At some point overnight, the wind died down. The wind, that pervasive uninvited guest in our first day in Great Sand Dunes, which had shifted the tent all around when I laid down to sleep. It wasn’t gone, but it was quiet. I felt the lack of it when I awoke in the quiet dawn. Our air mattress was quite a bit squishier than it had been at the beginning of the night. It was chilly but not frigid – good camping weather. Scipio might not have agreed:
I quietly unzipped the tent to give Scipio his morning bathroom break, and had to briefly pause once we were outside. It was *beautiful*. The sun was peaking through breaks in upsloping storm clouds over the Sangres.
If I turned 180 degrees and put the “storm wind” at my back, I could see all the way across the San Luis Valley to the San Juan Mountains, 50 miles away. The sun shone on the eastern slopes across the shaded valley. High up in the peaks, upslope storm clouds again rose. All of this was framed by the Great Sand Dunes to the right, and the Sangres to the left.
Genuinely a beautiful sight. Meanwhile, I had about a third of a bottle of whiskey that I needed to pee out, and Scipio needed to make his morning potty run as well. We started down toward the bathroom that you can see in the above picture, pausing to let the dog squat. Inspired by his very good boi behavior the night before, I optimistically tied Scipio to one of the posts outside the bathroom and went in to take care of my business. When I finished, there he was, looking distressed about my absence but making no noise. Very good boi behavior.
I had the chance to reward Scipio when we got back. Elizabeth awoke to the sounds of him slurping down food, water, and sand from his dish just outside the tent – a heavenly mix of ravenous puppy hunger. I left the tent slightly ajar so that when he was done licking all of the dusty kibble out of his dish, he could jump right back onto the mattress and get warm again. The three of us lay down for a while, and I listened to the morning breeze whistle through the tent flap.
Eventually, Elizabeth was ready to attack the day with vigor. We had two things I’d wanted to do – hike the dunefield, and try to get to the top of the aptly named Tall Dune, and to hike on the other side of the only road through the park to Mosca Pass. Unlike two months ago in Wyoming, we had plenty of flexibility in our schedule depending on what the Hardings and Irene wanted to do. But first, I had a camping stove and an empty belly.
We walked over to the other campsite, where we were alarmed to discover that Charlie’s tent had collapsed. Fortunately, in his drunken stupor, he had crawled into Michael and Irene’s tent and was sleeping on the ground next to them, because otherwise I’m sure the tent would have smothered him all night. I blew on my fingers to warm up before rummaging through the bear box and getting out my handy dandy stove. I’d promised the three of them that they would wake up to the sound and smell of crackling bacon, and dammit, that was exactly what was going to happen. I had to click the lighter a few times, but eventually the stove was hissing reassuringly and hash browns were on the stove.
Irene poked her head out to greet us, while Michael and Charlie gradually reconciled themselves to consciousness. They arrived outside just in time to critique my handling of the hash browns, which admittedly were taking longer than I would have liked to heat up. Eventually, they warmed up enough that I could sprinkle them with a liberal helping of garlic salt and pass them around. I’d give the potatoes a C-, mostly because while they tasted okay they weren’t hot, and also they came with an unfortunate sprinkling of Great Sand Dune in them.
In hindsight, I should have cooked the bacon first then let the taters boil in the grease. The bacon and eggs I made that way came out a lot better. Improving our breakfast situation no doubt helped those of us nursing headaches (not me, of course) feel a little better about the world. Plus, Scipio was behaving a little better still. He wasn’t happy to see Tucker again, and set to yowling and straining against his collar. But this time, Michael was more prepared to deal with him. Scipio was talked to, walked, sullenly allowed himself to be petted by Irene, and eventually settled down with his leash weighed down by the same big rock as last night. That allowed us to eat our slightly sandy breakfast before making plans for the day.
Michael and Charlie had seen the signs for the Medano Pass Primitive Road, a road that shoots off from the main park road shortly before the main road terminates at Pinon Flats. The road is considered primitive for a reason – first, it passes through the base of the dunefield, meaning you need to be quite confident in driving over sand, sand, sand. The stretch after it leaves the national park and enters the national preserve up into the mountains isn’t a whole lot better. But Michael and Charlie have never heard of an adventure they don’t want to try for themselves, and the rental vehicle they’d picked up was honestly closer to a small boat than a car. Given Elizabeth’s nail-in-tire issue, we certainly weren’t going to attempt Medano Pass in her car, but if Michael wanted to try it himself, I was willing to hold Scipio in the backseat. We headed out that way toward mid-morning after convincing my recalcitrant puppy that he was willing to get in a car that Tucker and lots of humans were in.
The first shock of the trip (literally) came before we’d passed the so-called point of no return, wherein you drive at your own risk. Signs informed us that it was recommended to approach the point of no return with no greater than 22 PSI in your tires, presumably to avoid driving over a buried rock somewhere in the dunes and popping a tire. I’m not convinced it was ever entirely necessary, but Michael and Charlie were enthralled by the idea, and immediately stepped out at the point of no return to let air out of the tires slowly. Then, much to the regret of my hungover ass, we started driving over the dunes. It was bumpy, and at times treacherous, but Michael kept it going forward.
We couldn’t have gone more than a mile or two before we came upon a pull-off. Entitled the Castle Creek Picnic Area, it looked like a good access spot to a portion of the dunes that were maybe less exposed to a southwest wind than the blustery conditions back at the main day use area. For a second, I thought we couldn’t head out to the dunefield, because I thought a sign outlawed pets. On the contrary, this was a portion of the preserve that pets were allowed, meaning that Tucker and Scipio could frolic as much or as little as their tiny dog hearts wanted to. I thought this might be nice for the terminally car-stressed Scipio, who was not loving the bumpy ride. What I didn’t realize until we got closer to the dunes was that the lack of streamflow in Medano Creek didn’t apply here, further upstream from the wide valley that characterizes the main day use area. In fact, to get to the dunes we would need to wade across the cold snowmelt(?) water. I don’t have a picture, but it was pretty enough that I went and took a video screenshot to show a little bit of what it looked like.
I promise there will be some real pictures soon.
Unlike the main area, which had been reasonably crowded, and the campground, which was positively cramped, people at Castle Creek were few and far between. I made the mistake of assuming this meant I could drop Scipio’s leash and let him frolic on the dunes. At first, the result was cute and hilarious:
But shortly after that, Elizabeth called him, and he tore down the hill to begin terrorizing Tucker all over again. That was the end of Free-Range Skip, who instead got to stay at the bottom of the dune with Elizabeth and (a short distance away) Irene and Tucker. Meanwhile, Charlie and Michael were trudging up the face of the dune, and I felt like at some point I just needed to climb one of the dang things to see what I could see on the other side. I stepped through the ever-shifting stand up to join them. If you’ve never climbed a dune, it’s not easy. The ground literally melts away under your feet and gravity leaves you working much harder to make up the same distance. And that’s before you even consider the sheer incline, or the wind whipping little tiny grains of sand into your face. It’s no wonder that Michael was calling our a cadence where the two of them would walk on all fours for twenty steps before taking a break leading into the next one. I caught up, then surged past them, because being male means I have to prove my physical dominance in some aspect obviously. As I climbed, I started to realize that what I thought was the top of the dune was actually a false summit, with a slight decrease in the angle of ascent. Paradoxically, the climb was more precarious here, because the sand solidified enough to walk on on the other side of the windswept slope, but that meant that I felt like I was going to pitch backward. At least things went faster until the angle got sharp again and the ground started to shift under my feet once more.
This time, the amount of sand pelting my face was magnified severalfold. It would be hard to explain it, especially once I got to within one quick scramble of the true top of the first layer of dunes. The sand was literally coming over the lip of the dune with such velocity that little sand vortices were forming in the wake. Combine that with the dark upsloping clouds directly overhead, and I was kind of cowed by the thought of what I was getting into. I probably wouldn’t get fried by lightning, but was it worth it to expose myself to the elements by climbing any higher? I had almost talked myself out of reaching the top of the dune, but then in a moment of “f it” I took a deep breath and took the last 30 steps through the pelting sand. Immediately upon reaching the top, the wind and sandblasting died down. I stood up and realized that I was not very good at anticipating fluid dynamics.
Meanwhile, the view up here was incredible. The Sangre de Cristos made a wide arc on the other side of the little valley between the sand dunes and the mountains, while I could see Medano Creek and Elizabeth far below, near a small stand of pure yellow aspens. To my front, dunes rose ever higher into the cloudy Colorado sky, an alien landscape if I’d ever seen one. And, with Michael and Charlie struggling far below, I had time to take pictures of the vista:
I had some time to kill while the Harding brothers made their ascent. By some miracle, I had just enough service at the top of the dune to receive texts, letting me know that *something* must be going horribly wrong in the Red River Shootout for Oklahoma. But I didn’t have enough service to find out what that something was, so I decided not to worry about it. Eventually, Michael slogged his way up the wind-ridden top of the slope. Charlie was slower yet, and additionally suffered the cruel and unusual punishment of having a ton of sand kicked on him in addition to that which the wind was throwing. Once he was over, the two of them sucked wind for a while and started looking around their surroundings. They wanted to go further. Without being able to see Elizabeth or Irene, I didn’t want to go much deeper into the dunes. So we compromised, and walked a little ways further into one of the most Saharan-ass landscapes you could imagine.
