A view of the dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado

Destinations: Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve

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“What do you despise? By this are you truly known.” -Frank Herbert, Dune

The Great Sand Dunes Park & Preserve
The Great Sand Dunes Park & Preserve

Colorado has sand dunes. If all that you know of the state is what you have seen in films and tourism materials, this fact may have eluded you. (Half of the state is also reminiscent of Kansas, but that tale is for another day).

If you drive south and a bit west from Denver, the land will become scrubby and drier, and if you happen in the right direction, you’ll suddenly be faced with an expanse of dunes vast enough to leave you looking for Shai Hulud. It’s stunning, really.

The dunes are not close to much of anything, so staying at one of the campgrounds is recommended. There are several, both inside the park itself and in the surrounding areas. Cost and amenities vary widely, but if you choose to stay at the Pinon Flats campground within the park, be aware that in the late season when you are no longer able to reserve a site online, you may still have to fight for one, or stay in your vehicle. We did this the first night and then got up early and snagged a site when someone left. Score one for early arrival.

On the flipside, if you arrive late, you may find the gate to the park unmanned and can then avoid the park fee. I don’t know if this is always the case, but it was for us. Score one for late arrival.

Pick your poison.

Some other potentially useful information:

  1. Plan ahead if you want to build a campfire, especially if you are going off-season. There is a little camp store at Pinon Flats that sells wood, but it closes for the season. If that happens, you will have to leave the park to buy firewood and then, if you managed to get in without paying the fee, you’ll have to pay it to get back in. Be prepared.
  2. Hiking on sand is a real bitch. Be psychologically prepared for an exhausting time. If you don’t want to deal with it, there are sand-free trails. Mosca Pass Trail is especially nice when the aspens are changing.
  3. If you do hike to Mosca Pass, you’ll see that the there is a dirt service road that continues on once the proper trail ends. Take it. When you come to another road, turn right and then quickly turn right again one a third road, Follow that road a short distance to get a lovely view of the Sangre de Christos. There is no view at the natural end of the trail. If you want better directions, ask a park ranger at the vistor’s center.
  4. Consider the possibility of mosquitoes. We went in a very dry year, so Medano Creek was completely dried up and there were none. I have it on report that when that is not the case, the mosquitoes are ungodly. Bring DEET.
  5. The dunes lie within the Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve and, as such, common national park rules such as dog leash laws apply.
  6. The wind on the dunes can really whip up and blow the sand around. If you are a photographer or if you are a wearer of contact lenses, be prepared to protect both your gear and your eyes.

Anakin hates sand. It gets everywhere.

Things I would do differently:

  1. I’d either go when I could reserve a site or get there early. Personally, I’d rather pay the park fee and not have to sleep in a car.
  2. I would take the time to hike to the top of the dunes. I suspect that view is stunning and I would have liked to have taken some photos.
  3. I’d spend more time there than just a weekend. It’s a bit of a drive and there’s a lot of exploring to do and I’d like to have the time to do so.
  4. Finally, I’d get a backcountry permit and head away from the crowds. The campground is nice if you want to be around people. However, if you prefer solitude, it’s a bit much. Do what you prefer.

Some people will no doubt take issue with my DEET recommendation. I once spent a month backpacking in Alaska during summer and I brought natural insect repellant. It had a pleasant scent and was useful to cover up the sort of increasingly awful body odor that one develops on a month long trip, but it had zero effectiveness against the mosquitoes. I’ll not leave the DEET behind again. That’s me. It just depends how much the mosquitoes bother you.

This is a gorgeous park with stunning vistas and excellent photographic opportunities if you work for them. If you are a Dune fan, it’s hard to not think of Paul and Jessica struggling across the dunes to escape the Harkonnen and Sardaukar. Doing so may well take your mind off of your own struggles and you may need that. Have fun!

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