Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge is well known among wildlife enthusiasts and photographers for its annual visit of Greater Sand hill Cranes.  Over the course of several weeks, flocks of up to 20,000 cranes will make their way to this beautiful wetland tucked between two mountain ranges in the San Luis Valley.

In late February these migrating cranes will start their arrival and the influx of birds will continue until late March or early April.  The migration route covers over 1,000 miles starting from their wintering grounds at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico and ending at Grays Lake National Wildlife refuge in southeastern Idaho where the birds make their summer nests.  Before arriving at their breeding grounds in Idaho the Sandhill Cranes will find a mate, which they do right here in the San Luis Valley.  We will have the opportunity to photograph the cranes performing their courtship dance, leaping and bowing while raising and lowering their wings, and making a croaking sound to one another.

These amazing birds make for stunning photographs.  Their four foot frame and six foot wingspan is an amazing site framed by the snow capped mountain peaks which surround the valley.  The Greater Sandhill Cranes are not the only great photo opportunity you’ll find here.  You will also see similar-looking but much smaller birds known as the lesser Sand hill Cranes.  Usually about 1,200 of these birds join the Rocky Mountain flock.  A wide variety of ducks and other water fowl fill the ponds and wetlands in the area.  In addition you may chance to see the even more rare Whopping Crane which can be found in small numbers during this migration.

Tour Itinerary

Day 1: We leave from Golden/Denver and head toward the Monte Vista wetlands via a scenic route through the High Plains of the Central Rockies.  During our trip we will visit the amazing geologic structures found at The Garden of the Gods.

We will arrive at the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge in the afternoon, where we can check into our rooms, eat and prepare to photograph the cranes as they come to roost late afternoon and evening.  The photo opportunities are great right through sunset.  In fact even once the light is too dim for good photographs of the birds, we may wish to stick around as the distant mountain peaks begin to turn colors with the alpine glow.

Day 2: This morning will start very early, as we will want to capture the cranes eating in the morning before they fly off, which they tend to do during the mid-days.  Around noon we will pack up and make our way back to the Denver area.

Day 3: (Optional)  If you wish to add an additional day to visit the nearby Great Sand Dunes National Park, we can do that as well. For all the details on the fun and photographic opportunities at the dunes, please visit Great Sand Dunes National Park Tour.

Tour Accommodations

We will be staying in the nearby towns of Alamosa or Monte Vista.  You specify the level of accommodations you wish to have and we will make all the arrangements for your party.  Pricing will vary dependent on the level of accommodations and its proximity to the park.

Camera Equipment Rental:

Note that you will need a minimum of 200 mm lens to capture these birds properly (the images you see above were photographed with an 18-200 lens, but using this short a lens requires cropping into your photos quite a bit).  It is recommended that you bring as much lens “power” as you can.  If you wish to rent equipment for this tour we can do that for you, but you must give at least two weeks notice.

  • Time of Year: March
  • Tour Length: 2 or 3 days (7-8 hrs / day)
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Landscapes: High mountain plains, Great Sand Dunes
  • Wildlife: Mt. Sand hill cranes, water foul,