Trip report: September is the perfect time to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park

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Great Sand Dunes National Park is getting near the end of its season, with temperatures dropping and the crowds melting away.

Travelers climb a dune at Great Sand Dunes National Park. (Andrew Kenney/Denverite)
Travelers climb a dune at Great Sand Dunes National Park. (Andrew Kenney/Denverite)

First, the essentials:

Great Sand Dunes is a miles-long field of sand dunes, some of the mounds rising nearly 800 feet from the valley floor. They’re formed because the mountains, the wind and the waters combine in just the right way to capture sand in the San Luis Valley.

It can get very hot during the summer, with the sands baking at nearly 150 degrees on the worst days, but we found temperatures in the high 70s when we visited early in September.

Even in the fall, you’ll want to bring lots of water, and I’d recommend ski goggles and light clothing that covers your full body. I’d be careful with high-end cameras on the dunes, as fine grain particles can really mess with SLRs.

The nearest permanent lodging is at Great Sand Dunes Oasis, which has a motel and four cabins, along with its RV and camping sites. Lodging there is open through October 15.

The drive is about four hours from Denver.

The trip report:

We headed up on the Sunday before Labor Day and managed to rent one of those sweet little cabins on just a couple day’s notice. For $55, we got a freestanding room, featuring electricity and bunkbeds, with dogs allowed.

Cabins at the Oasis campground near Great Sand Dunes. (Andrew Kenney/Denverite)
Cabins at the Oasis campground near Great Sand Dunes. (Andrew Kenney/Denverite)

I was really glad we got this place. The Oasis facility has the only sheltered lodging anywhere near the dunes. If you don’t stay there, you’ll either be camping at the park or driving 40 minutes to Alamosa.

The view of the dunes from Great Sand Dunes Oasis. (Andrew Kenney/Denverite)
The view of the dunes from Great Sand Dunes Oasis. (Andrew Kenney/Denverite)

Oasis has room for as many as a thousand people, including its RV and camp sites, but we found it was a quiet and comfortable place with an incredible view of the dunes and the valley.

The campground also has the closest restaurant to the dunes, which is helpful for a last-minute trip like ours. The food was fine, service was charming, prices were around $10 to $16 for most entrees. The store sells beer.

Anyway, as for the dunes:

The front face of the dunes, near the parking lot, is almost always going to be crowded. I didn’t mind, though, because it was amazing to see all these people’s silhouettes marching across the huge sand flats to the first ridge of dunes.

Great Sand Dunes National Park. (Andrew Kenney/Denverite)
Great Sand Dunes National Park. (Andrew Kenney/Denverite)

From a distance, I was really taken by the shadowed curves of the dunes. It’s such a harsh environment, yet it has this almost gentle appearance.

Walking on the dunes themselves felt like exploring some unknown moon, a completely alien place. We found ourselves winding through valleys and fighting up ridges, the light filtered in strange ways by the dust in the air, even the sting of the sand feeling unlike anything else I’ve encountered.

Exploring the dunes. (Andrew Kenney/Denverite)
Exploring the dunes. (Andrew Kenney/Denverite)

We only got partway up the first ridge on our first afternoon. I could have spent days in there, and I would have loved to do a night hike. There’s almost no light pollution in the valley, so we were able to see the Milky Way from our cabin that night.

If I did it again, I would spend two full days down at the dunes, rather than two half days.

The alternate route:

On our second day, we took our four-wheel-drive car past the parking lot of the park and along a dirt road.

There’s a parking lot marked “point of no return,” which we figured was a good place to stop. From there we hiked to the Sand Pit, where Medano Creek forms a nice little oasis right beneath the dunes. Practically nobody was around.

Walking through an alien painting. (Andrew Kenney/Denverite)
Walking through an alien painting. (Andrew Kenney/Denverite)
More stuff to do:

Oasis rents sand boards for $20. I saw people cutting some pretty decent lines with them. Next time!

Zapata Falls is also supposed to be a pretty wonderful hike just off Highway 150, south of the dunes.

Andrew Kenney

Author: Andrew Kenney

Andrew Kenney writes about public spaces, Denver phenomena and whatever else. He previously worked for six years as a reporter at The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. His most prized possession is his collection of bizarre voicemail. Leave him one at 303-502-2803, or email akenney@denverite.com.