CLIMBING THE GREAT SAND DUNES
Ok, if you have the chance to see the Dunes in Southern Colorado, you 100000% should. This place is by far top 10 on my list of coolest places in the United States that I've been.
I had no idea they existed until about 3 weeks ago, but honestly, you probably wouldn't know of them unless you were searching for them. They are really far out of the way but I believe that is one thing that makes them so special.
Below are my tips for traveling to and hiking the sand dunes as well as my story from my experience there.
Options are incredibly limited near the dunes because they are pretty isolated from civilization. Here are my recommendations from my experience there:
CAMPING: If you feel comfortable and are equipped for camping, camp. I was so jealous of everyone that was nestled in the campgrounds. But make sure you make a reservation as the campgrounds fill up quickly there.
RANCH STAY: About 10 minutes from the dunes is a 103,000-acre ranch on a Nature Conservancy called Zapata Ranch. They offer all-inclusive stays with horseback riding, meals cooked from bison off the ranch by a resident chef...but you have to plan for that in advance. We just booked a single room at the Stewart House. This was a separate guest house on the ranch that had private bathrooms in each room, a fireplace and an outdoor patio with a grill as well as a kitchen available to anyone staying in the house. In my opinion, it was way overpriced and felt a bit like a 1-2 star hotel room, but the location was prime....If you don't want to drive far and enjoy the serenity of wide-open spaces, then this place would be for you. I loved the land it was on.
HOTELS/MOTELS: The only place to stay near the dunes is the Great Sand Dunes Lodge, other than that, your options are very limited and located about 30-40 minutes away in Alamosa, CO. If I did it over again, I would camp.
If I had the time, I would have run up and down the dunes 3x. It was an amazing workout and getting to the top was easier than expected. You will log about 2.5-3miles from start to finish depending on the route you create.
BEST TIME TO GO: In the summer, the earlier the better. Get there by 6:30am and start your hike no later than 7am. The temperatures are absolutely perfect, the sun is not brutal and you will almost have the dunes to yourself.
MAP YOUR ROUTE: I love AllTrails to find good trails, but trails do not exist on the sand dunes because they are constantly changing with the wind and weather. Use an app, like Strava, to record your hike so you can follow your recorded trail to get back to where you started and don’t end up way off course potentially out of water and energy.
WHAT TO BRING: If you just want to go to the top of the dunes and back, you can plan to cover about 3 miles. All you need is water and a good camera. I did it on an empty stomach and was fine. But you know your body best - if you need to eat, eat.
WHERE TO PARK: When you enter the park, you will see a sign that points left for the sand dunes and straight for the campgrounds. The parking lot for the sand dunes is as packed as Disney World...if you want something a lot LESS crowded, just drive down to the campgrounds parking lot. There were maybe 5 cars in that lot compared to the 100+ in the dunes lot when I was there.
GEAR & SHOES:
Less is more. I brought a camera, a GoPro and water.
HYDRATION: If you don't plan on being on the dunes for more than 1-2 hours, 12-24 ounces of water is plenty. If you don't make it out in the morning and have to go when the sun is high in the sky, bring some electrolytes as well. I recommend NUUN tablets. They are light and easy to use. You'll be sweating your a** off, so you will want them. (and stay safe...the sun is no joke...more on that in my story below).
SHOES: I wanted to take mine off, but you could literally fry an egg on that sand. I recommend some lightweight sneakers. Hiking boots aren't necessary. And please, whatever you do...don't wear sandals.
OTHER THINGS TO REMEMBER:
Once you're on the sand, there is no coverage. Bring sunscreen or proper protection.
Try to go in the morning or as early as you can. By 9am, it gets very busy
Check the forecast. You don't want to end up there in the middle of a thunderstorm. Colorado weather is a bit bi-polar and a storm could roll in at any minute (like it did for us). Sand dunes are the last place you want to be when it is lightning.
If you're looking for a bit of adventure beyond just hiking and maybe a little adrenaline rush, you can rent a sandboard or a sandsled (think of snow, but like...sand) at Oasis, a small market on your right hand side right before you drive into the park. This is the only gas station for about 30 miles as well, so if you need fuel...you're in luck.
I am not sure why I have become infatuated with sand dunes. Ever since I saw a picture of the Mojave desert in California, I have wanted to run on them. I initially had planned to go to the Mojave desert as the last stop on my road trip, but plans changed with COVID restrictions and I ended up in Colorado spending time with family. It was then, when I was trying to reroute the trip a bit, that I learned that Colorado not only has sand dunes, but they're the tallest in North America.
Initially I had looked at AllTrails and saved a few routes. I wanted to get in at least 3 miles, but when we showed up I thought to myself "there are no f*ing trails" and just laughed. I don't know why I didn't think of that before....it's just vast land...you can literally walk or run anywhere. So, I just wanted to get to the top, hit a mile and a half and then follow that path back down.
We made the mistake of showing up at 2pm. It was miserably hot and the sun almost felt dangerous. Seeing people walking back to their cars with beat red faces and a white washed look was not encouraging, but I was up for the challenge. I just knew I needed extra water. I thought "I've got about 2 hours before the storms start to roll in and can definitely knock out a 5k."
As I walked to what seemed like a good starting point to get to the highest point on the dunes, I recognized that I was one the hoards of people. I immediately did an about-face out of there and drove down to the campsite parking lot. Katie and I could see the storm clouds start to roll in, but they were still pretty far away and there was no thunder or lighting.
That was until we got all of our stuff together and started walking to the sand. I was so determined to get it done, but a quarter of the way up the dunes, we heard thunder. Where there is thunder, there is lightning. I PANICKED. Katie was confident that we were fine. She suggested we just take a few pictures and then head back to the car. The photo below was the one I posted on instagram...they say a picture is worth a thousand words, but what this picture doesn't tell you is that I was internally having a full blown panic attack and ready to go while Katie was saying "are you going to do something or are you just going to stand there?" while holding the camera. I knew the weather made for an amazing photo opp which is why I stood there and didn't run back to the car, but that look on my face is me paralyzed between the thought of "damn, this will make for a great shot" and "we need to get the heck out of here."
The second we got in the car and shut the car doors, it started raining sideways. It pretty much rained for the rest of the evening so we just stayed in and decided to give it a go the following morning before we left for Utah.
Zapata Ranch was so close that you could see the dunes from the house we were in. We spent most of the time on the patio grilling with our small portable gas grill. I swear I love chicken and steak, but I will likely be so sick of it by the time this 3 week road trip is over, because we are grilling just about every night. It saves a lot of money though and makes for relaxing, quality evenings.
We grilled that evening and got to bed early so that we could head to the dunes at 6am the next morning by the recommendation from a local. We arrived at 6:30am and I counted 6 cars in the parking lot.
It was easily 20 degrees cooler and the sun was still coming up. It was absolutely beautiful. We stopped a few times to get some photos and videos along the way and I just stared off in amazement at how beautiful and fake the scenery looked. I still can't get over it. But all things considered, we got to the top in about 25 minutes. I could have run that for a workout about 3 times. Getting to the top was such an adrenaline rush and the view a reward like no other. I wasn't the one driving to Utah, so I kicked back a Maha while we packed up the rest of our stuff and took in the view one last time. Like I said - it is one of the coolest places I've ever seen. I would HIGHLY recommend making the trek out here to anyone that is even slightly considering. You don't need more than a couple of nights and it will be a weekend you'll never forget.
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Until next time!