Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado
Driving to Great Sand Dunes

Vanlife diaries #33: Black Canyon of the Gunnison & Great Sand Dunes National Parks

Our final week in Colorado was spent at two amazing national parks, neither of which were part of our original plan. Although missing a lot of hiking in the Rockies has been disappointing, the reimagined route was incredibly beautiful and totally new for both of us— perhaps it all worked out better in the end!

What we’ve been up to this week

We started our week at the North Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, a place I hadn’t even heard of until very recently but that completely blew me away. 

It’s neither the largest nor the deepest, but Black Canyon is so-named for being the steepest, narrowest canyon, with parts of the river below only getting sun for 30min each afternoon. These long, dark shadows lend the entire landscape a dramatic quality that makes for some excellent photography and even better views.

Read more: THE ULTIMATE 2-WEEK COLORADO ROAD TRIP ITINERARY: HIDDEN GEMS + 3 NATIONAL PARKS!

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park Colorado
Peering into Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park Colorado
Enjoying the view at Black Canyon

Already the least visited of Colorado’s 4 national parks, the North Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is even quieter still; in several hours of driving along the scenic road and stopping at various overlooks, we saw fewer than 5 cars.

In fact, the national park isn’t even charging entry during this off-season period, nor are they collecting camping fees! Clearly no one is expected at Black Gunnison this time of year, which makes us all the more happy to be here ourselves.

And perhaps that is even crazier to me than the wild scenery and staggering vistas— the fact that there’s hardly anyone here to appreciate them on a sunny 70-degree afternoon in October.

I’ve never experienced so few people at a national park without travelling deep into the backcountry, so to find this kind of quiet solitude along the main scenic drive through the park was a remarkable treat and a big part of why Black Canyon was such a highlight for us!

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park Colorado
Scrambling around Black Canyon
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park Colorado
Sharp island peaks of Black Canyon
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park Colorado
Amazing geology of Black Canyon

After driving the entirety of the (admittedly short) North Rim Road and stopping at all (5) of the viewpoints to wander along the canyon’s edge and peer into its depths, Dan and I retired to an awesome campsite just outside the park where we watched the sunset over the mountains and lamented the 20-degree weather forecast overnight— as much as we are loving high-desert Colorado, we are very much looking forward to a lower, hotter version of the desert in New Mexico.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park Colorado
Driving to Needle Rock

After zipping through Paonia for a bit of wine tasting and braving the drive all the way up snowy Kebler Pass to reach Crested Butte, we checked out Great Sand Dunes, which provided yet another adventure into unexpected landscapes.

Little more than a short road, a campsite, and 2 large carparks, Great Sand Dunes is absolutely minuscule compared to most other national parks. It doesn’t really have (signed) hikes and can’t offer much in the way of quick viewpoints, but as the country’s largest “sandbox”, this park is more fun than just about anywhere.

And that’s exactly how we spent our time in Great Sand Dunes National Park— wandering through the sand in search of beautiful patterns, captivating camera angles, and steep dunes that just begged to be leapt from.

It was incredibly fun and actually very relaxing, just knowing we could just walk any direction and find something worthwhile without having to plan or research or reserve anything.

Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado
Driving to Great Sand Dunes
Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado
Small hikers on the dunes
Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado
Playing with sand at Great Sand Dunes National Park
Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado
Amazing textures at Great Sand Dunes
Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado
Shadows on the dunes

Dan was also able to hike to the top of High Dune, the geographical highpoint (though not the tallest dune) in the park. As has been my fortune, I turned around just shy of the top due to pain in my broken toe, but the return journey was smooth and impossibly photogenic.

When we finally left Colorado at the end of the week, it was with a feeling that we’d seen something special here. The mountains, well, we’ll just have to come back!

Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado
Descending from High Dune

Where we stayed this week

  • Boondocking on BLM land near the North Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP, CO (free; 18 Oct)
  • Boondocking at Hartman Rocks near Gunnison, CO (free; 19 Oct)
  • Boondocking on BLM land near Great Sand Dunes NP, CO (free; 20)
  • Rodeway Inn at Alamosa, CO ($60; 21 Oct)
  • Boondocking on BLM land near Great Sand Dunes NP, CO (free; 22)
  • Free camping at Taos Ski Area, NM (free; 23-24 Oct)
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park Colorado
Vanlife in Colorado