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.)
Here’s what we found this year…
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…
Although it was abnormally dry, we still had a great time camping and hiking and hanging out with friends. Until next year Dunes…
I have no idea where 2018 has gotten to. As I write, it’s mid-August and I just came across pictures from back in February that I hadn’t processed! Clearly life got a little busy and – quite honestly – saying goodbye to our little girl Sydney back in June threw me for quite a loop. Pictures were definitely the last thing on my mind as we went through that. (I’m sure at some point I’ll write a post about that – I’ll be sure to hydrate myself before I write since it’s bound to be a teary one.)
So here we are late-summer, looking back at snowshoe pictures I took in February during the one and only time we got out on the trails this winter. We trekked up the winter trail to one of our favorite places – Loch Vale (a.k.a. The Loch). The winter trail is pretty easy until the last quarter-mile or so when it gets pretty steep. It’s worth the trip though!
As usual, it was really blustery when we reached The Loch itself. We had to find some shelter out of the wind just to eat our lunch. Luckily for me, we plopped ourselves down for a nosh right near a really interesting curl of snow on a rock. I think that’s the one thing that I took the most pictures of during our hike! Though it was tricky to avoid over-exposing the picture using my phone, I did snag a few shots that I was fond of…
The Loch is a good hike any time of year, though winter is probably our favorite because it’s not nearly as crowded as it is other times of year. Naturally, that comes with trade-offs that you have to prepare for… like bundling up and leaning into powerful winds to get up there in the first place! Totally worth it though…
Before we left Mesa Verde National Park for the last stop on our trip in Durango, we had time for one quick morning spin to Petroglyph Point. We hadn’t done that hike since the first time my husband took me to Mesa Verde back in 2007. (In fact, this may be the very first hike I ever went on in Mesa Verde!) Ten years later seemed like a good time to check it out, and the length of the hike certainly fit our itinerary for the day.
We decided to hit the trail as soon as it opened. Since the trail starts near the popular Spruce Tree House site and the museum, access to the trail is controlled by a locked gate that’s only open during daylight hours. We thought the gate opened at 8am. Surprise! It wasn’t going to open until 8:30. What to do with time to kill and good morning light? Take pictures of yucca, of course!
Eventually 8:30 came, so we schlepped down to the gate to start our day and it was still locked. Huh? We waited a few minutes, figuring maybe the rangers were running late, yet still no signs of it opening. I hiked back up to the museum at the top of the trail to ask the rangers was up and it turned out there was some sort of coverage miscommunication, so one of the rangers came back down with me and opened it for us. Sweet! That guaranteed we were the first ones on the trail for the day so we could set our own pace and have some peace and quiet along the way.
I took some pictures along the way out to Petroglyph Point, but much of the trail was in shade since the sun wasn’t very high in the sky yet. I tried not to slow our pace too much with picture-taking, but there was one exception…
We came upon a rock along the trail that had some huge holes eroded in it. The way the light was coming through the holes, it looked like mini caverns or slot canyons. The lighting was so delicate that it took some time to get the exposure dialed in, and then a little more time in post processing to bring out the light the way my eyes saw it. I think it was time well spent based on the results.
A couple of miles down the trail, we reached Petroglyph Point and still hadn’t seen or heard another soul on the trail. It was wonderful! We took quite a bit of time at the petroglyph panel itself because it’s really interesting to study in detail when you have the opportunity to do so.
Only mere yards after you reach the petroglyphs, you start your ascent up some ladders back to the mesa top to walk back around to the trailhead through some pinyon and juniper forest. Before we climbed out, we turned around and found that the canyon was lit up beautifully in the morning sun. Picture time!
Turns out that wasn’t the only cool view. There was a tiny one right next to us as we were looking out across the canyons – a cluster of cacti thriving in a crack on one of the big boulders next to us.
Once we returned to the car, it was time to leave the park. Always a bittersweet feeling, but we still had an afternoon and a night in Durango to look forward to before the long drive home.
Since we couldn’t check into our hotel quite that early, we went directly to Ska Brewing in Durango. We’ve enjoyed their beer many times, but had never managed to make it to the brewery itself to check it out. I was sold the second I saw what might be one of the best traffic control signs ever in their parking lot (complete with aspens changing color in the background)…
Wonderful brews and a tasty lunch were had by all.
The melancholy of our trip coming rapidly to a close was starting to set in, but we enjoyed our short stay in Durango. It was a whirlwind week in Utah and southwest Colorado, but a really fun one. Can’t wait to do it again!!
When we spend time in eastern Utah, that usually means the loop back home runs through southwest Colorado somehow. It’s a convenient excuse for my husband to stop by Mesa Verde National Park and see what’s going on. Though it makes for a much longer trip home, we get to see some parts of the state we don’t visit on a regular basis. It certainly makes for a beautiful change of scenery.
This trip followed that same pattern. We left Goblin Valley State Park in Utah and started the roundabout way home via Mesa Verde. With only a day and a half to spend in the park itself, we kept the schedule fairly light and open, though we did squeeze in one of the limited-access ranger-led hikes to a cliff dwelling that’s not typically open to the public.
Every year, Mesa Verde offers 2 different ranger-led hikes that are limited to about 10 people each day for a small cost. These trips take you to sites very much off the beaten path and typically not visible from any of the overlooks, nor are they regularly toured by the masses. It’s a nice balance for the park in terms of management – they can keep the sites somewhat accessible to the public by rotating the offerings each year while ensuring these sites are protected from the wear and tear of tour bus-fulls of tourists trampling around them daily.
We’ve been on a few of these ranger-led hikes during previous trips to the park. This year we lucked out and got to go to a new site – Oak Tree House. It was billed as a 2 mile roundtrip hike that involved using ropes and ladders. Ok by us!
The hike to Oak Tree House started fairly early in the morning – certainly fine by me from a photography perspective since that meant good light to shoot in.
As we descended down the trail, we were curious when the ropes and ladders would come into play. We didn’t have to wait long. We quickly came upon a spot where you used a rope to steady yourself as you went backwards down a steep-ish rock to a ladder to climb down to the next level of the hike. Certainly a nice twist on “normal” hiking (a.k.a. walking). Luckily, with my camera strap setup attached to my backpack, I was able to traverse the course without any problems or accidentally banging my camera at all. Very helpful when you’re trying really hard not to be the photography jerk slowing down the whole group!
The rangers that guide these hikes do a really nice job with the interpretation & education. They also keep the pace pretty tame, so that did allow me the opportunity to stop and snag some shots. What I immediately noticed was, when the ranger would stop and tell the group that there was, say, a good shot of Cliff Palace across the canyon, everybody focused over there where the site was in complete & utter shade. Where was I pointing? The exact opposite way making use of the morning sunlight still shimmering off of the canyon walls.
Following the light and always looking around as we stopped to listen to the ranger continued to pay off for me and my pictures because there was a very cooperative bluebird warming himself in the morning sun on a branch not far from where we were standing on the trail. That’s why I always keep my eyes peeled when hiking or simply walking around town with my camera!
It didn’t take long to reach Oak Tree House itself. The site wasn’t as in-tact as some of the more famous houses like Cliff Palace, Balcony House, or Spruce Tree house that are swarmed with visitors each year and very, very well maintained & preserved. Still, it had some interesting coloring and characteristics that you don’t see on other houses in the park. (It also had some t-shaped doors similar to those found on the houses built at Chaco Canyon… makes you wonder if the civilizations were linked in some way even though the timelines are just a tad off.)
For the first time back at Mesa Verde in 7 years, it was a nice way to start to the day.
The hike was so short that we were easily done by lunchtime. After a bite to eat, we had some time to kill on the mesa before catching the Balcony House tour later that afternoon. We drove out to the Far View Sites to walk around a bit and wound up chatting some more with the park volunteer who had joined us on our Oak Tree House hike earlier in the day.
I was feeling lazy and didn’t want to carry my pack or my camera around, so I just shot with my phone. That gave me the opportunity to try some new shots at the site that I may not have been able to maneuver myself into position to get with my big camera and my pack on.
Finally it was time to head over for our Balcony House tour with 50 other visitors. Since it was late in the season, only Balcony House was open for public tours meaning every single tour was packed to the gills. Once again, considering the pace of the ranger-led tour and the amount of people on it, I opted for no pack and no camera again. It also helped that my husband reminded me of the tiny, narrow passageways you have to scoot and crawl through on the tour. It was just easier to use my phone and leave the big stuff behind.
Balcony House hadn’t changed much in the 10 years since we last toured it. I’d say that’s a good sign for how it’s being managed by the Park Service considering how many people trek through there daily.
As with our other tours, I once again found myself looking around for the less-than-obvious things to shoot. It paid off again as I came home with a really wild shot of the canyon wall leading into the Balcony House site. There’s just something about this shot that mesmerized me more I looked at it after we got home. There’s something about the colors and textures that just draw my eye in.
Believe it or not, that was just our first day at the park! There’s still another half day to come. There’s bound to be something good to do the next morning before we leave… right? Just what? Something to ponder…