Archive for the ‘National Parks’ Category

Adventuring Grand Canyon ~ Toroweap   5 comments

Ocotillo and barrel cactus in spring green: Lava Falls Trail, Toroweap, AZ.

The Grand Canyon is on the bucket lists of many of us.  Most head to the south rim where all the tourist facilities are.  This little story is about the much less popular north rim, which is worth visiting too.  But wait, it’s not even about the more popular north rim, where the lodge is located.  It’s about a little corner of the park that is a little tough to get to.  Called Toroweap, it’s in the northwestern part of the park, which means it overlooks the lower Colorado River.

On the road to Toroweap, Arizona Strip.

Toroweap, which is little more than a campground and overlook, is a Paiute word meaning “dry valley”.  And that’s what you drive up on a long gravel road from the Arizona Strip.  That’s the narrow, isolated strip of Arizona that stretches along the Utah border and north of the Grand Canyon.  I was in the area visiting Zion and the Grand Staircase and had a few extra days.

I’d been wanting to drive up to the north rim from Kanab.  But being late winter, the main route through Jacob Lake was still closed due to snow.  I thought of Toroweap, which is at a lower elevation than the rest of the north rim.  It was open!  So despite my allergy to washboard gravel roads, that’s where I went.  There were fields of flowers blooming along the way (image above).

Along the trail to Lava Falls.

The last short stretch to the spectacular overlook over the lower Grand Canyon is rocky and recommended for high clearance vehicles.  I babied my van over the rock shelves but still parked a couple hundred yards from the lookout.  I claimed a campsite and took a hike out along the rim to the east.  Recent rains had filled the potholes in the sandstone, adding to the atmosphere.  Toward day’s end the light got awfully nice and I got some nice shots before sunset (below).

A rainstorm leaves full water pockets at Toroweap on the north rim of the Grand Canyon.

I know what you’re thinking: not too adventurous.  That’s what I was thinking too.  Why hang around an overlook all day?  So next morning I took a little dirt road I’d spied.  It led down to the trailhead for Lava Falls, which I knew was somewhere nearby.  I decided to see how far down the trail I could get before chickening out and turning around.  The sign isn’t kidding.  The trail is super-steep and rough, though much worse in the heat of summer.  Each few hundred feet you drop down it you become more and more aware of how far back up you’ll be climbing in the heat of the day.

Trailhead to Lava Falls, Grand Canyon N.P.

As I went down I left the cool air of the rim and entered springtime.  I came across some just-blooming wildflowers along the way.  I saw a raft party pull off the Colorado, scout Lava Falls, and then run it.  It seemed as if I was looking straight down on them from the trail above.  After a certain point it was hard to stop; the river pulled me toward it.  On reaching the river I scrambled along the shore to reach one of the Colorado’s most impressive rapid, Lava Falls.  Pulling myself up over a boulder I was surprised by a rattlesnake (or vice versa).  I’d never seen this species.  It turned out to be an endemic (found nowhere else), the Grand Canyon pink.

A Grand Canyon pink rattlesnake, found nowhere else but here.

A blooming prickly pear attracts a pollinator within the lower part of Grand Canyon.

Sitting on the rocks next to Lava Falls is an interesting experience.  The water is so powerful that you can feel and hear large boulders roll with the current along the stream bed.  I got as close to the main rapids as I dared, and got the shot below.  It was remarkably warm at the river, and even though the water was ice cold, I took a swim below the rapids.  I figured I’d need the memory of it about halfway on the climb back up.  It isn’t a very long distance, but it was almost sunset by the time I reached the rim.  That last mile or so was a struggle!

Cactus blooming inside the lower Grand Canyon above Lava Falls.

One of Grand Canyon’s most fearsome rapids, Lava Falls, rumbles and roars.

After some great light and a nice shot of the Toroweap Valley at sunset (below), I was far too exhausted to go anywhere.  I slept right where I’d parked for the hike.  I never saw another soul either at the rim or along the trail.  Just those rafters on the river.  It had been the perfect shooting experience, at least for me.  I love being around people when doing travel photography but prefer shooting alone for landscape and nature photography.

Thanks for checking out the post!  Have a wonderful weekend.

I camped near the trailhead for Lava Falls: Toroweap, Grand Canyon N.P.

Advertisements

Adventuring Mt. Rainier ~ In the Dark   6 comments

Mt. Rainier and Upper Tipsoo Lake.

There really is no Cascade peak like Mount Rainier.  Mt. Hood is spectacularly beautiful.  Mt. Saint Helens has a dangerous beating heart.  And Glacier Peak is surrounded by the kind of wilderness that reminds of Alaska.  But Rainier is at another scale altogether.  Not only is it broad it’s lofty.  It is flanked by dramatically steep glaciers that drop dramatically down to relatively low-lying forested valleys.

From Seattle, Rainier looks like a normal snow-capped mountain.  But when you approach close to or inside the national park that covers the mountain, it’s a different story.  It’s a massively rugged mountain ringed by high country, like the Tatoosh Range to the south.  Each side of the mountain has its own character, with extensive subalpine meadows a consistent feature.

Last post I related a little bear story from one of these meadow areas:  Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground on Rainier’s southwest side.  I was a young buck then; years later I returned to photograph the wildflower display.  The thing about Indian Henry’s that makes it a little challenging is its distance from trailheads.  Most people backpack in.  But if you hike up Tahoma Creek trail from West Side Road, it’s a mostly straightforward, if long, day-hike.  Don’t take it too lightly though.  At over 12 miles round-trip with more than 2500 feet elevation gain, and with parts of the trail sometimes washed out, it isn’t an easy trek.

Mirror Lakes in the center of Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground, Mt. Rainier National Park.

Night-Hike

On a photo trip to Rainier five years ago I decided that Indian Henry’s would make a great late-day hike.  It’s the sort of hike only a nature photographer would consider.  The kind where you time it to be someplace awesome to shoot at sunset.   And since your camera gear alone is heavy enough, you really don’t want to schlep the extra gear for camping.  So your shoot is followed by a hike back in the dark.

I started at mid-day from where West Side Road is closed off to vehicle traffic.  After a couple miles on the gravel road-bed you take a trail that follows Tahoma Creek upstream.  This is a powerful glacier-fed stream, and the previous spring’s melt had torn out long sections of the trail.  The lower part of the hike thus featured a few nervous stream crossings.  I’ve been swept away before and felt very close to drowning, and so I respect rapidly moving water as much as I do anything in nature.

