Stay and Play at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
My boyfriend, Gunnar and I finally did our first camping trip together to see the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. We were a little fearful that it would be overwhelming with people since it was Memorial Day weekend, but we were surprisingly fortunate in finding a place to stay for the weekend.
We started the short drive from Colorado Springs and made our way toward Alamosa, Colorado which is just 25 minutes from the sand dunes. We drove 160 West toward Alamosa until we came to road 150, the road that would take us to the sand dunes. The great sand dunes are nestled at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains not far from Blanca Peak. When we reached the visitor’s center, the parking lot was full, and it was very obvious many had thought of the great sand dunes for their Memorial Day Weekend.
Now, we didn’t have a campground in mind. We had the Piñon Flats Campground option in our pocket but came to find that it was full when we arrived. Luckily for us, we went to the visitor’s center and asked what other options there were for campers who missed out on reservations and sure enough, we found one.
We had a great weekend away from it all at the great sand dunes, and below are my tips for visiting the Alamosa area and making the most of your Memorial Day weekend or other vacations. Watch the video to see the experience!
Staying at San Luis Lakes State Wildlife Area & Campground
We stayed San Luis Lakes State Wildlife Area for this trip for a few reasons. One, because there weren’t very many other places to set up camp. And two, it cost us nothing to camp there. Since we were fishing license holders, and this was a state park, we could stay and camp for free. If you were not a fishing license holder, the normal fee would have been $36, that’s even if someone were there to regulate it, which it appeared there wasn’t.
There are plenty of other campgrounds in the area, Piñon Flats was our preferred choice because it is a walk across the street from the sand dunes and it’s in a wooded area.
San Luis Lakes was still a great option because there were plenty of available campsites, there were covered picnic tables, places to plug in an RV, and toilets. It was a good first place to set up camp.
People can also register for a permit to backpack the great sand dunes, which can be done at the visitor’s center.
San Luis Lakes was just 15 minutes away from the great sand dunes and if you need any extra supplies like ice, water, beer, or other little snacks, you can visit the Oasis Campground to pick those things up.
Hiking the Great Sand Dunes in Socks
We were fortunate to arrive at the sand dunes when there was overcast, making this the perfect time to visit. With overcast, the sand wasn’t too hot and you’re not sweating up a storm doing the hike.
Hiking in sand can be a challenge, for obvious reasons. And if you’re shoes feel like big dumb weights on your feet that keep you from walking like a normal person, feel free to ditch them! Some people walk in socks or barefoot to make the hike easier.
I recommend checking the sand’s temperature before shedding your shoes, and especially check the temperature of the sand if you’re bringing a doggie with you. For those who still want to brave the sand’s extreme temperatures with your dog, make sure you get them little booties for the trek.
Sand, Wind, and Water
During our trip, it was very windy, and sand was easily pushed around in the area. It doesn’t hurt too much, but with small children and animals, it’s best to keep them out of the wind so none gets in their eyes or causes skin irritation.
Around this time, the great sand dunes’ Medano Creek may be overflowing into the area making a variety of wonderful pools for children of all ages to play in. During our trip, we did not see much water. However, if you have a 4wd vehicle, you can take the Medano Creek Primitive Pass up there yourself where you can find more primitive campsites as well.
Are There Other Things To Do at the Great Sand Dunes?
You can spend your whole trip visiting the sand dunes, and boarding, having picnics, making sand castles, hiking, or playing in the Medano Creek overflow and have a full weekend of fun. But if the sun is too hot for a full day in the great sand dunes, just down the road at Zapata Recreation Area, is the Zapata Falls Trail.
To get to Zapata Falls Trail, you take a 3-mile rough and rugged road into Sangre de Cristo wilderness area. From there, you can look down into the San Luis Valley, and the miles and miles of flatlands. Once you reach the parking lot, you can take the trail even further up into the wilderness, which is only about another 183 ft added to your elevation. The hike is very rocky, so good shoes are a must.
Once you reach the end of the trail, there is a heavily forested creek there and the crashing sounds of Zapata Falls can be heard nearby. The creek is clear and runs ankle deep. People can walk through the water and through a cave to see the large waterfall that spills over from Zapata Lake.
Other Camping Tidbits
There is pretty much sand everywhere in this area and it definitely is hard to avoid yet somehow we managed to keep our tent very clean for the whole weekend. We made sure to leave no trace at our campsite and with the dog and her impeccable ability to gather sand and dirt, we had to stay proactive.
We left a large bath towel at the front of our tent upon entering to trap any excess dirt we may have tracked in with our cute little feet. We wiped down our feet and legs before going to bed (luckily it’s dry weather in this area so you don’t sweat and get all disgusting). Once we got in, we wiped down the little paws of our furry friend.
By the time we packed up everything, we only swept up a little bit of dog hair and sand. It was perfect.
Also, if you’re looking for an inexpensive but trustworthy brand of camping gear, much of what we used on our trip was the Coleman brand, which has been part of my family for decades.
Overall, our trip was pretty fantastic and relaxed. Our only advice to the people coming would be to travel during times of the year when larger government holidays are not being observed. You’ll miss a lot of the crowd and your trip will be much more enjoyable.
If you liked this blog post on the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, please view some of my other posts like our visit to Rampart Reservoir.
Been to the Great Sand Dunes? Leave us a comment below about your trip there!