It takes about 4 hours to drive to the Great Sand Dunes from Denver going south on I-25 and then taking I-160 west. On a side note, driving on I-25 is a perfect time to play the license plate game with your kids, as there are so many cars from many different states. However, the absolute best part of this drive is going through the Rockies on I-160. As mentioned above, we have never driven this route on I -160 and boy have we been missing out. The mountain views were breathtaking and we were even able to spot wildlife in the distance. Once we got closer to the Dunes, the hunt to find a camping spot was on. Here is the deal, there are various campgrounds around, but the ones that took reservations were booked out in January and those that are not, were first come first serve. We had left early on a Friday morning and thought we would definitely find a campsite. We were hopeful that there would be an opening at a beautiful campsite we found online, called Zapata Falls. This campsite is about 30 min up a hill on a very rough road. The benefits of this campsite include the breathtaking views, beautiful campgrounds, and it is located at the base of an amazing hike. The drawback is that reservations would be nice, considering how amazing this campsite is. We were about 4 hours late for a queue that began at 8AM for an open campsite. We spoke with the campground attendee and he let us know that his site has been at capacity for several months now. The “great surge” was drawing a record number of tourist and that we should try again soon. He also recommended against the Zapata Falls hike, for our family, as we had a 3.5-year-old, 5-year-old and 7-year-old. This hike is breathtaking and beautiful and any review will tell you this is a must if you visit the Dunes; however, it is half mile up and difficult for small children. The campsite and the hike are all the reasons we need to come back to Zapata Falls, and we will be back.
After we pulled our rig all the way up the hill, just to turn it around and drive another 30 min down the very bumpy road, we were headed to our next possible campsite. We were a little nervous this campsite would be full, but also confident we were going to find something. We headed west to San Luis Lakes State Wildlife Area Campground. We drove in and even though the terrain was very different than Zapata Falls, the views of the Dunes did not disappoint. The main difference between Zapata Falls Campground and San Luis Lakes Campground is the lack of trees at the later. Each and every campsite had a view, with each campsite being first come first serve we were lucky that more than half of the campsite were available. An annual Access Permit is required and anyone with a valid Colorado annual hunting and fishing license does not need to have an access permit. The 2 permits we bought (adults 18-64 need to purchase one) were around $36 USD and were valid for an entire year. One can purchase a permit anywhere you can purchase a hunting and fishing license. My husband took a short 5 min drive from the campsite to buy the licenses. We flashed these to the campground attendant pulled the trailer into our spot for the weekend and sat down for a well-deserved break.
It was still late afternoon when we had finished unpacking the trailer and there was still plenty of summer sunlight left. We decided to check out the Dunes during golden hour. We drove in and were immediately greeted at the gate by the Park Ranger. We bought a one-day pass and got seven days free, also known as a week pass. The park pass is $25 for non-commercial vehicles, $15 per adult (over 16 years of age, children are free) for large 15+ passenger vans, or $20 per motorcycle rider and passenger, all passes lasting 7 days. There is also a beautiful campsite in the park that generally books out in January and February. The park is open year-round and 24 hours a day, the visitors center is open 9AM-4:30PM daily, with few exceptions. The campground inside the park is called Pinion Campground and it is open April through October. As a family traveling with small children, learning is so important to us, it’s one of the reasons we love to travel. We are always on the lookout for visitors’ centers, as they provide the best information on what there is for families to do. We explored the visitor center, took the obligatory family photo and found out about the nighttime Park Ranger program, more about that later.
We left the ranger station and headed out for our first look at the “great surge” and it did not disappoint. The surge is a large river running through the opening of the Dunes. This river is generally not present and my friends who have visited the Dunes in the past reported that it has never been more than a trickle of water. The surges happen as water builds up behind a large wall of sand, when the water breaks through the sand, the water surges forward and this makes up the surges. We were able to sit alongside the river and watch our three children play in the freezing water and build amazing sand castles. We left after about an hour later, as the winds picked up greatly. The sandstorms along the dunes can pick up quickly and the sand can be very painful. As an adult, it is best to always have long sleeves and pants when visiting at night. It is best to cover children with long sleeves and pants, however if they are playing in their swim suits and the winds pick up quickly, make sure to have blankets and towels handy so they do not get hurt by the sand.
After the sandstorm, we headed back to our campsite, to shower and change for the Ranger Station presentation that night. These night programs are presented by a Park Ranger and held at the outdoor amphitheaters. During the summer months, the Dunes can be very hot during the day, especially on the sand, however the nights are very cool. If you plan on attending a night presentation make sure to bring big jackets, beanies, and many blankets. We also made sure that every family member had their own flashlight as there is an unlit nature path to get to the amphitheater. The presentations are geared toward children and adults alike. The topic of our presentation was “Preserving the Night Sky,” and it was presented as the sun was setting and the views of the Dunes were amazing. After the presentation and a long day of travel filled with fun we turned into the campsite for the night.
We were up early the next morning and ready for a full day at the dunes. We were warned to be in the park by 8AM to ensure a parking spot in the Dunes parking lot and to not wait in line to enter the park. Well, this was the best advice we had been given. We dressed for a morning hike up the dunes, ensure you have sun protective clothing and lots of sunscreen. The Dunes are massive sand mountains, with no tree coverage for shade. The sun reflects off the sand and it is extremely hot when hiking to the peak. I also recommend a good pair of hiking boots; we do not recommend hiking in sandals. There are wood boards available to rent, used to slide down the Sand Dunes, however with little children it would not be worth it. I would recommend renting a board or bringing your own if you have children above middle school age. Most elementary aged children will not be able to hike up the peaks more than twice before quitting, children younger than kindergarten will barely be able to hike halfway up the Sand Dunes once. We began our family hike with plenty of water, snacks and hopes and dreams of reaching the top. We hiked across the surge (shoes and socks off), to the base of the dunes (shoes and socks back on), and about 20-30 minutes into the hike, our children began to get tired. We hiked up for another 10 long minutes, before we sat to enjoy the views. My husband and our oldest kiddo, hiked another 15-20 minutes up, while I and my two littlest children watched all the fun going on around us. It is great place to people watch, as many people are around boarding, running, and sliding down the dunes. This is also the perfect time for the necessary Sand Dunes selfie.
We safely scaled down the dunes, as our youngest children begin to testify that we were the most awful parents for taking them on this horrendous hike. In their defense it is a very hard hike, going up, in loose sand. Our youngest was about 3.5 and he struggled. I would recommend any child under 3 being carried in a backpack if possible. We were able to find a great spot, on the sand, in front of the water, to sit and relax for the next couple hours. The kiddos immediately began to strip down and ran to play in the water. After the best sandcastles were made, everybody sat down to a sack lunch. Storms along the Colorado plains can roll in within an hour and they can come in even faster when in the mountains. We watched the clouds roll for roughly 30 min, before deciding to quickly pack up. The wind picked up, the sand started to fly, and the rain began as soon as we got to the truck. We had a prime parking spot from getting to the dunes early and were able to take off for the day. This was definitely the trip of a lifetime. The kids absolutely loved the sand dunes, loved the surge, and loved this trip.
We hope you enjoyed a little look into the “great surge” of the Great Sand Dunes. We absolutely love this National Park and hope to come back to camp very soon. We gave this camping trip 5/5 Perfect Stars. It was the best weekend getaway for tent campers and RV campers alike. As always, we love to hear what our followers are up to so please leave any comments and questions below. Lately, please be sure to check out our corresponding YouTube video about visiting The Great Sand Dunes at Perfect Misadventures.