This park is stunning, but with a bit of bad luck while we were there mixed with some pouting by me, this wasn’t my favorite park.
We had been in Colorado for about a week before getting to this park. We had some delightful visits with friends first. In Fort Collins, we stopped at our friend Harris’s house so Mike could work on the van (of course), drink lots of beers, and get fed too much. Then near Salida, we went camping with our friend Moon and his beautiful family. We swung in hammocks and listened to a Blue Grass festival. All of this was super amazing – but definitely wasn’t really acclimating to the altitude.
So, we arrived to Great Sand Dunes pretty early in the morning to avoid the burning sand. The two of us, along with adventure pup, starting hiking towards the dunes. Just this section seemed to take forever – and then I realized that this is where the the creek usually is. But they’re in a drought. Womp womp. So this made the hike just to the dunes seem pretty long, when in reality it’s maybe a half mile to the first dune.
Mike was trucking along and Luca was trying to follow him – but I was using him as a sled dog with my running leash around my waist. I had read that it’s tough to get to the highest dune (Star Dune). But I arrogantly thought I would be just fine. Wrong. It’s hard enough to hike in sand. But make it all uphill, and at that elevation? Nope. So, I made it about half way up – took a breath, enjoyed the view, pretended it was Luca that was tired and hot, and I rolled down the dunes, which is a much more fun way to travel.
When Mike finished (unsurprisingly, he hiked there and back way quicker than the estimated time), we headed out of the heat and down the road a couple miles to Zapata Falls. This was a cute little hike that has a trail through a stream to a waterfall that still had ice. It also had amazing views of the mountains and the dunes that really put the size of everything into perspective.
After we had cooled back down, we went back to the park and I received my junior ranger badge from Ranger Patrick. He’s worked with the National Park Service for 25 years, and was even in the Great Sand Dunes informational video! Per his recommendation, we hiked up Mosca Pass to back country camp and for beautiful sunset views. We would have preferred to camp in the dunes, but it’s not allowed with dogs. So, despite still being slightly pouty about not doing well in the sand dunes, we headed up the mountain. It was a moderate hike up, but the camping areas really weren’t great and we couldn’t see the sunset at all. Sooooo, we considered it a good training hike with all our gear on our backs and headed back down. This was actually an amazing part of the hike. About a mile up from the trailhead and parking lot is an amazing view for sunset. The mountains frame the sunset above the dunes beautifully.
I think this would be a great park for a family – if the creek isn’t dry. The small dunes are fun and easy for all ages. You can also rent sand sleds and sand boards, but we were discouraged doing this by our friend Jay, who lives in Colorado and knows us well. Unless you’re okay with the tiny baby dunes, he said you really won’t love renting that equipment. After a couple runs down the dunes, he said you’re pretty much over it. All in all, despite my bad attitude and a drought, we managed to have some fun. It also is very pet friendly, in comparison to other parks, which is a huge plus for me.
- Don’t go when the creek is dry. Otherwise, it’s too hot and activities seem to get redundant.
- If you don’t have a dog with you, get to the visitor center early and get one of the free backcountry permit to camp on the dunes.
- Want a beautiful sunset without the crowds? Hike a mile up Mosca Pass trail and watch it there!
- If you rent sand boards, you might want to just get one for the family – until you know if you really like it!