Backcountry Camping in Great Sand Dunes National Park

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Bordered to the east by Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Great Sand Dunes National Park beckons overnight backpacking enthusiasts to explore the stark contrast of where dunes meet the forest. A diverse landscape unfolds for explorers to roam the dune slopes where there are no trails, where solitude persists, and where the dunes reach 750 feet (228.6 meters) from the base of the dune to the top – the tallest in North America.

A surreal experience awaits visitors to this diverse landscape

The recreation opportunities at Great Sand Dunes transition with the seasons. In spring and fall, migrating birds can be found in the San Luis Valley including the Sandhill crane. As many as 20,000 cranes will migrate through the area providing birders with an opportunity to observe and photograph these majestic and large birds.

As winter approaches, weekly snowfall enables wildlife tracks from the likes of snowshoe hare and elk to be easily identified. Mountain hiking trails are under deep snow, but foothilll trails may be packed down or have shallow snow.

In spring and summer, the area comes to life. Medano Creek is a seasonal stream with a peak flow in May. Children will enjoy floating the stream on inflatable floaties, playing in the wet sand, and splashing in the cool waters.  In peak summer (July and August), plan to venture out early in the day or later in the evening if you plan to sandboard or sled on the dunes – sand temperatures can soar over 150 degrees F (65 C) on a summer’s day.  

A tent is set up in the Dunes Backcountry with two hikers exploring a nearby dune.

Great Sand Dunes National Park (Kris Illenberger, NPS)

A special experience in the park is an overnight backpacking trip along the Sand Ramp Trail or in the Dunes Backcountry. Designated sites along the Sand Ramp Trail are the perfect getaway for backpackers to experience a variety of landscapes with views of the dunes, among mixed conifer forests at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Or try non-designated camping in the Dunes Backcountry, which is defined as “west of the high ridge and beyond the day-use area” a minimum distance of 1.5 miles west of the Medano Creek bed.

Permits to backpack and stay overnight are required year-round. Beginning on November 18, 2020 at 8 a.m. Mountain Time, advanced reservations will be available for Great Sand Dunes National Park Backcountry Permits. Permits are available on a rolling basis, three months prior to the trip start date at 8 a.m. MT each day.

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