Colorado has a wide range of scenery to choose from, whether you are taking a family vacation, or adding to your archive of landscape photos. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve may come as a surprise for those who think of Colorado as being just mountains and grassland. The park features the tallest dunes in North America which are the centerpiece to diverse landscape of grasslands, wetlands, aspen and confier forests, alpine lakes and tundra.
The park and surround area offers a wealth of photographic opportunities. While the sand dunes may be the primary draw for many, there are even more options in the nearby grasslands, wetlands, and in the mountain which are right next to the dunes.
Basic info about the park and area
The park has a low entrance fee of $3 per adult, and that is valid for one week. For only $15 a year, you can get an annual pass for the park & preserve, and that will cover the pass holder and all family members. If you plan on visiting other national parks and federal rec lands, perhaps the $80 America The Beautiful annual pass is the choice for you.
There are campgrounds in the park which run $20 per night. They are pretty nice, offer restrooms, and each site has picnic tables, fire pits, and bear boxes to keep your food in. (yes, there is the chance of bears.) While I prefer camping in the wild, far away from the noise of others, the camp sites in the park seem to offer a little bit of privacy. If you have a high clearance four wheel drive with suitable tires, and know how to drive in soft sand and through deep creek crossing, there is a four wheel drive road (Medano Pass Road) that takes you into the mountains where you can find more private, primitive camp sites. You can also get a free permit to backpack and camp in the dunes.
Another camping option is at the Zapata Falls Campground, which is a few miles south of the Dunes, and on BLM land. I stayed there on this trip, and it was fairly nice. It appears to be rather new, and when I was there they were not charging a fee.
San Luis State Park just west of the Dunes also offers camping, as well as boating and other water sports on San Luis Lake.
On the way into the park, you’ll see the Oasis which has a small store, restaurant, and has camping and lodging. It is also the nearest place to get gas if you’re running to low to head into Alamosa or Fort Garland.
When to go
I’ve only been to the park in April and May, so I’m not an authority on what time of the year is the best choice. But I will say that it is best to pick a weekday to go, so you can avoid the weekend crowds. If you are photographing the dunes, the nearest section will be crawling with people during busier times. But since the dunes cover around 19,000 acres, you won’t have much trouble getting away from others if you hike a bit.
For me, April or early May has been a nice time to go. In general, you beat the summer vacation crowds, and the temps are still fairly reasonable. There is also a chance that you may be able to capture some snow covered peaks in your photos, although there was little snow left when I was there this week.
The park does have aspen groves in some of the forest areas, so fall would also be a nice time to go if you are looking to squeeze some fall color into your photos. Photographing in winter could add some interesting contrast as well. I’ve seen some beautiful images from other photographers who have shot there during the snowier months.
Best time of day for photography
It goes without saying, that early morning, and early evening will give you the most dramatic lighting on the dunes. Mid-day will be much flatter lighting, not to mention it will much hotter. I have seen times where mid-day clouds rolled in and created some interesting lighting effects where the dunes were covered with a mix of shade and ares lit by sun poking through clouds.
Expand your horizon
Try not to get tunnel vision and only photograph the sand dunes, there are other spots to photograph as well. Hike the Mosca Pass Trail, or head up Medano Pass Road (on foot or by 4×4) to get off the sand, and in the mountains. The plains surrounding the dunes also offer some photographic opportunities, as you can from my photos in this article.
I find that when I drop any preconceived ideas of what to photograph, I end up seeing more deeply, and finding many new things to photograph. Some images work, while others may not. For me, the photographic experience is a mix of meditation, exploration, discovery, and pleasant surprises.