David surprised me with two days at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. It was my first experience at a national park (except The Great Smoky Mountains National Park which is basically in our backyard at home – before home was on the road). We left Angel Fire, New Mexico, and I had no idea where we were going until I saw the “Welcome To Colorful Colorado” sign! I was so excited to be in Colorado, but I didn’t know beyond that where we were going and I didn’t ask because I like to be surprised and even if I didn’t, David still wouldn’t tell me. 🙂
We stopped for lunch at Lu’s Main Street Cafe in Blanco (it was very good if you’re in the area, they don’t seem to have a website or I would have been happy to hyperlink it for you guys). Roughly 30 minutes after leaving the restaurant, David told me to look up and asked what I saw?! At first glance, I thought it was a smaller mountain range in front of the Sangre de Christo mountains, but I quickly realized it was sand dunes!!! I only knew this because I had seen previous photos of David at the dunes. I remember seeing people all over the dunes and they looked like ants they were so tiny from where we were.
I was beyond excited, and just a few minutes later we were entering Piñon Flats Campground. As we were circling around the campground searching for our spot, I couldn’t take my eyes off the dunes, and then I realized how some of the sites had a perfect view of the dunes, as if they were in your back yard. I said out loud, “what if one of these sites is ours?!” And sure enough, one of them was! We got extremely lucky, as Piñon Flats Campground stays booked up way in advance. Someone cancelled at the last minute, and that’s how we ended up with this spot booking it only one day ahead of time.
We arrived at Piñon Flats Campground at around 5 in the evening on a Thursday in late June. After setting up camp, we took off to the dunes. 6 in the evening is the perfect time for it. The sun is still out for a couple hours, yet you miss the heat of the day. I would recommend either beating the heat in the early morning, or waiting until the evening. (I took a hike up the dunes the morning we left around 9:30am and the sand was so hot already that it burned my feet even with shoes on, the sand can get as hot as 150 degrees). That Thursday evening, the weather was perfect. The sand was cool and we were able to hike barefooted. We spent about 2 hours hiking, so I highly recommend bringing a backpack with plenty of water along with you. The hike typically takes between 2 and 2.5 hours, but account for more time if you plan on taking a break and enjoying the view from the top. There is no formal trail, so we walked the path from Piñon Flats Campground to the Great Sand Dunes, picked a starting point at random and kept walking until we were as high as we were able to go. At that point, we took a seat in the sand and enjoyed our view for a while. After 20 minutes or so, it was time to hike back down. (Insider Tip: The best way to hike back down the dunes is to run! It’s more fun!)
By the time we got back to our site, it was dinner time, and we had leftovers from Lu’s. I would suggest picking something up quick and easy for dinner if you plan on hiking in the evening, but another great option is to stop by a grocery store on the way in and pick up some food to grill. Each campsite is even equipped with a fire pit so if you’re feeling up to it, you can cook right over the fire! Also, keep your eye out for wildlife when the sun starts to go down! We saw so many deer right in our “backyard.”
On Friday morning, we had a quick breakfast, popped the freedom panels off the Gladiator, and we were off to Medano Pass Primitive Road. If you have a 4WD vehicle and are traveling during the warmer months of the year, as that is the only time the road is passable, plan to spend half a day on this road. The road is 22 miles and it connects The Great Sand Dunes with Highway 69. Expect 2.5 to 3 hours to drive the entire trail, and about another hour to get back to . To avoid the drive back to Piñon Flats Campground, you could drop into the National Park via Medano Pass, or take the road on your way out.
Along the road, you will cross areas of deep sand, and it is recommended to air down your tires to 20 psi to navigate through the sand, and there is a free station to fill your tires back up at the south entrance of the park. You will also cross Medano Creek 9 times along the trail, and though we didn’t see any wildlife at the time we crossed Medano Pass, it is an excellent habitat for bighorn sheep.
I would recommend bringing plenty of water, snacks, and sunscreen on this drive. There are some spots that are perfect to pull off and have a picnic on the tailgate of your truck, and if you don’t have a truck, just bring a blanket!
Upon our return to the campsite, we had steaks on the grill as an early dinner, but we were not quite done exploring for the day!
After dinner, we set off to Zapata Falls. This hidden gem is roughly 14 miles from Piñon Flats Campground. You will take a left off Hwy 150 when you see the sign, and you’ll go approximately 3 miles up a dirt road before reaching the Zapata Falls Recreation Area. The view from the parking lot itself is amazing. You have a direct view of The Great Sand Dunes, and if you visit around the time the sun sets, the colors in the sky are breathtaking. After taking in the views, you will hike up the 0.9 mile round-trip trail to the waterfall. You’ll begin to hear the water and a creek will be straight in front of you, and you’ll think “is this it?” But it’s not, just keep going. Your feet will get wet, and cold walking in the creek through slippery rocks, but you’ll look up and it’s all worth it. Zapata Falls is breathtaking. It’s sheltered in a rocky crevasse and it falls 25 feet into the Rio Grande. It took my breath away and it was by far worth the 3 mile drive on a dirt road, the 0.9 mile hike, and getting my feet cold and wet.
On departure day, I woke up and took one last hike up the dunes as my morning cardio, had breakfast, and it was time to unhook our BasecampX and get back on the road! Our final stop was at the Welcome Center where I purchased a sticker for my collection, and we were off! One final suggestion. As we were leaving the park on a Saturday morning, there was a line of cars waiting to enter the park a mile long! When we arrived on Thursday morning, there was no line at all. If you’re planning a trip to The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and are able to go during the week, I would recommend it as you will miss the big crowds. If you have been to The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and Piñon Flats Campground and have any advise of a story you’d like to share, please comment below, we would love to hear from you!