I grew up in the midwest of the US in a little state called Iowa. For those unfamiliar, it’s a sparsely populated farming state with lots of small towns and livestock – no big cities or unique geographical formations.
Because of this, family vacations were a huge part of growing up. The idea was to see the ocean or mountains or whatever it was that we couldn’t see in our own backyard. These trips across the US inspired my love of travel.
I just fell in love with the idea that I could travel a few hours away and experience a whole different world from the one I see every day – with people who think and act differently from me. And I mean absolutely no shade to Iowa. I think growing up there has a ton of benefits like the fact that I can hold my liquor and I know how to drive in any type of weather!
But being able to escape and explore a couple of times per year really built my love of travel. I currently live in St. Louis, Missouri which is five hours south of my hometown. I have been living here for eight years. While it’s an awesome city with a ton to offer, it’s not a forever place for me. I’m currently dying to move out west for easier access to beautiful landscapes.
Awesome Weekends in Colorado
I have a bunch of good friends in Colorado and it’s actually where my fiance and I plan to move. I have visited so many times that it’s hard to keep track. My trips are almost always long weekends that consist of flying into Denver to stay with my best friend, grabbing dinner and drinks at a cute spot in town, and then doing a day or two of hikes somewhere nearby.
However, the recent trip I took to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve was because we were driving back from Wyoming. We were going to simply just drive through the mountains on our way back but then I discovered this amazing national park and we had to take a detour.
Road Trippin’ to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
I first discovered Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve on Instagram. Admittedly, this was before COVID-19 when I was not super well versed on American national parks. I was almost always looking to travel outside of the US. So when travel became limited and our plans for the year got canceled, I decided to look at US national parks as travel destinations.
There was enough space to socially distance and outdoor activities like hiking have generally been considered safe – so the national parks felt like the safest way to escape. I discovered Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve as I was planning a road trip out to Yellowstone and Grand Teton for the summer with my fiance to celebrate both of our 30th birthdays.
I was checking out Alexandra and David’s (@andtheytravel) stories – a van life couple with incredible content – when I saw them hiking around what looked like the moon or Tatooine. It looked so beautiful and I couldn’t believe it was in Colorado where we would be driving in just a few weeks.
I looked to see if we could make Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve a stop along the way and luckily it wasn’t too far out of the way. Because it was on our return trip, we could only stay for a couple of hours. So I decided to maximize our time and went for sunrise, which was amazing. I have never seen such a pink world between the sand and sun.
Watching the sun start to peak up over the mountains was the highlight of Great Sand Dunes for sure. We got there and it was still a little bit dark and blue hour was just getting started. We grabbed the camera and hiked over some dunes and just watched the sun come out to play for the day.
Hiking to the Incredible High Dune
If you follow the signs in the park, you will head to the parking lot for High Dune – the highest sand dune there. That is where you can start hiking into and up any of the dunes. It’s so special because these dunes are huge!
They feel like they come out of nowhere and were plopped in the middle of the landscape. You feel transported out of Colorado and into a huge desert. I really loved how unique it felt compared to anything else I have ever seen.
5 Best Things To Do at Great Sand Dunes National Park
- Watch the Sunrise in the Park: That is what we spent our time doing there and it was honestly one of my favorite sunrises ever!
- Walk up High Dune: Walking to High Dune is hard because it’s straight up and also because you are hiking through sand. But the view at the top makes the hike to the top totally worth it. The view is super cool.
- Sled down the Dunes: If you have got more time, then definitely bring a sled! You can hike up the dunes and sled down them like a kid again.
- Hike to Upper Sand Creek Lake Trail: We didn’t get the chance to do this hike when we were at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve because of time restraints but If I were to go back I would give it a shot for some different views from within the mountains.
- Stargaze and do a Dark Sky Photoshoot: Another thing we didn’t do that I would absolutely go back for is a dark sky photoshoot. There is next to no light pollution. Stargazing at the dunes would be incredible.
Where to Stay when Visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park
We stayed in a motel in Alamosa. Since we were going to be getting up early to check out the sunrise, we didn’t splurge on accommodation. If I were to go back and spend more time at the dunes, I would probably stay in a super cute Airbnb. There are some neat dome houses in Crestone.
Add Picketwire Canyon Trail to your Colorado Itinerary
Although it’s not super close to Great Sand Dunes, Picketwire Canyon Trail is something that I wish we had time for. This hike is two and a half hours east of Great Sand Dunes and leads you to the biggest collection of fossilized dinosaur tracks in North America. Honestly, that is just rad! Make sure you add it to your itinerary when traveling to Colorado.
Need to Know Before you Go
Before you visit Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, definitely read my blog for the full when to go/what to bring/where to park/what to do breakdown. But I think my top couple of tips for the dunes are:
- Dress Appropriately: Depending on when you go it could either be chilly or hot so bring layers. It’s also super windy out there and you are going to be in sand. You don’t want to get it caught everywhere. I would recommend hiking boots, trekking socks, hiking pants/leggings/shorts, and a hat at minimum to keep the sand out of your, well, everywhere.
- Go for Sunrise: Alarms suck but the views are worth it ten times over!