The past 2 days here in Great Sand Dunes have been great. We have been living right in terms of weather. Every place we’ve been, we’ve had a minor storm come through while we’ve been there. Here at the dunes we arrived on Sunday to a picture perfect sunny warm day. Perfect for hanging out, sipping a little whiskey and generally relaxing. Monday I got up at dawn to climb the dunes and photograph in the morning light. The weather front was supposed to arrive in the evening and hang around during Tuesday, so I wanted a chance to photograph a nice sunny morning before weather had a chance to change things. I got up at six (Mary chose to stay in bed) and was out on the dunes by 6:15.
As usual, it was a lung busting climb up the dunes. The cold air I was breathing in burned, and I struggled at this higher altitude. I didn’t chose my path well and ended up never reaching the high point I planned on. At sunrise, the wind started up and got progressively stronger as the minutes passed. High clouds also masked first light.
The wind is one thing, the fact I couldn’t get over the top before dawn is another. The big problem is that there are so many footprints on the campground side of the dunes that making any kind of interesting image free of marks is impossible. Everywhere I looked, footprints spoiled the view. It’s still spectacular of course, but making photographs is what is most important to me and combined with the wind, which was now pelting me and my camera, meant the morning trek was a failure. I turned back.
Back in the campsite, Mary had the coffee ready so we just hung out most of the rest of the day. But the forecast weather began coming in by mid morning and really changed the character of the day. First it was just high clouds. We went down to the visitor center to check things out. There is a really great view of the dunes from there and as I watched, the light got more and more interesting. We decided we had to take advantage of this development, so back to camp for the cameras and then off to the dunes we went again.
The clouds causes a “God Rays” effect as we started out but soon got more dense. We began our climb up and soon started feeling a few drops of rain. At best they were just light showers – mostly virga in fact, but it looked like it could get worse. We continued the climb and passed a ranger coming down the dune who said he intended to hike to the top, but turned around because of the rain. I’m thinking what rain? Still just a few drops, but there was the potential for more. We were about half way up the 700′ dune when we heard the first clap of thunder. Uh oh. Everyone knows to get off the dunes when lightning is present, but for me, it takes more that one clap to turn me around. Then the second clap sounded. OK, now that got my attention. Watching where it was coming from, it seemed like it was just one small thunderhead moving away from us. It was in fact on the other side of the mountain.
We kept going, but I was ready to bolt if it got any worse. Several other couples ahead of us headed back down. Then the third clap, this time more distant. I’m pretty sure now we were safe and felt good about continuing. I know lightning can travel many miles to find you if it is so inclined, but I liked our odds. There was no more thunder after that and the cloud continued to move off. I could see the sky clearing out beyond the dunes to our west and was now sure we were in for an amazing sunset. I was right.
We continued to get little rain showers – and I mean just a few drops. The light changed constantly and got ever lower. First sunny, now cloudy, it just got better and better. We reach a high point and could now photograph the mostly smooth clean dunes. We walked along the spines of several dunes as we made our way along. Spying more dark clouds behind us, I though it best to head back. Probably nothing to worry about, but we got what we wanted out of the afternoon, so we started down.
More great light on the way down so many more stops. Upon reaching the parking lot, a partial rainbow and light shower greeted us. We were both pretty tired by now and headed back to camp for a nice dinner and another terrific sunset. We are a lucky couple.