It’s summer and I’ve made a trip to Colorado to visit family. Before the traveler in you gets all excited about Colorado I’d just like to set you straight on a couple of things:

  1. Colorado is a big state, and
  2. Colorado isn’t just mountains

I’m from the northeastern plains of Colorado. On a good day, if you squint and the air is clear, you can just see the top of the mountains – waaaaay off in the distance.

 

Photo Wildcat

Ranchland in the northeast corner of Colorado called the Wildcat by the locals. This is mostly undisturbed ranchland showing Colorado much as it has been for hundreds of years.

I might be on vacation, but when visiting family there’s something missing – the sense of discovery and exploration. I’ve been here before. I see the same places again and again. So, the last couple of trips back to Colorado, I started building in a little tourist time and traveling to at least one new scenic spot.

Colorado is nothing if it’s not varied. There are the aspens and sweeping mountain views, but Colorado is also the southwest (the hint is in the name: Color-Red). There are flat plains (the Kansas part of Colorado) and desert – which is where I was heading.

This trip, I was in the mood for some desert sand dunes.

The Drive

The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve sits in the southern part of the state south of Pueblo. These are the tallest sand dunes in North America so if I want to photograph dunes, this is the place to be!

The sand dunes are pressed against the Sangre de Cristo mountain range formed by swirling winds in the San Luis valley.

The dunes encompass 30 square miles – which seems like a lot until you realize that the valley you’re in is the size of Connecticut (or so I’m told by Wiki) – and rise to 750 feet.

Photo Sand Dunes map

Map of Colorado marking Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

The drive from Denver is about 4 hours (did I mention Colorado is a big state?) Pueblo and Colorado Springs are both on the way and have tourist attractions of their own.

We diverted to Canon City along Hwy 50 to check out the new-and-improved Royal Gorge. There was a massive fire at the Royal Gorge in 2013, which burned most of the infrastructure though spared the suspension bridge that spanned the nearly 1000 foot drop to the Arkansas River.

Warning – this attraction is not recommended for those with a fear of heights!

Photo Royal Gorge

Bridge spanning the Royal Gorge in southern Colorado. Photo taken from gondola – we walked back over the bridge.

Most of the park is rebuilt with a Disney flavor (and prices!) There is a zipline and skycoaster for those who think the gondola across the chasm is for wimps. The cashier suggested taking the gondola over and walking back across the suspension bridge making the walk downhill – good suggestion!

We were underwhelmed by the gorge and overwhelmed by the prices so we took off to find the dunes.

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The Dunes

In comparison to the Royal Gorge, the National Sand Dunes are refreshingly untouristy. There is no one selling memorabilia or snacks along side the road – in fact there’s nothing along the road at all. Miles and miles and miles of desert valley.

We drove along the nearest road parallel to the dunes, Hwy 17, and then turned at the sign onto Hwy 150. We could see the dunes off in the distance, but it took a long while before they began to get bigger.

The sand dunes are a destination, not something to drive by for a quick peek.

Photo Sand Dunes Panorama

Panorama of the Sand Dunes from a distance at sunrise. They stretch for 30 miles, but there’s at least 15 from the nearest parallel road.

We finally reached the visitor center and entrance to the park. The entrance fee is $20, allowing entrance for 7 days, though this is a national park so it’s free for those who have a National Parks Pass. It also seems to be free for those who arrive after the cashiers go off duty. We arrived after 5 p.m. and drove right in.

In all, I visited the park three times over the next couple of days and didn’t see anyone at the booth collecting money – but remember I’m a photographer and tend to show up really early or really late.

Day or night, it’s no problem to be on the dunes. You can even camp on the dunes if you want. But this is the desert and all desert rules apply. It was June when I visited and the daytime temperatures were in the 90s. As soon as the sun set the temperature plummeted and by morning, it was 50 degrees. Also remember that you’re at elevation with the base of the sand dunes starting at about 7550 feet. This means lots and lots of sun block!

Photo Sand Dunes under Fire

Detail of sand dunes at sunset. The sunset was particularly good because of the smoke from a forest fire burning near Durango (Fire 416).

Once you’re in, park in the lot or at the campground and start walking.

There are trails into the dunes made by previous travelers, but feel free to walk anywhere. It’s about 3 miles up to the top. Not only is it straight up, but you’re walking on deep sand – quite a workout!

There are lots of people at the dunes, but you won’t notice, they look more like ants on an anthill. The dunes are a popular sledding destination – yes, I said, “sledding”. Bring a sled, boogie board or any piece of flat wood and find a dune to slide down. The kids love it! The kids will even launch themselves down the dunes without a sled rolling down into the soft sand.

Photo Walk the Sand Dunes

Feel free to walk into the sand dunes, take any path you’d like. There are lots of people, but they look like ants on the dunes.

As a photographer, I could spend hours watching the antics of kids and parents alike playing in the sand.

It’s a big beach with hills.

Photo Dog on the Dunes

This little dog runs around the sand dunes after its owner. There’s a beach atmosphere with families sledding down the sand dunes.

The Stay

There is a lodge and a campground at the sand dunes. Unfortunately, we tried to book late and in high season so the lodge was full. Alamosa is close, but we chose to stay in Monte Vista, about an hour’s drive away.

If I can’t stay close to what I’m interested in photographing, I try to choose a place that has something interesting about it.

The motel we stayed at was the Best Western Movie Manor. It’s a cross between a motel and a drive in theatre – don’t see many of these now adays! There were two screens and your motel key got you into either. But no need to leave your motel room at all. One screen is oriented to the motel windows and sound is piped into your room. A simple gimmick, but yet strangely fun to lie on your hotel bed and watch a drive in movie.

The Views

The major reason I went to the sand dunes was to capture photos of the dunes. I was particularly looking for close-up abstract photos. I was also looking for shadows coming off the dunes, which meant early mornings and late evenings. I did go into the dunes, but found that my best photos were with my telephoto lens from the pullouts along the road leading to the park.

I arrived for sunrise only to find that I had to wait for the sun to clear the mountain ridge. The light made interesting patterns on the mountain peaks and moving across the valley.

Photo Dunes in Abstract

Abstract photo of a detailed slice of the sand dunes. The peaks of the sand dunes highlighted by the morning sun.

Sunset is a different story since the valley stretches off to the west and there’s not a mountain ridge blocking the sun. When we were there, forest fire 416 was raging 120 miles away in Durango. The smoke had shifted our way and made for a very red sunset.

I loved the abstract patterns of light and shadows over the dunes, but I also needed to show scale. The people walking along the top of the dunes really put the size in perspective.

Photo Trekking Sand Dunes

Four hikers head to the top of a sand dune. The people provide perspective showing how large the sand dunes really are.

There should have been a stream running along the base of the sand dunes, which might have provided interesting reflections, but unfortunately due to drought, the stream was dry.

Final Thoughts

Instead of flying to the Middle East to photograph sand dunes, I found some closer to home.

The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is exactly as advertised. It’s a place where you’re free to explore and wander to your heart’s content. There’s very little fear of getting lost since you can see for miles – it’s more likely you’ll get tired and have to sit in the sand for a while and rest.

It’s a lovely day trip to the beach without water.

If you want a couple of side trips, Zaptha Fallsis close by as is the spiritual center in Crestone, which includes a Tibetan temple. Since my family had already visited these sites, we chose instead to drive deeper into the Rio Grande National Forest and Creede, Coloradofor a mining town experience and onto North Clear Creek Fallsfor my waterfall photos.

The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is open year round and I may need to travel here in the winter to photograph snow on the dunes.