Tucked away against the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range is a Colorado secret that feels otherworldly. Great Sand Dunes sees significantly fewer visitors than Rocky Mountain; in 2018, the park had fewer than 500,000 people, according to the National Park Service. This means you can practically guarantee peace and quiet as you explore the massive sand dunes and all their wind-swept glory.
Backpack into the dunes for a night of stargazing
Quite literally, there is no better way to catch this life-changing star show. It takes some effort, but the proverbial juice is worth the squeeze. If you plan on camping between Memorial Day and Labor Day, you must acquire a permit at the Backcountry Office. To do so, get there early-ish on Saturday to wait in line before its 9 a.m. scheduled opening time. Permits are free but are limited to 20 parties per night with a cap of six people per party. The permits do fill up on weekends and busy holidays, the National Park Service warns, so be prepared.
Once you have that golden ticket in hand, head down toward Medano Creek, throw your gear under the shade of a tree, and enjoy your day splashing in the water. One park ranger said that the 30-square-miles of sand can heat up as high as 160 degrees Fahrenheit on a warm summer day, so you don’t want to embark on your journey into the sand until later in the afternoon or early evening. Once the sizzling sun has calmed for the day, shoulder your backpack and start hiking into the dunes.
There aren’t any trails in Great Sand Dunes National Park since there is no way to maintain a set path. Instead, backpackers are instructed to hike outside of the day-use area, or far enough away that they cannot see the visitor center. For most, this is roughly 1½ hours of hiking, and it is tougher than it looks. Climbing up and down the slippery dunes can sometimes feel like an exercise in futility, but the sweat equity is worth the stunning views while you pitch your tent in the sand. If you’re lucky, a saturated sunset will kick off an evening of the most brilliant star gazing you’ve ever experienced. With minimal light pollution and utter solitude, campers will marvel at the multitude of shooting stars and glistening orbs dotting the inky black sky. In fact, in 2018, Great Sand Dunes applied for a Dark Sky Park designation through the International Dark Sky Association, according to the Valley Courier. The submission is still pending, but rest assured that the stars will wait for you.
Return to the Visitor Center and hike Star Dune
Sunday morning calls for an early wake time because it’s ideal to tear down camp before the sand heats up for the day. Use a backpacking stove to warm up your coffee (no campfires allowed on the dunes) before packing up and heading back to the Visitor Center. Once there, head inside and learn more about the creation of the dunes and the little critters that live within the sand. Afterward, if you have the gumption, head back into the dunes (with a significantly smaller backpack!) and climb to the top of Star Dune, the tallest sand dune in North America at 750 feet, according to the National Park Service. It’s roughly a five-hour journey, so make sure you pack plenty of water and snacks. You’ll be exhausted at the end of the day, but tagging the tallest dune on the continent is well worth the effort.
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