Updated: Jun 16, 2021
The wind at Great Sand Dunes National Park is both a blessing and a curse. Without wind, the dunes would not exist. Powerful, near-daily southwest winds constantly pick up sand from the nearby plains, carry it into the dune field and deposit it, creating the tallest dunes in North America. Occasional winds from the northeast leave their own mark on the dunes. Over hundreds of thousands of years, the wind created a 30-square-mile dune field nestled beneath the 14,000-foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Strong winds erase the tracks left behind by park visitors and constantly renew the perfect, sinuous curves and marvelous textures that make the park a photographer’s paradise. That same wind, however, also blows sand into everything: your eyes, nose, ears, tent, pack, camera bag, and camera gear. It sandblasts exposed skin and can destroy lenses, camera bodies, tripod heads, and tripod legs if it works its way inside moving parts. More than once I have been driven out of the dunes just as the sunset light was about to peak by vicious sandstorms that seemed to erupt without warning.
Fortunately, the wind most often follows a diurnal cycle, calm in the early morning, gradually building to a crescendo in late afternoon, then slowly subsiding sometime after sunset. Unfortunately, the warmest and most dramatic lighting occurs at sunset, often the windiest time of day, when the sun sets over the flat San Luis Valley and distant San Juan Mountains. At sunrise the sun must rise over the nearby Sangre de Cristo Range before it can reach the dunes, so the light is no longer warm and textures are less pronounced. That means photographers seeking the best possible images must either learn to shoot in a sandstorm or trust they will luck into the rare perfect day when the wind isn’t screaming at sunset. During my five-day shoot in April 2021 I hoped I’d get lucky, but came prepared, I hoped, to shoot even if I wasn’t.
In addition to offering endless photo opportunities in daytime, Great Sand Dunes National Park is one of the best dark-sky locations in Colorado. That makes it a great place to shoot the Milky Way. For several years I have wanted to shoot the complete arch of the Milky Way soaring over the dune field and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The best time of year to shoot Milky Way panoramas at the latitude of Colorado is in April, May, and June, when the top of the Milky Way arch is still relatively low in the sky when the galactic center has risen 10 degrees above the horizon. Clouds thwarted my first attempt in April 2019. I timed my April 2021 shoot to coincide with new moon so I could try again. In order to keep the lights of the campground, visitor center, and nearby convenience store out of the frame, I planned to hike deep into the dunes and camp for three nights. No water is available in the dunes, of course, so I knew I would need to carry every drop I needed. With 18 pounds of camera gear on my back, plus all of my camping gear, I could only carry about a gallon of water – enough for just 24 hours in the dunes. That meant I would need to hike back to my truck on the second day to pick up another two gallons of water and two more days of food.
I drove to the park and started hiking. I planned to camp on the far side of Star Dune, the highest dune in the park. The most direct route to the summit of Star Dune leads first to the summit of High Dune, then across the dune field to Star Dune. Although shortest in miles, that route meant traversing high ridges that were exposed to the worst winds, then climbing straight up Star Dune’s slip face. The slip face of a dune is the leeward side, usually east-facing, where the prevailing southwesterly winds create the steepest, deepest, loosest pile of sand you’ve ever seen. For every 12 inches you step up, you slide back six.
The afternoon wind was already building by the time I reached High Dune, so I donned ski goggles to protect my eyes from blowing sand. I was determined to keep going regardless of how much sand filled the air. My determination was soon put to the test. By the time I reached the base of the slip face of Star Dune the gale-force gusts were making me stagger. My pace slowed as I fought for traction, and soon I was taking three breaths per step. Finally I stepped onto the summit of Star Dune in a howling sandstorm. I had to find a sheltered spot to camp. My tent would have been unlikely to survive in such a wind even if I had managed to pitch it. Fortunately, the wind eased as I dropped down the west flank of Star Dune into the deepest hollow I could find. I pitched the tent, anchoring it to sand bags each filled with 15 pounds of sand.
After dinner I headed back up into the maelstrom to try to shoot sunset. Several years earlier I had paid a hefty sum to have low-profile, prescription goggles made. Unlike ski goggles, the surface of these goggles is close enough to my eyes that I can see through the viewfinder of my Canon 5D Mark IV. I had bought them originally for shooting the aurora in extreme cold, hoping that the tight seal against my face would prevent my warm breath from fogging up the lenses while wearing a Neoprene face mask. Now I had repurposed them as sand-dune goggles. I’d also brought homemade tripod-leg sleeves, long tubes of fabric sewn shut on the bottom end and closed at the top end with an elastic drawcord. I inserted each tripod leg into one of these sleeves to keep sand from penetrating the leg joints. There was nothing I could do to protect the Really Right Stuff tripod head, camera, and 16-35mm lens, so I hoped that the weatherproofing on the gear would be sufficient to keep the sand out of vulnerable moving parts. I certainly didn’t plan to change lenses, an act that could easily destroy the camera if sand got into the mirror and shutter mechanisms.
