26 Hours in Great Sand Dunes National Park

We spent 13 hours driving from Hot Springs to southern Colorado all to position ourselves up for a possible adventure in Great Sand Dunes National Park. We visited the park in 2015 (coincidentally on the exact dates we visited it in 2019) and sometime ago Kelly learned you can backpack into the dunes. It’s been on his bucket list ever since. 

The catch is that backcountry permits are limited to 20 parties per day and we were visiting on the Saturday of a holiday weekend. Hence, being as close to the park as we could manage to drive would be key. After a night at an expensive and somewhat dumpy roadside motel, we woke up at 5:15, packed and hit the road. The park was about 2 hours away and we had a pit to stop to make for ice and sundries before we got there. We pulled into the parking lot for the Visitors center at 7:45 and I beelined for the door to the Visitors Center. No line! I set myself up right in front of the door. Shortly after, a few people started milling about, obviously looking for permits themselves. By 8:30 when the Visitor Center opened, the line was ~10 parties deep. By 9 am, when the Backcountry Permit office opened, the line was in the building and out the door. We filled out paperwork and were told each party could take up to 10 minutes. So thankful to be the first in line! By 9:08 we had our passes, an area map, and a sticker to put on our car top storage box.

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With the whole day ahead of us, we sought out recommendations for hiking outside of the dunes. Mosca Pass seemed like a decent option despite the heavy mosquito warning. We started off in a canyon with pretty bad mosquitos and then entered a forest area above a creek. You could not exaggerate how bad the mosquitos were here. Swarms of them were awoken as we pushed through the overgrowth along the trail. Finally, we emerged to a promised open and less-buggy section. Kelly commented how it’d be great to see a bear and then just a few steps further, we saw one grazing in the forest across a creek. Bear sighting 67 while hiking! 

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The meadow was so pretty that even after 1500 feet of elevation gain, we kept climbing to view the flower fields along the top. Eventually we turned around with a strong commitment to get through the buggy forest section as fast as we could. Back in the canyon, we slowed our pace to enjoy the distant view of the dunes. At the end of the 7 mile hike, we decided a real lunch might be called for before heading into the dunes. A short drive down the road we found the Oasis restaurant. The cheeseburger was fine but the pie could not be beaten. Kelly had Coconut Cream and Michelle had Peanut Butter Cup. 

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A few more hours of putzing and we decided the threat of thunderstorms had passed. Backpacks loaded with our overnight gear, we set out across the Medano River, wading across barefoot and then keeping our sandals strapped to our packs. The hike up the dunes was long, steep, and tedious. They’re so cool but not fun to climb. Most steps involve a pretty hefty slip backwards and at some points, we were climbing 60 degree angles. Did I mention this was all at an elevation of over 8000 feet? 

The guidelines for backcountry camping in the dunes are that you can set up anywhere you want over the first ridge (~700 feet of elevation gain on sandy terrain). After climbing up, we made our way around, looking for a spot that might offer a little protection from the wind. A deep bowl that still had a fabulous view of dunes seemed just right so we made our way down and set up camp. SO MUCH SAND. So worth it.

We ate cheese and crackers while we watched the sun near the horizon and then Kelly got to work shooting sunset. After a 9pm bedtime, we woke up at 11:30 to shoot stars and the Milky Way for an hour or so. Great Sand Dunes is known for being a dark sky spot and we thankfully had clear enough skies to see why. Back to bed and then a 5 am wake-up call for sunrise. We packed up camp, ate breakfast, and headed out to meander back up and around the dunes. By 9:30 we were back at our car, exhausted but elated with the experience.