Yep! Time to Visit Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park. Now!

[Posted June 25, 2019]

So we really don’t have a good excuse for why we’ve been on this earth for some 40+ years and, up until a couple weeks ago, had never once been to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Reserve.

Sure, it’s a little out of the way, tucked as it is along the northern end of a lonely stretch of desert between mountain ranges in south central Colorado. So it ain’t exactly just right around the corner, by any stretch. But it’s only about a six hour drive from our little place here in the Texas Panhandle. And plus, we’ve both spent a good part of our lives in northern New Mexico. But again, for some goofy reason we just never took the time to see what the Great Sand Dunes were all about.

Then, we saw some photos on Facebook a few weeks ago that changed all that. Not just of the dunes themselves – which have always looked really impressive – but of the little river that runs through the park at the edge of the dunes called Medano Creek. Every spring, the runoff from the snow-packed mountain peaks above the dunes flows down through the creek (and through the park) and creates a thoroughly one-of-a-kind experience for visitors. This year, however, the winter snowpack was especially deep up on the peaks, and the spring runoff it created was especially high. So much so that it got folks to buzzing about the very cool conditions it was creating in the park. Word started traveling fast around social media, along with pictures like the ones we saw on Facebook – pictures of folks playing and lounging in the cool, clean waters of the creek while gazing up at the spectacular dunes that rise up from the creekbed on the other side.

Okay, we said to ourselves, this is it. We’ve gotta see this place.

Coincidentally we’d been looking for a quiet, out of the way kind of place to celebrate our anniversary. So it seemed as though the stars were aligned. We packed a weekend bag, loaded up and made the easy drive up to beautiful Colorado. And yes, we are so, so, so, so very glad we did!

Here’s a quick recap of the trip for those of y’all who are interested! Being our first time visiting (and having very little knowledge about the park, aside from what we saw on social media) we were a little unsure about what to expect, what to bring, where to get gas, those kinds of things. So if you’re planning a visit for the first time, we hope this helps! And if you’ve already been, we’d absolutely love it if you’d post your thoughts/suggestions/tips down in the comments for everyone to see and share. We just went for a day – a few hours, actually – so we’re not gonna pretend to be experts on the park by any stretch, and we didn’t even scratch the surface of all the things there are to see, do and experience there. So any and all tips are sure welcome!

Highway 150 going north into Great Sand Dunes National Park.

We visited the park on Saturday, June 15th. We actually drove in to the park that day from Trinidad, Colorado where we had rented a little AirBnB place for a couple of nights. Left Trinidad at about 10 a.m. and it took roughly an hour and 45 minutes to get to the park’s entrance. And that’s where we ran into the only hiccup of the entire day.

In the middle of a long line of cars waiting to get in.

Word is definitely out about the park, no doubt helped by all the buzz about the Medano and the excellent water flow through it. We say that, because when we finally arrived at the park’s entrance we were greeted by an insanely long line of cars waiting to get in. In fact it took us right about an hour of sitting and waiting and inching along to reach the actual gate. Fortunately it was an absolutely gorgeous day. And the scenery out there is pretty amazing. So the wait was long, for sure, but all in all not a terrible experience.

The view from the road as we waited to get into the park.

[Tip: if you’re driving into the park, especially on a busy day (like on the weekend), expect at least a little wait at the entrance. And it’s probably a good idea to stop in one of the little towns before you get there –  like Fort Garland or Blanca – to make sure you’re stocked up with what you need and to go to the bathroom. Emphasis on that bathroom tip, because of the wait.]

Entrance fee (for folks who don’t have an annual pass, like us) was $25 per car, and that $25 gets you admission to the park for seven days. We knew we’d only be there for a few hours at best, but there’s unfortunately no such thing as a “day pass” or a single day ticket. $25 is the cheapest you’ll get in, unless you’re part of a big group, which makes the price $15 per person, or on a motorcycle, which drops the price to $20. See more detailed information about the park’s fees and passes here.

As you drive into the park, the visitor’s center is about half a mile or so past the entrance gate on your left (you’ll see it). We didn’t actually stop in the visitors center unfortunately, simply because the line of cars coming into the park was getting bigger and bigger, and we wanted to be sure to get a good spot down by the creek where we could relax all afternoon. Wanted to try to beat the rush. You know how it is.