I was disappointed but not surprised to find the wind still ripping across the summit of North Star Dune, the high point on the north shoulder of Star Dune. I shot sunset using the best foreground I could find on short notice, dropped back down to camp, napped for four hours, then got up again half an hour after midnight and headed back up to North Star Dune to shoot a Milky Way panorama. I had selected my shooting location so that none of the lights along the park access road would be in my frame – or so I thought. When I reached my shooting location I discovered to my annoyance that one light was still visible, poking out around the skyline of Star Dune to the south. Finding a better location in the dark before the Milky Way arch rose too high in the sky seemed impossible, so I shot from where I stood. Then I returned to camp and slept till 8:30 a.m.
After breakfast I started hiking back to my truck to retrieve more food and another two gallons of water, this time taking a longer but lower route that I hoped would involve lighter winds and less blowing sand. No such luck. During my return trip the wind once again nearly blew me over, and ski goggles were essential to keep the sand out of my eyes.
That evening I shot sunset from the north ridge of North Star Dune, napped for a few hours, got up at half past midnight and returned to a different location to shoot another Milky Way panorama, this time with no lights visible whatsoever.
By now it felt like I’d left home ages ago, but in truth I’d only been gone for two nights. During my third day I scouted a place to shoot single camera-position images of the galactic center instead of shooting a stitched panorama like I had the two previous nights.
That evening I returned to the summit of Star Dune. Once again the wind was screaming and the temperature was probably in the 40s. I was bundled up to the limit, with multiple layers on my legs and torso and a heavy down jacket as my final layer. I was astonished therefore to see a barefoot backpacker pop up over the western edge of the summit dressed in shorts and a light windbreaker. “What a view!” he exclaimed, then, after pausing for less than a minute on the summit, he plunged down the slip face on the east side of Star Dune and disappeared. He was the first person I’d seen on this trip that deep in the backcountry.
Since the Milky Way had to be higher in the sky than previous nights for the shot I had planned, I was able to “sleep in” until 2:30 a.m. that night. Navigating by GPS under utterly dark, moonless skies, I returned to my shooting location. I certainly hadn’t gotten lucky with the wind, but I had gotten lucky to have three nights in a row of crystal-clear skies and only light breezes while shooting the Milky Way. As dawn began to break I hiked back to camp, crashed for a few hours, then broke camp and headed out.
The morning was calm, so I decided to hike back over Star Dune, across the dune field to High Dune, then down to the road, scouting for future shooting opportunities as I went. Heavy wind the evening before had once again erased all tracks. The dunes that morning were like a Saharan version of a winter wonderland, pristine and serene. I crested Star Dune and spotted the barefoot backpacker I’d seen the night before, now far below me trudging across the trackless sand toward an enormous hollow in the dunes. I plunged down the slip face on the east side of Star Dune, reveling child-like in the pleasure of easy movement, the deep sand now an ally slowing my headlong descent, not an enemy making upward progress an ordeal.
All too soon I was back at the truck. I had one night left, to be spent in the campsite I’d reserved in the Pinyon Flats car-camping campground. Tired after four hard days in the backcountry, I decided not to hike back up to High Dune for sunset. As the afternoon wore on and the wind stayed light, I began berating myself for not making the effort. In an attempt to salvage something from the evening, I wandered over to Medano Creek, which flows along the southeastern foot of the dune field. An hour before sunset, a strong easterly gale erupted. Blowing sand once again filled the air even at the elevation of Medano Creek, normally a place where the wind is much lighter than at the crest of the dunes. Large plumes of blowing sand formed along the ridge crests high above, and I was glad I’d been lazy and stayed low. For the first time that trip, clouds filled the sky and began lighting up. I shot till the light faded, then returned to camp and listened to the wind batter the tent for most of the night.
In the morning I walked back over to Medano Creek, now half-frozen. All of the tracks that crisscrossed the dunes the day before had been erased except for those pressed into wet sand, which had frozen hard as concrete during the night. After such a cold, windy night, no one was eager to explore the dunes at sunrise, and I was able to shoot a wide panorama that had never before been possible without tracks and people in the shot. When the sun rose over the crest of the Sangre de Cristo Range I made a last few shots of rippled sand and called it a wrap. For five days, the wind had ruled my life. Now it was time to shake the sand from what little is left of my hair and head home.