How to Plan a Backpacking Trip in Great Sand Dunes National Park
Colorado is home to a seemingly endless amount of backpacking and hiking trails. While each area of the state boasts vastly different and diverse landscapes, none are as unique as Great Sand Dunes National Park. The park is home to 13,000-foot mountains, lush forest trails, the flowing Medano Creek, and of course, a 30-mile dunefield that contains 1.2 cubic miles of sand. Hiking in the dunefield is otherworldly and a sharp contrast to the towering mountains that act as a backdrop to the endless sand.
If you’re looking to challenge yourself in this unique landscape, a backpacking trip is a great place to start. Although there are several routes that can take you on multiday treks through the sand and up into the alpine zone of the park, the most common backpacking trips are overnight excursions into the dunes. What’s truly unique about the park’s backcountry experience is that there are no designated campsites or trails within the dunefield. Since sand is considered a durable surface for both camping and travel, hikers can set up camp wherever they please once they cross the backcountry boundary. This means you can whip out the ol’ map and compass to truly create your own route through the sand.
Great Sand Dunes National Park At-a-Glance
Location: Duncan, Colorado
Size: 149,028 acres
Annual Visitors: 442,095
Climate: High-elevation desert
Terrain: Varies from high-elevation mountains to sandy desert conditions
To gain access to this unique backpacking destination, you will need to obtain a free permit at the park office. The permits are first-come, first-serve, and cannot be reserved in advance. You will have to arrive at the visitors center early on the day of your trip and stand in line with other backcountry permit hopefuls. Although there are multiple campsites and trails through the park’s forest and alpine zones, the first permits to run out are usually for overnights in the dunefield, so the earlier you get there, the better your chances.
Camping in the dunefield is truly a surreal experience, but one that requires proper planning to ensure a safe and enjoyable trek. Interested in adding the tallest sand dunes in North America to your hiking resume? Jot down the tips below to make the most of this one-of-a-kind backpacking experience.
Bring More Water than You Think You’ll Need
There is absolutely no water in the dunefield. The only reserves you will have are what you are able to carry on your back. During the summer months, hiking in the dunes is HOT. There is no shade, and sand surface temperatures can exceed 150 degrees F. Proper hydration is crucial to avoid heat exhaustion and various other dangerous situations.
Underestimate Your Daily Mileage
The sand throughout the dunes is loose, which makes walking significantly more challenging than on dirt. Although walking on level ground in the sand is only moderately taxing, the majority of your time in the dunes will be spent either climbing or descending. Descending is quick and easy (you can even slide on your butt or a sand sled at certain points), but ascending is a different beast. You truly will be taking two steps forward and one step back as you slip down the dunes with each upward step. Expect your speed to be slower and for your body to burn through energy faster than usual.
In addition, the National Park Service recommends hiking only in the early morning and evening to avoid extreme sand surface temperatures and dangerous thunderstorms. Plan to get miles in either very early or later in the day, using the afternoon as a rest period.
Bring a Freestanding Tent
With the sand grains in the dunefield being exceptionally small and loose, it is near impossible to get tent stakes stably in the ground. Bringing a freestanding tent is a must, as well as one or two heavier objects to hold down the corners or a rainfly in case of wind (water bottles work well for this). We actually didn’t find a need to use the fly when we backpacked, but I suggest bringing one in case wind starts whipping sand into your tent through the bug net.
Beware of Flying Sand
The dunes can get windy, and all that wind means the potential for flying sand. Depending on the strength of the wind, the sand can feel like small bullets hitting your skin and you will want to pack accordingly to protect yourself. Bringing long layers, sunglasses, and hats can help if the wind picks up. It is also important to protect electronics during these windstorms as the sand will damage most cameras, phones, or GPS units.
No Need for Food Storage
Harsh environments in the sand prevent most mammals from being able to live in the dunefield. Because of this, park rangers tell backpackers that there is no need for bear canisters or any sort of food storage. In fact, you can sleep with food right in your tent. The only animal you may see is the kangaroo rat, and they don’t commonly seek out food from overnight campers.
Opt for Your Warmer Sleeping Bag and Layers
Although the afternoons can reach brutally hot temps, the evenings tend to cool off due to the park’s high elevation (the park office sits at 8,200 feet). The average nighttime temperature in the dunefield in 45 degrees F in the summer, gradually getting colder as autumn approaches. Bring light clothing for the daytime, and layers for camping at night.
Prepare for Mosquito Season
Mosquito season starts in the second week of June and lasts about six weeks. Although logic says that mosquitoes would avoid the open sand and stay near the flowing Medano Creek on the border of the dunefield, this is far from the case. Literal swarms of mosquitoes emerge around the tents of backcountry campers as the sun goes down, making cooking outside hard and going to the bathroom near impossible. Pack bug spray, bug netting, and long layers to cover exposed skin.
Great Sand Dunes National Park is home to one of the most unique and beautiful landscapes not only in Colorado, but in the entire country. When proper planning takes place, this landscape can create a truly surreal backcountry experience. Be smart, plan ahead, and enjoy your time in this unusual and awe-inspiring wilderness.
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