Out of the 59 National Parks in the Unites States, only one offers a truly dog-friendly experience.
Sure, your pup may be allowed on certain campgrounds and paved roads in all of the parks. But what about the other countless miles of trail? And how can you possibly go explore, leaving Fido behind at your campsite?
The short answer? You can’t. Which is why, more often than not, man’s best friend is left at home.
But what if I told you there was a park where you didn’t have to choose between adventure and your four legged companion? Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is that place. So get yourself a sand sled and don’t forget your leash, this particular RIMBY is closer than you might think!
Driving south from the great city of Denver, you’ll embark on a 3.5 hour road trip along Highway 285, filled with roadside cherry stands, white water rafting, and the occasional antelope.
As you approach Great Sand Dunes from afar, they look…well, great isn’t necessarily the word I would use. However, once inside the park, they’re truly one of the most remarkable things you’ll ever encounter.
To access the dunes, you cross through one of the most geologically phenomenal rivers in the entire world. Medano Creek flows under and over the sand simultaneously. And in the springtime, it surges from underground, creating ripples and waves in the river bed. But even more incredible, is that we were inside a national park…and so was Willy Dog!
When taking your dog to a park that’s essentially 30 square miles of high alpine sand, the ruthless Colorado sun can make for a handful of challenges. It’s recommended to hike the Dunes in the early morning or late evening hours, as to avoid the 150 degree surface temperatures experienced in the hotter parts of the day.
To ensure adequate comfort for your pup, consider 2 things: hot paws & hydration. All the major pet stores sell protective booties for dogs, and you won’t regret picking up a pair.
Proper hydration at The Dunes is key. I recommend bringing a Nalgene with you, in addition to a hydration pack, as the lid on your Nalgene can also serve as a small drinking bowl for your dog.
And I do have a PSA for humans: DON’T FORGET SUNSCREEN. I’m also very Irish, so perhaps that tip is more of a reminder to myself. Either way, I’ve yet to meet someone who likes a good sunburn, so lather it up!
While there is wildlife at Great Sand Dunes, during the daytime you are not likely to see many critters. But you are still required to keep Fido on a 6 foot leash, for the safety and enjoyment of all.
Before jumping into our adventure, we did our diligence by speaking with a park ranger at the visitor center (this is a really good national parks best-practice). Had we not stopped and chatted with him we would have been out of luck on a campsite and potentially stuck up to our axels in soft, hot sand. (Note for 4X4 enthusiasts – don’t forget your air compressor). A few simple questions and we were prepared for everything the weekend would bring – minus the mosquitoes.
The unique and truly adventure-ready aspect of Great Sand Dunes is the “Choose your Own Experience” approach. There are no maintained trails at The Dunes, so your options for wandering are darn-near limitless. 30 square miles of the highest (some over 750 feet tall) sand dunes in all of North America await. And the best part? Your dog is allowed just about everywhere.
You can grab a couple chairs and keep cool by the creek, climb up the sand and slide back down on a wooden sled, get overnight permits to camp on the dunes themselves (no pups for this one, though), or drive your high clearance 4X4 through 7 creek crossings on 30 miles of primitive road. There really is something for everyone, but seeing the unbridled joy of our pup playing in the creek rendered everything else irrelevant.
The famous question in our house is always, “Can Willy go?” And this time, it was so nice not to have to ask.
Words & wisdom from Mountain Standard Field Agent, Brandon Davidson.
Want to learn more about dog-friendly camp practices? Check out this article: 17 Tips for Bringing Your Dog Into the Wilderness.