Dunes, Dark Skies, and Data at Bruneau Dunes

Dunes, Dark Skies, and Data at Bruneau Dunes

If I had told Ken that we should walk for miles and miles on the soft upper sand dunes of a Florida beach, with no prospect of actually going in the ocean, he would have thought I was crazy. And with good reason – everyone knows that the only good place to walk on the beach is down by the water, where the sand is packed hard and kept cool by rhythmic waves. Oh, and I’m told some people actually go in the water at the beach. Yet we chose to exclusively experience the worst aspects of a Florida beach during our visit to the surprising Bruneau Dunes State Park, located southeast of Boise. What can I say? Travel encourages us to do strange things.

Dunes

The Bruneau Dunes are the remnants of a major flood on the Snake River approximately 14,500 years ago, which deposited sand and silts into massive dunes that today tower over the surrounding sagebrush flats. We camped at one of the two campgrounds in the park, where we were within sight and easy walking distance of the massive dunes. From camp, we saw distant ant-like shapes of people hiking up the dunes and then sliding down on different types of boards and sleds. One morning we headed out on the main hiking trail to explore the sandy landscape for ourselves.

 

The texture of the sand is very similar to beach sand on Florida’s Atlantic coast, but in the extremely arid environment of Idaho the sand is bone-dry and apparently gets quite hot on sunny days – sort of like the scorching sands far from the ocean on a blistering Florida summer afternoon. And similar to the sands we know from home, hiking up a big hill of soft sand is extremely tough, whether or not you are loaded down with coolers, chairs, and umbrellas. To make matters even more interesting, the trail follows the knife-edge of the dune, kept sharp by constant winds, with steep drops on both sides which really grab your attention when you lose your footing on shifting sands. For a hike with only 500 feet of elevation change, the main hiking loop through the park was surprisingly treacherous. While certainly unique, one trip up the “Big Dune” was enough for us during our stay!

Dark Skies

Bruneau Dunes, like our prior stop at Craters of the Moon, is known as a significant dark sky park with excellent stargazing opportunities. This is basically synonymous with being very far from civilization and major economic centers, while generally having clear, dry air. Bruneau Dunes even has a small observatory within the park which offers programs on weekend nights. Though we were at and just past full moon during our visits to both parks, and we had some cloudy nights, we did manage a few unobstructed peeks at the dome of the cosmos, glittering with millions of stars that are invisible to people in more populated areas. Sadly, I was too lazy to pull out my tripod so I have no photos. You’ll have to take my word for it that the Milky Way was achingly beautiful.

Sweet, Sweet Internet

What did we do when not filling our shoes with sand or peering at distant suns? We were soaking up all the data that our internet connection could produce. Our three weeks in Yellowstone made us acutely aware of just how little effort the NPS has put into offering internet connectivity in national parks. While I appreciate that establishing enough bandwidth to support the huge volume of visitors to the park would be a pretty tall order, the pitifully overloaded hotspots at Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Springs were simply too painful to use, which was frustrating. Our incredibly scenic camping spot at the Grand Tetons provided solid 4G connectivity, but the tower was so overloaded that speeds were also painfully slow. So there was much rejoicing in our household when we discovered that we had a solid and fast data connection in our campsite at Bruneau Dunes. We guzzled down that stream of data like a person stranded in a desert might consume a found jug of water. At last, we could catch up on news, download podcasts, check out e-books from our library, download magazines, stream videos, and complete software updates. We could finally settle some questions that arose when hiking, ranging from plant/animal/geology information we wanted to look up to playing music and video clips on YouTube that we had wanted to hear/see for some reason. We could also get weather forecasts, plot our upcoming drives, research future camping spots, and otherwise access all the information in the world, important or not. The fact of the matter is that we are completely accustomed to having continuous access to information, and it really cramps our style to have to go without for long periods of time. Fortunately our visit to Bruneau Dunes and our subsequent stay in Boise gave us the chance to repair the deficit with good quality internet connectivity.

Our path up the dune (black dots are people)

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