A Visit to Great Sand Dunes National Park

June 16, 2016

The Great Sand Dunes of the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado, with a glimpse of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the background. If you look closely at the image, you will see tiny, dark specks on the dunes. Those specks, which provide a sense of scale, are actually people!

From the park brochure:  The dunes, up to 750-feet tall are the largest in North America. The sand that formed the dunes originated from the distant San Juan Mountains and the adjacent Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Streams from both ranges carried the sediment to a huge lake that once covered the valley floor. As the lake shrank, prevailing southwesterly winds pushed the sand against the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Storm winds out of the mountain passes pushed some of the sand back upon itself, forming the impressive dune formations. Researchers estimate the dunes to be approximately 440,000 years old.

My visit to Great Sand Dunes N.P. was the focal point of a huge loop on my dual-purpose motorcycle, a Yamaha XT 1200 Super Tenere. I took Highway 54 out of Nevada, Missouri, and then across southern Kansas to Highway 50, and then on to Great Sand Dunes National Park. Next, I proceeded north through the Rocky Mountains and ultimately east through Colorado Springs to Limon, Colorado, where I picked up the I-70 super slab back to Missouri.

Although I lived in Colorado for two years, I never made it to the Great Sand Dunes, which did not even exist as a park at that time. Upon arrival at the park, on a Sunday afternoon, I found that I wasn’t the only person with a desire to witness this unique and sublime landscape. Even though the weekend was over, the park was packed with visitors and the campground was full, including all first-come, first-served sites. A talk with park rangers revealed that the park was experiencing record numbers of visitors this spring, especially with the continuing strong flow of Medano Creek, a popular swimming hole at the base of the dunes that typically dries up as summer sets in.

Not to be discouraged, I found an open tent-site at a private campground near the entrance to the park. This was actually more convenient for me because I had already intended to take my meals at the campground’s dining hall during my stay. The rocky road to the campsite was filled with switchbacks and off-camber trails of loose rock, but my dual-purpose motorcycle handled the circuit with aplomb. Soon, I was settled in and ready to get my first close-up look at the main attraction.

I’d already been warned, but I was shocked at the number of people at the dunes. As I approached from afar, I saw what looked like a squadron of tiny, black ants swarming up the mountains of sand. It took my brain a moment to register that they were people!  Upon arrival, I found at least a hundred or more happy kids frolicking in Medano Creek, while scores of teenagers proceeded up the dunes with snowboards designed for sand. I called them sandboards. I was immediately concerned about two things: How was I going to get across the creek to photograph the dunes, and how was I going to get an image of the dunes that wouldn’t include scores of dune-climbers and sandboarders? I asked a young lady with a cute kid if there was a bridge somewhere. The little kid said, “I think I saw a bridge down that way!” The woman looked at me, smiled, and said, “There’s no bridge.”

Although initially frustrated, and just plain freaked-out by all the people, I took off my shoes and rolled my pants up to my knees and crossed the creek. I left my shoes and socks on the other side, and then proceeded southwest along the first tier of dunes for as far as I could walk, bare-footed, away from all the people. I continued southwest until I began to lose the best afternoon light, turned around, and made the featured image, facing northeast toward the Sangre de Cristos. I could see that the shot wasn’t going to make the cover of Outdoor Photography, but I felt it was a decent representation of the glorious landscape.

One of the coolest things about the park is that it is open 24 hours a day. Rangers man the park entrance at all hours so early-bird photographers, night-sky photographers, and anybody else can come and go as they please, as long as they have a park pass. Great Sand Dunes National Park is so beloved, and accommodating to visitors, it can be somewhat daunting to someone like me, who is used to being the only person at places like Greer Springs in Missouri. Although I’ve visited several national parks, and plan to visit several more, I doubt I’ll ever get used to the throngs of visitors that flock to these great natural wonders of our vast continent. And yes, I know that visiting during the off-season is the first step to success for nature loners such as myself.

Thanks for looking,


P.S.  Oh, I almost forgot, I continued the motorcycle loop, as planned, most of which involved riding through mountain passes in almost freezing rain, followed by 100-degree pushes down the Kansas slab. Most of the time, I simply enjoyed the ride without the encumbrance of photography, for a change. Ultimately, I made it back home (2,100 miles total) and Joyce and I are now getting ready for a trip to the Apostle Islands of Lake Superior. We’ll be taking the 4Runner, so photography will be the priority again.


Email:  Natureframes@Rocketmail.Com

Gallery of Images/Print Information:  DannyBrownPhotography










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