GREAT SAND DUNES NATIONAL PARK
Burned out from anthropological history, we were excited to head out to our last Colorado destination, Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Following the guide of out handy dandy book “your guide to the national parks” by Michael Joseph Oswald, we were under the impression we could snag a first come first serve camp site, like most parks offer. Unfortunately, we learned that this park, along with a few others, have changed to all reservation only (at no fault to the author of the guide, it just recently changed.) This means no one will ever get a campsite, ever. After living in California for year, Eric and I could go on and on about how this system sucks. We have been screwed over so many times by reserve only, and here is why.
Most of the reservations go through recreation.gov and open 6 months in advance. Unlike hotel reservations, you can book specific campsites, and worst of all, the fee for missing your reservation date is laughably small, usually $20 or less even if you reserved 2 weeks of prime-time summer in Yosemite. These three factors lead to most campgrounds being either booked completely up 6 months in advance (like THIS) or even if there is space in the campground the sites are booked up in such a way where there are no multi-day reservations available for a single site leaving you jumping campsites day after day to stay in an unreserved one (like THIS idiocy). Until the system is fixed there is absolutely no good reason the National Parks System should have entire National Parks as reserve only. It encourages people for whom $20 is an absurdly small fee (for us it is not) to book scarce campsites in our national parks that they have little intention of using. Most people are left scrounging for last minute cancellations. Reservation only campgrounds are the worst thing about camping in California and many other states that have this for their state park systems. We had literally resorted to programmed online scripts to search the states reservation system and notify us via email as soon as a someone canceled and a slot opened up in some of the more popular campgrounds. If this is the future, the NPS should just contract reservations out to TicketMaster so at least someone will make money off making our public outdoor spaces less accessible to everyone.
TLDR; reservations are pointless and impossible to get unless you know EXACTLY when you will be there 6 months in advance, and even then it is rare to get a site.
Bummed out, we headed outside the park boundary towards some possible free sites off of iOverlander. There was an RV park right outside the gate that we figured would be a ridiculous price, but we pulled in anyway just in case. Turned out they were surprisingly reasonable considering the park camping issues, and had one spot left, which we quickly snagged.
This ended up being a great thing in disguise. We were able to pull our tab right into a spot on the hill that overlooked the dunes at sunset. The camp also had hot showers which we took advantage of on our way out the next day. The Sand Dune Oasis campground was also the place to rent sand boards, so that made everything very easy. Although it was more than our nightly budget, so we had to cut our visit short, we felt like we had a great experience in the park. Since we were camped right outside the boundary, we woke up early and got parking for our one day dune adventure with ease.
We had ambitions to reach Star Dune, which is a 6 mile round trip hike to the most prominent dune in the park. Hiking past the crowds on the main path up to High Dune, we circled wide and trekked up untouched sandy ridges. We quickly remembered how difficult it is to hike sand dunes. It is like taking two step forwards and one step back the whole time, so we didn't cover the distance we usually hike in the same amount of time. Also, I don't enjoy trudging up these ridges. The view is always worth it, but the experience of the hike is grueling. Eric didn't mind it, however, and we both enjoy the running down process.
We arrived at the junction of where we would have to commit to finishing the hike to Star dune or splitting off and heading over towards High dune, and we picked the latter. With one day to do all the things, we decided it would be better to eat lunch on the highest dune and have the rest of the day to sand board and play in the creek. It was a good choice.
Great Sand Dunes was more fun than expected. Not only was the natural phenomenon awesomely beautiful, it was a blast to recreate in. People with all types of interests were gathered here to enjoy this small park, and it was great to see everyone experiencing nature differently. From families treating the Medano creek flow as a beach day, to bros sledding, to the hardcore hikers, we were not bothered at all with the how many people were around us. After our hike, we grabbed the sand board and headed out to hopefully not break our necks.
Hoping we would pick it up quickly because we surf, skate, and snowboard, (and have crappy insurance) it was funny to be shut down the first few runs. The board is a thick, heavy wood deck with tattered foot straps that don't really hold on well. The bottom was continuously waxed to keep the speed up, but the lack of control was what threw me for a loop. After and a few tries, both Eric and I were able to stand and ride a few 'waves' successfully. In the videos we took, it looks so slow, but it felt so fast!
Though I wish there were ski lifts to take you back up. We gave up after about 2 hours because hiking up the dunes for each ride was exhausting. Storms started rolling in quickly, but we had a few moments to soak our feet in the creek before heading to the visitor center. We couldn't leave without watching those wonderful park videos, they are pure gold.
For one day, we felt like we made the best of Great Sand Dunes, but intend on coming back at some point in our lives. Sand boarding was too fun, and the land had much left to explore.
On to the next state!
10/10 would shred in sand again.