The next stop on our epic road trip was Great Sand Dunes National Park. If you missed our earlier trip post, we hit Chaco Culture National Park first. You can find that post here. This next stop was one that all my kids were looking forward to. They had seen a YouTube video of some people sandboarding at Great Sand Dunes, and ever since then, they had wanted to try it out themselves. I honestly hadn’t heard of Great Sand Dunes before this trip, but after a little research, I knew it had to be on the list.Even though we left Chaco Culture pretty early, it took us quite a while to arrive at Great Sand Dunes National Park. When we finally made it in, the weather was pretty unruly. We stopped at a rental place (Great Sand Dunes Oasis), intending to rent boards and sleds and hit the dunes, but by the time we arrived, the wind was blowing horrendously. The staff at Oasis recommended we come back in the morning and hope for better weather.We wanted to get a peek at the park before we returned the next day, so we would be better prepared for our adventure. We have the America the Beautiful pass, which gets us free admission into all our national parks for one year. I highly recommend it, as it means that it is never a big deal for us to pop in and check out a park. The staff at Oasis weren’t mistaken. It was a pretty rough day to be at the dunes. It felt like our skin was getting sandblasted! 😛 After a few minutes, we were ready to take off and set up back at the campground.We stayed at San Luis State Park, which is about 15 minutes from Great Sand Dunes. We had really wanted to stay at Pinon Flats Campground within the national park, but apparently they fill up fast. We made the reservations for our trip months in advance, and they were already booked by then. Since we really like supporting our state and national parks, we picked San Luis instead. I had read reviews online beforehand, and they were pretty mixed. Some loved it, some hated it. There are 51 campsites available for online reservation. I decided to take a chance on it, because it was cheaper than the other options in the area, there were electric hookups, and we were only staying one night.I have to say we were a little disappointed. When we arrived, there was no one at the campground check-in station. The park was pretty deserted, but there were no rangers that we could find anywhere. We stopped at the kiosk just inside the campground, but there were no maps, and so we sort of had to find our way around the campground by driving it a few times. It definitely wasn’t intuitive. Sites were $24/night plus a $10 non-refundable reservation fee. We also had to pay for a daily parks pass, which cost us $7 each day. By the time all these things were added up, it ended up being just as expensive as the RV parks in the area, and they had full hookups.
Each site had a covered picnic table, a fire grill, and electrical hookups. There aren’t any water hookups, and, although there was potable water in the campground, the water spigots were scarce. There was also a dump station in the campground. We reserved site A19, because we wanted to have a view of the reservoir. What we didn’t realize, was that it was on a pull through loop, but it wasn’t the only site on that driveway. If the park is full, and there are others on that driveway, you won’t be able to pull through. This means you’ll have to back-in, which could cause a problem depending on which side your electrical hookups are on. It really seems like poor planning on the State Parks part.The other problem with the campground was that there was one bathhouse for the whole campground. There were three bathroom stalls and two showers per gender. That doesn’t seem like much when you consider that there are 51 sites in the campground, and no sewer or water hookups. The walk to the bathroom from our site was pretty long, and unless we took the long way through the paved roads, it wound through dirt and prickly brush. While we walked it for daytime bathroom use, we ended up driving over for showers and laundry. We didn’t see a campground host or ranger our entire stay, which made me a little uneasy. I couldn’t make the kids walk the walk to the bathrooms in the pitch black of night, so we used our cassette toilet. We didn’t see a place to buy firewood or ice, although, the advertise on their website it is available. When we visited, though, all the offices were closed.On the upside, the showers were clean and warm. You did have to pay for them, but they were relatively cheap. We also used the laundry facilities, and they were cheap, too. Oddly, though, the water in the campground was yellow. There were signs throughout the campground advising that it was due to the mineral content in the water, but I didn’t want that water running through the tanks of my camper. I also didn’t want the kids drinking it, so if you are like me, you’ll want to bring your own water. The showers and laundry facilities were pretty much the saving grace of the campground. We were able to take warm showers, wash our clothes, and head back to our campsite. Unfortunately, it was incredibly cold and windy when we were there, so we didn’t spend much time outside. We made an easy dinner, ate quickly at the sheltered picnic table, cleaned up, and spent the night in the camper playing games and eating popcorn.This was the view from our camper window the next morning, which I didn’t mind at all. I have to say that if you are in a pinch, and don’t have any other options for campsites, San Luis State Park isn’t awful. It had some great features. The layout and quantity of facilities was a little off-putting to us, but I am a little high maintenance like that. 