Colorado National Parks Road Trip: Part 1 - Great Sand Dunes

Colorado National Parks Road Trip: Part 1 - Great Sand Dunes

Spend the night surrounded by North America’s tallest dunes in Great Sand Dunes National Park.

The view from High Dune.

Colorado is well known as an ideal destination for any lover of the outdoors.  So in celebration of the National Park Service centennial this year, my wife and I decided to head out to the Centennial State and visit all four national parks located throughout Colorado.

Our trip began in Denver, with the Rockies visible on the western horizon, tempting us to beeline for their rugged peaks.  Instead we headed south out of the city towards the Sangre de Cristo range and Great Sand Dunes National Park.

The park gets its name from the massive dune field formed on the western side of the range, a result of thousands of years of wind and water concentrating sediment in the natural pocket formed by the mountains.  The result is impressive and unexpected.  Here, North America’s tallest dunes rise out of the valley to tower over Medano Creek.

My wife and I spent our first night in the Piñon Flats Campground, taking in our new surroundings as the sun set over the dunes.  In the morning, we got an early start out to High Dune, the tallest dune on the first ridge of the day use area.  From the top, we got an expansive view of the dune field, as well as the surrounding mountain range.  Many visitors head into the day use area to splash in Medano Creek, explore the dunes, or sandboard down the steep slopes.

We instead headed for the visitor center to pick up a first come first serve overnight permit for the dunes.  Only 20 permits are available each night for the dune field, with more backpacking options available at designated sites along the edge of the dunes.  We spent the day relaxing in the shade of the trees along Medano Creek before loading our packs and heading out that afternoon.

The dunes are anything but barren, evidenced by the numerous animal tracks crisscrossing the sand that appeared overnight.

Backpacking into the dunes requires hiking past the day use area, over the first ridge.  From there the rest of dune field is up for grabs.  Find a low spot that’s shielded from the wind, set up camp, and climb the nearest dune to watch the sunset.  On a clear night, the park is an excellent place to stargaze as well.  In the morning, we awoke early enough to watch the first rays of morning hit the dunes, then backpacked out.  

Sunrise on the dunes.

Beyond the dune field, the park and accompanying preserve offer a diverse environment that includes everything from wetlands to tundra.  The Medano Pass 4WD road offers more camping options for anyone with a suitable vehicle.  Additional hiking and backpacking options are also available.

We hit the road however, on to our next destination in Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park.  To be continued…

Brewery to Visit: Bristol Brewing Company in Colorado Springs, located in Ivywild School, a converted elementary school dating back to 1916. 


NPS Great Sand Dunes website

Colorado National Parks Road Trip: Part 2 - Mesa Verde

Colorado National Parks Road Trip: Part 2 - Mesa Verde

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