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Great Sand Dunes National Park | Roadtrip USA (22)

After the hellish ride of Florida to Colorado via Arkansas and Kansas, among others, we finally arrived in Colorado. We arrived after dark at our wild camp site about 15 minutes from the entrance to Great Sand Dunes National Park. In the following days we explored the park and spent the night in different places. We also did some great activities. We went sandboarding the desert dunes and we enjoyed hot water springs at the Spa at Sand Dunes Recreation.

In this article you can read everything about this great national park, what you can do there and where you can possibly stay.


Plan your vacation to America here


Our journey through the United States and Canada

This article is part of a major one-year journey that we (Chris and Malou van Wereldreizigers.nl), are currently making by the United States en Canada† We started in New York City and are through Washington DC en Baltimore (where we shipped our RV), first traveled south (Florida) and then made a full round of the country.

Organizing this trip took a lot of time and energy. So we had to US B1/B2 visa of one year and we spent weeks working on it renovating our 4×4 camper† Then we got to work on the RV to America to ship and in hindsight it turned out to be a Dutch vehicle insurance in America to be one of the biggest challenges.

When that was all over, we could finally focus on the anticipation: figuring out and planning all the beautiful places we want to visit. I built the ultimate roadtrip route through America and Canada of roughly 50.000 kilometers in Google maps and we are now making our dream come true! The interactive map can be viewed below.

More blogs from our trip through America and Canada

Arriving in Colorado

After a long drive we finally arrived in Colorado. After seeing the 'Welcome to Colorful Colorado sign' we decided to rest for a while and then drive on to the Great Sand Dunes, a few hours away.

Arriving in Colorado
Arriving in Colorado

Night was almost falling, but we wanted to continue. We had in mind a wild camping spot, about 20 minutes from the entrance of the park. Normally we don't drive in the dark, but this time we made an exception.

We noticed in the dark that we were going uphill, but because it was pitch dark (there was no moon!), we really didn't see anything of the area. When we arrived we saw some other cars and campers. Busy wild camping spot, we thought!

Colorado's first peaks

The next morning we woke up and saw mountains for the first time this trip! There was even snow on the mountain tops, even though they weren't that high at all. At least that's what we thought...

Just after sunrise we saw the mountains, with peaks of roughly 4000 meters high
Just after sunrise we saw the mountains, with peaks of roughly 4000 meters high

More than 4000 meters

Nothing turned out to be less true. With the rising sun while enjoying a fresh cup of coffee, with a view of the mountains, I decided to gather some information. What seems? The peaks we looked at were 4 kilometers high! We were already at an altitude of +- 2500 meters. huh??? It definitely didn't feel that way, because the valley where we were standing is really as flat as a pancake. Take a look at the photo below, which is pointed the other way.

The valley at Great Sand Dunes National Park is as flat as the Netherlands
The valley at Great Sand Dunes National Park is as flat as the Netherlands

About Great Sand Dunes National Park

We're here, so it's high time to get some information. We always want to know where we are and what we are looking at. I consult the NPS app and start reading.

Tip:: Of NPS app (click) is the official one National Park Service app where you can find information about all national parks. Weather, opening times, historical information, campgrounds, etc. etc… It's a must-have app when traveling across America.

Great Sand Dunes National Park & ​​Preserve, which is its official name, is home to the tallest dunes in North America. The sand dunes have a top of about 230 meters. These ever-changing hills lie to the west of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and their height creates a bewildering, desert-like landscape surrounded by snow-capped peaks of 4,3 kilometers.

The Great Sand Dunes with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the background
The Great Sand Dunes with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the background

The scenery here is some of the most wonderful in the whole country. It is bizarre to see this with your own eyes. In one photo you can capture grasslands, wetlands, desert, forests, a river, sun, mountains and snow here. I really have never seen anything so special in my life, you just have to see it to believe it.

A unique landscape that can only be seen here | Great Sand Dunes National Park
A unique landscape that can only be seen here | Great Sand Dunes National Park

So what can I say about the park? What can you do there? We visited the park and the surrounding area several times in a week, did several activities and stayed with our 4×4 camper at both free camping spots (wanted camping) and paid camping sites nearby. We rented sandboards, got sandblasted in the dunes, made new friends, swam in hot springs and discovered a gem of a campground near the park.

