Alamosa County, Colorado

Photograph the Night Sky in Great Sand Dunes National Park

3 Miles Total - 700 ft gain - Out-and-Back Trail

Originally added by Sonja Saxe

Spend an evening photographing the brilliant night sky of Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Spending a night in the dune fields of Great Sand Dunes National Park is a unique experience in and of itself but add capturing the Milky Way or star trails over the seemingly endless expanse of sand dunes and you have yourself a truly unforgettable night.

From the Amphitheater parking area it is only a little over a mile hike to get past the tallest dune ridge and into the expansive dune field where you can spend the night taking photos from every angle using the dunes as a captivating foreground.

Plan on picking a night that is forecast to be cool, clear, and calm as these are the most ideal conditions to capture the stars. You can park overnight in the Amphitheater Parking Lot with a permit from the Visitor's Center. Cross the street and begin hiking on the horse trail towards the dunes. Once the trail ends you can forge your own trail through the dunes. When you make it over the tallest ridge and past the day use area of the dunes you can set up camp anywhere you would like as long as it is at least a half mile away from any other camps. Now all you have to do is wait, and while you wait you will most likely witness a colorful sunset. Once the sun has set and twilight has given way to true darkness you can begin!

It's fun to play with photo composition using the sinuous dune fields in the foreground. If you want to capture the stars swirling around the unmoving North Star you will need to take out your compass and map of the night sky to determine where to position your camera. Or you can use a tried and true trick to finding the North Star that doesn't require any gear. Start by finding the Big Dipper. The two stars that make up the outermost portion of the "pan" are on the same plane as the North Star. If you connect them with a line and follow that line up from the pan you will run straight into the North Star. You can then compose the photo with the North Star in the center of the frame and sit back and enjoy star gazing as your camera does all the work.

For night sky photos without the presence of the moon I begin with my settings at: f/2.8, 20-30" shutter speed, ISO3200, color temperature set to Tungsten (this white balance is a personal preference, try some different temperatures to see which you like best), and I manually focus to infinity. From here I take a few test shots and tweak the settings as I see fit for the conditions. In order to capture the star trails I moved the ISO back to 640 and leave the shutter open for 15 minutes. The longer you left the shutter open the longer the star trails will be!

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