Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Great Sand Dunes

with 42 comments

Great Sand Dunes was the third of the four national parks we visited on our recent trip. At 720 feet, these are the tallest sand dunes in North America. In addition to that, they sit at an altitude of about a mile and a half, so when we were there on June 8th we took pity on our poor lungs and decided not to trudge up these mountains of sand (unlike the Te Paki Dunes that are just above sea level and that we’d climbed in February).

The dunes are so high that when you’re close you can’t see the mountains beyond them. The picture below gives you a broader view, made more dramatic through the use of a polarizer to add extra definition to the clouds and greater contrast in the sky.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

June 26, 2017 at 5:00 AM

42 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Wow!

    Sherry Felix

    June 26, 2017 at 5:24 AM

  2. Two fine compositions. I would like to see the area!


    June 26, 2017 at 6:34 AM

    • You won’t be surprised to hear that I made many other views of the dunes and the nearby mountains, separately and together. The park was mobbed, so I recommend visiting outside the height of the tourist season.

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 26, 2017 at 7:03 AM

  3. I wasn’t aware of that park. I hope to see it some day.

    Jim R

    June 26, 2017 at 7:16 AM

    • This isn’t a national park we grew up hearing about. It went from a national monument to a national park only in the year 2000. You can combine these dunes with a trip to the Rocky Mountains, which the dunes are in a portion of, or a trip to northern New Mexico. We did both.

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 26, 2017 at 7:25 AM

  4. Inspirational…


    June 26, 2017 at 7:41 AM

  5. Terrific photos – – I appreciate the dramatic look of the second, but really like the creamy look of the first. I must be more hungry than I thought, because the first shot reminds me of the topping on lemon meringue pie.
    Twice in the past few weeks, I’ve read articles on the scarcity of sand! “The World is running out of Sand” (5/29 New Yorker) and then Friday in the NYTimes “The World’s Disappearing Sand” – – even if it wasn’t in a park, these dunes wouldn’t help, apparently desert sand is pretty much useless for construction projects, so there’s shortages, conflict, gangster involvement, etc. – – hard to believe, when you see these monster dunes, that sand is yet another scarce and disappearing natural resource. RPT

    Robert Parker Teel

    June 26, 2017 at 9:01 AM

    • Actually, that’s not correct, the NY Times article wasn’t Friday, that was just when I read it, it was a 2016 article I googled after the New Yorker piqued my interest. I hope to visit this park sometime, in the off-season as you suggested. I’ve spent a couple of hours at the Indiana Dunes, near Gary, which are neat, but dwarfed by the ones in Colorado of course.

      Robert Parker Teel

      June 26, 2017 at 9:06 AM

      • You’d find the “meringue” shown in the first photo rather gritty, I’m afraid, and not at all tasty. Several things account for the creamy look of that photograph. The main one is that the dunes, with their mostly soft contours, fill most of the space. The wind has whipped the sand in ways similar to what a whisk does to meringue. I took the picture with a long lens (215mm equivalent), that isn’t quite as sharp as the lens I used for the second image.

        Steve Schwartzman

        June 26, 2017 at 9:42 AM

      • We spent an afternoon, evening, and following morning last year at the Indiana Dunes as we began the journey home to Texas from our 12-day stay in the Chicago area. I was glad we went:


        Before those dunes received protection, parts of them were destroyed through industrial use.

        Steve Schwartzman

        June 26, 2017 at 9:55 AM

    • I understand that the land under farms in central Illinois has the coveted grade of sand, and a lot of farmers are faced with losing their land because they are being bullied by sand miners.


      June 26, 2017 at 9:06 AM

      • Given the huge amount of silicon in the earth’s crust, I’m surprised to hear about a shortage of sand. As we traveled around the West we saw our share of quarries, some of which seemed to be for sand, though I don’t know if that’s actually what was being quarried. Would the farmers you mentioned make out better financially if they dedicated their land to the extraction of sand? Once the sand in such places gets extracted, can the land go back to being used for crops? You can see that I know nothing about such things, but you two have made me curious.

        Steve Schwartzman

        June 26, 2017 at 9:50 AM

        • The New Yorker article was quite a surprise to me, too. It talked about the staggering demand for concrete for construction in Asia. One of the basic facts I retained, was that windblown desert sand, without water to cushion the particles, has its sharp edges knocked off, making it unsuitable for concrete/construction purposes. I don’t have the article in front of me, but it mentions beach sand often being contaminated with countless plastic particles. I think they also discussed the NIMBY factor, people don’t want sand mining near their homes.
          This wasn’t in the article, but I remember being told at Bar Harbor, Maine that the beach was primarily shell fragments, not silica, and I imagine a lot of coastal sand must have this kind of calcium carbonate “contamination”. I remember reading about homes in Rockland or Orange county, I think, where the gravel aggregate used in the concrete, had iron ore particles, which over time, absorb moisture, turn to rust, and expand, destroying the houses’ foundations.
          I’ve seen limestone quarries and gravel pits in my area, and don’t recall ever seeing any of them restored to use as farmland, probably would be a prohibitively expensive process. They’re currently “mining” a 125 acre farm near my village, for soil and clay to cover a landfill, and when they’re done, it will be below the groundwater level, so supposedly the area will be graded into shallow ponds and bike trails.
          Sorry for the long answer!

          Robert Parker Teel

          June 26, 2017 at 3:02 PM

          • No reason to regret a long answer: there’s so much to learn about the world. I didn’t realize that sand from the United States goes for construction in Asia. I’ll have to track down those articles or other similar ones for more details.

            Steve Schwartzman

            June 26, 2017 at 5:43 PM

  6. Well for heaven’s sake~ who knew we had such enormous sand dunes? Well, obviously, you did.


    June 26, 2017 at 9:04 AM

    • I found out about the Great Sand Dunes a few years ago but didn’t manage to work them into our Southwest trips in the fall of 2014 and 2016. I didn’t want to let them get away again this time, especially when we were going to be as close as Colorado Springs (less than a 3-hour drive). We had problems booking a place to stay during the tourist season, but I extended for a second day in Colorado Springs (a good move in its own right), and that produced an opening in a motel in Monte Vista, about an hour away from the dunes.

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 26, 2017 at 10:15 AM

  7. Those images are surreal, which pairs well with a switch for the comment gravatars to the right side!

    • Just call me Mr. Surreality, o Señor Surrealidad. The gravatars are on the left side on my language blog. As long as my photographs and text don’t get flipped backwards, I’m happy.

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 26, 2017 at 9:07 PM

      • that would be strange – to see the mirror image of the text, though seeing a mirror image of an image would be difficult to ‘spot.’

        ‘miss observant artist’ is now wondering, ‘have the gravatars always been on the right side of your comment dialogue? today will be ‘pay attention to details’ day!

  8. really Stunning


    June 26, 2017 at 9:58 PM

  9. Love that second shot. I was there back in ’97, but it wasn’t on route for us this year. We’ll take the kids soon (prob in fall when it’s cooler) who will scramble and race to the top.


    June 27, 2017 at 6:52 AM

    • Fall will be better, not only because of cooler weather (and therefore easier scrambling) but also fewer tourists.

      I, too, was pleased with the drama of the second picture. I could show others that I like as well, but I figured two would be enough.

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 27, 2017 at 7:07 AM

      • Well, if you could somehow lead me to them (embed in a comment?) I would love to see them!


        June 27, 2017 at 7:29 AM

        • Okay. Here are two more hot off the press. The first one enlarges if you click it.

          Steve Schwartzman

          June 27, 2017 at 9:05 AM

          • Ooo the shadows in that first one! Thanks for going through the trouble.


            June 27, 2017 at 4:35 PM

            • You’re welcome. When I saw the way the clouds cast shadows on the dunes I had to take some pictures like that first one.

              Steve Schwartzman

              June 27, 2017 at 5:59 PM

  10. I “cropped” the bottom vegetation out of the first photo with a legal pad, and found the change interesting. The little group of what I assume to be trees at the bottom of the dunes help provide a sense of scale, but without them, what seems to be the opposite movement of the dunes and the clouds becomes more obvious — as well as the vegetation attempting to climb them. Given enough time, I wonder if these dunes would be overcome by vegetation, the way the grasses and morning glories cover our beach dunes.

    As for the second photo: so that’s what a polarizer does. It’s a stunning photo in every respect. It’s hard to stop looking at it. Was it your wide-angle lens that provided the extra sharpness?


    June 27, 2017 at 7:46 AM

    • There seem to be a few modest trees in the farthest part of the foreground in the first picture but mostly the vegetation was what we might call scrub brush, similar to what you find in west Texas.

      I’ve seen dunes that eventually get stabilized with vegetation. One example that comes to mind is from my visit to the Indiana Dunes just over a year ago:


      I seem to remember reading that the Great Sand Dunes undergo countervailing forces and therefore remain in their dune-y state.

      As for the second photograph, I used my 24–105mm zoom lens, and I see that it was zoomed to 93mm, which is to say it acted as a modest telephoto. The jagged mountains in the second picture may have influenced you to see the image as specially sharp. It’s hard to judge intrinsic sharpness with pictures as small as the ones we put in blogs.

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 27, 2017 at 9:23 AM

  11. Hey Steve .. love the last shot! That definition is special 🙂


    July 1, 2017 at 7:36 AM

  12. Wow! Beautiful shots!

    • Gracias, Isabel. I’d gladly go back. On the trip we just returned from we got as far as northern New Mexico and if we’d continued into Colorado I’d have revisited Great Sand Dunes.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 23, 2022 at 8:32 AM

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: