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Starry nights on sandy dunes

MOSCA, Co.- In the shadows of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains lie several massive sand dunes so beautifully shaped and perfectly formed that they appear airlifted from Saharan Africa.

The Great Sand Dunes are located in Mosca, Colorado, a town three hours and 30 minutes south of Denver, The only route to get to themis the CO-150, a winding stretch of backroad at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo.

While driving to the Dunes this summer, the first thing that struck me was how small they appeared from a distance. At first glance, they appeared to be about the size of a suburban house. It was not until I stood at the foot of the dunes, and saw the ant-like human specks climbing the summit, that I was able to grasp their true size.

My mother, my sisters, K.C. and Carrie and I traveled to the Great Sand Dunes on July 10. We arrived in Mosca at 3 p.m.

On hot summer days, park rangers advise visitors to stay off the dunes during peak hours of sunshine to avoid being burned by the hot sand. To avoid these hours, my family and I checked into our hotel in the neighboring town of Alamosa.

Alamosa is a small town composed a several strip malls, local shops and restaurants, and a small university. A train track serves as the border between the town and the vacant fields of grass surrounding Alamosa.

The town is the largest one within miles of the dunes. Its economy thrives on tourism. Multiple shops can be found for tourists looking to rent sleds and boards to ride on the dunes.

My family stopped at Kristi Mountain Sports to rent our sleds. When we walked into the store, a woman spotted us and instinctively said, "looking for the sleds?"

"Yes," my mother replied.

We followed the sales clerk to shelves full of different sleds and snowboards in the back of the shop. The clerk showed my sisters and I how to wax the sleds and the correct way the ride them down the sand dunes. We also purchased bandanas, to protect our faces from the sand as we sled down the dunes.

Before we left the store, the clerk asked, "Are you planning on staying on the dunes after dark?"

My mother responded, "Yes, of course! I even bought red flashlights so will be able to stargaze."

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"Perfect," said the sales clerk. "It's absolutely beautiful up there at night. There is no light pollution so you are able to see all the stars and constellations at night."

The concept of a light pollution-free sky intrigued me. I've seen stars before, but I wondered how my view of the night sky would be different without light pollution.

At 6 p.m., just before the sun began to set behind the mountains, my family and I set out on the winding CO-150 to arrive at the dunes. We waxed our sleds, tied our bandanas around our faces and set out to summit the dunes.

The first thing that struck me was how difficult they were to climb. For every step I took forward, my feet sunk deeper into the sand and set me back further. When my sisters and I finally mounted the first dune, we got on our sleds and prepared to ride down.

I turned to K.C. and said, "I'll race you to the bottom!"

Without responding to my challenge, K.C. began racing down the dune, and I hurried to catch up. Unlike sledding on snow, sand sledding is much softer and messier.

After about three sled rides down the dunes, I was worn out. My family and I sat in a circle at the top of one of the smaller dunes and stared at the scenery around us. The sun was setting, and small glimmers of light struck the mountains in front of us. It was so gorgeous, I felt like I was sitting in middle of a National Geographic magazine.

Around 8:45 p.m., when the sun finally set, we grabbed our red flashlights, wrapped ourselves in sweatshirts and blankets and stood out on the dunes to see the stars (red lights don't add to the light pollution, so they allow stargazers to have a clearer view of the night sky).

On the dune floor, the mountains were no longer visible. The only thing that we were able to see now was the ground in front of us and the treetops behind us.

When we found a spot on the dunes to stargaze, we looked up and what I saw was the most stunning and clear view of the cosmos I have ever seen. I could make out every star and constellation of the night sky. My sisters and I took turns finding the brightest stars and identifying them with a particular planet.

Sitting out on the dunes and seeing the clear and beautiful night sky, it became clear to me why people will ditch the chaos and commotion of a metropolis, to live in a place where every night they can look out at the night sky and touch the cosmos.