And then, because I was worried about what Scipio could be doing down there in the creekbed, we turned around. I had the great pleasure of running at top speed all the way down the dune (20 minutes up, 20 seconds down), while Charlie slid and Michael rolled the entire way. Scipio was a lot happier to see me than Elizabeth was.
Once we’d gotten back in the car, we continued down the Medano Pass road. You can actually see Medano Pass in the first picture I posted in the above sequence, in between segments of the range. As we continued onward down the road, the sand slowly transitioned into a harder soil type: we were leaving the Great Sand Dunes behind. That didn’t mean the road got better – it just meant that instead of risking being stuck in a sandy pit, we were now risking getting stuck in the low-water crossings of Medano Creek. Not that Michael minded – rather, he just wanted to blast through them. We didn’t really have an end-goal in mind, just a desire to drive up into Medano Pass and see the fall color. Up ahead, the road led to a trailhead up to Medano Lake, way up in the mountains, but it became clear the going on the road was so slow that we wouldn’t make it to the trailhead. Instead, we’d just have to settle for the stunning color of the aspens up at 9,000+ feet that we were climbing into. We kept going until finding a wide spot just short of yet another creek crossing, then got out to enjoy the color on what was turning into a fine fall afternoon.
One of those big aspens provided me with my first caught leaf of 2021, maintaining my streak of catching a falling leaf every year. Elizabeth tried but found a little less luck than me in the leaf department. Meanwhile, Charlie put his fancy-schmancy drone up in the air (I want one so bad after seeing his). I don’t think I’m going to link the pictures/videos since I didn’t realize that you aren’t allowed to have drones in the air in NPS lands without permission, but I’m sure he had some cool stuff.
We went up just a little further to a primitive campsite deep into the armpit of Medano Pass. Michael would have loved to have gone further and hiked up to Medano Lake, and in hindsight I would have loved to do so also, but unfortunately we didn’t pack lunch, AND I still wanted to climb Tall Dune. So we stopped at the campsite to let Charlie recover his drone (which, at our last stop, had gotten blown off course by the high winds and crashed a few hundred yards away at this campsite). He put it up one more time tentatively, because we were now in prime Yellow Aspen Territory. I stepped off toward a peaceful Medano Creek and took some imagery for myself.
And then we were headed back out of Great Sand Dunes Preserve into Great Sand Dunes National Park, this time with Charlie in the driver’s seat valiantly trying to do something to mess up the rental car. I had forgotten my hangover for a while, but I was feeling green around the gills by the time we got back to the main road through the park and could reinflate our tires. I was not the only one, either: everyone was somewhere between carsick (Elizabeth) and acute distress (Scipio).
Returning to the more developed part of the park also meant returning to one bar of LTE: enough that once more, garbled texts started coming through. This time, I couldn’t exactly tell what was going on in the OU game except that people were still upset. So I pulled up the CBS Sports app, and after patiently waiting for the game to load I was rewarded with an update from the Red River Shootout: it looked like Oklahoma was down 41-30 with the ball in Texas territory. That didn’t seem great, but also didn’t seem like a disaster? I checked the box score to see how starter Spencer Rattler was doing, and lo and behold: Rattler had been benched. In what I now know was the death knell of his OU tenure, Rattler had started off poorly and been replaced by Caleb Williams. Even as I shared this news with Elizabeth and digested the shock, Oklahoma kicked a field goal to turn what had been a 38-20 halftime deficit into a 41-33 game.
Now I kind of regretted not being in Norman or Dallas to watch the game. But I also wasn’t going to actually turn the game on, especially given our meager cell service levels. So instead we headed back to the campsite and I tried to get through 30-second increments without checking to see what was happening. Charlie and Michael built a fire for their lunch, while I just made a turkey and cheese sandwich and had some Chex mix with it. Then we all settled down briefly to eat, or in some cases agonize over their scoring app. Or, in some cases, sleep.
Eventually, of course, Oklahoma finished off a shocking come-from-behind win. I was correspondingly elated, and sent mocking texts to my friends who just a couple of hours before had been sending sad texts. If I was a little sad I didn’t get to see it, so what? Next up we were climbing Tall Dune, and game replays exist for a reason.
