Photographing Great Sand Dunes National Park – Part 1 Medano Creek

Medano Creek, Great Sand Dunes National Park

(click on images for a larger view)

Colorado is having a lean year. Not in terms of the economy, or even sports (yes, the Rockies are a farcical shit show, but we now have Peyton Manning). No, I’m talking about the most important resource where we’re coming up short: water. The summer of 2012 has so far been eerily like the summer of 10 years ago when “all of Colorado was burning.”

Whether this year is worse or not depends on perspective. The most destructive fire in our state’s history is still burning, and there have been four deaths. Just yesterday, two new fires erupted in heavily populated areas. But in 2002, monster wildfires were everywhere: Durango, Glenwood Springs, the Flat Tops, Trinidad, Cortez, and the one we all remember, the Hayman Fire, which simultaneously put the suburbs of both Denver and Colorado Springs on high alert and remains the largest fire in our history. In the end, which year is worse doesn’t matter. Summers like this are humbling.

Medano Creek runs out, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

I bring all of this up because last week we visited the Great Sand Dunes National Park in south central Colorado, and there is not a more dramatic scene of dwindling water in the state than Medano Creek. The top photograph was taken of Medano Creek in May of 2007. The second image, on June 13 of this year, taken on the spot where the creek was coming to an early end.

Kids play in Medano Creek, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

Looks can be deceiving, I suppose. Medano famously dries up as the summer goes on, and one month can be the difference between a water world and the Sahara. But mid-June is usually prime time to bring the kiddos for playtime in the creek’s ankle deep waters. Oh well. You can’t tell me that Varenna and Jeremiah above look concerned about our water table. Adults can be such a downer.

Medano Creek, Great Sand Dunes National Park

While the headline of this national park is “North America’s tallest sand dunes,” Medano Creek itself could carry the day for park designation on its own. You may not find another stream as strange as this one. For one, it vanishes into the sandy bottom of the valley floor, but unlike the Colorado River, which dies an untimely death in the Baja desert, this creek sinks beneath the surface to supply an underground lake, a massive aquifer. The second photo in this post is what that looks like.

The creek, along with its northern, more remote companion — Sand Creek — hold the dunes in place and in many ways, keep them from blowing into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. And then there’s my favorite trait, the weird hydrology of Medano Creek’s surge flow. Basically, the creek’s flow creates small dams of sand on the creek bed which build up water and then break under pressure, creating little tsunamis every 20 seconds. It looks as though the creek is pulsing. During our visit, there was not enough water for this phenomenon to occur. In May 2007 when I visited (image below), it was occurring with waves of about eight inches in height.

Medano Creek, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

The dunes were a convenient stopover for us. Hailey, Varenna and I were en route to a wedding in Durango, and the dunes were a little past halfway. My sister-in-law and her three sons, plus their oldest’s friend, came along for the day trip. Andrew, who turns 9 this week, brought along his snowboard to try snowboarding on the dunes. While we stayed behind to watch Varenna, Jeremiah and Isaiah bathe in the muck, Amy went ahead with Andrew and his friend into the dune field. Twenty minutes later they came back. The wind was miserable. The boards only sank into the sand. They needed more water. Hopes: dashed.

Heading into Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

It’s easy to lose sight of the dunes’ brutal nature. After all, the road in delivers you to the oasis first. Hailey could tell I was itching to press “pause” on fatherhood obligations and go explore with my camera. The kids were getting hungry, but the light was getting marvelous.

“Go on…” she urged. “We have two cars.” So I set forth.


Quick update since I wrote this blog: You can now say we’ve had the worst fire season in state history. A few short days after I wrote my first post on the Great Sand Dunes, a hellish fire blizzard reigned down on Northwest Colorado Springs, less than two miles from where my brother and his family live. They were evacuated for four nights, but thankfully, their house was spared. A total of 346 homes were consumed in the blaze, and two died. The drought continues relentlessly.

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