Soon after you pass the visitor’s center there’ll be a road that turns to the left and toward the dunes. This road will take you down to what we’re told is the closest parking/picnic area to the dunes themselves. And our hearts sank hard once we made the turn on that road and saw that the crowds and the parking were such that cars were lined up on both sides of the road for what had to be at least a quarter of a mile. Which meant a long, hot walk to the actual parking lot, picnic area, creek and dunes. But! Not wanting the carry our stuff that far, we decided to roll the dice and drive on through the crowds and take our chances on finding a closer spot to park. And sure enough! There were several spaces available down in the actual parking lot! In fact, we got one of the closest possible parking places to the creek. So don’t let all the cars parked so far away deter you!

Once parked, we got a couple of camp chairs and a cooler and made the very short walk down to the creek, which was absolutely loaded with people (as expected). We immediately set out to find a more quiet, out of the way spot to spend the afternoon, so without crossing the creek we walked to the left and up into some rolling sandy hills that were dotted with trees. And again, sure enough! There were a few folks around, but not nearly as many that were down in the flat part of the creek, or across the creek under the dunes. We found us a shady spot, plopped down, and spent the next four hours just relaxing and staring up at those incredible dunes.

Our hidden little spot! Shady and out of the wind. And right on the creek.

Okay. About those dunes. They are absolutely spectacular. Seriously. Pictures do not do them justice at all. They are unbelievably big. The tallest dunes in all of North America, in fact! The dune field (as it’s called) covers about 30 square miles and the dunes themselves reach a height of around 750 feet at their tallest point. And sitting below them and looking up is just an awe-inspiring experience! You are of course absolutely free to hike up and across the dunes and explore them to your heart’s content. You can also rent sandboards and sand sleds which looks like a ton of fun. Check out this page for a list of some of the really cool really cool things to do, not just on the dunes but throughout the park itself. Again, we can’t really speak to any of that because we were perfectly content just chilling in our little spot down by the creek. But we’re absolutely gonna see and do more on our next visit!

A view of the dunes from our spot on the creek. See all the people?

Speaking of the creek. Yes, you can wade through the creek, and even plop your camp chairs down in the water for a delightfully cool experience (which we did do). Lots of folks brought tubes and floaties and things like that, but that didn’t seem to be all that successful a venture. The creek was flowing pretty good that day – about 48 cfs – but still, the deepest part that we walked through barely came up to our knees. Most of the wide creek bed was covered by just a couple of inches of moving water and was super easy to walk across. Floating, we bet, must have been a challenge. But yes! The water felt freaking amazing. And if you’re going to the park specifically to enjoy the creek, know that it has already past its peak flow and will likely continue to drop until the runoff begins again next spring! You can check the current status of the creek and its flow (and learn more about its seasonal nature and what to expect) by clicking here.

Medano Creek. Taken from our spot.

But even if the creek isn’t flowing as well, you’ll still no doubt have an amazing visit. The photography to be enjoyed there is reason enough to go on its own! In fact, all the photos you see here that we took came straight out of the camera (iPhone8) with absolutely no retouching whatsoever. And they were taken in the middle of the afternoon! We can only imagine how cool it must be at other times of the day. So, yes. Take lots of pictures.

Beyond that, as mentioned, we didn’t do much else. And it was perfect. Very much worth the drive and the expense and the wait to get in. And we will absolutely be going back! We’d love to film a segment for an episode there, in fact, which we’ll very likely end up doing at some point. It’s just a rare and spectacularly beautiful place! Check out more of our photos below, and again if you have any suggestions/tips for other folks, please leave them in the comments below! There are lots of people who have never been who would appreciate your insights. Likewise, if you have a question leave it below as well. We’ll do our best to answer it, and if we can’t then someone else surely can.

So cheers guys! Hope y’all get to make the trip out there. Better still, we hope to see you out there on our next visit! We see some sand sled races in our future. 🙂

Hope you’re having a wonderful summer! Safe travels y’all!

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