The dunes came into view over five miles out from the entrance to our 57th park, Great Sand Dunes Naitonal Park and Preserve in southeastern Colorado. Almost in unison both Laura and I saw them for the first time and had a similar reaction: WOW! Looming behind the dunes, which cover around 30 square miles of terrain, was the dramatic Sangre de Cristo mountain range with peaks exceeding 14,000 feet. As we pulled into our campground just outside of the park and made our way to our site, we were treated to a sweeping vista of the dunes and the mountains behind them. This would be our view for the next five days.
Besides seeing the park, we also rendezvoused with friends whom we met two years ago when we were camping outside of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. Like the two of us, Ron and Tina enjoy everything that is the outdoors, and Ron and I in particular share an interest in photography. We had a wonderful time catching up with them and shared a number of delicious meals during our stay. Ron, Tina and I also took on the challenging hike to the summit of High Dune. Laura did not go as she was still recovering from a bout of giardia, picked up during our time in the Alaskan backcountry.
Looking back on the experience, I really did not think that it would be that challenging of a hike. After all, it could not have been much more than two to three miles to the peak of High Dune (the second highest dune in the park) with around only 700 feet of elevation gain. Normally, a hike with this profile would take no more than a couple of hours. It took us five. Granted, we did take many photos, took our time at the summit to enjoy the incredible view, and lingered on the way down to watch a few folks descend the dunes on snowboards (photos of one such individual are in the photo group below entitled, “Wipeout.”), but this was one tough hike, with much of the trek through loose sand with no best route to the top defined. Did I also happen to mention that the hike started at an elevation of 8,200 feet and topped out at almost 9,000 feet. Pretty thin air at that altitude for flatlanders like the three of us. But nonetheless, we made it up and back and had not only an incredible experience to show for our efforts, but also a few decent photos to share. I also took advantage of ideal conditions a couple of nights to star gaze and photograph the stunning milky way that was clearly visible at such a high altitude in the pure, dark sky.
Having never done this before, Ron was kind enough to lend me both the perfect lens for such an undertaking along with providing some helpful tips on how to set up my camera. So at 0300 my alarm went off, I gathered up my gear, and quietly drove our car out of the campground into the park and total darkness. When I stopped and got out of the car I looked up and, my oh my, what an extraordinary sight: a night sky filled with stars from horizon to horizon and the milky way painted through the heart of it all. I just stood there in the absolute quiet for some time gazing up trying to take it all in and comprehend what I was viewing, but not being able to wrap my mind around it. It is estimated that in our galaxy alone there are between 100 and 400 billion stars and over 100 billion planets. Further, estimates put the number of galaxies in the Universe at between 100 and 200 billion, with a recent supercomputer simulation upping this estimate to 500 billion. Yes, this farm boy from central Illinois was having a bit of difficulty fathoming what I was experiencing. As I slowly scanned the night sky, it was as if all of the grains of sand that comprise the great sand dunes were illuminated and tossed up into the air.
A collection of photos from our visit to Great Sand Dunes NP are below. Note that when you view the photo group entitled “WIPEOUT,” I would suggest that you listen to the song of the same name as you cycle through the photos.