Archive for November 2012

The Grand Staircase I   Leave a comment

The canyons of the Escalante in southern Utah wait for the first storm of the winter to arrive.

The Grand Staircase is part of the Colorado Plateau and lies mostly in southern Utah but creeps over into northern Arizona as well.  It is the defining geographic and geologic feature of the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument.  Charles Keyes, one of the early geologists to study this remote region was the first to use the term Grand Staircase.  He was describing the series of stepped cliffs separated by broad terraces that extend from the Grand Canyon’s north rim northward to the high Paunsaugunt and Kaiparowits Plateaus.  The cliffs are colorful and spectacular features, cut as they are by scenic canyons and running across some of the last terrain in the U.S. to be mapped.

The Vermilion Cliffs in southern Utah are just as beautiful at night as they are during daylight hours. Here near Kanab, UT they are illuminated by a partial moon, not so bright as to interfere with the stars, including the Big Dipper standing on end.

The southernmost (and oldest) step of the Staircase is called the Chocolate Cliffs.  These are the most subtle of the formations, best viewed from the south when dropping off the Kaibab Plateau in Grand Canyon National Park.  On a clear day in fact, the highway that climbs from Fredonia, Arizona to Jacob Lake, Arizona is a great place from which to view most or all of the Grand Staircase.  From here you are looking up the Staircase.  Another great viewpoint, this time looking down the staircase, is Rainbow Point at the far (south) end of the Bryce Canyon road. The rock layers of the Grand Canyon, which actually represent another (very large) step to the south, are all older than those that make up the Grand Staircase.

An old tree lives the second part of its life, as a snag, in an Escalante River tributary canyon.

The next step to the north, just beyond the Chocolate Cliffs, is the Vermilion Cliffs.  These red and pink layers are very prominent and beautiful.  They’re visible in an almost continuous band from near Lake Powell all the way west to the town of Kanab, Utah.  The next step to the north is the White Cliffs.  Made mostly of the Navajo Sandstone, an ancient sea of sand dunes, these are visible clearly from several places.  Look up to the east from Mount Carmel , which is the turnoff to Zion N.P. from Hwy. 89.

The year’s first snowfall and a cold morning makes staying in the sleeping bag seem like a great idea.

The next step to the north is the Grey Cliffs.  These more subtle cliffs can be viewed most easily from the unpaved roads that traverse the center of the Monument.  Some Bryce Canyon viewpoints will provide a view as well.  The last step, made of the youngest rocks, is the Pink Cliffs.  The fantastic rock formations of Bryce Canyon are the most obvious exposure of these cliffs.  They are also visible from Hwy. 12 as it passes through Red Canyon.

The year’s first snowfall decorates pinyon pine cones in Utah’s red-rock country.

In Kanab, Utah, you can visit one of the National Monument’s visitor centers that will give you a great overview of the geology of the Grand Staircase.  An enormous diagram of the cliffs covers one whole wall, and it details all of the geologic formations.  There are examples of the rocks there so you can recognize them once you are out in the field.  More on the geology in my next post.

This is the only National Monument that is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and they mostly do a decent job.  Here at the visitor center you can get information on the Coyote Buttes area.  Coyote Buttes North and South are limited entry areas in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument.  They lie to the east, between Kanab and Page, AZ.   The “Wave”, which is famous for its smooth and wave-like sandstone is in Coyote Buttes South.  The Wave (image below) requires you to enter a lottery for one of the 10 permits issued each day.  You can also reserve a place well ahead of time using the internet.

The wave is a formation of sculpted sandstone in the Coyote Buttes North area of Vermilion Cliffs National Monument


Sunset at Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah highlights the vibrant shades of the park’s sculpted rock formations.

Grand Canyon’s North Rim   4 comments

Grand Canyon’s majesty is on display as viewed from the north rim at Bright Angel Point.

