Photo Guide: Great Sand Dunes National Park
Standing at the foot of the Great Sand Dunes, cool sand sifts through my toes as I adjust my tripod and focus my camera on the lengthening shadows and deepening contours of the dunes. The sun is warm on my face. A playful breeze whispers through my hair. From my vantage point near the sunbaked Medano creek bed people look like ants traversing the 750 foot tall dunes. Laughter echoes across the great expanse as kids of all ages slide down the silky slopes.
- Both wide-angle and telephoto lenses
- Consider using a circular polarizing filter to minimize sun glare.
- As enjoyable as it is to walk barefoot in the sand, always remember to bring your shoes with you. The sand can get blistering hot during the day—up to 140⁰ F.
- Bring plenty of water and sunscreen.
- Anticipate quick changes in the weather and wind velocity. Consider taking extra layers of clothes and face and gear protection.
- Distances at the dunes are deceiving and often take longer to traverse than expected. If you are hiking in the evening, consider taking a flashlight or a headlamp and a GPS or compass.
The dunes are one of those rare locations that get good light at almost any time of the day, except for midday when the sun is overhead and the light flattens out the contours of the dunes. The dunes need directional light to accentuate their curves.
The Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east of the dunes block the sunrise so the dunes do not benefit from the early morning colors. I found that the first rays of light illuminated the peaks of the dunes about 30 minutes after sunrise, and the entire dunes were lit by about one hour after sunrise. I took advantage of my time waiting for the dunes to be lit by photographing the nearby Sangre de Cristos. Several deer grazed quietly near the road as I worked.
In the morning, the shadows on the dunes are the deepest the further west you get. I found that the pull outs along the main road between the Lodge and the Visitor Center provided the most favorable directional light. From there, the best light of the morning was gone by about 2 hours after sunrise. If you’re near the Lodge when you finish up this is the perfect time to pop in for a hot breakfast and enjoy the view of the day unfolding over the dunes. The early morning light from the Visitor Center and the Picnic Parking Lot was too flat for my tastes.
Another option for capturing good morning directional light on the dunes would be to start at the Visitor Center or the Picnic Parking Lot and hike along Medano Creek to the west end of the dunes.
Or you could hike up into the dunes and choose your vantage point. Just be sure to get an early start. As I mentioned before, distances are deceiving and hiking on the dunes is strenuous. Plan on it taking about 30-40 minutes to hike from the Picnic Parking Lot to the top ridgeline, and about 1 hour or more to hike from the parking lot to the tallest dune, High Dune.
Late afternoon and sunset locations
Although the light on the dunes is good in both the morning and in the late afternoon, I preferred the late afternoon light. At that time of the day, I could easily get good directional light and close up shots from the base of the dunes without having to do a lot of exhausting hiking through the sand.
I thought the light was best starting at about 3 hours before sunset near the Visitor Center, Picnic Parking Lot, or anywhere along the eastern side of the dunes. As the sun gradually slipped away and the clouds passed overhead, the contours of the dunes shifted as if they were alive. About 30-45 minutes before sunset the shadows became too long for my preference and I shifted my focus to the greens, yellows, and oranges of the surrounding prairie and mountains.
Tips for Hiking on Sand
Hiking on the sand is slow and physically exerting. You want to find the path of least resistance, or rather the path that offers the most resistance—in other words the hardest packed sand. The earliest part of morning is when the sand is the coolest and affords the greatest support. Find a ridge line to climb and always favor the windward face. That is where the sand is the most solid.
The most difficult routes are found on the loose slopes and steep bowls of the towering dunes—climbing up the slope of a dune can turn futile very quickly, as you end up sliding back several inches for every step you take forward. It is a tiring endeavor. For the best footing, stick to the ridges.
Best Time to Go
Unlike most landscapes that you will photograph, the sand dunes will be different every time. Wind, rain, and snow constantly move, shift, build up and tear down dunes.
The dunes are at 8200 ft elevation and while you can photograph them year round, the weather varies considerably from season to season and sometimes within a single day.
Spring conditions at the dunes range anywhere from moderately warm sun to chilly winds to numbing blizzards. Spring winds often gust up to 50 mph, blasting your face and gear. Medano Creek flows during the spring and early summer, offering a unique contrast to the desert sands.
Summer air temperatures average around 80⁰ F, while the sand temperatures can soar up to 140⁰ F. Afternoon thunderstorms occur regularly in July and August. They can blow in very quickly and you absolutely cannot be on the dunes when a thunderstorm blows in since you can easily be struck by lightning. If it looks like weather is blowing in, stay off the dunes.
Fall at the dunes are typically sunny with highs in the 60s to 70s. However, due to the elevation, the dunes can experience short periods of cold weather and snow in the fall. Fall colors generally peak in late September to early October.
Winter at the dunes offers solitude, natural quiet, and incredibly clear day and night skies. Days are generally sunny and chilly, and the sand may feel warm in the intense alpine sun. Be prepared for any winter conditions, including blizzards and subzero temperatures at night.
Most people agree that the best time to photograph the dunes is in the late spring, May-June, and in the fall, September-October, although I’m fond of winter photography trips and I think that might be a good time to go too.
Nearby Photo Opportunities
Your best bet for spectacular landscape photos in this area is going to be at the Great Sand Dunes National Park. However, if the weather isn’t cooperating at the dunes or if you have extra time, you might consider checking out some of these nearby attractions. You never know when or where the conditions are going to be perfect for capturing that amazing shot that you want to show all of your friends. It could be anywhere.
- Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge
- Medano Pass 4WD Road (Passable late May to late October)
- Rio Grande Scenic Railroad
- San Luis Lakes State Park
- Sangre de Cristo Heritage Area (Lots of good photography ideas on this site)
- Sangre de Cristo Wilderness
- Zapata Falls (Frozen in winter. Maximum flow in late spring–May.)
Places to Stay
There are lots of options for places to stay near the Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Pinyon Flats Campground is located in the Great Sand Dunes National Park and has 88 semi-rustic sites. Each campsite has a fire ring and picnic table. Restrooms have running water and flushing toilets. None of the sites have electrical hookups.
Great Sand Dunes Oasis lodge and campground is located just outside the park entrance. It is privately owned and offers the convenience of a gas station, restaurant, and basic store. It is also worth noting that the Oasis rents wooden sleds and snowboards for sliding on the dunes. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to try them out on this trip but I was told that the sleds go the fastest. They are on my list for next time!
San Luis State Park is a modern campground located 15 minutes west of the Great Sand Dunes National Park with panoramic views of San Luis Lake, the Sand Dunes, and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. All 51 sites have electrical hookups, sheltered tables, fire grills, and nearby drinking water hydrants. A bathhouse with modern restrooms, hot showers and laundry facilities is also located in the campground.
Other Interesting Places to Stay
Zapata Ranch is a 103,000-acre cattle and bison ranch that is owned by The Nature Conservancy and managed through a one-of-a-kind arrangement with Ranchlands. The ranch is located along the eastern wall of the San Luis Valley, directly adjacent to the southern border of the Great Sand Dunes National Park. It is home to 2,000 bison that roam freely in a 50,000 acre pasture known as the Medano. Included in your stay is private, 4-star lodging, 3 meals prepared by their gourmet chef, and the use of their hot tub and hiking trails. Rates begin at $300 per night, plus tax.
Inn of the Rio Grande is conveniently located on the east side of Alamosa, which is about a 40-minute drive to the Sand Dunes park entrance. The Inn features an indoor water park, fully equipped with a 24-foot slide, water volleyball & basketball courts, kiddy pool/slide and jacuzzi—great if you have family with you or if you just want to cool off after hiking on the hot sun-baked dunes.