Archive for the ‘Nature and Wildlife’ Category

Eclipse Mania: Beating the Crowds   2 comments

I’ve decided to see this eclipse in Tennessee!

Eclipse day is drawing nearer, and I’m almost finished with my series on trip-planning for the big event.  Of course I’m assuming you are in fact going to see it.  You are, aren’t you?  Note that a partial is not even close to the same experience as a total eclipse.  You simply must be under the path of totality.  If you’ve never seen one before, you’re in for a real treat!

An unfortunate corollary to the very convenient path of this eclipse is that nearly everywhere along the relatively narrow path of totality will be busy and crowded.  Rooms have been booked for in many cases years.  Campsites are at a premium, and even the good spots to watch (such as Jackson Hole) will be very crowded.  Traffic is certain to be a headache.

You may wonder if it is worthwhile at all.  Why not just look at the videos and pictures that will be all over the web afterwards?  Don’t think that way!  Pictures cannot even begin to do justice to a total solar eclipse.  Read on for tips on handling the crowds and getting a good spot.

Where are you watching the eclipse?

Tips: Planning for Eclipse Day

  • Bottom line is, while you want to see it in an inspiring place, it cannot be so crowded that it negatively impacts your experience.  Your choice of viewing spot boils down to a subjective balancing act.  Where you strike that balance depends on your personal make-up.  Do you want as much peace and quiet as you can get?  Or do you see the crowds as a great opportunity for an eclipse party?

 

  • There is only one real sure way to avoid crowds, and that is to get out on the open ocean to see this eclipse.  The path crosses a good part of the eastern Pacific and even more of the Atlantic.  But if you’re not doing that, read on…

 

  • You have probably already reserved a place to stay, but what about a spot to watch the eclipse?  Do you have a backup (or two)?  Arrive in the area with plenty of time to scout one out.  In a previous post I detailed all the qualities of a good place to watch a solar eclipse.  But look for elevated places with good views of the sky and toward the horizon to the west (and east if possible).

 

  • Find at least one backup spot, just in case something (like weather) happens with your top choice.  Then for each of your spots, create at least one backup plan for parking and for how to get there.  I recommend bringing a bicycle in case traffic and parking turn out to be worse than expected.

 

  • Your backup spots should be in different areas weather-wise.  In other words get some local knowledge on the area’s microclimates and diversify on that basis.  Generally speaking this won’t work if a large front comes in, rather it’s for limited cloudiness, such as for thunderstorms.  A friend of mine has two sets of reservations, one in Idaho and one in Charleston.  Now that is a backup plan!

 

  • Get your top spot scouted out and commit to it.  Definitely monitor forecasts and satellite imagery in the day or two leading up to the event, but remember that weather is quite unpredictable more than 48 hours out.  In other words, don’t get caught over-thinking it and end up faking yourself out.  See next post for more on last-minute weather considerations.
  • For any total solar eclipse you should get to your spot as early as possible.  And for this particular eclipse that advice is especially important to follow.  If you possibly can, camp right where you’ll be watching.

 

  • Avoid driving on eclipse day.  If you’re not sleeping within walking (or biking) distance I recommend driving in the pre-dawn hours, shooting sunrise, and getting to your viewing spot in the very early morning.

Because by definition a total solar eclipse happens at new moon, nights around the event are starry. Jackson Lake is inside the path:

Tips:  Camping without Reservations

Hotel rooms may all be booked, but what about camping?  Is it also too late if you have no campsite reserved?  It depends on where you’d like to camp.  Don’t expect to score a spot at Jenny Lake in the Tetons or at a state park on the Oregon Coast.  But if you’re flexible you may not be completely out of luck.  All it takes is some creativity and persistence.

  • If you’re self-contained, with plenty of water, food, etc., you should be able to find a spot to stay overnight in one of the national forests along the path.  This is what the USFS calls “dispersed camping”, and the best part is it’s free!  There are limits and rules, so check the websites for the districts you’re interested in.

 

  • In addition most national forests, have 1st-come, 1st-serve campsites.  These normally have at least fire-rings, picnic tables, an outhouse, plus (usually) water.

 

  • The Bureau of Land Mgt. (BLM) also has dispersed and 1st-come camping available.  BLM units in the path of totality are located in Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming.

 

  • If you live close enough to the area under the path where you’ll be watching, and you don’t have accommodation yet, take a weekend (soon!) and drive around the area.  If you don’t live close, arrive as many days ahead as possible, combining your search for a viewing spot with one for a campsite.

 

  • You’ll be checking national forest and/or BLM land for dispersed camping.  Stop by the national forest district offices for info. and recommendations.  Find out about limits on lengths of stay, fire restrictions and leave-no-trace camping advice.

 

  • Pick up maps either ahead of time or when you visit the district offices.  In some cases you can download and print detailed maps, but never rely on Google Maps for this kind of thing.  They have nowhere near the detail you need for scouting and planning.  Draw the path of totality and confine your search for camping inside that path.  The goal is to camp within walking distance of a great spot to watch the eclipse.

 

  • Now it’s time to scout!  There’s no substitute for taking the time to drive the back roads.  Explore and get the lay of the land.

 

  • The kind of places that should interest you depend on how you’re set up for camping.  Obviously it’s best if you don’t have a large RV.  A small camper van or a pickup that you can sleep in the back of is ideal for dispersed camping.  You can also car-camp with a tent.  The Forest Service allows you to disperse camp up to a few hundred feet off the road.  Whether you camp in a vehicle or in tents, you need space to park so you’re not blocking the road.

 

  • Finally, remember that there will be many people camping anywhere they can fit.  The sooner you can claim a spot the better.

Extra Tip: The Private Option

Don’t limit yourself to public lands.  People with property along the path of totality will no doubt be out to make a little money.  Check Craigslist, but it may be better in this case to go low-tech.  Call the local chambers of commerce in the area to find out if they know of specific landowners who are renting out space.

Then drive around the area talking to locals with property for camping (or who are renting out rooms).  Make sure to stress the fact you are self contained and will only be sleeping there, not spending a lot of daylight hours.  Negotiate!

That’s all for now.  I hope you can use the advice I and others are offering to help make your eclipse experience a memorable one.  But mostly, I really hope you have decided there is no way you’re missing this eclipse.  Have a wonderful weekend!

Large swaths of prairie lie under the path of this eclipse.

 

 

Eclipse Mania: 10 Best Places to Watch, Part II   7 comments

An amazing close-up of a diamond ring and prominences. Photo by Aris Messinis of a 2006 eclipse in Greece.

