Sand and Snow – Great Sand Dunes National Park

In my years of being in Colorado, there are quite a few places I have yet to go. Places I want to explore, see and experience. For whatever reason, I just have not been to them yet. Plans come up. Other ideas come to mind. The timing is just not right.

One of those places I've always wanted to see is the Great Sand Dunes National Park.


Something about the mixture of the vast expanse of the dunes against the high peaks of Colorado intrigued me.

I've always wanted to go.

But, I the right time never materialized.

After a shortened trip on the Colorado Plateau, the time did materialize. 

I proposed the trip to someone, she enjoyed the idea and we decided to spend some time in the Great Sand Dunes.

After loading up the Mag Wag (my trusty GMC Sonoma: Stick shift, no power locks or windows, camper shell full of perhaps a touch too many hiking stickers and enough accumulated dirt, leaves and twigs in the bed to form its own small eco-system) we headed down to the dunes.

The site greeting us as we approached the park set the stage for rest of the weekend.

We settled into the nearly-empty campground and enjoyed the 'golden hour' of sunlight as we strolled through the Dunes.

The mixture of sand, snow and the wonderful golden light of the setting sun made for a memorable hour.

someone could see why I was chomping at the bit to get some photos! The first time seeing the dunes and experiencing them up close was truly splendid.

We settled into the early  winter evening. Layers of clothing thrown on (or, as someone, put it: My very ugly but warm gear: Surplus liner pants, surplus wool pants, bright orange balaclava, thrift store fleece jacket and so on. I'd post a photo, but someone would kill me if I had even tried to take a photo of this ensemble on her or me. :D), dinner was started and warming camp fire gave that wonderful sound of crackling wood, the pleasant smell of wood smoke and an orange, welcoming, glow.'


With the brilliant night sky above and the almost deserted camp ground, the park had a feel that most people did not get to experience. With the right clothing and gear, an early  winter trip did not have to be foreboding..but perhaps even preferable to peak season.  The stunning views, deep blue sky, wonderful winter lighting and the sparseness of the crowds all contributed to perhaps the perfect conditions for us to experience the park.

As we enjoyed our warm beverage and took in the pleasant chill of the winter night, we both could not help but feel that we made a good decision to come to this weekend.

When I was breaking down camp for the night, I heard some rustling by the bear canister. Shined my head lamp and saw what I first thought was a raccoon. But it had a longer, more slender tail and body. It also had some distinctive rings. I saw a rare (for this part of the country. We were arguably in the furthest northern point of the American Southwest) Ringtailed Cat!

The little guy ran away before I could get to my camera.

Later on that night as someone and I were bivying in my truck (in our oh-so-warm  fleece-lined minus 15F bags. Ahhhhh!  Too heavy for backpacking, but just right for base camping!), I heard scampering all over the truck.   In the morning I could see small, but smudged, paw prints all over!  (Later that day when I asked a ranger about Ringtails, she became all excited. Apparently there were rumors that the ringtails have migrated to the park, esp, after a nearby fire earlier this year. She pulled out tracking and scat guides. She was hoping I'd get another chance for a photo. Alas I did not). It was an exciting way to continue our time in the park.

someone walked the trail from the campground that quickly ended within the vast dunes field.

We continued our trek up a ridge to the highest point in the park (but not the highest dune).

The view from the High Dune was quite spectacular. The waves of sand with the San Juans in the distance….

The relative warmth of the day and the sunshine was too tempting for someone to pass up…

We made it to the edge of the dunes near the visitors center and had chatted up the ranger and associated staff.

As we walked back to our camp, we again enjoyed that wonderful winter twilight.


The sun set quickly.

Another evening camp was made.

As we settled in for another night, someone and I both reflected how to truly enjoy an area you can't just spend a day hike in a place. Being immersed for a whole cycle in the rhythm of the day and night is needed to truly savor a place. The quiet as evening approaches, the subtle pinks as the sun sets and rises, seeing the Earth come alive again as the winter sun warms up the land..,all experienced only when immersed in area for more than just a few hours. 

I love any time spent outdoors. But there is just something special about overnight or longer trips. ( And why I'll probably never get the urge to spend weeks or months in the mountains out of my system. But, that is another trip for another time. 🙂 )

For now, I'll savor any chance I spend outdoors, experience new places and savor the moments of each changing hour.

All the photos





Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
13 years ago

Wow GREAT post! I just wrote about Great Sand Dunes on my own blog ( I am dying to see it, seems like such an amazing place. I only recently discovered it when I was perusing the NPS website and I was really surprised at how amazing it seems, desert, couple with lakes and cool temperatures. You’re pictures certainly help show its beauty. Thanks!

12 years ago

Hey Paul,

What time of the year did you go to the dunes? I did go this past July and want to go during winter.


12 years ago

Thanks Paul, another question. I am sure it was cold. What kind of food (breakfast,lunch,dinner)did you guys bring. Just to get an idea… Thanks for your help.

12 years ago

Cool man,,thanks so much. Happy Trails.