Overland Expo to TBEX: Great Sand Dunes Edition

The Camp Granola entrance to Great Sand Dunes was anything but smooth. With a few months to ponder my folly I can now laugh at my foibles. In truth, the whole thing went pear-shaped back in the planning stages and I didn’t even know it. One of the problems of not having a traditional schedule is that you forget that most people do have one. The Memorial Day holiday weekend didn’t hit my mental radar until way late in the game or I could have adjusted our travels to avoid it.

This is it folks. This is my paradise, the place I couldn’t miss before heading back east.

Moving forward…

At any rate, after what I can only call a travel wrestling match, I was able to finally enjoy Great Sand Dunes. Our first day included camp setup, tent research, and calls to various REIs around the country trying to get my hands on all the pieces of the tent I picked out. In between all that we got down to Medano Creek for some sand dunes fun.

I was eager to introduce Fred and George to the creek, never before having managed to get them here when it was flowing. They basked in the cool water that insulated their tender feet from the seering sand outside of creek… a day at the beach in the middle of Colorado’s rugged mountains. While they frolicked I broke out my converted 50D to get in some infrared time. The harsh mid-day sun is ill-suited for traditional photography so I love having the IR camera to fill in the gap between the golden hours of light.

All of this delight was just a short walk from our campsite, the hassle of moving from San Luis a faint memory and well worth the effort. The little bit of time we lost moving camp ended up giving me more time to enjoy the dunes fully. When you love a place this much, you need to be in it, not looking through the window.

Fred and George dwarfed by the dunes.


So rewind nearly a year to Camp Granola’s last foray into the joy of Great Sand Dunes. This is necessary to help frame why I was hell-bent on getting a decent few days here this year because last year’s trip ended in disaster for me.

I had allotted us 5 days in the park, our last hurrah of the Geowoodstock to TBEX expedition. Day one involved getting to camp, setting up, running to Alamosa for a long-overdue laundry day, etc. Day two was detoxing from so much driving and just taking it easy knowing we still had several days to hike in the Sangre de Cristos, climb to the top of the dunes, and whatever else we decided. Days three through five should have been more than enough time to feel fulfilled for this visit. Except on Day 3, I had a very bad day at Zapata Falls and all of those plans came to a bone-splitting end. Instead of exploring, I spent three days hobbling around camp (aside from a trip to the ER) in tremendous pain.

Adult playtime… while Fred and George frolicked in Medano Creek, I got to break out the converted 50D and have some fun myself.

Fulfillment, Episode 1…

Unable to climb to the top of Great Sand Dunes last year, I lamented my plight and returned this year to conquer the dunes, albeit now permanently maimed but functional enough. The boys and I chugged up the dunes, aiming for sunset atop the highest one.

Climbing up giant sand piles is fairly strenuous but the boys were determined and I delighted in their vigor for it. We tried to travel light so I carried a small complement of snacks and water but of course, even with my trimmed-down camera gear, the load was stupidly heavy for the task and my current level of road-trip “un”-fitness. I managed though and we played on the dunes, laughing at being sand-blasted.

Alas, I timed us too early. The sun was sinking slowly and the boys had gotten their fill of sand in their eyes. Plus they desperately wanted to slide down the enormous slopes, their reward for hoofing it up the dunes. I tried to stall but in the end set them loose figuring I’d just shoot from the edge of the dunes.

So yes, my longing was requited. Being back up top felt exquisite even if I didn’t get to shoot the sunset.

Yes, it’s very windy up here. And very invigorating.

Fulfillment, Episode 2…

One of my favorite little details of Great Sand Dunes is the gnarly dead tree just outside the entrance. It’s textures and swirls with the dunes in the backdrop just blow me away. Last year I had to shoot it in tremendous pain on our last day there and with a two-day-old throbbing, heinously broken big toe. There were a couple of times I almost passed out squatting low along the roadside to get the right angle… partly due to pain, partly due to sweltering heat. Last year when I left the dunes, I didn’t know I’d have another chance to be back so soon and I was giving it all I had.

What a difference a year makes though. This year not only was my toe as healed as it was going to get, but the temperatures were ever-so-slightly more forgiving and I had a largely revamped photography kit, including an infrared-converted Canon 50D. This meant I didn’t have to sit through long exposures to accommodate the IR filter on the unconverted camera so I was shooting faster, saving a lot of time wallowing on the ground trying to get a shot of this tree. All in all a pretty huge improvement over last year!

The boys missed out last year too. Getting to slide and tumble down the enormous dunes is the highlight of their visits.

Painless education…

Having been to Great Sand Dunes several times at this point in their lives, I had to scramble to find something new to throw at Fred and George to engage them more deeply than just playing in the sand. I try to keep their learning painless and by-and-large their own curiosity drives their discoveries but they do get lazy on repeat visits to places, thinking they know all there is to know as teen & tween are wont to do.

George had already completed the Junior Ranger program here and Fred has largely outgrown the program as a whole so I had to get creative. I set them loose in the visitor center on an educational mini-scavenger hunt for information. Oddly enough, they actually dove in and answered the questions I set them to research. In the dunes themselves I got to let their innate curiosity take over as they questioned the shape of the dunes, watched the sand flow, and raised eyebrows at the patterns created by the flow of Medano Creek.

This is the easy part of experiential education. I could have been sitting in a lawn chair, drinking a margarita, answering a question from time-to-time… one giant science lesson they didn’t even realize they were doing for me. I have to take my victories where I can because let’s face it, getting them here isn’t exactly easy. 😉

I’m a huge fan of this particular visitor center. Great exhibits covering the range of nature at Great Sand Dunes to the history of San Luis Valley. It makes my job so easy!


Like many people, when I find myself in a place of absolute peace, it’s a time to reflect. I was fully aware of the insanity of this undertaking before we set out but given the hectic nature of the first two weeks of this expedition, it was time to step back and ask myself what we were getting out of the effort. I believe in constantly assessing these things to avoid falling into a rut and taking on these adventures because it’s what we do and not because they have value and purpose.

Aimlessly cavorting around the country would certainly be pointless but there were the straight-forward lessons like learning about the sand dunes. Geography lessons were also abundant as we hopped from state-to-state taking notice of changing landscapes and lifestyles. These are all things we discuss in the long hours of driving. In fact, much of our learning happens in the car as we talk and mentally process our experience together.

But beyond the obvious, travel in general requires flexibility and problem-solving. This trip in particular was already proving to be unusually challenging. The boys were getting to see me make (and sometimes struggle with) decisions based upon our situation… some worked out, some didn’t. I almost always involve them in the process so they understand why I chose a particular solution. They often come up with an idea I hadn’t thought of.

To me this may be more important than their exposure to the world at large. Travel is real (sometimes painfully so) and usually fun but sometimes not. It’s unpredictable. Unlike their video games, in travel we don’t get do-overs, we don’t get to push the reset button, we don’t know the cast of characters we’ll encounter, we don’t know what obstacles we’ll face. We just have to make decisions based on the information we have at the time and move forward.

Little did I know how many more challenges were to come on this journey that would continue to test us…

Finally some travel down-time. George cocooned himself in the hammock and read for hours.

And now for your moment of green…

This is way I couldn’t stay on the outside looking in. These textures require immersion…


  1. Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.
    Albert Einstein

    1. Thanks Aud! 🙂

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