After a few long stretches of boulder-hopping I left the creek and climbed steeply to the meadows.  From the photos you can see the light was very nice, despite the cloudless skies.  Best of all the wildflowers were in perfect bloom.  It was late August, which may seem to be late in the season for peak flower bloom.  But Rainier’s subalpine meadows are high and snow lingers well into summer.  On that special day the wildflower close-ups and the grand scale shooting were both sublime.

The pasqueflower is a different sort of bloom: Mt. Rainier, Washington.

After the golden light left the mountain, dusk began to approach rapidly.  I packed my gear into the pack and wasted no time starting my descent.  Not long after crossing timberline and entering the forest night began to come on like a train.  I stopped at a waterfall and grabbed one more shot, confident of my headlamp.  But after only 20 minutes or so my headlamp began to flicker.  I had put what I thought were fresh batteries in before I started out, but they must have been well past expiration.  I should have had spares, but had failed to check my pack before starting out.  I silently cursed my impatience to get going.

Just as I began to hear the roar of Tahoma Creek below my lamp finally gave out and darkness gathered around me.  At first the trail was barely discernible and easy enough to follow.  I was confident of being able to reach and follow the creek bed.  But the night was moonless and exceptionally black.  I missed a turn and struggled to regain the trail, falling a good 10 feet or so between two huge rock outcrops.  I wasn’t hurt, but slowed down considerably after that close call.  Then I reached Tahoma Creek and began to follow it downstream.

Narada Falls at night-fall, Mt. Rainier National Park, Washington.

I was lucky.  If there had been more dense forest walking ahead I would have been forced to stop and spend a cold night with no shelter.  Luckily, frequent glacial floods had removed most of the trees along the creek, allowing the stars to shine through.  With eyes now fully dark-adapted, and with the normally unnoticed added light from many suns burning far away, I discovered that if I went slow, I could just barely see features before reaching them.

I lost the trail at the first washout and was forced to stumble down the rubbly stream bed for the duration.   I traveled in a sort of slow-motion crouch, using starlight to show me boulders and other obstacles.  I tripped and fell a bunch of times anyway.  And the stream crossings were even more fun than on the way up.  Thankfully by the time I reached them the stream’s flow was lessened because of slower melting from upstream glaciers brought on by the cool of night.

I followed the creek longer than necessary, not noticing the road off to my right beyond some dark trees.  When I finally realized my mistake I climbed the bank and crawled through the trees, where my feet touched something strange.  Flat, even ground, the road!  The feeling that washed over me was pure ecstasy.  But easy walking on the road felt very strange.  Have you experienced this?  Where your legs, after endlessly struggling up, over and around, can finally walk normally.  But it suddenly feels like you’re swinging heavy stone blocks?  My head and torso felt like they were floating above my too-heavy lower half.

My van looked even better than West Side Road had, parked there all alone, patiently waiting as if certain of my safe return.  The little clock on the dash said 2:55 a.m.  I can count on one hand the number of times in life that the cliche’ actually came true.  You know the one, where sleep takes you before your head even hits the pillow.  Going hard for so many hours will do that.

Next morning, it’s needless to say, my body was sore all over and bruised in a dozen places.  But it was worth it.  The photos, which turned out nicely with or without the accompanying adventure, seemed even better for having come at a price, and with a memory.

Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend!

Low clouds move up the Nisqually River, but the stars are revealed from a high perch on Rainier as night comes on.

 

Adventuring Death Valley: Storm Light   7 comments

Things get interesting when a storm moves into Death Valley National Park, California.

The fun continues in a place that, at first glance, does not appear to offer much.  Let’s face it.  Death Valley, although it’s very dramatic when you first drive in, is a dry and desolate place at first glance.  Because of this, a lot of people drive through without spending the night, just to check it off their bucket lists.  They may stop to check out the sand dunes or go to Badwater, the lowest spot in North America.  But little else.  What a waste!

My last two stories were about adventures from early trips, before it became a national park, and when I was just falling in love with the place.  Looking back at those times I seem to have been more than a little reckless at times.  But that’s the way it is when you’re young and capable of getting into trouble without paying too high a price.  Alas, those days are gone.  We all need to slow down a bit when we get older.  Knowing our limits let’s us return in one piece from an adventure, to tell the tale.  Occasionally I hear about an older person who gets themselves into trouble in the outdoors by biting off more than he can chew.  Nowadays I try to avoid being so foolish.

That said, in my opinion the opposite situation is far more prevalent.  Too many people are far too careful.  We hear about it when things go south for would-be adventurers.  But when have you ever read in the news about someone who missed out on a fun adventure because they were over-cautious?  In general the older the wiser.  But one way we aren’t so wise is that, as we grow into later middle age, we underestimate our abilities in order to avoid risks altogether.  We confuse staying comfortable with staying alive, and that results in ‘roads not taken.’

 

Old mine ruins in Titus Canyon, Death Valley National Park.

Alluvial Fans, an Inselberg, and Storm Light

This little adventure took place just last year.  Although no where near death-defying, it was just the kind of adventure most of us can do without risking it all.  It happened in an area of Death Valley that does not receive much (if any) attention.  The kind of place where one can hike all day without seeing anyone.  It lies along the Grapevine Mountains range-front, off the Scotty’s Castle Road.  Not far north of this road’s junction with Hwy. 190 is the turnoff for Titus Canyon, a scenic and popular Death Valley destination.

The gravel road to Titus’ mouth ascends an alluvial fan to a small parking area, where you must stop and continue on foot.  Although the road continues into the canyon, it is one-way only, from the other direction.  Titus is often closed to vehicles, and then it makes a fine hike from this parking area.  When it’s open I recommend driving in from the other direction.  But Titus isn’t the only canyon-hike from here.  Two others, Fall and Red Wall Canyions, are worthwhile treks as well.

From a previous hike up Red Wall Canyon, Death Valley N.P.

I started early in the morning, meaning to hike as far up Red Wall Canyon as I could reach in a day.  I hoped to refill with water at a spring in Red Wall, but I didn’t need to carry the usual heavy load of water anyway.  Since it was very early in the year, the weather was cool enough.  Also skies were mostly cloudy.  I headed north along the trail, passing the mouth of the shorter & more popular Fall Canyon along the way.  It was my second trip up Red Wall, and I looked forward to getting good images of the colorful cliff walls in late-day light on the way out.

After several hours hiking up-canyon, where I found some early-blooming flowers (it’d been an unusually wet winter), I decided to turn around earlier than expected.  There were a couple springs along the way, one of them with lush growth around it where I stopped and watched a hummingbird for awhile.  I exited the canyon, and since I had a few hours until dark I decided to do some exploring.  I trekked north along the range-front, looking for more interesting stuff.  Alluvial fans may look flat, but if you hike one without a trail be prepared for rugged, exhausting walking.

