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Great Sand Dunes National Park- How we did it!

June 26, 2019

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As promised, here is the follow up to Noah’s senior session!  If you missed his session, click here to catch up!

A Little History:

My sister and I used to go out to dinner at Champs (at Aspen Grove) when the kids were little and our husbands were out of town.  They had kids eat free on Tuesday nights and if you went before 6:00, their appetizers (including delicious nachos) were only $5.  We would get out of there for less than McDonalds!!  Sadly, they went out of business (probably because of Julie and I).  Why do I tell you that story?  One time we went in, 2 moms and 6 kids under the age of 10 and they jokingly called us the VonTrapps.  Ever since then, we she and I do something together with all of the kids, we call ourselves the VonTrapps.  Now that the kids are older it is SO much easier but we held our own back in the day.  Armed with sharpies for labeling the plastic kids meal cups and extra napkins…..we were pros.

Now, we have added two more kids (you can see the recap of my sister’s wedding here) although one of them was in London with his grandparents so we ended up with *just* 7 kids (in true VonTrapp fashion) for our adventure to the Sand Dunes.

Our mom claims that we have been been to the Great Sand Dunes, but neither of us remember and there are no pictures…..so you be the judge (😜).  I was also supposed to go with a group of 6th graders for their class trip for my first teaching job (in 2000), but they had a huge forest fire nearby and shut down the sand dunes and we didn’t get to go.  So we explored Alamosa and went the Reptile farm which was actually pretty cool.

Preplanning:

Our preplanning consisted of 1000 text messages trying to find a date that would work for all of us.  Unfortunately, we had to go during the work week so the guys weren’t able to get time off to go with us.  No problem.  We got this.  Once we settled on a date (only 10 short days from our departure) I hopped on the internet and tried to find camping sites near the Sand Dunes.  We were on a budget and had 100 kids with us so we thought camping was our best option.  We can rough it for one night, right?  Thankfully we had 2 things going for us.  #1.  We were only 10 days out and there were some cancellations.  #2.  We were going on a Thursday into a Friday so we weren’t looking at busy weekends.

There are really only two places to stay near the Sand Dunes.  One is just outside the park, called the Oasis Lodge.  It is privately owned.  It has a nice little store (and a bathroom🙌 ) and a restaurant.  This is also where you can rent sleds and boards to ride the dunes (more about that later).

The other option is the Pinon campground which is the only camping within the actual park (and a bargain at only $20 per night for 8 people).  This is where we stayed.  It was super easy to book it and the website is very user friendly.  It was kind of hard to tell from the website what the facilities looked like so I prepared for the worst!  I was VERY pleasantly surprised when we arrived and they had nice, well lit, bathrooms with flushing toilets that smelled good and had sinks for washing hands.  It was awesome!  They had several bathroom buildings spread throughout the campground loop.  We even saw a park ranger driving around in a little Popemobile (you know that cute little car that the Pope rides around in…it looked like that) making sure everything was okay, that the bathrooms were clean and emptying the trash.  Very Nice!!!  Our site was a little bit on the small side which proved to be tricky for our gigantic mansion of a tent.  More on that later.

Back to the Present:

We set off, armed with air mattresses, a GIGANTIC tent (similar to this), coolers full of food and 7 kids (3 preteens and 4 teenagers), pillows, bug spray, sun screen, wood (because you can’t gather any there) s’more stuff, wipes, paper towels, toilet paper, flash lights, sleeping bags.  Our cars were stuffed to the gills and we were only going for ONE night.  This is why I am not a huge fan of camping.  It is so much stuff to be able to “rough” it.  We ended up taking I-25 down through Pueblo and turning off at Walsenburg.  Next time I will take the more scenic route through the mountains, but we had to take this way due to other circumstances.  Just FYI, it is within a 10 minutes difference depending on traffic patterns so either way works!

We left mid-morning and stopped for a quick Chick-fil-a lunch in Pueblo.  We made it to the sand dunes in just over 4 1/2 hours (with our lunch stop just adding about 20-30 minutes).  We stopped at the Oasis for a potty break, some souvenirs (they have great swag) and rented 2 sand sleds.  I think the sleds were about $40 each for the afternoon rental.  We had to have them back by 7:00pm so that was a bit tricky as we rented them around 2-3:00 so it was a quick turn around.  From the Oasis it is about 10 minutes (through the gate) and to the parking lot at the base of the dunes.

