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Great Sand Dunes

Great Sand Dunes are home to the tallest dunes in North America. They are a magnificient sight as they rise over 750 feet above the eastern side of San Luis Valley below the mountains of the Sangre de Cristo Range. The mountains surround the dunes from the north and east and reach over 14,000 ft nearby in the Crestones and the Blanca Massif.

Great Sand Dunes have been drawing me back ever since my first trip in 1993. After leaving Colorado, my first visit came after a long pause and it was memorable for its windy conditions. A year later, my children and I scaled the tallest dune together. It had been four years since then. After flying into Albuquerque, I had a decision to make between my two favorite places - the White Sands in southern New Mexico, that I had last visited in 2014, or the Great Sands in southern Colorado.

I was hoping the weather forecast could force a pick, but windy and somewhat unsettled conditions were forecast for both. I continued to struggle with the choice between an intimate beauty of the White Sands and a scale and grandeur of the Great Sands until a piece of news made it seem irrelevant. My mom was in the hospital and I spent hours calling friends and doctors on the other side of the Atlantic. After learning the situation was stable, I quickly decided to go north since a ranger in White Sands indicated the backcountry camping might be full by the time I would arrive, The eeny meeny miny moe was over, and off to the Great Sands I went.


Gallery of my favorite photos


Trip

The monument is about a four hour drive from Albuquerque. Having left the Bay Area two days earlier, it was easy to appreciate emptiness of northern New Mexico. Just south of the Colorado border, I passed San Antonio Mountain. Rising gently right next to Highway 285 at the southern edge of San Luis Valley, this volcanic peak can be seen for miles and miles from either direction. It marks an end of the forested mesa landscape and a start of the arid expanse of San Luis Valley.

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Mural in Nob Hill Mural in Nob Hill San Antonio Mountain Sange de Cristo Range


Wind and sand

As I drove through San Luis Valley, the wind that accompanied me much of the way strenghtened. Upon arrival to the sand dunes, flying sand was everywhere. The late afternoon was approaching. Without wasting any time, I proceeded up the sand dunes in a sand storm. The weather station at the Alamosa airport reported gusts over 40 miles an hour and sustained speeds close to 30. It was surely more windy in a wind tunnel formed by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, that gave rise to the sand dunes in the first place. At times I wished I had worn goggles so as not to be blinded by the sand, but most of the time the sand would stay low to the ground. I reached the crest of the dunes, and surveyed the primal landscape in the the sandy blizzard conditions.

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Blowing sand Ripples Dunes in BW Dunes Blowing sand Sand structures
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Tracks Drifting landscape Shadow-portrait
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Layers of the landscape Desert sun Sand formations Dune ridges Drifting over ridges Windy play
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Dune field Dune field in BW
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Let it drift Primal landscape


Sunset

The wind was not letting up, and the sun was getting low, further emphasizing the drifting sand. Sangre de Cristos were capped by a layer of lenticular clouds and provided a beautiful backdrop. It was a mesmerizing sight I will remember for a long time. That is including the discomfort that came with the conditions. After the sun dropped below the horizon, the wind finally subsided a bit and I trekked back down to the parking lot before the darkness set in.

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Shadows and sand Curves
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Sunset
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Last sunlight Fire in the sky Lenticular display Sunset over San Juan Range


Sunrise

I got up well before the sunrise to have time to drive from Alamosa, and make an arduous trek up the tallest sand dunes before the sun would rise high in the sky. As I drove toward the dunes, it dawned on me that there might not be much good photographic light as clouds gathered along the mountains. The sun rose east of the mountains. I was rewarded for the early start by a brief moment when it illuminated the clouds from below just as I was crossing Medano Creek. The creek was running strong, which is not common in the fall long after the snowpack melted. At that point, my luck with the weather ran out. The clouds blocked the sun for much of the early morning as I climbed and wandered around the dunes. It was quite windy, with temperatures close to freezing, and I wished I had just stayed in bed.

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Shadows

The clouds finally moved out of the way just before the shadows on the dunes disappeared.

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Leggy shadows Lost Gitzo Geometry
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Into the sky Ridge Shadows and clouds Ridgeline
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Pinnacle
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Waves of sand Couple


San Luis Valley sights

San Luis Valley is a high-altitude valley situated between Sangre de Cristo and San Juan Ranges. At around 7,700 feet above sea level, the air is thin, and the sky is bright blue. Other than the sand dunes, there are numerous other attractions - protected wetlands, an alligator farm, hot springs, and a lot of rural and mountain views. Some landmarks I photographed during my previous visits (a winter visit in 2001, an early sping visit in 2003, a late sping visit in 2012, for example) still remain and drew my attention again. An abandonded house east of Mosca withstood the passage of time for a few more years, thanks undoubtedly to the arid climate. A tree, that I have photographed many times silhuetted against Blanca Peak, stands alone surrounded by grass and sage brush. It exudes a feeling of stability and permanence, yet one day it will succumb to the elements. Hopefully, it will still be there next time I come back again.

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Road toward Sangre de Cristos Lonely tree Lonely tree in BW Horses in San Luis Valley
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Rear-view mirror
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Abandoned house Great Sand Dunes park sign Mazda and sand dunes Park road
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Lonely pine Lonely tree Deer


Sunset

When I returned to the sand dunes in the afternoon, the conditions resembled the previous day with high winds and sand flying everywhere. Having trekked up the dunes twice in 24 hours, enjoying the scenery at the foot of the dunes seemed like a good idea. The day before I was all alone at the top of the dunes. This time, I had company of a few hardy souls who came out in spite of the conditions. We were all rewarded by the sights of the sand blowing over the ridges of the dunes rising above us.

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Sandy blizzard Dune explorers Self-shadow Dunes
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Dune hiker Photographer Photographer Dune hiker
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BW dunes High-key dunes
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Ridge shadow Photographer Sunset on the hills Medano Creek


Antonito

In the morning, the valley was covered by clouds, putting a damper on another attempt to photograph a sunrise in the dunes. I packed up and drove back toward Albuquerque. Along the way, I stopped by the oldest church in Colorado, Our Lady of Guadeloupe Parish Church, built in 1858. It is near a small town of Antonito, whose name I recognized as a friend of mine told me some of his family came from there. Antonito is near a southern end of the San Luis Valley, and it is known as one of the endpoints of the narrow-gauge Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad, met here by San Luis and Rio Grande Railroad that operates in summer from Alamosa. The season was over and the biggest draw for tourists passing through seemed to be one of several marijuana dispensaries. It was hard to believe how many a town of a few hundred residents could support.

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Our Lady of Guadeloupe Parish Church Antonito mural Night club
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Sign Marijuana dispensary Another pot store Cannabis man... Weathered pickup
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Water tower Antonito station Steam engine Back in New Mexico Highway 285


Last updated: June 30, 2018
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