Four Pass Loop: only a dream

Now that I’ve finally come to terms with it, let’s talk about the trip that we planned but never took.

Maroon Bells – a pipe dream

Since February I’ve been excited for our Four Pass Loop trip. It was going to be my first real backpacking in Colorado so far, and two of our group members first time backpacking ever! About a week before heading to the Maroon Bells Wilderness I called the rangers office to get a trail update. Wouldnt ya know the rangers advised bringing ice axes, crampons, and winter camping equipment. There were still cornices above every pass.

Some might persevere and adjust their equipment. That was absolutely NOT my choice. I heard that, said “oh hell no”, and cancelled my reservation for a full refund. No other weekend options could accommodate my group so we had to shift gears. Take note: if able try to plan your trip between July-September, especially after a higher snow year.

What do you do when a trip falls through last minute?

The beauty of being out west is the amount of Bureau of Land Management lands. So we did have some backup ideas for where we could go to at least camp for the weekend. Another beautiful thing about being in Denver? Proximity to three national parks within a 4 hours drive.

Sure enough, came through for us and we were able to change plans to head to Great Sand Dunes for the weekend!
We stayed at Oasis campground right outside the park for the first night and then got to experience camping in the dune fields the second night. Which was quite the experience…

What to bring to camp in the dunes:

The sand at the dunes is hot as all hell, so close toed shoes are recommended in addition to hiking up the dunes later in the day. We started around 5:30pm and probably made it over the crest of the dunes in about an hour. One of the rangers met us in the parking lot and gave us a run down of what we needed and what we could leave at the car. We left behind our bear boxes per his recommendation for the sake of weight, though brought the bottles of wine of course.

Physically hiking up the dunes was hard because it was obviously all on sand. But it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. Once you make it over the highest point on the dunes you can camp anywhere. It seemed like most people went through the dune fields to get to the mountains just adjacent to them. But we wanted to just camp in the dune fields for the night and then head down in the morning.

Sand. Sand everywhere.

For those of you who have been to the beach or used to go as kids, you know sometimes the sand just infiltrates everything. Sand in water bottles, in your bag, in your sandwiches, and even in your bathing suit DESPITE sitting off the ground in a beach chair. Well imagine that while camping in great sand dunes, except there are 30 mph winds  whipping sand into your face. So now the sand is in your hiking bag, tent, sleeping bag, ears, hair,  clothes, and food (though hiker meals probably have seen far weirder ingredients).

Triumphantly sitting atop the dunes waiting for sunset, we all had a moment of panic – what if we couldn’t set up our tents with this wind? Our backup plans were to cram in the car, drive to the closest BLM land to set up camp OR drive back to our campsite from the previous night.

While we stood there contemplating our options we figured we’d make the most out of the situation. Out came the 3 bottles of wine we packed with our camping gear. Several drinks (sand filled sips and spills) later the sunset painted the most stunning orange picture. AND the wind stopped almost entirely. After so much chaos with the winds sandblasting our faces, this truly was a moment of awe.

As the sun set, we decided to set up camp for the night (a little intoxicated) and cook our dinners. One of the best things we did was pack several zip lock bags to fill with sand. I don’t have sand stakes and neither did my friend. Our little 6 inch stakes would have done literally nothing to keep our tent stable. So the DIY sandbags were really very helpful. Especially since none broke inside the tents!


Advice for Camping in the Dunes:

If you find yourself interested in camping in the dunes after reading all this, the few pieces of advice I’d recommend are as follows.

If you’re only going to the dunes for one night, plan to use the restroom at the visitors center or at the formal campground facilities before hiking up. You still gotta dig a cathole, imagine attempting that in sand? Many national parks are even recommending carrying out waste as well to avoid leaving a trace. So keep that in mind.

Bring sand stakes OR something to use as a makeshift sand bag. The wind is no joke up there and the pattern seemed to be that wind would die down at night, but it always picks back up in the morning.

Try and pick a time of the month where there’s a new moon. The stars were incredible, but the moon was almost full, making the dunes a lot brighter than we had anticipated. Regardless, the night sky there was a wonder!

And lastly….maybe bring the bear box. We were told the bears don’t really explore up in the dunes. They are definitely active on the edges by the creek and the woods. BUT then as we walked down what prints did we see?? Bear. Up. In. The. Dunes. We did have the bear spray with us but like… I literally slept with my beef jerky in my bag that I used as a pillow. Who knows maybe the bears are just too tired to go the full height of the dunes? Not something I’m willing to test out again though.


Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

Comments 5

  • reyhan : Oct 25th

    thanks a lot of information amazing

  • Craig Willis : Oct 26th

    Our group ran into the same issue with the Four Pass Loop in early summer. We elected backpack Colorado’s less famous four pass loop – Rito Alto. It was rugged, uncrowded, and amazingly beautiful. No permits were required and it offered sweeping views of the Sangre de Cristo range.

    • Courtney : Oct 27th

      Incredible! I’m definitely adding this to my list for next year!

  • Jackie Christakos : Oct 26th

    Welcome to Colorado! Try Four Pass Loop again in late August/September. We did it as an overnight trip right around Labor day- sounds crazy but highly recommend. The weather was glorious and the human numbers weren’t too bad to interfere with our experience. Two long hiking days but totally doable if you are ok at altitude! The funniest thing in Colorado is it sounds all badass to do it in 2 days until you see a trail runner finishing the loop in a day! 😆

  • sandra Byard : Oct 27th

    Did the four pass loop with friends 20 years ago, we went in August, still plenty of snow to play in, but no problems on trail. My (very quick) dip in Snowmass Lake is still the standard by which I judge cold water. Glad you found a fun alternative


What Do You Think?