Great Sand Dunes
By: Mark Munson @markonthemove
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In the midst of winter, it can be hard to find any hikes that are worth driving for. Luckily, tucked up against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in southwestern Colorado sits the largest sandbox in North America. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve encompasses 30 square miles of terrain and possesses dunes as tall as 750 feet. The park offers many different seasonal activities such as sledding, picnicking, sand boarding, astronomy programs, backpacking, horseback riding and more. If you're a Colorado local and have yet to check out this national park, put it at the top of your list!
Driving into the park, anticipations are high. The dunes are tucked back against the Sangre de Cristo Mountain range so they aren't visible until a couple miles out. Highway CO-150 is the last road until you hit the dunes, which offers some pull-offs for viewing the mountains to the right. As you drive further into the park the views only become more exceptional. You are greeted by the Sangre de Cristo's tremendous scale and a diverse landscape of grasslands, wetlands, conifer and aspen forests, and tundra.
To get into the dunes, a short trail takes you from the parking lot to the river that is dried up for the most part in winter, but in the summer is a spot to cool off or hang out for the day. Cross the river and you are officially in the dunes! Hiking in the dunes can be daunting because of the elevation gain and sandy terrain but exploring a little bit is definitely worth it. Keep in mind, Great Sand Dunes National Park doesn't have any trails so you can wander wherever you wish. Remember that however far you hike one way, you have to turn around and hike back the same distance, so make sure to conserve some energy and bring lots of water even in winter months.
In the winter, a bit of a drive is required for rentals. Check out the two retailers below for winter rental options:
1) Sand Dunes Swimming Pool and Recreation is 30 miles west of the Visitor Center in Hooper and they offer rentals year round. For pricing and information click here
2) Kristi Mountain Sports offers sled and board rentals throughout the entire season as well. It is located 40 miles southwest of the Visitor Center in Alamosa. For pricing and information click here
If you are planning an overnight stay consider camping at one of the nearby campsites for the full experience. Stargazing in the San Luis Valley is some of the best in Colorado and provides blanketing views of the Milky Way in the midst of summer. Although the Milky Way is not visible in the winter, the amount of stars make up for that. There are a number of different campsites around the national park area depending on what you are looking for.
1) Pinon Flats Campground
This campground is located inside the park and one mile north of the Visitor Center. It is open April through October each year and is the closest campsite to the dunes. This campground has amenities such as restrooms with sinks, flush toilets, dishwashing sink, and water spigots with each campsite having a fire grate and picnic table. Click here to make a reservation or for more information about the Pinon Flats Campground
2) Oasis Campground
Located just outside the park entrance, this campground offers 90 sites total and is open April through October and includes RV sites, tent sites, and cabins. Campsite amenities include showers, laundry, restaurant, and general store on site. Click here to make a reservation for more information on the Oasis Campground
3) Zapata Falls Campground
Personally, this is my favorite campsite. It's Located 11 miles south of the park Visitor Center and sits at 9,000 feet in elevation. This campsite is only accessible by dirt road, which isn't plowed in the winter but stays mainly packed. The sites are a few hundred feet from Zapata Falls Trailhead which takes you to the waterfall, frozen in winter and flowing during summertime. The campsites overlook the San Luis Valley and provide scenic views of the dune field and Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Amenities include pit toilets, fire rings and picnic tables, as well as food storage units. This campsite runs on a first come first serve basis. Since I don't care too much about amenities, I enjoyed this campsite because the easy access to the waterfall and the valley views. It's also a prime sunset viewing location. I definitely recommend checking this campground out if you are interested in checking out the waterfall.