Great Sand Dunes National Park – July 16th to 19th, 2020

We spent three nights in Piñon Flats Campground inside Great Sand Dunes National Park. There was quite a bit of rain while we were there, but we didn’t let that stop us from having a wonderful experience.

As we approached Great Sand Dunes National Park from the west, we could see the dunes from about fifty miles away. The dunes appeared as small light-colored mountains against the darker, taller mountains behind them. The stormy skies in the distance added to the contrast of the dunes and the mountains.

On the way into the park, we stopped at the Visitor Center to buy our sticker. RB went to get some maps from the park ranger. He was set up in the doorway of the building, behind plexiglass, answering questions. The bookstore was set up around the other side of the building. The items were displayed in a window and you requested which item you wished to purchase by number.

We managed to pull into our site and get the leveling blocks in place before the rain started. It was a large thunderstorm that just let loose. For dinner, we cooked our meal of wilted lettuce salad and egg drop soup in two separate courses, using the Instant Pot (paid link) to cook both courses. We timed our trips to the restroom when the rain lightened up briefly. Left Buddy (LB) was not lucky on one of his trips as the downpour resumed on his way. LB noticed a strong pine smell in the air. It may have had something to do with what looked like a recent trimming of the trees. Sap was oozing out of the fresh cuts on the pine trees. The rain continued on through the night.

The next morning, we got up at 7:30 am and started our hike to the High Dune a little after 9 am. We lucked out. All of the rain the previous evening had soaked the sand in the dunes so they were hard parked and easy to walk on, at least easier than dry, soft sand. The wet sand also made a pretty landscape as the tops of the ridges started drying out first, so the lighter colored sand outlined all the contours of the dunes. The boarders and sledders were not so happy with the wet sand because it caused too much friction to slide down. The last time we were at the Great Sand Dunes, the sand was dry and we remember feeling like we were not making any progress up the steep dunes as with each step we took, we slid back down half a step or more.

We climbed all the way to the High Dune. It is the dune that looks like the highest one when you start out at the Dune Parking Lot or the campground. The dune that is actually the highest is the Star Dune, but it is a longer hike to reach it so most people climb to the High Dune instead. It is just what everyone does. There is a pretty steady stream of people heading up to it. There is no marked trail nor one defined way to get to the High Dune. Everyone either follows the footsteps of someone who went before them, or they create their own route. You start off heading in the right direction. Then you get to the top of one dune and look for the best path to the top of the next dune. But since you can’t really see what’s around the next dune, you don’t always pick the most efficient way to get there. It is more like an exploration.

The last time we were here with the kids, we did not plan on hiking very far into the dunes. However, once we got into the dunes, the kids wanted to hike up to the high point that they could see. “Let’s go up there!” It was a challenge. It looks closer than it is. It takes about an hour or two, depending on your conditioning and the sand conditions to get there. We remember our daughter making it up to about 50 yards from the top when she hit a wall and sat down. Right Buddy (RB) tried to talk her into going the last little bit without success. So she just left our daughter where she was and walked up to the top without her. A few minutes later, our daughter decided to get up and join us.

This time around, we made it to the High Dune in about an hour from the campground. Runkeeper said we had gone about two miles at that point. On the way back, we took a different, longer route. We kept heading down ridge lines instead of down the steep sides of dunes, wandering more to the northeast instead of east. We came across a small piece of masonite, about two feet by three feet in size, that someone had left behind. We were good citizens and carried it out of the dunes.

We worked our way down to Medano Creek about half a mile north of where we entered the dunes. The water from the creek was disappearing into the sand where we crossed it. We were wondering how far north the creek disappears when there isn’t a heavy rain the day before. In the spring, Medano Creek flows all the way down to the Visitor Center, but it dries up further and further north throughout the summer. We passed a family of four with small children who seemed happy to take the board we were carrying. We don’t know if they were able to slide down any dunes on it, but the one little girl seemed really excited to have it which brought smiles to our faces.

It was lunch time by the time we made it back to our campsite. Our hike through the dunes was about 4.8 miles, with 897 foot elevation gain, and took us about three hours to complete. We counted this as hike #38 of our 52 Hike Challenge and as hike #11 of our 52 Hike Challenge National Park Series. We worked most of the afternoon, first under the shade of a tree and later under our camper van awning. To take a break from working, we took a walk around the campground and treated ourselves to an ice cream bar from the camp store.

