Great Sand Dunes National Park Photography

By | 20/10/2022

Photograph Guide: Great Sand Dunes National Park

Standing at the human foot of the Neat 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 lord’s day is warm on my face. A playful breeze whispers through my hair. From my vantage point most the sunbaked Medano creek bed people look like ants traversing the 750 foot alpine dunes. Laughter echoes across the neat expanse as kids of all ages slide downwards the silky slopes.

Cracking Sand Dunes National Park
Nikon D200, 70-200mm lens, 1/400 sec at f/x


Suggested Gear

  • Both wide-angle and telephoto lenses
  • Consider using a round polarizing filter to minimize dominicus glare.
  • As enjoyable as information technology is to walk barefoot in the sand, always recollect to bring your shoes with you. The sand can get blistering hot during the twenty-four hours—upwardly to 140⁰ F.
  • Bring plenty of water and sunscreen.
  • Anticipate quick changes in the weather and wind velocity. Consider taking actress layers of apparel and face and gear protection.
  • Distances at the dunes are deceiving and oftentimes 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.

Shot Locations

The dunes are ane of those rare locations that get good lite at almost any fourth dimension of the twenty-four hours, 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.

Sunrise locations

The Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the eastward of the dunes cake the sunrise so the dunes do non benefit from the early morning colors. I found that the first rays of light illuminated the peaks of the dunes nearly thirty minutes afterwards 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 about the road as I worked.

Mountain Blanca
Nikon D200, 17-35mm lens, ane/13 sec at f/22

In the morning, the shadows on the dunes are the deepest the further west you become. I found that the pull outs forth the main road betwixt the Lodge and the Visitor Center provided the almost favorable directional lite. From there, the best light of the morning was gone past virtually 2 hours after sunrise. If you’re near the Order when you end upwardly this is the perfect fourth dimension to pop in for a hot breakfast and enjoy the view of the day unfolding over the dunes. The early on morning light from the Visitor Eye and the Picnic Parking Lot was likewise flat for my tastes.

Another option for capturing expert morning directional light on the dunes would be to beginning at the Visitor Centre or the Picnic Parking Lot and hike along Medano Creek to the westward finish of the dunes.

Or you could hike upwardly into the dunes and choose your vantage point. Merely be sure to get an early start. Every bit I mentioned earlier, distances are deceiving and hiking on the dunes is strenuous. Plan on it taking about thirty-forty minutes to hike from the Picnic Parking Lot to the top ridgeline, and well-nigh 1 hour or more to hike from the parking lot to the tallest dune, High Dune.

Late afternoon and dusk locations

Although the light on the dunes is good in both the morning and in the belatedly afternoon, I preferred the late afternoon light. At that time of the day, I could hands go adept directional light and shut 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 earlier sunset near the Visitor Center, Picnic Parking Lot, or anywhere forth the eastern side of the dunes. As the dominicus gradually slipped away and the clouds passed overhead, the contours of the dunes shifted equally if they were live. 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 tiresome and physically exerting. You desire to discover the path of least resistance, or rather the path that offers the well-nigh resistance—in other words the hardest packed sand. The earliest role of morn is when the sand is the coolest and affords the greatest back up. Find a ridge line to climb and always favor the windward face. That is where the sand is the most solid.

The virtually difficult routes are plant on the loose slopes and steep bowls of the towering dunes—climbing upward the slope of a dune tin can plough futile very speedily, equally you cease upwards sliding back several inches for every step you lot take forward. It is a tiring try. For the best footing, stick to the ridges.

Best Time to Become

My Trusted and Cherished Trip Vehicle
Nikon D200, 28-70mm lens, 1/13 sec at f/22

Unlike most landscapes that you will photograph, the sand dunes will exist different every time. Wind, rain, and snow constantly move, shift, build up and tear downwards dunes.

The dunes are at 8200 ft summit and while you can photo them twelvemonth circular, the weather varies considerably from flavour to season and sometimes inside a single day.


weather at the dunes range anywhere from moderately warm sun to dank winds to numbing blizzards. Spring winds often gust up to 50 mph, blasting your confront and gear. Medano Creek flows during the spring and early summer, offering a unique contrast to the desert sands.


air temperatures average around fourscore⁰ F, while the sand temperatures can soar upwardly 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.


at the dunes are typically sunny with highs in the 60s to 70s. However, due to the pinnacle, the dunes can feel short periods of common cold weather and snowfall in the autumn. Fall colors generally summit in belatedly September to early October.


at the dunes offers solitude, natural quiet, and incredibly articulate day and night skies. Days are generally sunny and chilly, and the sand may feel warm in the intense alpine sun. Be prepared for whatsoever wintertime conditions, including blizzards and subzero temperatures at dark.

About people hold that the best fourth dimension to photo the dunes is in the late leap, May-June, and in the autumn, September-October, although I’g fond of winter photography trips and I think that might be a good time to go also.

Nearby Photograph Opportunities

Your best bet for spectacular landscape photos in this area is going to be at the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Even so, if the weather isn’t cooperating at the dunes or if you take extra time, y’all 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 evidence all of your friends. Information technology could be anywhere.

  • Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge
  • Medano Pass 4WD Road (Passable belatedly May to late October)
  • Rio Grande Breathtaking Railroad
  • San Luis Lakes State Park
  • Sangre de Cristo Heritage Expanse (Lots of skillful photography ideas on this site)
  • Sangre de Cristo Wilderness
  • Zapata Falls (Frozen in wintertime. Maximum catamenia in late leap–May.)

Places to Stay

At that place are lots of options for places to stay about the Groovy Sand Dunes National Park.

Closest Campgrounds

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 take running water and flushing toilets. None of the sites take electrical hookups.

Great Sand Dunes Oasis
lodge and campground is located just outside the park entrance. Information technology is privately owned and offers the convenience of a gas station, restaurant, and basic store. It is besides 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 listing for next fourth dimension!

San Luis Land 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 h2o hydrants. A bathhouse with modernistic restrooms, hot showers and laundry facilities is too located in the campground.

Other Interesting Places to Stay

Photograph Courtesy: Brandon J Scott

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, straight adjacent to the southern border of the Neat Sand Dunes National Park. It is habitation to ii,000 bison that roam freely in a l,000 acre pasture known as the Medano. Included in your stay is private, iv-star lodging, 3 meals prepared by their gourmet chef, and the utilize 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 y’all or if y’all simply want to cool off afterward hiking on the hot sun-baked dunes.

Recommended Restaurants

  • San Luis Valley Brewing Company
  • Calvillo’southward Mexican Restaurant
  • Bistro Rialto Italian Restaurant

Guide Books

Photographing the Southwest: Volume iii–Colorado/New Mexico