Dry Dunes

We made our annual camping trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park near the end this past summer.  The trip was wonderful, as usual, though something was very different from trips past.  Things were oh, so very dry…

Southwestern and south central Colorado had extreme drought conditions through much of 2018.  (It’s only gotten marginally better this fall – they’re down to only severe drought conditions.) . It was so dry down at Dunes that Medano Creek was completely dried up by the time we got there in late August!  We’ve been there plenty of times during the late summer months and we know that the creek is usually barely a trickle and is really dependent on thunderstorms for flow at that time of year.  This year though?  Completely and utterly dry and gone!  Not a trace of the creek.

To give you an idea of what we found, here’s a shot I typically take looking northeast, upstream towards the mountains.  (This shot was taken during a trip in August 2010, a year or two after some wildfires in the hills whose ashes was still washing downstream.)

Medano Creek

Here’s what we found this year…

So Dry

Little different, huh?  Even in dry years, there’s usually at least a sign that the creek had been there recently.  Some wet sand, maybe a trickle of water.  This year?  Nada.  Even when you dug your toes down a few inches, the sand was bone dry.

I always say no matter how many times we go to Dunes, we always see something new.  The lack of Medano Creek was a certainly new one for us.  It also gave us a reason to hike as far as we could (or felt like it) upstream to see if we could find signs of water.  I wish I could say we found a trace, but we did not after trekking a few miles along the creek bed.

What we did see along the way were a few fun sights of high desert life continuing in spite of the drought.  Prairie sunflowers were still around, though not as bountiful as they’ve been the last few years.  Dune grasses persistent in their survival, still mainly green in color.


And of course, the overall scenery was splendid as it always is…

Meandering to a Vista

Although it was abnormally dry, we still had a great time camping and hiking and hanging out with friends.  Until next year Dunes…

– JC

This post was featured as a guest blog on Zach of the Jungle 24-May-2019.

Deer Inspiration

As normally (and unfortunately) happens at Great Sand Dunes National Park, the mule deer meander through the campground looking for sloppy campers who’ve left food out that they can steal.  While it’s cool to see these creatures wandering through each day, it’s sad because they have gotten so used to people that some are a little too tame.  All that said, it doesn’t stop me from carefully taking advantage of the situation for photography reasons.

Every day during our stay, the deer came through the camp around dinner time like clockwork.  I’m not sure what the various campsite “neighbors” had left in their fire ring, but the deer loved it for some reason and kept coming back.  And they didn’t just wander through – they hung out for 30-60 minutes each night until they naturally strolled off or something scared them.

The lighting conditions that time of day were mixed, but I did have enough low-hanging tree branches to act as a blind so I was able to get some shots as they came through the campsite next door and wound their way through the grassy fields on their way to start their evening of grazing and bouncing through the sand.  (Look closely each morning when you walk on the Dunes and you’ll see their tracks all over the place, especially down by the water.)

Of the 800+ images I took during our trip, probably 500 were rapid-fire shots of these deer to see if I could get anything good.  I ditched he vast majority of those deer shots during post-processing because, really, how many shots of mule deer can one girl keep?!  But there were a couple that stood out and caught my eye as I flipped through them for a very particular reason.

Because my first pass at picture sorting is done so quickly to weed out the good & decent from the bad & horrible shots, it can be like watching a stop-action movie when I get to sequences of high-speed shooting.  When I reached the various series of deer pictures, I stumbled on a few shots that I thought would make amusing GIFs.  I’d never made a GIF before from scratch, so I tried my hand at it and I think I came up with a couple of short & cute ones…

Mule Deer Attitude

Mule Deer Flirt

For whatever reason, I always like to think that animals are smarter and have more attitude than most would give them credit for.  I think these 2 GIFs capture that sentiment perfectly!

– JC

Return to The Dunes

When Labor Day rolls around, that means one destination for us – Great Sand Dunes National Park.  We adored this place even when our home base was in Pennsylvania.  Once we moved to Colorado, getting to Dunes was comparatively easy and it quickly became our new holiday weekend ritual to end the summer season.

This past Labor Day was no different and the weather was absolutely perfect for most of our trip.  (Ok, the first full day down there the weather was a bit meh for the start of the day, but it rebounded from there on out.) . In between lengthy bouts of relaxation and laziness, we did do some hiking in the dunefield and I snagged a few shots.

Our first full day started with quite a treat at our campsite – a teeny tiny rain shower passed over the dunes just as the sun got above the Sangre de Cristo mountains to the east of us giving us a small bit of a rainbow!  Talk about luck.

I thought for sure I wouldn’t be able to stash my camp coffee, get the camera out, and get it setup before the rainbow went away so I figured on simply enjoying it in the moment.  I’m so happy I was wrong!  It stuck around long enough that I was able to take quite a few shots with both my standard walk-around lens and my super-wide angle lens before it faded away.  Like I always tell folks – there’s always something new for us down at The Dunes!!

Lucky Charms - Sand Dunes Style

Once we got out on the dunefield for various hikes during our trip, I snagged shots of my prairie sunflowers (of course!).  According to the park rangers, this year’s bloom was a little late in terms of timing, but wildly big and colorful thanks to the week of off-and-on rain Colorado got in early August.  Yay for me!!  Here’s 2 of my favorites that I got…

Solitary SunshineBlown

We also stumbled across somebody’s old meal leftovers…


And as always, the sands and the shadows were fun to play with – both for large-scale scenery shots & some more mellow close-up work…

Shadow ValleysRelaxing Waves

We had another good trip to The Dunes and I bagged another round of good shots.  I’ll share those in a couple of upcoming posts about this trip.  Stay tuned!!

– JC

He Who Is Amused By Humans

About 10 years ago on a trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park, I finally had my first “big girl” camera with a long zoom lens.  Each morning of that trip, I kept trying desperately to get some shots of the mule deer as they moved from the grasses up to the hills to hang for the day.  I got pretty crazed with it (but never to the point of truly harassing and worrying the deer like so many visitors do – I made sure to keep a very respectable distance).  It was during that trip that my husband jokingly “christened” me with my Native American name:  She Who Pesters Mule Deer.

The years have passed and the urge to catch shots of deer as they graze has subsided, probably because now we live in Colorado and mule deer have replaced white-tailed deer as the ones we just see while we’re out and about town each day.  During this last trip to the Dunes tough, the urge to take deer pictures was rekindled by an unexpected and highly cooperative visitor to our campsite one afternoon.

After a day of hiking, we were relaxing at our campsite catching up on some reading when we looked up from our books and bam!  A young buck was grazing nonchalantly 20 feet from us!  I wanted pictures so badly, but the camera wasn’t within reach and I didn’t want to spook the guy.  So instead I just sat back and watched as he munched his way past our campsite, hopped a section of split rail fence with ease, and bedded down in the shade just across from our home base.

Now was my chance… grab the camera!!  I slowly and carefully freed my camera from the car and got my long lens on so I could fill the frame as much as possible even though he was close by.  I checked back to our new friend and yup – he’s still there.  I crept over, maintaining a healthy buffer, got in position, and started firing off shots.  Of course, nature doesn’t always cooperate, and this afternoon was no different. The buck bedded down square in the shade (I can’t really blame him for that!), but I did squeeze off a few good shots in spite of that.  This one is my favorite of that series:


This deer was particularly chill.  Maybe he was too young to know any better or he’s just gotten that used to campers already.  He hung out for at least an hour in that shady patch, hidden among the bushes, munching on grass as he felt like it.  Seemed like a good time to let him be and tend to my own dinner.

I went back across to our campsite, made dinner, ate dinner, and by the time we were done, he was still there hanging out.  Not one to let this opportunity go by, I went back and started shooting again and he decided he needed to stretch his legs.  Even better for me was that he meandered over into to some of the golden sunlight of the late afternoon hour.  The cherry on top was that he started getting sassy and posing for me.

Sassy Diner

Finally it was time for him to move on with his night, and me with mine.  With one last glance in the brilliant sunlight, we said our goodbyes until next time.



– JC



Sunflower Trail

With our annual trip falling a touch later than usual on the calendar and the dry late summer weather, I didn’t hold much hope for seeing many – if any – of the prairie sunflowers I love so much at Great Sand Dunes.  Imagine my glee as we approached the park entrance and I saw some hints of yellow among the sand… the sunflowers were there!  Even more astounding was the bounty of flowers we saw from the campground and on our first afternoon of hiking!  As we found out from talking to the rangers, some last-minute late season rain came just in time to create a later than normal sunflower bloom.  Rock on!!

