I recommend listening to this song while you read this blog post and view the pictures from the Great Sand Dunes. It really captures the essence of being alone at night on the Dunes, under a sea of stars.
As I entered the San Luis Valley, one of the largest desert valleys in the world, I could see the Great Sand Dunes off in the distance. In fact, they were over 60 miles away and still visible! The landscape here is incredible, completely flat and surrounded on all sides by mountains. The roads are all completely straight, stretching off into the distant horizon.
I had first come here in 2012, my very first backpacking trip. We only spent one day in the park and made the mistake of going into the dunes around noon. The sand can reach up to 150 degrees during the day! As we walked around on the dunes, we could feel the sand slowly heating up. Within an hour our feet were burning as we rushed across the dunes. After scorching our feet for 30 minutes, we made it to the edge of the dune field. Below us was Medano Creek, the only source of water out here. We rapidly descended the steep dunes, it almost felt like walking on the moon! It felt amazing to soak our feet in the cool waters of the creek. We followed the creek back to our car, a few miles away.
In 2014 I returned to the Great Sand Dunes, with the sole intention of capturing my first Milky Way photo. The weather had other plans though. Each night, powerful storms raged over the San Luis Valley. At least we got a free show each night!
For my 3rd visit, I wanted to spend a night in the dunes and capture a stunning Milky Way photo. At Great Sand Dunes National Park you can camp in the sand dunes for free, you just need to register for a backcountry permit. With my permit in hand and my backpack ready to go, I made dinner in the visitor center parking lot. Another dehydrated meal. They aren't so bad, and I only need some hot water to cook them. Once I had my meal and refilled my water bottles, I loaded up my pack and set out on my trek.
As I hiked towards the dunes, I was swarmed by a cloud of mosquitoes so dense it felt like I was walking through endless spider webs. For nearly an hour they attacked me. Good thing I was wearing a tank-top and shorts! The incessant mosquitoes had easy pickings. I almost lost my sanity. When you are surrounded by that many mosquitoes, you cannot even think straight. It was truly one of the worst experiences of my life.
After a horrid march through hell, I finally I made it to the base of the massive sand dunes, towering hundreds of feet into the air. I raced up the incredibly steep dunes as quickly as possible, hoping to loose the swarm of mosquitoes. Walking in the dunes is incredibly difficult, each step requires a lot of exertion. Carrying all the heavy camera and camping gear wasn't helping. My heart felt like it was going to explode! At least getting down is fun and easy!
Once you reach the top of the first ridge, you can see out into the endless sand dunes. It always reminds me of Tatooine. With the mosquitoes and intense hiking behind me, I could now leisurely walk through the desert. As the sun slowly sank below the dune field, I set up my tent in a small depression. I set my alarm for 1am and then passed out.
Beep! Beep! Beep!
Ugh, I always hate this part. Sleeping in the tent is starting to feel like home, which makes waking up in the middle of the night that much harder. I slowly crawled out of my sleeping bag and was stunned as I put on my glasses. The Milky Way loomed overhead, more massive than I could've imagined. I had never seen it this detailed before. For the first time I could see every nuance of the Milky Way with my naked eye.
This is what our ancestors saw on any clear, dark night. Yet now, 90% of humanity is unable to even glimpse a trace of the Milky Way. Likely less than 1% of humanity can actually see the Milky Way in this much detail.
After running around the dunes for 2 hours trying to capture the Milky Way in a unique way, I returned to my tent. I laid down and stared up at the dark sky. An endless sea of stars. It was so quiet that I could not hear a single noise.
I began to think about how many nights I spent dreaming of this trip as I sat in a bleak, grey room, listening to the incessant hum of server fans. That room was my prison for over a year, and even if I were to step outside, all I would see was an orange glow from the city lights. Youngstown is an awful place for those who enjoy nature.
With a mesmerizing night behind me, I was excited to get back to the Visitor Center and look at the photos. I made good time bounding down the steep ridge of the sand dunes. While the tourists headed out onto the dunes at high noon (when the sand reaches 150 degrees) I stayed inside and edited my photos from the night. The rangers were nice enough to give me some space on the front counter to edit. Quite a few people stopped to check out the Milky Way photos I was working on.
At 5pm I ventured into the Dune Sea, hoping to set up camp early and photograph the sunset. Getting over the first ridge was a nightmare. Powerful gusts of wind threatened to blow me off the ridge line. Sand kept flying into my eyes and mouth. After climbing a few hundred feet, I finally reached the first major ridge line. I could now see out into the endless dunes. Ahead lay a bowl where I planned to set up my tent out of the wind.
It was futile. The wind was still far too strong, and my tent kept trying to blow away like a kite. Even after staking it out, the poles were almost snapped in half from the gusts. I decided to relocate.
After reaching another ridge line, the sand still peppering me, I realized there was no safe zone to be found. I reluctantly decided to head back down to the car and find another campsite. All that exertion for nothing.
With nowhere else to go, I spent another cramped night in the car. When I woke up at midnight, the stars were shining bright overhead. I couldn't let this opportunity pass.
As I crossed Medano Creek I noticed the stars were shimmering in the shallow water. Intrigued, I stopped and set up my camera. With just a 20 second photo I was able to capture two galaxies! The big cluster of stars in the middle is the Milky Way galaxy, our home in the cosmos. Andromeda, over 2.5 million light years away, can be seen glowing on the right side of the photo. The faint green color is called Air Glow, a common nighttime phenomenon.
Midnight on Medano CreekThe stars reflect in the shallow waters of Medano Creek on a dark summer night
I awoke at sunrise, thankfully I was already in my car and ready to go. I headed up to Zapata Falls, a few miles outside the National Park. The journey to the trailhead was a nightmare though, 3 miles of rough, rocky road. My little car barely made it to the top. After a short hike, I came to a creek. The golden light was trickling through the trees and lighting up the canyon. I felt like an early explorer, seeing this ancient canyon. The water was frigid, within minutes my feet were numb. Little did I know at the time, this would be the coldest water I would encounter on the whole road trip, even colder than glacial lakes. I soon found Zapata Falls, nestled inside the canyon walls.
With one night left, I packed up my camera and camping gear, and set out into the dunes. Another exhausting climb. I reached one of the highest dunes, which provided an amazing view of the Dune Sea, just in time for sunset. A few other photographers were already setup and shooting. They had just come from Rocky Mountain National Park and were looking forward to trying Milky Way photos for the first time. They picked the perfect spot!
As I watched the sun dip over the distant mountain range, I felt like I was on Tatooine again.
Thankfully it wasn't very windy and I was able to setup camp without issue. At 2am I woke up and figured I'd try some Star Trails. It was nice to just leave the camera shooting while I went back to sleep.
With Rocky Mountain National Park and the Great Sand Dunes behind me, I am now finally going to see new sights. I will be spending the next week exploring South-Western Colorado: Durango, Silverton, Ouray, Telluride, Aspen, and the Black Canyon to name a few destinations.
Click here to see all the photos from my trip to the Great Sand Dunes.