The sun sets on Colorado's sand dunes as storm clouds roll over Mount Herard.

Photo by Scott Franz

The sun sets on Colorado's sand dunes as storm clouds roll over Mount Herard.

Great Sand Dunes National Park is a photographer's dream

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If you go

How to get there: Take Colorado Highway 131 south to Interstate 70, then head east toward Vail.

Take the Leadville/Minturn exit and then head south on U.S. Highway 24. Stop at the 10th Mountain Division Memorial on Tennessee Pass along the way. Continue to Buena Vista, and take Highway 285 south. Turn left onto Colo. 17 and take another left on County Six Mile Lane, which leads to the park.

Where to stay: The Pinyon Flats Campground in the park has 88 individual sites located along two loops. Individual sites are $20 per night.

Where to eat: Stock up on camping fare before the trip. There also are many restaurants in Alamosa, a 35-minute drive from the campgrounds. Stop at Gringo's in Leadville on the way to or from the park.

Also see: Hike into a cavern to view the cascading Zapata Falls, just a short drive from the visitor center at the park. An easy quarter-mile hike will get you to the waterfall. At night, the park often has rangers lead educational programs enjoyable for families.

Additional information: For more information or other lodging options, call a ranger at the Visitor Center at 719-378-6399.

— There aren't many things that entice me enough to wake up and grab my camera on a frigid weekend morning before sunrise.

The arrival of sandhill cranes along Routt County Road 42.

A lone sardine fisherman on the Italian coast.

The first light on the vineyards below the Tuscan hill village of Montepulciano.

These scenes all temporarily have converted this late sleeper into a morning person in the past year.

Last week, I added the beauty and mystique of Colorado's Great Sand Dunes National Park to my short list of weekend wake-up calls.

It's time for you to add it to yours.

At 5:45 a.m. Saturday, the first rays of light were starting to hit Mount Herard while the mostly frozen Medano Creek had just started to come to life, slowly inching its way along a cold bed of sand.

Around this time of year, the shallow creek is one of the closest places you can travel to in the state that resembles a genuine beach atmosphere, ripe with everything you need to build an elaborate sand castle and plenty of wind to fly a kite.

And the Sangre De Cristos serve as a stunning backdrop at all times of the day.

The morning silence here is pierced only by the sporadic gurgle of the creek or the sound of that little girl who was so eager to beat her parents and their dog to the water that she rolled headfirst down a nearby dune.

As the day progresses, the dunes, a 4 1/2-hour drive from Steamboat Springs, continue to beckon.

Jog the spiny ridges for miles.

Deploy a kite.

Strap on a pair of cross-country skis and glide over the sand.

Climb the steep ones (the tallest one rises about 750 feet) with a sled on your back, and hoot and holler as you race down just like you would on one of Steamboat's best powder days.

These things also are a photographer's dream.

Bring a long lens and silhouette the people who walk along the ridges.

Hike to a tall vantage point and wait for the sun to rise or fall, creating miles of dynamic shadows that change by the minute.

If you're lucky, the dunes temporarily will turn red and gold.

The dunes long have lingered on my Colorado bucket list. The trip was stubbornly stuck right up there with a summer hike up Hahn's Peak and a crawl over Devil's Causeway.

If the dunes are still on your list, it's time to pack the car and make the trip this summer.

It'll probably take another couple of weeks for me to get all of the sand out of my car and the focus ring on my camera.

By then, I already may be on my way back to the dunes.

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com

Great Sand Dunes trip planner

Great Sand Dunes visitor guide

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