Blooming globe mallow in Red Wall Canyon, Death Valley, CA.

A sight you don’t expect in Death Valley: a hummingbird!

This sort of random wandering is one of my favorite things to do.  It probably accounts for the frequency with which I seem to end up in different places than originally planned.  I found another canyon further north, but could not access it the standard way.  That is, by heading up the wash and straight in.  The wash was deeply incised into the alluvial fan, leaving a sheer rock face at the mouth of the canyon.  Also, the wash itself had equally sheer cliffs of coarse gravel bordering it.

I climbed up above the mouth trying to access it that way, and nearly succeeded.  But a crux couple of moves on a scary traverse, something that would’ve presented little problem as a younger man, reminded me that the expression “discretion is the better part of valor” is particularly apt when you’re hiking alone and getting up there in years.

Retreating to the alluvial fan, I kept heading north and west, away from the range-front.  I made for an inselberg, which is a geologic term of German origin that refers to an island of bedrock in a sea of loose (normally gravelly) sediment.  Look around Death Valley and you’ll see them poking darkly out of the alluvial fans.  I found a cool little slot canyon that wound its way into the inselberg.  Smoothed limestone, little pour-offs that were “jumpable”, and plenty of chimney-like alcoves made it a fun maze to explore.

One of Death Valley’s ubiquitous washes.

The weather, which had been slowly deteriorating all afternoon, started to get interesting.  The wind blew harder and dark clouds built over the Panamint Range to the west.  I had the conversation with myself that I’ve had so many times before.  How long to get back to my van?  How much do I want a sunset shot in this area?  Will the light cooperate, thus making a hike back in the dark worthwhile?

Alluvial fans are one of Death Valley’s most iconic features, but one a casual visitor might not appreciate until it’s pointed out.  Just the kind of thing I like to photograph well.  So I decided to stay and try for the kind of shot that had been in the back of my mind for quite awhile; that is, looking down from the top (head) of the fan.  Imagine a bird’s-eye view looking straight down on an alluvial fan and the second part of that name becomes obvious.  The head, or top, of the fan is the sharp point, where it emerges from its source canyon.  From there the fan shape is not as clear.

I climbed up out of the slot canyon and onto the fan.  The wind was blowing a lot harder up there,.  Out on the valley floor it was picking up sand and dust from the dunes at Mesquite Flat and blowing it north, making things even more dramatic.  Wandering around I found a few blooming prickly pear cactus: wonderful little splashes of contrasting color (1st image below).  I wound up perched high above the head of the fan, looking straight down its wash and across to the Panamints.  The sun broke dramatically through the clouds and I shot some images (2nd image below).  Great storm light!

Storm light and blooming prickly pear high on a Death Valley alluvial fan.

The viewpoint I’d been seeking, from the head of one of Death Valley’s iconic alluvial fans.

By the time I finished it was near sunset and the storm was bearing down.  The walk back in gathering darkness was one of those you just want to be over.  Pushing straight upwind, stinging rain in the face, I was getting wet and cold.  That’s not a sensation one often experiences in Death Valley.  My camera backpack had a rain-cover so the gear was fine, but I didn’t have a rain parka.  Although nobody would think it possible in the continent’s hottest place, one could go hypothermic in those conditions.  I pushed the pace to generate heat.

It turned out to be a memorable outing, not just because I got some unusual and nice images of an area very few people visit let alone photograph, but because of the effort and discomfort involved.  As I already mentioned, avoiding discomfort is not always a wise choice.  My life was never really in danger after all.  And hiking back too early, while it seemed smart because of the storm, in the end would have only resulted in lesser images, and a lesser adventure to boot.

Darkness follows the storm, with Tucki Peak rising in the distance:  Death Valley!

 

Adventuring Death Valley: Extremes   16 comments

I’ve posted this one before, but it’s worth a repeat. Telescope Peak and the Panamint Range from Saratoga Springs in south Death Valley.

More than for most parks, appreciating Death Valley begs you to stop and smell the creosote.  Camp out and take a stroll out into the desert as evening is coming on.  Listen to the silence, perhaps broken by a coyote’s howl.  Wake early and experience day-break from the salt flats as Telescope Peak catches the sun’s first light.  Get off the beaten track and take off on foot up a canyon.  Have an adventure!

LAND OF EXTREMES

One of the main reasons I love this place is all the extremes.  The most obvious one, exemplified by the image above, is the extreme of altitude.  On my first trip to Death Valley as a freshman in a college group learning about its natural history, I found out how much I love extremes.  The instructor, who taught my 200-level series geology course, was also very much a biologist, birder and ecologist.  We learned about how the plants and animals are so perfectly adapted to the harsh realities of desert life.  It’s fascinating how everything here seems to work together as an integrated whole that reflects the park’s extreme heat and aridity, along with its extreme terrain and geology.

You have to be exceptionally clever to survive in Death Valley: coyote.

One day, with our teacher pointing out hawks and rock formations as we went, we drove the van up and out of the desert.  The narrow Wildrose Canyon Road leads to the high country of the Panamint Range, ending at the Charcoal Kilns.  These large stone beehives, perfectly preserved in the desert air, are ovens once used for turning trees into fuel to run smelters during the mining era of the late 1800s.  They’re lined up symmetrically in a forest clearing with views of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada (image below).

We hiked from the kilns, heading up to snowy Mahogany Meadows, which lies in a saddle at the crest of the range.  While named for its mountain mahogany, the ancient pinyon pines here are especially impressive.  I remember wondering how we could have, in a few short hours, gone from toasty desert conditions to this other world, a cool, snowy forest.  From the meadows, which are perched at 8133 feet elevation, we peered down into the below-sea-level depths of the valley.  Talk about extremes!  We had a huge snowball fight.

The Charcoal Kilns with snow-capped Mt. Whitney and the Sierras in the distance.

CLIMBING TELESCOPE PEAK

The place impressed me so much I returned with friends a couple years later, again in March.  The three of us were set on climbing Telescope Peak, at 11,043′ the highest point in the park.  It had been a cold, snowy winter, with late storms that left deep powder mantling the high Panamints.   Though just a few inches lay at the Kilns, a couple feet of the white stuff greeted us at Mahogany Meadows, our planned campsite for the night.  And what a cold night it was!

We had an MSR camp stove with us, the kind that was euphemistically called a “blow torch” because there were just two settings:  off and rocket-blast.  It could also accept any kind of fuel, so when we realized we had forgotten to pack extra camping gas we had an idea.  Hiking back down to the car, we backed up onto a curb and tapped a small amount of gas from the carburetor.  Yes I’m old enough to have had a car with a carburetor; and no we didn’t have a hose to siphon from the tank with.