😉 We were anxious to get to the dunes, though, so we packed up the camper, and headed back to the national park.There was plenty of RV parking at Great Sand Dunes when we visited. It was no issue to show up with the pop up camper in tow. We had rented two sand sleds and one sandboard for the day (at $20/each), which cost us $60 +tax. We parked the car and made the trek across Medano Creek to hit the dunes. Medano Creek was actually very cold, and I can see how it would be a fun place to cool off on a warm summer day.It was a much better day for enjoying the dunes, and I am so glad we waited. We started off on some smaller “bunny hills” to get our feet wet, but the kids were pros in no time. We had so much fun, I actually didn’t get as many action shots as I’d wanted to. Everyone took a turn on the boards–yes, even me! I crashed more often that the kids and Mr. TypeTwoFun, but it was so much fun. I would highly recommend sunblock, long pants, bandanas, and socks–the sand gets hot, even on cool days. The long clothing helped prevent “road rash” when we crashed.And believe me–there was lots of crashing! 😀 What amazed me, though, was that even though they crashed frequently, the kids were all more than willing to pick up their boards and make the long trek back up the hill to do it again. PopUpGirl#2, who usually complains about hiking, camping, and all things outdoors, was one of the first ones back up the hill to try it again.That’s really how I judge a successful adventure. If the kids are happy exploring the outdoors and not missing their electronic devices, I feel like I’ve succeeded. We explored the dunes until we were starving and exhausted–which was about 4 hours–before heading back to the car. We packed a CamelBak full of water and snacks, which was a great place to stash the camera and phones. Be forewarned, though! Everything will be covered in sand, no matter how diligently you try to protect it. 😛We were finding sand in our shoes, backpacks, clothes–even our ears–for a few days. That was really the only downside of the adventure, but it was a small price to pay for such an amazing experience. On the way out of the park, we hit the visitors center for our usual souvenirs and were pleasantly surprised to find that they had some great exhibits, including several displays illustrating just how the sand dunes were formed. It’s definitely worth a stop.
Helpful Tips for Visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park
- If you want to stay at the Pinon Flats Campground inside the park, make your reservations early! We ended up at San Luis State Park (about 15 minutes outside the park), which was a decent alternative, but we really wished we could have gotten a spot inside the park.
- We highly recommend renting sandboards or sleds when you visit the dunes. We had SO MUCH fun. Boards and sleds aren’t available inside the park. You’ll have to rent them before you come in, but it was well worth the stop. It cost us about $20 per sled for the day, and it was so worth it. You can find more information about sandboarding in the park here.
- There is plenty of RV parking in the park. There were also many picnic areas, which makes Great Sand Dunes NP a great place to spend the day. We spent about 7 hours in the park altogether, and could have easily spent more time. Pack a lunch, and stay the day. The kids will love it!
- Bring lots of sunblock and cover up as much as possible. The sun off the sand gets hot–even on a cool day–and we could feel the sun pounding down of the backs of our necks. We were thankful we’d applied sunblock liberally and brought bandanas and sunglasses along.
- Make sure to bring a bag or backpack to store electronic devices, water bottles, cameras, etc. No matter how well you protect your things, you will get sand in them–and you’ll find sand in your belongings for days afterwards. 😉
Great Sand Dunes National Park was one of the best stops on our trip this year. The kids are still talking about it. I honestly think we’ll end up going back very soon. If you’ve experienced this park, we’d love to hear about it! Where did you stay? What did you do? Any tips or advice? Sound off in the comments section below!
New to The Pop Up Princess? Would you like to catch up on our road trip adventures from the past five years? You can find those links here: