The Great Sand Dunes National Park: Mountains of Sand and Historic Land

The Colorado Mountains: An unlimited source of jagged peaks, wind-carved cliffs, and snow-capped vistas. But one of those mountains is quite a lot softer... literally.
Prepared By:

Semaj Thomas

Photographer, Traveler & Writer

Sand-filled Sunrise pt.1

The wind whispers you awake far earlier than the sun. The only visibility: a dusting of starlight that speckles the night sky. You know this: you’ve only just given your eyes some rest, along with the camera. With fresh batteries, and a less than fresh but clear enough mind, you take the rocky campground road towards the ultimate sunrise. Destination? Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. It’s sun and sand, but nothing like the beach.

A History Lesson

Last light on the approach to the dunes

The Colorado Mountains: An unlimited source of jagged peaks, wind-carved cliffs, and snow-capped vistas. But one of those mountains is quite a lot softer… literally. Born of a combination of the nearby Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range, and winds blowing sediment and sand from nearby receding lakes over the course of more than 10,000 years, the Great Sand Dunes rise (continuously!) out of the plains of Southern Colorado. For some perspective, the highest dunes rise 750 feet from the valley floor, and the area contains over 30 square miles of sand or roughly 14,520 American football fields. Honestly, the dune field here encompasses a space larger than the city of  Manhattan!

Speaking of land, the Southern Ute tribe are the first people to inhabit the space, followed later by Apache and the Navajo, the latter of which holds Blanca Peak, a slice of the backdrop of the dunes, as one of four sacred mountains. I encourage and urge everyone visiting the dunes, and anywhere else, to respect the land as both a National Park and sacred ground.

Sand-filled Sunrise pt.2

The rock climbing crawl to of the campground shakes off whatever drowsiness you had left, replaced by the excitement of the days adventures. The winding descent eventually gives way to seemingly silken gravel, and within minutes feet meet sand. Its now a race to see who makes it to the dunes first; you or the sun?

Blue hour in the Great Sands dunefield

Timing is Everything

Although the dunes may cover a jaw-dropping amount of land, one of the great features of this National Park is that you can nearly drive right up to them! Medano Creek sits just between you and the dunes after parking in the massive lot. In the spring, the creek houses fresh snow water from the mountains but is easily passable barefoot or with waterproof shoes if the weather permits. I recommend removing your shoes if the weather is good as sinking into the sand is as therapeutic as it gets! Besides, you’ll be making frequent stops to dump your sand collectors… (a.k.a. shoes)!

While the park offers easy access to the dunes, you’ll want to arrive according to how you plan to view them. Here are some of the best times lined up with your plans:

Sunrise/Sunset from Medano Creek: This is just steps from the parking lot. Arrive 15 minutes prior to sunrise or sunset.

Want to be traversing the dunes as the sun rises/sets? I recommend leaving the parking lot to start your trek at least 90 minutes prior to either event, as the dunes are no small feat to climb! Bring a good amount of water, and be patient!

Bonus: One of the best places to view the sunset over the Great Sand Dunes isn’t even in the park itself. An hour or two earlier, the road leading to the entrance has an incredible view, as evident in the very first photo above!

Sunlight illuminates the highest dunes in the park

Sand-filled Sunrise pt.3

Out of breath, but on time, feet sink with finality into sand with overwhelming satisfaction. Light begins to pour over the mountain range, dipping the highest sandy peaks in pure gold. Enveloped by the sun, you breathe a peaceful sigh as she illuminates your gazing eyes.

Great Sand Dunes Tips:

  1. Short trip? Come for sunset and the ensuing sunrise the next morning to pack in all the best views, colors, and shadows in the perfect time frame!
  2. Protect your eyes! If you plan on going deep into the dunefield, pack glasses or sunglasses to block some of the flying sand, especially if you wear contacts!
  3. Protect your camera! Keep that lens cap on if you aren’t shooting, and bring a sweater or backpack to conceal it if the winds get crazy, which is likely!
  4. Have fun! Bring a sled or board for sandboarding!
  5. Stay overnight at Zapata Falls Campground just outside the park! Its 4×4 high clearance vehicle recommended to get to this campground, but it’s beautiful, and has a hike to a waterfall! Or an hour away, Penitente Canyon Campground is amazing for stargazing and has some incredible rock climbing, the main feature here!
  6. There is also an impressive amount you can do and see aside from the dunes —including backcountry camping and 4×4 excursions— in the park itself, which you can check out here.
  7. Please remember to follow the Covid-19 social distance guidelines wherever you find yourself!
  8. Stay for the Milky Way! The park received certification as a Dark Sky Park in 2019!
  9. Take it in. This place is incredible for photography, but remember to take some moments to enjoy the peacefulness of the dunes and the significance of the area’s history.

Milky Way over the road to Great Sand Dunes National Park.

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