Magnificent old-growth pinyon pine: Mahogany Flats, Death Valley N.P.

After the kind of night where your body burns many calories just keeping warm, we woke just before dawn to find a half-foot of fresh white stuff.  We didn’t know it then, but tapping that unleaded was very smart.  It allowed us to eat a pile of hot oatmeal with raisins that morning, and we’d need all the energy we could get that day.

Telescope Peak is just under 7 miles one-way from Mahogany Meadows, with about 3300 feet of elevation gain.  Without snow it is a difficult but straightforward hike.  Years later when I repeated the ascent in much kinder conditions it was like I was climbing a completely different mountain.

What makes Telescope more difficult than it might seem is the necessity to hike over two large peaks (Rogers and Bennet) before tackling the main ascent.  Up until then I’d never really hiked a distance in deep fresh snow, but struggling that day through hip-deep drifts up steep slopes made a life-long impression (not least that snowshoes were a great invention).  By the time we reached the base of the mountain it was mid-afternoon and we were spent.

Descending into Death Valley.

DEATH VALLEY DATES

It was the dates that saved the day.  With only a PB&J each for lunch, it was lucky that we’d packed Death Valley’s famous dates for trail snacks.  Those dates, which you can buy at Furnace Creek where they’re grown, powered us up the steep, final icy slope to the summit.   A stupendous view, so different than any other in the park, greeted us.  But turning west, where the mountain had blocked our view on the ascent, one glance convinced us that summit time would be ultra-brief.  A compact but dark and angry storm was rapidly approaching from that direction, with lightning bolts shooting out of it at regular intervals.  It was headed straight for us.

We shoved a few more dates into our mouths and prepared for a quick exit.  As I took one last look around, I noticed something strange about my two partners.  We’d all taken our wool hats off to shed heat during the climb, and now their hair was standing straight up, just like in High School science class when you touch that electrified ball.  I heard a faint but very distinct buzzing all around, and growing louder.  It was the first time I’d ever experienced something like that, but it was clear what was taking place.  We were about to see what lightning was like, up close and personal.  That is, if we didn’t get the hell off that mountain but quick!

The two white substances in Death Valley: salt and snow.

The return hike was long and exhausting (those two peaks were again in the way).  We had been going hard since sunup, and the Death Valley dates continued to provide critical energy.  We disagreed on a return route and ended up splitting up.  When Gene and I finally pulled into camp at dusk, Mel was sticking his head out of the tent, puking up dates.

Although on paper Telescope Peak shouldn’t even be in the top 50 hardest climbs I’ve ever done, it sticks out in my mind as one of the toughest, #3 or even #2.  Even after all these years.  We didn’t relish another frigid night at 8100 feet.  So we quickly struck camp and hiked in the dark a few miles more to reach the car.  Then it was down, down, and back to summer.  That warm air felt so good!  Parking at the sand dunes we grabbed sleeping bags and headlamps and stumbled a couple hundred yards into the dunes to crash under a huge night sky.  The stars must have been spectacular that night, but darned if I can remember ever seeing them.

Thanks for reading.  Wishing all a very Merry Christmas!

Evening draws near in the dunes at Mesquite Flat, Death Valley National Park.

Adventuring in Death Valley: It’s the Water   4 comments

Morning light and a clearing winter storm over the Panamints: Death Valley, CA.

Here’s a tip:  don’t run out of water while hiking in Death Valley.  I can already hear you: “Thank you, Captain Obvious.”   But there’s a big difference between knowing something is a smart idea and knowing how smart, that is, from experience.  This is a little story about the latter kind of smarts.

I’m doing a series on one of my favorite national parks in the U.S., or anywhere.  It may not seem to be so, but Death Valley is a perfect destination this time of year.  Although I’ve been there plenty of other times in winter, last year I visited over Christmas for the first time.  I found it fairly busy (for Death Valley) and with a higher than normal proportion of international tourists.  As usual, that means a lot of Germans, plus miscellaneous others.  I like to believe I’ve traveled as much as a German who doesn’t travel too much, which is to say I’ve traveled 10 times as much as the average American.  It can be cool this time of year, but rarely is it actually cold.  It’s perfect for camping and hiking.

Hike deep into canyons at Death Valley and you’ll see plenty of paleo-Indian rock art.

A Hard Lesson

The story takes place a long time ago, at Spring Break during my Junior year of College.  I’d been to Death Valley twice at that point, for field studies in consecutive Spring Breaks.  This time I got a couple friends to come along, a fellow geologist and native Alaskan named Mel and another pal, Gene.  Gene was taking classes and also training to be a pilot, riding his bike 50 miles one-way to take flying lessons a few times a week.  He spent time as a bush pilot in AK, & later flew 747s.

After a trip through Nevada in which my Pontiac ended up in a ditch, we arrived with grand plans.  We climbed Telescope Peak through deep snow drifts and slept under the stars in the dunes.  But those are other stories.  One evening at camp we decided to hike the Marble-Cottonwood Canyon Loop the next day.  We weren’t sure of the distance, only that it was long.  But we were at that age when you feel indestructible.  It turned out to be a very long distance indeed, and no wonder it’s known as a backpacking trip (the park’s most popular).

Marble Canyon Narrows, Death Valley National Park.

We started at daybreak, hiking up through the spectacular narrows of Marble Canyon.  The loop is normally hiked in the opposite direction, but we wanted to be different.  We took only as much water as we thought was necessary for a full day, hoping to pass a spring or two.  I think we were engaged in group self-delusion.  We had enough water for a day in the cool mountains, but not nearly enough for Death Valley at the end of March.

At mid-day we were forced to admit we could not do the entire loop unless we wanted to hike in the dark, without flashlights.  We later learned the distance was 47 miles, and felt better about our decision to bail.  So instead of returning the way we’d come, the three of us put our heads together and hatched a crazy plan to cut distance by climbing up and over the high ridge separating the two canyons.  How many times has taking a shortcut worked out well for you?  Like I said before, self-delusion.

You have to hike quite a distance to reach the marble of Marble Canyon.

Climbing high meant leaving all possibility of shade behind.  We also succeeded in missing the springs, which in these parts are usually located in canyon bottoms.  A crucial error.  Climbing in the heat, we began to exact a real toll on our water supply.  Realizing this, we began to ration.  The ridge turned out to be more of a complex of ridges, and by the time we finally reached the high point and could see down into the upper part of Cottonwood Canyon, we had enough for one tiny sip each from a single water bottle.