I’ve been doing a series on the upcoming total solar eclipse on August 21st.  The last post listed 5 of my favorite places in the west that lie in the path of totality.  Now let’s move east across America’s heartland and into the south, following the path of the shadow as it races coast to coast.  Make sure to comment below with where you plan to be on eclipse day, or where you’d like to be if the boss would just give you more time off!

Whether or not you’ve decided where to watch this eclipse, this list of events breaks it down by state.  You may find something of interest for the time period leading up to the main event.  The images here show some of the landscapes of the regions covered by the list.  My collection of solar eclipse photos is very slim because up until now I’ve focused on visual observation.

The rising sun lights up the Grand Tetons along the shore of Jenny Lake on a peaceful morning. It will not be so quiet on the morning of August 21st.

The Rest of the List

6.  Big Sky Country, Wyoming

The big sky country of Wyoming is an excellent alternative to the busy Tetons of western Wyoming.  The path crosses the Wind River Range, passing over the state’s highest summit, Gannet Peak.  A pack trip into the Winds, even a climb of Gannet, would be amazing.  If you’re able to organize a trip like this at the last minute my hat is off to you!

You could see the eclipse on the largest expanse of American Indian land along the path, the Wind River Shoshoni Reservation.  One option here is to drive Hwy. 20 along the east side of Boysen Reservoir, looking for a spot there at Boysen State Park, or north along the Bighorn River toward Thermopolis (which is barely within the path of totality).  Here is one source for events and activities on the reservation.

Despite being a relatively short 3-hour drive from Denver, because of its size the sprawling prairie along the North Platte River east of Casper, Wyoming is a good option.  Get there ahead of time and scout the big-sky country.  You’ll be exploring an area that pioneers crossed on their way west on the Oregon Trail.  Try the national forest south of Glenrock and you’re sure to find a suitable spot on public land to watch the eclipse.  There are a couple campgrounds sure to be full, but you could get there days ahead and stake out a spot on a gravel road somewhere.

Slide Lake, not far east of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, is in the path of totality.

7.  Kansas City or St. Louis Area

These two midwestern cities are within the path, but just barely.  The south edge of the path passes over K.C.s city center, while the north edge passes through St. Louis.  So for K.C. you need to be on the north end of town and for St. Louis the south side.  The Gateway Arch is not in the path of totality.

So you could see it in an urban or a suburban setting.  The town of St. Joseph, MO, north of K.C., sits on the banks of the Missouri River.  It is squarely on the center line, so is an excellent choice in the K.C. area.  I can imagine a very fun party atmosphere at riverside there.  The center line passes over I-70 halfway between the two cities, very near the college town of Columbia, then crosses the great Mississippi River near the small town of St. Mary.  Here’s a list of events.

Historic Bollinger Mill, Missouri is just inside the path of totality.

8.  Land Between the Lakes, Kentucky

This stretch of lovely open forest interspersed with grassy meadows and wetlands straddles the border between Kentucky and Tennessee.  Many small towns are nearby so unlike many areas of the west this spot offers better chance to snag a room at this late date.  It’s covered by a National Recreation Area, and their website lists planned events plus camping, parking and other details.   One big advantage to LBTL:  it’s the point of maximum duration (2 min. 40 sec.).

This area would be especially good for a shorter trip.  One as short as a few days would suffice to see Mammoth Cave or (for country music fans),Nashville, both destinations within striking distance.  In fact, if you’re into seeing it from a city, Nashville is just inside the path of totality.

Land Between the Lakes, Kentucky is where the maximum duration of this eclipse will occur.

9.  Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina & Tennesee

The center line actually misses Great Smoky Mtn. National Park, crossing the Appalachians just south of it.  However, the path of totality covers much of the park.  In other words, seeing the eclipse somewhere in this area would be a great excuse to see this (very) popular and beautiful park.  The challenge, as everywhere, is to find lodging.  Clouds are a risk in this area, with its late summer thunderstorm activity.   As my sister lives nearby, it is where I’ll be if camping turns out to be too chancy for the other places I’m considering.

Clingman’s Dome, at 6643 feet the 3rd highest peak east of the Mississippi, offers the highest viewpoint for the eclipse in the park.  The mountain straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina border and lies just inside the path of totality.  It’s a winding road then a half-mile (paved) trail to the top.  That is far too short a hike to cut the crowds significantly, so arrive very early.  Another great option is to park somewhere along Foothills Parkway, which runs along the western side of the park.  It has several great viewpoints where you can watch the shadow bands play across the rolling Smokies.

The Foothills Parkway runs along the west side of Great Smoky Mtns. National Park. And this is not the weather anyone wants on eclipse day!

10.  Charleston, South Carolina

This is where we’ll say so long to the great American eclipse of 2017, at 2:49 p.m. local time.  Just north of Charleston the center line leaves the continent and heads out into the Atlantic Ocean at a place called Bull’s Bay.  The area north and south of here is a boater’s paradise, so being either on the water or next to it on one of the barrier islands is the thing to do.

Right on the center line is Cape Romain.  This maze of barrier island channels, marsh and beach is mostly covered by a wildlife refuge.  The only access is by boat.  If interested in this, contact the people at Bull’s Island Ferry.  Another possibility very close to the center line is Buck Hall Recreation site, which has a campground, trails and boat ramp.  It’s closed for camping but otherwise open for the eclipse.  If I don’t go west I might launch my kayak there, using my bike as a shuttle (forget about parking).

You can kayak if you have a boat or find one to rent.  Just paddle out from one of the boat ramps in the area and see the eclipse on the water.  Or land somewhere to set up a tripod.  If you’re up for a longer paddle, it’s a an hour and a half one-way to Bull’s Island, a natural environment of beaches and trails.  Get hold of a good map and talk to a local for advice on route-finding.  You don’t want to get lost.  Getting on a guided paddle trip is a possibility, even at this late date.  Check out Coastal Expeditions or Sea Kayak Carolina.

That’s it for now.  I don’t know about you, but I’m getting pumped up for this!  Have a great weekend.

The sun goes down on the Intracoastal Waterway.

Eclipse Mania: Planning an Eclipse Trip   1 comment

Not my image, click on it to go to source page.

I’m doing a series on the upcoming total solar eclipse of August 21st, visible in the U.S.  Check out the introductory post for details on the eclipse itself.  To date I have not gotten serious about photographing eclipses, preferring to spend the precious short minutes of totality enjoying the show instead of fussing with gear.  So I don’t have many images.  The above was captured with a tracking telescope and processed to bring out details of the corona that are difficult to get in a standard digital photo.  You can see these much of this detail and more in real time.  More than most things, it is very difficult to do any kind of justice to a total solar eclipse with photos or videos.

