FOUR DAYS IN THE DUNES: Our itinerary for maximum adventure on a minimum budget
Cole and I intended two main things for this year-long trip: (1) to have big adventure (2) without breaking the bank. If every trip goes as smoothly as our first stop at the Great Sand Dunes near Alamosa, Colorado, we will be just fine.
We hiked, sand sledded, climbed dunes, souvenir shopped, had a nice recovery dinner and learned about dune formation for four days and we spent $68.50. (Not counting groceries or the gas to get there). Adventure is feasible for just about anyone who wants it.
We thought we’d break down our trip in a recap format, but we also hope you can get inspired to pack your own trips full to the brim of adventure. Here’s the quick summary:
- Immediate impressions: serene, still, tiring, diverse
- Must-dos: camp in the dunefield, hike in the alpine or subalpine area, learn about the formation of the dunes
- Mistakes: water supply!
If you want more, read on… we did a lot 🙂
Day 1: Alpine Wonders
- Music Pass Trail to Upper Sand Creek Lake (15.7 miles round-trip)
- Camped at Zapata Falls Campground
Since we drove in from the east, and were continuing west after visiting the park, we stopped at the Music Pass Trailhead first. It is a good three-hour drive to the actual park entrance from here, but we wanted to experience some of the alpine areas around the Dunes. This decision was a good one.
We camped overnight at Music Pass lower trailhead (free, primitive camping with vault toilets) and rose early to start our hike. (If you have a 4WD vehicle, continue driving 2.8 miles to the upper trailhead.) There are a few variation options, but here is the out-and-back route we took:
- Lower TH -> Upper TH – 2.8 miles
- Upper TH -> Music Pass – 1.25 miles
- Music Pass -> Upper Sand Creek Lake – 3.8 miles
The climb up to Music Pass is steep and rocky, but the mountain views quickly made it worth the huffing and puffing. From Music Pass, there are about two downhill miles to where the trail splits and you can trek to Lower Sand Creek Lake (1 mile) or Upper Sand Creek Lake (1.8 miles). We were feeling pretty good, so we chose the larger Upper lake. We didn’t realize that those 1.8 miles were all uphill, but got over it once we first caught sight of this sparkling, serene alpine lake. After spending about an hour eating and filtering fresh water, we began the long (but mostly downhill) hike back to our car.
Although it was a long day of hiking, Cole and I laughed at the fact that we’d just hiked from 8-5:30 on a Thursday: a typical previous work day for us.
The only thing ahead of us now was a three-hour drive to Zapata Falls (near the entrance to Great Sand Dunes) to camp ($11, primitive, vault toilets).
Day 2: Lay of the Land
Image Via SummitPost
- Great Sand Dunes Visitor Center
- Montville Nature Trail / Mosca Pass Trail
- Camping in the dunefield
If we wouldn’t have begun with an alpine hike, this would have made a great first day at the Dunes. We started our day with an early viewing of Zapata Falls via a half-mile trail and a bit of creek-wading to see the full height of the Falls.
Finally, we made it to the entrance of the National Park. We began at the Visitor Center, which we highly recommend. We spent almost two hours learning about how the dunes are formed, how the surrounding ecosystems earned government protection, which wildlife we might see while out and about the park and a few other unique eccentricities of the dunes. After filling up our waters and securing a backcountry permit (free) to stay in the dunes for two nights, we walked the Sand Sheet Trail right outside, which provides additional boards of information as you get your first look at the dunes.
With it being the middle of the day and too hot for comfortable dune walking (the sand can get to about 150 degrees when it’s 80 out), we chose a different, clearly less-traveled trail: Mosca Pass Trail. We can’t vouch for the entire trail, since we only hiked about two miles in of the 3.5 one-way trail, but we confirmed with a ranger at the Visitor Center that there isn’t really a monumental destination, the views on the way in rival those at the Pass. Our legs were a bit shaky from our 16-miler on Day 1, so we thought our little four-mile hike (which combined Montville Nature Trail and Mosca Pass) made for the perfect (mostly) shady afternoon.
Since our backcountry pass allowed us to park at the Point of No Return, we drove there to cook a quick dinner of macaroni and hotdogs before packing up for a night on the dunes. We even made friends with a deer who wasn’t a bit spooked by us.
Finally, it was time to enter the dune field. We knew that hiking on sand was going to be harder than regular hiking, and that fact was quickly thrown in our faces as we traversed the first high ridge. To backcountry camp, you have to cross over the high ridge marking the edge of the day use area so you are out of sight of the road. We were aiming to camp near Star Dune, which we planned to summit in the morning, but the ranger we talked with recommended crossing into the dune field across from the Point of No Return parking area since that’s where you had easiest access to the far side of the ridge. Since we were carrying all our camping gear, we set up shop in a bowl just over the ridge.