Malou, de Wereldreizigers.nl 4x4 campervan and the Great Sand Dunes in the background
Malou, de Wereldreizigers.nl 4×4 camper and the Great Sand Dunes in the background

In short, we know the area well by now. These are my tips for Great Sand Dunes National Park, with both practical tips and fun things to do.

Also read: All National Parks in the United States of America | List

Sandboarding in the Great Sand Dunes

Whether you are 5 or 50 years old, rent a sandboard! Sandboarding from the dunes is really fantastic to do. For those who are not good on a board, there are also knee boards for rent that you can sit on with your knees or buttocks. Like a kind of sled. Sandboarding is therefore a really fun activity for young and old.

Rent a sandboard

Chances are you don't have your own sandboard or sand sled. No problem! Rentals are available from several providers. For convenience, I've included the three most famous ones below. Renting a sandboard costs about 20 dollars a day, the prices hardly differ.

  1. Kristi Mountain Sports at +- 40 minutes from the park in Alamosa
  2. Sand Dunes Recreation at +-30 minutes from the park in Hooper
  3. Great Sand Dunes Oasis at +- 20 minutes from the park in Mosca

Sandboarding and sand bites

With a sandboard under our arm we walked up, in good spirits. But for those who have never done it: It is quite difficult! Especially in the beginning I went down a few times and sand came in places where it shouldn't, haha.

Sandboarding is fun but also quite difficult!
Sandboarding is fun, but also quite difficult!

For those who find it too difficult to stand up sandboarding, you can also sit down! You have special boards for that that are shorter and wider (we didn't have those), but you can also sit on an ordinary sandboard. Malou goes down the dune at a decent speed here!

You can also get off the dunes while sitting on a sandboard, as Malou shows here at full speed
You can also get off the dunes while sitting on a sandboard, as Malou shows here at full speed

You are being sandblasted

In the meantime it started to blow very hard. That was predicted by the way, that is normal here. Therefore, go early in the morning, because around noon it is usually windy.

Sandboarding and sandblasting. The strong wind caused painful sand against the calves and in the face
Sandboarding and sandblasting. The strong wind caused painful sand against the calves and in the face

I didn't let that stop me just like that, though. After a number of trial and error, I got the hang of it. The wind was blowing so hard that the dust simply changed the color of the sky, as can be seen from the drifting sand in the photos below. We were just sandblasted here and that sometimes hurt the calves and face!

There were also quiet moments in the Great Sand Dunes. You take beautiful photos here!
There were also quiet moments in the Great Sand Dunes. You take beautiful photos here!

Hiking in the Great Sand Dunes

Of course you can also enjoy the dunes by just going for a walk. I mean, check out the pictures below. It's such a bizarre landscape that sometimes it almost makes you think you're in it Middle East have arrived.

The huge sand dunes of Great Sand Dunes National Park, it looks like a desert in the Middle East
The huge sand dunes of Great Sand Dunes National Park, it looks like a desert in the Middle East

But then you turn your head a quarter turn and then you see mountains, trees and even snow on the mountain tops again. If you look closely, you can even see a small river at the bottom of the dunes! It's a bizarre sight, it all seems fake, as if it was constructed, but it is absolutely not.

Mountains, snow peaks, trees, grassland, river and desert-like dunes. Doesn't that just make you happy?
Mountains, snow peaks, trees, grassland, river and desert-like dunes. Doesn't that just make you happy?

Zapata Falls

There is more to do in the Great Sand Dunes area than just sandboarding or walking in the dunes. Zapata Falls (Location here.), is a good example of this. It is a waterfall in the mountains and is about 20 minutes from the entrance to the Great Sand Dunes.

I must immediately add that you also have to drive up the mountain for 15 to 30 minutes, depending on your vehicle. It is not an easy road to drive! It winds upwards and the slope is almost constant at about 12 percent, which is really tough for your vehicle.

De wereldreizigers.nl 4x4 RV up the hill to Zapata Falls
De wereldreizigers.nl 4×4 camper on the hill to Zapata Falls

A 4×4 is highly recommended here, because the road really goes up at a rapid pace, so don't underestimate it. You can still do that with asphalt, but the road consists mainly of sand and loose pebbles, so that your tires quickly lose grip. Before you drive up there is a sign with '4×4 only'. It's really there for a reason!

Zapata Falls Trail overlooking the Great Sand Dunes
Zapata Falls Trail overlooking the Great Sand Dunes

Once at the top, there are plenty of parking spaces to park your car. From here you also have a beautiful view of the Great Sand Dunes in the distance, between the trees.

After a fairly easy walk of +- 30 minutes you arrive at the (icy cold) river that ends at the waterfall: The Zapata Falls. To get to the waterfall you have to cross the river in a number of places, so prepare yourself for wet feet.

Tip:: bring your water shoes or flip flops to cross the rivers. Please note: the water is icy and icy cold, it is melting water from the snow on the tops of the mountain!

The Zapata Falls behind me is still partly frozen
The Zapata Falls behind me is still partly frozen

The waterfall behind me (Zapata Falls) is completely frozen for much of the year. Now, at the end of May, it is a beautiful waterfall, but if you look closely you can see the chunks of ice still hanging on the rocks. It is therefore better not to come closer than this, because a chunk of ice often comes down.

Weather conditions

The weather here seems to change every 15 minutes. Then there are clouds and strong winds again, then it is calm, sunny and sweltering hot again. You feel the warm wind from the valley fighting against the mountains and the cold air, which sometimes comes from the other side. It is a bizarre natural spectacle that you are in the middle of at that moment.

Chris on the edge of one of the highest dunes in Great Sand Dunes
Chris on the edge of one of the highest dunes in Great Sand Dunes

Remark: Wondering how the dunes got to this place? By the wind of course! For thousands of years, the wind pushes the small grains of sand from the valley towards the mountains, where the sand grains eventually formed huge dunes. Wind is really part of life here, pretty much all year round.

Nearby campsites

Most Dutch people who visit this area will probably do so with a rented motorhome. There are a few good campsites nearby for motor home owners.

Pinon Flats Campground

First of all, there is of course the official Pinon Flats Campground (location here.), which is literally next to the sand dunes in the park itself. It will probably come as no surprise to you, but this one is almost always completely sold out, unless you reserve it half a year or more in advance.

The campground costs only 20 to 30 dollars per night and is run by the government, so reservations can only be made through this website.

View of the Great Sand Dunes from the Visitors Center steps from Pinon Campground
View of the Great Sand Dunes from the Visitors Center steps from Pinon Campground

If you are one of the lucky ones who manages to get a place at this campsite: the photo above is approximately your view. We took this photo a stone's throw from the campground at sunset. Here too it is clear to see that the dunes are constantly subject to change due to the strong wind. Towards evening the (cold) wind came from the mountains, while during the day the warm wind came from the valley.

Zapata Falls Campground

This campground (location here.) is located high on the mountain near the Zapata Falls Trail, already talked about above. This concerns a free BLM campground, for which you cannot reserve. However, it is almost always full, so be there on time, early in the morning when people leave their place. Like the Pinon Flats Campground, the campground is run by the government. More information here.

Sand Dunes Recreation (tip!)

The campsite 'Sand Dunes Recreation' (location here.), is not in magazines and if you search the region on Google Maps for 'Camping' or 'Campgrounds', strangely enough it doesn't even come up as a campsite!

Sand Dunes Aerial Recreation | Photo taken with my drone
Sand Dunes Aerial Recreation | Photo taken with my drone

It's actually much more than a campsite, maybe that's why. It started years ago as a hot spring, which managed to tap its warm water from the ground below them for recreational use. They have the only decent swimming pool in the area, which also attracts many locals.

It has now grown into a campsite with many possibilities and facilities. There are several swimming pools and for adults there is a real 'adult only' spa with a bar, several hot pools, a sauna, a green courtyard and most importantly: tasty specialty beer and good food. You don't even have to get out of the water!

The borrelplatter and the tuna were really fantastic, recommended! † Sand Dunes Recreation
The borrelplatter and the tuna were really fantastic, recommended! † Sand Dunes Recreation

To camp at Sand Dunes Recreation you have several options:

  • $10 per night (dry camping, no facilities)
  • $25 per night (dry camping, but facilities)
  • $45 per night (full hookups and facilities)
The $25 a night dry camping spot of Sand Dunes Recreation, with the Great Sand Dunes in the background.
The $25 a night dry camping spot of Sand Dunes Recreation, with the Great Sand Dunes in the background.

Those who want to go to the pool pay 7,50 pp for the pool, and another 3 dollars for 'The Greenhouse', the adult-only Spa area.

Note: these are the prices if you stay at the campsite. If you only come for a day to relax and not stay at the campsite, the prices for the swimming pool and Greenhouse are double (15 dollars + 6 dollars).

