8 Jaw-Dropping Sand Dunes in the United States

If you think of small piles of sand on the beach when you hear “dunes,” you’re missing out. These massive sand mountains around the U.S. are worth taking a few vacation days.

Photo By: Matt Inden

Photo By: Courtesy of New Mexico Tourism Department

Photo By: Carol M. Highsmith via Visit California

©Courtesy of Idaho Parks

Photo By: Courtesy of Pure Michigan

Photo By: Courtesy of Outer Banks Visitors Bureau

Photo By: Katie McGuigan

Photo By: James W. Kay

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

The Great Sand Dunes, in southern Colorado, are the tallest in North America, with a few dunes towering over 700 feet. In the spring and summer months, snow melt from the two mountain ranges that frame the park form the wide and shallow Medano Creek, which makes Great Sand Dunes feel like a backwards beach. Rent a sandboard or sand sled nearby for an easy trip down the dunes when afternoon wind and rainstorms roll in. Take care, though: you’ll pick up speed quickly on these steep hills.  

White Sands National Monument

You may never have heard of White Sands National Monument if it weren’t for Brad Pitt’s cover shoot for GQ Style, but it has always been worth the drive. The pristine white gypsum sand flows over hundreds of square miles in southern New Mexico, and it makes for an excellent backdrop for sunrises and sunsets. The gates to the park close around dark, so if you’re one of the lucky few to snag a backcountry campsite, you’ll have the park nearly to yourself until it reopens the next morning at 7. Check the website before planning a visit: the monument is next door to a missile-testing facility, and it occasionally closes during testing. 

Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area

Even if you’ve never been to the largest dunefield in California, it might look familiar. Some scenes in “Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi” were filmed at Imperial Sand Dunes. You’ll feel like you’ve been transported to a faraway desert on another planet as the sand piles get taller on both sides of the highway as you drive through, and you won’t be able to resist pulling over to climb these dunes, especially at sunset.

Bruneau Sand Dunes State Park

Head here for the tallest single-structured sand dune in North America, at 470 feet, and stay for the stars. These Idaho dunes are so protected from light pollution, there’s an observatory right in the park. The observatory regularly holds stargazing events and has a collection of telescopes to share. 

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

On the edge of Lake Michigan, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore has the best of both worlds: a cool, shady forest for summertime camping, and steep dunes that appear to be the edge of the world. Instead of driving here, take the car ferry across Lake Michigan. 

Jockey’s Ridge State Park

Jockey’s Ridge, in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, are the tallest dunes on the East Coast. Where else can you sand-board along the Atlantic? On breezy days, bring a kite to fly from the top of the ridge. The more adventurous can take hang-gliding lessons at Kitty Hawk Kites.

Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area

These dunes stretch for 40 miles along the coast of Oregon, towering 500 feet above sea level. Many people come here to ride ATVs, but there are countless human-powered adventures to have, too, including kayaking and canoeing in the recreation area’s more than 30 lakes.

Coral Pink Sand Dunes

Instead of the solid red rock that Utah is known for, you’ll find soft pink sand at Coral Pink Sand Dunes. Wind pushes the sand so forcefully, the dunes can move as much as 50 feet per year.