On our journey to see all fifty-nine US national parks, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve was our twenty-second park. It was also our first of the four Colorado national parks that we have been so looking forward to seeing AND our very first stop in Colorado. Needless to say, this stop had some big shoes to fill, and it did so quite nicely.
We left the Taos, New Mexico, area on Saturday, June 23, 2018, en route to Great Sand Dunes. The entire drive was only about two hours long. About an hour into the drive, we crossed into the great state of Colorado. There wasn’t enough room to pull over and snap a photo with the sign, so I opted for a photo of the sign unaccompanied.
After this, we passed through the small towns of Antonito and Alamosa, before arriving at our campsite/home for the next few days. We spent four nights just outside of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve (GSDNPP), tucked into the San Luis Valley and beneath the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Southern Colorado. We couldn’t have asked for a better welcome experience to this colorful state.
WHERE we stayed:
We stayed at a BLM (Bureau of Land Management) area called “Sacred Shell White Mountain.” This BLM road stems directly from CO-150, which is the same road that leads to Great Sand Dunes National Park, another fifteen miles down the road. We chose this site because of the proximity to the park and the fact that it was free, but we would have enjoyed this spot even if we were not using it as a launching point to visit the national park.
The BLM road leads directly to the base of Blanca Peak, so the views are impeccable. Blanca Peak just so happens to be the highest mountain in the Sangre de Cristo Mountain range, at a staggering 14,344 total feet high. Camping with the view of this gigantic mountain directly out our front window was absolutely amazing, and we took so many pictures of the view and the surrounding mountains.
Although this spot was quiet and offered incredible views, it was not necessarily our idea of an ideal site. For starters, finding an actual spot to camp was a bit of a challenge. There are only two large sites directly off of the BLM road, and, if they are completely full, the only other sites available are a few miles up the dirt road. Luckily, we were able to share a large site with another trailer, thus avoiding the need to drive further down the washboarded road.
Further, the reception at this site was spotty at best. With our signal booster employed, we garnered a few shifting bars of 4G or LTE on AT&T, but because the area was a bit crowded, the cell towers must have been overloaded, thus slowing our speeds. Our Verizon didn’t seem to work at all, and we found ourselves having to drive fifty minutes round trip to the Starbucks in Alamosa to work one day. Even still, we recognize that not every site will be perfect, and this site at Sacred Shell did come with some great benefits, even despite the downsides. (Read more information about our campsite here: https://www.campendium.com/sacred-white-shell-mountain).
WHAT we cooked:
Just like in Taos, NM, we were hesitant to do a lot of cooking at this site, as the days were a bit warm (upper-80s). Because of this, we ate mostly cold salads each day, which make for the perfect summer food.
WHERE we ate:
Since we were so far from the nearby towns, we didn’t go out to eat while visiting Great Sand Dunes. We did, however, get coffees at the Starbucks location in nearby Alamosa, CO, but that was mainly for the purpose of bumming WiFi. Still though, Starbucks iced coffee is perfect on a hot summer day, and we totally enjoyed the treat.
WHAT we did:
Now for the fun part!! Our whole reason for visiting this area was to see the national park. We did most of the major things within the park, and it was all so much fun!
We stop at the visitor’s center at every national park to gain more information about the park’s establishment, its history, its geology and ecosystems, and to gather ideas for things to do within the park. We also typically view a twenty or thirty-minute video which explains even more about the park and its visitors.
We learned that the dunes at GSDNPP are the largest in the United States, a rather impressive feat. The entire park spans two-hundred-thirty-two square miles (mostly backcountry), and is made up of dunes, mountains, forests and wetlands. Although the dunes have been popular with local visitors for centuries, they were only incorporated as a national park in 2004, prior to which they were designated as a national monument in 1932. We love stopping at the visitor’s centers first, as we are able to begin learning about the park before we have even seen it.
After the visitor’s center, our next planned stop was at Medano Creek, which typically flows at the base of the sand dunes on their east side from early spring until late-summer. Unfortunately, due to the heat and the extended drought in Southern Colorado, the creek was already completely dry in late June.
Instead of wading in the creek, we walked amongst the “foothills” of the sand dunes, which are basically just the smaller dunes at the base of the larger dunes. We kicked back and watched as others sledded and sand-boarded down the hills, which looked like a ton of fun. Sand-boards and sleds are available for purchase or rent at the visitor’s center.
Hike to High Dune, Stargazing
Although the name sounds a bit misleading, High Dune is not actually the tallest dune at Great Sand Dunes National Park. At nearly seven hundred feet in height, it is the second highest dune in the park, and sits about fifty feet below Star Dune, which is the tallest dune in GSDNPP (and the United States).
The hike to High Dune and back is a little over two miles in length, but it takes most people at least two hours to complete, as hiking on sand dunes is much more difficult than it looks. Picture walking on the beach, but doing so on a steep uphill. Each time you take a step, your feet sink in and you lose some ground. Hence, sand dune hiking is tiring and not for the faint of heart. However, if you do complete a dunes hike in GSDNPP, you are rewarded with incredible sweeping views and an overall sense of accomplishment.
We started our hike about an hour prior to sunset. It is recommended to hike on the dunes in the early morning or late afternoon, as GSDNPP happens to be one of the rare, dog-friendly national park. (Dogs are allowed on-leash only, no further than the peak of High Dune.)
As mentioned before, the hike up the dunes was difficult, but we crested High Dune just before sunset and were rewarded with beautiful sweeping views of the entire sand dunes preserve and the glowing mountains beyond.
After sunset, we stayed a while longer to watch the stars come out. Because there was an almost-full moon, we didn’t see the entire Milky Way, but the glow of the full moon over the dunes was utterly magical. Overall, it was an ethereal and unforgettable experience. We hiked back in the dark, sailing down the dunes in less than fifteen minutes.
Zapata Falls Hike
Although this hike is not technically part of GSDNPP, it is located about five miles from the park’s entrance. Because of this, it is often lumped together with the national park, and receives many of the same visitors. We heard from our neighbor that this hike was extremely popular, and he estimated there to be about one-hundred-fifty people present in the small canyon when he visited on a Saturday afternoon.
After hearing this report, we chose to visit early on a Monday morning, and we had the entire canyon and falls to ourselves. The hike is only about a half-mile each way, and the final third involves hiking through an icy creek and into a narrow slot canyon, before approaching the waterfall. The fall itself has an upper and lower section, and it was really quite beautiful. Choosing to hike it in the early morning on a weekday made the experience even better.
GSDNPP is a beautiful place and is unlike any of the parks we have previously visited. The juxtaposition of the sand dunes against the mountains beyond is particularly breathtaking. The entire San Luis Valley is a great place for outdoors lovers, and, if you intend to pass through Southern Colorado, this park is not to be missed!
Have you visited Great Sand Dunes before? How did you like it? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments!