. The highest dune, Star Dune, is 755 feet tall, but we contented ourselves with scaling some of the smaller peaks just a few hundred feet tall. Of course, coming down is the real treat, and we tried running, rolling, and sledding down on our bottoms (and there are even real sleds and sand boards to rent as well). After a few times up and down, we could really appreciate how the journey is never the same twice.
On a final note, we really enjoyed camping at the park that evening. The campground is very close to the dunes, and a recent survey found Great Sand Dunes is the quietest national park in the contiguous 48 states. After an action-packed day of exploring the dunes, there’s nothing like unwinding over dinner, watching a sunset framed by sand :)
Whitewater rafting with young children? We had always wanted to take the kids out on a rafting excursion but assumed we would have to wait a few years until High Five (age 4) and Five Ball (age 6) were a bit older. However, as we started researching our trip to several of Colorado’s national parks, we came across the Animas River’s stellar reputation as an extremely family-friendly river. We looked into the rafting companies in Durango and were thrilled to come across Mountain Waters Rafting, who had great reviews, a half-day rafting trip designed especially for families, and could accommodate any child 30 pounds or more regardless of age.
The kids had been excitedly talking about our trip for over a week by the time the day arrived. We dressed them warmly in layers as we wanted to ensure they stayed comfortable out on the water. However, upon checking in we realized we weren’t the only ones focused on the kids’ comfort, and we were really impressed with the time the friendly staff took to make sure the kids had all the gear they needed and that it all fit properly. In the end, we only opted for the neoprene boots for the kids as they each had a rain jacket and pants to keep the rest of them dry.
Soon our guide (and co-owner) James arrived to greet us and escort us to the van. As we were the only ones out on this particular trip, he asked if we would like one more companion in the raft, his famous rafting dog Atlas. As the Younger Fives love dogs (and can’t have one of their own due to our travel lifestyle), the response was a resounding “YES!” We soon picked up Atlas and were on our way to the boat launch.
The kids were excited enough just being next to the river, but getting to play with Atlas as James fitted them with their life jackets was a real treat. He then engaged the kids to review all the safety procedures, and then we pushed off down the river. After a few minutes downstream, the Younger Fives eagerly asked if they could help paddle, and once they got the paddles in their hands they didn’t let go for the rest of the trip. James added a wonderful dimension to our trip with his extensive knowledge of the river, its history, and its wildlife, and we never went more than a few minutes without him pointing out goslings with their mother, bald eagles, mergansers, or other birds.
Soon we were getting closer to Durango’s Whitewater Park, especially engineered by the city to provide rafters and kayakers with some solid whitewater in town. James asked if we felt comfortable giving it a try and explained we were welcome to walk a short path around the rapids if we preferred. We had no hesitations about running the rapids, and they were certainly quite the thrill. They’re nothing that a seasoned paddler would find unnerving, but for us they were the perfect balance between feeling completely secure in the raft and getting bounced around a little on the whitewater.
After the excitement of the rapids we were more than ready for a snack, and James guided us onto shore for snacks and a restroom break. The kids probably couldn’t have made it the whole trip without either, so this was just what we all needed. We had a good 20 minute break on shore snacking on some complementary chips and salsa and playing with Atlas. From there, we put the life jackets back on to complete our trip down the river.
Past the Whitewater Park the river had a more relaxed and peaceful feel, and as we floated past the city limits we had the river to ourselves. From here both Five Spice and Five String had the chance to pilot the raft and both managed to successfully avoid the obstacles in the way (though admittedly Five Spice did so with a bit more calm and composure). As we drifted past tree-covered banks and islands, some migratory swallows splashed and dove around us, and we were right in the middle of the flock for quite a while.
When we finally reached the final landing and got back into the van, we couldn’t have been more pleased with our trip. The half-day trip was definitely designed with the whole family in mind, and the smiles on the Younger Fives’ faces were proof that this trip was a perfect match for our family. It’s a rare day when you get to experience and learn so many new things, and we all not only got a better hands-on feel for what makes Durango’s Animas River so special but also a better appreciation for its past, present, and future. We were thoroughly impressed with the enthusiasm and commitment we found from everyone at Mountain Waters (for both their customers and for the river itself), and we weren’t surprised to find out they make giving back to the community and the environment a high priority. Looking back, our initial reservations about whitewater rafting as a family seem silly, and we cannot wait to take our wonderful introduction to whitewater rafting to the next level on a future rafting trip!
Nestled between national forests, Star Valley has many great hiking opportunities perfect for families. For those looking for solitude and plenty of signs of wildlife (beaver dams, prints, bird sightings), here are our recommendations for great hikes that can be easily accessed with any type of vehicle (no four-wheel drive needed).
Packstring Creek Hike (22 miles south of Afton in Bridger Teton National Forest)
About 5 miles south of the Salt River Pass on I-89, a dirt road goes north (a coral is immediately opposite on the south side of the road) and after a few feet it opens to a makeshift parking lot on the left. From the car it’s just a few steps west along the road to the intersection with the Packstring Creek Trail. The beaver activity is quite noticeable; look for signs of chewed trees, beaver dams, and beaver trails at the water’s edge. The trail goes on for miles into the mountains, but we found the first mile or so has a great mix of interesting stream scenery to the left and rocky outcroppings to the right.
Strawberry Creek Trail (turn off I-89 between Afton and Thayne)
Look for the Forest Service sign for “Strawberry Creek” heading north on I-89 past Afton, and follow the paved road all the way to a dirt parking area just over a small bridge. For the hike itself we mainly stuck to the dirt Forest Service road and make excursions along the creek from there. The most memorable part of the hike for us was exploring Strawberry Creek itself and viewing the dramatic mountain scenery all around.
Near Tincup Creek Historical Marker (Caribou National Forest in Idaho)
We’re not sure of the exact location of this hike, but heading west on Idaho 34 from Freedom, Wyoming, you’ll enter the National Forest and look for a small parking lot and large wooden bridge crossing the stream to your left (if you reach the Tincup Creek historical marker, you’ve gone too far). Just over the bridge the stream splits into a maze of smaller currents, and we spent hours crossing back and forth while exploring the banks.
Cottonwood Lake (Bridger Teton National Forest near Afton)
The turn east for Cottonwood Lake is well marked and just south of Afton. The paved road soon turns to dirt, but we found it to be in good condition and definitely passable by two vehicles at once. We didn’t make it all the way to the lake because of snow on the road, but we pulled off at a nice picnic area turn off about 1.5 miles after you enter the National Forest. In addition to the many cottonwood trees all around, expect lots of rocks to climb and streams to explore.