Unforgettable Camping Experience at the Great Sand Dunes

I had been to the Great Sand Dunes National Monument numerous times when I lived in Alamosa, Colorado. I had even camped at their camp ground. But when I read that you could actually camp on the dune field, I knew that would be my next adventure.

Getting my Camping Permit

In doing a little more research, I learned that they only give out 10 permits per day to camp on the dune field, on a first come, first served basis.  This made the adventure even more intriguing, as there would be no more than nine others in the 30 square mile dune field.

We arrived early at the Great Sand Dunes National Monument Visitor Center, and I walked up to the desk and inquired about getting a permit to camp in the dune field. The lady behind the desk looked me up and down, and eventually said, “Are you sure you want to do that?”

What?  Do I look like a sissy who couldn’t handle a night of camping?

In spite of being a little irritated, I politely responded, “Yes.”

I think she was trying to talk me out of it because she responded, “The sand gets really hot and it can be difficult hiking out there…blah, blah, blah (I stopped listening).”

This made me determined to prove her wrong, so I deliberately, but politely, interrupted, “Yes, I would definitely like a permit please.”

She reluctantly pulled out the paperwork, and asked for my ID.  She then lectured me on the dangers of the heat and all the other dangers associated with camping in the dunefield.  She eventually recommended that I head out later in the day, once the sun goes down, to avoid the worst of the heat.  I don’t think she has ever been to Texas in the summer; this would have been a cool day back in Texas.

She gave me a map and told me that I could camp anywhere but the public areas of the Sand Dunes.  If I could see the Visitor Center, then I was still in the public area.  This was even better because the whole point of this adventure was to get away.

The Adventure Begins

I took her advice and decided to head out around 7:00 p.m. as the sun was to set a little after 8:00.

Darlene drove me to the trail head.  I opened the car door, stepped out, and was immediately accosted by a swarm of very large mosquitoes.

Darlene yelled, “Shut the door.  You’re letting mosquitoes in here.”

So much for teary-eyed goodbyes.  I obliged and closed the door, gave a polite wave, and, as Darlene drove away, immediately started to walk toward the dunefield. To stand still was to invite the mosquito swarm to feast on me.

My first thought was, if the mosquitoes are like this the whole time, I am in big trouble.

But it was too late. I was on my own until tomorrow morning.

The walk was harder than I anticipated, as the sand was very soft.  With every step my feet sank, slowing me down, giving the mosquitoes more time to land on any exposed skin.

Crossing Medano Creek – Great Sand Dunes

Medano Creek Great Sand Dunes
Medano Creek – Great Sand Dunes

After about 10 minutes I came to Medano Creek; the dunes started on the other side.  Not that the creek was impassable, as it was only about ankle deep, but I had to make a decision.  Do I keep moving to avoid mosquitoes lighting on me but get my shoes wet, or do I stop and take my shoes off, risk mosquito bites, but keep my shoes dry.

Dry shoes was a bigger safety priority, so I very quickly stopped and took off my shoes and socks and crossed the creek, dreading having to stop on the other side where the extra time it would take to dry my feet and put my socks and shoes back on would invite the mosquitoes to attack.

I quickly waded through the cold mountain runoff, and sat on a bank on the other side to dry my feet. It was then that I noticed that the mosquito buzzing had drastically reduced, save for a few that occasionally swarmed me. 

Great Sand Dunes

I put on my socks and shoes and looked up to see the rolling dunes and thought it would be easy to find a spot to camp.  I could simply climb over one of the dunes and camp on the other side, safely out of site of the Visitor Center.

Finally on the Great Sand Dunes

I started up the first dune.  The sand was soft.  The climb was hard.  For every step I took, my foot slipped halfway back down, making my steps so small that it seemed like I wasn’t making any progress.

I soon realized why there were no mosquitoes as a stiff breeze constantly pelted me with sand.  The mosquitoes were smarter than me as I pushed alone though the sand storm.

I crossed over the top of the first dune and, for many reasons, started thinking I better look for a place to set up camp.  The incessant blasting of the sand was a distraction.  My pack – loaded not only with clothes and food and water but also a tent and sleeping bag  – felt like it was getting heavier and heavier.  The climb, unyielding up soft sand, was harder than I thought. Breathing was strained at over 8,000 feet altitude.  And it was quickly getting dark. 

Why did I listen to that ranger lady who told me to head out later? How am I going to set up camp in the dark?

I walked into a slight depression in the dune figuring I would be low enough to be out of sight of the Visitor Center.  I looked back but saw the Visitor Center.  I couldn’t stop here.  I had to move on.

Great Sand Dunes

The wind was blowing harder than a politician near election time, so I decided to turn and climb the next dune to my right so the sand would be hitting me in the back instead of my left cheek.  I crossed over the peak of that dune, looked back and again saw the Visitor Center. 

This happened a couple more times, each time that I thought I found a place to camp, I realized I could still see the Visitor Center.

It was getting darker and darker.  I needed to find a place to set up camp very soon.  It was then that I came to the “wall of sand”.  It was a far steeper climb than I had encountered so far.   I started the climb.  It was a lot more work.  I started to doubt whether I could make it over the top.  What if there was nowhere to set up camp after this exhausting climb?  What would I do?

I dropped my pack, as I figured I could move more quickly without the added weight.  I pushed myself up and over the top, and to my pleasant surprise saw a big indentation in the sand that surely must be out of site of the Visitor Center.  I walked down to the spot, looked back, and did not see the Visitor Center. Finally!  An added bonus was that the area was low enough to be out of the worst of the wind.

As it was getting very dark, I needed to get my tent set up quickly…but I left my pack down at the bottom of the sand wall.  I ran back down, which was much easier than going up, in what felt like only a minute, and grabbed my pack (look for the tiny dot in the middle of the picture).

I started the slow journey back up the wall of sand.  I felt like a climber attempting to summit Everest without the use of oxygen – I would take five or six steps and then stop to catch my breath.  Then I would take another five or so steps and stop again.  I was anxious to get to the top quickly, but this was as fast as I could go.

After what seemed far too long, I finally reached the top.

Setting up Camp

As twilight began to fade into darkness, I quickly opened my pack and pulled out the tent.  But this was harder than it seems as, though the wind was partially blocked, it was still constantly pelting me with a bombardment of sand.  Each time I would get one corner of the tent set, it would blow the rest of the tent around, frustrating me.  But I would not let Mother Nature beat me.  I pulled more items out of my backpack and spread them out over the tent, which kept the tent down, but soon all of my gear was covered in sand.

Camping Great Sand Dunes

After wrestling with the uncooperative tent, I finally got it set up.  Then I crouched behind it, out of the wind, and carefully brushed the sand off each item before putting it into the tent.  Lastly I followed.

Finally I had shelter for the night…near the top of the Great Sand Dunes National Monument!  I pulled out a Clif Bar and a bottle of water and feasted while I contemplated what I would do next.  I had aspirations of climbing to the top of the Sand Dunes, setting up camp, and exploring the vast dunes for hours when I arrived.  But my body told me otherwise.  I was exhausted, and even though it was early, I decided I should try to get some sleep.

Bed Time

I crawled into my sleeping bag…and slowly slid to the bottom of the tent.  Nowhere in the dune field is it perfectly flat, and a nylon sleeping bag on a nylon tent bottom meant gravity would win this battle.  I curled up in a little ball at the bottom of the tent and tried to sleep.

Darn.  I have to pee.  I should have thought of that before.

I put my shoes back on, crawled back out into the sandstorm, and hiked a ways to do my business. You can’t build a bathroom in the bedroom.

I crawled back into the tent, spread my sleeping back out and crawled back in…and once again slowly slid down into a little ball at the bottom.

You would think that, after feeling the soft sand under my feet all day, sleeping on it would feel like sleeping on pillows, but that is far from the truth.  It felt like I was lying on concrete…in a little ball at the bottom of a hill while the howling wind continuously pummeled my tent.

And this was my dream to do this.  What was I thinking?

Somehow I finally fell asleep.

Later I awoke in darkness, hoping it was almost time to head back to civilization.  I looked at my phone and it was only 3 a.m.   I had to pee again, but tried to fight the urge and fall back asleep so time would pass more quickly.

Wait.  I am in the middle of nowhere, with no artificial light.  I bet the stars look amazing.  I was immediately energized at the thought. 

Star Gazing

I turned on my flashlight, put in my contact lenses and ventured outside.  By now the wind had disappeared.  I climbed to the top of a near dune, and was rewarded with the most amazing night sky I have ever seen.  Brilliant white stars poked through a coal black canvas of sky.

Doubts of why I would attempt something like this immediately vanished.  This view was amazing!

Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed a flash of light – a shooting star.  I gazed in that direction for another minute, and, sure enough, I saw another shooting star.

I was mesmerized by the view, as I continued to stare into the heavens.  Finally, after shooting star number 10, I took one last look at the brilliant star-studded sky and decided I should get back to the tent.

I crawled into my sleeping bag, and once again slid to the bottom.

I dozed on and off for the next couple hours until the first light of dawn broke.

A Beautiful Day at the Great Sand Dunes

I headed outside to take in my surroundings.  I climbed to the top of the closest peak to get a better view.  It was at this point that it finally hit me how isolated I was.  I looked to the four corners of the earth and didn’t see a single sign of civilization.

I was all alone, but not lonely.  I felt part of something greater.

Time to Head Back to Civilization

I didn’t want the experience to end, but Darlene was expecting me at 9:00, so I took a few pictures and videos and packed my gear.

Why do things never fit as well when you pack for the return of a trip?

I started my hike and looked into the valley below.

Darn!  Everything looks pretty much the same.  Where was the trail I took when I first got dropped off?  Which direction do I go?


So I continued my hike.  I eventually made it back to Medano Creek, and scanned the far bank for the trail I came on.

There it is!

I again removed my shoes and crossed the cool mountain stream.  I proceeded up the trail on the other side.

This seems a lot steeper than I remember. 

No, you must be imagining things.

No I think this is a lot steeper.

Darn!  The mosquitoes are back.

Stop talking to yourself.

I pressed on along the soft sandy trail and eventually came to an old dirt road.

This isn’t good because I didn’t hike in on an old dirt road.

I reasoned that this dirt road must eventually come to the camp ground or visitor center, so I took a right and headed in the general direction of civilization.  My assumption was correct, and, after a long walk, I eventually spotted Darlene (in the car to avoid the mosquitoes) off in the distance.  What a welcome site!

This adventure was more taxing than I thought it would be, but the memories are more rewarding than I thought they would be.

Self-reliance creates self-respect.

More here!

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