This eclipse will pass right over central Oregon’s Painted Hills.

I’ve been thinking lately about where to watch this eclipse.  Do I go back to my beloved Oregon or see it high in the Tetons?  Do I combine it with a visit to my sister and family in Tennessee and see it in the Smokies?  I realize most of my fellow eclipse-chasers have made plans by now, and that is no doubt smart.  In general I don’t plan ahead unless I absolutely have to.  This case is borderline but I’m used to traveling without reservations let alone a firm itinerary.  I have the luxury of being comfortable winging it and traveling simply with few comforts.  I’ll happily sleep wherever I can squeeze my van.

The path of totality makes landfall along the Oregon Coast.

An eclipse trip is unique in some ways.  Obviously you have to be in a specific place at a specific time, and this serves to anchor your trip.  I’ve seen two total solar eclipses before, one in Turkey and one in the Pacific off Japan.  Since they happened far away across oceans I was forced to plan ahead to some extent.  Rather than flying in, seeing the eclipse and flying out, I used them both as excuses to travel in parts of the world I’d never been (see addendum below).

Planning well ahead for an eclipse, while it is smart in one respect, carries some risk.  By locking in your destination you ensure you’ll be under the path of totality at the right moment.  But weather could throw you a curve.  If clouds cover the sky on eclipse day, all your best-laid plans come to naught.  You need to be ready to roll with that punch.  If you plan a longer trip, making the eclipse the centerpiece of a much larger itinerary, it will sting less if you’re clouded out on eclipse day.

So consider taking more time and choosing a place to see this (or any future) eclipse so that you’re near places you’d like to visit.  It’s good advice even for this eclipse if you’re a resident of the U.S.  I’m betting that somewhere along the long path of totality there are places you’d like to see.  Next time we’ll dive into advice on trip planning specific to some choice destinations along the path of this eclipse.

Since solar eclipses happen at new moon, you will have very dark skies on the nights surrounding it. Venus is the brightest one here, with rarely seen Mercury right on the horizon.

Addendum:  How to Make More of an Eclipse Trip

My first total solar eclipse was in Turkey in 1999.  It was guided by an astronomer and an anthropologist and culminated in an amazing experience on a central Turkey mountain-top witnessing the sun dramatically eclipsing the moon.  After the eclipse (which featured amazing shadow bands) we celebrated with many locals at an ancient walled mountain-top Hittite city.  It was the site of a major battle thousands of years ago, one which was halted by a total solar eclipse.  Both armies feared the wrath of their gods and retreated from the battlefield.

The entire trip was like this, a combination of ancient history and astronomy.  Because we had a famous author with us who had connections in the archaeological community, we got an inside tour of a 9500-year old “proto-city”, a mound site called Chatalhoyok.  The Turkey trip was the only guided tour I’ve ever done that was planned ahead of time from home (I’ve done plenty of shorter tours using local guides).  The only problem: some years ago I lost all of my slides from the trip during a move.  So all I have are the memories.

These two ladies kindly posed for me: Kyoto, Japan.

Since both my girlfriend and I were teachers and had the summer off, we used the guided trip as an excuse to travel through Europe for about two months prior to the eclipse, which was in mid-August.  The contrast between the two parts of our trip was so stark that it would have felt like two trips except that we didn’t go home in between.  Camping through the Pyrenees in a rented Audi, traveling by rail and staying in local Provencal and Umbrian inns in Umbria; followed by visits to places like Ephesus and Cappadocia in an air-conditioned tour bus, staying in beautiful 4-star hotels: the transition was a bit difficult to say the least!  But the group stopped for enough sit-down lunches and carpet-shopping (which I had no interest in of course) and quit early on enough days, to allow me to make my escapes to get out and meet the (wonderful) Turkish people.

Massive Deer Cave, Borneo grows jungles out of its grand skylights.

The sun hits a powerful orangutan’s bright fur: Sarawak, Borneo.

For the other eclipse in the western Pacific, a chance to see parts of China and Japan was too good to pass up.  I never thought I’d stay in a traditional guesthouse in Kyoto surrounded by geishas going about their day.  It also was an excuse to take a cruise, probably the only one I’ll ever do.  At the last minute I found a cheap flight from Beijing to Singapore and extended the trip for a weekend in that city plus two weeks in Borneo, which is a short hop away.  Borneo is a paradise for nature lovers and since then I have been in love with tropical forests.

I know these two examples, especially the first, are a little extreme.  I don’t expect you to go off the deep end, extending a trip to experience a 4-minute eclipse into a 3 month adventure.  I was lucky and had the time.  But you can do more than just fly in, see the eclipse and fly out.

The island of Iwo Jima, so historically important, was in the path of the eclipse of 2009.

 

Eclipse Mania: Are you In?   4 comments

A diamond ring appears as the sun comes out of total eclipse in 2009.

On this August 21st a shadow will pass across the United States.  At that point on its slow 4-week revolution around the earth, the moon will pass directly between the sun and earth.  Since it’s just the right size and distance from us, making it appear the same size as the sun, the moon will block the entire solar disk.  It will make the normally invisible corona (or atmosphere) of the sun visible, along with a number of other normally hidden features of the sun’s surface.

For a brief few moments day turns to night, confusing animals and causing panic among those humans not aware of what they are seeing.  Stars and planets are visible at noontime.  As the earth spins below the blocked sun, a shadow races east over a narrow sliver of land and sea, making the event a very brief one for anyone along its path but also causing strange atmospheric effects like shadow bands.  It’s a total solar eclipse, one of the strangest and most beautiful natural phenomena a person can see.

The Nature of a Solar (vs. Lunar) Eclipse

A total lunar eclipse happens when the earth lies between the sun and the moon; that is, at new moon.  It’s when the alignment of this monthly event is perfect, allowing the earth to cast a shadow over the moon.  A total solar eclipse, which happens at new moon, is when the moon lies directly between Earth and the sun and casts a shadow on earth.

It’s unlike a total lunar eclipse in two big ways.  First, a lunar eclipse, while beautiful and worthwhile, is simply not as stunning and multi-dimensional as a total solar eclipse.  Second, because of the earth’s much larger shadow, a lunar eclipse is a common thing to see while a total solar eclipse is a very a rare event to witness.

It’s not as if solar eclipses are in general rare.  Most years see two of them in fact.  But they are rare for any given point on earth.  On average the wait for any given point on earth is 375 years.  Some places have been treated to two in a row less than two years apart.  Other places have gone 35 centuries or so between successive eclipses.

