Updated: Nov 20, 2020
September 21, 2020
One of the most exciting parts of moving to the American Southwest, for me, was the opportunity to explore diverse landscapes, many protected in varying forms of public land. National Park trips are definitely something to get excited about, and Great Sand Dunes National Park did not disappoint. The sand dunes themselves are breathtaking--a 30-mile dune field with the tallest sand dunes in North America, five of the dunes over 700 feet high, flanked on two sides by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and the San Luis Valley to the south and west. How could you not get excited?
So as you might expect, I spent much of the summer looking forward to our Labor Day weekend camping trip. As much as my wife Stacia and I love to camp, we don’t get out for camping trips more than a few times a year. For us, camping takes a bit of planning because of my Ankylosing Spondylitis (which pretty much rules out any type of backpacking or primitive camping), the dogs, and our busy schedules.
National and State Park Campgrounds
Stacia and I camp in National Forest, State Park, or National Park campgrounds for the most part. In the past decade, we’ve camped in Maine, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Texas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. While every campground is different, developed campgrounds in National and State Parks tend to be more amenities-focused and don’t always offer spacious, private campsites.
For example, we spent one night at Great Smoky Mountains National Park several years back during a road trip. We arrived at our campsite after driving on and off for nearly 24 hours and, needless to say, one-year-old Texie was wild after being in the car for so long. For that stay, we were really hoping for a bit of space and privacy from our fellow campers, but instead had a neighbor so close on one side of our site that when he torched the grass with lighter fluid to kill a bee-hive, we were afraid our tent would go up in flames too (not to mention the forest around us).
All in all, that was a camping trip we’ll never forget. The same is true of our stay at Pinon Flats Campground within Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Our Stay at Pinon Flats Campground
Ideally, I wanted a site on the outside of the campground loop that looks out over the sand dunes, but I was minutes late when reserving and missed out. There were only a few sites with unimpeded sand dune views that also had both shade and weren’t crammed in right next to neighboring sites. Still looking for a spot with some privacy, I secured a site along the backside of the campground furthest away from the dunes.
The site itself was nice. It was elevated from the paved road with a few stairs leading up to the flat, dirt site, and there were pinon and juniper trees surrounding the site for privacy and shade. Not only that, but we had a window view of the sand dunes where we watched spectacular sunsets and shifting shadows along the dunes as the sun rose over the Sangre de Cristo mountains.
As happy as I was about the site itself, I made one major miscalculation: I hadn’t realized the proximity of the site to the restroom and water faucet. All weekend there was a steady stream of people walking to and from the bathroom or water faucet diagonally across from our site.
In addition, I’ve learned that no matter how long I spend researching and choosing a site, there’s no way to plan away bad camp neighbors (see our Great Smoky Mountains camping trip). This trip was no exception. Soon after we set up camp, we figured out that the campers in the three sites closest to us were part of one big group with lots of kids--kids who were constantly migrating between the site on our right and the site on our left.
One night after dusk, as we settled in around the campfire to relax, Stacia and I were deep in conversation and marshmallow roasting, when a little girl about seven years old appears in our campsite, less than ten feet from our campfire, dressed head-to-toe in her white bunny pajamas.
Meanwhile, over at the water spigot was a boy from the same party, who looked to be several years older than the bunny at our campsite, who kept yelling repeatedly “something something donkey style.” Though it was dark, we could track this boy’s location shifting between the water spigot, and the three surrounding campsites, by listening for the annoying refrain. Needless to say, there was little relaxing going on that night, though it left us with a good story to tell!
Pinon Flats Campground - Pros and Cons
Putting aside our unique experience for a second, I’ve assembled a somewhat objective list of the pros and cons of Pinon Flats Campground within Great Sand Dunes National Park:
Pro #1 - Pinon Flats Campground is only a short walking distance from the sand dunes and the only place of lodging (aside from the primitive campgrounds within the park) that offers access to the dunes without getting in a car.
Pro #2 - Some of the campsites offer spectacular views of the sand dunes. These sites include: 64-71 and 20-40.
Pro #3 - Pinon Flats Campground has a total of 88 sites, some suitable for smaller RVs, others only suitable for tent camping.
Pro #4 - The campground has some great resources available, including a small camp store within the campground that sells firewood, ice, and a small selection of ‘camp essentials.’
Pro #5 - Not only is there close access to hiking in the sand dunes from the campground, but there’s also easy access to other hiking trails via the Sand Ramp Trail, which leaves the north end of the campground and connects with various other trails, and Wellington Ditch Trail, which heads south out of the campground and connects with the Mosca Pass Trail.
Con #1 - Like many other high-demand campgrounds, campsites at Great Sand Dunes National Park need to be booked months in advance. To secure a site over Labor Day Weekend, I had to reserve online as soon as possible, which meant getting online six months in advance, the minute these dates opened for reservation.
Con #2 - Many of these sites are compact, and ridiculously close to neighboring sites. This is especially true of many of the tent campsites in the middle of both campground loops.
Con #3 - Parking is limited at many sites. While 8 people are allowed at each campsite, most sites have space for only one vehicle.
Con #4 - Quite a few campsites have little shade. This is simply the nature of the environment, and is often the case with a lot of camping in the American Southwest. If shade is a priority, you may have to compromise privacy for shade when choosing a site here.
Overall, the pros outweigh the cons by my count. With that said, Great Sand Dunes National Park is absolutely stunning, and if you’re looking for a campsite that allows access to all of this park’s recreational opportunities, Pinon Flats Campground is a great choice. Just make sure you get online and reserve early!