Have you heard of the International Dark Sky Association? I hadn’t either until I read this September 3, 2018 article in the New York Times and took note. If you didn’t believe me before that Dating America was a year in the making, I’ll prove it now! I immediately looked to see what Dark Sky spots might be along our route and was thrilled (really, thrilled!) to see that Great Sand Dunes National Park qualifies. We hit up a night program led by a volunteer ranger who is an amateur astronomer (and he clarified, astronomer NOT astrologer). He gave a grandfatherly-like talk, complete with grandfatherly-like PowerPoint, on the Milky Way. This is definitely more my thing than Cas’, but he enjoyed the quiet moment to practice taking pictures as we listened to the lecture. When the talk was over, Astronomer Bob took us to his Meade 12in telescope (which of course I recognized from my high school days working at the Nature Company). He showed us the moon, Saturn, and Jupiter. I have seen Saturn before but I have never, ever seen Jupiter and four of her moons (apparently you can see them with binoculars, so I am kinda surprised that it took me 39 years to see them!)! The telescope was so powerful that we were able to see the rings around Saturn and the red clouds, too. I love that stuff. I never cease to be amazed at the natural world and stargazing makes me feel the power of nature like nothing else. A lot of National Parks have “find your park after dark” programs now–I love it! Be sure to check for night programs for your next National Park visit!
The next day, we started off with a hike to Zapata Falls! The falls are just a few miles from the entrance to Great Sand Dunes. You can hike or drive three miles up the mountain-side to get to the trailhead. The road is not paved and, seemingly, not graded. It is very bumpy and has lots of loose rocks. Know your car and your driving skills. Once you are at the trailhead, it is a ½ mile uphill hike to the falls. It is categorized as a short but “arduous” hike. I think the “arduous” part comes in that you have to walk through the river to actually see the falls. The water was cold (even for me). My feet turned a very bright red and I lost some feeling in them, not gonna lie. There were lots of people who made it up to the water, but didn’t go any further since they either didn’t have proper footwear (Chacos for life!) or didn’t realize how swiftly the river would run or slipped on the first rock and didn’t want to risk it. In fact, when I got to the falls, it was just me and one other guy. When he left, I had the falls to myself for…a while. I soaked it in. I reveled in the sound of the rushing water–the sound of others at the bank disappeared. I was moved by the beauty and finally moved on at the urging of my numb toes. Do go. And be prepared!
From there, we went back to the Park for some day time adventures. If you go, bring bug spray. The mosquitoes were insane. Insane. The dunes border a wetland area which is a breeding site for those biters. Now, to bring out the snob in us. We’ve been around. And we’ve seen a lot. And have to say, the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico is more impressive than the Great Sand Dunes. Go to Great Sand Dunes if you, like us, are trying to see all of the Parks, but go to White Sands if you want to be amazed. We liked the Great Sand Dunes, for sure, but it can’t hold a candle to White Sands. If you go, remember to bring lots of water, wear sunscreen, and bug spray. Remember that you’re at a high altitude, so take it a little easier than you might otherwise and drink lots of water.