During partial eclipse before and after totality, do not look directly at the sun without the right filter. But you can project its image onto any surface, and easily see sunspots. During totality you can look right at an eclipse with your naked eyes.

Why is something that happens every year experienced by us so rarely?  For one thing the path along which the eclipse is total (rather than partial) is very narrow, about 70 miles wide.  For another a solar eclipse may occur anywhere, with no regard for population or whether over land or ocean (remember water covers over 70% of the earth).

Finally, most solar eclipses are not total.  Since 2000 there have been 30 solar eclipses and only 13 of those have been total.  In 2012 I witnessed a solar eclipse in northern California.  It was a cool thing to see and photograph, but it was not total.   It was an annular eclipse (image below), where the moon is just a little too far away to block the entire disk of the sun.  If you didn’t know, the moon varies in distance as it journeys around the earth.  That is, its orbit is elliptical.

Annular eclipse, as viewed from Sacramento, CA in May, 2012.

There is no question I will make every effort to see this solar eclipse, and I strongly recommend you do as well.  After all, it’s the first total solar eclipse in the mainland U.S. since 1979 (Hawaii had one in 1991).  The next one in North America is in 2024 (Mexico, U.S. and Canada).

Each total solar eclipse has a unique character, partly due to location and partly the precise nature of the alignment.  They are too special to pass up when the opportunity arises.  Once you’ve seen one you have some idea why some people make a life of chasing them.  So any solar eclipse is worth seeing.  But it is very rare that they limit themselves to a single country.  This one does.  It’s America’s eclipse.

Images do not do justice to the sight of a total solar eclipse. This is in the western Pacific in 2009, during 6 minutes 39 seconds of totality, the longest solar eclipse until 2132!

The Path

The 2017 eclipse, unlike 1979s which only hit the Pacific Northwest, will cross through America’s heartland.  Granted, the first and last people to see it will be in boats far out in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans respectively.  It begins at sunrise far north of the Hawaiian Islands and ends at sunset south of the Cape Verde Islands in the eastern Atlantic.

Despite the fact that over half of its path lies over ocean, this eclipse will not approach very close to any island.  Lucky for us, the central half of its path, including the point of maximum duration, passes over land.  It will be visible over a wide variety of landscapes, from densely urban to agricultural to coastline to ruggedly mountainous.  The path graces quite a number of the country’s national parks as well as other natural areas.

The moon’s shadow first hits land on the Oregon coast.  At about 10:15 in the morning towns from Pacific City south to Waldport will be plunged into darkness.  Little Depoe Bay is on the path’s centerline, and so is the summit of Mt. Jefferson, one of the high Cascades.  After crossing Oregon and southern Idaho, the shadow passes over the southern part of the Grand Tetons in Wyoming and then speeds out into the Great Plains, crossing Nebraska and Kansas.

A number of cities are either near or in the path of totality.  Residents of Kansas City and St. Louis will see it.  The shadow continues on to Kentucky, passing over beautiful Land between the Lakes.  It then bisects Tennessee, gracing the Music City, Nashville with the show.  The shadow then glides over one more national park, Great Smoky Mtns., before heading out over the Atlantic at the port of Charleston, South Carolina.  It leaves U.S. soil just before 3 in the afternoon local time, having taken just over an hour and a half to traverse the continent.  For a very nicely done interactive map of the eclipse’s path, check out this site.

I hope I’ve gotten you excited about seeing this eclipse.  If you are already an enthusiast you’ve undoubtedly already made plans.  If not, don’t worry that it’s too late to plan a trip.  If there is a will there is a way.  If you’ve never seen one, and especially if you live in North America, there really is no excuse.  Just see it!  So now that we’ve taken care of the why, next time we will get down to the how and the where, the nuts and bolts of seeing the great American Eclipse of 2017!

The silhouetted moon near the end of an annular eclipse.  Note the diffraction effects, especially along the upper left limb of the sun.

Two for Tuesday: Autumn’s Brief Glory   7 comments

Quaking aspen, Wasatch Mountains, Utah.

Quaking aspen, Wasatch Mountains, Utah.

This fall, it’s sad to say, has for me been unlike most years.  I’m not in a place that has real seasons, and so am missing the show that deciduous trees put on at this time of year throughout the northern hemisphere’s temperate latitudes.  But don’t feel sorry.  Over the past few years I’ve been able to take a lot of time, mostly in the Rocky Mountain states, photographing fall colors.

Autumn in the Rockies is all about the quaking aspen.  Starting in early September in the north and going to first of November in New Mexico, aspens spend all too brief a time showing off the dazzling golden hues they are famous for.  Since I love transitions, I like shooting aspens as their color is just coming on, when a lot of subtle greens and other hues compete with the yellows.  I like going late too, when they are starting to lose their leaves.  It’s when the trees’ graceful silvery trunks show through, and when an early winter storm is more likely to mantle them with new-fallen snow.

This pair of images, though from two different places, purposely show only the trees, with no mountains, cabins or other elements to distract your eye.  I even avoided colorful sky and dramatic light.  The first picture, at top, was captured in early October near the peak of color.  The second image below was actually captured a few days earlier than the first but on a different year and at a higher elevation near Aspen, Colorado.  These trees were desperately holding on to their last leaves, exposing their elegant white trunks.  A beautiful forest of blue spruce is in the background.

I hope you’ve been able to get out and enjoy some crisp and colorful fall days this year.  If not and you’re in the right place, don’t waste anymore time.  Winter is coming!  Thanks for visiting.

Nearly bare quaking aspen: Maroon Valley, Colorado.

Nearly bare quaking aspen: Maroon Valley, Colorado.

Posted October 11, 2016 by MJF Images in trees

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Mountain Monday: King’s Mtn., Oregon   3 comments

The Wilson River flows west from the rugged peaks of Oregon's Coast Range, including King's Mtn. visible in the distance.

The Wilson River flows west from the rugged peaks of Oregon’s Coast Range, including King’s Mtn. visible in the distance.

It’s been quite awhile since I’ve done a Mountain Monday post.  Today I’ll focus on King’s Mountain in Oregon’s northern Coast Range.  But since it’s impossible to visit mountains without also coming across rivers and streams, I’ll also highlight the main river in this area.  While it has a modest elevation (3226’/983 m.), King’s Mtn. is nonetheless a steep and rugged peak.  I haven’t captured the mountain in a photo before this, at least from a distance.  I know it mostly from a loop hike that I’ve done a half dozen times or so.  It takes you up a steep few miles to the summit of King’s, then over a very rugged traverse to the equally steep Elk Mtn.  You then descend a vertiginous trail to the Wilson River, where you loop back to the car.  Next morning you may feel like you’ve been kicked by a mule!

