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I’m standing at the crest of a dune in a sea of gold, buried to my ankles in sand while gazing at the snowcapped fourteeners of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in the distance. It’s a bizarre contradiction, almost as if the high alpine and desert landscapes came to an agreement right here in this very spot. It’s a warm spring day in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, and I see no other hikers besides the two who joined me on this backpacking in Great Sand Dunes adventure. It’s just us and our little tent perched in the dunefield, with majestic peaks as the backdrop—and a quickly moving dust devil on the horizon.
The weather was hot and dry as we shouldered our overnight packs hours earlier near the visitor center. After tackling the four-hour drive from Denver, my husband, friend, and I spent the remainder of the day bopping around nearby Alamosa and relaxing in what little shade we could find. Unlike overnight adventures in Colorado’s high alpine areas, which usually start predawn so you can be back below treeline before summer thunderstorms threaten or winter avalanche danger kicks up, hikes in Great Sand Dunes often start after 6 p.m. By then, the sand, which routinely reaches 150 degrees, has cooled enough to walk on.
It was nearly dinnertime when our trio began trudging through the sand. But we weren’t pressed for time. There aren’t designated backcountry campsites, but you must camp beyond the day use area, which amounts to roughly 1.5 miles of hiking. “If we can see you from the visitor center, you haven’t gone far enough,” a park ranger told us.
To our band of experienced backpackers, it sounded easy enough. We just needed to trek up and over the dunes’ first ridgeline. But we quickly realized that hiking in sand is a sport unto itself. I watched the loose granules swallow my foot as I slid down a slope. I should have brought snowshoes, I thought. But soon, I established a pattern: step, slide, pause, repeat.
Eventually, we gained the ridge and were transported to an otherworldly landscape. Thirty square miles of sand stretched before us, each dune highlighted in orange hues reflecting the evening sun. After locating a low spot depressed between two bumps of sand, we quickly pitched our tent with snow stakes and got to work the boiling water we’d hauled in for dinner.
It’s there, crouching before my JetBoil and mesmerized by the scenery, that I catch sight of the dust devil and dive headlong into the tent. Fortunately, the angry weather doesn’t last long. Thirty minutes after seeking sanctuary in our nylon fortress, I pop my head out of the vestibule and feel warm pockets of sunshine on my face. I tumble out of the tent and pick back up where I left off.
The clearing storm leaves carefully placed cloud banks in its wake. Purple, pink, and orange streak across the sky as the dunefield lights up in a dazzling shimmer of gold. I should be sad because nightfall is coming, but instead, I know that soon the shimmer will switch to the skies, where thousands of visible stars earned Great Sand Dunes a certified International Dark Sky Park standing. Half the fun of camping in the dunefield is experiencing what happens when the sun goes down. So, I settle into the damp sand, and wait for the next show.
How to Plan a Backpacking Trip in the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Great Sand Dunes National Park is tucked up against the western ramparts of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range in the high desert of the San Luis Valley. It’s remote; Alamosa is the largest nearby city, and it’s 40 minutes away. (Crestone and Mosca are closer but there’s not much doing in either of those towns.)
When to Go: Technically, you can backpack into the dunes all year, but they sit at roughly 7,700 feet in elevation, so winter can be harsh. For the best conditions, aim for late summer and early fall.
Permit Info: All backpacking groups are required to secure overnight permits. As of November 2020, the park no longer operates on a first-come, first-served basis. Instead, 20 backcountry permits are available per night and must be obtained in advance via recreation.gov; no walk-ups allowed. These permits are available on a rolling basis, and registration opens three months in advance. There is a $6 nonrefundable booking fee with each permit, but it covers up to six people in your group and two parked vehicles. Good news: It’s still pretty easy to get week-of reservations. Weekends book up quickly but there are plenty of midweek options available.
There are a multitude of backpacking options in the area, including the Escape Dunes, Little Medano, and Indian Grove regions that sit around the perimeter of the dunefield. However, if you want to trek into the dunes and sleep out on the sand, you need to secure a “dunes backcountry” permit.
Parking Info: Each permit comes with a parking pass for a specific lot near your trailhead. Your particular parking lot assignment will be printed on your permit or available in your online recreation.gov account.
Trailhead: From Denver, head south on I-25 before splitting west onto U.S. 60 from Walsenburg. From there, turn north on CO 150 and take it into the park. Once there, leave your car in your designated parking area. Most backpacking trips begin at the visitor center.
Where to Hike: Hiking into the dunes backcountry is a popular option for its choose-your-own-adventure aspect. There are no trails or designated routes into the dunefield. Instead, the whole park is your playground, as long as you follow the basic rules: hike beyond the day-use area, be sure to clear the first high ridge, and camp in a lower spot to ensure you aren’t easily visible from any of the parking lots. When in doubt, a good rule of thumb is what the ranger told us: If you can still see the visitor center, you need to go farther. At minimum, you can expect to hike for one to two hours. If you are backpacking in the middle of the summer, be sure to start during the cooler evening hours to avoid the scorching sand. On the return, get off the dunes by 10am for the same reason.
Packing Tips: Backpacking into the sand dunes isn’t unlike other backpacking trips, with a few additions.
- Be sure to bring snow stakes or sandbags to stake your tent. Traditional tent stakes are virtually useless since they will slip out of the sand.
- No fires are allowed in the dunes, so bring a gas backpacking stove if you want to boil water or cook food.
- Don’t forget your water. There aren’t any water sources out on the sand, so you need to pack it all in with you. A good guideline is to bring one gallon of water per person per night in the dunes.
- Pack warm layers. Great Sand Dunes National Park is located in what’s considered the high desert which means it’s very hot during the day, but still gets chilly at night—even in the summer. Bring a warm sleeping bag and a light puffy to keep you cozy.
- Bring a small shovel. There is a lot of mixed information online about disposal of human waste while backpacking in the sand dunes, but the park’s website and a ranger told us the same thing: Bury it in a cathole that is at least six-inches deep and more than 200 feet from water or trails. Always pack out your toilet paper.
- Finally, pack out all of your trash. The sand dunes are pristine and beautiful, so let’s keep them that way.