Here you’ll find the other, less-crowded side of the Grand Canyon.  Many years ago I visited the South Rim, and experienced the highway that some of the trails over there can be.  It is a spectacular place no matter which side you visit, so don’t let anyone convince you it is not worth visiting the South Rim.  What I would do, if I went over there, is hike one of the quieter trails too, like the trail down to Hance Rapids, or Grandview Mesa.  While hitch-hiking across the west in 1987, I did a two-night hiking trip down the Hance Trail to the Colorado River, camping next to Hance Rapids.  Then I ascended to Grandview Mesa to spend my second night.  It was a short steep climb out on the third day.  This is a rugged but not ridiculously strenuous backpack trip – truly spectacular.  But it was long ago, so perhaps it was easier than it might be if I did it today.


On Grand Canyon’s north rim is a spectacular overlook called Angel’s Window.

The North Rim is definitely less crowded than the South, but it’s not empty either.  There is another separate area on this side of the canyon that is certainly worthwhile as well.  It’s called Toroweap.  A couple years ago I was in the area and wanted to detour to the Canyon.  But being early Spring the road to North Rim was still snowed in.  Somebody told me about Toroweap, that it was lower in elevation and free of snow.  Toroweap is less visited than any road-accessible area in the this park because it is relatively unknown and also reaching it requires a long drive on gravel.

The North Rim proper lies between 7000 and 8000 feet in elevation, and is always cooler.  If you travel between the South and North it is a 2 ½-hour drive.  I much prefer the idea of accessing it from either Page, Arizona or Kanab, Utah.  I was headed from Page to Kanab (the gateway to Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument and Zion National Park).  It was a simple detour to visit the North Rim from here, and a very scenic one at that.

Dead trees tower over the north rim of Grand Canyon near Bright Angel Point.

There are quite a few short trails on the North Rim, and a few longer ones that descend into the canyon.  Unlike the South Rim, where the trails all descend into the canyon, and are thus strenuous, the North Rim is kind to casual hikers.  For example the trail out to Cape Final is only about 2 flat miles one way, and the view is outstanding.  Other trails visit viewpoints to the west, and are again nearly flat.  There is an outstanding backpack trip on the North Rim as well.  It descends into the canyon to run along the spectacular Thunder River.

The Grand Canyon’s temple-like formations are on display in the view from Bright Angel Point on the north rim.


But I was not able to hike much while here.  I did something to my foot in Page and was trying to let the plantar fasciitis symptoms that resulted calm down.  The Park Service was doing some prescribed burning during my visit, unfortunately, so the canyon was quite smoky in places.  Since the wind was mostly from the east, I headed out on the road to Cape Royal (which lies in that direction) and stayed out there for most of two days.  The skies were very clear on the night I spent out there, so I took the opportunity to do some stargazing and starscape photography.

Point Imperial is a viewpoint on the far east end of the road that provides a nice view up-canyon to the east.  Cape Royal has a nice view of the eastern part of the canyon as well, but you’ll also have a great view down-canyon to the west from there.  Between these two viewpoints along the road in several places, there are nice views to the east.  And so a setting sun will give you great light until it sinks too low and the light climbs out of the canyon.  The smoke lying to the west over the main road to the lodge actually made the light on the canyon ruddy and orange, and even softened it somewhat.

The attractive Grand Canyon Lodge sits spectacularly on the north rim at Bright Angel Point.


I also visited the main tourist area, where the visitor center, campground and the Grand Canyon Lodge are located.  Another nice viewpoint, the Bright Angel, is accessible from here.  I had a great time photographing along the short trail out to the point.  The ½ mile trail traverses a rock spine where you can scramble out to get interesting shots (if you’re not too afraid of heights!).  You will definitely feel as if you are traversing a catwalk – on a stupendous scale!

Cape Royal on the Grand Canyon’s north rim sees a colorful sunset under smoky skies.


There are unpaved roads that access areas to the west of the main road, but because of the smoke I did not explore this area.  You can also descend the North Kaibab Trail (from near the lodge) for a day hike.  Descending all the way to the river involves an overnight.  It’s easy to spend 3 or 4 days here just checking out the various viewpoints and shorter trails.  I spent about 2 ½ days, and hit most of what you can access from paved roads without feeling rushed.


