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!!