Great Sand Dunes National Park 5/3-5/17

Piñon Flats Campground and backcountry site (Aspen) by way of Sand Ramp Trail. Great Sand Dunes National Park, Mosca, CO (3 hours 50 min / 240 miles by I-25, or 4 hours / 226 miles by US-285 if you prefer the scenic route, both from Denver).

There a ton of information available on this area because it’s a national park. Most everything you’ll need can be found on their NPS site, including good maps, permit information, and other things to do in the area. And here’s direct links to their backpacking information and the campground.

We reserved the campsite for the first night about a month in advance and drove down after work. The backcountry office (located in the visitor center) opened at 9:30 AM (9 between Memorial Day and Labor Day) and we were one of three groups waiting at 9. Permits are required but free. Twenty groups are allowed in the dune field every night, and one group per backcountry site. They’ll also assign you to a parking area. Their peak season starts up toward the end of May so we weren’t sure if it was still early or because it was a Thursday, but only 5 groups were in the dune field that night and we were the only group in the backcountry. We only saw one other backpacker and a few day hikers on the way out the next day.

This was an exhausting trip. The 6 miles to our site would have been fine if the terrain was our usual pine and aspen forest trips, but after the first mile or so of trail it was pure sand. We also had to do plenty of route finding and a bit of backtracking as we picked up and lost the trail several times.

We’re not ashamed to say it took 7 hours to get to camp – half of which we were taking breaks to filter water, eat, or hide in the shade. It took 5.5 hours to get back down the next day for the same reasons. The daytime highs were only around 75°F, but Daniel (a native Texan) was pouring sweat and saying it feels like working outside in a Texas summer while knocking back liters of water. As more of a cold weather person, I had nothing family-friendly to say. Next time we’ll plan to hike shorter distances each day since we were exhausted after only 2 or 3 miles.

Overall though, it was a successful trip. We’ve been slowly cutting our pack weights and considering what we actually need out there rather than bringing extra stuff just in case and the lighter packs have made our trips much more enjoyable. When we left the house, Daniel’s pack was around 25 lbs and mine was 19 lbs, including food. Our goal is to get base weights below 20 and 15 lbs, respectively. And we’ve recently updated our gear list in case you’re curious.

What we learned:

  • Although the park is in Colorado, approach it like it like the desert it is. We went for high top hiking boots because cactus needles and toes don’t need to meet (again), long pants, long sleeves, and we really should have brought wide brimmed hats. Bring plenty of sunscreen and reapply it often.
  • Setting up a tent in sandy soil or pure sand forces you to be creative. We had some stakes shift the first night in the campground in sandy soil. We gave up and collected rocks to pin down stakes in pure sand on the second night. Our usual stakes are MSR Mini Groundhogs that have otherwise been great.
  • When you get your permit, the park rangers will tell you which rivers are reliable water sources. Depending on your plans, either bring extra water or a filtration method even for longer day hikes. Obviously there isn’t water available in the dune field.
  • Route finding in the sand is not easy. The ranger warned us that sand had washed out the trail in some areas. On the hike out, our trail already wasn’t visible in some spots after less than a day.

A few notes on the area:

  • The peak season is late May and June when Medano Creek is at its highest. There’s notices on the park site to expect lines and plenty of traffic.
  • The campground is only open April to October. Backpacking is year round.

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