5 Photography Tips for 24 Hours at Great Sand Dunes National Park

Make the most of your day trip to one of Colorado's natural wonders.

By: Michael Osborne + Save to a List

Boasting the tallest sand dunes in North America dropped upon a melting pot of ecosystems, this young national park is a photographer's dream. Read these five tips to make the most out of your limited time there!

1. Get there before first light. 

For photography buffs, this one seems obvious. However, many people neglect shooting the dunes in the morning due to the massive Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east. While it's true that the mountains do somewhat limit the effects of the first golden hour, there are a couple of reasons to brave a brisk crossing of Medano Creek. First, depending on the season, you won't have much company. Being alone on top of the dunes is a truly surreal experience that every Colorado fan should experience. And early morning is an ideal time to do it. Second, the blue hour can produce some stunning scenery. The blue hour is often neglected as many people shoot the golden hours religiously. Yet every day before sunrise and after sunset, soft blue hues create spectacular scenes while most photographers are still sleeping or have gone home. The low light also presents a fun challenge for photographers as they must push their gear and technical expertise to the limit.

2. Trust in telephoto. 

While your gut instinct is going to be to bring a wide angle lens and capture the type of sweeping landscapes that make Colorado famous, don't forget about your telephoto. Once you hike to the top of the dunes, some of the most unique and interesting scenes will be far below you. The ability to reach out and capture individual dunes as the setting sun casts stunning displays of light and contrast upon them is crucial. It can be the difference between capturing a fresh perspective of one of Colorado's gems and taking photos that have already been taken thousands of times. 

3. Kill some time midday with a bison tour at Zapata Ranch

Most people plan on only visiting the dunes during their trip to the San Luis Valley, but there are several hidden gems in the area. One such gem is the 103,000 acre Zapata Ranch. Owned by the Nature Conservancy and managed by the ranch management company Ranchlands, Zapata Ranch features working ranch vacations, educational programs centered around their bison herd (over 2,000 animals strong), and active, ambitious conservation programs aimed at preserving the surrounding land and promoting its biodiversity. The sprawling ranch occupies most of the land around the Great Sand Dunes NP, providing stunning vistas. They offer several bison tours every week, giving visitors a unique opportunity to learn about bison and conservation, as well as access to some excellent photography spots. 

4. Stop by San Luis Valley Brewing Company

With all the hiking up and down dunes, chasing bison, and lugging gear, you'll eventually need to eat (and drink beer). If you're sick of eating your freeze dried camping food and feel like heading into town, check out San Luis Valley Brewing Company in the nearby town of Alamosa. They have a good selection of local brews, killer burgers, and some cool folks that work there. 

5. Give black and white a shot

Black and white photography is a passion for some and a bore for others. Whether or not you typically shoot in B&W, there is no better location to try it than Great Sand Dunes NP. Sure, the stunning mountain landscapes work in color, especially during the golden hour. But as anyone who has photographed sand dunes before knows, the patterns, simplistic lines, and shadows of the dunes create magnificent contrasts that are best displayed in black and white. Late afternoon is the best time to make the most of long shadows to produce stunning monochromes. 

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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