Backpacking and Camping at the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado
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The Great Sand Dunes provide one of the most awe-inspiring landscapes to be found anywhere in North America. Growing up in Denver I had visited them once as a kid, but I was with my mom and we didn’t explore much. Fast forward thirty years and it was time to go back!
Lured by notions of solitude, adventure, and catching a glimpse of the Milky Way, I decided to backpack in and camp amidst the dunes alone. Below you can read what I learned and find all of the information necessary for backpacking solo at Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Great Sand Dunes History
The Great Sand Dunes are believed to be around 400,000 years old, formed by winds and water moving sand from east and west. Sediment is carried down from both the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the San Juan Mountains creating this marvelous landscape.
I was surprised to learn that people have lived in the area for an estimated 11,000 years! Several native groups including Southern Utes, Navajo, and Jicarilla Apaches – throngs of gold miners, homesteaders, ranchers, farmers, and migrant workers have all passed through. History is blowing in the air, along with the particles of sand shining in the desert sun.
Interestingly there are endemic species of insects inside the park. For example, the Great Sand Dunes tiger beetle, but unfortunately I wasn’t lucky enough to spot one.
Getting to the Great Sand Dunes
By Rental Car
Located only about 4 hours from Denver and 2.5 hours from Colorado Springs – it’s relatively easy to visit by rental car.
The most common way to get there is to go south on I-25 to exit 49 towards Walsenburg, then go west on US 160, continuing north on State Highway 150. You’ll see several signs for the park along the way.
Keep an eye out for two stunning 14ers on your way there. Blanca Peak 14,345 ft (4372m) and Ellingwood Point 14,048 ft (4282m).
Check Current Rates and Book a Rental Car
Airports are serving Denver, Colorado Springs, Alamosa, Taos, and Albuquerque.
Check the official site for more detailed directions.
The entrance fee is $25 per vehicle or $20 for motorcycles and riders. Passes are valid for 7 days. It’s open 24 hours a day and if you enter outside of normal business hours it’s free!
Storms can come out of nowhere, bringing cold or wet conditions at any time of the year. Be prepared for a wide variety of weather during your visit.
I arrived the night before I hiked in and spent the next morning preparing for the backpacking trip. Deciding what to bring, hydrating, and eating some high-carb foods for energy.
To camp at Great Sand Dunes, you first have to secure a free backcountry permit. There are only 20 of these given out per day for the dunefield.
You must now secure your permits online through Recreation.gov. The non-refundable fee is currently $6 and they seem to sell out quickly. It’s best to go during the week when it’s less busy if possible.
Be sure to check the forecast before you head out and be wary if there’s any lightning in the area. Don’t forget to grab a map!
I rented my gear from outdoorsgeek.com. It’s adventure central in Denver and a great resource if you don’t own already own the stuff to go backpacking. This company also has generous rental terms. No deposit, they just keep your credit card info. I technically had three days to use the gear, but it’s worth mentioning that the pickup and drop-off days don’t count against you.
This is what was included:
- Osprey 63L Backpack
- MSR Freelite 1-Person Tent
- Klymit Sleeping Pad
- 30-Degree Down Sleeping Bag
- Jetboil Minimo Cooking System (used for boiling water to cook freeze-dried food)
- Sawyer Water Filtration System
- Trowel (poop shovel)
The Superlight Backpacking Package was $189.00 + tax.
I carried 4 liters of water and I didn’t use it all, but it’s a good idea to bring more water than you think you need. As far as food goes, I brought several Mountain House freeze-dried meals. You just boil water, pour it into the pouch, wait 5-10 minutes and you’re ready to eat!
Other essentials – Pocket knife, IsoPro Canister Fuel, lighter, a good headlamp with extra batteries, phone, map.
With all of my food, water, camera gear, and equipment I’m guessing the pack weighed about 30 lbs – 13.5 kg.
Camping at the Great Sand Dunes
The first night I camped outside of the dunes and got my backcountry permit the next morning when the visitor center opened (they can’t be prearranged). Of course, all 88 spots at the Piñon Flats Campground within the park were full. You can reserve in advance here.