We cooked an early dinner of chicken quesadillas outside on our butane stove (paid link). While we were cooking and eating, about half a dozen chipmunks and ground squirrels harassed us the whole time. They were aggressive. We must have been the first people in the campground cooking dinner that day. The critters were persistent. We would stomp our feet, wave our arms and yell at them, but the same ones kept coming back. They would climb up on the picnic table benches and table top while we were sitting there. They were quite bold indeed. However, we managed to cook and eat our dinner without sharing any of it with the local animals. The rodents did enjoy drinking the water that pooled up in our leveling blocks from the rain the day before.

In the morning the following day, we went for a hike. Our initial destination was the Dune Overlook, but that was only a mile from the campground. We were not that impressed with the view of the dunes from there. You cannot see past the first ridge of dunes. The view from High Dune is much better, since you can see much further into the dune field. However, the trail was nice, going in and out of the shade from the pine trees, along with some wildflowers dotting the sides of the trail.

We continued down the trail to the Point of No Return. We saw a restroom building from the trail, so we continued down to the Sand Pit to use it. We followed the main trail all the way down to Medano Creek, but lost sight of the building. We wandered around the area a little bit and found the parking lot off of the Medano Pass Primitive Road and the restroom. It’s amazing how just the slightly rolling landscape hides things from view.

Just across Medano Creek at the Sand Pit, a steep dune rises. A couple of people had climbed up to the top of it and were trying to encourage an older woman and a young child who were attempting it. The woman and child did not make it very far and gave up. They seemed content just to wade in the water of the creek.

From the restroom, we found a trail so we followed it back to the main Sand Pit trail. We didn’t take that trail on the way out because it looked like a side trail and not the main trail. On the way back, we spotted a colorful bird, but didn’t get a good look at it, let alone a picture of it.

It was lunch time by the time we made it back to our camp site. Our hike was about four miles in a little over two hours. After lunch we worked at our campsite. During our afternoon break, we drove over to the dump station to empty our gray tanks and treated ourselves to ice cream again from the camp store.

At about 4 pm, the thunderstorms rolled in. At first they were more bark than bite as they made a lot of noise, but didn’t drop a lot of water. Our plan was to make pasta for dinner for which we normally use the butane stove outside to boil the pasta. As we waited for the storms to pass, we had some granola bars. However, the heavy rain started and it didn’t look like it was going to end any time soon. We could make the pasta all in the Instant Pot, but our battery charge was getting low after leaving the van sit for three days. After more debate, we decided to run our generator, otherwise known as the van engine, to recharge our batteries. Running the engine for five to ten minutes seemed to do the trick. Then we looked up how to cook the pasta in the sauce in the Instant Pot so we wouldn’t have to do it in stages. It turned out pretty good, not quite as good as cooking the sauce and pasta separately, but not far from it either.

The rain storms started to clear up around 7 pm. We went for a walk around the campground. The campground seemed to come alive as people got out of their tents and vehicles, where they were cooped up because of the rain, to get fresh air, stretch their legs, and burn off some pent up energy. We noticed that the majority of campers in the campground were tent camping. There were often multiple tents on each camp site. That might have been partly due to the group camping loop being closed. As the rain cleared, we could see people back up on the High Dune and in the dune field. After dark, there were small points of light out in the dune field from the flashlights or headlamps of the people still out there.

By 10 pm, the sky had cleared enough for us to see some stars and the comet NEOWISE, just below the Big Dipper! Comet NEOWISE is a new comet that was just discovered back on March 27, 2020. We could easily see the tail of the comet, but that was probably due to the dark skies around the Great Sand Dunes with very little light pollution.

In the morning on our last day, our breakfast entertainment was watching the clouds form and drift among the sand dunes as the water from the previous day’s rain evaporated out of the sand. The colorful bird that we saw during our hike the day before stopped by our picnic table to drink the water that had pooled up on top. This time RB got some pictures of it. It's a western tanager.

We met the people in the camp site across from us on Friday, our second night in the campground. They have a YouTube channel called Project Basecamp. Their dog broke its collar when it tried going after a chipmunk. We chatted with them briefly again on Sunday. They had taken a couple of 4WD trucks down the Medano Pass Primitive Road and had a blast. We’ll be looking for their video footage of it on their channel!

You can’t control the weather, but you can control how you deal with it. Finding ways to work around the rain let us thoroughly enjoy Great Sand Dunes. In fact, the rain even enhanced our experience by making the sand easier to walk on and providing a surreal landscape as the sand dried out. What things have you successfully done to deal with inclement weather while traveling?

Check out our related video: Great Sand Dunes National Park

(RB)