Under a Blanket of Stars: Camping in Great Sand Dunes National Park

While Great Sand Dunes has beauty and fun to offer during the day the real adventure begins when the sun goes down!

By: Sonja Saxe

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In March of this year I went to 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. 

After 5 hours of driving we finally turned onto the final stretch of road that leads straight to Great Sand Dunes. When the dunes finally came into view there was a brief moment I experienced a "that's it?" feeling. The dunes, despite the tallest being over 700', are dwarfed by the 13,000' peak of Herard Mountain in the Sangre de Cristo range they sit below. As we neared the dunes we could see tiny specks moving around on them: people! This was the first time we realized the massive scale of the dunes. Any fleeting disappointment I felt when I first laid eyes on the dune field was gone and replaced with giddy excitement. 

We stopped by the visitor center and picked up a permit for camping in the sand dunes. The ranger explained to us the rules and regulations and sent us on our way. We parked at the completely empty Amphitheater Parking Lot and geared up. One positive aspect to our interrupted hike the day earlier was that our backpacks were still packed for an overnight trip so we were able to hop out of the car and head for the dunes. 

The hike starts along a horse trail that meanders through Indian Ricegrass until it reaches the shores of Medano Creek. Across Medano Creek is where the real fun begins. The trail disappears and is replaced by towering dunes of sand and hikers are forced to find their own way over the tallest dunes and into the "backcountry" area where camping is allowed. 

The sand dunes are almost an illusion. It was so difficult to grasp the magnitude of them even while standing among them. Dunes in the far distance seemed so much closer and smaller than they actually were. When we were planning our route over the tallest dune we thought we could simply "take the gradual ridge line" over to the other side. It looked like the shortest option of all the routes that lay before us. We set off towards the ridge line only to be deterred by an incredibly large and steep dune that looked so small from a distance. We tried to traverse up the face of it but fell 10 feet short of reaching the top. We were sinking into the sand up to our mid-calves and causing tiny sandvalanches. Reluctantly we doubled back the way we came and took the longer route. The second route had a steep section, too, and I was unsure if we were going to make it. It took a lot of effort and a few curse words but we were finally over the tallest ridge! 

What lay before us was astonishing. Expansive, sinuous dunes that looked like undulating waves reached for the towering mountains of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The best part? We had it entirely to ourselves. Since we left the trailhead parking lot we did not see one other person on the dunes and we wouldn't until we returned to our car the next morning. The dune field was like a giant sandbox that was ours and ours alone to play in. Our early start to the day granted us the entire afternoon to explore the landscape. We laid our packs down and climbed the ridges unweighted. We ran down the faces of the dunes only to turn around and watch the wind erase the footprints we just left. 

Finally, it was time to set up camp. As we began assembling our tent we noticed a growing rain cloud over the mountains to the north. There weren't any storms in the forecast but we kept a close watch on the clouds. Setting up a tent in sand with strong winds is tough. We've set up a tent in snow before and that was a cakewalk compared to the ever-shifting sand dunes. Given the impromptu nature of this trip we didn't have any time to research camping in the sand so we winged it. The wind was blowing hard and wasn't forecast to die down until early evening. The stakes didn't do a very good job keeping the tent down. We needed sandbags but unfortunately didn't have them. We tried to bury the stakes and that did a decent job keeping the tent down but wind was still catching underneath the tent and blowing it up. So we decided to bury the edges which was surprisingly effective in keeping the tent in place. It did such a good job, in fact, that we decided to leave the tent unattended and venture off to do a little more exploring.

By the time the sun was beginning to set the clouds over the mountains had cumulated into a full blown rainstorm and in the golden hour glow the scene was breathtaking. The beauty continued to grow as the sun sank below the horizon and reflected off the rain creating what looked like pink rain. It was unlike anything I've ever seen before and not something I'll soon forget. 

After darkness set in the warmth the sun provided in the daylight hours faded fast. We hurried back to the tent to warm up in our sleeping bags. I wanted to try to take night photos so we planned to take a nap and set an alarm for 9pm and check the conditions then. When the alarm went off we peeked outside and to my dismay the entire sky was covered in clouds. So we decided to take another nap with an alarm set for 1am this time to see if any of the clouds had cleared. In what seemed like no time the alarm was going off again. Reluctantly I crawled out of my sleeping bag and peered out of the tent. The sky was twinkling with the most stars I had ever seen. I practically jumped out of the tent. 

Great Sand Dunes has a famously dark night sky, making it the perfect place for astrophotography. I spent almost an hour taking pictures in subfreezing temperatures but barely noticed the chill as I was too focused on the brilliant night sky.

Finally the sun rose and it was time to hike out and make the long drive to the airport. We packed up our gear, relishing in the sweeping vistas of sand and mountain surrounding us. The hike out took much less time than the hike in since it was almost entirely downhill. Once back at the car we changed into fresh clothes, packed the car, and just like that we were leaving the park, another wonderful and incredibly unique adventure under our belts!

This story first appeared on The National Parks Girl

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.