Monday, November 06, 2017

Mountains of Sand

When we were planning this road trip back in February, deciding the journey up to Salt Lake City was fairly easy. The difficult part was planning the return trip. Salt Lake City is about 1500 miles away from Lake Forest by the shortest route. This route passes through the lower part of Wyoming, and Nebraska and Iowa, a part of the US completely devoid of national parks. Now since we would be traveling in our own car, so we didn't have the option of flying back and would have to make this long and boring drive anyway. We would also need to stay at hotels for the night since driving 1500 miles takes at least three days. So we decided to add another 300 miles to the route, so that we could travel via another national park, and then stay with our friends in St. Louis, Missouri for the total solar eclipse of August 21.

So the final plan was this: we would drive from Salt Lake City to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado and camp there for two nights. Then we would drive to a city called Hays in Kansas where we would stay in a hotel for a night. Finally, we would drive to St. Louis and spend the night there, and if the weather permitted, we would be able to witness one of the greatest celestial spectacles the next day, before driving back to Lake Forest the same evening.

By the time we reached Great Sand Dunes at the end of a ten-hour drive through Utah and Colorado, it was getting dark. We had passed through mixed weather, and as the sun dipped low in the western sky, we had seen sand dunes, and rainbows over mountains in the distance, and fields of sunflowers glowing in the late evening sunlight. But we had not stopped to take photos. Finally, when we had entered the park and set up our tent at our pre-reserved the Pinyon Flats Campground, we decided to rest and look around us. We could see that the campground had evergreen trees, and the outline of a dark mountain was just visible against the dark sky on one side. As we lit a campfire and finished our dinner with leftover Thai food from the previous night, the milky way came up above us. We were very tired, but I managed a few photos of the starry sky as Poulami wrote her journal in the tent.

The sky from our campsite the first night

When we initially made our travel plans, we had reserved the campsite for two nights. But then, since we had added one extra night at Salt Lake City, we had to cancel the first night's reservation at Great Sand Dunes and we didn't find a reservation for a second night there. So when we woke up the next morning, our first thought was, "Where do we sleep tonight?" Of course, we had a fallback option, but we didn't like it. A few miles down the road outside the park gates, there was a small privately-owned place called "Great Sand Dunes Oasis." The place had a restaurant, a fuel pump, a general store, a tiny motel, a tiny lodge, and a campground. The hotel and the lodge had been full, but we knew the campground would have space for us. Whether we wanted to stay there was a different matter altogether. The online reviews of this campground weren't stellar; it was just a piece of rocky land without much marking for campsites and people had had to drive uphill or downhill over rocks the size of baseballs to reach their sites. So we were a little hesitant.

Our first campsite
But the problem solved itself in a very unexpected manner. Two rangers were walking by when we were folding up our tent, and we asked them if there were any empty sites on the campground here, just in case. They replied that the other side of the campground was completely first-come-first-serve, and so there were several empty campsites there. We should just go and choose one, pay for it, and set up our tent. This fact wasn't very clear from their website, so we had no idea there could be empty campsites. So we quickly packed up our stuff, drove to Loop A, chose one of the best campsites and set up our tent there. Our campsite was a couple of feet above the road, and the campsites across the road were a couple of feet below. So when we looked at the sand dunes  - yes, we could see the sand dunes from our campsite - it was as if we were on the highest row of a gallery, and the other rows would not obstruct our view. Happy with our campsite, we went to look for breakfast.

Hummingbirds at the Oasis
Breakfast at the Oasis restaurant was good. As a bonus, we sat next to a window outside which they had a hung a hummingbird feeder. So I could take lots of photos of hummingbirds feeding with the sand dunes in the background. After leaving the Oasis, we took photos at the park entrance sign, then headed back into the park. We had already been to the visitor center, now we wanted to see the dunes up close.

The sand dunes are actually just one part of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. They cover an area of 30 square miles and the tallest dunes are up to 750 feet high. The sand flowed in as sediment from the surrounding mountains over millions of years. Today, no new sand enters the system, but the upper layers of the dunes regularly shift around by the wind. The dunes are sandwiched between mountains on both sides, and two creeks that flow over the edge of the sand. We had to wade through cool, crystal-clear ankle-deep flowing water of one of these to walk to the sand dunes.