Sunset at Bright Angel Point on the north rim of Grand Canyon.

There is a beautiful forest covering the plateau here, so make sure to spend a little time strolling through the pines.  The canyon rim, with it’s drop-dead views, is of course the main show.  But it is certainly not the North Rim’s only charm.  For example, wildlife encounters (including cougars!) are a possibility.  The South Rim is just too busy for this.  I hope to return someday to hike Thunder River.  Until then, it’s onward and upward.  I’m heading up the Grand Staircase and into the Canyons of the Escalante – the subject of my next post.



One more Page: Antelope Canyon and Night Balloons   2 comments

An Arizona slot canyon catches a tumbleweed.

Hot air balloons are illuminated at night during the Page, Arizona Balloon Regatta.

I stayed one more day and night in Page, Arizona.  I am so glad I did!  I broke down and did the tourist thing at Antelope Canyon.  While this time of year sees the sun only peeking into the upper parts of this 150-foot deep slot canyon, it is still a great place to photograph.  Yes it is one of the most over-photographed places in the American Southwest, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit this incredible natural wonder if you find yourself in the neighborhood.

A beam of light penetrates Antelope Canyon in Arizona.

Your best bet if you have wheels is to drive the short distance out to the Navajo Tribal Park, where you will pay $6 for entry, then $25 for a tour of the canyon.  You can also book a somewhat more expensive trip direct from Page.  You can’t miss the signs in town.  If you go during mid-day, you will pay more ($40), since that is when the sun during summer shines directly into the canyon, and it is more crowded.  So make the tour at 10 a.m., or after 2 p.m.  If you really want that sunbeam onto the canyon floor shot, go in mid-April or later.  April is perfect, since it is a bit less crowded (and cooler) than high summer.

Traveling through an Arizona slot canyon in black and white.

In Arizona near Lake Powell, a small alcove in the Navajo Sandstone catches a small sand dune.

You will board the back of a truck rigged with benches and bounce along a sand track for 4 or 5 miles to the canyon’s lower entrance.  You only tour the lower 1/4 mile or so of the slot, but this is enough for the hour+  tour, believe me!  Although there are plenty of people in the canyon, it is just wide enough to allow you to pass.  People are pretty good about not getting in your shot, though you will need to be a bit resourceful in this regard.  I pointed my camera up for the most part, so people could pass under my shot.

Your exposures will be long, and flash is not a great idea (most guides do not allow them), so definitely bring a good tripod.  A wide angle lens is necessary, but also bring a longer lens, say a fast 50 mm. and maybe a 70-200 as well.  You will see compositions that require some isolation from surrounding darker or cluttered areas.  Get low, get high, include a lot of the wall, shoot straight down the slot, shoot straight up.  Do anything for variety.  Remember, this place has been shot to death.

You can take a tour specifically focused on photography, but then you might have a guide telling you where and how to shoot.  Unless you’re a beginner, be careful what type of guide you hire.  I noticed while I was there that the photo guides definitely have favorite spots to shoot, and were mostly telling not suggesting where to shoot.  This further compounds the problem of too many similar shots of the place being out there on the web.

There are two other sections of the canyon you can explore.  One is the lower canyon, just across the road from the upper’s staging area.  It costs $20 to hike this, and it is more of an independent hike than the upper slot.  It is also much wider and less of a slot canyon than the upper.  There is also a higher upper portion of the slot canyon, above the more popular section.  My guide told me it is possible to book a tour to explore this section, which is way less crowded but still a nice narrow, sculpted slot canyon.

After this I took a neat hike, just to explore some of the slickrock country visible from the highway.  I love doing this.  Nobody else ever thinks about just parking and taking off cross-country.  I believe I might have been on Navajo land in part, so I was risking an encounter to some degree.  Scrambling around, “friction hiking” the slickrock alcoves was very cool (image left).  But something happened to my heel, and now I have symptoms of the dreaded plantar fasciitis.

