Ryan and I purchased the America The Beautiful national parks pass last year, and decided to make an effort to make the most of it. We visited various parks north of us last summer (throughout Wyoming and South Dakota), and so our sights have turned to the south.
Four hours south of the Boulder/Denver area sits the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. That’s not too far of a drive– close enough for us to make an easy two-day weekend trip out of it. I did a little bit of research on the park (what to do, where to stay, etc.) and realized that the best time to visit was now! The snow has already begun melting in the mountains, ensuring that Medano Creek would have sufficient flow, and since it is relatively early in May (the park states that the most popular time is late May through early June), we would be able to escape most of the crowds.
We booked a camp site in San Luis State Park (which is about 20 minutes from our campsite to the parking lot at the Sand Dunes), packed up the car, and headed out after work on Friday!
Sunrise on Medano Creek
4:45am: Wakeup call.
5:15am: Leave campsite; it’s a clear day and dawn is already beginning to light the flatlands around us. So much that we leave our headlamps behind!
5:35: Pull into the parking lot closest to the sand dunes. There are only two other cars!
5:45: We head out onto Medano Creek and set up the tripod alongside two other photgraphers, all of us munching on some breakfast and anxiously awaiting the sun to rise. The silence here is amazing– there are no other sounds other than the trickling of Medano Creek as it passes by the sand dunes.
6:15am: We are FINALLY greeted by sunlight– we welcome it with open arms as we try and defrost our frozen toes and fingers. I snap a few photos, and we head up the dunes…
Hiking to The High Dune
7:30am: We begin our ascent! The internet told us to “follow the obvious trail” to the top, but we were the only people on the dunes so we decided to do the next obvious thing… walk our way up the ridges until we got to what looked like the tallest dune! Note: High Dune stands 699ft above its base, and is actually the second tallest dune in the park behind Star Dune which stands 755ft above its base. It was an amazing feeling hiking around the sand dunes making our own tracks. We took our time, enjoying the warmth of the rising sun and the beauty of our surroundings (as we arrived in the dark the night before, everything was new to us!). We were lucky that the sand was firm this early in the morning, and we had no issues making the steep final descent in our hiking boots.
9:00am: We summit High Dune! We meet two other groups at the top, one older husband/wife and two guys with their dogs. Everyone is in high spirits as we take photos, eat some snacks, and chat with each other. Someone points out Star Dune in the distance, and Ryan and I decide that we don’t feel up to the additional 3 mile hike out to it (especially since we weren’t wearing any sunscreen).
9:30am: We begin out descent, and decide to head to the dunes closer to the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains for further seclusion. The sun is now high in the sky, and we soon found ourselves packing away our jackets and wishing we were in shorts! The cool thing about the sand dunes is that you can really walk wherever you want.. and that is exactly what we did.
10:30am: Once we had our fill of exploring the sand dunes, we made our way back towards Medano Creek. We took our boots off, shook out the sand, and waded through the water. We were pretty far away from the parking lot area at this point, where the water is deeper and chilly. We got to experience the surge flow, which is essentially a mini tsunami that occurs every few seconds. We waded down the creek until we were back to the parking lot area. Here the water is much more shallow and also warmer– offering a fantastic playground for the dozens of families with young children to play in.
11:00am: We dropped our packs off at the car, grabbed our sandwiches, and went back down to the shore of Medano Creek for lunch. The scene before me was 110% different than the one we had in this very spot this morning… there were now hundreds of people! Families with small children playing in the creek, large groups of friends playing beach vollyball and frisbee, and a giant single-file line heading up to the High Dune (complete with a wait to get onto the summit). After we finished lunch we left the park, shocked to see our previously empty parking lot (…and sattelite lot… and the side of the roads) completely jam-packed with cars and other visitors.
Here is where I’ll give you my word of advice for your own visit to Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve… GO EARLY! Get out there as the sun rises and explore the sand dunes while you have them to yourselves. My experience was one of serenity; no sounds in the air, no people in sight, firm and cool sand to walk on. It was truely beautiful. The experience of so many other people will be that of crowds and scortching hot sand.
Once we left the park, we made the quick detour to visit Zapata Falls. Now I must warn you, the road getting to the trailhead is ROUGH. Any vehicle can make it, but be prepared for a bumpy ride as the dirt road is filled with rocks and potholes.
Once at the trailhead, you have a short 1/2 mile hike up to the falls. This is very exposed and hot, but you are quickly greeted by a crystal-clear creek that is fed by the falls. As you travel further up the trail, be prepared to get wet! You can hop from rock to rock, climb along the sides, or simply pass through the creek in order to access the hidden Zapata Falls, which is tucked back into the canyon.
While the falls were still partially frozen for us, the mist from the running water was refreshing while the roaring of the falling water in the canyon was deafening. We enjoyed the little oasis for a bit before heading back to the trailhead, and ultimately back to camp for a much needed nap.
San Luis State Park (Camping)
We spent a good part of our afternoon relaxing around camp, which for us this time was in the San Luis State Park. Only a short drive from the Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve (and the small market/restaurant/gas station), it is very conveniently located. The ammenities are also nice. Trash stations, bathrooms, and potable water is offered to the entire campground while each individual site had a sheltered picnic table, fire ring, and ample room to pitch a tent.
As the afternoon progressed, we were soon engulfed by a sand storm and locked ourselves in the car to protect ourselves. We watched as several tents in the boyscout camp next to our camp site were flung up into the air and ripped apart by the wind, but luckily our tent stayed put. Once the storm had passed, we inspected our own tent to find that it had been filled with sand. Whether the sand penetrated the tent walls, or was able to make its way under the rain fly is beyond me… but we had to shake out our duffel bags of clothes, sleeping bags, and pillows. This was going to be a sandy night…
After the sand storm moved through, the sky became a bit hazy and we decided to skip a sunset trip to the sand dunes. Instead we got to making dinner… which is usually very simple for us as we are used to backpacking, but since we had all the ammenities of a camp site this time, we roasted veggies and brats! Served up with a side of mashed potatoes and (of course) beer, we were happy campers.
After a windy night, we awoke around 6am to the soft pitter-patter of rain on our tent. We layed in bed for a while (because really, is there ANYTHING better than the sound of rain on a tent?) before motivating to eat breakfast and break down camp. If its one thing the sand is good for, it’s for keeping all of our stuff closed up and organized! Camp was broken down and the car was packed up in a matter on minutes, and we hit the road around 8am to get home mid-day.
What a great trip! We will definitely be back. Thank you, National Park Service, for saving these beautiful places for us to enjoy.