Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Great Sand Dunes, Solar Eclipse

On the home stretch of our road trip, we decided to throw in one more park in Colorado, so we ended up paying the Black Canyon of the Gunnison a visit, before ending our adventure at Great Sand Dunes National Park. The Black Canyon is a massive gorge on an elevated plateau, dropping down almost vertically. The cliffs are various shades of grey (no pun intended) and give the whole canyon a dreading, deadly look. While the canyon is only about 600 meters wide, it takes around 2 hours to drive from the north rim to the south rim. We wondered as to why there was no bridge. A park ranger was so kind as to explain to us that the north rim and south rim are two distinct ecosystems with vastly different flora and fauna. Connecting them would wreak havoc on the two well-balanced ecosystems. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a perfect example therefore, as to how a geological feature can disrupt ecosystems and lead to the evolution of two very different ones over thousands of years.

The jagged cliffs of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

The jagged cliffs of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

While we enjoyed the camping atmosphere with a big fire, we chose not to spend too much time photographing the canyon. Since there is no real subject aside from the actual canyon, we focused one afternoon on capturing the feeling we had while marvelling at this magnificent place. While doing so, we spotted a small peak within the canyon, on top of which some 15 vultures milled about, chilling and tending to their feathers. Quite the sight, such a large number of those big birds right in front of our binoculars – sadly they were a little too far out for us to reach them with our lenses.

Leaving the Black Canyon behind us, I was excited to hit the Great Sand Dunes. I loved the small dunes I had explored in Death Valley, so I was looking forward to some larger ones. Boy was I not disappointed. While the dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park look minuscule from a distance with the towering mountains behind them, they are mind-bending in size once you stand in front of them. Before getting our shoes full of sand, though, we had to get a backcountry campsite on the Medano Pass road. Finding a cozy spot, large enough to accommodate our guests for the second night as well, we set up camp one last time on this trip and headed to the dunes again to shoot sunset. Luckily for us, the dunes lit up with everything else in shade, allowing us to capture some fantastic contrasty images.

The Gunnison River relentlessly carves its way through the Black Canyon.

The Gunnison River relentlessly carves its way through the Black Canyon.

The Great Sand Dunes are lit up during sunset, with the towering Rockies in the background.

The Great Sand Dunes are lit up during sunset, with the towering Rockies in the background.

The following day we welcomed Mike and his son Grayson, two members of the Lee family we had met in Zion. Not wasting any time, we headed to the dunes to do some sandboarding and -sledding. Not having ridden a board ever (snow, water or sand…), everyone suggested I rent a sled. Naturally, I got a board, because what could possibly be more fun than learning how to board on some gigantic sand dunes in the middle of the Colorado Rockies?!

Hiking up the dunes was an ordeal, to say the least. Trying to ascend a sand dune is tough , the dunes sitting at 2500 meters above sea level sure did not make this task any easier. Despite that, we had a blast and turns out I’m not all that bad at sandboarding!

After about two hours of boarding, falling and getting sand in every possible location, we were happy to find some showers at the bottom before shooting the sunset over the dunes, this time giving Mike and Grayson some beginner camera lessons.

Stunning display of colour through the rainy clouds during sunset at Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Stunning display of colour through the rainy clouds during sunset at Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Back at camp, we sat around a cosy campfire for quite some time, sharing stories from all our various travel adventures, before bedding down in our tents for the last time on this trip. After a good night’s sleep, I rewarded everyone with some bacon and eggs for breakfast – because why not?

Thinking back to this entire road trip, the ending could not have been more perfect: being invited to Mike and Chrissie’s place for the following night, getting to enjoy their hospitality, their stories and cuddling with their (insanely cute) dog represented the cumulation of my most dearly remembered moments on this trip. Meeting all those amazing people over the course of 10 weeks, meeting some again (High-five, Dylan!), sharing stories and enjoying the wonderful landscapes together definitely is the highlight for me. So thanks to everyone I met along the road, thanks to all our amazing AirBnB hosts, thanks to you guys who spent entire days exploring and chatting with us, and thanks to you Derek, for organising and managing this entire trip, creating a summer we both won’t forget.

The so-called Diamond Ring Effect during the total solar eclipse, 21 August 2017.

The so-called Diamond Ring Effect during the total solar eclipse, 21 August 2017.

While this was the end of the National Park Road Trip, it didn’t mark the end of my time in the US. Thinking we had it all planned out, arriving in Lawrence near Kansas City after 8 hours of driving to shoot the total solar eclipse, we realised shortly after dinner, that the clouds were probably going to ruin our day. Tired, but determined we left our AirBnB only 2 hours after checking in to drive through the night to Nashville, Tennessee, where the forecast promised blue skies for the spectacle. After a total of 19 hours of driving over the course of 22 hours total, we arrived. Exhausted, we set up a little tarp-jeep-tent on the lawn at a highway rest stop and got our cameras and solar filters and glasses ready. We grouped up with our awesome neighbours and what followed cannot be described in words. If I’d have to try, I’d go with magical, mindboggling, unforgettable. A little over 3 hours it was all over, I captured some of the most amazing images and witnessed my second total solar eclipse.

For now, thanks for reading, until then,
David