Weekend in the Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colo., one of three ways: on a budget, spending a bit more, or when the getaway calls for a splurge.
Trip tips: The Great Sand Dunes National Park is a secret spot in south central Colorado to play among the highest sand dunes in North America (30 square miles of dunes). It’s a photographers paradise of shadows and stunning sunsets. Sands in spring (can be windy) and autumn are moderate throughout the day, but visit at sunrise during summer.
Hit the dunes with a rental sand-sled or sandboard (about $18 with basic instruction) from the Oasis Motel Store (see Budget section) or from Kristi Mountain Sports in Alamosa, www.kristimountainsports.com. The sled has a padded seat and handles. A sandboard has foot straps for standing. From the main parking area, hike just over a half-mile to sled down small and medium-sized slopes or hike 1.25 miles to the top of the first high ridge. Plan a five-hour round trip (no established trails) to reach the tallest “Star Dune” at 755 feet. In late May to early June, you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of Medano Creek (less than 12 inches in depth, but perfect to cool your heels).
Unplug from electronics (internet is not reliable) and look up. No light pollution makes for amazing Milky Way skies, and the park has the lowest level of noise pollution in all of the national parks in the contiguous 48. Join guided park ranger Night Hikes (July 21, Aug. 18, Oct. 20) and Full Moon Hikes (July 7, Sept. 8, Oct. 5) or Thursday-Sunday evenings starting May 26 through Labor Day weekend. Trip planning at U.S. National Park Service, www.nps.gov/grsa.
Getting there: Reach the park from Colorado Springs in about 3.5 hours (167 miles via I-25 and Walsenburg or 204 miles via Salida). Nonstop rates on Delta from $280. Santa Fe, N.M., to the area is about 184 miles. Round-trip rates from $366 with connecting flight service on American or United. The drive is about four hours from Denver (234 miles via U.S. 285); round-trip rates from $178 on Delta, Frontier or United.
Stay: Just a five-minute drive south of the national park Visitor Center is the Oasis Motel & Campground. Basic rooms have a microwave and fridge; $99-$169 for up to four people. Four tiny camping cabins with bunk beds for two people (no linens) are $55 per night. Coin laundry on site and sandboard/sled rentals. 7800 Colo. 150 N., Mosca. 719-378-2222, www.greatdunes.com.
Eat: The Oasis Restaurant is a roadside diner serving burgers, fries, burritos, quesadillas, pies and milkshakes (under $10) and conveniently located a drive of just a few minutes from the Oasis Motel. 5400 Colo. 150, Mosca. 719-378-2222, www.greatdunes.com.
Experience: Take a break from the sun and cool off at Zapata Falls, located 8 miles south of the park. Once you’ve driven 3 miles up a rough road, hike a half-mile up to the falls. Wear sturdy shoes to cross water and slippery rocks to see the 25-foot falls. Those who choose to skip the falls will still be rewarded from the parking lot with the breathtaking views of the Great Sand Dunes. www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/riogrande/recarea/?recid=74116.
Stay: Located behind the Oasis Motel, the modern Great Sand Dunes Lodge features 12 rooms with private balconies overlooking the dunes and the 14,000-foot Sangre De Cristo mountain range. On site are a heated indoor pool and gas grills. Standard rooms from $110 for two and up to $125 to sleep four to five. Deluxe rooms with fridge, microwave and private grill, $140 double occupancy. 7900 Colo. 150, Mosca. 719-378-2900, www.gsdlodge.com.
Eat: Take the scenic way to a great steakhouse along Colorado’s Los Caminos Antiguos (ancient paths) heading toward Taos, N.M. (Colo. 159). Look for wild horse herds and cowboys rustling cattle. Stop in at one of Kit Carson’s outposts, the Fort Garland Museum (www.museumtrail.org/fort-garland-museum.html); $5. The Silver Sage Steakhouse serves Choice steaks, ribs, chicken and fish ($11-$30). Enjoy a local brew or a hand-mixed margarita at the Tiki Bar. 104 Fourth Ave., Fort Garland. 719-379-3600, www.silversagesteakhouse.webs.com.
Experience: Take a guided bison tour through a portion of the 50,000 acres at the Zapata Ranch. You’ll get up close to the herd of 2,000 North American Plains bison and learn how the conservation herd is managed. Offered 9 a.m. or noon Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays; $50, $25 up to age 12, 5 and under free. 5305 Colo. 150, Mosca. 719-378-2356, www.zranch.org.
Stay: The elegant and historic Zapata Ranch is part of a 103,000-acre working cattle and bison ranch owned by the Nature Conservancy with three types of lodging: The Lodge with beautifully furnished rooms was the original ranch homestead built in the 1800s and shaded by cottonwood trees. Five rooms at the Bunkhouse have private entrances and windows to open for fresh mountain air. The Stewart House is a five-bedroom fully furnished home to accommodate larger groups. Rates include all meals and use of the ranch’s hot tub, hiking trails and activities. A three-night minimum stay required at per person rates of $1,380 and up to $2,530 for seven nights (age 7 and under: $1,100 to $2,025, respective). 5305 Colo. 150, Mosca. 719-378-2356, www.zranch.org.
Experience: From May to mid-August, take an adrenaline-filled whitewater rafting trip on the scenic Arkansas River and canyon located an hour north in Salida; $60 half-day, $80 full day. Or head to one of two locations known around the world for rock climbing: Penitente Canyon outside of Monte Vista, Colo., and Tres Piedras, N.M. Half-day for beginner to expert $30, $45 full day. Arrange through Zapata Ranch.
Clara Bosonetto is a retired travel consultant.