Five Days at Great Sand Dunes National Park

Friday, October 174790_GreatSan3-1We left Curecanti yesterday morning and made the drive to Salida so we could dump, restock and post some blog updates. The Four Seasons RV Park was pretty empty when we arrived – not even the operators were present. We got phone instructions for where to park and what to pay. We picked a cheaper site ($35) since it was only an overnighter.4540_GreatSan1-4 4530_GreatSan1-1In the morning, we covered the 90 mile drive to Great Sand Dunes National Park. It was surprisingly busy for a Friday, so we pulled into the first site in loop 1 we though would be suitable just to hold while checked a little more closely. We were going to be here for at least 5 days, so we wanted a site that would give us a great view and be as close to the dunes as possible. After unhooking the Rav, I turned the ignition to move it – nothing. Somehow the battery had lost sufficient charge in the 2 hours it took to get here. It should last hours longer before dropping below the ignition threshold. I’ve probably let it drop too low to often and now it is not able to hold a charge as long. May be time for a new battery.
4532_GreatSan1-2What to do? I could have driven the LD around the loop again and jump started the car, but I thought I’d see if the portable solar panel could do the job. I pulled it out, set it up and attached the leads to the Rav battery. Nothing. So it obviously cannot provide enough cranking power straight off. I left it to charge while we moved the LD to another site we liked better. About a 1/2 hour later I went back to check on the Rav. It started right up. Good to know I can charge car batteries this way. It seems to be able to hold the charge, but the true test will be if it is dead again after our get-away drive in 5 days.

Saturday, October 18
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Really, the best way to experience and photograph the dunes is to get up there for dawn. The whole front side of the dunes are usually covered with footprints from visitors coming from the Visitor Center, so getting to the top means being able to photograph the back side which are usually nearly pristine in appearance. Sometimes you will see a tent set up in the distance on the backside. No one walks much out that way after getting to the top. The high vantage point also allows for better views of the dunes with sun streaming across them.
4541_GreatSan1-5 4547_GreatSan1-6 4552_GreatSan1-7I didn’t really want to get up pre-dawn our first day here to climb the dunes, but since there were no clouds I figured I should do it now. The next several days could be cloudy and that would spoil much of what I wanted to do here. Also, it being Saturday, the visiting crowds would be all over the dunes soon, leaving footprints everywhere.
4566_GreatSan1-8 4575_GreatSan1-9Mary choose to stay in the warm bed. It was clear, very cold and still quite dark when I opened the LD door. In order to get to, or near, the top by sunrise, it’s important to get going a good hour before. It’s a 700’ slog to the top, but the reward is an amazing sunrise experience.4583_GreatSan1-10Leaving the campground, I could only just make out the trail in the dim morning light. I followed the trail down to the now flowing Medano Creek. The creek runs all along the front perimeter of the dunes, and is rarely more that a couple of inches deep. It does tend to spread out over the flat sand and is rarely more than a couple of inches deep. It is an easy task to walk across to the dunes. This is only the 2nd time since the 80’s we’ve been here while it was flowing. Usually by this time of the year, it has sunk underground or just plain dried up. Early abundant rain and snowfall this year has accounted the increased flow.4646_GreatSan1-14As I stepped out into the creek, I could hear crunching sounds. Ice had formed in many of the eddies. I wanted to linger here, but it was getting light and I had ground to cover. I picked out my route up the dune while sitting in the campground the evening before, and was actually able to roughly follow it to the top. There were plenty of rest stops along the way as I tried to cool my burning lungs.. Much of the dune areas are actually quite firm for walking, but there are still lots of soft sand and steep areas that will get the heart pumping. I got pretty near the top in enough time to recover from the last push to the top and set up for my first images.4616_GreatSan1-11 4633_GreatSan1-12As the sun rises over the mountain peaks, it throws light across the dunes from west to east, and as it does, the dunes start to light up. From here it was just a matter of point and shoot. I look for interesting combinations of light and shadow, form and movement. I walked the spine of several dunes along the top, stopping and photographing often. It is great to be up here alone to just take it all in. I took moments every so often just to look at the amazing views and wonder at the sensual shapes of the landscape. After a while, I could see others beginning to make the climb, and decided it was time to come back down.4640_GreatSan1-13

We relaxed in camp till mid afternoon, then went over to the dune area near the visitor center to see what it was like. Loads of people around, all playing in the creek, or climbing the dunes. It made for some interesting images that show the scale of these sand piles. When the late afternoon light broke through the clouds, the cottonwoods also lit up, but soon, the clouds took over again and everything was in shadow.4674_GreatSan1-5 4649_GreatSan1-1 4652_GreatSan1-2 4660_GreatSan1-3 4670_GreatSan1-4 4710_GreatSan1-6 4718_GreatSan1-7Saturday, October 194723_GreatSan2-1We wee up fairly early this morning and decided to take the 4-wheel route out to the Sand Pit parking area of the dunes. Fewer people come out this way, so the dunes tend to be in nicer shape. This can be a really interesting area to photograph when the creek is running, so we spent a couple of hours walking up and down the waterway looking for images, but strangely, it was less interesting than previous visits.
4730_GreatSan2-2 4732_GreatSan2-3 4764_GreatSan2-10The road is also a horse trail to the backcountry and we watched as several groups of horse riders made their way upstream and over the dunes. We were soon back in camp for a nice breakfast before getting ready for our planned hike up to Mosca Pass.
4776_GreatSan2-13 4746_GreatSan2-7 4739_GreatSan2-5 4774_GreatSan2-12 4751_GreatSan2-8 4784_GreatSan2-15Mosca Pass trail is one of the few in the park. It starts just off the main road and runs up a canyon of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Though not terribly steep at any one point, it does rise 1400’ in 3.5 miles. I really expected this to be a busy trail today, but we met only one other couple the entire day – and they came down from a parking area at the top!4816_GreatSan3-2 4841_GreatSan3-4 4849_GreatSan3-7Where the trail eventually breaks out into several long meadows, we found leafless aspen and wonderfully glowing cottonwoods tangled in the steep canyon. The meadow grasses also glowed and were backlit just right against the dark shadowed bank of trees. We stopped before making it to the pass, but from experience we knew this spot was the highlight of the hike. We headed back down and marveled at some of the views we’d missed on the way up.4844_GreatSan3-5 4845_GreatSan3-6 4880_GreatSan3-9 4882_GreatSan3-10 4883_GreatSan3-11 4887_GreatSan3-12

Once back in camp, I noticed from our site how the sun was beginning to break out through the clouds that have hovered over the dunes most of the day. The wind was up as well. This caused sand to really fly out there. It was creating some great lighting situations, so I sat down in my camp chair, put on the 300 mm lens and started aiming at the dunes. They looked so different this evening than earlier ones. Out on the plain, dust devils spun. It was also nice to see all the previous days footprints being erased. Now I really want to climb them again.4890_GreatSan3-13 4894_GreatSan3-14 4903_GreatSan3-15 4926_GreatSan3-16

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