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

Messin’ with Perspective

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.

Downstream Driftwood

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?

A Weed or a 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?

Cliff or Creekbed?

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.

In the Ripples

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!!

– 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…

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

Marmot Peek-a-Boo

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…

Shadows & Rocks

…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.

Creatures in Wood

Lawn Lake is spectacular on an average day.  Add the fabulous weather we had and it was simply scrumptious!

Approaching Lawn Lake

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:

Oil Painted Rocks

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…

Why, Hello...

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:

Still There?

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:

Smiling

And with that, we bid each other adieu and everyone went about their day:

Bye Now

Another successful day on the trails in the books!

– 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.

 

Dancing Sands Greet Us

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…

Windy March

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…

Dancing Sands

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!)

 

-JC