Tintype Workshop: Great Sand Dunes National Park


Most of you are probably aware, but just to be sure: first, the National Park Service is celebrating its Centennial this year, and second, I love the National Park system.

I don’t remember the first National Park that I visited, but I was probably only a few years old, on one of my parents many cross-country road trips. (I was probably also wearing a harness and a leash to keep me from very enthusiastically racing off the edge of the Grand Canyon or other massive abyss.)

Dad, walking me with my harness and leash on.
You thought I was joking about the leash? (And no, I’m not emotionally scarred from this. I’m certain it was very prudent of them!)

During the past 25+ years of my own driving and road trip experiences I’ve managed to visit 28 National Parks (which sounds like a lot, but it’s slightly less than half of them) and several National Monuments, Battlefields, and Historic Sites. Each one of them is fascinating, important, and usually beautiful and awe-inspiring. It took a while to fully realize it, but I finally figured out that if they made a National Park or Monument out of it, it must be worth checking out, even if it isn’t one of the big names like Yellowstone and Yosemite.

The Green River (central left) and Yampa River (central) flow together and around Steamboat Rock in the Echo Park area of Dinosaur National Monument (in the Colorado portion). 2016

Some of my favorites, such as a recent visit to Dinosaur National Monument, were complete surprises. In this case I had expected dinosaur bones, naturally, and was maybe not as amazed as a 10-year-old me might have been. The canyons of the Yampa and Green Rivers at Echo Park, though, now that is a sight to see.

Death Valley National Park, California, 2008
Death Valley National Park, California, 2008
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, 2010
Sunrise and moonset over Badwater Basin, -282 ft elevation, Death Valley, California.
Sunrise and moonset over Badwater Basin, -282 ft elevation, Death Valley, California.
Canyonlands National Park and the La Sal Range, Utah, 2016

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

It’s hard to pick a favorite, nor do I think it’s even necessary, but I do keep going back to one in particular, so there must be something special about it. The first time I know of that I visited Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve (it was a National Monument back then) was during college in the mid-1990s, when I traveled from Ithaca, New York, to Colorado and back over what I remember to be 9-day spring break.

I think this is an old scan of a bad print from a cheap camera, but it still hints at how beautiful the Great Sand Dunes National Park was during my visit back in the early 1990s.

After lunch at The Main in Lamar, Colorado, I headed southwest on route 10. Buildings and cars and signs of civilzation gradually thinned, I passed a sign saying “Open range”, and then there was nothing but the road, empty desert, and a wall of purple mountains in front of me. The speedometer on the old Ford Escort wagon I was driving topped out at 85, and the needle was buried somewhere clockwise of that. My memory of that drive was that I slid through a gap in the mountain front and curled into the Dunes to camp. It’s a little further than that, but in the 20 years since that drive I’ve driven through there at least four more times, and I still get excited when I see the wall of mountains in front of me, then curve around to get to the Park (inevitably in the evening) and see the dunes in the sunset light.

I like Great Sand Dunes for lots of reasons. I feel like it’s a little oasis tucked in behind the mountain range – that first wall of the Rockies that you see after driving across endless flatness from Ohio – an escape from heat and humidity at 8000+ feet elevation. It has the exotic dunes of a desert as well as 13,000+ ft snow-capped mountains that look just like mountains should. It also seems to be the quietest park in the lower 48. It’s just neat, cool (temp), and just right for me.


On my last cross-country drive – returning to Arizona after various exploits in Maine and Ohio – I stopped at the Dunes to try to make some tintype photographs. I’d done some landscapes back in Maine and West Virginia, and was eager to make photographs of The West using the process as it would have been photographed long ago. The Sand Dunes were to be my first (but, as it turned out, only) stop on that trip.

There’s more to that story, but to the point of this story: at the end of my visit to the park last November I took the tins that I made into the Visitor Center to show the rangers what I’d been up to. They thought it was cool, and I had a nice chat with them before getting on the road back home.

A few days later I got an email from one of those rangers. He explained that 2016 was the Centennial, that as part of the celebration the park was having a few artists come in to give demonstrations and workshops, and he asked if I’d like to be one of the visiting artists. It’s an understatement to say that that was a very nice email to receive and I was quite the happy camper. (There might have been shouting and giddy silly dancing around the apartment.)

So, on Saturday, October 15th, I will be making tintypes and answering questions from park visitors about the process. Then on Sunday, October 16th, I will do my best to shepherd seven students through the process of making one of their own. It’s going to be crazy, exciting, possibly freezing, and definitely fun.

Here’s more information on Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve’s events calendar (look down near the bottom at October).

Please help me spread the word and let me know if you have any questions. I realize coming to this event is hugely impractical for nearly everyone I know, but I did want to get the word out, as I am honored to be a part of the celebration and to be associated with the National Parks!

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. ruthmaroscher

    I do get a thrill from reading About and seeing the results of your adventures If you are not recording these for future reports articles books. Etc. your mom might have need to encourage you to do that! I know I am pushy and I am pretty confident that you are following a straight and narrow path set by your parents. Of course you get to ignore this whole thing and do as you wish. Hugs r

  2. Mark Dawson

    I try to write this all down somewhere for some future…something. :-) It was one of the reasons for doing this online journal (as well as long emails and a paper journal and…chats and Facebook and… I guess my documented memories are pretty fractured.

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