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If tree-filled campsites or creekside nooks are what come to mind for you when you hear “camping,” then you’re part of the majority of the population. But have you ever imagined what it might be like to camp with the desert as your backdrop? With Great Sand Dunes National Park camping, you get to do just that!
Great Sand Dunes National Park is located in southern Colorado, and it’s home to North America’s tallest sand dunes.
While it’s not truly a desert—the dune field only covers about 30 square miles, and you can spot the nearby Sangre De Cristo Mountains from most angles—the sand dunes are still awe-inspiring and mimic the experience of being in a desert.
If you’re visiting Colorado and looking for an incredibly unique camping experience, Great Sand Dunes National Park camping should be high on your list of options!
Why go camping at Great Sand Dunes National Park?
Great Sand Dunes National Park is one of Colorado’s most underrated national parks because of its unique landscape of shifting dunes.
While many people will opt to go to the busy Rocky Mountain National Park instead, you can get away from the crowds by heading here.
Camping at the park, though, is an experience that is on another level altogether than simply visiting the park for a few hours.
Waking up to the sun peeking over the undulating dunes is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Depending on where you choose to camp, you may be surrounded by sand on all sides, and it can really feel like you’re camping in a desert!
The sand dunes come with plenty of opportunities for fun. Sandboarding and sand sledding are a ton of fun for both kids and adults.
Some of the dunes are hundreds of feet high, so you’ll definitely feel an adrenaline rush!
Sunsets over the dunes are stunning, and nighttime brings unparalleled views of the stars. If you visit while there is a full moon, you’ll even be able to hike the dunes without a flashlight.
Not only are the dunes beautiful and a lot of fun to explore, but there’s also no shortage of other activities to do elsewhere in the park. You can go horseback riding, splash around in Medano Creek during the spring and summer months, and climb the nearby mountain peaks.
Whatever it is you decide to do, camping at Great Sand Dunes National Park will give you more time to do it so that you don’t feel rushed.
Where to Camp in Great Sand Dunes National Park
You have several options if you’re interested in Great Sand Dunes National Park camping.
From booking a standard campsite at Piñon Flats Campground to camping along the Medano Pass Primitive Road to making the trek out into the dunes to set up camp, read on to get an overview of the possibilities.
Piñon Flats Campground
For those looking to car camp, Piñon Flats Campground is the most straightforward option for you.
This National Park Service campground is located just past the visitor center, and it has a total of 88 campsites for $20 per night, 44 of which can be reserved in advance and 44 of which are first come, first serve. There are also a handful of sites for larger groups.
Piñon Flats Campground has plenty of restrooms, a small shop, potable water, and trash and recycling services.
Besides these amenities and the gorgeous views of the dunes and the Sangre De Cristo Mountains in the background, what’s great about this campground is that it’s located right next to the Medano Creek site.
If you can manage to snag a spot during the months that Medano Creek is flowing, you’ll be in for a fun-filled camping time!
Medano Pass Primitive Road
Medano Pass is an unpaved road that connects Great Sand Dunes to the nearby highway 69. It’s a rugged path, and you must have a four-wheel drive vehicle in order to take this road and access the campsites along it.
There are a total of 21 designated campsites along the pass, all of which are first come, first serve. If you’re looking for a quieter and more secluded camping experience than Piñon Flats, and you can get access to a four-wheel drive vehicle, this is a great option.
Something else to keep in mind is that these campsites do not come with restrooms or trash facilities, so you’ll need to pack out any waste you generate!
The last option for camping within Great Sand Dunes, and probably the most exciting yet laborious option, is to get a free backcountry camping permit from the visitor center and find a site in the backcountry zone of the dunes to set up camp.
The park only issues 20 permits per day, so if you’re serious about trying out backcountry camping, make sure to get to the visitor center early!
Backcountry sand dunes camping will certainly be the most immersive camping experience of these three options within the park, but it involves a lot of preparation.
First of all, you’ll need to be prepared to hike at least 1.5 miles into the dunefield to enter what is considered the backcountry. This hike itself can be tiring, as you’ll be climbing up and down massive dunes!
Because you will have no access to nearby water sources, you’ll also need to come prepared with all of the water you might need. This will add extra weight on top of your camping gear.
No campfires are allowed while backcountry camping, so bring what you need to stay warm.
All in all, backcountry camping takes more preparation and work than finding a campsite, but the experience of being completely immersed in the dunes makes it worth it.
Just be sure to come prepared!
Places to Camp Near Great Sand Dunes
If you’re unable to find a campsite to reserve and also cannot manage to go backcountry camping, not to worry! There are plenty of camping options near the park that range from standard campsites to glamping sites.
Read on for some of the best camping near Great Sand Dunes National Park! All of the following options are less than 20 miles from the park visitor center.
Great Sand Dunes Oasis
The Great Sand Dunes Oasis campground is only about 4 miles away from the visitor center and has group sites, RV sites, and cabins.
Each camping site has a fire pit and picnic tables. Alternatively, you can also stay at the duplex on the property, which has incredible views of the park.
The Oasis site is close to a grocery store, gift store, and restaurant, so you won’t feel like you’re completely away from civilization. You can also rent your sandboards and sand sleds at the office!
Zapata Falls Campground
Zapata Falls Campground is a Bureau of Land Management Special Recreation Management Area and has 23 single campsites and one group site.
Here you’ll find gorgeous views of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and the several nearby mountain ranges. Just keep in mind that there is no access to potable water here!
Rustic Rook Resort
Located just 19 miles from the visitor center, Rustic Rook Resort is a glamping site where you can experience the comforts of a proper bed, hot showers, and toilets, all while being an hour away from the park by car.
Glamping really offers the best of both worlds—you get to sleep under the stars and wake up in the wilderness, and you also get a restful night’s sleep on a comfortable mattress!
Tips for Great Sand Dunes National Park Camping
Here are a few tips I have for you as you plan for your Great Sand Dunes camping trip.
Reserve your spot at Piñon Flats Campground early!
Campsites at Piñon Flats can be reserved up to six months in advance.
If you know you want to go during the busy months when Medano Creek is flowing, be sure to mark in your calendar when the reservation site goes live—Great Sand Dunes National Park camping reservations get snatched up quickly!
Make sure to account for the weather
At any time of year, the range of temperatures you’ll experience at Great Sand Dunes National Park will be wide, so make sure to pack layers.
During the summer months, the surface of the sand can get up to 150 degrees Fahrenheit when the sun is the highest, so you’ll definitely not want to be out on the dunes for most of the day.
If backcountry camping, pack snow stakes
Regular tent stakes are not long enough to keep your tent secure in the shifting sands, especially if the wind ends up picking up. If you don’t already have snow stakes, make sure to stop by your nearest outdoor gear store to pick some up.
Great Sand Dunes National Park camping is one of the best experiences you can have in Colorado, and I hope that I’ve convinced you to try it out.
You might end up with some sand in your clothing and your hair, but you’ll leave with some incredible memories.
Once you’ve tried out sand dunes camping, you’ll be the one trying to convince your friends that they have to go!
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