A sobering reminder: upper Marble Canyon.

The rest of the hike was, it should be obvious, one of increasing misery.  We encountered a couple dry falls and had to take creative (and scary) detours to get down.  By the time the canyon started to broaden out, signalling the end was near, dusk was at hand.  All three of us were quite weak, with mouths like sand and epic headaches.  That car never looked so good!  To end things on an interesting note, we had wisely left a cooler filled with Coors and block ice.  Unfortunately we weren’t so wise as to leave any water in the car.

I don’t like admitting the state I drove down to Stovepipe Wells in.  On the plus side the beer was Coors, which at that time was marketed with the slogan “it’s the water.”  Rarely does a slogan come so ready-made for ridicule of the product it’s supposed to promote.  We diluted the beer even more by drinking our fill of water at Stovepipe, and the lesson was learned in the very best way to learn a lesson: painful experience.

Day’s end and the canyon mouth is in view!

Adventuring in Death Valley: Part I   6 comments

Easy walking in Death Valley: a recent flash-flood has left a smooth deposit of mud.

If you have followed this blog for awhile you know that this chunk of southeastern California desert is one of my favorite places to explore and photograph.  I’ve had a thing for it since my first visit in the early 1980s, and its more recent popularity hasn’t dimmed my enthusiasm.  It seems that no matter how well I get to know the place there is always someplace new to hike and explore.

I’ve written of Death Valley before, posting a lot of photos along the way.  Most of what I’ve written of the place in this blog has been geared toward those planning a trip there, with recommendations on places to visit, hike and shoot.  For this short series of posts I’m sharing a few of the adventures I’ve had in this stunning part of the Mojave Desert.  I hope the stories will encourage you to take off and explore on your own.

The simple beauty of Death Valley’s sand dunes beckons for a morning walk.

If you do plan to get off the pavement, if you strap a backpack on and take off into a canyon, up a ridge-line or across an alluvial fan, keep a few things in mind:

  • There are few trails here.  They aren’t really needed, as the landscape lends itself to following natural features like canyons and washes.  This fact brings with it the responsibility to take full charge of navigation.  Bring a good detailed map, and I’m not speaking of the one you get when you pay the entrance fee.  See below for more on this.

 

  • Death Valley is very very dry.  Depending on temperature this means you need to carry much more water than almost any other place you’ll ever hike.  If you visit spring through early fall you need about a quart/liter of water per person for every hour you plan to be walking.  In wintertime you can get by with less.

 

  • Cell service is close to nonexistent.  You are on your own, so be self-contained.

 

  • If you plan on driving off-road be prepared.    Think of driving off-road here just the same as if you’re hiking off-trail.  That is, with respect for the fact that help is nearly impossible to reach.  And even if you do will take a long time to arrive.  It’s also quite expensive.  See below for more on driving off-road in Death Valley.

 

  • Snakes are common.  While you’ll probably be fine as long as you’re alert while walking and don’t put your feet or hands anywhere you can’t see, be aware that the side-winder rattlesnake is not the most mellow venomous snake.  If you’re in a remote area and get bit by one, you may end up losing an appendage.

 

  • Last but not least, if you visit May to September limit your ambitions.  A general tourist itinerary on mostly paved roads is the way to go in the hot summer months.  It’s a good time for a first visit.  If you want to explore a lot on foot and/or four-wheel into the backcountry, go in the cooler months.  One exception:  summer’s a great time to hike in the high Panamints, climbing Telescope Peak or one of the other mountains in the park.

The classic view of Telescope Peak from Badwater.

 

Navigation in Death Valley

A topographic map, along with the ability to read it, is probably the most important of the “ten essentials”.  And this applies whether you carry a GPS, or are like me and still carry a compass, old-school-style.  Before going, practice crossing terrain you’re already familiar with, using a map to locate yourself in relation to landmarks.  Try navigating without the GPS, starting with out and back routes and progressing to off-trail loop hikes.  Whatever your approach, avoid following the GPS blindly like so many do.  Use it as a general guide instead, always being ready to alter your course from the straight-line GPS route to take into account features of the terrain, or interesting tangents!

Canyon hiking is superb at Death Valley, and your options are near limitless.  From a short jaunt up Mosaic Canyon to a trek up lonely Bighorn Gorge, there’s a canyon hike that’s just the right length and remoteness for you.  Just remember that dry falls are nearly as common here as they are in southern Utah’s canyon country.  Take a rope or be prepared to turn around.

Distance and terrain can be very deceiving here.  It’s tempting to park off the side of the paved road and strike out for a canyon mouth.  But walking up an alluvial fan is much tougher than it looks.  Allow plenty of time even when rambling around the “flat” valley floor.  That said, some of my best adventures have started out by crossing the valley or ascending an alluvial fan.

Climbing the big peaks such as Telescope is well worthwhile.  Elevation can pose a problem, especially since you’re spending much of your time at or below sea level.  Snow can fall during much of the year too.  So you’ll need to be prepared for mountain weather in the higher reaches of the Panamints.

Hiking in the area south of Furnace Creek puts you in the badlands of the Furnace Creek Formation.  The clayey hills are quite unstable and crumbly, so use caution.  Most of all, do not attempt to traverse steep hillsides in the Golden Canyon/Zabriskie Point area.  It’s not only hazardous, it mars the delicate formations that people come to see and photograph.  For this area it’s best to use established trails.

When hiking Death Valley’s canyons geology is always front and center: Red Wall Canyon.

Off-Pavement in Death Valley

There are many unpaved routes in Death Valley, but not all are open to vehicles.  While driving in washes is allowed for some areas, off-roading is not allowed in the National Park.  Obtain up-to-date road conditions and restrictions from the rangers upon arrival.  Buy a good detailed map for the area you plan to explore.  As mentioned above, navigate with map and GPS just as you do if you’re walking.

Make sure your vehicle has excellent tires and at least one spare (two minimum for some roads, like the one to Racetrack Playa).  Most of the unpaved roads require high-clearance, and many of them are 4WD only.  Bring a shovel and portable air compressor (for re-inflating tires after softening them for sandy areas).  Lastly, don’t forget about the threat of flash floods.  Don’t park overnight in washes if there is any chance of rain in the region, and camp up on benches away from where water runs.

Evening is near in far south Death Valley, where the Ibex Dunes are known for the spring bloom of sand verbena.

Friday Foto Talk: Photography in National Parks, Part III   6 comments

Sunrise over Lake Powell at Lone Rock.

This is a follow-up to the recent series on photography in national parks.  For these mini-series, they just seem to naturally make up the nice round number of three parts.

Closures & Budget

In one of those posts I listed some of my likes and dislikes on shooting in national parks.  Here is one more pair:

Like:  National parks are open all the time.  Unlike state parks and some other protected areas, which are often closed from dusk to dawn, national parks are generally open 24/7/365.  That means you can go out with your flashlight and hike down a trail to an overlook to gaze at stars (and photograph them).  There are some exceptions, and because of the near universality of this always-open policy, it can be a rude surprise to learn after you’ve arrived to a park that it doesn’t really apply there.  Make sure to check their website before heading out.  A few of these exceptions are described below.

Dislike:  The Park Service has an extremely limited budget and yet in many cases does not seem to know how to spend it wisely.  They are constantly under threat of either being shut down or privatized.  Politically it’s the right-wingers & anti-government tea party types who push this agenda.   While I believe strongly that parks should remain public and that they’re too commercial as it is, I do notice the NPS wasting their limited funding.

For example, I think too much money is spent at Yellowstone and other popular parks on a police force that seems much more well-staffed than it needs to be.  A law-enforcement ranger in an SUV costs a lot of money, much more than an educational ranger who spends a lot of time outside, on foot.

Several decades back the NPS committed strongly to ramping up their law enforcement, replacing real rangers with police in ranger outfits.  I believe strongly that this was wrong, primarily because it took resources away from education and interpretation, the traditional role of a ranger.  It’s not that I disagree with having cops around; crime takes place in parks just like it does anywhere.  It’s just that in most cases the numbers of police is overkill.  There are neighborhoods in many cities that would love to have half the police presence that Yellowstone has.

Orange lichen and sandstone in the Grand Staircase, southern Utah.

Exception 1:  Chaco Canyon.  

This former center of the Ancestral Puebloan (aka Anasazi) culture in New Mexico has a scenic loop road that is the only way to access most of the ruins and trails in this national historic park.  In order to control potential poaching of archaeological resources, the park closes that road at dusk.  I can personally attest to their strict enforcement at Chaco; they want you out before the sun disappears below the horizon.  I had to talk to the superintendent to get a (spendy!) ticket dismissed because I was shooting at sunset and assumed a small grace period.

The supernova pictograph in Chaco Canyon is only accessible by hiking.

The supernova pictograph in Chaco Canyon is only accessible by hiking.

 

Exception 2:  Mesa Verde.  

Mesa Verde in Colorado is similar to Chaco.  That is, there is no access to the cliff dwellings after sunset.  The reason, as always, is to protect resources.  While that is certainly understandable, resources need protection all the time.  The real reason is the usual lack of staffing, a budget issue.

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Utah.

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Utah.

Exception 3:  White Sands National Monument.

This place in New Mexico has an unusual policy where they close the entrance gate from about dusk to dawn, with hours varying by season.  It’s very much like a state park or wildlife refuge.  The reason given is the adjacent missile range, so it’s a safety issue.  But it’s also because they don’t have money to patrol at night.  They are happy to open early for sunrise or stay late if you pay them $50 per extra hour, which is actually a pretty good deal if you have a group.  But really: the military doesn’t have money to patrol their own boundaries?

Early morning at White Sands, New Mexico.

Early morning at White Sands, New Mexico.

DUSK TO DAWN CLOSURES 

When protected areas are closed at night it can create a problem for landscape & nature photographers, even those who don’t want to shoot the stars.  Because of the need to concentrate our shooting at dawn and dusk, it can be quite difficult to properly shoot at sunset and get out by nightfall.  No good photographer packs up right after the sun dips below the horizon, for one thing.  The best light often comes after that.

I’ve found that many state parks will give you a decent grace period; you’re okay until it is fully dark.  Even so, when you hike a fair distance to a sunset spot, it’s well and truly dark when you return to the car.  A grace period won’t help in that case.

Another recent image from the Grand Staircase, Utah.

Another recent image from the Grand Staircase, Utah.

Although (some) state and other parks may show some flexibility, things are different at national and state wildlife refuges.  These sites are managed for wildlife not people, so don’t expect much if any consideration.  Some areas, in fact, are closed to entry day and night.  And it’s common to close areas seasonally for breeding birds.  I’ve heard of people being jailed for entering wildlife refuges, even those without firearms.  Poaching is a big problem at many refuges, so it’s perfectly understandable.

But I often wish for a world without so many rules.  Most are made and enforced because of a very small minority of people who can’t seem to figure out how to behave.  But it’s all of us who have to suffer for it.  I suppose it’s one of those things that can’t be helped, so why stress about it?

That’s it for this week.  I may have come off as a bit of a grump, but that’s not really me at all.  I’m actually very happy having all these fantastic places to shoot and play.  But the main reason for my appreciation is that it’s unlike so much of what humans do, which is the result of rather selfish, short-term thinking.  But parks and preserves are set aside for future generations and thus arise from more enlightened long-term thinking.  Have a great weekend and happy shooting!

Sunset at Coral Pink Sand Dunes, a state park near the much more famous Zion National Park, Utah.

Sunset at Coral Pink Sand Dunes, a state park near the much more famous Zion National Park, Utah.

Friday Foto Talk: Ethics & Photography in National Parks   6 comments

Chaco Canyon from Penasco Blanco, an out-of-the-way ruin requiring a hike to get to.  Being here at sunset means risking a ticket (see text below)

Last week I listed a few likes and dislikes of visiting and photographing in national parks.  All subjective of course.  When I say I dislike something, it means I dislike only the one thing.  Please don’t try to read anything more into it.  For example, in general I dislike crowds.  Not at ballgames, rock concerts, etc.; they’re a part of the experience at such places.  I certainly don’t begrudge the many people who love our parks and visit them.  I recognize that if crowds at parks are a problem then I’m a part of that problem.  It’s just that I can’t enjoy any natural area if it’s too crowded.

The Yellowstone River meanders through Hayden Valley. While the road through here is very busy, you can hike short distances cross-country for different views.

The Yellowstone River meanders through Hayden Valley. While the road through here is very busy, you can hike cross-country for different views and few people.

Pet Peeve #1: Littering

And speaking of crowds in parks, it can lead to other problems.  One of them, a big pet peeve of mine, is littering.  Strangely, the Park Service seems to do little to combat this problem.  For example the publication you get upon entering any park spends a lot of time warning of the dangers of bears, falling rocks or whatever hazards exist naturally (and obviously) in parks.  Especially bears, they seem completely fixated on bears.  But they say nothing about littering.  The park newsletter is the obvious place to mention the fact that littering is illegal and subject to a fine.

