In the Sangre de Cristo range of the Rocky Mountains, in the San Luis Valley, there are some Sand Dunes. 750 feet tall, they are the tallest sand dunes in the united states – formed by sand and soil deposits of the Rio Grande. The Sand Dunes themselves are a small geographic area, with a creek running nearby, that only flows a few inches deep, and only in the summer. Because it is nestled into the mountains, bears, deer, and mountain lions can be found in the park – though fortunately we only saw 1 of the 3. It’s unexpected to have this sandy oasis tucked up against the rich, lush, greenery found in the southern Rockies (for an aerial view see here). Our commute to Great Sand Dunes National Park started in Denver, and down west across southern Colorado. At our highest we were at 11,000 feet in the car, just after we headed west out of Colorado Springs. There were beautiful alpine wildflowers, evergreens, blue skies, a few hours on the open road, an alligator farm (I know, weird, right?), a bike rally in a Safeway parking lot, and then just sand, and silence.
In the hot summer sun the dunes can read up to 140 degrees F, but fortunately, if you hike later in the day, and the clouds are out, you can get to the top. Ray managed to hike to the top of High Dune – 698 feet up, but 2 hours round trip. As he reported back to me after – it was more exhausting that it seems. It’s not that the distance or even elevation gain is the problem. It’s that ever step you take you go up, and then sink back down a bit. So each step is only ~ 50% effective. Makes for an exhausting climb, but an effective return to the bottom, where your efficiency increases in each step. But no matter which way you you are going, up or down, it means many stops to enter the sand out of your shoes. Because of the heat, lots of water and close toed shoes are essential for the hike, and sunglasses or something to cover your eyes from the common wind storms blowing sand towards your face is helpful as well.
While Ray hiked to the top, I was in heaven taking photographs from the bottom, cooling off with my feet in Medano. Great Sand Dunes National Park has been rated the QUIETEST park in the lower 48 (competing with Alaska….but those are a little more isolated and guarded by grizzlies, so they have an edge). And quiet is right. Once Ray disappeared into the dunes, I heard nothing but the wind. Being that far away from noise pollution was an unexpected blessing. While every natural park comes with it’s own unique beauty, this was the first time that I felt I was HEARING that beauty, instead of just looking at it.
We had reserved a site in the upper loop of Pinyon Flats Campground – the National Park site right at the dunes. But the campground was half empty, so we moved to a closer site, with a view of the dunes and the sunset. There was a dozen or so other people sharing the campground with us, but we felt like we had the place to ourself.
After dinner, we watched the sun slowly disappear behind the dunes, and soon after were met with total and utter darkness. At least it felt like darkness – but only for a short while. You see, the Sand Dunes are also a dark sky viewing site. That means that they are so far from any major city, that there is very very very little light pollution to hinder your view of the night sky. But the problem is that our eyes need to adjust to see all the wonders. They don’t just jump out at you. Have you ever seen a picture of the night sky, with the arm of the milky way all beautiful and lit up and think to yourself “how come I’ve never see that?” Well it’s one of two reasons. First, you’ve never gone far enough away from the cities to escape light pollution. And second, you’ve never deprived your eyes of light long enough to allow them to adjust to low light conditions needed to see the beauty above. When you want to view the sky, you need to add a red filter on your flashlight. Turn off and put away your phone – every time you look at the screen, your eyes need to readjust. Now turn off your flashlight, and wait 15-30 minutes in the dark. Your eyes will start to adjust, and then the wonder of the sky begins to appear. We took a blanket, my tripod, and camera, and lay down in the middle of the road. And everything just got more and more beautiful as time passed. I tried to take a photo, but dark sky photography is HARD!! The stars move, and every time you try to adjust your camera and look at the LCD, you lose all the dark adjustments you made for your eyes. So I finally just shut it off and took it all in. I’ll save the dark sky photography for a different trip. But trust me when I say, it’s spectacular.
In the morning, we were greeted by a family of deer as we packed up the car (as the tetris masters we have become), and said farewell. Another beautiful National Park, beautiful memory.