Contemporary Fiction Author, Infrequent Blogger & Retired Clown

Great Sand Dunes National Park: You Can’t Have Stars Without Darkness

Great Sand Dunes National Park: You Can’t Have Stars Without Darkness

In the midst of a desperate half-run through the soft sand and dark forest, a red-bulbed flashlight clutched in one trembling hand and my dog’s leash gripped tight in the other, I saw what was sure to be the next day’s headlines flash before my eyes:

“Failure to Lunch: How an idiot woman served herself (and her dog) up to a mountain lion.”

“Floridian Flub: A sunshine state native couldn’t survive two months in Colorado.”

“Underprepared and Overconfident: A solo hiker in a remote national park at night learns a pretty obvious lesson.”

“Adventure without risk is Disneyland.”

Douglas Coupland

It didn’t take long after I relocated to Colorado for me to get swept up in the spirit of adventure that is so intricately woven into the culture of the Wild West. Just two months after arriving, I decided to plan a Labor Day Weekend Adventure. In my quest to visit every National Park in the Lower 48, two National Parks in Colorado remained unchecked on my list: Great Sand Dunes and Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

While these two parks are not particularly close geographically, I figured out if I stayed in Salida, Colorado, about three hours southwest of Denver, I’d be positioned just under two hours from Great Sand Dunes and three hours from Black Canyon. In all, it would be about 16 hours of driving to make all my destinations in one trip.

If you’re thinking that sounds like a lot of driving for a three-day weekend, you would be correct. And that’s before factoring in the traffic generated from every single person on the Front Range deciding to head into the mountains for the holiday weekend. 

Still, I was determined to visit both parks in one fell swoop, so I left Denver on Friday afternoon bound for Salida. 

Woman in sunglasses and baseball cap in driver's seat of car with smiling rescue mutt in the backseat.
Bailey and I love a good road trip!

“Keep your eyes on the stars, and your feet on the ground.”

Theodore Roosevelt

In preparing for my trip, I discovered that Great Sand Dunes was certified as a Gold Tier, International Dark Sky park in 2019. That means due to its remote location and measures taken within the park to limit the use of outdoor lights, the area is free of light pollution and therefore a pristine place to observe the night sky. On a clear night, the Milky Way and stars bloom in bright hues above the 750-foot tall sand dunes tucked along the edge of a gorgeous mountain valley.

Now, I’ve listened to enough National Park After Dark podcast episodes that I should have known better than to do what I did. I should have recognized the limitations of my outdoor skillset – which certainly fall short of embarking on a nighttime adventure, in a remote wilderness, all alone (except for my lovable, but defenseless rescue mutt). 

But I’ve never been able to resist the allure of a gorgeous night sky, so I made a pit stop in Salida to drop my things at the hotel that Friday night before driving an additional two hours to arrive at the park near dusk. 

One thing I’ve realized since moving west is that the word “remote” means something far more extreme on this side of the Mississippi. The almost two-hour drive south from Salida to the park was desolate to say the least. After a rise over Poncha Pass, US 285 descends into the San Luis Valley. While the scenery is spectacular, the civilization is sparse. Just before the turn off for the park, I encountered two of the valley’s finest attractions: the Colorado Gators Reptile Park and UFO Watchtower. Sadly, both were closed when I passed through.

Angled rays of late afternoon light cut across the valley and painted the dunes in a delicate, mauve glow as I approached near sunset. The towering hills of sand set against a backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range are something of a sight though, not too far removed in strangeness from the UFO tower and gator park. Ten thousand years of sediment build-up from the surrounding mountains was exposed upon the retreat of area lakes and slowly blown across the valley until it accumulated into what are now North America’s tallest sand dunes.

The Great Sand Dunes against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the distance“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

Oscar Wilde

Bailey and I arrived in the parking lot adjacent to the dunes while it was still daylight. A number of different paths allow passage from the parking lot through a cluster of trees and out onto the sand. I’d read on the NPS website that it was important to keep track of where you emerged from the trees so you could easily find your way back – the openings are fairly small and unassuming, so it made sense. As we stepped out onto the sand with our first unobstructed view of the dunes, I turned to the left and walked about 30 yards parallel to the tree line before setting out my picnic blanket and settling in to watch the sun set and the brilliant stars appear.

Dog lays on sand at Great Sand Dunes National Park around sunset Wide expanse of sand that rises into dunes near the horizon

I discovered the day after this visit that one of the protective lens covers on my phone camera was cracked, so these photos came out a little fuzzy and off. 