I believe the Park Service thinks the problem was beaten years ago.  Through the 1970s Americans began to litter a lot less.  We became much more environmentally aware in that era.  And increasing fines for littering didn’t hurt either.  But those days are gone now.  The younger generations tend to be less environmentally conscious than their parents.  In other words parents have dropped the ball in this way like so many others.

In addition (warning: this is going to sound politically incorrect), the immigrant population has been increasing.  While that isn’t a bad thing of course, many of them come from places where littering is socially acceptable (though that is now changing in certain parts of the world).  These people simply need to be educated, and for those of us who already know, we need to be reminded.  If anyone doesn’t get the message, break out the fines.  Money talks, in any language.  But the NPS isn’t doing any of this.  As a result we all get to see plastic water bottles and toilet paper strewn about in our national parks.

If Death Valley gets busy you can always head over to adjacent Panamint Valley, a great place to look for feral burros.

If Death Valley gets busy you can always head over to adjacent Panamint Valley.  Also within the park, it’s a great place to look for feral burros.

Sometimes it pays to be short: A small passageway in Lehman Caves, Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

Sometimes it pays to be short: A small passageway in Lehman Caves, Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

Pet Peeve #2: The Ugly Photographer

Notice I haven’t mentioned the sorts of behaviours that get spread all over social media these days: the idiots (let’s be honest) who approach dangerous animals or enter environmentally sensitive areas to get selfies.  While these kinds of things are certainly damaging (not least to our collective self-respect!), I think they are still pretty rare.  So I don’t join in the public shaming on social media.  But the desire to document everything shows no signs of slowing, resulting in problems more subtle and insidious than charging buffalo.

WILDLIFE & THE GOLDEN RULE

I’d like to throw light on something I’ve observed with increasing frequency in parks.  While not as outright stupid as the tourist who wants a picture of his child next to a wild animal, it’s nevertheless very thoughtless and selfish.  First of all, despite our frequent cluelessness, the great majority of animals do not react to us aggressively at all.  The bad behaviour of photographers, whether they’re slinging a huge lens or holding up a cell phone, is almost always ignored.  But think about it.  We can still make life very difficult for the beings who call our parks home.

Every single day in the parks, wild animals are forced to endure a never-ending procession of tourists who think it’s okay to completely disrupt their lives to get photos.  For example, when bison or elk try to cross the road at Yellowstone, usually to access water or food, tourists routinely block the way in order to get photos.  I’ve seen the same thing done to black bears at the Great Smokies.  I’ve tried to get people to see what they’re doing, but have only gotten angry retorts.  Nobody likes to be called out no matter how diplomatic you try to be.

I spent quite awhile near this young bull elk, letting him get comfortable with me. He was laying down, resting in the forest just a few yards from the road but invisible to all the passing people.

I spent quite awhile near this young bull elk, letting him get comfortable with me. He was laying down, resting in the forest just a few yards from the road but invisible to all the passing people.

I know the good people who read this blog wouldn’t dream of doing this, but it’s easy to get caught up in the moment.  Put yourself in the animals’ places and consider how you’d respond to a stranger barging into your home, blocking your way to the frig while you’re trying to get something to eat or drink.  And just to get a stupid picture.  I don’t mean to rant or lecture too much.  Most people are conscientious.  They just need to hit the pause button once in awhile and think about what they’re doing.

Next week we’ll conclude this little series on the two sides of national parks.  Take it easy out there and shoot mellow.

Grand Canyon is the 2nd most visited park in the country, but if you're willing to drive a long gravel road, the north rim's Toroweap area is much quieter.

Grand Canyon is the 2nd most visited park in the country, but if you’re willing to drive a long gravel road, the north rim’s Toroweap area is much quieter.

Friday Foto Talk: Point of View, Part II   4 comments

In a forest I often find stumps or fallen logs to stand on, raising POV.  Like atop this fallen giant in California's redwoods.

In a forest I often find stumps or fallen logs to stand on, raising POV. Like atop this fallen giant in California’s redwoods.

This is the second of two parts on Point of View (POV) in photography.  Last week Part I looked at general position and angle related to subject and background.  This time I’ll focus on what most people think of when they think of POV: height.

Point of View:  Height

Let’s go back to when we first picked up a camera.  What did we do?  We shot from a standing position.  Then when we got hold of a tripod we extended the legs and again shot from eye level.  This isn’t surprising; it’s almost always the way we experience the world.

Unfortunately, it quickly becomes boring to see picture after picture from this same position.  You start to wonder what it’s like to see things the way the world’s shortest man or the tallest woman sees them.  Going further, what is it like to see the world from an eagle’s point of view, or an insect’s?  There’s only one way to find out.  Get up or get down and shoot!  It’s the other major way to change point of view: change the camera height.

Long's Peak, shot last night from the highest point I could find on Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mtn. National Park, Colorado.

Long’s Peak, shot last night from the highest point I could find on Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mtn. National Park, Colorado.

LOW POV

The easiest way to change height POV is to lower it.  You go down on one knee, assuming the classic shooter’s pose.  Or you squat, getting a bit lower.  Or you lay right down on your belly with elbows propped in a sort of tripod.  When you’re using an actual tripod and want to go lower, you either change the length of the legs or spread them more widely.

You can also remove the center column or otherwise rig up the tripod to go even lower.  For ultra low POVs you can just plop the camera right down on the ground.  Or you use a beanbag, your camera bag, or a piece of clothing for cushioning, giving you a POV very near ground level.

This small cholla cactus I wanted to highlight against the stormy sky of Death Valley, California.  So I used a very low POV, a foot or two above the ground.

This small cholla cactus I wanted to highlight against the stormy sky of Death Valley, California. So I used a very low POV, a foot or two above the ground.

When you lower your point of view a few interesting things happen:

  • Foregrounds draw nearer and get bigger.  For compositions with close foreground elements, lowering POV brings them even closer (see image above).  If you want everything in focus front to back you may have to stop down to a smaller aperture (higher f/number).  Or you can take more than one shot and focus stack the images.
  • Foregrounds change position.  Lowering your POV also changes how foreground subjects are set off against the background.  As you go down, close foreground elements rise in proportion.  This can set them against the sky instead of the landscape and even put them in silhouette.  You also need to be aware of foreground elements blocking important parts of the background.  Make small shifts in position to compensate and get the composition just right.
  • Backgrounds recede.  This depends on how wide your lens is, but when you lower the camera the background can lose prominence in favor of foreground elements.  Even tall mountains tend to shrink.  Not as much as when you change from a 50 mm. to a 17 mm. focal length, for example, but the effect is similar.  It’s another way that lowering POV helps to emphasize foreground elements in an image, by de-emphasizing the background.
For these two elk this morning, I got low to set them against the rising sun.