King’s is cloaked in a lovely conifer forest along its lower slopes.  In autumn tasty golden chanterelles pop up in dells and behind mossy logs.  The golden chanterelle is the official state mushroom (yes, there’s an official mushroom!).  This beautiful green forest  has grown in from seedlings that were hand-planted after the disastrous Tillamook Burn in 1933 (plus succeeding fires in the 30s).  The Burn laid low nearly 450,000 acres of prime Oregon timber, most of that in a hellish 30-hours where huge trees were uprooted and thrown into the air by the winds ahead of the inferno.  It’s a big part of Oregon history.

The other part of this image is the beautiful Wilson River, which is famous for its steelhead runs.  It rolls swiftly through the forested landscape, and its deep green pools are lined with volcanic rock outcrops that on hot days beg to be leapt from into the cool green depths.  The Wilson flows down to the Pacific Ocean at the town of Tillamook (where I’m writing this).  You always know you’re approaching Tillamook because of that wonderful (not!) smell of dairy cows.  It’s still the best cheddar cheese I know of for a grilled cheese sandwich, on good sourdough bread of course!  Make sure and get your free samples if you ever come this way on a tour of their factory.

The Wilson River banks are mostly lined with conifers and large vine maples, but frequent rock outcrops make for great places to fish or swim from.

The Wilson River banks are mostly lined with conifers and large vine maples, but frequent rock outcrops make for great places to fish or swim from.

Many springs empty into the Wilson.  I camped just a short stroll from this spot.

Many springs empty into the Wilson. I camped just a short stroll from this spot.

There are plenty of camping and picnicking sites to enjoy in the Tillamook State Forest where these images were captured.  A visitor center is located centrally not far west of the trailhead for King’s Mtn., and there are plenty of easier trails, including a rolling trail stretching 24 miles along the Wilson itself.  You obviously don’t need to do the whole 24 miles!  So if you ever find yourself traveling the Oregon Coast, consider a side-trip east along Hwy. 6 from Tillamook into the Coast Range.  Have a great week!

Friday Foto Talk: Subjective vs. Objective, Part II   6 comments

Scenic ranch country, SW Colorado.

Scenic ranch country, SW Colorado.

This is the second of two parts on how to approach your photo subjects.  Check out Part I for an introduction to this fairly subtle but important topic.  Thinking about how you tell the story of your subjects is a key step in any serious photographer’s journey.  The reason why I’m not calling this “literal” vs. “abstract” or “interpretive” is that it’s a much more subtle distinction than that.  Now let’s look at a few specific examples.

Example 1:  Fall in Colorado

Last autumn I traveled through Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, which is my current favorite for fall colors.  The image at top is an objective take.  It’s a level-on, standard composition.  It’s shot in good but not unusually awesome light.  I zoomed in to exclude more of the same.  I’m just trying to show the mountains and trees being their spectacular selves.

In the shot below, I zoomed in again, focusing on the contrast between the golden aspen and green spruce trees, all set off against new-fallen snow.  It’s somewhere between objective and subjective.  The light is flat and there is mist in the air, perfect for showing colors and textures.  The composition excludes all but the trees, giving it even more objectivity.

Fall color and the season's first snowfall: San Juan Mtns., Colorado.

Fall color and the season’s first snowfall: San Juan Mtns., Colorado.

 

However, the photo is partly subjective because of its focus on the snow.  It shows the transition from fall to winter.  I feel pretty strongly that transitions are the most interesting photo subjects.  So this overlap of seasons, common to mountains, naturally attracted me.  That’s a subjective viewpoint and one that plenty of people share.  I timed my trip in part to see this transition.  I also knew that most other photographers, who time their visits for the peak of fall color, had come and gone.

Towards the end of autumn, I was in the far west of the state poking around the Colorado River.  I found an off-trail route to some bluffs overlooking the river, with beautiful cottonwoods lining the banks.  Being late fall, clear cold nights caused dense fog to form each morning along the river.  The fog combined with the viewpoint shooting downward gave me the chance to abstract the form of the trees, which being cottonwoods were still in full leaf.  I think in our enthusiasm for fall color we often lose sight of the beautiful forms, which is one reason why I like going post-peak when leaves begin to fall, revealing the ‘bones’ of the trees.

Cottonwoods form silhouettes in the fog.

Cottonwoods form silhouettes in dense fog along the Colorado River near Fruita, CO.

 

Now for two examples from a recent stay in one of my favorite places in the world, Death Valley National Park in the California desert:

Example 2: Wildflower Bloom

Winter rains from the current El Nino have led to a great bloom of wildflowers in Death Valley this year.  Some are calling it a “super-bloom”.  I’m not too sure about that.  We’re already calling nearly every full moon a “super-moon”.  But you can’t deny that the flower display is unusual this year and certainly worth photographing.

One subjective take on it is fairly obvious.  Death Valley is well named.  It’s an arid and hot place with sparse life adapted to the harsh waterless conditions.  When colorful flowers burst forth literally overnight from the dusty-dry desert floor (and later die off, just as suddenly, after going to seed), it’s hard to avoid thinking about themes of renewal, impermanence, and the yin-yang of life and death.

A simple bloom breaks through the desert floor of Death Valley, California.

A simple bloom breaks through the desert floor of Death Valley, California.

The image above highlights this subjective view of the bloom.  A fairly narrow aperture helped, but increasing the camera-subject distance relative to the subject-background distance did even more to give the cracked desert floor a prominent role in the image.  Otherwise with the macro lens it would’ve been too blurred.

I also did a few objective close-ups, with defocused and indistinct background (image below).  This was to highlight the flowers for their objective qualities.  After all they’re vibrant and colorful no matter where they happen to bloom.

Desert Gold, Death Valley, CA

Desert Gold, Death Valley, CA.  Canon 100 mm. macro lens, 1/250 sec. @ f/13, ISO 200.

 

Example 3: Pupfish Pools

I’ve been to Death Valley National Park a bunch of times but have never really focused on pupfish and their habitats.  Pupfish are small, active little fish that resemble guppies.  They are evolutionary left-overs from Ice Age times when enormous lakes filled the valleys here.  The one that occupied Death Valley is called Lake Manley.  Through the millennia, as Lake Manley slowly dried up, the few surviving fish split into separate species that now live in spring-fed perennial pools and small streams scattered around the region.

