While international travel seems like it will be off the table for a while, us Americans are blessed to have some incredible domestic adventures. I’ve been to nearly 50 countries, and people are often shocked when I say that the U.S. is among the most beautiful of those. Few countries can boast the diversity of scenery that the U.S. has. A state like Colorado is especially blessed with gorgeous natural beauty.
Sure, it’s known for the Rockies and its abundance of ski towns, but did you know that Colorado is also home to desert scenes? Great Sand Dunes National Park is one of the four national parks found in Colorado. Each one of those four varies greatly in views. You have the snowy mountains of Rocky Mountain National Park, the gorgeous gorges of Black Canyon of the Gunnison, the mind-boggling ruins of Mesa Verde, and of course the great sand dunes of, erm, Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Up until this trip, Rocky Mountain National Park is the only one that I’ve visited, and I’ve spent about five days there throughout my many trips. With national park pass in hand, a few friends and I decided to make the trip down to Great Sand Dunes. We road tripped about three hours down from Keystone, arriving in the early afternoon.
Quick Things To Know Before Going to Great Sand Dunes
The daily entrance fee for Great Sand Dunes National Park is $25 per vehicle. If you have an annual pass for the national parks, Great Sand Dunes is included. It is $80 if you plan on buying it at the gate. The gates are only staffed between the hours of 6 AM and 5 PM, which means you can sneak in for free if you visit outside of those hours. Please try to pay your fair share, though. National parks are severely underfunded as is, and it’s possible to drop off a payment outside of the hours when the gates are staffed.
Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the visitor center and other facilities were still closed. Masks and social distancing were recommended at the park, although it seemed less common than in Rocky Mountain National Park. The wide open spaces of the park must have made people feel a little safer than the narrow trails of Rocky Mountain.
We parked at the Dunes parking lot, the main area where you can access the vast expanses of the sand dunes. Here, you’ll find showers, bathrooms, and some information on visiting Great Sand Dunes. A trip to the desert can get really hot, so make sure you come prepared. Bring a lot of water, sunscreen, and snacks. Sunglasses and a hat to protect your face would also be good ideas. It rained during our visit and it got quite cold. Bring some rain gear and a change of clothes, just in case.
Things To Do At Great Sand Dunes National Park
Unlike other national parks with iconic trails and recommended activities, Great Sand Dunes is more of a free for all. People are roaming around wherever, skiing or snowboarding down the dunes, and hiking wherever seems promising. Whether you want something a little more adventurous or more laid back like a picnic, Great Sand Dunes is a perfect national park to visit.
Of course, the most appealing direction is up. You’ll find yourself wanting to conquer the tallest of the dunes, no matter how much your legs begin to burn. Don’t worry, the way down is much, much easier. The High Dune hike is an estimated 2.5 miles roundtrip, although it feels much, much longer when you’re hiking in the sand. Every step you take will result in sliding down half a step.
I like Great Sand Dunes because along with its beauty, it didn’t feel stressful whatsoever. Other national parks may seem overwhelming, to the point that you try to do everything without actually taking the time to enjoy them. A day trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park was more than sufficient. We spent a few hours hiking and exploring at a leisurely pace.
Not all of the trails are centered around the sand dunes, though. With the forested mountains as a beautiful backdrop, there are plenty of wooded areas to explore as well. On a clear, sunny day, this might be the go-to option to avoid the sweltering heat on the dunes. At times, the sand can reach temperatures of 150 degrees Fahrenheit or more.
Of course, if you want to avoid the heat altogether, Great Sand Dunes is a fantastic place to visit in the evenings and even at night. This national park is renowned for being one of the best places to stargaze in the entire United States.
Stays Near Great Sand Dunes National Park
Great Sand Dunes is pretty remote. There aren’t too many decent-sized towns nearby, so finding affordable hotels can be pretty difficult. During peak season, that is especially true. I recommend staying at an Airbnb, especially during the Coronavirus pandemic where you’re less likely to encounter other guests.
Visiting Great Sand Dunes During the Coronavirus Pandemic
Like most national parks, Great Sand Dunes has become a hotspot for travelers and vacationers. The appeal of the great outdoors is stronger than ever, and this vast desert is no exception. I visited in July 2020 and found it to be quite crowded. The further towards the dunes you go, the less people will be around. However, the scenes at the bathrooms, showers, and parking lots were akin to what you’d find on the beach on a hot summer day. Bring your masks, at least for this part of your visit.
Once you get past the hordes of people at the early parts of the dunes, social distancing will be a lot easier. The spaces are wide open, making it pretty easy to avoid others.
Final Thoughts on Great Sand Dunes National Park
I’ve always romanticized Colorado as an outdoorsy persons’ paradise, but I never really knew the extent of it. Great Sand Dunes adds another dimension to the plethora of adventures that Colorado already offers. Great Sand Dunes boasts the tallest sand dunes in the entire United States. With the mountains in the background, they offer views unlike any other desert you’ll encounter.
I found a day trip to be enough time to visit Great Sand Dunes, compared to other national parks like Rocky Mountain and Yosemite that could warrant week-long visits or longer. Great Sand Dunes National Park is a must-visit destination for anyone living in or traveling through Colorado. Just be responsible about your visit, and bring your masks, hand sanitizers, and maintain social distancing.
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