After our time in Manitou Springs, we made the three hour drive south to check out Great Sand Dunes National Park. We had heard how impressive the giant dunes are and were excited to see it with our own eyes. Our last National Parks pass expired a couple months ago, so at the entrance station we purchased our third annual pass since living on the road. It’s still a STEAL at $80 for the whole year. Not only does it get you into every national park and monument, it has also covered our parking fee at different national forest hiking and recreation sites. Worth every penny, or as my dear friend Jessica would say: it’s cheap at twice the price!
THE QUICK DETAILS
- We camped at nearby San Luis Lakes State Wildlife Area – a free stay after you purchase your Colorado State Parks pass or the Colorado Fish & Wildlife pass
- The campsites have 30/50amp service and there was a dump station and vault toilets but no running water. The National Park, however, has a dedicated fresh water spigot at their dump station
- You can hike on the dunes! Pro tip: bring or rent sleds and snowboards to glide down the dunes…or at least try to
- Go here for more hiking options in the National Park, including climbing Mount Herard and visiting the Sand Creek Lakes
- Check out nearby Zapata Falls – note that a high-clearance, 4x4 vehicle is recommended for making the rocky 3.5-mile drive to the trailhead
- Looking for nearby hot springs? We loved Sand Dunes Recreation, especially their adults-only area with four hot pools, a sauna, and alcoholic beverages for purchase all inside a lush greenhouse full of plants
A WINDY, DRAMATIC, BEAUTIFUL PLACE
So, Brad found us a ‘free’ campground about 15 minutes from the park at the San Luis Lake State Wildlife Area. In reality, you actually need to buy a pass to stay here. We didn’t really know what kind of pass we needed, so at Walmart when they told him it was $70 for the Colorado State Parks pass, that’s what we got. When we arrived at the campground, the signs stated that the pass was $36, and we later learned that you can get away with having the Fish & Wildlife pass which is $36, but doesn’t get you into the state parks. We figure we’ll be back in Colorado within the year and will be sure to take advantage of having that state park pass. This camping area is exceptionally beautiful.
And it’s large! There are so many sites, all with electric hookups (30 and 50 amp). They have vault toilets, a basketball hoop, and a central dump station but no running water anywhere in the campground. We had put some water in our tank before leaving our campground in Manitou Springs but we also ended up getting 6.5 gallons inside the National Park. There is a dedicated fresh water spigot available at the dump station there.
The weather was pretty crazy during our stay. When we arrived the nearby mountain range, the Sangre de Cristos, were bare but after the first night they had a light dusting of snow on their peaks and looked all the more incredible. It was cloudy and moody and WINDY. Like, crazy fairly-uncomfortable-to-be-outside windy.
Our first day in the area we went into the National Park, but because Brad’s foot is still healing from an ankle sprain that happened in Iowa, we didn’t want to push it and just walked to the base of the dunes…which honestly was probably still a bit much for him. We were still completely in awe of these giant, magnificent sand dunes. They are the tallest in North America and even being right next to them, it’s hard to comprehend the scale.
The next day at camp I snagged several timelapses of the ever-changing clouds and mountain views and we both worked all day. Our internet speeds were pretty slow so I wanted to finish my Wanderland Travelers video on Monday to have plenty of time to upload it over the unpredictable AT&T network. We started the upload Monday night and lo and behold it was ready to go Tuesday morning! I’m not used to having Tuesday “off” so I went into the park on my own. I made the long walk to the base of the dunes and even climbed up a couple but the wind was so out-of-control strong and freezing (and pelting me with tiny grains of sand) that an hour out there was plenty. I had worn long johns, pants, tall socks, hiking boots, a t-shirt, flannel, long cardigan, coat, scarf and hat and was still cold out there! The scarf and sunglasses were particularly key in helping shield my face from the stinging grains of sand.
That evening I took a walk with my camera over to the lakefront next to the campground and caught a little bit of a rainbow. I also got to see my first jackrabbits of the season. Well, I saw their butts as they hopped away and of course the telltale black tips of their ears. We love them so much! Unfortunately the land of jackrabbits also happens to be the land of goathead thorns and I even saw a few cholla cacti at Great Sand Dunes…we’re always sad for the dogs to be back around thorny things.
So in reading reviews on Campendium for the San Luis Lakes campground I learned that there were nearby hot springs. Google didn’t let me down and I learned of two places but the one that stood out FAR above the other was called Sand Dunes Recreation (not a terribly inspired name, but I digress). It was only about 20 minutes from our campground but we packed up and moved to stay right there on the property. This place has a 100 degree swimming pool with two diving boards, a baby pool, and a large therapy hot tub that could easily fit 20 people or more. They have an onsite restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner and an RV park with hookup sites and dry camping (10 spaces of each). They also rent out toys, towels, and even swimsuits, but best of all is the adult-only area called “the Greenhouse”. Literally built inside an old greenhouse and full of plants everywhere, they have a dry sauna, a long skinny hot pool, three piping hot smaller pools (including the Coffin at 110 degrees!) and they serve beer and wine – a pretty large selection at that.
This place is seriously incredible. Not only is it beautiful with so many soaking options, it’s quiet enough that we had many of those all to ourselves…of course they’re so dang hot you don’t spend much time in any one of them…but it was truly blissful. Oh, and since we stayed in the RV park (dry camping for $20/night) we got half-off admission, regularly $12 each. Plus on Wednesdays it’s only $2 each to enter the Greenhouse (regularly $5/each). Score score score! It was such an unforgettable experience and definitely the best place we’ve ever just ‘happened’ upon. Be sure to include an overnight there when you visit Great Sand Dunes National Park but be aware that it is closed every Thursday!
Here’s our video from our visit to this gorgeous area: