May 2nd, 2016 – On the road from Northern New Mexico to Southern Colorado
It was almost 1:00 p.m. when we crossed state line into Colorado. Within the hour we entered Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.
We visited this park for briefly in 2013, climbed one of the tallest sand dunes, and then continued on our way to Mesa Verde. This time, our goal was to spend more than just a few hours exploring and actually camp in the park. As soon as we entered the park we could see that our experience this time would be different than the last time. When the elements allow, there is a seasonal creek that flows along the base of the dunes. The Medano creekbed that had been no more than rock-specked swath of sand our last visit was flowing steadily, creating a dramatic change to the otherwise arid sandscape. Thrilled at this transformation, we sent to finding a campsite and setting down stakes.
It was a gorgeous day, and the view from our site was breathtaking. Blue skies littered with roaming cumulus clouds. Bulbous shadows seeped across the dunes that gathered at the foot of the snow-capped mountains. A blanket of sagebrush and pinion pines rested between us and the meandering Medano Creek.
Barely May, we were beset by the blurry line of winter to spring. As we explored the park, we shifted between seasons. A confident spring sun-scorched the landscape while icy winds gusted through the underbrush. The chill of the shade felt decidedly more winter than spring. We hiked the Overlook Trail, which brought us to beautiful views of the dunes and mountains.
Since we had snagged such a great campsite, we decided to spend the rest of the afternoon at our site enjoying the view and making a campfire. A beautiful sunset followed by a cold night air, a warm fire, dinner, and a few brews made it easy for us to make it an early night. Eager to enjoy a full day at the park the following day, we watched the sunset, slipped into our winter sleeping bags and were soon asleep.
May 3rd, 2016 – Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Campsite #67
We woke to a brighter morning sky than we had experienced in quite some time. Awoken around 6:30 a.m. by the call of nature, we snuggled back in the tent together in our warm sleeping bags but left our tent vestibule open to the west, facing the mountains and dunes. With the sun rising behind us, we watched the morning emerge via the changing shadows draped on the dunes. The light started slowly, the snow-capped mountains reflecting the first warmth of day. The shadow moved gradually down the mountains and across the sand, like a blanket being pulled gently away to reveal the soft, golden curves and contours of the dunes. We breathed softly, as if our inhale might hasten the reveal, or our exhale cast the night back across the dunes. As the dunes were revealed the light began to warm the clustered grasslands of yucca, rabbitbrush, speargrass, and sage dissolving them from greyscale to soft pastel. Dark obscure profiles became juniper and pinion as the light finally began to steam our tent. An intimate gift of morning, all of her finest light and shadow on display. Snuggled together watching the sunrise, we melted into a light snooze before we woke again and climbed out of the tent to make coffee around 8:30 a.m.
This elegant morning, this moment of brilliant beauty is an example of why we go to National Parks. For that unexpected experience when you just allow yourself to be there. To be in that place, in that moment, watching and appreciating the gifts of nature and wilderness. The simple beauty that is just the natural world existing around us and even within us…if we let it.
We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of steaming oatmeal with peanut butter and some coffee before heading out to take care of a few camp chores. Item one, recycling. Item two, acquisition of sunblock. Item one is always on the radar for us while we are traveling; when and where will our next opportunity to recycle be? Not all states have the ability or the desire to maintain or provide consistent recycling options. Not all National Forests or National Parks, depending on their locations and resources, can even provide full recycling facilities. This means that we occasionally end up hauling empty vessels around in the back of the car until we can find a place to recycle. Freakish and excessive? Some may think so, especially since we love to sample local brews and occasionally end up toting cans and/or bottles for a few days, but we believe it is worth it. Every little bit helps. This constant subliminal search has also resulted in us paying extra attention to facilities that are available on our travels for future reference, as well as taking notice when a park has added to or improved their recycling and waste management facilities. (Of course, the push for sustainability and green living reaches beyond NPS, but here are some links if you are interested in information on the NPS Green Parks Plan or success stories.) Thankfully, Colorado and Colorado NPS sites are typically pretty reliable in their recycling facilities. (Yay!) Great Sand Dunes is no exception. Item one checked off, we stopped at the visitor center for sunblock, then set out to explore the dunes and the creek.
Though certainly not the Colorado River, Medano Creek is deeper in some areas than one may think. Sometimes the creek has enough flow to float and is deep enough to swim in. The creek also displays a phenomenon called “surge flow” caused by underwater sand ridges accumulating, then breaking sending waves of water gushing downstream. This short NPS video shows a surge flow and gives you an idea of how deep the creek can get. On our visit, traversing the creek required no more than a little sandbar jumping.
We stood at the base of one of the dunes we had watched sunrise shadows transform from our tent earlier that morning. Black veins of minerals skittered down the sand. Patches of wind-carved ripples wrinkled the smooth slopes. Tufts of indian ricegrass, blowout grass, and prairie sunflower skeletons emerged from the parched sandscape. Since it is impossible to maintain a “trail” on a sand dune, you sort of just have to pick a spot and go for it. We chose a goal point and clamored up a dune.
It was a unique experience hiking hot sand in hot sun with a persistent snow-cooled wind that rushed down from the Rocky Mountains. The view from the crest was fantastic, worth the effort of battling the slip-sliding sand on each sinking step intended to carry us upward. The wind made it difficult to take too many photographs or stay up there very long though since each gust of wind blew clouds of sand in our faces. But it was a magnificent view on high.
We galloped down the dunes, letting gravity and the slick of the sand carry us down at a much swifter pace than we had climbed.
Despite the crisp wind, the insistent sun convinced us spring was close at hand and we couldn’t resist taking our shoes off as we walked along the creek that flowed between the dunes and our campsite. The water was quite cool, but certainly not the coldest we had ever waded through. The current and surge of the creek rippled and wrinkled the creek bed, creating mesmerizing designs and flourishes. Exquisite patterns of tan, grey, and silver curled and curved about the undulated sand. Our footprints changed the patterns as we walked, turning coils and bending waves.
Sodden sand along the banks betrayed the presence of birds, mule deer, and other animals. Our feet sunk as we slogged through the gently surging creek, hitting quicksand-like swathes along some recently re-curved bends.
Back at camp we watched a small herd of mule deer pick through empty campsites for foragable remnants of previous campers. I wrote in my journal while Derrick studied our maps. We had almost two weeks before we needed to be in the Black Hills. What would we try to do? We could cover a lot of ground in that amount of time, especially the way we tend to travel. With two drivers, we can put many miles behind us, even though we don’t always take the fastest or most direct route. Instead, we plot our course to the parks through national and state forests or preserves whenever possible, encountering the many scenic drives, interesting roads, and frequent wildlife sightings. Following such guidelines can also provide camping options to us when driving into the night. Celebrating the Centennial was a theme to our trip too, so NPS stops were the main attraction, which, to be perfectly honest has become to standard basis for the majority of the traveling we do. The parks are pins already stuck in our map – it’s just a matter of which way we will stretch the string to get there.
The more Derrick traced possible paths and estimated travel time, the more we began to realize we may be able to do more in before we arrive at Mount Rushmore than we thought. We had already planned a stop at Florissant Fossil Beds on our way to Rocky Mountain National Park, but was it possible we could make it to Yellowstone as well? A celebration of the Centennial certainly had to include the nation’s first national park, right? The moment we realized getting to Yellowstone might actually feasible, our eyes met and wide smiles spread across our faces.
At the beginning of the year, Derrick and I had been convinced we would probably not be able to do much traveling to the parks in 2016. Our employment situation was not ideal and unless we figured something else out, travel would be tricky. We had applied to over 100 National Park positions with no luck. We both resigned to the idea that 2016 would just not be the year for rangering or for park travel. We pressed on. I started working at the newspaper. Derrick worked and worked at the woodshop until we decided that enough was enough, that it wasn’t worth the toll on his body, his mind, or his spirit. The day after he left that job, March 15th to be exact, we got the call from Mount Rushmore. If Derrick had been working at the woodshop that day he would have missed the call and who knows if they would have called back. If there was ever a time when it felt like universe wanted us to make a change, take the risk, and grab this opportunity with both hands, this was it. Ever since then, we have been in go mode, realizing that exactly two months from the day we answered Rushmore’s call, we would be moving in to our ranger housing. And now, here we were, one new park under our belt, camping in the Great Sand Dunes, preparing to hit another new park (Florissant Fossil Beds) on our way to Rocky Mountain, and realizing that we might actually make it to Yellowstone this year. It’s amazing how life works sometimes.
As the afternoon shadows began to stretch, we soaked in the last few hours of light in the sand dunes. Our time in this park had been incredibly relaxing and rejuvenating. As much as we enjoy being on the go, we relished this chance to just sit and enjoy the moments.
As the sun began to dip behind the dunes, we began to prepare for our dinner. Campfire cooking is one of our favorite things to get creative with. Just because you are camping does not mean it HAS to be hotdogs or cold sandwiches every night. (Not that there is anything wrong with that…) But the length of our trips can be considerable at times, so diversity and proper nutrition are factors when possible. And of course, the joy trying to use up ingredients and food products before they go bad or end up in some sort of a sloppy cooler soup is always a consideration. As always, I was excited for tonight’s culinary experiment.
Our last night at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve was teeming with stars. It was all I could do to not sleep on the picnic table, eyes glued to the sparking heavens. Sleep and stars in our eyes, we crawled into the tent to rest up the day of travel we had planned for tomorrow.