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…
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…
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!
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!!
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…
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…
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!!
A few weeks ago we headed up to Rocky Mountain National Park for a hike up to Lawn Lake. It’s a trail we haven’t done in a few years, even though we really enjoyed the trip the one and only time we’d gone up there. The hike isn’t steep, but it is very long – we clocked nearly 14 miles by the time our day was done!
This time around, I was crazy enough to take the big camera with me for the entire trek, only adding weight to the pack I had to carry. No worries though because it meant more calories burned (which translates into less guilt over celebratory food & beverages afterward!) and I was rewarded with some fun with a marmot.
The hike up was uneventful. Gorgeous, but uneventful. Not a ton of wildlife, but plenty of scenery and wildflowers in bloom…
…some shadows out to play along the Rolling River…
…and some downed trees that made for an abstract that I can’t help but think looks like a rhino or a triceratops tilting its angry head.
Lawn Lake is spectacular on an average day. Add the fabulous weather we had and it was simply scrumptious!
While we were plopped down on the lake shore for a spot of lunch, I got inspired. The rocks on the opposite side of the lake – for some reason – every time I looked at them, I kept thinking they looked painted. That gave me a post-processing idea… once I got home, I tossed the Photoshop oil paint filter on it and voila! Not quite what I pictured in my mind, but it still came out funky, especially with what it did to the grasses and pines along the shore:
If it seems like I’m glossing over the hike, I sorta am, but for good reason. Not only can I say “it’s so gorgeous up there” so many times and bore even myself, but also we had more fun on the way down the trail after lunch thanks to a new marmot friend we made during a lengthy game of peek-a-boo!
I saw the little guy scoot across the trail about 25 yards ahead of us and park himself in a set of boulders on the side of the trail. Knowing that marmots tend to graze in and around rocks scrounging for little bits of lichen and mosses, I knew he’d be back out, so I started to get into position for when he did.
Bingo! Oh, hello there…
Clearly I’d been spotted, but he didn’t run away. Knowing that they can be skittish and don’t move nearly as fast as say, a chipmunk, I bided my time. Each time he popped back into his little hiding spot, I slowly crept up another step or two to get closer to him. (I always keep a healthy and respectable distance away from critters, balancing not spooking them with where I need to be for grabbing a shot.)
Every time after I’d step forward, I’d see a little nose pop out and check out the situation:
After about 15 minutes of this dance, I think he decided to “smile” (unlikely) or was simply annoyed with my presence and my taking so many shots of him:
And with that, we bid each other adieu and everyone went about their day:
Another successful day on the trails in the books!