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…
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!
During our trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park at the end of the summer, I continued playing with perspective in my shots. The new camera I got last year has a tilt-out screen allowing me to see what I’m shooting even if I can’t shoehorn my body into position behind the viewfinder – a handy feature to have as I get older and I get a little less nimble! What I discovered during this trip is that this new little trick can really mess with your head when it comes to perspective in a picture. Naturally, that’s made it my new favorite toy to play with!
I started experimenting with this new technique on our first morning hike on the dunefield. The low angle on the old, weathered tree stump made it a touch more interesting than just the simple straight-on shot.
Next up was some greenery. That’s when things started getting interesting… judging from the picture, is this a 4-inch tall weed or a 3-foot high bush?
Believe it or not, that’s just a random weed on the dunefield that’s only a few inches tall! Looking at the shot on the camera after I took it, I was pleased with it. It wasn’t until post-processing where I realized that the super-low angle really messes with how to interpret this picture. Kinda fun!
The next morning, the sun was out in all of its glory, making for better photography conditions. That’s when we stumbled on this sand… cliff or ridge?
It doesn’t look it, but that’s really only a 6- or 8-inch ridge of sand left from Medano Creek earlier in the season. When I looked at the picture when we got home, I couldn’t believe how tall the ridge looked! It reminded me of the cliffs you see along some of the Pacific coast beaches.
Last-up, I tried applying this technique to the ripples in the sand created by the wind on the dunes themselves. I don’t think it warps the perspective quite as much as the weed or sand ridge, but it lent itself to grabbing detail and playing with depth of focus in the shot.
I’ll certainly be doing more of these shots down the road. Can’t wait to see what I can come up with to turn a mundane shot into something really special!!
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!!
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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!
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!
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.
One of my favorite things to do at Great Sand Dunes National Park is watching for shapes and shadows in the sands. What makes it really fun for me is that you can play this game all day long, no matter where the sun is in the sky, and looking at things up close or from afar. It’s a photographer’s treat in terms of what nature offers up each minute.
In the past, I’ve typically focused on medium- to long-range shots of the dunes in the early morning or late afternoon hours when the shadows get really dramatic. The lighting at any given moment may highlight a contour in front of you or drop a dark haze down a hill showcasing the different shades of sand, similar to these shots I captured years ago during earlier trips to the Park.
This trip though, I kept my focus tight on things right in front of me on a smaller scale – and wow, did I ever find some good stuff!
I think I had the most luck during our morning hikes on our trip. That might have been because of the thunderstorms that had come through before and during our stay, making the sand just moist enough that it would clump and ripple in interesting ways as the wind tore across the surface and I’d catch the sands while they were fresh and not yet disturbed by hikers. Even more fun for me was, when I got home, really bringing out the most in the shapes and textures by converting my shots to black & white to make them more stunning than they were in the Technicolor of real life.
I think what I liked most about this shot above on the left was how it plays tricks on your mind in terms of perspective. (I’m putting aside the game of “Am I seeing a face in there?” for the shot on the right at the moment because you can play that all day at Dunes.) Even now looking at the shot on the left, I know this ridge wasn’t that big at all – no more than a few feet long and 6 inches high – but I can take a step back and reinterpret it almost as a vast overhead shot of a much larger dunefield. To quote Dana Carvey doing his Johnny Carson impression, “Weird, wild stuff!”
Later on during this hike, the shapes and shadows went from strong and craggy to soft and serene.
These little piles of sand reminded me of flat, black riverbed stones rubbed smooth and round over time (only to wind up in a hot stone massage at a spa?). Something very Zen struck me during this shot, and still does looking at it months later.
I always tell people that Dunes is a photographer’s treat simply because there’s always something to get creative with. For me, it’s usually the shadows and shapes, and the park never disappoints!
Let’s just face it – I’ve been a little delinquent with blogging this fall. Now that fall is about to turn into winter faster that I’d ever imagine, I guess it’s time to catch up – no excuses! (Plus, doing all of this catch-up on a new computer that replaces the previous one that was 5+ years old will make it all go a helluva lot faster.)
I think last we left off we were nearing our annual trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park for a weekend of camping. Of the trips we’re fortunate enough to take most years, we probably look forward to this one most of all. And once again, the park didn’t disappoint. (Does it ever, really?) As soon as we got camp setup, I grabbed my camera and went out to play for the afternoon.
Driving into the park, I had my eye on the skies and saw the clouds building – might be thunderstorms, might just be happy puffy white clouds Bob Ross always so effortlessly plunked down on canvas on PBS back in the day. No matter because, for me, the clouds meant drama.
The muffling of the sun that afternoon scratched any chances of getting late day shots of the shadows as they set in on the dunefield. The trade-off though was that they created shadows on the mountains in the distance, making highlights pop a little more vibrantly than usual in the hills. I was just happy the clouds and the highlights held on long enough for me to get in position and play a little.
An unwelcome partner with the clouds though was the wind. Wind is one of the key ingredients in why the Dunes are there in the first place, so as annoying as it can be as it’s sandblasting your ankles, you learn how to deal with it knowing that it’s just nature at work rebuilding and shifting the piles of sand. For me, it provided some opportunities to catch the grains in motion.
One of the most common ways to catch the sand shifting is simply on a ridge within the dunefield. The wind blows up one side and the sand goes clear off the top and somewhere else in the field. Over long stretches of time, that’s how the dunes change their shape. Each day though, the wind acts as nature’s Etch-a-Sketch shaking things up and erasing the footprints left by folks scampering the hills. I caught that Etch-a-Sketch shake at work knocking out some footprints left earlier that day…
Later on, we dipped down into one of the valleys in the dunefield and I turned around and saw the winds swirling just the right way to make the sands dance along a slightly dampened surface. The sand in the shade hadn’t quite dried out from showers earlier that day or the day before, letting the lighter, drier sand twirl across it in the sweetest dance. It was truly mesmerizing to sit and watch, and even harder to capture that grace on film…
Hard to believe that this was just the start of our long weekend at Dunes! It was a really promising beginning that didn’t disappoint the rest of our stay. (More on that in future posts – consider yourself teased!)