Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

Great Sand Dunes National Park – August 25, 2016

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It was August 25th, 2016, the National Park Service’s 100th Birthday! Only by luck did we find ourselves celebrating with NPS rangers and tourists at the Great Sand Dunes National Park just south of Crestone, Colorado. Our last minute plans coincidentally brought us here on this special day. Rangers sang songs in a circle, a large birthday banner was spread across the entrance. Inside were balloons and an especially tasty cake. A poster board asked people to write down their wishes for the park system. I agree with Ken Burns, these national parks are America’s best idea. I love them all.

Chris and I have been here several times before, together and separately. In 2002, we hiked into the dunes and spent the night on the sand under the silent stars. Today would only be a daytime exploration.

As we ate lunch the sky became heavy and dark. We crossed the Medano Creek, a broad path of trickling water, and headed to the steep rise of the actual dunes. Chris aspired to climb to the top of the first ridge to view the vast expanse of the entire dune field. I was content to roam the lower dunes with my camera, watching the other people play and keeping track of the changing sky, light and shadows. Some people rented saucers to sled down the slopes; a few used snowboards.

Gradually the wind picked up and rain threatened. Clouds lowered, obscuring some of the mountain tops. Sand blew hard, stinging any exposed skin. I needed to close my eyes at times and shield my camera. Far at the top of the ridge, I could see curtains of sand blowing into the sky from the unobstructed wind. Chris had been appearing and disappearing from view as he scaled the ups and downs of the layers of dunes leading to the top. Eventually, I could see the small spot of his silhouette stop just short of the summit. After a few minutes, he began the descent down; I guessed that the wind and flying sand had become unbearable.

As we headed to our car, the stormy weather receded quickly revealing more sky and light. The sinuous, sensuous forms of the dunes became vivid as shadows deepened in the late afternoon sun.

Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission. Prints are available for purchase for some photographs. If you are interested, contact Carla at: You can also find Carla’s photographs, paintings and jewelry on her Etsy site (Stones and Bones):

This gallery contains 28 photos

Journey Through the West – Part 4

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Traveling from Dinosaur National Monument to Crestone, Colorado, August 2016

“Turn left on Stegosaurus Freeway.”
“In a thousand feet, turn right onto Triceratops Terrace.”
“In a quarter mile, turn left onto Brontosaurus Boulevard.”
There was also Diplodocus Drive, Antrodemus Alley, and Brachtosaurus Bypass.
The GPS called out the prehistoric street names, without the amusement we felt, as it tried to get us back on its designated route. We were exploring the empty roads through the tiny, depressed town of Dinosaur, just over the border in Colorado, not far from Dinosaur National Monument.

Outside of town, we stopped at a ranch gate along Route 40 for a photograph. It had an almost typical western motif depicted across the top in cut metal. A cowboy on horseback was lassoing a huge beast. But here, instead of bringing in a feisty bull, this cowboy had a Tyrannosaurus Rex in his ropes. (See photo below.)

Back on the highway, Chris spotted a large roadkill bird on the gravel shoulder. We made a U-turn to investigate. Clearly dead, but without any obvious injuries, was a juvenile golden eagle. Adult size, it had the mottled white feathers of youth on its wings and tail. We were saddened by this find; it probably had been struck by a vehicle as it chased a rabbit or other prey across the road. I wondered if had still been living close to its parents, and, if so, how they experienced the loss of the never returning offspring. We offered a short ceremony. About a half hour later, a very much alive golden eagle flew parallel to our speeding car. When it landed on a rock out-cropping I captured its majesty. (See below.)

After leaving the town of Dinosaur, our GPS decided on its own that we needed a more scenic trip and instead of taking us on the obvious direct route, it led us to one of the many dirt county roads that crisscross the state of Colorado. We said, oh, what the hell, and went with it to see where we would end up. It was indeed scenic with almost no traffic, low hills that stretched into infinity, a verdant river valley, cattle and horses grazing peacefully. The sky was both sunny and bright as well as stormy and dark, so that when the clouds released their occasional heavy rain above, it was already sunny when it struck us below.

Next stop was Glenwood Springs CO. We had both swum in the huge hot spring pool there before and wanted to try the Yampah Spa and their famous vapor caves instead. The Ute Indians had come to these caves for centuries, regarding them as a sacred place for healing. A narrow stairway in the Spa descended into the earth to a series of connected dimly lit caves. Natural steam seeps into these subterranean chambers. It was very hot that day and sitting in small enclosed sweltering rooms with thick misty air was not appealing to me. But Chris was eager to try these natural steam rooms, the only ones in North America. While he cooked in the vapor I got a massage. We both were refreshed and restored.

Leaving there in late afternoon we continued toward Crestone. The evening darkened and we found refuge at a small forest service campground along Rt. 24, called “Hornsilver.” It was night and we were tired so we blew off paying the iron ranger and promised ourselves we’d do it in the morning before leaving. Still dead asleep at 8 AM, loud banging on our door and a demand for our payment awoke us. We scrambled to get dressed, make apologies, and find the registration envelope and money. Chatting with the older man patiently waiting at our door, we discovered he was retired in Modesto CA and spent a couple months a year here working for the Forest Service so he could escape the oppressive summer heat of the Central Valley. And it was indeed chilly there. Although the previous day had been near 90˚, the thermometer that morning read 30˚.

In the flurry of activity to pay the summer ranger, I began to notice what I had missed the night before. Our campsite was full of wildflowers. Mostly large purplish (Rocky Mountain) penstemons, but also butter-and-eggs, daisies, and a random geranium or harebell. At that altitude, near 10,000’, it was still wildflower season in mid-August. Blissfully I wandered the campground photographing flowers, my feet and lower legs wet and freezing from melting dew.

We continued on, planning to arrive in Crestone that night, our destination so I could attend a 6-day meditation retreat. We passed dramatic skies, mountains with snow, and large patches of wildflowers. Stormy, ominous weather hit during the last 30 mile stretch on Routes 285 and 17. The Sangre de Christo mountains were shrouded in thick swirling clouds as rain pounded our windshield.

Such marvelous, morphing cloud formations. Land and sky meeting in dynamic opposition. A palette of patterns and hues that rival the awe-inspiring, mystifying beauty of images from the Hubble Telescope. Photography and the American West were made for each other, a perfect marriage.

Stay tuned for more on Crestone CO, Canyon de Chelly and Petrified Forest National Park.

Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission. Prints are available for purchase for some photographs. If you are interested, contact Carla at: You can also find Carla’s photographs, paintings and jewelry on her Etsy site (Stones and Bones):


This gallery contains 27 photos