Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve
In south central Colorado just 169 miles from Colorado Springs sits a lesser known National Park known as Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Maybe more popular in recent years due to social media, but I could tell from my short visit that this place is very popular among the locals that like to surf the dunes. There are many different ways to explore the park that don’t all include the sand dunes, but hiking and backpacking are definitely the favorites.
Camping on the Sand Dunes
The one thing I wanted to do when visiting was spend a night camping in the 30 square mile dune field. Permits are required for backcountry camping, and they can be obtained for free at the visitor center. Obviously there’s all the given rules about packing out what you pack in, but the main rule that stood out to me was that you have to make it up and over the first ridge before you can set up camp. Once you are out of sight from the visitor center you’re free to set up anywhere. After filling out the permit I was walking away and I remember one of the workers laughing and saying to the other, “You’re really going to send them out in this?” Granted my friend Joe and I had no idea how hard this was actually going to be, but I should have taken this as a bigger warning. I still consider this to be the hardest hike of my life. We left the parking lot in the late afternoon, and it starts off very easy. Once you reach Medano Creek you’ll have to find a creative way to skip across it when its flowing. After the creek this is when it became difficult very fast. We could see the top and the rangers told Joe and I that it was only a mile over the first ridge, but I remember so vividly that one step forward felt like three steps back. I’m sure it also wouldn’t have been as difficult if it wasn’t windy, but we were quickly stuck in a sand storm that made even seeing difficult. I remember it took me about 10 minutes to just to put on a rain jacket which was desperately need to protect from the pelting sand. This is all not to mention we had our night on our backs with a lot of heavy camera gear inside that wasn’t helping us either. I’ll never forget Joe crawling over in the sand storm and saying we need a plan instead of saying we need to go back! In the end it was nothing more than an extreme push of cardio and endurance. It took little bursts of energy to make it to the top because trying to hike up normally only meant you were going further backwards than forward.
We finally did make it over the first ridge, but not much further. Right away I took off my shoes which felt so much better even though the sand was freezing cold being the beginning of October. With the strong wind it took two people to set up one tent, and regardless of how rough it was the crazy beautiful sunset with the sand blowing across the ridges made it all worth it! Once we had the weight off our backs Joe and I just spent the rest of daylight running around barefoot taking hundreds of photos in the golden light. My advice for photographers is to choose your lens ahead of time for obvious reasons that changing lenses on the sand dunes could extremely damage your equipment. I took all of my shots on the sand dunes on a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens. This was perfect when I was needing a mid telephoto for Joe standing on a far away ridge.
I didn’t think we were visiting that late in the season being early October, but the night was freezing. Camping on the sand dunes was by far the coldest night I’ve ever spent camping. The next morning the wind had calmed down, and we were able to get beautiful sunrise photos with no one else around. The hike out was very straight forward, and actually pretty fun sliding back down the dunes. Whenever I do get the change to go back to the park, I would love to hike to the Star Dune and Mount Herald. We only had time to spend one day here because we were making our way west to Black Canyon and eventually Utah.
Even though my visit was in October which is cooler, everything you read about the safety conditions of the park talks about the extreme weather. In the summer the National Park Service reports the surface temperature of the sand dunes reaching 150˚F (65.6˚C). The extreme summer heat can come with all kinds of heat related conditions so to avoid any trouble it is the smartest to hike in the early morning or evening during the hotter months. As I mentioned before the sand was freezing cold in October, but can be scalding hot during the summer. Always wear shoes in extreme heat or cold to protect yourself. Sandals just might not be good enough during the summer months. Remember to at least pack sun screen especially when on the sand dunes. At higher elevations it is much easier to get a sun burned. Lastly always pack a lot of water when hiking, and beware of lightning strikes. This is one thing that stood out to me but the National Park Service reports lighting strikes being more common on the barren sand dunes when you see storms forming in the distance. If this happens leave the dunes immediately! All of this is from my own experience and only briefly summarized from the things to be aware of on their website.
This blog is for information purposes only and I ACCEPT NO RESPONSIBILITY FOR ANY INJURY, LOST INDIVIDUALS, OR LEGAL TROUBLE ENCOUNTERED WHILE FOLLOWING THE INFORMATION POSTED HERE.
As always find the most up to date information and conditions on the official National Park website.