The Open Road: Great Sand Dunes National Park

Nature in many forms, loneliness, and signs from the universe… all part of the open road.

When I first began dreaming about this trip – about finishing grad school and hitting the open road – I thought about Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado. I hadn’t heard much about this place but the idea of sinking my legs into warm, knee deep sand at the base of some snowy mountains sounded like a fairy tale and for some reason became my symbolic idea of freedom.

From my last stop, snowboarding with a friend in Vail, Colorado, I drove five hours south through the valleys and snowy pastures of the Rocky Mountains towards Great Sand Dunes National Park.

I pulled off on a dirt road ~20 miles north of the dunes to camp for the night at a place called Valley View Hot Springs. After soaking in the springs and meeting some friendly nudists, I cozied up in the back of my car to read and watch the sunset which was followed by a heart-dropping crescent moonset.

Road to the lovely Valley View Hot Springs



I woke up the next day, did some yoga in the morning sun, made coffee and breakfast and went to town to pick up groceries for the next few days. There’s only one campground open in the winter that’s close to the park called Zapata Falls Campground. Getting there involves driving ~20 minutes up a bumpy dirt road to the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. After the morning errands and the longer than expected drive, sunset was fast approaching so I decided to post up there for the evening. The dunes could wait one more day.

Zapata Falls ended up being a magical place. The elevation of the campground provided spectacular views of the sand dunes and a short hike gave access to the base of the frozen Zapata Waterfall. I had never seen anything like it. The falls and stream were frozen at the surface but liquid water still flowed between the ice and rock beneath. The sound of this movement was a beautiful, hollow cacophony I’d never heard in nature before.

The Frozen Falls

After waking up to frost inside my car I was ecstatic to finally be able to sink my feet into the warm sunbaked sand of the dunes. The park is ~30 sq. miles and is completely open for roaming, playing and exploring. I decided to hike to the “High Dune” which is about an hour from the parking lot and 750 feet high. To approach and tramp around these monstrous, transient monuments you have to first walk through the braided, cool, ankle-deep Medano Creek.

Medano Creek and High Dune, upper left.

Despite being winter and believing that I was in relatively good shape the hike was hot and strenuous. For every 2 steps up you sunk 1 step down and the sandy slopes exposed to the sun burned your feet if you didn’t move quickly enough. But every now and then a cool patch of snow hidden beneath wet sand would provide your feet with sweet sweet relief.


Snow beneath the sand

The juice was worth the squeeze and the journey to the top was sprinkled with tired footprints and beautiful patterns of wind blown sand.

Top of the “High Dune”


Some people rented boards or sleds to slide down the slopes which looked incredibly fun but involved a mega sand blast to the face which was hilarious to watch. An equally rewarding way to get down was to run. Each step forward propelled you 10 feet down the dune making the descent an easy, fun 10 seconds compared to the sweaty 10 minute travel up.

Sand blasted sled ride


Great Sand Dunes National Park had been wonderful. It contained nature in so many forms – mountains, snow, forest, sand, stream, desert. I felt grateful for my time there, for my dream come true. But it was also a time on my trip that I began to feel lonely. I missed my family and friends and had been camping near the dunes for 2 nights alone after having recently spent a week by myself around Arches National Park. I also had a week ahead of me that was unplanned which, though I had left open on purpose, felt somewhat daunting. I really just wanted someone to talk to, hang out with, and keep me company even if that someone was a stranger.

And then, on my last night camping near the dunes, I met someone incredible.

A girl walked past my camp site and I asked her for change for the campground fee. She kindly gave it to me in exchange for a beer. We realized we were both solo female campers, shared a celebratory high five, and ended up hanging out all night. The things we had in common were astonishing. We’re both 25-year-old female geologists. We both had spent time in New Zealand – me for research, her studying abroad. She had worked in Seattle, I just finished grad school in Seattle. We are both rock climbers. She had spent a lot of time in Nepal – a place I planned on going this summer and wanted to know more about. She is Zen Buddhist – I had just finished reading Siddhartha, and was interested in Buddhism and meditation. We laughed and shared life stories of struggle and stoke. She felt like a long lost friend. Before she left we exchanged information and I hoped I’d see her again someday.

It was truly amazing. I felt like I had sent a message out to the universe and it had been answered back to me in full force. Again and again good things kept happening to me on this trip that I couldn’t explain. I felt incredible. The next day I asked my friend Dan (from the Red Rocks post) if he’d join me for a week of rock climbing in Indian Creek. He was game and so I headed back to Utah for a week of fun, hard climbing with a partner in crime.

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5 years ago

Absolutely breathtaking scenery and photos. Colorado is such a beautiful state. I’ll have to visit this wonderful park on my next journey.

The Wanderful Soul

5 years ago

Thank you for sharing your beautiful journey. Love reading your posts!

5 years ago

Love this post! I plan on going here someday soon. :)