Here I should point out that I had made some critical assumptions in planning this trip that quickly fell apart. For one thing, I expected to find a huge crowd of eager star gazers like myself, scattered across the sand, ready for nature’s nightly show. Instead, I watched as group after group of visitors came down from the dunes (many toting boards you can rent to sled down the sand) and headed back to the parking lot as daylight faded. A few stragglers remained, but from my viewpoint there were no more than three or four other clusters of folks who stayed past sunset.

“Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.”

Edgar Allan Poe

Darkness came slowly as the sun sank behind the San Juan Mountain range to the west, but once the last of the light was gone, I realized a second assumption I made was incorrect.

Turns out, I didn’t really know what true darkness is like. 

You know I’ve camped in Montana and enjoyed the stars in Yosemite, so I thought I was familiar with nightfall in a remote location. But Great Sand Dunes is next level dark (hence that aforementioned Gold Tier rating). To comply with their International Dark Sky certification, the park has no outside lights in parking lots or on buildings. They also strongly encourage nighttime patrons to utilize infrared flashlights to avoid the noise pollution of even one regular flashlight. 

What that atmosphere creates is a darkness that is not only devoid of anything besides natural light, it actually seems to absorb the light sources around it. My little red flashlight was capable of illuminating maybe six inches of the darkness, but no more. 

At this point, I was starting to feel the creeping rise of my anxiety, but I fought to keep it at a controllable level. My eyes adjusted as the stars began to appear and I could see at least vague shapes and shadows beyond my immediate space. Around this same time, Bailey started to act strangely. She kept getting up and pacing circles around me and our picnic blanket. I kept hold of her leash and offered treats to try and get her to settle down, but she continued pacing. Eventually, she did lay down, with her back to me and her eyes trained on the tree line between us and the path we’d used to get onto the sand. 

That’s when I saw it.

A shadow – a rather large one on four legs – emerged from the woods not 20 yards from us.

I’d read online that wildlife often came down to the sand to drink from a seasonal river that forms between the tree line and the dunes. But the river was mostly dried up, so I assumed the animals would be going elsewhere for refreshment. I had also, again, assumed there would be enough people around to make the area inhospitable for wildlife. 

Bailey issued a low growl and I jumped to my feet. With absolute futility, I pointed my little red flashlight in the direction of the creature. But the light died just beyond our picnic blanket, giving me no further information about the lumbering animal. It could’ve been anything – probably it was an elk or deer, but in that moment my brain was all too eager to pull out its Jump to Conclusions Mat and decide that the animal most certainly was a mountain lion. 

Or maybe a bear.

“Generally speaking, a howling wilderness does not howl: it is the imagination of the traveler that does the howling.”

Henry David Thoreau

I snatched up our blanket, hoisted my backpack on my shoulders, and realized I had to make a critical decision. The Beast was between us and our path to the parking lot, so either I had to take my chances walking past it to reach our escape, or I could go the opposite direction and try to find the next available opening to get back through the trees. I’d seen several people go that way earlier, before sunset, so I knew there had to be another path. 

Moving as fast as I could with my sneakers sinking into the soft sand, I headed in the opposite direction of the Beast. Squinting with my red light at the tree line, I tried to find the next opening. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally spotted a break in the trees and started heading away from the dunes into the forest – still walking in deep sand. 

The sound of my own breath has never been louder than it was in that moment. Enveloped in darkness and absolute quiet, Bailey and I kept moving – she was panting pretty loudly as well. Eventually, I came to the sinking realization that we had made a wrong turn. Coming to a stop, I pulled out my phone and waited a lifetime for my one bar of signal to conjure up a Google map of my location. There was my little blue dot, in the middle of the woods, far beyond the parking lot I’d been aiming for.

At that point, the red flashlight was history. I clicked on my phone’s bright white flashlight instead. While it still didn’t do much to fight back against the oppressive darkness, it made me feel somewhat better. Bailey and I retraced our steps back out to the open dune area as quickly as possible. She was starting to get tired and move slowly, so I whispered urgently to her to keep up the pace. Though I hadn’t seen any signs of the Beast since the initial glimpse, I was convinced it was lurking just beyond our tiny ball of light, stalking its prey. 

Back out on the open sand, I continued to check the Google map as we navigated toward the path we missed that would get us back to the parking lot. My chest was growing tighter by the second and I couldn’t tell if it was the panic or a very inconvenient asthma attack. I hoped it was the former because I’d made a tragic mistake in leaving my inhaler at the hotel. (I have been hyper vigilant since then about making sure it goes in my backpack for all outdoor adventures!)

Finally, we found the correct path and emerged into the nearly empty parking lot. Never in history has anyone been more relieved to see a Subaru Outback. Bailey and I collapsed inside the safety of the car, locking the doors just in case.

In conclusion, I would not recommend visiting Great Sand Dunes National park alone at night.

But, the stars were beautiful.

Stars over the silhouette of the Great Sand Dunes

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