Day Trip to the Great Sand Dunes

| January 2, 2012
great sand dunes colorado

View of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

About 200 miles south of my home in Monument are the tallest sand dunes in North America. That’s right, sand dunes in Colorado! Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve lies in Colorado’s San Luis Valley against the rugged and incredibly scenic Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The Sangre de Cristo Range is home to 9 of Colorado’s 53 14,000ft peaks. Several of the 14’ers including Blanca Peak, Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle are visible from the park . The San Luis Valley and the surrounding mountain ranges are quite beautiful due to the relatively untouched nature of the area. As a landscape photographer, I search out locations where man’s footprint is less noticeable and the San Luis Valley is rich with photography opportunities for that reason.

The photo above shows the dunes at the base of Mount Herard. This mountain does not make the list of Colorado 14’ers but comes close at 13,297 feet. For those interested, the dunes originated as wind and water moved grains of sand made from bits of mountain rock toward the valley floor. In a nutshell, huge quantities of sand are carried downstream by Medano Creek, and then redeposited by southwesterly winds on the eastern edge of the dunefield. All this did not happen overnight. Age estimates range from 12,000 to a million years. Research continues!

(Photo details (above): Three-frame, tripod assisted, panorama with a 100mm prime lens shot at f/7.1 and 1/500th of a second. Stitched with Photomerge in Photoshop.)

great sand dunes map

195 mile trek to the Great Sand Dunes

The area surrounding the park is abundant with wildlife. As we entered the park we saw the gorgeous buck below and stepped out of the car for a few pictures. He was quite interested in us but did not seem frightened. My guess is that he is used to people in the park bearing harmless cameras.

(Photo details (below): Handheld with a 300mm prime lens shot at f/6.3 and 1/800th of a second)

deer great sand dunes

Wildlife in Great San Dunes National Park

The photo below shows 14’ers Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak. I used a 300mm prime lens on this shot to compress the landscape and pull the mountains toward me. If you try to shoot this with a wide angle DSLR lens or point and shoot camera, the mountains will appear much smaller in the shot! This view was reminiscent of the Alps we saw in Switzerland but they were literally in my back yard! My son, who shares my passion for photography, was with me on this trip and we found ourselves exclaiming over and over again how beautiful the landscape was. Simply breathtaking!

(Photo details (below): Tripod assisted with a 300mm prime lens shot at f/5.0 and 1/2000th of a second)

crestone needle colorado

Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak

We did not plan so well and ended up driving to Alamosa for lunch, which was about a 50-minute drive from the park. We decided to make the most of our side excursion by taking some time to visit the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge. Due to the time of day, we did not see much wildlife but we were able to capture a few more stunning vistas and the back lit cattails you see below. I love how the 300mm lens created the beautiful blur in the background. It allows the subject to pop off of the frame and amplifies the sharpness of the photograph.

(Photo details (below): Tripod assisted with a 300mm prime lens shot at f/10 and 1/160th of a second)

alamosa wildlife refuge

Winter Cattails at the Alamosa Wildlife Refuge

Below, with the cattails in the foreground, I took a panorama of Blanca Peak. At 14,351 feet, Blanca is the tallest peak in the Sangre de Cristo Range and is the 4th tallest mountain in Colorado. It is notable for its prominent position at the end of the range and I love how it sits majestically on the valley floor with little evidence of man to be seen.

(Photo details (below): Tripod assisted,  six-frame panorama, shot with a 100mm prime lens shot at f/7.1 and 1/1,000th of a second. Stitched with Photomerge in Photoshop.)

blanca peak colorado

Blanca Peak Panorama from the Alamosa Wildlife Refuge

Who could resist the John Deere below with a stunning backdrop? We couldn’t! My guess is that this equipment is used to maintain the grasses in the refuge. The refuge was established in 1962 for migratory birds and other wildlife. The refuge consists of wet meadows, river oxbows and riparian corridor primarily within the flood plain of the Rio Grande, and dry uplands vegetated with greasewood and saltbush. These areas support songbirds, water birds, raptors, mule deer, beaver and coyotes. In March there is a crane festival at the nearby Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge. Thousands of cranes stop there for fuel as they migrate beginning in February. I think I will make the trip back to see and photograph the spectacle.

(Photo details (below): Hand held with a 100mm prime lens shot at f/5.0 and 1/2,00th of a second.)

john deere blanca peak colorado

John Deere and Blanca Peak

Below is another shot of the cattails. I was taken by the shear quantity of them and how they commanded attention with the sun’s back lighting. I used the silhouette of the trees as a compositional element and to provide a sense of place.

alamosa wildlife refuge

Winter Cattails

By the end of the day, we were getting pretty tired but wanted to take advantage of the lack of light pollution on La Veta pass. With widespread development, it is getting harder to find places where stray lights from neighboring cities don’t pollute the skies with light. Due to the lack of development near the San Luis Valley, it is ideal for astrophotography.

This was really my first foray into night photography. I have much to learn but I thought I would share my first results with you. As with any type of photography, part of the challenge is getting the right mix of settings to achieve a desired results. With a long 25 -second exposure, I was able to turn the dark landscape into an eerie daylight and expose the splendor hidden in the skies. I will continue to try this as I have opportunities, hopefully with better compositional elements in the frame.

(Photo details (below): Tripod assisted with a 24-105mm zoom lens shot at f/4.0 and with a 25-second exposure.)

laveta pass colorado

Night Photography on La Veta Pass


Category: Colorado, Photography, Travel

Comments (5)

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  1. Nancie says:

    Love them all, but oh, look at all those wonderful stars……

  2. LeavesOfCrimson says:

    Gorgeous photos, Lee! I’d be surprised if John Deere wasn’t interested in that photo you took of that combine/tractor. Also, the dichotomy of snow next to send has captured me as well. Each and every one of these photos are beyond brilliant!

  3. Chris Wray says:

    Lovely photos, Lee. They look especially nice on my new 27″ iMac monitor! Nice travel and photography narrative. I’m eager to see more of your 300mm shots.

  4. Lee says:

    Thanks for visiting and the comments folks!

  5. A.Barlow says:

    wow, what a set. I love sand dunes so much. 🙂 So much coolness to photo around them. A few weeks ago I had my first visit sense becoming obsessed with photography. What fun!