The Piñon Flats Campground at the Great Sand Dunes might just be the nicest national park campground we’ve ever stayed at. The sites are well spaced, the views are incredible, and the location is convenient to everything you want to explore around the park.
We arrived knowing that this campground wasn’t a sure thing. According to the park service website the campground fills by noon everyday, and there are a limited number of sites for RVs. Since we were showing up on a Sunday a few weeks after all the kids have gone back to school, we figured our chances of getting a spot was pretty good, but just in case we had a back up plan. About 10 miles down the road is the San Luis State Park. From the reviews I read online it sounded like a basic state park in a high desert setting. Meaning no trees for shade, surrounded by a rather stark landscape. Some of the online reviewers looked unfavorably on these conditions, but then again some reviewers also look unfavorably on state parks that don’t offer cable, WiFI, and sewer hook-ups, which tells me that those reviewers don’t necessarily have the same priorities as us. Given the beauty of the landscape around here, I’m sure the state park would have been a fine place to spend the week.
In the end we had no problem finding a site, and I’ve yet to see the campground full this week, which leads me to believe that we picked a great time to visit. The Piñon Flats Campground has a total of 88 sites spread over two loops. The sites in loop 2 are reservable from May through the end of August, and the sites in loop 1 are all first come first serve. I would estimate that about a third of the sites in each loop have a direct view of the dunes. It’s not exactly big rig friendly around here, but there are several sites in each loop that could fit larger RVs. The park service recommends no bigger than 35′, but I swear that we’ve seen one or two 40′ motorhomes this week in some of the longer pull-thru spots. I suppose the concern is more about the tight corners and over hanging trees, than the size of the sites.
Some of the nicest sites are the ones that will only fit small RVs and tents. If I thought I could handle going back to tent camping, this campground would be high on my list of places to visit with my tent. First of all, the sites are very well spaced providing a good amount of privacy. Second, they all have nice level tent pads, and finally there are those amazing views. If I had to sleep on the ground, I would want to wake up to a view like this-
Aside from the nice sites, what I like best about this campground is the location. Right from our site we have a number of hiking options. First there’s the dune trail that leads down through a field of grass and blooming sage brush to the dunes.
Then there’s the Wellington Ditch Trail that starts at the very top of the campground and heads over to the visitor center, joining up with the Mosca Pass trailhead. I’ve been using this trail for my morning walks. One section travels through an open field filled with bare, long ago burned trees with dune views in the background.
From the top of loop 2 you can access the 11-mile long Dune Ramp Trail. We’ve hiked portions of this trial several times during the week. Once up to the Dune Overlook which is only two miles round trip, but as is par for the course around here, the trial surface is soft and sandy ensuring that you work hard for every step.
Another day we hiked all the way to the Sand Pit picnic area. After trudging through some fairly deep sand for several miles we were rewarded with a view of the late afternoon sun glinting off the dunes.
Finally, there is the Medano Pass 4-wheel drive road. This road travels past the campground all the way to the eastern edge of the dunes and into the mountains, ending at Medano Pass where you can then hike up to Medano Lake. We thought we might want to tackle this hike on Saturday, and decided to take an exploratory drive on the road one afternoon. Any vehicle can drive the first mile of the road before coming to a sign that warns about the extremely soft sand ahead. Another sign says you must have a 4-wheel drive, high clearance vehicle to drive on this road. And tells you to air down your tires for the deep sand ahead. These signs are for real. Most of the time when we drive on a 4-wheel drive road we’re thankful that we have high clearance, but rarely have to put the truck in 4-wheel drive. That was not the case on this road. The first part of the road is basically a track through some very deep, very soft sand.
We originally ignored the advice to air down our tires, but after struggling through some soft spots ended up stopping about a mile in to let some air out. We went from 55 psi to 25 psi and couldn’t believe what a difference it made. Also, we know now know why there is an air station next to the dumpster :)
The sandy road got skinnier and skinnier as we skirted around the base of the mountain. We crossed several streams and passed by some nice looking backcountry campsites before coming to a particularly deep looking water crossing. Chances are we would have been fine, but we don’t like to take unnecessary risks with the truck that pulls our home, so decided this was a good place to turn around.
We didn’t make it up to the pass and have already decided on a different hike for Saturday, so we won’t be going back, but it did make for a fun afternoon excursion.
I’m still not ready to claim a favorite when it comes to all the different sand dunes that we’ve visited, but the Great Sand Dunes definitely gets high marks for having such a nice campground located so close to the dunes. Yet another place to put on the list for a return visit someday!