The species of pupfish here are all endemic.  Endemic means they live nowhere else, and because of that they’re quite rare and protected by U.S. law.  Pupfish are also quite the cute little guys!  They’re named for their playful antics.  But if you look closely you can see the scars.  What looks like play is actually aggressive territorial behavior.  Their small size and active movements make pupfish difficult to photograph, at least without getting into the water with them (which is illegal of course).

Pupfish habitat: Ash Meadows, Nevada.

Pupfish habitat: Ash Meadows, Nevada.

I can’t think of the wetlands where pupfish live without imagining what things were like when Lake Manley existed.  It was filled with fish and other life which attracted huge flocks of birds and other animals (including humans, scattered bands of hunter-gatherers living along the lakeshore).  Today’s pupfish pools can in a way be thought of as windows into that distant time.

These ideas have a way of influencing photography in a subjective and often unconscious way.  In the image above (which also appears in a previous post), I drew close to the deep blue pool, shooting to capture the steam rising over the warm water on a frosty morning.  I furthered the slightly mysterious nature of the image with editing on the computer.

The largest spring-fed pool in Death Valley: Saratoga Springs.

In the next image (above), I got close to the ubiquitous reeds lining the wetlands and set them in stark contrast with the deep blue water.  I consider this one partly subjective because it almost looks as if it’s not really a desert environment, like it could be part of ancient Lake Manley.  That was really luck.  During that trip early spring storms moved through the area, filling the springs and decorating the high Panamint Range with snow.

Reeds at Saratoga Springs, Death Valley National Park, California.

Reeds at Saratoga Springs, Death Valley National Park, California.

When I shot the image above I was observing the pupfish.  I decided to get subjective in an abstract way and used camera movement to impart the feel of being there.  I was surrounded by reeds taller than I am, waving in the breeze.

I wasn’t purely interpretive though.  I captured a few documentary (objective) shots of the springs as well as the fish themselves (mostly getting frustrated by the little scamps!).  For the last photo at bottom, I climbed up a nearby hill at sunrise and used a wider angle in order to show the springs in their desert surroundings.

Pupfish showing off his iridescent blue flank.

Pupfish showing off his iridescent blue flank.

 

Let me know what you think.  How important is this to you?  Do you mostly have an objective or subjective approach to photography?  Or something in between?  Have a fantastic weekend and happy shooting!

Saratoga Springs, Death Valley National Park.

Two for Tuesday: Forming Sand Dunes   14 comments

Recently I spent a few days at a dune field I’ve been wanting to photograph for quite some time.  With a great name (Ibex Dunes) and a fairly remote location in the far southern part of Death Valley National Park, California, they are a natural magnet for someone like me.  A bonus: nearby Saratoga Springs gives rise to a large wetland, attracting birdlife and hosting a number of endemic species, including pupfish.

I was there long enough to see a windstorm move through, out ahead of a big rain and snow storm that hit southern California this past week.  It was one of many this winter that are related to El Nino.  That gave me the idea to do a Two-for-Tuesday post.

Sand dunes are a bit like glaciers.  They move and evolve over time.  Glaciers are under the influence of gravity combined with year-on-year snow in their higher reaches.  The driver of a dune field is the wind combined with a steady supply of sand.

For the Ibex dunes, there is a large valley with fine sand and salty sediments west of a range of craggy peaks.  The prevailing winds are from the west, so they pick up that sand and essentially throw it up against the mountains.  Anywhere wind is forced by topography to change direction it slows down, potentially dropping it’s load of sand.

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Wind moves sand over the Ibex Dunes in Death Valley National Park.

The great thing about wind and sand dunes, at least for fans of texture and shape in nature, is that not only does the wind bring in new sand, but re-sculpting takes place as well.  Footprints are erased, ripples and ridges are sharpened, curves are smoothed.

In open terrain dunes move along, driven by the wind.  For the Ibex Dunes, eastward movement is arrested by the mountains.  But you can see how dunes have migrated up onto the alluvial fans and to the north (where with a decrease in sand supply, they are smaller and partly stabilized by vegetation).

If you get the chance to visit sand dunes in wind, don’t miss it.  The sand in your hair is a minor inconvenience compared to the opportunity to see dune formation in action.  Thanks for looking and happy shooting!

The Ibex Dunes lap up against a range of desert mountains.

The Ibex Dunes lap up against a range of desert mountains.

Visiting Zion National Park: Part I   20 comments

Zion Canyon from Bridge Mountain.

Zion Canyon from Bridge Mountain.

I’m going to change pace and do a short travel series: an in-depth look at Zion National Park.  I’ve not done one of these for a long time.  As usual I’ll start with Zion’s natural history, including geology in this post.  Then I’ll go on to human history and life on display at Zion.  I’ll finish with travel logistics and recommendations for various visit lengths, focusing of course on photography.

If you haven’t yet visited Zion, this series will be an in-depth introduction with tips, but without presuming to tell you exactly where and how to photograph the park.  If you’ve been to Zion before, you will learn some interesting stuff about the park and probably find out about one or two out-of-the-way photo spots.

But mostly this is about background knowledge.  I strongly believe the more you know about a place the better your experience and photos will be.  Though my posts are always heavily illustrated, I hope you’ll try to forget the pictures when you go out yourself.  Do your own thing and get pictures that represent your own unique take on the park.

East Temple from just east of the tunnels.

East Temple from just east of the tunnels.

REGIONAL SETTING

Zion National Park lies in southwestern Utah, in an area called Dixie.  That term is normally associated with the southern states (Alabama, Georgia, etc.).  Utah’s Dixie is certainly where the climate is warmest in the Beehive State.  But it’s much drier than the humid South.  Zion is at the southwestern edge of the Colorado Plateau, that huge regional uplift of sedimentary rocks that covers parts of four states and defines much of the dramatic scenery of America’s desert southwest.

THE GRAND STAIRCASE

Zion is also on the western edge of a geologic feature called Grand Staircase.  This is a large series of cliff-forming sedimentary layers that steps downward from north to south.  Some of the area’s highest and youngest rocks are to the north near Bryce Canyon while some of the lowest and oldest rocks are exposed to the south in Grand Canyon.

But the rim of that last southern step (it’s a doozie!) tops out at 8800 feet in elevation on the north rim of the Grand Canyon.  That’s very similar to the top of Bryce (the northern step) at 9100 feet.  So the Grand Staircase not so much steps downward in elevation but in geology.

BREAKS & CANYONS

Zion Canyon, centerpiece of the park, plus Cedar Breaks to the north, are located where the land “breaks” downward off the high eastern plateaus of south-central Utah to meet the lower deserts of SW Utah and southern Nevada.  These breaks are also known as the Hurricane Cliffs, which continue south into NW Arizona.

