As the name of its main mountain range suggests, Colorado is known for its rocky, intimidating landscape. As a result, the State attracts adventure seekers from all over the world, hell-bent on tackling the terrain. Things out west need to be “built tough,” and only the hearty dare to climb its rock faces and summit its peaks.
This is exactly the type of imagery that makes the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Southern Colorado so interesting, the fact that it is unlike anything else found in the State. As the tallest dunes in North America, they remain Colorado’s best kept secret, an alternative landscape that awaits to be explored by day hikers and overnight campers alike. Take a look at our guide to hiking and camping at Great Sand Dunes National Park and unleash your inner explorer.
Surrounded by 14,000-foot peaks, the Dunes cover approximately 32 square-miles, rise up about 750 feet, and were formed in part by windswept sentiments from the nearby Rio Grande River. Seven hundred and fifty feet might not sound like much elevation gain to an adventure traveller, but that number couldn’t be more deceiving. Though it’s not that far of a vertical climb, you might as well tie concrete buckets to your feet. We can all imagine what it feels like to walk up a steep inline in deep, dry sand, with a full backpack…
It’s not all hard work without reward, though. Walking through the Dunes instantly transports you back to childhood in an environment where nothing can hurt you (other than the heat, do hydrate!). Traditional hikes pave the way with a trail, and obstacles – rocks, trees, cliffs – constantly guide your route. But at the Sand Dunes, any direction you want to go is perfectly fine, all 360-degrees open for exploration. As the day moves on, the appearance of the landscape constantly changes as the light reflects off the sand. The shadows created during the sunset are absolutely stunning, and once the sun goes down, you’ll feel like you’re on the moon.
Hiking and Camping
There are two options when it comes to experiencing the Dunes: Car camping at organized sites adjacent to the Dunes on solid ground and going out for day hikes, or backcountry camping within the Dunes themselves for total immersion in a colossal sand pit. When car camping, things are pretty straightforward, with access to water and facilities nearby. Zapata Falls is a short hike away, and the “High Dune Hike” is the most popular for day-trippers wanting to experience the sand but not sleep on it. You can “sandboard” down the dunes too, if you have an old sled.
Backcountry camping at Great Sand Dunes National Park, however, presents a whole new set of challenges, and they need to be taken seriously. The rule of backcountry camping within the Dunes is that you must hike over the ridge of the first dune before putting down your tent. Once beyond that first dune, anywhere is free game to camp.
Some might have high hopes of hiking several miles into the Dunes for complete immersion, but most realize very quickly how unnecessary it is to hike much farther than the first valley. Once you reach a certain point, going deeper does not necessarily guarantee any further remoteness. Whether you’re in the first or third valley, the experience and vantage points are pretty much the same. There’s also the aspect of the unstable, sandy terrain that makes a long hike a tall order, and the fact that you must carry in all your water. There are no water sources within the Sand Dunes. If you run out, you have to hike out to get more. You’ll want to bring plenty of water as surface temperatures in the Dunes often reach 40 degrees Celsius during the heat of the day. But because the sand doesn’t retain the heat, be prepared for the temperature to drop significantly at night, as low as one-four degrees Celsius.
The Dunes will be very windy, so while you’ll obviously want to pick a place to camp and drop your stuff off in favour of a daypack, it’s a smart idea to hold off on setting up your tent until later in the day. Traditional stakes don’t hold so well in the sand, and the strong winds will send your tent rolling down the valley in the blink of an eye. Return from your exploratory hikes with enough time to set up your tent before nightfall. It’s a good idea in general to always keep your camp in site when hiking. The Dunes can be very disorienting if you begin hiking from valley to valley. Hike out in a circle from your camp and keep the tent within your vantage point at all times.
The Dunes themselves are 32 square-miles, but the great preserve sprawls out to more than 132 square-miles, providing the opportunity to explore some of the surrounding landscape. This includes the forested Mosca Pass Trail, the Medano Pass 4WD Road, and a variety of alpine hikes, such as Medano Lake and the Sand Creek Lakes. These all take you out of the sand and into the traditional Colorado wilderness, an experience that will provide great context to the Dunes.
What to Know and What to Bring
Traditional camping and backpacking gear will form the foundation, but there are a few accessories you’ll want to take with you on a visit to the Great Sand Dunes. The first, and perhaps most important, is proper eye protection. The wind can absolutely howl through the Dunes, and there’s nothing to protect you from the sand that it picks up along the way. Sunglasses can work in a pinch, but something even more protective is recommended. If you don’t want to invest in proper gear, a good trick that Coloradans employ is to use their ski or swimming goggles.
If you’re going to be backcountry camping at Great Sand Dunes National Park, a zipperless backpack is a smart choice. Sand can clog and break zippers, which is a backcountry nightmare. If you decide you want to hike far into the Dunes, a GPS is an extremely good idea as the Dunes can be very difficult to navigate and hard to distinguish from one another. Regardless of how hard you try, sand will get everywhere, including in your pack, tent, shoes, and sandwiches.
Entry fees to Great Sand Dunes National Park are $3 per adult (age 16 and older). There are three organized campgrounds beside the dunes, one that is first-come first-serve and two others that take reservations. Starting at $20 per night, these sites are on solid ground and not on or within the Dunes themselves. Backcountry permits that allow you to camp in the sand on the actual Dunes are free and available at the visitor centre.
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Have you been hiking or camping at Great Sand Dunes National Park? Let us know in the comments section below.
Written by Will McGough