Backpacking

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Backpackers are seen climbing the dunes near sunset to reach the Dunes Backcountry- located west of the highest ridgeline.
Backpackers are seen climbing the dunes near sunset to reach the Dunes Backcountry- located west of the highest ridgeline.

NPS/ Allie Moskal

Online backpacking permits for Great Sand Dunes National Park are only available through the Recreation.gov online permit system for a non-refundable fee of $6.00.

Free, in-person permits are no longer available.

Backpacking in the National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park offers two different backpacking experiences – seven designated sites along the Sand Ramp Trail and 20 non-designated sites in the Dunes Backcountry. Backpacking permits are available all year long and provide the visitor with an opportunity to spend the night in unique environments and allows for solitude in the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Designated sites along the Sand Ramp Trail are the perfect getaway for backpackers to experience a variety of landscapes - with views of the dunes, amongst mixed conifer forests at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Camping within the tallest dunes in North America is the more popular option for backpackers. The Dunes Backcountry is defined as “west of the high ridge and beyond the day-use area” a minimum distance of 1.5 miles west of the Medano Creek bed.

 

Campsite Descriptions

All distances are an approximation, and dependent on route.

CAMP SITES

~~~~~~~DESCRIPTION~~~~~~

~~PARKING~~

DISTANCE (APPROXIMATION)

~DIFFICULTY~

DUNES BACKCOUNTRY


The most popular and unique backpacking option, camping with proper permits is allowed only beyond the Day Use Area- past the dunes' high ridge line (about 1.5 mile minimum hike up and over the dunes). Enjoy wide open views of the starry sky or a bright moonlit night. Other worldly is the best way to describe this unique place of silence, solitude, and sand.
Dunes Parking Lot

1.5 miles

Moderate

BUCK CREEK


Located along a drainage with cottonwood trees. Seasonal water available in Buck Creek. This site is for families with children who want a short backpacking hike into the backcountry.
Amphitheater Parking Lot

1.0 mile

Easy

ESCAPE DUNES


The site is near small "escape dunes", that have left the main dunefield and buried and smothered trees, leaving ghostly skeletons behind (a "Ghost Forest"). The vast majority of the pines in this grove are tall, alive, and healthy.
Horse Parking Lot

2.8 miles

Moderate

INDIAN GROVE


In cottonwood and pine trees beside dunes and Medano Creek. Usually reliable water. Outdoor toilet. Explore the area and look for several ponderosa pines with large scars where American Indians peeled their bark for food and other uses in times past. The Scarred Trees Grove is on the National Register of Historic Sites. This is the most popular backpacking site because it is close to the main dunefield and close to Medano Creek, but it is in a sheltered grove of trees. It is the only site with a solar-composting toilet.
Horse Parking Lot

4.1 miles

Moderate

LITTLE MEDANO


In a grove of ponderosa pines. Seasonal water in Little Medano Creek, 0.3 miles away; reliable water in Medano Creek 0.5 miles away. This site is situated in montane woodlands below Mount Herard. Little Medano Creek provides an good water source in most years, but may be dry in drought years.
Horse Parking Lot

5.0 miles

Moderate

ASPEN


Aspen grove overlooking dunefield. Seasonal water in Little Medano Creek, 0.3 miles away; reliable water in Medano Creek. 2.3 miles away. Aspen offers incredible views of the entire dunefield from a foothills aspen grove. At 9,240 feet elevation, it is the highest designated backcountry site in the park.

Horse Parking Lot

7.0 miles

Difficult; route-finding skills required.

COLD CREEK


In a grove of ponderosa pines. Seasonal water in Cold Creek, 300 feet away; reliable water in Sand Creek, 1.5 miles away. A destination for the more adventurous backpacker, Cold Creek Camp lies in a rugged valley filled with ponderosa pines. Wildlife abounds in this area including elk, deer, bears, and mountain lions.

Horse Parking Lot

10.1 miles

Very difficult; route-finding skills required.

SAND CREEK


Located in a grove of cottonwood trees on the edge of the main dunefield. This is the only backcountry site where campfires are permitted. Collect dead and down wood only, and build your fires in the grate. Be absolutely certain the fire is out before you leave the site.