Day 3: All Dunes All Day
- Summit Star Dune
- Sand Sledding
- Camping in the dune field
Today was dunesday. It started as an attempt to summit the tallest (base-to-peak) dune in the park: Star Dune after a delicious breakfast of Paleonola (a delicious, grain-free, portable granola made from real, hardy ingredients) What we didn’t realize is just how far it was from where we camped. We had a rough map of the dune field and a compass, but without any trails, it was basically all guesswork. We traversed up and down dunes most of the morning, beginning to watch the sun rise at 6:30, until we finally reached what we thought was Star Dune. We celebrated at the top only for a second until realizing Star Dune was still in the distance, about a third of a mile away. We probably could have pushed through and still made it, but we were running low on water and the temperature was quickly rising. We made what turned out to be a very wise decision to turn back, because the trek back to break down camp was tough and we practically dove into Medano Creek (which was low but running enough) to suck some water straight out of the filter.
Exhausted and hot after six hours of dune hiking, we took the final few steps back to our car, vowing to never be skimpy on water again. After a quick scary game of “oh crap, where are the car keys?” (of course they were in the special, safe pocket we had forgotten about) we decided firing up the stove at that moment didn’t sound so fun, and we drove the couple miles to a gas station / restaurant combination called Oasis. Fitting, right? I scarfed the patty melt (delicious) and Cole had a burrito (decent) and we split at true treat – a pitcher of ice water. We also rented a sand sled for the evening ($21/day) and summoned the courage to venture back out into the sand after a slightly grueling morning.
It turns out, there is a bit of a learning curve to sand sledding. We found the right formula for wax application, and it was all downhill from there. We spent about two hours out with the sled, which turned out to be plenty of time.
After eating a quick picnic dinner and returning the sled, we geared up to find a new campsite in the dunes for the night. Earlier, we had switched our parking permit to the Horse Trail Parking Lot, because we felt like that would be a lot easier to access a camping spot that was close to High Dune, which we were planning to climb in the morning. We were right, and we quickly rose up and over the first dune ridge, giving us good access to High Dune for the morning.
Day 4: Wrapping it Up
- Summit High Dune
- Clean up & head out
Our final morning at Great Sand Dunes was probably the most successful. After a frighteningly windy night, we woke up early to climb to the top of High Dune, a popular destination at the park. Compared to our attempt to climb to Star Dune, this was a piece of cake, and we were able to follow a series of ridges (instead of peaks and valleys) to the top of High Dune. As the second group to make it that morning, we enjoyed chatting with a fellow Kansas Citian and cheering on a 4 year-old boy and his dad as they climbed the final stretch. High Dune provided a great panoramic view of the dune field, and it was a great morning. Plus, we had plenty of water after our underestimate the day before.
The only things left on our list were to clean up at the showers and head out for some local chili verde in nearby Alamosa, thanks to a recommendation from our fellow park-traveler friends Don and Shelly. We said good-bye to our very first of 59 National Parks, and we were out by 1 p.m.
Our Tried & True Advice
We aren’t experts, but we did learn a thing or two from our visit to Great Sand Dunes. Here are a few of our tips:
- Go beyond the day-use dune area. Hike an alpine trail, camp in the dunes, or explore the surrounding area. If you camp in the dunes, make sure to get a backcountry permit from the Visitor’s Center as soon as you can. We got our two-day permit on Friday, but when we went back on Saturday at noon we saw the spots were full for new arrivals.
- Bring far more water than you think you might need. Even us, who pride ourselves on preparedness, found ourselves thirsty and running out of water.
- The sand is not foot-friendly, or even sandal-friendly. Close-toed shoes (or even Vibrams, which Cole had) are best for exploring the dunes.
- Trekking poles are really handy if you have them. We broke them out on our second venture into the dunes and they seemed to really give us a little extra for the climb and take stress of the knees during the descent
- If camping in the dune field (which we highly recommend!), be aware of where you’ll be going from there. We needed to switch our parking permit to put ourselves in a better position for the morning hike to High Dune.
- Summiting Star Dune seems easiest continuing from High Dune along the ridges. Our attempted path (straight across the entire dune filed) was clearly not the best way to do it, but when we arrived at the top of High Dune, we could see a clear path that led to Star Dune. If you have energy and you start early enough in the day, you may be able to combine the two summits in one hike.
Great Sand Dunes turned out to be a great first park for us: challenging enough so we could test our limits, peaceful enough so we could reflect on the start of this trip, and fun enough so that we can easily hold onto the memories of our very first of 59 National Parks.