Later that evening, the weekend’s main event took place.  On the Saturday night of the Balloon Regatta weekend in Page, all the balloonists inflate their balloons along the main street in Page, and fire up their burners.  Instead of launching, the balloon pilots illuminate their balloons for everyone.  There is food, games and activities for kids, a beer garden, and a general atmosphere of festivity in the air.  I was pretty happy with the pictures I got of the glowing balloons.  It was a bit like shooting fireworks, where you open the shutter for a fairly long spell during the action and hope for good shots.  Since the pilots use walkie talkies to synchronize their burners, it’s easy to tell when to fire the shutter.  I set my exposure off of one of the glowing balloons, and then left the camera on manual and zoomed back out for the shots.

The Page Balloon Regatta culminates in a panoply of glowing balloons.

It was a great long weekend in Page, on the shores of Lake Powell.  Warm weather, fun people, and red rock canyon country all around you.  What more could you ask for?  It was on to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon for me after that, and that is the subject of my next post.

The sun peeks into the narrow confines of Antelope Canyon, Arizona.

Page and Lake Powell   1 comment

Dawn breaks over Lake Powell in Utah.


This will be a shortish post (for me!).  I wanted to post a few pictures from the shores of Lake Powell, near Page, Arizona.  But first I want to let you know (since I haven’t in awhile) that these photos are copyrighted material.  If you click on one you’ll be taken to the website for MJF Images, where they will be appearing in finished form very soon.  These versions are really too small for you to put them to good use.  When you get to the website, browse the images and, if you like, you may purchase with a single click: downloads, prints, framed, canvas, whatever you wish.  Please contact me if you have any questions or just want to order one of the images from a recent blog.  I’ll get it out to you right away.  Thanks for your cooperation and interest.

Lake Powell and the graveled part of Lone Rock Beach reflect a colorful dawn sky.

This is the first time I’ve ever been to this summer playground in the desert.  People flock here to ply the waters of Lake Powell, the reservoir behind the damn dam that has drowned Glen Canyon for decades now.  And to think they named it after the man who journeyed through Glen Canyon when it was at its raw best, and who loved the canyons for their naked beauty.  Renting a house boat is very popular, as is drinking and soaking up the sun.  But it is November  now, with chilly mornings and wonderful days.  Only a few tourists around, but it is not at all near deserted.  And this is especially true this weekend, the first in November, when the annual hot air balloon festival takes place.  Dozens of hot air balloons launch at dawn, and the town is all abuzz.

The area around Page, Arizona and Glen Canyon Dam is peppered with small sandstone buttes, which are fossil sand dunes.

It clouded up late yesterday afternoon, but the sunset was only okay considering.  I camped at the shores of Lake Powell at Lone Rock Beach to take advantage of what I thought might be a nice sunrise because of the cloudiness.  I could have instead shot balloons at dawn, but there is so much photography of hot air balloons.  I know what you’re thinking…there is no shortage of colorful sunrise pictures consisting of water and sky.  But give me a break.  The days have cloudless and rather boring (for photography) for the past couple weeks.  So I did not want to waste the opportunity.

A lone hot air balloon floats beyond the golf course in Page, Arizona during its annual balloon festival.

This is a great time to visit the area, being cool and uncrowded.  The middle of October might be even better, for fall colors.  But there are precious few aspens or cottonwoods in the area.  The balloon festival is certainly not a bad time to visit.  You might want to make reservations if you plan on staying in a hotel.  There are other events going on over the weekend.  It is a small town, and when things go on in towns this size, you know it.  People are in a great mood.

Lone Rock in Lake Powell, Utah stands high in late fall’s low water.

The big question I have for myself is whether to go on to the north rim of Grand Canyon today, or hang around and tour Antelope Canyon.  If you don’t know, Antelope Canyon is that slot canyon you see so much of in photographs.  The red sculpted walls that arch over forming a roof, and often with a shaft of sunlight streaming in from above.  Well, I am certainly in to that sort of photograph.  But this is one of the most over-photographed subjects in the Southwest, so I am more than hesitant.  I may try instead to get similar shots in a different slot canyon to the north, in the Escalante River region.  But then again, if you see Antelope Canyon shots in my next post, you’ll know I caved and did the tour.  It is on Navajo land and costs $25-40 to take the tour.