Medano Creek
Once we stepped onto the sand, we began to feel the true scale of things. On looking ahead, we saw a scene that could have come out straight of the Sahara Desert. Only, I doubt if Sahara is as dotted with colourful tourists as this place was. Also, even though it wasn't evident from where we stood, this place was about 8000 feet above the sea level.

What was also not evident to us, was how difficult it was to climb the dunes. There were people who were climbing to the tops of the dunes, and some of them brought boards to slide down the sand on. We climbed halfway up the first one and realized it wasn't our cup of tea. Besides, we were walking barefoot and the sand was beginning to heat up. Actually there were signs warning us not to go barefoot on the sand for this specific reason, but we couldn't have walked through the water in our shoes, and putting on shoes and socks on our wet feet while on the sand would have been messy. Besides, we thought we are from India, how hot can it get? But as the sun climbed high in the sky, we realized we would have to leave soon. So we did a quick photo shoot on the dune and walked back to our car. After the walk on the hot sand, the walk through the Medano Creek was very soothing.

Photo shoot on the dunes
Then we returned to our campground and found an RV the size of a huge bus in the campsite across the road blocking our view of the dunes. We were still like the people sitting in a high gallery seat,  but with a Hagrid-sized person sitting in the seat in front. Poulami and I had bread, bananas and miscellaneous uncooked items for lunch, and all through the hot afternoon, we cursed the old man and (presumably) his wife who had parked the humongous vehicle in our view. It seemed their idea of a camping holiday was quite different from ours, because the first thing that they did after parking their two vehicles (apart from the RV they had an SUV too) was to get out a dish antenna and install it outside. The second thing was getting two chairs out and sitting down next to the RV, where they promptly had a fight and stopped talking to each other. They spent the rest of the day and the evening watching TV inside their vehicle. We tried to sleep a while in our tent, but it felt more like getting pressure-cooked. The presence of a crying baby in a tent nearby didn't help either, so we finally gave up.

After our little photo shoot in the sand earlier, I had realized that I had chosen a bad time for it. For really dramatic photos of the sand, we would need to visit the dunes when the sun was low and the dunes were bathed in deep shadows. So we went to the dues once again in the evening. This time, I got the chance to make a video (starts around 4:53 in the video collage above) of a rare phenomenon called surge flow in the Medano Creek. Then, we climbed a low dune and sat in the warm sand until the sun was really low in the sky. As we walked back, we found the sand in the shadows had already started getting cold.

On the dunes around sunset
We were not done with the sun yet. The previous evening, we had seen fields of sunflowers in the golden light of the setting sun, but had failed to stop to photograph them. Now, we drove a few miles outside the park gates, parked our car by the side of the road, and I photographed the sunflowers and sunset to my heart's content. It was a beautiful time at a beautiful place, and even the eerie mass- howling of dozens of coyotes nearby added to the magic of the moment. When we had first thought of visiting Great Sand Dunes, I had thought the place had nothing to offer other than a tiny stretch of desert. But the place proved to be much more than that, with flowing creeks and fields of flowers and hummingbirds and dark, starry skies. The more we saw of the place, the more we loved it.
Sunset behind sunflowers
The evening at our campground was quite eventful. We were visited by a herd of deer, we tried to make popcorn on the campfire and ended up making lots of burnt corn, and finally, we cooked couscous and omelettes for dinner. As the night deepened, I managed to take my dream shot - our tent beneath the Milky Way. It wasn't perfect; the campground had too much light and trees and clouds blocked part of the sky, but still, it was something.

Night sky at our second campsite
The next morning, I woke up early to photograph the dunes from the campground as the first rays of the sun started to paint them golden from the top. When the top of the tallest sand dune did turn gold, I looked through my viewfinder and found that someone had already climbed to the peak and was waiting there to see the sunrise. They must have had to start a few hours earlier to get there on time. Some people can be crazy about hiking.

Visitors to the campground

Sun touches the dunes... and the person at the top.
Then we had leftover couscous for breakfast and packed up our tent, for the last time on this trip. We had finally run out of interesting places to visit and were about to start on one of the most boring legs of our road trip: a seven-hour drive through the plains of Colorado and Kansas.

(To be concluded in the next part...)

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