Great Sand Dunes National Park: Awesomeness

Great Sand Dunes National Park

The Great Sand Dunes National Park is in Southern Colorado, close to the middle of the state from East to West. It’s about 100 miles from Colorado Springs, a town that’s beautiful, but that I’m frankly sick of. Noelle here, by the way.

Since late September of 2019, Steve and I have spent more months than I’d like to count in Colorado Springs. Steve’s aging parents moved back there in their mid-70’s. Steve spent part of his childhood there with them. What I’ve learned in the past 18-months: do not, I repeat, do not move away from your core family support system in your mid-70’s. No good can come of it. For anyone.

Oh wait, I was talking about the Great Sand Dunes. It’s been a stressful time, can you tell? Between parents and global pandemic, I tell you, what a freaking ride!

The Best Laid Plans

Sand Dunes. Write about sand dunes. So we have a three week stretch before needing to return to The Springs for Bill’s next neurologist appointment AND our second Covid vaccination (yay!). I actually got out a paper map and began looking at cool places to go. It was a pretty good loop taking us to the Sand Dunes, through Durango, over to Mesa Verde National Park, the Hovenweep National Monument. Then up to Moab, Utah and the Arches National Park, back into Colorado and the Colorado National Monument. From there we’d go to Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP, a little side trip to Ouray, then Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument before heading back to The Springs.

Cupcake at Sacred White Shell Mountain

Bureau of Land Management: Boondocking Heaven!

Well, we stopped on Bureau of Land Management land at Sacred White Shell Mountain about ten miles before the Dunes. And we’ve stayed here four nights. At this pace, we won’t make the whole planned loop. Which is exactly why we don’t generally make solid plans. But it’s beautiful here and quiet, even though it’s windy. So we went into the town of Alamosa one day and visited the Great Sand Dunes today.

This area is part of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range and National Heritage Area. The mountains are gorgeous. Nothing left to say about that! We’re staying on Lake Como Road (BLM Road 5410), which is one of only three roads to access the Sangre de Cristo wilderness. It’s one of the most difficult 4×4 routes in Colorado, but we stayed on the good part before it got too steep and rocky. We saw cars and trucks continuing up beyond us into the mountains and honestly most of them were back within a half hour. It’s just too rocky for regular SUVs even. Supposedly it’s one of the top 10 4×4 routes in the world.

So many miles of Beauty and no one to share them with!

All that to say the area around the Great Sand Dunes is just as beautiful as the Dunes themselves. The BLM road and connecting trail leads to several 14ers on the Blanca Massif, including Blanca Peak. It’s really just amazing here. So many stars at night and just miles of mountain views. We could see other RVs and Camper vans but no one was close to each other, so it’s kind of like having our own wilderness! It kind of reminded me of our visit to Hungry Horse Reservation, which is a handful of miles from Glacier NP, but empty when we visited.

The Great Sand Dunes are something to see. I know we have them in Oregon and even though we camped near them during our travels down the Oregon and California Coasts, we really didn’t see them. I know that’s probably a sin or something. But the weather was rainy and cold and well, we just didn’t.

Our visit to the National Park of course meant that the Visitor Center with exhibits and info is closed due to Covid. However the Gift Shop is open and thriving. Go figure. Also no one was at the entrance gate taking admission money, so we simply hung our pass from our rear view mirror and went on in. The Gift Shop is actually pretty good and the staff was knowledgeable, so it’s worth a stop.

Great Sand Dunes Camping

We explored the campground, which signs listed as full, but we only saw about ten campers. Interesting. Maybe they’re running at lower capacity? It looks like a good place to stay and it’s fairly close to the Dunes. Although honestly, I’d still probably drive to the Picnic and Dunes parking lot from the campground anyway. Because walking in all that sand? It ain’t easy.

We parked and walked out. It’s a good distance of flat sand before even getting to the Dunes. But then it’s like something crazy! Walking down a dune is weird, because my feet immediately buried up to my ankles and the sand pooled along with me. Just like water running down a hill. I think it’s super fun and super odd, all at the same time. You can walk along some of the ridges without sinking too much. People brought snow discs and snow boards to glide down the sides. It didn’t seem like it worked as smoothly as snow, but we heard lots of laughter and squeals of delight.

Great Sand Dunes National Park
It’s a long way across the sand

Steve and I tried going up and down a smaller dune a couple times just for the fun of it. Well, the fun is definitely in the coming down part, as we both literally crawled up on all fours. My feet just kept sliding backwards and there’s nothing to grab on to. It was a scramble! I’m glad we tried it on a shorter dune!

Where’d the Great Sand Dunes Come from?

Most of the sand comes from the San Juan Mountains, over 65 miles to the west. Larger, rougher grains and pebbles come from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which the Great Sand Dunes backs up to. Both mountain ranges deposited sand and sediments into a lake that once covered the valley floor. As the lake reduced, prevailing southwesterly winds bounced the sand towards the Sangre de Cristos, where they piled up. Northeasterly storm winds blast through mountain passes and keep the sands piling back onto themselves. Did I mention this is a very windy area? Yep, it’s pretty constant in the five days we’ve been here.

One night, I thought our truck camper could potentially get blown over. I’m not sure if that’s logistically possible, but wind gusts hit us pretty hard and it kept me awake a good bit. So yeah, I can see how the winds would keep blowing the sands back on themselves to create the Great Sand Dunes. These are the tallest ones in North America.

Medano and Sand Creeks edge the dunefield, recycling sand as they water this arid valley. One sign told us the sand can be up to 114 degrees F in the summer. We didn’t need to worry about heat, as we have a talent for bringing cold weather with us. So we layered up in coats, jackets and wind breakers!

Where’s the Wildlife?

While we didn’t see any wildlife during our visit, a ranger said that the tiny Ord’s kangaroo rat can actually jump as high as an adult man. That’s crazy. Jumping rats, no thank you. Although the stuffed one in the Gift Shop looked pretty dang cute. I guess there are Rocky Mountain big horn sheep, black bear, and bob cat in the area. Also elk, cranes and beavers. I think they’re more easily seen up in the Sangre de Cristo wilderness area. Medano Pass Primitive Road takes visitors up there, but it’s still closed for the season during our visit. And it sounds a little more primitive than roads we like driving Cupcake on.

I’m not positive I’d come back here when the weather is warmer. Some places we’ve been have been easy, oh yeah, come on back. But this stop probably covered this National Park for me. It was cold and windy and sure it’d be great to visit when it’s warm. But I think the Great Sand Dunes are a one and done for us. But that’s just me!

Save me for later!


  1. Big Dummy’s Stern Demeanor

    Come for the adventure-travel blog, stay for the pithy life lessons

    • mcgarveysan

      Haha! Yep. Pithy life lesson is an apt description. 🤣🤣


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