Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is one of Colorado’s best-kept secrets. Located just three hours from Denver, the park is home to the tallest sand dunes in North America. Stunning sand dunes backdropped by snow-capped alpine peaks – it doesn’t get prettier than that. Here are 5 tips for exploring the park with an RV.
1. Grab a Map
While the road in and out of the park, as well as throughout the San Luis Valley, is relatively flat and normal, many roads in the Rockies are winding and involve driving alpine passes. If you’re making a road trip out of your vacation and you’re not comfortable driving an RV on mountain passes, plan your route carefully and avoid driving Hwy. 285. If you’re coming from Denver, you could take I-25 south and enter the valley via Hwy. 160, which does include one mountain pass.
2. Pick a Season
The words “sand dunes” might evoke images of a warm desert, but don’t be fooled. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve sits at an elevation of 7,500 feet and is flanked by the Rocky Mountains. In the late fall, winter and early spring, it can be cold, very windy and snowy. While this area of Colorado is beautiful year round, consider visiting late spring/early summer, so you can see the dunes when the seasonal Medano Creek runs through the sand dunes. Many will picnic along it and splash in its cool waters. In the heat of summer, the hot, shadeless sand can be relenting, so wear closed-toe shoes to avoid burning your feet on sand that heats up quickly. For minimal crowds and the best weather, we suggest visiting in early May or September.
3. Make Campground Reservations in Advance
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve has one campground, Piñon Flats, which is open April – October. The campground has several spots that will accommodate RVs up to 35 feet in length. The campground requires advance reservations, which can be made on recreation.gov, May through September. In April and October, the campground is first-come, first-served. Be aware that reservations go quickly, especially in late May and June when Medano Creek is running. Book up to six months in advance online.
There are no hookups at this campground, so if you need more amenities, you may want to book a site at the nearby Oasis Campground, located just outside the park. www.greatdunes.com
4. Pack the Scooby Snacks
Pack the Scooby snacks because Great Sand Dunes is one of the few dog-friendly national parks in the country. Dogs are allowed on the Dunes Overlook Trail, Mosca Pass Trail and in the dunefields up to the first high ridge of dunes. Grab a map at the visitor center to ensure you stay in pet-friendly areas. Your pets must be kept on a leash and you must clean up after them. Don’t forget that temperatures can be deceiving. The sand heats up quickly in the summer. Make sure you are checking the temperature of the sand often by laying the palm of your hand against it. If it’s too hot for you to comfortably touch, it’s too hot for your dog’s paws. We suggest hiking early in the day to avoid the heat and planning your visit for when Medano Creek is running, so your pups can cool off after a long, sandy hike.
5. Rent a Jeep
While you can explore much of the “sand dunes” part of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in your RV, the park holds much diversity if you’re willing to go the extra mile. Rent a Jeep from Pathfinders 4×4 and explore the Medano Pass four-wheel drive road. Here, you won’t believe you’re in the same park as the sand dunes. Steep mountain passes, alpine lakes and even a snowfield will greet you. Just enjoy the drive, or hike one of the breathtaking trails along the way. www.pathfinders4x4.com