Camping,  Colorado,  Outdoors

Why You Should Check Out the Great Sand Dunes National Park

We finally made it to the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

For the last several years, we’ve been trying to get down to these mystical sand dunes only to be stopped by subpar weather.

This year we were determined. After a bit of a hiccup in life, my husband Robb and I wanted to find a quick escape, somewhere with just us.

The weekend prior, we hosted our infamous Moab trip, taking 30 people and 10 dogs into the great journey of the Youngs camping. While this is always an incredible time, it does leave me wishing I can spend a few uninterrupted days out in the desert with my favorite person.

RELATED: The Ultimate Guide to Moab Utah

Lucky enough, our schedules were clear and the weather was nice. We repacked our bags and made our way down to this mountain desert bliss.

So, if you weren’t aware of the weather in Colorado for 2019, it was wet. This meant that many of my favorite camping sites were under snow in June. I kid you not. A-Basin is still going strong.

However, the Great Sand Dunes had promising forcasts for the first week of the month and well, this time of year, a natural phenomenon makes it even more desirable to visit.

I’m talking about Medano Creek.

MEDANO CREEK

Image: Tree at Medano Creek at Great Sand Dunes National Park

While Medano Creek is a popular season stream that attracts visitors every year, the high levels of precipitation this winter made it something even more extrodinary than usual. The water levels are currently over `160% of average for this date and are predicted to continue for several more weeks.

I suggest you catch it before it is gone.

When visiting, you will spot several families and people around my age having a typical beach day. Parking may be a little rough in the morning but it’s really not that big of a deal to hike in from the road.

Just so you know, you are allowed to bring in a canopy and really make the most of your beach day. Just know that you may be responsible for the high winds that pick up.

I did get extremely jealous of a little kid on a float rafting along the creek. Since the creek is running down sand, small rapids occur. I’m a little too heavy to really enjoy this but hey, I’m sure the little ones would love it.

PEAK MEDANO CREEK LEVELS = EXTRA CROWDS AT THE SAND DUNES

Image: People playing in Medano Creek at Great Sand Dunes National Park

As I mentioned above,  parking was difficult due to the high amount of people. This also means that there may be traffic coming in, full campsites, and filled hotels.

Honestly, it wasn’t too big of a deal but just be prepared. It took maybe half an hour or so to get in to Great Sand Dunes National Park and we had to park on the street to get to Medano Creek.

The Sand Dunes are quite spacious so if you don’t mind a beach like atmosphere, then this is still the place to be.

Like any popular spot, going in on an off season, early or later in the day, or during the weekday may make this less of a big deal. Honestly, while I usually enjoy more secluded natural adventures, the vibes were great and the river was sweet so it didn’t bother me at all.

PLAY IN THE GREAT SAND DUNES

Imange: Man walking in Great Sand Dunes National Park

As cool as the Medano Creek is, nothing compares to how awesome these dunes are. It’s so weird. Surrounded by snow capped mountains is this giant pile of sand.

It almost feels like you’ve been transported to the Sahara Desert.

Plus, it is super soft. Like softer than the beach soft.

 If you notice, you will see people sliding down the dunes. It’s basically what everyone does. I unfortunately, did not have proper equipment to make it down.

I mean, you can try but you kinda just get stuck.

Like this.

Image: woman laying down trying to slide on dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park

What the park recommends is a specifically designed sandboard but I have heard of people trying old snow gear such as sleds and skis. The park claims it only works if the sand is wet, and well, my friend who did try it once said it barely worked so it may be best to stick with what they recommend.

Before you enter the park, there is a really cute shop with the sweetest people renting boards. You can also check out a few spots in the towns near the park that will rent them as well. The national park site does a pretty good job listing wear to find sleds here.  

Even as a person who usually isn’t super into speed, I really wish the we rented a sand board for the Great Sand Dunes. It just looks so fun!

GREAT SAND DUNES AT NIGHT

Image: Sunset at campsite at Great Sand Dunes National Park

Given this was my first time there, I was unaware that the Great Sand Dunes offers an amazing adventure after the sun goes down. We honestly got hungry and left all of our cooking stuff at camp so we left around sunset.

The previous night, we were confused when people camping near us came back at midnight. This is why.

The Great Sand Dunes are open all night and offer some sweet views of the dark skies. Even from my campsite, we were able to catch a bit of the Milky Way. According to the park website, the Great Sand Dunes offer surreal views of the stars, moon, and unique wildlife that only come out after dark.

I totally wished I knew about this though because I would have loved to catch the views in the soft sand. It sounds totally surreal. Check out this video by the park that showcases it’s glory.

Next time!

WHERE TO CAMP AT THE GREAT SAND DUNES

Man standing near tent near Great Sand Dunes National Park

Like anywhere, there are obviously cool paid campsite within and around the park. Some of the most popular spots are at  Pinon Flats or Zapata Falls.

We asked the lady in the shop right before the park entrance and she recommended the road near mile marker 4 headed towards Lake Como.  It was free and while there wasn’t too much shade, it certainly did the job. Several other campers were nearby but it wasn’t that big of a deal. The nice thing about camping in the desert is that sound kinda just dies.

Do note that this region has a lot of cactus. I mean a lot. They are small and easy to miss but hurt like hell if you step on them. Be very careful when scoping out a site.  

I usually look at Freecampsite.net for my favorite spots but I don’t mind a tip from some locals.

I did notice the Medano Pass has some primitive camp sites but it is 4WD and high clearance. As of now, it is not accessible to vehicle so it is worth checking before you head out.  

You can backpack in the dunes as well but you will need a permit. Check out here for more info.

WEATHER IN THE GREAT SAND DUNES

Woman standing on top of sand dunes at great sand dunes national park

With this location being a great mix of high deserts, you can imagine the weather is extreme. Much like any desert, temperatures can dramatically range when the sun is out versus not. Add in that you are on top of a mountain and well, the weather is nothing short of unpredictable.

RELATED: Camping in the Desert: What to know before you go

One thing I always notice is that in these kinds of conditions, 80 degrees can feel a whole lot hotter in direct sun. I’ve learned this in other high elevation desert locations such as Goblin Valley or Moab. Wear your sunscreen my friends!

Alternatively, the dry air and high altitude tends to not hold on to much heat into the night. You’d be suprised on how chilly it can get. Bring layers.

Also, remember that wind is generally part of creating natural phenomenons in the desert so you may experience high winds while visiting the Great Sand Dunes. Bring a scarf or bandana and some glasses or goggles.  Like I mentioned before about the canopy, I literally watch several people get theirs destroyed during a sand storm. One literally flew from near the parking lot to all the way on the other side of the creek.  The storm passed in 20 minutes, taking down many people’s products with it.

PETS ARE ALLOWED

Lastly, I’d like to mention that this is a place to bring your fury friends. Unlike other national parks, dogs are permitted in the Preserve.

I definitely enjoyed all the slashing puppies in the creek. Just make sure they are leashed and pick up after them. You know, normal rules on how not to be a dick.

Well, that’s it for my recap on my magical adventure to the Great Sand Dunes. If you haven’t been yourself, I highly recommend checking this out. I already want to go back (with sand board of course).

Since this is my first time, I would love to hear any tips from you if you’ve been here before in the comments.

Thank you for reading and if you liked this story and would like to get more tips and tricks on outdoor adventures, please subscribe.

Take care!   

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