The next morning, over our “camp mochas” (recipe below), we watched the sunlight come up over the mountains to the east and light up the dunefield for another day of play.  This morning was different though – much more colorful than usual.  There were huge pockets and stripes of yellow popping out all over the sand!

It was in that moment my husband had a fantastic idea – let’s go chase sunflowers.  They typically grow best where the water collects – in the basins and valleys between the dunes and ridges.  In some spots, full stripes of sunflowers made golden roads up the hills of sand.  Love it when Mother Nature provides an easy self-guided tour!

So off we went… up one hill and down another.  Every couple of ridges our jaws simply dropped.  We’d never seen a sunflower bloom this big or with flowers so densely concentrated in spots!  Just stunning and utterly surprising.

Sunflower Road

Normally when I’m at Dunes and shooting with the prairie sunflowers, I’m always going for the lonely, solitary sunflower against the vast tan sands and brilliant blue skies.  Not really happening this trip… too many of the flowers were too close together.  (Admittedly, I did get one of those solitary sunflower shots that I liked, so enjoy!)

Sunflower Simplicity

After some more hills, more stopping for pictures, and just enjoying the views on a gorgeous day, we reached our destination and… wowzers!  Utterly gobsmacked!!  The yellow stripe we saw from the campground was only a small fraction of the flower patch we found.  Even a multi-shot panorama can’t do it justice!

Sunflower Basin

We’d never seen anything like this kind of bloom in all of our years of going to Dunes.  It was spectacular and I’m so thankful we were able to see it!


– JC


Camp Mocha

We started making these each morning to wake up at our camp site.  The mix made drinking the instant coffee much more palatable…

1 packet instant hot chocolate

1 packet of instant coffee

Combine the hot chocolate and instant coffee with 12-16oz. of hot water and stir.

Variation:  Use instant Mexican hot chocolate instead of the regular for a little extra kick.


It Gets Dark After Sunset, Ya Know

(Originally posted November 20, 2012)

Sunset Ripples - Great Sand Dunes National Park - Colorado
Sunset Ripples – Great Sand Dunes National Park – Colorado

You’d think it doesn’t take much to remember that it gets dark after sunset, right?  Not the case when you’re so focused on getting your sunset shots as the light and weather start cooperating at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado!

This day’s sunset shooting session wasn’t shaping up to be much of anything as we set out on the dunes.  That’s when the light started to change and the clouds started coming in to make the scene potentially more dramatic, if not fleeting.  Time to hustle a little to get a great spot for shooting…

Sure enough, in the swirl of my mind that was taking in all of the fantastic shooting options and rushing to get to my position to set up before the conditions vanished, I forgot to bring our headlamps so we could find our way back to the parking lot and our campground.  No problem though because my husband – ever the Boy Scout – would surely have them.  Turns out he forgot too… whoops!

So the sunset session went on as planned, and I pushed it as long as I possibly could while mentally balancing how the scenery was changing, the photographic potential, the rate at which it was getting dark, and how quickly we could get back to the car before the skies were completely black (and the animals – big and small – started to come out for their nightly fun).  I got some really fantastic shots on this particular evening, this image being one of them.

After the sun went behind the dunes, the clouds filled in too much for dramatic sunset colors, so we started back towards the car and our camp.  Much to our surprise, we walked a lot further from the parking lot than we had originally thought!  Double whoops!!  No worries though, because we did make it back with a hint of dusk to spare and went about our night.  (Stargazing at this park is fantastic – so much to see in the night skies!!)

This picture always reminds me of the new addition I made to my routine for sunset shooting sessions – putting a headlamp in my camera bag just in case I need it.  Something so simple, full of common sense, that I simply forgot that day that I won’t let happen again.  Definitely a “duh” moment for me, even though I got some amazing shots!  🙂

– JC

PS – Yours truly is still on the mend after foot surgery.  Things are healing well, just a little slower than little ol’ impatient me would like them to.  Unfortunately, that also means I’m still hobbling and am limited in what I can do.  Hopefully that doesn’t last much longer and our work on the Alpha Pup site (and life in general) can get back to normal!