Well, enjoy the photos and take care everyone.  Happy fall (it’s still fall, right?) and don’t forget to set your clocks back one hour tomorrow night.

A lonely Lone Rock beach on Lake Powell in Utah greets an early November dawn.


The balloon festival at Page as viewed from the Glen Canyon Dam.


Lake Powell along the Utah/Arizona border glories in sunrise.

The Ancient Ones V: Hopi Mesas   Leave a comment

While at Monument Valley (see previous two posts), I heard from a fellow traveler of the Hopi Mesas in northeast Arizona.  I was immediately intrigued.  I thought I had never heard of them, but later that evening I realized that the name rang a distant bell in my mind.  The reason for my interest at this moment was obvious to me.  This trip has had a theme that I never intended when I started out.  What had started out as a quest to photograph fall colors and wildlife has recently become a trip back in time, to those lonely mesas and canyons once inhabited by the Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi).  I found only their ghosts in the stone pueblos and cliff dwellings.  While those experiences were certainly magical, they were somehow incomplete.

View from Third Mesa on the Hopi Reservation in NE Arizona.

The Ancient Ones did not disappear of course, but migrated to the west and south.  The modern Hopi, along with other tribes, are their descendants.  I realized on that last night in Monument Valley that I very much wanted to meet living and breathing Puebloans.  And so the thought of visiting the three mesas deep within the Hopi reservation had enormous appeal.  Add to this the fact that many Hopi continue to live traditionally, and the draw for me was great enough to take the long detour south. If you follow Arizona Highway 264, you will pass, from east to west, the First, Second and Third Mesas.  There are a total of 12 villages on the Hopi reservation, all centered in this region.  Further west, you’ll find Moenkopi, a village adjacent to the much more modern Tuba City.

The village of Oraibi has been continuously inhabited for nearly 800 years.

I approached the Hopi Mesas from the west, camping just before reaching Third Mesa.  In the morning, I drove into the village of Old Oraibi (pronounced “Oraivi”).  Oraibi (image above) is a unique village.  Native Americans have lived there since the 1100s.  That makes it one of this continent’s oldest continuously inhabited communities.  It was certainly one of the first places that the Ancestral Puebloans settled on their migration out from the Four Corners region. Oraibi lacks electrical power, though the lines pass a mere few hundred yards from its stone houses.  Some of the houses definitely remain as they were originally built nearly a thousand years ago.  Newer roofs, windows, and the like have been added of course, a few have solar panels on them, and there are generators.   But the walls, floors, interiors, and most of the woodwork is original.  The residents keep the interiors in a tidy original form as well.  They live in close accord with the rhythms of the sun and seasons, in peace and quiet away from modern intrusions.  I don’t want to exaggerate.  They also drive trucks, have occasional domestic and community disputes, and leave for school and jobs on the outside.

The First Mesa and the village of Walpi is visible from Second Mesa.

A Hopi man from Old Oraibi shows me one of his childhood swimming holes, a deep water pocket atop Third Mesa in Arizona.

As the lone tourist I attracted some attention as I drove in.  I quickly met a young man who directed me to a table of crafts for sale.  A few men sat carving kachina dolls and working on other artwork.  After a bit of talk, I wandered off.  I felt the eyes of the inhabitants keeping watch from their small windows.  I took a picture of an old uninhabited stone building, and was immediately approached by a woman in a Suburban.  She told me in a very stern manner that taking pictures was not allowed, nor was wandering alone.  So I apologized and put my camera away. I hitched on to a young man standing in a nearby doorway.  We spoke for awhile and I got the full story.  Some tourists have in the past abused the privilege of their visit.  They had snapped pictures of dances and ceremonies without permission, traipsed across sacred ground, and even collected shrine articles.  I was told that if I was caught taking pictures, my camera would be confiscated and held for 30 days.  30 days!  Needless to say I didn’t take any more photos.