We didn’t go straight to the dunes but we stopped and found our campsite and dropped off a few things before heading to the dunes (which was about 3-5 minutes further up the road from the parking lot at the base of the dunes).  Everything is pretty close which is really nice!

The Dunes: Our experience

Once we got to the dunes here are a few things we learned.  The water from Medano Creek isn’t really deep enough to tube.  We were there pretty near the “peak” and it still wasn’t deep enough or long enough to tube.  So leave those tubes at home.  But it is really fun to play in the sand and make castles so bring your shovels and sand toys.  You also might want an umbrella and chair if you are going to hang by the water.

You have to cross the wide (it was probably 40-50 feet wide at it’s widest point when we were there).  You are going to want to take off your socks and shoes to cross the creek.  But you FOR SURE want to bring socks and shoes and not wear flip flops.  The sand is REALLY hot and can burn your feet and it wasn’t even that warm of a day when we were there.  You could probably even for-go the shoes and just wear your socks if it isn’t too hot out but sandals didn’t work well as the sand got stuck in them or the sand burned your feet.

The Sleds:

In our opinion, the sleds were not really worth it.  I am glad we got them and tried them out so we didn’t have FOMO, but we carried them around WAY more than we used them (“we”…..meaning the kids…..we had nothing to do with the carrying of sleds…..we have teenagers who owe us YEARS of slave labor so we don’t have to mess with that nonsense anymore) .  Each kid only went down once or twice.  Why?  I am glad you asked.

#1.  The sleds didn’t go that fast down the hill.  Once you got started, the sand would slow you down (even if you used the wax that was provided with the sled) and then dump you off the sled about 1/2 to 3/4 of the way down the dune.

Exhibit A:

#2.  The sand that you are sledding down shoots up all around you and gets into every crevice, including ones you didn’t even know you had.  The kids had sand up their nose, in their eyes and mouth and in every nook and cranny.  They were not fans.  Being the smart moms that we are, we had the kids test out the sleds first and when we saw the sand clouds that enveloped them, we wanted no part of that and therefore remained virtually sand free.

Exhibit B:

The kids had WAY more fun running down the dunes at full speed.  Once again….the free stuff ends up being their favorite.

Exhibit C:

We saw other people trying to use sand boards (like snowboards) but it seemed like they were having the same result.  Others tried to bring cardboard boxes or snow sleds and those were even worse.

My opinion: Save your money and spend it on sand toys instead.

Just FYI, you can get rich at the sand dunes.  Jameson found a quarter buried in the sand.  We also saw a TON of abandoned socks and shoes!!!

The kids climbed the dunes, played around and had a blast.  Soon we noticed that the dark clouds were forming in the mountains behind the dunes so we hightailed it back to the cars.  We are a little paranoid (especially my sister) about lightning so we wanted to make sure the kids were safe and it was getting near eating time anyway (just FYI, when you have teenagers….anytime is eating time).  We headed back to the Pinon Campground to set up the tent and eat some dinner (but not before quickly heading back to Oasis to return the sleds so we didn’t have to worry about them anymore).  There wasn’t a great, flat place to set up the ginormous tent so we had to move the picnic table and fire pit and put the tent on that area, but it wasn’t quite big enough.  Not a huge problem (or so we thought).

After a quick dinner of sandwiches we finished camp set up (including meeting our neighbors to borrow their air pump because some dummy (me) forgot the car battery pump at home) and then headed back to the dunes.  Noah and I blazed ahead so we could start his senior pictures.

Sand Dunes Senior Pictures

Picture Time:

Noah and I had a blast finding cool spots.  It was pretty windy (which made cool tracks in the sand but also really irritated his eyes) so that was the only downside.  While we did pictures, the other kids did cartwheels, wrote names in the sand and had an absolute blast.  With the wind and the sunset quickly approaching, we practically had the dunes to ourselves.  Not a soul around.

3 of the kids found these cool bucket hats at the Oasis store and purchased them with their own money.  Aren’t they so cute?

These two are only 12 days apart and are the best of friends.  It makes our little mama hearts so happy to see our boys having so much fun together.  What a blessing that we live so close (only 1o houses away, aren’t we lucky).

I think it is safe to say that they all enjoyed themselves.  And if you know these kids AT ALL, these pictures are the perfect representation of their personalities.

This picture is one of my favorites and I think the sand dunes should use this in their next advertising campaign, don’t you think?

This young man is growing up far too quickly for my liking.  He will be 16 next month 😫 NOOOOOOOOOOO.

These two are only six months apart and they are so close as well.

The water was a bit cold on our walk back to the car.  You have to cross this river to get back to the parking lot (which is to my back as I am taking the picture).  It surges and flows almost like the tide of the ocean.  It is so cool!

Can you see the storm clouds forming in the background of this picture?  That is going to become central to the story in a few short hours.

The Storm:

Ohhhh.  That sounds so ominous.  Once we got back to the campground it was dusk and it was time for s’mores and bed.  We were all pretty tuckered out and were ready for some shut-eye.  Sleeping in a tent is never super comfortable so we were resigned to the fact that we weren’t going to be getting the best sleep.  While we were doing s’mores, the lightning over the dunes was amazing!!!  Then it started to rain, so we packed up and headed into the tent.

The rain came down hard and the lightning came closer and closer.  My sister loves meteorology (probably too much) and knows a lot and therefore is very cautious when it comes to lightning.  Her app (see I told you) said the lightning was getting close and the smaller kids were freaking out a bit, so we moved the party into the cars for a bit.  Once the lightning passed, we headed back to the tent where it proceeded to pour rain for several hours.  Remember the fact that the site was a bit too small for our VonTrapp sized tent?  Well, because we weren’t able to pull the rain fly very tight, the wind wreaked havoc on the tent and anyone on the outside edges of the tent ended up soaked.  My sister, nephew and nieces took the brunt of the storm and were sopping wet.   They were going to sleep in the car, but at that point it was too uncomfortable and they were all wet and cold.  So at 12:30 my sister pulled the plug and decided to make the 4 hour drive home in the middle of the night.  My brood was still relatively dry and it would have been too hard to completely strike camp at 12:30, in the dark, in the rain so we toughed it out.

The Next Morning:

Thankfully Julie and the kids made it home (in record time thanks to no traffic) by 4:30 or 5 that morning.  Apparently my oldest was REALLY tired and slept right through all of the commotion (and there was quite a bit as they had to pack up in the dark, with flash lights in the middle of the night and it wasn’t exactly a quiet process).  The next morning he woke up and wondered where his buddy was.  Oh to be able to sleep like a teenager.  We woke up and took down the wet, dirty tent and tried our best to shove wet sleeping bags and air mattresses back into their stuff sacks.  Needless to say I did about 18 loads of laundry when I got home!

The good news is that the next morning, after striking camp and cleaning up we were able to head back to the dunes for one last hurrah!  The dunes got pounded all night which made them hard and MUCH easier to climb.  So the boys and I climbed all the way to the top of the highest dune (that we could reach).  If we had another hour we could have probably made it to the tippy top of the highest dune but we had to get back on the road.  The sand was compacted and wet which made it super easy to climb.  We even abandoned our shoes about 1/2 way and walked barefoot on the cool, hard sand.  It was amazing and we never would have been able to get that far if the sand hadn’t been wet.

We started about 7:45 in the morning and we were back to the car by 9:00.  It wasn’t crowded at all when we started (in fact we got the front parking spot in the lot) but when we climbed to the top and looked back toward the river (and parking lot which you can’t see because it is covered by the trees) you can see all of the little black ants (people….you have to look really closely to be able to see them).

Conclusion:

Sand Dunes=Awesome

Rain Storm=Not awesome

Sleds=Not worth it

Shoes=Must have (unless the dunes are wet)

Pinon Campground=Wonderful

Time with family exploring beautiful Colorado=Priceless

The kids are already scheming to go back and I am too!  We LOVED it even despite the challenges we faced.   Also, I realized that while camping is fun, it is much funner if you are a guy (and the wife/girl does all the work) or a kid (for the same reasons).  I have never made so many lists, brought so much stuff, prepped, washed, cleaned and so on and so on just for one night.  Not camping again anytime soon, m’kay.  However, now I have the National Park bug and I want to travel to see more of them!!  Stay tuned for that.

Want to see more of our travel adventures?  Check out our trip to Costa Rica or our recent trip to Cuba.

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  1. […] Want to see more senior picture adventures?  Check out when we went to the Great Sand Dunes in Southern Colorado. […]

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I'm Lisa (aka LiLo), your new favorite branding strategist and brand photographer.

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