This month marks three full years that I’ve been basking in the wild magic that is Colorado. Despite summer road trips, camping on the weekends and making Tim, my fiancé, wake up before sunrise to go hiking with me, the bucket list goals I have for this state stretch on forever. It’s an awesome feeling to wake up each morning in a place I can call home while knowing that there is still so much left to explore.
It’s no secret that Colorado has some of the most pristine and awe-inspiring nature in the United States. Tourists staying in Denver tend to flock to the nearby scenic wonderland of Rocky Mountain National Park, while mountain sport enthusiasts will head to Vail, Aspen or any number of the cute and ragingly expensive ski towns just a few hours into the mountains. Now don’t get me wrong, those are definitely worthwhile places to visit, but if you’re after a summer weekend getaway that is truly unique and off the beaten path, look no further than Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Drive about four hours south of Denver (past the throngs of suicidal roadside prairie dogs), and you will be greeted with a view of the tallest sand dunes in the country contrasting brilliantly with the surrounding peaks of the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountains on either side. The theory is that when lake beds receded thousands of years ago, the mountains acted as a wind funnel and the sand left behind was swept into this mountain “pocket”. Medano creek runs at the base of the dunes, which adds to the ecological wonder of the area. Running water, sand dunes over 700ft tall, and towering mountains all in one grand panoramic view is a pretty unforgettable sight.
There is a visitor center where you can learn about the fascinating history of the site, and it also connects to various forested hiking trails in and around the area. The dunes themselves occupy a 30 square mile space that visitors can explore freely. You can even rent a sand board, climb to the top and surf down! In the summer, the base of the dunes are generally packed full of families with pop-up tents having picnics and swimming in the creek. Afternoon thunderstorms are common in mountain regions so if it starts to rain, it is wise to be cautious of lightning.
When we visited in mid-June, the average temperature was 85-100°F and we quickly learned that the best time to climb the dunes was in the early morning or late afternoon if we wanted to avoid burning our feet. The sand can reach 150°F in the middle of the day! There is no shade, so be sure to pack sunscreen, a hat and plenty of water. Another important item to bring is bug spray, lots of it. The combination of the creek and the summer heat is the perfect breeding ground for mosquitos, as I learned when Tim lovingly pointed out that I “looked diseased” from getting so many bites.
We camped about 9 miles from the dunes at San Luis Lake, on a clear evening that blessed us with a pastel sunset and millions of stars twinkling in the sky. Because of the elevation temperatures can drop to 40°F once it gets dark, so bring warm clothing and blankets if you plan to spend the night. As the sun rose we headed back to the dunes and were able to reach the top this time since the sand was cool instead of scalding at that hour in the morning. It felt like we were on an alien planet. The views were just unreal.
Great Sand Dunes National Park and the surrounding area is a beautiful, worthwhile stop on any Colorado itinerary. Where else could you say you hiked a mountain, swam in a creek and surfed down a sand dune in one day? Whether you decide to camp for a weekend or make a detour on a road trip, I can’t recommend this gem of a place enough. It is one of the most unique places I have ever visited and I will definitely be back.