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Great Sand Dunes National Park: Backpack to the Dune Field

backpack to the dune field

the rundown

Duration: 2 days/1 night

Distance: ~3 miles round-trip, will vary by route

Elevation Gain: ~500 feet, will vary by route

Trailhead: Amphitheater Parking Lot 

In March of 2016 I visited Great Sand Dunes National Park on a whim. I was this close to not going but am so glad I did. I was on a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park and had gotten one solid day of exploring in before the weather turned nasty and Alex and I were chased from our backcountry site before we could even set up camp. We headed back into Estes Park and got a deliciously filling dinner at Smokin' Daves BBQ. During our meal we talked about our options for the remaining two days we had in Colorado. We debated going to one of the ski resorts (too expensive), trying to make it to Yellowstone (much too far of a drive), or staying in Rocky Mountain and dealing with the poor weather. Then I remembered Great Sand Dunes was located in southern Colorado. Maybe, just maybe, the weather wouldn't be as stormy there as it was seemingly everywhere else in the United States. We pulled up the forecast for Great Sand Dunes and it was forecast to be partly cloudy and windy. This seemed like the best option, but it would be a long 300 mile drive from Estes Park. We set an alarm for 4:45am and hit the road long before daybreak. 

planning your hike to the dune field

Are permits required? Yes. The backcountry permits are free but are required to spend the night in the dune field. There are no advanced reservations, you must pick up your permit the day of your hike from the Visitor Center during business hours (9am to 5:30pm from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend and 9:30am to 4pm the remainder of the year). The park allows 20 parties of up to 6 people per party in the dune field per night. In addition to the free permit you will be required to pay the $15 park entrance fee (good for 7 days).

How to get to Great Sand Dunes and the trailhead: The closest city to Great Sand Dunes National Park is Mosca, which is located 23 miles west of the Visitor Center. The nearest small airport is located in Alamosa, 38 miles from the park. The major airports close to the park are Colorado Springs (170 miles), Albuquerque (240 miles), and Denver (250 miles). The trailhead to the dune field is located one mile past the Visitor Center on the left side of the road, however, the overnight parking is located in the lot on the right side of the road, just before Pinyon Flats Campground. 

                                                        For Google Directions Click  HERE

                                                        For Google Directions Click HERE

                                                    For Google Directions Click  HERE

                                                    For Google Directions Click HERE

When to go: This trip can be done year-round, however, extra attention and care should go into planning a trip during the extreme temperatures of summer and winter. Summer storms are common and in the midday heat the temperature of the sand can reach 150F degrees. In the winter the nighttime temperature can drop well below freezing. The Medano Creek will be at peak flow in May and June which make these months a popular time to go. It is also important to take the wind into account. Windy days in the dune field mean whipping sand, which doesn't make for the most pleasant experience. It is best to go when the wind is forecast to be very light (10mph and below are ideal). 

Special Notes: There are no water sources in the dune field so you must carry in all the water you will need during your trip. 

Gear to Pack: 

  • The 10 Essentials
  • Sleeping bag, sleeping pad, tent
  • Sand bags to weigh down the tent
  • Camera gear
  • Trekking poles
  • Extra water


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