Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Great Sand Dunes National Park, August 2015

I'd visited Great Sand Dunes National Park four times before this past Saturday, but had never actually hiked out into the dunes any appreciable distance. When opportunity arose, I decided to take advantage of it and hike to High Dune.

Unfortunately, weather conditions when I arrived seemed to conspire against me a bit.  I'd thought I'd arrive by 3:00.  Instead I didn't make it until around 5:30 and late afternoon thunderstorms were doing their late afternoon thing over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

I asked a ranger if he thought I'd be able to get to High Dune and back by sunset.  He hemmed and hawed, clearly not wanting to have to state the obvious as lightning crashed to the north.  "What's the worst that could happen," I asked, already knowing the answer.

"Well, you could get hit by lightning," was the matter-of-fact response.  Super.

Great Sand Dunes National Park
I pondered my options, but admittedly only briefly.  This was my only shot.  I figured I'd just keep a close eye on the sky, and if things got truly dicey I'd either turn back or just hunker down until it blew over.  So in a steady rain I headed out, crossing Medano Creek and following the clearly established tracks.  The moisture actually seemed to make the sand a little easier to walk on, and added an interesting visual dimension to the footprints.

Great Sand Dunes National Park
I was making pretty good progress despite the rain.  An occasional low rumble of thunder still came from the north, but the lightning stopped.  Then the rain also ceased, and I felt vindicated by my decision to head out.  Traffic was light, too, likely as a result of other people having enough common sense not to try to make the hike at that time.

Great Sand Dunes National Park
The clouds weren't particularly thick to the west.  So as the sun descended, it would shine through breaks in the clouds and yield some nice textures and shadows.

Great Sand Dunes National Park
In roughly an hour I was at the summit of High Dune, and just elated at the sight.  An absolutely unique spectacle of nature.

Great Sand Dunes National Park
I drank it all in, occasionally snapping but more often just trying to shield myself from wind gusts that were sandblasting me like a graffitied playground wall.

Great Sand Dunes National Park
I've never had much success trying to capture wind in a still image, which makes sense since wind is defined by motion.  This was probably my best attempt at recording sand blowing off a ridge.

Great Sand Dunes National Park
I used Lightroom's new HDR feature to blend three exposures of this scene.  Not bad.  But with that break between the lowest clouds and horizon, I felt that there was a chance for a spectacular sunset.  The problem was that sunset was still about 45 minutes away.  What to do ...

Duh.  I stuck it out, hunkered down below the ridge line for the most part to try and stay out of the strongest gusts.  A couple of young guys joined me, one of whom was wearing just shorts and a tank top.  THAT dude I felt bad for.

Great Sand Dunes National Park
Another decision validated.  I knew I was in for something special right when the sun started to peek out from below the clouds.

Great Sand Dunes National Park
I zoomed out and my breath caught in my throat.  I had to look up from the viewfinder to take in the scene with my own eyes.  Warm colors on the pristine dunes.  A bit of sand blowing off the ridge.  Rain falling in the distance.  And a beautiful starburst from the setting sun.  I gave a silent prayer of thanks for having the chance to witness this amazing moment, then added a little request to have managed to record it.

Great Sand Dunes National Park
Bounding back down the dunes in the twilight I felt like I was walking on the moon, taking giant, loping strides and sliding in the sand.  I stopped for one shot, intrigued by how the textures changed in the low light.  Then I realized I wasn't going to get another shot even close to what I just had, and I still had to get dinner, and I still had to drive three more hours to Crested Butte.

It's really true that anything worth having is worth working for.  The drive, the hike, the hesitancy over the weather, the stinging sand.  Sure, I've gotten some great shots just pulling my car over and leaning out the window.  But this ... this was something I felt I'd earned.  I didn't just have a shot; I had an experience.  A memory.  A story.  One I'm delighted to get to share with you. :)

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