One of the unique things you can do in the National Parks is camp in the sand dunes of Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve. These dunes cover 30 square miles and are the tallest in North America. Much of the park is outside of the dunes in the high mountains that produce the dunes through erosion. Plenty of hiking and backpacking opportunities exist in these mountains (4WD may be required) but the dunes themselves are a magical playground you may wish to explore.
In a single day, you can get a terrific feel of the dunes by crossing Medano creek (be prepared to roll up your pants and wade through cold water) and wandering out, up, and over as many dunes as you’d like. Traipsing through miles and miles of dunes captured our hearts (especially Kelly) and he immediately knew he wanted to return to backpack. In the summer of 2019, we pulled this off. This post contains all of our tips and tricks for a successful backpacking experience into the dunes.
1) You’ll need a permit. The park gives out 20 free backcountry permits for the dune field each night. Some people may be camping out there for more than one night at a time so not all 20 will open up every day. You have to get a permit day of your trip at the backcountry office in the visitor center. This office opens at 9 am. Be prepared for a line. We arrived at 7:45 am on the day we wanted a spot. And although we were the first in line, it did not look like everyone would get the spot they wanted for camping. In addition to being worried about getting a spot, the line moves fairly slowly, about 5-10 minutes per party. If you’re 20th in line, you could be looking at several hours of waiting to get your permit.
2) You’ll need to be physically able to climb the dunes. All campsites in the dunes are in the further section of the park. When you pick up your permit, they tell you that you need to camp further than anything you can see from the visitor center. But those are your only instructions. Everything else is fair game. You can hike about 2 miles or you can hike 8-10 miles. As long as you and your entire party can carry your gear up the dunes (remember, they are steep), you can easily find some peace all by yourselves underneath an amazingly starry sky.
3) You’ll need shelter that can handle wind and sand. A backpacking tent will probably do but you might want to consider upgrading to sand bags or stakes. We used these and they worked really well. The tent was fairly easy to set up even on the windy afternoon when we were there.
4) Remember to leave no trace. As with all backcountry camping, you need to be prepared to leave no permanent signs that you were out there. That means you have to carry out everything you brought in, including food trash and toilet paper. Please don’t be the jerk that leaves your toilet paper in the sand. You do not need to carry out your own human waste, but otherwise pack it out.
5) Pack plenty of water. Dunes are dry and there is nowhere to refill out there. Especially if you are staying out for a full day or for more than one night.
6) Stay up for sunset, wake up for stars, and get up for sunrise. The light just can’t be beat and there are only so many nights in your life you can spend out here. Get a little less sleep and soak in these views at special times of day. You can always take a nap after sunrise or later in the day to make up for the lack of sleep.
7) Wear lightweight shoes. If you’re lucky, you can ditch them once you get to the creek crossing and walk barefoot.
8) Get pie at The Oasis after your hike. Everyone needs their own piece. The flavor selection was out of this world with lots of creams and fresh fruit pie. I imagine if you get a fruit pie, you should also add some ice cream.