The day was actually progressing toward mid-afternoon by the time Elizabeth, Michael, Charlie, Scipio and I got to the main day use area to attempt to climb Tall Dune. Irene and Tucker stayed behind to read a book and nap. The wind had been calmer all morning near the surface, although Charlie’s drone could attest to the flow aloft. The sun had even poked through the persistent gloom. I was optimistic that today’s dune climbing would be a lot less painful than yesterday.
And I was wrong!
Once we got back out into the dried-up bed of Medano Creek, it became abundantly clear that the sand was whipping as much as ever. My ankles stung all through the walk across the long valley. Then, we started to get into the dunefield, and my everything started to sting. There was no relief – certainly not near the ridgelines, where sand came pouring down from above. Elizabeth had entrusted me with her phone and AllTrails, but, I mean, it’s a dunefield. There is no trail. Some dude had just traced his route up Tall Dune and we were hoping for the best. I was very much Not Having a Good Time.
We climbed for 10 or 15 minutes, making it up a couple of slopes. With each passing minute, my realization that I was Not Having a Good Time became stronger. Neither was our poor little guy. Every time Elizabeth or her cousins had to stop, I saw just how much he was getting battered. His ears stayed pinned back, and sand was starting to accumulate near his eyes. Every time he looked back into the wind he ended up blinking and blinking and blinking.
Finally, Michael and Charlie made the desperation move of tying their sweatshirts over their faces to reduce the surface area getting blasted. As they helped Elizabeth do the same, I took my out: “I think I’m gonna head back. He can’t do this.” None of which was wrong, but also I was definitely using Scipio as an excuse. Elizabeth half-heartedly tried to convince me to stay, but my mind was set. The three of them set along further, leaving me to walk back across the long valley and cut through the dried-up creekbed to get back to the campground. I had some FOMO along the way, and wondered if I would feel better or worse about my decision later on. To be honest, I wish I could have gone all the way up, but I’m not terribly cut up over it. Look at this poor guy – he was Not Having a Good Time.
It probably took 20 minutes of trudging across the desert floor before Scipio and I had picked our way through the last of the cacti and were back at Pinon Flats. I was pretty tired from the busy day we had had, and Scipio had scarcely laid down since waking up hours before. For a dog that loves his naps, I figured that he must be exhausted. And, indeed, no sooner had I zipped the tent back up and taken the leash off of him than he felt asleep, chain around his neck and all.
Now I was kind of in a weird position – at a national park, but with nothing to do. Should Scipio and I go check out the Mosca Pass Trail I had wanted to hike but hadn’t had time for? We could definitely start into it before turning around if we wanted to – I had watched the receding figures of Elizabeth, Michael, and Charlie, and they were a LONG way from reaching the top of Tall Dune. I didn’t want to be AWOL when they showed back up, though, so Scipio and I just took a lap or two around the campground. I was hoping to find an aspen to get a picture of him in front of, but alas, the part of the campground/park that had aspens was off-limits to visitors. So instead, we wandered the campground and I tried to relax while checking afternoon football scores.
Eventually, the sun started to sink in the sky. I figured I could best help by laying in firewood for the evening and getting a cooking fire going. I went with Scipio and bought a couple of stacks of wood (he was very well-behaved outside while I went in to pay like the good boi he had been), and then lugged them back to the Harding campsite. I got there and made some noise bustling about to politely let Irene know I was outside her tent. Then I spent a solid 20 minutes trying to light a campfire with those stupid lighters. I finally had it starting to grow and was arranging my firewood when Michael, Charlie, and Elizabeth showed up – windswept, exhilarated, and with three more stacks of firewood in tow. It was going to be a big fire kind of night.
And indeed, we got a big old fire going. Elizabeth showed me pictures from the top of Tall Dune, which admittedly looked really cool (maybe next time we shouldn’t go in the middle of a storm). Scipio got reacquainted with Tucker all over again. And most importantly, we finished off what had been one of the busiest days of 2021 with some hobo pies. Elizabeth had done a great job at the Trinidad Wal-Mart shopping for ingredients. There was a real onion for me to cut, and a real green pepper. Multiple loaves of bread, shredded cheese, all the marinara sauce, mushrooms, even the disgusting fake pepperonis… if you’d want it on your hybrid sandwich/calzone cooked over a campfire, it was there. Our previous pie irons having gone missing somewhere in the Wyoming trip, my dad had bought us two new irons, which I opened for the first time in Great Sand Dunes. They were pretty small, which worried me at first. But when I pulled my *first* pie out of the fire, it was a perfect golden brown, and the crust fell right off because of the size of them.
At that moment, I fell in love with the new pie irons and they became the supreme version of them. Charlie was fascinated by this new form of food. Michael and Irene had been all-in on hobo pies in our previous times camping with them in Colorado and Wyoming, and this time was no exception. In fact, Michael was able to parlay his “expertise” so to speak into a role making pies for people. When we ran out of bread, even that didn’t stop us – Irene just popped all of her ingredients into a tortilla and let that ride into the fire. It was such a perfect night for a fire – ironically, now the wind actually did calm down to a perfectly still evening. Some clouds lingered directly over our head and over the mountains, but the sky overhead cleared just in time for a brilliant sunset at Great Sand Dunes. Scipio and I were off running an errand back to our campsite when the sun went down, and my goodness was the sunset incredible. Just look at these:
Even better, the clearing skies provided an opportunity to see the stars tonight. This was a pretty exciting moment – I was going to get a chance to take my first-ever stab at astrophotography with my GoPro. I had recently discovered the night photography mode on it, and Great Sand Dunes dark skies were the perfect test subject.
After a few marshmallows and a few glances at the Michigan/Nebraska game, the sky had darkened enough that stars began to come out. It was like a switch had been flipped. One second, I was holding Scipio up to show him the sunset. The next, I was straining to see my pie iron in the dying light. When I next looked up, an inky black sky was popping with all of the stars the western sky could hold. This was my moment. I bid my companions a brief adieu, grabbed my GoPro and tripod, and trudged off down toward the campground road toward the general store. When I got there, it seemed like there was too much light, so I kept walking. And kept walking. And eventually, at the bend in the road right by the entrance to the Medano Pass Primitive Road, I stopped. Holy crap, the view. The dim light of the campground, the stars, and distant Alamosa allowed me to see the outline of the Sangres to my left and the Sand Dunes to my right. The sky above was littered with stars – one of the best dark skies I’ve seen. Straight ahead of me, the Milky Way was rising directly above a setting moon. I fiddled around with settings, and then started being a Serious GoPro Photographer. I only edited one resulting photo, so I’ll show some iPhone stuff first:
And now, the prize of my photography session:
I’ll be honest, it looks a lot brighter in Lightroom. Then every time I export it, it looks super dark. But still! That is clearly the Milky Way rising right above a setting moon. So cool. Just turn your brightness all the way up when you try to find it.
I walked back slowly to the campground, stressing over Michigan’s blown lead in Lincoln and the dying battery on my phone. When I got back to the campfire, everyone marveled over my Elite Photography Skills except for Scipio, who just marveled that his human was back. I charged up my phone and once again tried to make it through 30-second increments without checking the Michigan score. In a national park, seated around a campfire, eating marshmallows – what could be better? Well, apparently all of those conditions plus both of my teams pulling out nailbiters could be better, because that’s what happened. It was almost a perfect night.
Almost. There was a good chance of storms in central Oklahoma the next day, including a risk of supercells. The primary threat looked like it was going to be elevated storms capable of hail somewhere in between large and giant, and short-range models were showing Norman as dead center in the risk area. Norman, of course, was where a certain Nolan’s poor Mercury Mariner was sitting out exposed to the elements. I wanted to get leave by 8:30 to be able to save my car from the Nocturnal Hail, but Elizabeth didn’t want to get up early. We left the debate unresolved and I uneasily didn’t press the issue. Notably, though, Elizabeth and I decided to turn in early, much to Michael’s indignation. He forced us to stay until the fire had burned down, however many logs there were. When it had, though, we took an exhausted Scipio back to our tent. Elizabeth and the dog conked out immediately, while I stayed up just a little longer to see if Alabama was really going to lose to Texas A&M. They were, and Scipio and I had a quiet celebration in the mercifully not-wind-blown tent.
It had been a long day – some might say that if a picture is worth a thousand words, then this day had at least five pictures worth of things to blog about. From a beautiful sunrise, to a beautiful sunset, to all of the beautiful aspens in between, I had had a day of photography to remember (and a dead camera to forget). Sand had blown everywhere, was under my nails, had gotten into my contacts, had formed little sand boogers in Scipio’s eyes. Instead of the planned trail hike, we had hit the backcountry of the dunes and freewheeled it down a low-maintenance road during the day. There’s so many ways that I could finish this post, and I’m not sure any of them would do justice to the national park. All I will say is that I found myself glad that we took overnight trips to the parks, because I felt like I’d seen an insufficient chunk of Great Sand Dunes, as opposed to an insignificant sliver.