This is an experience like no other!
The Great Sand Dunes National Park is in the middle of nowhere Colorado (toward the South by New Mexico). It was about a 4 hour drive from my parents house East of Boulder.
This area of Colorado is mostly plains, called the San Luis Valley, surrounded by two mountains: the San Juan Mountains on the West and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the East. Due to the climate of Colorado and the terrain in this area, a natural sand dune formed up against the mountains. As you're about to see, it looks like you're in Arabia in the middle of Colorado! Over thousands of years the sand dunes have remained, and they've barely shifted height either. In this area you can see forest like woods, desert like dunes, mountains and plains - it’s flipping nuts to have that all be in one area!!
BRINGING YOUR DOG TO THE DUNES:
You've probably already read my shpeal on flying with your dog (if not, check out the Nashville post here). So how do you get your dog to the dunes?
First and foremost, make sure you look up the dog friendliness of a National Park before you go, they are not all dog-friendly! Great Sand Dunes definitely is. Your dog must be on leash at all times though, and per usual pick up after them! There are a few areas of the park that are not dog friendly (mostly places a dog like Watson wouldn't fare well, anyway ;)), so again make sure to check before you go!
Second, you must bring the right stuff for your pup. I'm lucky that my parents live in Colorado so I had somewhere to stock up, but this is legit camping!! Make sure you have a portable dog water bottle, some basic first aid options, options for multiple climates, and a comb / scissors in case their fur gets tangled in something nasty.
On this particular trip, we stopped in Buena Vista on the way home and it was lovely. We ate at Simple Eatery which was like a homier, healthier Panera Bread - and an REI all in one! Sadly their patio is no longer dog friendly though, so make sure you’ve got somewhere for your pooch to sit.
WHERE TO STAY:
Camping is what you should absolutely do here! There are two main options:
Piñon Flats Campground - this is the best place to stay, right inside the park. You can walk to the Dunes, and all the Dunes' hiking trails. Problem is this books up quite early, so make sure to book ahead!
Oasis Campground - just right outside the park, this is your second best bet to camp. They have a restaurant and supply shop. They offer cabins and a more full service experience in addition to camping.
If you're lazy like us, you're going to end up at one of the next tier options, which are still great!
Zapata Falls - seven miles outside the park is Zapata Falls, a gorgeous hike to a waterfall (more on that below). You can camp here if you want, it's just a bit of a trek up a really bumpy dirt hill.
Sand Dunes Swimming Pool - this is where we stayed, and we honestly loved it. It's a 30 mile drive to the park which kind of sucks, but otherwise it's a great experience. They have spots for tents as well as cabins to rent. Just like Oasis there's a restaurant too, however this restaurant also houses a heated pool and hot springs!! There's a 21+ hot springs area too with a bar. This was a great option for us where we could still pretend we were roughing it without being too rough ;).
We were lucky enough to be there when it was a full moon, a blood moon, and you could see Mars, Venus, Jupiter AND Saturn. My dad & brother are really into astronomy so they brought their telescope. My camera (Nikon D3400 heyooo) got a few kind of pictures, but you really couldn't capture that beauty.
WHAT TO DO:
Hike the Dunes - this is probably why you’re at this National Park, so of course hike it! You can go all the way to the top (it’s 750ft up!) if you’re brave & fit enough, we made it about 3/4 up. Be forewarned, it’s HARD. Bring lots of water, sunscreen and a hat. Extra lots of water for the pup, and it was really handy to have our K9 Sport Sack (use the code WATSONANDWALLS for 15% off 😉) for when Watson’s feet got hot.
Rent a sled or sandboard & board down the Dunes - we didn’t end up doing this because we were so exhausting after hiking, but it looked really fun! You can rent one from Oasis on your way in, or if you stay at the Pool like us you can rent from there. Make sure you rent the right equipment though, your snowboard will not do the trick!
Hang out at the Medano Creek - at the base of the dunes there’s a creek (I mean honestly this park has it all!) where you can splash with the pups or just walk along. It’s a great way to cool down after the dunes. Can get buggy around here though!
Hike to Zapata Falls - a few miles outside the park (as mentioned in the where to stay portion) there’s Zapata Falls, which is a must see. You have to drive up a really slow, washed out road for a bit to get to the base of the trail, but it’s absolutely worth it. There’s a fabulous view of the Dunes from afar as you hike up. Once you get to the top of the short hike - there’s a longer hike too - you reach this creek that leads into a cave where the waterfall is. It’s stunning and really beautiful to see up close, so you have to get a little wet to get into the cave. Watson did not enjoy that part and demanded to be carried!
Camping stuff! - you can eat or stay here (neither of which we did tehe) but it's definitely a spot to see! The vibe is funky and there's an extensive amount of shopping you can do there. It's also prime people watching, especially considering everyone stops here to take a photo by the sign.
Find me on the gram: @watsonandwalls