For these two elk this morning, I got low to set them against the rising sun.  Compare with image below.

Another recent elk from Rocky Mtn. National Park. But this time from a higher POV gained by walking uphill.

HIGH POV

Another way to vary height POV is to raise the camera, so you’re looking down on your subject.  It’s more challenging than lowering the camera, but it’s often more interesting to try.  And it’s more satisfying when it turns out well.  That’s because, as hard as it can seem to get very low (especially as we get older), going up usually requires the most effort and imagination.  You need to either climb with your gear up to some perch or do some outside-the-box thinking, or both.

Here are some ideas:

  • Climb a rock or mountain.  We tell ourselves it won’t matter so much, but that’s our lazy side talking back to us.  In actuality, scrambling up onto a rock or heading up a steep trail is often all you need to make that landscape photo pop.  It can also add interest to a group photo.  Depending on your subject, even a modest increase in POV height can help to add a sense of depth.  The image above only required a short (but breathless) walk uphill.  I also gave him plenty of space and shot with a longer focal length (600 mm.) so as not to disturb him from his morning “zen spot”.
  • Or a tree!  Last weekend while photographing these moose in Colorado I was becoming frustrated by the tall willows.  While the moose were more than okay with it, happily munching on one of their favorite foods, the willows were also limiting my view to head and antler shots.  So I did something I rarely do anymore: I climbed a tree.  I only had to go about 6 or 7 feet up to make a big difference in POV.  I ended up liking the shots with lower POV, those few without obscuring willows that is.  But how would I have known for sure without trying?
I had to get part-way up a tree to even get this much of a moose in the willows, Colorado.

I had to get part-way up a tree to even get this much of a moose in the willows, Colorado.

A fairly low POV, helped by finding an avenue through the willows, emphasized the size of this rather rude fellow.

A fairly low POV, helped by finding an avenue through the willows, emphasized the size of this rather rude fellow.

  • Tote a ladder around.  This is something I’ve only done a couple times, but it’s certainly a good solution in some circumstances.  For photos of people, just those few extra feet can really add variety and shift perspective dramatically.  For landscapes when you’re in a flat area, especially when shooting from the road where vegetation blocks the view, it can make the difference between getting the shot and getting skunked.
  • Go flying.  I’m always on a budget, but on occasion it has worked out to charter a flight in a small plane.  In the Okavango Delta, for example, I went in with a couple other people and took a spectacular flight over the enormous wetlands in northern Botswana, looking down on elephant and antelope herds.  If money is no problem, a helicopter flight is the best option of all.  You can hover for one thing, allowing extra time to shoot.  In addition, being able to land anywhere (if regulations permit) makes choppers my all-time favorite mode of air travel.

 

  • Get a drone.  I don’t really like drones.  For some reason they annoy me, and besides I like to be physically behind the camera.  But I have to admit that drones allow you to dramatically raise point of view in a hurry.  They also allow you to put the camera into places that are impossible to get to.

A low POV and wide angle helps to lend a sense of depth to this shot of a glacial tarn high in the Rockies.

I sometimes catch myself getting lazy when I’m out shooting.  Not often, but it happens.  I’ve learned that attitude has so much to do with photography, and occasionally the enthusiasm and motivation is just not there.  In those cases I think it’s best to just enjoy the place you’re in without photographing anything.  Of course us photogs. have a hard time doing this.

But if you are standing in one place and not varying your point of view, ask yourself if you really want to be out shooting that day.  A good way to check if you are truly motivated  is to simply observe yourself.  Are you moving your feet?  Are you changing position and height?

The bottom line is that if you want better photographs you simply must vary your point of view as much as possible.  All this shifting around to get the shot can lead to problems both legal and safety-wise.  So nextFriday I will add a post-script to the topic of POV.  Thanks so much for reading, and have a wonderful weekend!

For this sunset shot at Red Rock Lake, Colorado, I wanted to get low enough to emphasize the grasses yet not so low that Indian Peaks would appear too small.

For this sunset shot at Red Rock Lake, Colorado, I wanted to get low enough to emphasize the grasses yet not so low that Indian Peaks would appear too small.

 

Happy Birthday Yellowstone Park!   22 comments

Yellowstone's most famous features are caught erupting on a cold morning in Lower Geyser Basin.

Yellowstone’s most famous features are caught erupting on a cold morning in Lower Geyser Basin.

On 1st of March, 1872, the U.S. Congress (which in those days actually worked) established the world’s first National Park in the territories of Wyoming and Montana, naming it Yellowstone.  The huge diverse and geothermally active plateau had been known for years by that name, because of the color of the rocks exposed along the Yellowstone River.

The park's most famous rA close encounter with the park's most famous wildlife species.

A close encounter with the park’s most famous wildlife species, a lone alpha male wolf.

America started a world-wide movement in that year.  There are now more than 1200 parks and preserves in over 100 countries.  It’s one of the best things that my country has ever done.  Years later all parks and monuments were included in one system, managed by the Department of the Interior.  In the early days soldiers of the Army often assumed the roles now filled by rangers.  Currently the U.S. has more than 400 parks and other preserves covering over 84 million acres in all 50 states.  They include sites of historical as well as natural importance.

A bison grazes the late autumn grasses at Yellowstone.

A bison grazes the late autumn grasses at Yellowstone.

You may have heard that most of Yellowstone is underlain by a super-volcano that could erupt at any time.  It’s done so many times in the past, and with such explosiveness that, far to the east in Nebraska, the fossilized bones of entire rhinoceroses lie buried in volcanic ash traced back to Yellowstone.  Don’t let this dissuade you from visiting however.  Yellowstone caldera erupts on a very long timescale of 600,000 years or so.

White Dome geyser erupts into a starry night.

White Dome geyser erupts into a starry night.

If you haven’t visited Yellowstone yet, I highly recommend it.  Because of its popularity you’d do well to consider an off-season visit, or at least avoid the high summer months of July and August.  But Yellowstone is a big park and you can always do a lot of hiking if you find yourself there during a busy time.  I recommend planning ahead and reserving campsites along a route through the park, or a room in one of the lodges.

A pronghorn rests in wildlife-rich Lamar River Valley.

A pronghorn rests in wildlife-rich Lamar River Valley.

The Yellowstone River meanders through Hayden Valley.

The Yellowstone River meanders through Hayden Valley.

So here’s to Yellowstone Park on its 144th birthday.  And may the idea of national parks that started with you never die!

The peaceful Lamar Valley at dusk.

The peaceful Lamar Valley at dusk.

%d bloggers like this: