Summer in Idaho is an exciting time for Russell and me; the sun stays high until long hours into the night, and the weather finally warms up enough for some trips to go camping. We’re still relatively new to the area, so a lot of the popular places are still fresh for us; an adventure with mysteries yet to be seen. We usually drum up a quick Google search to find our next destination, not knowing much more about each place than drive time to get there and spotty descriptions on State Park pages. It’s our Russian Roulette of traveling if you will. Our taking chances for the sake of just getting out there because sometimes nature just calls to you like that.
It was on one such fated search page that Russell and I stumbled across Bruneau Sand Dunes State Park, just outside of Mountain Home, Idaho. Bruneau Sands Dunes are, first and foremost, a couple of large sand dunes that run somewhat parallel to each other. The online images show people hiking, driving recreation vehicles, and even skiing down the dunes, so the impression was one of fairly high expectation.
As a kid my parents would take my sister, my cousins, and me to another rather large sand dune way out in the Nevada desert - aptly named Sand Mountain. With our infinite energy, we would run up and down the hill all day, not noticing that the sand was too hot and definitely getting into places no one wants it to be. And when we’d had enough of the sand for the time being, we’d trek on over to the nearby petroglyphs or Pony Express station for a taste of history gone by. There was never a lack for anything to do, and even now I hold only dear memories for the place.
Russell and I set out for the Bruneau Sand Dunes at the end of a relatively warm June. The drive was barren desert most of the way, but that’s kind of what we imagined. And anyway, rabbit brush and cheat grass definitely have their own kind of beauty. An homage to our shared homeland; back where the sage is plentiful and the sun always shines.
When we finally pulled up, the dune was a bit smaller than I had pictured, but altogether the place looked nice and spaces looked available, so we were fairly hopeful about the stay. Upon pulling into the campsite and stepping out of the car though, we discovered the first real issue of the trip and that was: there was absolutely no shade or sun cover around, and the temperature was so much higher out here in the desert. We were baking out there. Although, each campsite did have a wood wall to protect from the setting sun towards the hottest part of the day.
It was hot during the day and still hot at night. We chased the shadows under sparse tree branches in search for some kind of sanctuary, but even outside of the direct sunlight it was scorching. Which wouldn’t have been as much of a problem if we had been prepared. I recommend bringing a source of shade and a battery powered fan on your trip to Bruneau Sand Dunes. I promise you won’t regret it. Russell and I did manage to keep a few drinks cold for the entire time we were there, and they were more or less our oasis for the entire weekend.
Heat aside, we did still muster the energy to explore the dune and the surrounding area. Sand is always fun to me because I’m just never around it. I like to drag sticks through it and draw patterns, and dig my feet way below the hot sand to get far enough down for it to feel cool and refreshing. I’m easy to please in that sense, so it wasn’t overwhelmingly disappointing when the activities didn’t turn out to be all that they were touted as. We had a good time simply exploring and snapping pictures, but I guess I don’t quite know what all the hype’s about.
Maybe it’s because I’m an outsider looking at it through the wrong lens, I just recall having this glaring feeling of “So what?” when we reached the top of the mountain. As if it hadn’t really been all that big; all that exciting. We even found a sled that someone had left behind and eagerly given it a ride, just to find that sand and not-so-smooth plastic don’t really work like that. So we walked along the spine of the dune and it was definitely an enjoyable experience, it just wasn’t the high-energy recreation haven that Google Images had promised.
It wasn’t long before we were back at camp, firing up our usual fare and playing Scrabble until the sun set. Night time on trips is equally as active as the day for us, since it offers ample photo opportunities for Russell, and great star gazing for me. We’ll usually pick a good foreground spot during the day, and then trek back there once the sun dips low enough in the sky. The dune was an obvious choice for photographing, so we waited for sunset to begin and headed out of camp.
Before leaving we hosed down with some bug spray that in hindsight I wish we had brought with us. We made it all the way to the dunes without occurrence, even snapping a great shot of the two of us as sunset. It was a breathtaking view to say the least, but as soon as the sun was out of sight the night took a turn for the unbearable.
As Russell took gorgeous shots of the night sky and I philosophized about our place in the universe, and what it means to be made of the stuff of stars, I started to notice infrequent biting sensations. I ignored them at first, but then infrequent turned into intermittent, and then that turned into often. Pretty soon it felt as though I was being bit every minute or two. I had doused myself in bug spray but the mosquitos relentlessly came.
It got so bad that Russell and I had to pack up the gear and head back to the tent lest I be eaten alive. Behind closed doors we were saved from the biting, but there was nothing to soothe the itchiness I couldn’t ignore. All night I stayed up itching this and scratching that, cursing the day we decided to go to Bruneau Sand Dunes and wondering why my dad passed on such mosquito-prone blood. It was a restless night full of grumpiness and regret. I hadn’t even known the degree of the damage and already I was lamenting. Russell used to work in Vector Borne Disease programs and quickly pointed out the source of all the mosquitoes. The dunes had a giant stagnant lake behind them with plenty of shallow vegetated border just ripe for breeding.
The next day and in ample light, we counted 50 bites covering my body. They spanned from my face to my feet, each one as itchy as the one adjacent to it. I was pretty torn up about it for a few days as the discomfort persisted, but this again was something that could have been avoided if I had been better prepared for the situation. That night I had worn tight black jeans and a thin black sweater. A color shown to attract mosquitos and some pretty easy access. Some nice loose fitting clothes might have served me better, but to be safe I’d get some stronger DEET next time, and maybe go in an earlier season.
The worst part about it is that in all of the mosquito commotion, we had completely forgotten that there was a well-equipped observatory in the State Park, with a 25-inch Newtonian telescope, that can view things as far out as galaxies. It’s a meager $3 admittance fee and is open fairly late in the night considering. They open on weekends from roughly 9:15 pm to 12:30 am, and you can gaze rather freely after watching a short presentation. Look at stars, nebula, the moon, and even nearby galaxies. An amazing opportunity that I’m still bemoaning even a year after the fact.
Looking back on Bruneau Sand Dunes, we weren’t really left with any kind of disappointment, but we weren’t left with a burning desire to go back, either. Sure, I would definitely make the drive solely for the observatory if Russell and I ran out of new places to experience, but in the meantime, we probably won’t return for a while. *Something about different strokes for different folks blah blah.