Peak(s):  Star Dune - 8,617 feet
High Dune - 8,691 feet
Date Posted:  06/21/2012
Date Climbed:   06/17/2012
Author:  vonmackle
 Walking the Dunes  

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Star Dune - 8,617 feet
High Dune - 8,691 feet



I had been looking forward to a photography-based trip to the Great Sand Dunes for some time. When deciding on a driving route to the dunes, I realized this would be a good opportunity to check out the amazing dikes of the Spanish Peaks. I left Denver directly from work on Friday, stopped by a Big City Burrito conveniently located along my route, and headed toward La Veta. After reaching the town, I drove around a bit looking for somewhere to shoot the dikes in the morning. Lots of gates and private property in this area. Bummer. In the morning I found a decent spot to photograph one of the dikes and included a gate in the shot to reflect the limited access I encountered during my visit.


After some more exploration, I hopped in my car and headed for the dunes. I reached the park around 9am, purchased my new America the Beautiful Pass, hit the Visitors Center, and then claimed my campsite for the night. Excited to hit the dunes, I grabbed my pack and headed up to the dune field to do some mindless wandering. I had visited the dunes multiple times in my younger days, but for some reason I don't recall ever having problems with the scorching summer sand. That being said, I ended up doing some pretty entertaining dance moves each time the piping hot sand slid into my Keens. I didn't make it too far up the dunes before retreating to the cool soothing waters of Medano Creek. I slowly made my way back to the campground and began formulating plans for the evening's photography.


I decided to head to the park entrance for some sunset photos and managed to stumble onto a flowering plant which I believe is a Colorado Four O Clock. There was a pronghorn nearby that seemed a bit huffy toward my presence and kept an eye on me as I shot the flowers.


A hummingbird moth flew in to feed on the flowers.


Walking the Dunes

My alarm went off at three, and I had no desire to wake up despite heavy nappng the day before. Saturday evening's winds had calmed considerably and the Milky Way was out in full force under the moonless sky, so I simply had to get up. I threw on my boots and gaiters, grabbed my gear, and headed out to the dune field in search of my first objective, the High Dune. It quickly became apparent how difficult navigating the dunes in the dark with a headlamp would be. I knew from looking at the map that the High Dune was almost directly west of the Pinyon Flats Campground so I headed in that general direction, but the dune ridges kept pulling me off course. I could only see about thirty feet in front of me with my headlamp, and could only guess at where any particular ridge might lead me. I gradually made my way up a very indirect route up to the High Dune as twilight began to break. As I reached the base of the dune, the waning crescent Moon rose along with Jupiter to the Northeast.


I made my way up and off the High Dune and headed toward Star Dune. The National Park website says it's about a mile and a half between the two dunes, but it appeared to be much less. Along the way I noticed some insect tracks in the sand and decided to follow them to see if I could find out who made them. It turned out to be a Giant Sand Treader Camel Cricket. Cute little fellow...


The light and shadow on the dunes created many great compositional opportunities.


I eventually reached the final ridge up Star Dune and slowly walked up, stopping often to feel and listen to the sand collapse below my feet.


The summit of Star Dune offers great views of the dunes and up into the Sangres, as well as over the San Luis Valley to the west. I decided for my return hike to drop down into the dune valley in the above photo, head south to the Medano Creekbed, and follow that back up to the campsite. I spent about eight hours wandering around the dunes on a hike that probably could have been done in half that time, but it was a beautiful day. What's the hurry?


Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions

Sands of time...
06/22/2012 02:34
Wow! Amazing photography! Super nice!


06/22/2012 03:23
You take some great photos.. I really like the night one.


As usual
06/22/2012 12:49
Great photos! Thanks for sharing!


Great Photos --
06/22/2012 13:58
Very Nice -- photos are incredible. What are you shooting with?


this report
06/22/2012 14:30
kicks ass


06/22/2012 14:56
Phenominal photos, I really hope to make it down there some day

Steve Knapp

06/22/2012 17:55
Great photos, I too need to get there sometime. Was there any water left in Medano Creek?


06/22/2012 19:46
Really amazing photos--thanks!


Thanks, everyone!
06/22/2012 23:37
mliggett-I use a Canon 5D Mark II...hopefully the sand didn't do too much damage. I had to do a lot of spot removal on that last shot. Wind and sand are not very camera friendly, but the dunes are too beautiful to resist shooting.

Steve-The water was only making it down to the day lot.

The Dunes are definitely worth a visit, especially with a $3 a person entrance fee. What a steal!


If you are not a professional photographer...
06/23/2012 03:53
You could be! Never in a million years could I compose photos like that. True talent.

Tim A

Bass Clef?
01/28/2013 15:18
Fantastic pictures! Quick question: why is your ”signature” on the photos a bass cleff? Do you excel in the aural arts as well as the visual? (I'm a music teacher and these things catch my attention..)


Bravo, muita beleza!
06/24/2012 03:55
Beautiful photography. Thanks so much for this trip report!

I adore your work.

PS - the composition on that headliner shot is unreal.


Resolution is a fine grain of sand
06/24/2012 06:42
My first post here was on an iphone so I didn't see your mark on the photos. You are a pro. When you look at the CO landscape against the sky it often broken by rocks or boulders. When you look at these dunes against the sky your resolution shrinks down to sand, almost like dust. You cannot fully appreciate in unless you actually go there and see it for yourself. Thanks for sharing these photos.

The cricket macro photos and the sand/shadow photos are beyond amazing!


image #19
06/24/2012 15:59
I like that one, as well as all of the others!
The one and only time I've been there, it was fun to walk along a ridge to watch the sand avalanches that I was triggering. It's cool to watch it flow!
Nice work, thanks for posting!

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