The towns in this part of Utah, largest of which is St. George, are situated near the foot of this dramatic sandstone escarpment, at a relatively low elevation compared with much smaller burgs up in the plateau country to the east.  The Virgin River and its tributaries have cut generally SW-facing canyons down through the escarpment.  The most dramatic of these is Zion Canyon.

The Hurricane Cliffs 'break' down off the Colorado Plateau here at Kolob Canyons, part of Zion National Park, Utah.

The Hurricane Cliffs ‘break’ down off the Colorado Plateau here at Kolob Canyons, part of Zion National Park, Utah.

The lower terrain near St. George, Utah is exemplified by Snow Canyon State Park, but the land continues to drop to the south and west.

The lower terrain near St. George, Utah is exemplified here at Snow Canyon State Park, but the land continues to drop to the south and west.

GEOLOGIC HISTORY

THE GREAT JURASSIC DESERT

The most prominent formation at Zion is Navajo Sandstone.  It forms most of the named dome-like features at Zion, such as the Patriarchs, the Sentinel, and White Throne.  The Navajo, which is generally a whitish sandstone, preserves record of an ancient desert.  This desert, which existed in the Jurassic age (dinosaur times), was dominated by enormous sand dune fields (ergs) similar to today’s Sahara Desert.

You can tell the rocks are ancient sand dunes because of cross-bedding.  Take a good look at the sandstone walls at Zion and notice the lines angled at about 35 degrees to the main rock layers, which are nearly horizontal.  A great place to see cross-bedding is at Checkerboard Mesa near the park’s east entrance, but you’ll see it everywhere in East Zion east of the tunnels.  The rocks behind the sheep below show cross-bedding.

Desert bighorn sheep at East Zion.

Desert bighorn sheep at East Zion.

The desert sands of the Navajo formed when plate tectonics, beginning a couple hundred million years ago, dragged this area north from equatorial to much drier latitudes in the vicinity of the Tropic of Cancer (30 degrees north).  This is the latitude, both north and south of the equator (Tropic of Capricorn), where the world’s major deserts are still found.

Also contributing to desertification in the Jurassic were the mountains building to the west of Zion in Nevada and California.  These ranges, which were the result of tectonic collision at the western edge of North America, are now gone, eroded away.  But in the Jurassic they formed an effective rain-shadow, blocking rains coming off the Pacific and helping to dry things even further.

A side-canyon in East Zion has a stream carrying sand eroded from the Navajo Sandstone, itself built from dune sands eroded from a long-gone ancient mountain range.

A side-canyon in East Zion has a stream carrying sand eroded from the Navajo Sandstone, itself built from dune sands eroded from a long-gone ancient mountain range.

PRE-DESERT TIMES

There is more than Navajo Sandstone at Zion, however.  The Virgin River has cut so deeply into the rocks that, despite the great thickness of the Navajo, other formations are visible beneath it.  These record shallow seas, meandering streams and floodplain environments.  For example, the Kayenta and Moenave Formations below the Navajo are reddish stream deposits formed in climates that changed from subtropical (for the older Moenave) to semi-arid (for the overlying Kayenta).

These older formations form the rubbly slopes and red cliff bands low on Zion’s canyon walls.  They’re also prominent above the town of Springdale, and up on Kolob Terrace Road.  Solid red cliffs of Kayenta, formed at the edge of that great encroaching desert, lie directly beneath the hard white sandstones of the Navajo.

If you gain a high vantage point you may notice the red “hats” or caps on top of the Navajo Formation’s highest white domes.  These belong to the Temple Cap and Carmel Formations, at 160 million years the youngest rocks at Zion.  Their reddish color is clue to wetter conditions returning in the late Jurassic.  A warm sea even invaded again, this signaled by limestones of the Carmel Formation.

The Navajo Sandstone is in places stained with iron oxide, where fractures have allowed fluids to penetrate the rock and move iron from other formations.

The Navajo Sandstone is in places stained with iron oxide, where fractures have allowed fluids to penetrate the rock and move iron from other formations.

UPLIFT & EROSION

Time didn’t stop after deposition of the Navajo and other Jurassic rocks at Zion.  Sedimentation continued into the Cretaceous and beyond; yet, save for an important exception (see below), younger rocks of the Zion region have been stripped away by erosion and transported down the Colorado River into the Pacific Ocean.

Erosion is a big deal at Zion.  The Colorado Plateau continues to be shoved upward by tectonic pressures (a 5.8 magnitude earthquake shook Zion in 1995).  Over time, this uplift has increased river gradients dramatically, resulting in very active erosion by streams and rivers as well as landslides.  Wind has helped sculpt the landscape.

Basaltic lava flows form a stark contrast with iron-stained Navajo Sandstones.

Basaltic lava flows form a stark contrast with iron-stained and dune cross-bedded Navajo Sandstones.

YOUNG LAVA FLOWS

If you drive up to Lava Point on the Kolob Terrace Road, you will notice dark lava flows, which flowed out of vents that opened up as this area began to stretch (rift), starting about 2 million years ago.  This young age places the lava flows (which being basalt were quite fluid) in the Ice Ages, which were fairly wet times at Zion.  Think about the terrain at that time, which was dramatic canyon country as it is today.

This combination of climate, active basaltic volcanism and topography tells you something must have happened (and it did!):  lava-dammed lakes.  If you hike the Subway, a lake formed in that canyon when lava dammed the Left Fork; it extended all the way up to the Subway itself.  If you’re observant you’ll notice fine lake muds and silts laid down by this lake.  You pass right by them when you’re hiking back out of the canyon.

By the way, let’s put some numbers on this story.  Most of what you see at Zion is between about 200 and 160 million years old, placing it squarely in the Mesozoic Era, age of dinosaurs.  Less noticeable rocks beneath these are as old as 250 million years, while the young lavas are between 1.5 and 200,000 years old.

Dusk falls on the Kolob Terrace, with a large dome of Navajo Sandstone catching the glow above red Kayenta sandstones. Footprints of sauropods (huge plant-eating dinos) have been found in the red formation.

Dusk falls on Kolob Terrace, with a large dome of Navajo Sandstone catching the glow above steep red and mauve slopes of the Kayenta.  Beneath that in the foreground are brick-red rubbly cliffs of the Springdale Member of the Moenave Formation. Footprints of sauropods (huge plant-eating dinos) have been found here.

TROPICAL SEAS AT ZION?

