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Great Sand Dunes National Park, CO

September 17, Saturday

great-sand-dunes-national-park-co-1The sun is shining upon southern Colorado this morning as Brian and Christie’s heavy-duty truck rumbles down 285 south of Salida. The mountain ranges to the east and west are wrapped in the dark green of conifers and at higher elevations patched with irregular blotches of yellow and orange – aspen groves changing color for autumn. In the valley, the cottonwoods are still clinging to their summer green, but the grass has given up the fight and one type of bush is awash in tiny golden flowers.

South of Villa Grove, we curve left onto 17 and before long notice a portion of the Sangre de Cristo range that appears to rooted in a drift of sand. This is Great Sand Dunes National Park, and today’s destination.

The sand dunes get taller and more impressive as we get closer. My only other experience with sand dunes was Coral Pink Sand Dunes state park in Utah, and the scale is an order of magnitude different.

Mt. Herard is the tall peak in the background

Mt. Herard is the tall peak in the background

Our group from the Xscapers SoCo Convergence stops at the convenience store just outside the park and rent two sand sleds at $20 a piece, an all-day rental which includes wax for the bottom to make it more slick. The shop also carries sand boards for standing up on, but none of us are feeling quite that adventurous (or coordinated).

As with all National Parks, Great Sand Dunes has an entry fee, in this case $15 per non-commercial carload and accepts the standard National park passes. There is one campground on-site and it’s operated by the NPS. There are no hookups, one loop is first-come first-served and one is reservable. Sites have a picnic table and fire-pit and there are flush toilets on site. There are a few sites that can accommodate RVs up to 35 feet.


Worth a note: Great Sand Dunes is more dog-friendly that the majority of National Parks. Dogs are welcome in the creek and on the dunes, just not in back-country areas.

We stop in at the visitor center and I learn a few things.

These are the tallest dunes in North America and most are Reversing dunes, formed by the collision of prevailing southwesterly winds coming down from the San Juan mountains broken by the occasional storm blowing from the northeast through the Sangre de Cristo mountains that the dunes stand at the foot of.

It’s a pretty magical place. Not only do you have the dunes backed by tall mountains, but Medano Creek runs seasonally in the foreground, at times it’s deep and swift enough for tubing. This time of year it’s little more than a wet stretch of sand, which admittedly does make for easier access to the dunes since you have to cross it to get to them.


When I think of big sand dunes, I think hot. But actually it’s a pretty comfortable day temperature-wise and I keep my long-sleeves on to avoid sunburn.


Photo by Christie Scott

Our group troops up a nice, safe, bunny-hill sized dune to try the sleds.


Photo by Christie Scott

What fun! The wax that needs to be rubbed on the bottom of the sled before every use makes a huge difference, and it really is a lot like regular sledding, but without the cold.

Photo by Christie Scott

Photo by Christie Scott

We all take turns, even two of the dogs with our group get to enjoy the ride. The dunes stretch all around, a foreign landscape.


A couple of us hike up a ridge of dunes that leads to a peak. It’s not the tallest dune in the park, which is some ways farther back from the access point, but the tallest visible from the creek. The strong wind and blowing sand dissuade us from making the top but the view is still quite nice. It takes a lot more effort to hike through sand than on a packed trail.


After a few more runs on the sleds, we retire to the picnic area to enjoy the lunch we packed. Birds chirp in the trees, the sky remains clear, and down from the dunes the wind isn’t as strong. A great place to eat.


All told, we spend a few hours in the park before heading back to camp. Visitors could easily spend a whole day here if you were into hiking or just sitting out on the dunes and relaxing. I would definitely come back if my travels took me this way again.

* * *

Photo by Christie Scott

Photo by Christie Scott

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At IO I teach people how to ditch the status quo and travel full-time before retirement, and share stories of my adventures (and misadventures) to inspire future nomads and armchair travelers alike. Included at no additional charge: seizing your dreams, living boldly, and making a difference.


  1. Kevin Feltner on September 23, 2016 at 11:00 am

    I love the pics of the sand dunes. Beautiful!
    Kevin Feltner recently posted..Who pulled the plug on my beach?My Profile

    • Becky on September 23, 2016 at 5:09 pm

      Glad you enjoyed this.

  2. Kim on September 21, 2016 at 6:49 pm

    Love that place. In the middle of nowhere, surrounded by those in-your -face mountain ridges. Glad you got to experience it.

    • Becky on September 22, 2016 at 1:56 pm

      I need to catch up on your travels again Kim!

  3. Denny on September 21, 2016 at 1:07 pm

    Darn, we missed you by a few weeks. We where there 9/2 to 9/7. Stayed at the Great Sand Dunes State Park just a couple of miles from the National Park. We hiked Mosca Trail, Zapata Falls, and up to Zapata Lake, and of course to the top of the dunes.
    Hope your having good time, safe travels.
    Denny and Gayle

    • Becky on September 22, 2016 at 1:50 pm

      Too bad Denny. I hope you two enjoyed your stay!

  4. Debbie LaFleiche on September 21, 2016 at 12:48 pm

    Looks like great fun!

    • Becky on September 22, 2016 at 1:37 pm

      It sure was.

  5. Bobby on September 21, 2016 at 8:44 am

    Wow. I was there last Memorial Day weekend. It was crowd but I come early and stayed for a week. I camp in preserves where is free camp but requires 4wd to get there and no camper trailers permit because tight turns and softer sand trail. I had great time and temporary snow day. Dang miss to meet u while I was way back east. Next time we will.