Back at the crafts table, I was invited by one of the men for a walk to view some rock art.  Some of the petroglyphs were obviously very recent, but others looked old and were similar to those I had seen in the ancient sites.  We scrambled along the edge of the mesa, and he showed me the places where they played as children.  There are waterpockets on the top of the mesa.  These are natural depressions in the sandstone where water collects during summer thunderstorms.  Some were pretty big, and he told me they had played and swam in these natural swimming pools as children.  They hold water for quite some time after storms, and form a very important source of fresh water.

It was a beautiful morning, and it was a delightful walk.  I saw subtle features that would have escaped my notice if I was alone.  He allowed me to take some pictures, since we were away from the village.  I really enjoyed the personal and casual nature of the tour.   He showed me the old church, built by Mennonite missionaries during the Spanish expansion in this area.  Lightning had struck the church twice.  On the second occasion, it was mostly destroyed and all the worshippers inside killed.  I don’t need to tell you what this signified to the villagers who were resisting conversion.  He asked only a modest amount of money for his time, which I appreciated.

After bidding the guys goodbye, I drove down and back up to Second Mesa.  At the community center/museum, I ran into some trick or treaters (it was Halloween).  I just love native American children, the smaller the cuter.  The brother and sister posed for my camera, and the photo was not the best.  I did not re-position them in the shade, nor try for a better photo.  They were on a very important mission after all, and far be it from me to interrupt it.  I picked up a hitch-hiking older Hopi gentleman on the way back west to Tuba City.  I learned some things from him about their ways.

Two Hopi children from Second Mesa in Arizona are somewhat annoyed at having their trick or treating interrupted.

A young American Indian boy in Tuba City enjoys a Halloween hot dog and Charl knows just how often kids drop their food.

For instance, the coming of age rituals do not necessarily take place at a specific age.  The boys are initiated when they are ready; they’re not forced into it.  As in the old times, they are dry land farmers who do not irrigate their crops.  Instead they depend on natural rainfall and snow melt.  Thus their springtime rain dances and rituals still hold immense importance.  The god called Maasau (sp?), the guardian of the world, is responsible for the care of all animals, things and people, including outsiders like me.  In fact, elders will often give eagle feathers to outsiders who become close friends.  Eagle feathers are worn as protection, and one will last one year before it is replaced.   A very peaceful and gentle people the Hopi are.

When I got to Tuba City, I was approached by a slightly drunken man.  At first he cursed me, but I thought nothing of it.  I have seen enough drunk native Americans to know it is definitely the liquor with them, not their nature.  He needed a ride home, which was all the way back at the Mesas (an hour’s drive).  I didn’t want to backtrack, but was thinking of relenting when he admitted he had been coughing up blood.  So I took him to the emergency room instead.

I was going to leave Tuba City but the sight of so many cute trick or treaters made me stay awhile.  Towards sunset I visited a roadside stand that some families had set up.  They were serving free hamburgers and hot dogs to all trick or treaters, plus their parents.  I tried to pay them, having no costume after all, but they refused.  A woman even cooked me up some fry bread.  So I hung about for awhile, talking with various friendly folks.  I’m not certain but I believe both Navajos and Hopis live around Tuba City.  No matter, they are equally as friendly (though they apparently do not like each other, because of land disputes primarily).

I really hope I get the opportunity to come back and spend enough time to make real friends with some of these fine people.  They are poor but very giving, and very easy to talk to.  They are quite guarded about their religious beliefs and much of their people’s history.  But I think I could eventually be invited into their (very traditional) homes, eat with them, go horseback riding.  I might even one day be lucky enough to receive an eagle feather from an elder.  I could use all the protection (from myself?) that I can get!  Headed over toward the Grand Canyon!

Free hot dogs and burgers draw a crowd on Halloween evening in Tuba City, on Reservation land in northern Arizona.

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