Instead, I went to Oasis campground on CO-150 just a few miles before you enter the park. It was $25 for the night and I enjoyed it. Camping is available from April – Mid-October. There are bathrooms, showers, laundry, a restaurant, and a store on site.
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There’s nothing like being out in the dunes in the middle of the night. You soon realize that the biggest thing to fear out there is your brain. It’s so still and peaceful. Aside from an occasional airplane overhead, it’s pretty silent. Just you and the Milky Way.
You might hear an occasional howl from a coyote or the hoot of an owl, but that’s it. Every once in a while your mind might play tricks on you and you’ll think you hear people talking too, but you don’t. I only saw two other people camping.
Hiking Into the Great Sand Dunes
My suggestion is to hike in around 5:30 pm and watch the sunset from the top of the dunes. Then hike in further and set up camp before dark. It’s wise to leave the next day before 9 am if it’s sunny. It starts to get hotter and hotter the later it gets. Spare yourself the heat exhaustion. Always remember to practice leave no trace ethics.
The day I hiked in it was raining most of the afternoon. I wasn’t even sure I was going to be able to go. The good thing was, there wasn’t much lightning. In Colorado, there are often thunderstorms later in the day. Being out in the dunes leaves you very exposed. There is no shelter whatsoever. Keep that in mind!
Luckily it rained before I started to hike. This made ascending the dunes that much easier because the sand was packed down. So if it’s raining the day you’re supposed to head up, it could be a blessing in disguise.
Astrophotography at the Great Sand Dunes
One of my goals on the trip was to take night shots because I knew it’d be very dark. I’m happy to say that I came away with some shots that I’m really happy with!
I went to sleep around 10:30 pm and set my alarm for 2:15 am to wake up and catch the stars after the sky had cleared. Before I laid down the moon was still pretty bright out and there were lots of clouds, but by the time I woke up, it was much darker. The photos were obviously better for it!
Camera Settings for Sand Dunes Astrophotography
A good place to start would be to turn your camera dial to ‘M’ on manual mode. I also always shoot RAW for astrophotography. Next, zoom out with your wide-angle lens, for example to 16mm. Set the aperture of your lens on the camera to the most open it can go, like f/4 or f/2.8.
Try setting the ISO (film speed) to 6400 to start with. Your shutter speed should be between 20-30 seconds. Make sure your remote triggers are connected and set to the right channel/frequency. Take some shots and just experiment!
Continue fine-tuning things as you go, letting in more or less light as necessary – maybe a longer shutter speed, higher or lower ISO, etc. Turn your camera dial to ‘B’ and do a bulb exposure if you need longer than 30 seconds.
Just remember that if you go much longer than 45 seconds you’ll start to get a noticeable star blur from the spinning of the Earth.
It’s fun to shoot photos in the dark! You feel one with the planet when you’re camping and at night you can look up into the cosmos and feel connected to the universe too.
Astrophotography Gear: Here’s what I use and suggest…
- Camera: Canon R6 Mark II
- Wide-angle lens – Canon 16-35mm f/4L or even better the 16-35mm f/2.8L
- Remote triggers: Pocket wizards
In summary, this was the first time I’d ever camped solo, but it won’t be the last. It’s empowering to get out into the world and do things on your own. I’m always apprehensive at first, but thankful afterward.
Anyone with a moderate fitness level can do this. I don’t consider myself to be in tip-top shape by any means. You don’t have to be super “outdoorsy” either. There wasn’t anything that rugged about it. You just simply need the willingness to go!
Knowing that as a traveler I’m always going to be leaving again soon, this trip restored my faith in the beauty of Colorado and made me feel like I got something special out of the summer. It’s a bummer that most visitors to this park only see it during the day. Don’t be one of them! Consider backpacking and camping at Great Sand Dunes National Park.
The total budget for my trip was $305.00. Two nights camping + supplies.
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Have you ever camped or backpacked solo? Would you do it?