Camping in Great Sand Dunes National Park: Expectations vs. Reality

When I discovered that one can camp in actual sand dunes, I was enthralled. I fell in love with the desert last summer and haven’t looked back.

A place in Death Valley I’d wished I had spent more time was Mesquite Sand Dunes. They were beautiful and an amazing photo spot. This past year, I discovered that there are sand dunes in other parts of the country! Parts of the country one wouldn’t expect! Colorado! Idaho, even!

In looking into Great Sand Dunes National Park dunes camping, I learned that the permit was free. I looked at the National Parks Girl’s experience overnighting in the dunes, and I got really excited. It seemed like a relatively short first one-night backpacking trip with a beautiful backdrop. What I seemed to miss was the concept that camping on sand dunes means camping on dry sand.

We were coming off of a pretty rough Rocky Mountain hike and were excited to be at the dunes. It was a cooler temperature, but still nice in the sun.

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We ran into the VC, and I worriedly located the Backcountry Permit office. The permits are first-come, first-served, so I was concerned that a hundred people would suddenly want to camp and take my place in the dunes. We got the permit without a problem, but the ranger seemed to think that camping in the dunes wasn’t a great idea. I had never considered that possibility.

Hiking in the dunes was ideal in my mind: beautiful views all around, beautiful sunset, beautiful sunrise, and a starry night sky. What could be bad about it?

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We packed up the one big backpack we had with all of the tenting equipment. I had a 70 liter backpacking backpack that I would finally get to use. It was packed full somehow with our one-night supplies. Greg had a small Patagonia pack in which he could only fit his personal camping equipment. I could sense things starting to get complicated.

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We set out on our 1.5-ish mile hike so we would arrive at about sunset. Immediately, I was struck by how difficult it was to hike with a heavy pack. This was my first time, and I quickly realized how silly it was to backpack on dunes.

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I love the desert, but I’m certain that dunes are meant for day use; no one should have to sleep on the dunes.

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Sand is difficult to walk on, but very steep hills of sand? No, thank you. With a heavy pack? Never again.

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Some of those dunes were so steep that our steps would cause small avalanches of sand to go below the step, often causing our feet to slide down to their starting position. It was like being on a real-life elliptical. Our feet were moving up, but returning right back down.

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We finally got to the top of the dune-line we had to make it past. We settled in to watch the sunset before setting up camp, and we met an excited dog while doing so. The doggy was far more enthusiastic about being on the dunes than we were at that point.

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After the sun went below the horizon, we picked what we thought was a sheltered spot for camp and met our first little cricket bug thing that we learned about from the park movie.

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Once the tent was up, we got in and enjoyed our sandwich dinner. We hung out for a while, reading to each other before going to sleep for the night. We set an alarm to look at stars, but it was not necessary.

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At about midnight, I was awakened by the LOUD wind. It was whipping sand at the tent AND making the tent violently shake. It was so bad, I was afraid the rain fly would be ripped off.

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Our friend, Charlotte

There was no need for an alarm to look at stars. Greg and I went out to check out the sky, but the visibility was no longer ideal. No stars and we had to try to sleep in the loud tent.

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The forecast said that the wind would peak at 8PM, then be going down to no more than 5MPH around midnight. Well, let’s just say that did not happen.

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It was impossible to fall asleep because of the sound of the wind and the moving of the tent. When the wind got really bad, the sand was pushed up under the rain fly and would rain down onto us inside the tent. It was miserable.

We tried to read to each other to kill time for the wind to die down, but the sand just fell into the book instead. There is still sand in that book.

I’m serious when I say that I didn’t fall back to sleep until at least 3AM. We woke up just as the wind was dying down at around 6, and we wanted to GTFO of there. We packed up and made the easier trek back to the car.

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It was beautiful, but made the next day so much worse. We washed some of the sand off of ourselves, but we didn’t feel much better. We had a long drive ahead of us, so we got going.

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Smiling because we’re almost out.

Because we felt so bad after getting no sleep and running into trouble getting an oil change, we caved and got an Airbnb for two nights in Utah.

I had such high hopes for the Great Sand Dunes, but they set me straight. Treat them with respect because they are not messing around.

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Great Sand Dunes was by 14th National Park. 

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