Mosca Campground

This campsite is located just outside the park (location here.) and almost exclusively has spots with 'full hookups'. I honestly thought the campsite was way too expensive for what it is, you pay about 50 dollars for one night. There is virtually nothing to do and there are hardly any facilities.

Alamosa Economy Campground

A basic campground (location here.) about 40 minutes from the park entrance. The advantage of this campsite is that you are close to the town of Alamosa. Apart from showers and a toilet building, there are hardly any facilities. Cost per night: about $30.

BLM land and wild camping

There are also countless opportunities for wild camping in the region. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages large tracts of land here where you can, in a sense, go where you want. However, there are 0 facilities and you will often have to do your best to find a good flat area to camp on, especially if you go further into the woods or mountains.

Our camping spot on BLM land, together with other world travelers | Great Sand Dunes BLM Land
Our camping spot on BLM land, together with other world travelers | Great Sand Dunes BLM Land

Sacred White Shell Mountain

Those who put in a little effort and have the opportunity to camp 'off-grid' like us, can choose to spend a few days in epic places with great views.

Sacred White Shell Mountain is a perfect example of this. It is BLM country with a few large open spaces in the beginning where you can camp with several campers, cars and tents. This is fun because you naturally get to chat with other travelers here. Our 'cute camper' from the Netherlands was the topic of conversation here, we received countless questions about it.

So much space, so many places

In the first part of the BLM land you have a number of large places where you can get together with other wild campers. but if you don't feel like it and would like to enjoy your privacy and tranquility, you can do that here too.

Prefer to enjoy your privacy? Then you just stand a little further away, there is plenty of room | Great Sand Dunes BLM land
Prefer to enjoy your privacy? Then you just stand a little further away, there is plenty of room | Great Sand Dunes BLM land

The dirt road splits at some point and if you look closely into the distance, you can still see campers here and there. Both on the flat part and higher on the mountain. The photo above was zoomed in quite a bit with my camera.

Meet other full-time world travelers

Malou and I camped alone and remote for a few days up the mountain, but we also enjoyed the 'busy part' for two nights. We got to chat with other full-time travelers there and shared experiences and ideas. Where to camp and what to see, but also how we all three earn our money online as digital nomads.

Three world travelers together, who each earn their money online, each in a different way
Three world travelers campers together, each earning their money online, each in their own way

It was interesting to see that we each had a completely different niche as a target to monetize.

  • On the left you see Matt and Grace's converted school bus, aka @theggoldenroad on Instagram. They have become especially big on TikTok (roughly 300.000 followers). They mainly earn money through the advertising revenues of social media.
  • In the middle Wereldreizigers.nl, we mainly focus on the website in The Netherlands and live mainly on donations and affiliate marketing.
  • On the right you see Matt van @offgridtrader, who earns his money online by trading stuff.

So you see again that there are different ways to Rome. If you would like to travel a lot and for a long time and want to earn money online to pay for this, you can approach this in different ways.

Conclusion

Great Sand Dunes National Park, but also the area around it is a place that you absolutely must see once in your life. The scenery here is some of the most wonderful in the whole country.

In one photo you can capture grasslands, wetlands, desert, forests, a river, sun, mountains and snow here. I have honestly never seen anything so special in my life, you just have to see it to believe it!

The fact that you can also take part in a number of fun activities such as sandboarding and then relax in the hot springs of Sand Dunes Recreation makes it an experience you will never forget.


Plan your vacation to America here


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Chris

Owner of Wereldreizigers.nl † Discover the world!

✔️ January 2021 - Friesland
✔️ February 2021 - Dordrecht
❌ March 2021 - Hard lockdown
✔️ April 2021 - Roadtrip Switzerland
✔️ April 2021 - Elsloo, Friesland
✔️ May 2021 - Eijsden & Maastricht, Limburg
✔️ May 2021 - Breda
✔️ May 2021 - Achterhoek
✔️ June 2021 - Mallorca, Spain
✔️ July 2021 - Roadtrip Croatia
✔️ August 2021 - Roadtrip Slovenia
✔️ August 2021 - Kenya Tour
✔️ September 2021 - Round trip Uganda
✔️ October 2021 - Ostend, Belgium
❌ November 2021 - Home
❌ December 2021 - Home

➡️ 2022 - 1 year United States & Canada

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