Backcountry Camping in Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado
Medium format film photography from an overnight stay among one of North America's most mind-boggling natural landscapes
The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve lies nestled against the shoulder of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in southern Colorado, a surreal, deep desert landscape hidden in the American West.
Approaching from the south, the dunes first appear as haze at the foot of the snowcapped peaks. It’s only when much closer, entering the park on Highway 150, that the sheer scope becomes apparent—30 square miles of sand, with the tallest dunes topping 700 feet.
Ample opportunities to explore the park exist, from hiking and sandboarding the dunes—the tallest in North America—to splashing in the snowmelt waters of Medano Creek. Yet, the real adventure comes via backcountry camping in the dune field.
Each night, weather permitting, rangers at the visitor center give permits to 20 parties, first come, first served, to camp within the massive heaves of sand. The rules are simple, if not to be taken lightly: Campers must hike about 1.5-2 miles into the park, over the crest of the first dunes and out of the “day use” area.
The hike alone is daunting, as the soft sand and steep ridges makes 2 miles feel like two or three times that distance. The exertion is even more extreme for us coastal dwellers, as the park sits at about 8,000 feet above sea level. During the day, the sand is warmed by the sun to temperatures as high as 150 degrees Fahrenheit, so departing closer to sundown is recommended.
Once deep into the dunes, you can pitch a tent anywhere you like. (Pro tip: tent stakes won’t have any purchase, so bring bags to fill with sand and use to weigh down the corners of your tent.) Fires aren’t allowed, but you can cook with gas stoves, as long as you don’t mind a little grit in your dinner. And please follow Leave No Trace guidelines.
Last spring, the area was designated an International Dark Sky Park due to its often-clear skies and lack of light pollution. The night I camped, damp weather had rolled in around sunset, cloaking the sky. I’d gone to sleep under heavy cloud cover, setting my alarm at hour increments to peek out from my tent and check the conditions.
Finally, at 2 AM I crawled from my sleeping bag to find the sky clear, thrumming with the stars. The night was too windy for astrophotography—even with a sturdy tripod. So I hiked in the dark to the peak of a nearby dune and sat, back to a sheer sand drop, and watched the Milky Way—seemingly no more than arms reach away—pulse over the landscape of blue-tinted, blowing sand.