Overnight Trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park
It was late June and the weekend forecast was for rain and snow almost all over Colorado and southern Wyoming, but we wanted to go hiking. What is the solution for that? Road trip, of course! For years I’ve looked at pictures of Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve and wanted to go. A 4 and a half hour drive from Boulder near the southern border of Colorado, it was a doable for an overnight trip. Since the weather was better down south, we made a spur-of-the moment decision to go.
Zapata Falls Campground
Since it was a last-minute planned trip, Pinon Flats Campground – the campground at the edge of the Great Sand Dunes – was all booked. I’d heard Zapata Falls, which is a 30 minute drive from the Great Sand Dunes, is a must to visit when you are in the area, and the Zapata Falls Campground is first-come first-serve, with campsites for only $10 per night, so we took the chance of leaving Boulder early in the morning to catch a campsite. The backup plan was to stay at a motel in Alamosa, a town about 40 minutes drive from the Dunes.
We left at 6 am on Saturday and arrived around 11:30 am at the campground. In order to get there, you have to drive about 20 minutes along a very rocky unpaved road off the main road to Great Sand Dunes National Park. When we got there, to our great pleasure and relief, there were still a few campsites left. Who wants to stay at a hotel when you can sleep in the great outdoors?
The view from the parking spot our campsite –
You can see the Sangre de Cristos Mountains in the distance, and the Dunes are just below them out of sight.
The actual campsite was a down a small hill and under some trees, providing protection from the wind.
We didn’t really want to go up and down the rocky road again to see the sand dunes on Saturday, and it was supposed to thunderstorm in the afternoon, so we decided to hang out at the campground. After taking a nap, we went on a short hike to Zapata Falls.
Hiking at Zapata Falls Campground
The hike to Zapata Falls from the parking lot is an easy 1-mile out-and-back trek. Unfortunately, Zapata Falls is a popular destination and was swarming with people around 3 pm, when we decided to visit. On top of that, the water of South Zapata Creek was running very high due to the large amount of snow melt this year, and ice cold. Since you have to go through a cavern, with limited space for walking that is not in water, and actually wade in the water at least once to get to the falls, there was a long line of people waiting to go. We didn’t want to wait so long, and the water was cold, so we decided to give it a rain check.
Instead, we hiked along South Zapata Trail #852, which is a side trail you can take near Zapata Falls.
This trail goes along about 5 miles to South Zapata Lake. It’s possible to go backpacking along this trail, and indeed, we saw a few backpacking groups along the way. This area does not require a backpacking permit.
View of the Dunes from South Zapata Trail #852 –
We hiked to South Zapata Creek, which runs to Zapata Falls, 1.5 miles from the trailhead –
We ended up only doing a 3-mile hike because it seemed like a thunderstorm was rolling in and we wanted to get back to our car and campsite.
Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve
In order to see the Great Sand Dunes at sunrise, we woke up at 3:30 am and packed our stuff. By the time we were on our way, and arriving at the park at 5:20 am, the sun was already brightening the sky. The goal was to reach High Dune.
Mt. Herald (13,346′) and Medano Creek as the sun was coming up –
When we arrived at the parking lot at 5:20 am, there was already a car there, and after we arrived, several groups started to trickle in. Sunrise on the Dunes is a popular experience!
In order to get to the Dunes, you have to cross Medano Creek. There are areas where the creek is more narrow, but we were not aware of them, and crossed at the wide area of the creek close to the parking lot. In order to cross, we took off our hiking boots and winter hiking socks and put on Crocs for protection.
It was the coldest experience for our feet in our lives, like walking through liquid ice. We cursed as we ran through the water, with short breaks on areas of sand in the middle of the creek. Some of the water was relatively deep, reaching the calves. When we got to the other side we used microfiber towels to dry off our feet, but couldn’t feel our feet for several minutes. I was on the verge of tears, it was so painful and scary. I seriously thought we’d get frostbite. We kept rubbing our feet to stimulate blood circulation. It really helped in the end that we brought winter socks and hiking boots. The insulation from those brought heat back to our feet over about 10 minutes.
Sunrise Hike to High Dune
Already a couple parties had headed up into the dunes before us, so we followed their general direction.
There is no “trail” per se at the dunes. You make your own trail. However, it is easiest to hike along the ridgelines of the dunes. Since it had rained the previous night on the dunes, and the sun had not yet warmed up the sand, the sand was a bit sturdier to walk on than later in the day.
Early in the morning the light cast long shadows along the unearthly landscape. At times I felt like I was walking on Mars.
The hike to the dune took longer than we expected. It was over an hour in each direction, even though one-way to High Dune is only about a 1.5-mile hike. The steep climbing up the sand dunes is more time and energy consuming than you would imagine.
Hiking up High Dune –
Taking photos from High Dune –
The View from High Dune
The view from High Dune was spectacular. The warm light and shadows cast on the dunes from the sunrise made for striking shapes and colors in the foreground, with the sharp Sangre de Cristos Mountains standing majestically in the background.
Different angle –
Close-up of the dunes –
The dunefield –
Close-up of the dunes and Mt. Herald in the background –
Interestingly, High Dune is not the highest dune in the park, just the highest dune you can see from the parking lot. It is recorded as 8,727 ft high with about 700 ft prominence. In comparison, the highest dune in the park, and in North America, is Star Dune. Star dune is registered as 8,598 ft tall with about 750 ft prominence. These are estimates because the shape and height of the dunes is always changing.
NPS says it is about a 5-hour round trip hike to Star Dune, if you trek to it via Medano Creek. Technically, you can hike there from High Dune, but it’s not as straightforward.
The Way Back
We meandered back randomly to get back to the parking lot, trying to experience a new route.
Walking back down the dunes –
The sun had come up, bathing the area in a much brighter light.
Most of the way we continued to walk along the ridges of the dunes to be efficient –
Depending on the angle of the sunlight, we took pictures of the sand dunes that appear to be different colors. In the full sun you can see its true color – a taupe brown.
Leaving the Park
We had a long drive ahead of us back to Boulder, so we decided to head out.
View of the entrance to the dunes and Medano Creek from the parking lot in full daylight –
View of the Great Sand Dunes from the NPS Visitor Center –
Recommended as a Trip
If you ever get a chance to see Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, don’t pass it up. Even if you can only visit for a day, it is a memorable experience. If I could plan it again, I would get up even earlier and hike to Star Dune. Maybe next time!