    • Becky on September 22, 2016 at 1:37 pm

      Glad you enjoyed it Bobby. Yeah, I usually avoid parks on holiday weekends because I’m not a fan of the crowds.

  6. Robbie on September 21, 2016 at 8:12 am

    Thanks Don, what a great story! I love the Dairy Queen idea. Memories of adventures with the kids when they were little are the “best”. I stumbled onto Great Sand Dunes once when I was wandering around Colorado and looking for a place to spend the night. What a treat, such a nice little park. For me most of my best experiences are the ones I’ve had “by accident”. When I’m wandering around in my little trailer I always set my destination very loosely so I am open to any diversion that catches my fancy. It’s hard at first because as Americans we are so destination oriented and keeping with the “schedule”. Nice in my old age to be able to follow my nose. I am so amazed by the majesty of the world around us, especially the West. Just got another 10 pass from my DW. Think I’ll head out Colorado way.

    • Don Matthews on September 21, 2016 at 3:43 pm

      Yep, being retired is great. That is what I like about camping. it frees you to change your mind.

    • Becky on September 22, 2016 at 1:35 pm

      I’ve enjoyed my accidental findings a lot too Robbie. Like when I was staying at Roaring River State Park in Missouri and found the spring that feeds the river. Had no idea what to expect and it was so pretty.

  7. Pauline on September 21, 2016 at 7:07 am

    I was there the first week in May and there was still snow on the mountains, but the dunes were magnificant and my pup and I really loved the place.

    • Becky on September 22, 2016 at 1:33 pm

      I bet it was very pretty with the snow as a backdrop Pauline, glad you and your pup enjoyed it.

  8. Don Matthews on September 21, 2016 at 6:55 am

    We were there about 40 years ago with m mom and dad. We had a pop up camper at the time, and my dad and mom had a truck camper. This was when you could drive in to a park and pick your spot. I made it to the top of the big dune that was there at the time. Our daughter, who was about 7 rode on my back. I was much younger. Then we climbed to the top of Moscha Pass. Our kids, all four of them, made the trip, but not without whining. My dad told them there was a Dairy Queen at the top. They were not happy with him, but they all remember the times we had. If anyone is curious about what is on the other side of the dunes, it is more dunes.

    • Becky on September 22, 2016 at 1:31 pm

      Congrats on making it to the top. Another couple in our group made it to the top of that dune and told us that it wasn’t the tallest and was just more dunes on the other side. Made me not so sad that I didn’t summit it.

  9. Angie Kuklinski on September 21, 2016 at 6:06 am

    Thanks for sharing. Just started following your blog and really appreciate your articles and great photos! We are preparing to full time soon and hope to run into you one day on the road! Enjoy your adventures and safe travels!!

    • Becky on September 22, 2016 at 1:28 pm

      Welcome to IO Angie, glad to have you here! I’m happy you’re finding IO helpful and inspiring and wish you all the best as you prepare to hit the road.

  10. J. Dawg on September 21, 2016 at 5:52 am

    I’ve been there a couple times in the past few years. I agree that its a magical place, especially when the creek is running. San Luis Lakes SP, just west of the dunes is a good place to camp. They have hookups and a great view of the dunes.
    J. Dawg recently posted..Riding High on Colorado’s Highway to the SkyMy Profile

    • Becky on September 22, 2016 at 1:26 pm

      Good to know J. Dawg, thanks for sharing.

  11. Ron on September 20, 2016 at 8:50 pm

    Odd place for sand dunes, they are usually at the beach
    Any progress on your truck, Hope it is done soon and not too costly.

    • Becky on September 22, 2016 at 1:24 pm

      Yep, brought Bertha home yesterday, I’ll be writing more about that soon.

      And yeah, it’s unusual to find sand dunes at such a high elevation, that’s part of what makes them so neat.

  12. Jodee Gravel on September 20, 2016 at 7:48 pm

    Fun!! I had no idea they rented sleds – what a great idea. Looks like you’re enjoying perfect weather and great friends. Enjoy!!
    Jodee Gravel recently posted..Cooler Temps Along the LakeMy Profile

    • Becky on September 22, 2016 at 1:10 pm

      Thanks Jodee, yes it was a blast!

  13. Jeff on September 20, 2016 at 6:04 pm

    Looks like fun! We were unable to secure a campsite on our only visit. With only a few hours within the park a quick climb to the top of the closest dune had to be it. We did find a nice hike to Zapata Falls just outside the south entrance. Your post has me inspired to consider this route to Denver as part of next year’s outing.

    • Becky on September 22, 2016 at 1:02 pm

      There are a couple boondocking options not far outside the park too Jeff. I haven’t looked into details as I wasn’t planning on staying nearby but other Xscapers have done it. Worth looking into next time you come back if the main campground is full.

  14. Jerry Minchey on September 20, 2016 at 5:58 pm

    My only experience with sand dunes is near Kitty Hawk, NC. I hiked up to the top of the dunes (abut 300-feet max.) and then went hang gliding.

    As you said, hiking up to the top of a sand dune is hard work, and if you’re carrying a hang glider, it’s even harder, but it’s worth it. Three trips up and I was worn out.

    What you were doing sounds like fun too.

    • Becky on September 22, 2016 at 12:59 pm

      Hard work, but I bet it was a lot of fun Jerry. Hang gliding is on my list (probably not at sand dunes though).

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