Horse Parking Lot

11.6 miles

Very difficult; route-finding skills required.

 

A parking lot is assigned to each permit based on the location of the first night’s stay. Your assigned parking lot will be on your printed permit or view your assigned lot from your Recreation.gov account.

Backpacking permit holders with reservations for Aspen, Cold Creek, or Sand Creek sites located along the Sand Ramp Trail and who have a high clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle may request a closer parking area along the Medano Pass Primitive Road at least seven-days in advance; Great Sand Dunes staff cannot guarantee your request will be accommodated (check park alerts for possible road closures).

 
Black and white map showing dunes and forest locations for backpacking
Click on this image preview for a full size image of the Great Sand Dunes Backpacking Map showing permitted options and locations.

NPS

Required Permits

Online backpacking permits for Great Sand Dunes National Park are only available through the Recreation.gov online permit system for a non-refundable fee of $6.00. Free, in-person permits are no longer available.

Rules and Regulations

All permit holders are responsible for following all the rules and regulations, as well as informing their guests of the rules and regulations. The following rules and regulations apply:

  • No on-site permits or changes will be available.
  • Limit of 6 people, 2 vehicles per permit.
  • Dunes Backcountry non-designated sites: You must camp past the Day Use Area, beyond the first high ridgeline of dunes. Plan a minimum of one-hour hiking to reach the top of the first ridge, where you will see the entire 30-square-mile dunefield. Find a low spot past this ridge, away from the main visitor use area.
  • Sand Ramp Trail designated sites: Camp in designated locations, within 50 feet of the metal arrowhead post. No trenching around tents.
  • No pets, hammocks, or glass containers.
  • Gas stoves, only. No campfires allowed (except in the metal fire ring at the Sand Creek designated site).
  • Pack out trash including food items such as orange peels and shells.
  • Use a bearproof container or hang food/scented items in a tree at least 10 feet (3m) up and 5 feet (2m) out from the trunk. Campers must use the bear box at the Sand Creek campsite. Bear hangs not required in Dunes Backcountry.
  • Bury human waste 6 inches deep, 200 feet from water and trails. Pack out toilet paper.
  • Use privy at Indian Grove or Sand Creek. Pack out toilet paper.
  • Pack animals (horses, mules, burros, donkeys, asses, llamas, alpacas) are allowed in the following areas overnight - Dunes Backcountry, Little Medano, Aspen, Cold Creek and Sand Creek. Livestock must be picketed at least 100 feet away from the campsite marker post. Leave-no- Trace principles must be followed at all locations where stock is kept overnight to prevent damage to natural or cultural resources.
  • Check the park website for current conditions, and trip planning tips.
  • Water sources are seasonal. Be prepared to bring water. Recommend 1 gallon/person/night. Boil or treat all stream water before drinking. Water fill up stations are available in the park.
  • Sand temperatures may reach 150° F on summer afternoons. Wear closed-toe shoes.
  • Secure tents with sand stakes or sandbags. Strong winds may occur.
  • Afternoon thunderstorms are common in warmer months. If lightning threatens, leave the dunes. Crouch low on top of your backpack if you are in immediate danger.
 

Backpacking Guidelines Video

 
Visit our keyboard shortcuts docs for details
Duration:
2 minutes, 4 seconds

This short captioned video gives regulations as well as helpful tips for backpackers at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.

 
Proper bear hang in a cottonwood tree helps keep local black bears wild.
A bear hang in a cottonwood tree helps keep local black bears wild.

NPS/ Ian Knoerl

Trip Planning To Do List

Three Months Ahead

  • Decide who is going on the trip
  • Decide when and where you are going
  • Outline your hiking route
  • Call the backcountry office (719-378-6395) for likely snow, trail or campsite conditions at time of trip
  • Do not plan too early. Be cautious regarding snow conditions when planning trips in April, May and June.
  • Reserve your spot and get a permit on Recreation.gov.
