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Milky Way over Great Sand Dunes National Park

Milky Way over Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

Milky Way over Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

Great Sand Dunes National Park is home to the tallest sand dunes in North America. These dunes, which rise 750 feet above the flat floor of Colorado’s San Luis Valley, are nestled beneath the 14,000-foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Range. They’re formed by wind scouring sand from the sand sheet to the west and driving it upwards until the wind can carry it no higher and it settles into graceful, towering waves of sand. Understanding the wind’s diurnal pattern is the secret to photographing in the dunes. Afternoons are often viciously windy, filling the eyes, nose, mouth, and camera bag of anyone foolish enough to venture into the dune field with fine-grained grit. Mornings, on the other hand, are often blessedly calm. After a windy afternoon and evening, the entire 30-square-mile dune field is covered with freshly fallen sand, creating a sandy wonderland of sinuous dunes with textured flanks.

As marvelous as it is during the day, Great Sand Dunes National Park is even more wonderous at night. The park is one of the best dark-sky locations in Colorado. Often the wind begins to die down after sunset. At the right time of year, at the right time during a clear, moonless night, the Milky Way glows brightly in an ink-black sky. One afternoon during a trip in September 2016, I scouted the foothill dunes nestled beneath the main dune field, looking for a perfectly shaped dune that would work compositionally with the galactic center, the most photogenic part of the Milky Way, at astronomical dusk, when the sky first reaches maximum darkness. I found this untracked dune about half a mile from the road. I hoped that it was far enough off the standard route to the summit of High Dune that it would still be untracked when I returned after dark. My luck held—when I returned after sunset, the dune was still flawless. I set up two lights, one to my left and one to my right, to bring out the texture and shape of the dune, then used focus-stacking to bring everything into sharp focus. This photo remains my favorite image of the Milky Way at Great Sand Dunes National Park.

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