The older pre-dinosaur strata is worth mentioning because it is prominent at nearby attractions, such as Grand Canyon to the south of Zion.  Most prominent of the area’s oldest rock formations is the Kaibab.  It dates back to Permian times about 260 million years ago.  In these ancient times, an embayment of the ocean we call Panthalassa lapped at the edge of the world’s only landmass, the supercontinent Pangaea.  At that time this region, later to become Utah and Arizona, was near the equator.

The Kaibab is mostly limestone, formed in warm, shallow seas.  It’s visible in places low along the Virgin River within the park and also dramatically in the Hurricane Cliffs near the town of Hurricane and north along the east side of I-15.  It’s interesting to realize that the Kaibab, which hides low in Zion’s deep canyons, forms the high rim of Grand Canyon to the south.  This tells you something about the layout of the Grand Staircase.

Thought I'd throw in a shot from the Grand Canyon, because the Kaibab Limestone is exposed so well here at Toroweap on the North Rim.

Thought I’d throw in a shot from the Grand Canyon, because the Kaibab Limestone is exposed so well here at Toroweap on the North Rim.

THE SENTINEL SLIDE

More recently during the Ice Ages, the climate at Zion was wetter than today’s.  The Virgin and other rivers carried more water, thus flash-flooding was more frequent and violent.  Four thousand years ago a huge landslide blocked the Virgin River and formed a 350 foot-deep lake in Zion Canyon.  This enormous slump block came off The Sentinel, so it’s called the Sentinel Slide.

The lake extended from Canyon Junction all the way to Angel’s Landing.  Sediments settled out on the canyon floor, partly filling its natural V-shape.  The river could not be stopped for long of course, and the natural dam was eventually breached.  The resulting flood drained the lake and formed the V-shaped inner canyon between Court of the Patriarchs and Canyon Junction.

So now you know why Zion Canyon is flat-bottomed; it’s the old lake-bed.  You can see the remains of the Sentinel Slide above you on the left as you drive up-canyon.  For a closer view hike or go on a horse-back ride on the Sand Bench Trail, which climbs up on top of the slump block itself.  By the way, the Sentinel Slide still acts up from time to time.  In 1995, part of the old slide slipped, briefly blocking the river.  The road was flooded for a time until the Virgin, never to be denied for long, re-established its channel.

Stay tuned for more from Zion National Park!

Looking down-canyon at sunset from atop Sand Bench, which is the huge slump block of the Sentinel Slide.

Looking down-canyon at sunset from atop Sand Bench, which is the huge slump block of the Sentinel Slide.  I’m on top of one of the huge blocks moved by the slide.

 

Mountain Monday: Telescope Peak & Death Valley   12 comments

Telescope Peak and the Panamint Range from southern Death Valley's Saratoga Springs.

Telescope Peak and the Panamint Range from southern Death Valley’s Saratoga Springs.

Occasionally I like to highlight a mountain I like for Mountain Monday.  Today it’s Telescope Peak, in Death Valley National Park, California.  This has long been one of my favorite national parks.  I started visiting when it was still a national monument.  My first visit was a college seminar and field trip.  My second time was freelancing with friends, and we climbed Telescope Peak.

The top is just over 11,000 feet high, and since it was early spring, we waded through hip-deep snow drifts to get there.  After the all-day climb, we drove back down into the valley, took our sleeping bags, and tumbled out into the sand dunes to sleep under the stars.  What a contrast!  An icy morning at 8000 feet, a snowy climb, then sleeping out in balmy weather at sea level.

Snow-capped Telescope Peak has been lifted by the range-front fault over 11,000 feet above the floor of Death Valley.

Snowy Telescope Peak has been lifted by faulting along the range-front over 11,000 feet above the hot desert floor of Death Valley.

GEOLOGIC INTERLUDE

Telescope is the highest point in the park and crowns the Panamint Range.  The Panamints are an upraised block of the earth’s crust, lifted along the west side of a fault zone that at the same time dropped Death Valley down.  And down a lot!  The floor of the valley is a few hundred feet below sea level.

But the valley is filled with thousands of feet of sediments that were eroded from the Panamints and other ranges as they rose.  The top of the the bedrock that was dropped down by the fault lies some 11,000 feet beneath the valley floor.  This enormous wedge of valley fill is made of gravels, sands and clays.  But overall it’s quite salty.  There are thick sections of salts of various kinds, including good old NaCl, table salt.

These salt flats at Badwater in Death Valley are just the top of thousands of feet of salt and sediments filling the valley.

Geologists call these types of deposits evaporites because they are formed when large bodies of water evaporate away in a drying climate.  In Death Valley’s case it was a large lake called Lake Manly.  From about 2 million to 10,000 years ago, mega ice sheets lay to the north.  Because of this, the climate was quite wet in the now ultra-dry Death Valley region.  Early hunter-gatherers, recently migrated in from Siberia, were able to spread south because of this climate, which supported a diversity of life much greater than today’s desert does.

But when the ice sheets retreated during inter-glacial periods, the climate grew more arid, and Lake Manly shrank.  Because of how fault-block mountains border almost all sides of Death Valley, often there was little or no chance for the lake to drain in the normal way, via rivers.

The old Death Valley Borax Works, with a heavy-duty wagon.  This wheel is six feet high.

The six-foot high wheel of a heavy duty borax wagon.

Evaporation was (and is) the main way that water left the valley.  Salts that were dissolved in the water grew more concentrated as the lake grew smaller.  A brine was the result, and as the lake grew and shrank many times, often down to nothing, the salts were precipitated out.  They built up layers and layers of evaporite deposits.  The famous 20 mule-team wagon trains transported tons of borax from the borates (a type of salt) mined from the valley (image above).

A close-up of Death Valley’s evaporites (salt deposits).

BADWATER SALT FLATS

The current desert climate of Death Valley is one in which standing water from paltry winter rains evaporates rapidly, leaving behind fresh salt.  The salt can take very interesting forms (image above).  The mix of fine muds and salt, combined with repeated wet/dry cycles, can form fantastic polygonal patterns, as the bottom image shows.  Salt is also eroded away occasionally by the Amargosa River when infrequent storms allow it to flow south out of the valley.

The water in the image at the top of the post is really not part of this equation.  It’s fresh not salty, and comes from the amazingly strong Saratoga Springs in southern Death Valley.  I camped nearby one time and captured this view early the next morning.  Saratoga is well off the beaten track and most visitors to the park miss it.  There’s a very cool dune field nearby.

The salt flats in Death Valley form interesting polygonal patterns.

The salt flats in Death Valley form interesting polygonal patterns.  Telescope Peak is just left off the photo.

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