  • Order maps and guidebooks and compass
  • Begin breaking in new boots
 
Post for trail turn off near the Medano Pass Primitive Road
Post for trail turn off near the Medano Pass Primitive Road

NPS/ Ian Knoerl

Three Weeks Ahead

  • Confirm group gear with hiking partners
  • Go over checklist of backpacking gear
  • Make sure your gear works and replace or repair
  • Plan your menu

One to Two Weeks Ahead

  • Buy and repackage food
  • Check weather forecast

Days Before

  • Check weather forecast
  • Pack gear, checking each piece off list as it enters the pack
  • Verify departure plans with hiking partners
  • Print out your backpacking permit and parking permit. It is required to have a paper copies of the permits with you.
  • Give a copy of itinerary and return time to a friend or relative (not going on the trip with you)
 
Indian Grove Backcountry Camp Site
Indian Grove Backcountry Camp Site

NPS/ Ian Knoerl

Day of Trip

  • Check weather forecast
  • Pack gear, checking each piece off list as it enters the pack
  • Verify departure plans with hiking partners
  • Give a copy of itinerary and return time to a friend or relative (not going with you)
  • Stop at the visitor center to check trail conditions, animal sightings, weather forecast, current wilderness information, and to verify proper permits are in place.
  • Recheck gear when you meet with your group
  • Put car keys in safe place and give a duplicate to your hiking companion
  • Head for wilderness and have a great time!
 
Recreation.gov website shows a backpacker on the Sand Ramp Trail
Image of the recreation.gov website shows a young man hiking south along the Sand Ramp Trail carrying a backpack full of supplies for overnight camping.

NPS/ Ian Knoerl

Online Permit System (FAQ)

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS


Q1: Why is Great Sand Dunes moving to an online reservation system for national park backcountry sites?
A1: The popularity of Great Sand Dunes National Park backcountry permits has increased over time and requires more administrative support and time to ensure a positive visitor experience. This leaves the visitor with a small window to secure a permit for a very competitive permit process. The ability for visitors to make advanced reservations will allow for better trip planning and an improved overall backcountry experience.

Q2: When can I make reservations?
A2: Visitors can begin to make reservations starting November 18, 2020 on Recreation.gov reservations.

Q3: Can I still get a permit in person at the park?
A3: Free, in-person backpacking permits will be issued until close of business on Tuesday, November 17th, 2020. No in person permits will be issued after November 17th, 2020.

Q4: Can I make changes to the permit at the visitor center?
A4: Visitors can only make reservations online. No changes to their permit can be made in person at the park. Modifications to a permit can be made by visiting recreation.gov. The permit holder may modify itinerary locations, group size and group member names, emergency contact, or vehicle information prior to printing the permit. Changing the entry date requires a new reservation; reservation fee applies. No modifications to permits will be done at the park.

Q5: How much does a permit cost?
A5: There is a non-refundable $6.00 processing fee per permit.

Q6: Can I get a permit tonight/ same day?
A6: Permits are available for advanced reservation year-round on a rolling basis, up to three months prior to the trip start date at 7:00 am PST/10:00 am EST each day. The quota for permits is measured in groups entering per day and number of vehicles per group. If quota is available, same-day reservations are possible. No changes or parking requests will be allowed for same day.

Q7: Are the permits competitive? How many permits are issued?
A7: Permits are limited to groups of no more than six, and no more than two vehicles per group. The Sand Ramp Trail designated sites allow six people per site. Dunes Backcountry non-designated sites allow for 20 permits/day for groups of no more than six people per permit. Permits may be obtained for a maximum of 14 nights per permit holder.

Q8: Where can I park my car/vehicle?
A8: Backpacking sites and parking spaces are limited in number and location. A parking lot is assigned based on the location of the first night’s stay. You may request an alternative parking area as you book your trip; Great Sand Dunes staff cannot guarantee your request will be accommodated. Your assigned parking lot will be on your printed permit or reviewing your permit information on your Recreation.gov account. If your parking request is granted, you cannot make changes or modifications to your permit.

