Mackenzie and Jared’s Great Sand Dunes National Park elopement holds a special place for me. For starters, these two were an absolute delight to work with. I could feel their excitement during the entire elopement process. Despite the fact that they were planning their elopement with only two months until the date, both Mackenzie and Jared maintained this excited, upbeat, and fun-loving vibe throughout the entire process.
But another thing that made their Great Sand Dunes National Park elopement even more amazing was the fact that I was photographing their elopement in the same national park where I had eloped just 2 years before. Sharing my own elopement location with another couple — a location I wholeheartedly believe is hands-down one of the most incredible Colorado has to offer — was such an amazing experience.
Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park is actually home to the tallest sand dune in North America (High Dune sits at a whopping 750 feet tall, base to top). Yup, you heard that right. While our state might be known for the Rocky Mountains and our crazy number of 14’ers, Colorado also boasts the coolest sand dunes you can find in the states. The drive to Great Sand Dunes National Park is an interesting one. The park itself sits in the San Luis Valley, and as you approach the dunes, you’re wandering through what feels like a giant desert with mountains in pretty much all directions.
At first the dunes might look small, but that’s mostly because of the sheer scale of the mountains. The sand is basically pressed up against the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, and it isn’t until you begin inching your way towards the park entrance that you truly get a feel for their grand and insanely large scale.
The sand almost plays and optical illusion on you, where for a moment you feel like you could conquer the whole park in a day, only to stand at the foot of the dune field and realize that this park is so much more than you could have ever imagined. When you have your elopement at Great Sand Dunes National Park, it’s easy to feel the sheer size and beauty of nature…to realize that if you want to, you can escape to a place where you can in fact be a tiny dot on the sand.
Since we were all staying at the Surf Hotel in Buena Vista, we decided to take a few photos around the hotel before heading over to the Great Sand Dunes National Park for the elopement ceremony. Mackenzie and Jared shared their first look on the wraparound porch on the second floor of the hotel, and the look Jared had on his face when he first saw Mackenzie basically had me feeling all the feels.
Since they decided to have a self-uniting marriage ceremony, Mackenzie and Jared opted not to bring along anyone to their ceremony. Instead, they asked their loved ones to write notes, stories, and advice to them that they could read to one another during their elopement ceremony at the dunes.
The spot I’d chosen for Mackenzie and Jared’s Great Sand Dunes National Park elopement ceremony was actually only a couple dunes away from where my own elopement took place. There was something so awesome and special about sharing the sand dunes with a couple who truly fell in love with this amazing park as much as I have.
I remember when we arrived in the dunes parking lot and Mackenzie and Jared were just completely floored at how cool the sand dunes were. I mean, if we’re being honest, Great Sand Dunes National Park is unlike any other place in the entire state of Colorado. It’s the only place in the state where your elopement spot can shift in a matter of a few months or years (in fact, the dune my elopement took place on back in September of 2018 had shifted 10 feet since we said our own vows there!).
When you plan a Great Sand Dunes National Park elopement, you literally get to witness mother nature in action. You get to say your vows in this dynamic, ever-changing place that almost feels unreal.
After their Great Sand Dunes National Park elopement ceremony, Mackenzie and Jared continued adventuring across the dune field. We ran up and down giant mountains of sand and felt the wind whipping past us and cooling everything off. We’d found a private little spot on the sand to adventure on for their ceremony and sunset photos, and it was so cool seeing their footprints being the only set to make their way up the sand.
As we got closer to sunset, we started to see the sun setting right above the layers of dunes on the horizon. Right now Colorado has wildfires happening in the state, and we’ve been receiving a lot of the west coast wildfire smoke too. Basically when all this smoke gets in front of the sun, it turns into a seriously crazy hazy, intense “fire sun.” It’s definitely one of the more strange effects of the smoke. I had Mackenzie and Jared run as quickly as they could to snap some photos of them with the fire sun before it dipped behind the horizon entirely, and we captured it just as it was starting to turn the entire sky a shade of orange.
P.S. As a national park elopement photographer, I believe in being more than just a documenter of your Great Sand Dunes National Park elopement day. I pride myself on helping you navigate all the little details as well — like helping you figure out the perfect attire for your Colorado elopement.
As someone who also eloped (at Great Sand Dunes National Park, too!), I’ve been in your shoes. I know what you’re doing through, and I’m here to help.
If you ask me, the best time to be at Great Sand Dunes is the second half of September. We’re beginning to venture into fall in Colorado, which means sunrises and sunsets can be chilly at elevation. But during the daytime, the sand at Great Sand Dunes National Park isn’t sweltering like it is throughout the summer (no seriously, you can burn your feet on the sand). The weather at Great Sand Dunes in the second half of the summer is the most comfortable, if you ask me.
I don’t advise planning your Great Sand Dunes National Park elopement in the summer for that exact reason: the daylight hours can get hot.
If Colorado is having a good winter day, winter can certainly work. Just bear in mind that the roads that lead to Great Sand Dunes National Park go through areas that are frequently impacted by snowstorms, so plan for your plans possibly needing to change if you choose a winter date.
If you plan on eloping at Great Sand Dunes National Park, you’ll need to acquire a special use permit. Doesn’t matter if it’s just the two of you or if you’re bringing friends and family. You’re going to need the permit anyways. The good news is the permit only costs $100. So much better than the cost of a traditional wedding venue, right?!
If you’re having a photographer present to document your Great Sand Dunes National Park elopement, they will also need to have their own permit, since they are conducting business in the park.
Consult with your elopement photographer on where and how to acquire and complete the necessary permits. They should be able to guide you in the correct direction.
Mackenzie and Jared did a few simple things to ensure they left no trace when they eloped at Great Sand Dunes National Park. For starters, Mackenzie opted for a fake flower bouquet to ensure she wasn’t introducing an invasive species of plant into the delicate ecosystem of the park. Her and Jared really wanted to do a biodegradable petal toss, so instead of taking the flower petals to the sand dunes, they opted to do the toss outside of the entrance to the Surf Hotel instead. And it couldn’t have been any cuter!
A few other things they did? They packed in and packed out their trash, they didn’t bring any additional decor for their ceremony (they wanted to let the sand dunes be their backdrop), and all they left were their footprints (literally!).
Compared to the crowds you’d find at Rocky Mountain National Park, Great Sand Dunes is much more secluded and quiet, which is one of the many reasons I love this spot for adventure elopements.
That said, it has been growing in popularity, so the best way for you to have the most privacy possible during your Great Sand Dunes National Park elopement ceremony is to opt for a weekday. And the closer to the middle of the week, the better!
This is the place where I shared my vows too. It’s a place in a league of its own. Something no other park in the state of Colorado can offer. And while I’ve had the honor of working all across the Rocky Mountains, photographing Mackenzie and Jared’s Great Sand Dunes National Park elopement was once again a reminder of how distinct and otherworldly this place is.
So if you’ve decided that you want to elope at Great Sand Dunes, I’d love nothing more than to be on this journey with you. To share my favorite place in the world with another couple.
Check out some of our favorite elopement and adventure wedding planning resources:
Empowering You To Have Your Adventure Elopement, Your Way
Colorado Elopement Photographers + Adventure Wedding Photographers