Q9: Have the backpacking rules changed now that the permits are online?
A9: All Great Sand Dunes National Park backpacking rules and regulations still apply.

Q10: Can I get a permit for a campsite on the Medano Pass Primitive Road?
A10: The online permit system is for backpacking in the National Park, only. No changes will be made to backcountry vehicle camping along the Medano Pass Primitive Road. These sites will remain first-come, first serve.

Q11: Can I get a permit for the National Preserve?
A11: The online permit system is for backpacking in the National Park, only. No changes will be made to backpacking in the National Preserve. No permit is required for backpacking in the National Preserve. All vehicles left overnight in the National Park will need a parking permit. Call the visitor center at 719-378-6395 to arrange for a parking permit to park in the National Park if you are planning to backpack into the National Preserve.

Q12: What is the cancellation policy?
A12: The permit holder may cancel their permit 7 days prior to entry date. The $6.00 reservation fee is non-refundable. Quota from cancelled permits will be immediately released and available on Recreation.gov.

 
A hiker stands at the edge of Medano Lake- an alpine tundra lake in Great Sand Dunes National Preserve
A hiker stands at the edge of Medano Lake, a high alpine tundra lake that is covered in snow and ice most of the year. Located in Great Sand Dunes National Preserve, most of the alpine lakes are not easily accessible until July or August. Always check trail and weather conditions before backpacking.

NPS/Art Hutchinson

Backpacking in the National Preserve


The Great Sand Dunes National Preserve is part of the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness area, a federally designated wilderness where nothing mechanical is allowed.

Backpackers will need a parking permit and a backcountry camping permit from the backcountry office only if accessing the National Preserve through the National Park (along State Highway 150 or the Medano Pass Primitive Road within the National Park boundary.

Other Roads leading to remote areas within the National Preserve (like Music Pass) often require High Clearance 4WD vehicles. AWD vehicles are not advised.

The mountainous portion of the park and preserve, is available in most areas off-trail, as long as you are following Leave No Trace Guidelines and national preserve regulations.

  • Please Leave No Trace of your visit.
  • Must camp a minimum of 200 feet away from trails, 300 feet from water
  • Gas stoves only; no wood fires
  • Maximum of 15 people per party, one party per campsite.
  • Dogs and pets must remain on a short leash at all time.
  • Trail access is limited and extra preparedness is required.
  • Hunting is permitted in the national preserve by license and in season - use extra caution if you hike during hunting season.
  • The overnight stay limit within the National Park for all persons, groups, and organizations is 14 consecutive days and 21 total days per calendar year. The total days is to reflect time within the National Park and National Preserve combined.
 
Woman standing on dunes wearing a backpack
Hiker in the Great Sand Dunes Wilderness of the dunefield

NPS/Patrick Myers

For hiking trail information, please visit the Hiking page.

Vehicle Camping in the Backcountry

Camping in or beside your vehicle is available only in the National Preserve in designated campsites along the Medano Pass Primitive Road. This does not require a backcountry camping permit. Roads to these remote areas require High Clearance 4WD vehicles. AWD vehicles are not advised.

Questions About Backpacking?

Call the Visitor Center at 719-378-6395 during Backcountry Office hours,
9:30am - 4:00pm; or send an e-mail.

Guided Backpacking Trips

For a current list of commercial hiking/backpacking guides authorized to lead trips into the national park and preserve, please contact the Chief Ranger at 719-378-6321.

Last updated: August 20, 2021

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

Visitor Center
11999 State Highway 150

Mosca, CO 81146

Phone:

(719) 378-6395
Great Sand Dunes Visitor Center main number

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