Archive for the ‘Travel photography’ Category

Eclipse Mania: Weather Worries   9 comments

A spectacular composite eclipse image from 1999, by Fred Espenak.

Can you believe the eclipse is only a few weeks away?  I can’t wait!  I’m concluding my series on planning for this eclipse by tackling perhaps the most difficult thing to plan for: weather.  But it really isn’t just about weather.  It actually has more to do with psychology.  I’m doing what is unusual for me, including images from other photogs.  Click on the image to go to the source web pages.

Weather: What, me Worry?

As you talk to other eclipse enthusiasts, the subject of clouds and weather is sure to come up.  It is probably the most over-thought aspect of chasing solar eclipses.  But I can’t really blame people for worrying.  Who wants to travel and spend a lot of money getting to a spot to watch an eclipse, only to be clouded out at totality.  Weather on eclipse day is something that all of us must prepare to accept.   But even though there is no changing the weather, a bit of thought and planning beforehand might help save the day.

Monitoring weather forecasts in the days leading up to the eclipse will help you plan, but only if you have solid backup plans.  This previous post discussed backup plans in some detail.  Satellite imagery in the 24 hours leading up to totality might lead you to choose one viewing spot over another.  If a large front is moving in, you will be faced with a dilemma.  You could wake in the wee hours of the 21st and drive to escape it.  But I only recommend such drastic action if there is little doubt that the sky will be covered by clouds and only if you know you can escape the front in plenty of time.

Most of all, don’t obsess about weather before the eclipse.  I am a landscape photographer but I don’t scan weather apps. prior to a shoot, preferring to scan the sky.  I never complain about weather because photography for me is about making the most of what you’re given.  Of course eclipses are different.  Clouds can completely negate the experience.  But you still can’t change the weather.

Let’s say the forecast is for mostly cloudy skies on eclipse day.  Before you go running off trying to out-run weather, realize you’ll be spending the hours leading up to the eclipse in a less-than-ideal manner.  Will you make it somewhere in time?  Or will you be forced to pull off the road just before totality?  Will you end up driving into cloudy conditions while the place you left opens up just in time?  The best plan may be to have faith and patience in equal measure.

Will the clouds clear out in time or will they block the view? Partial phase about a half hour before the 2016 Indonesian eclipse.

Yes, the clouds cleared! Indonesia eclipse of March, 2016.

A Lesson in Patience

The 1999 total eclipse in Turkey taught me a lot about clouds and over-thinking.  We were in a perfect spot on a mountain-top in the north-central part of the country.  That eclipse happened to also be in August, and that area is similar both geographically and climatically to parts of the inter-mountain west where the upcoming eclipse will happen.  In late summer Anatolia is typically dry and hot, with afternoons that commonly see isolated clouds and thundershowers.

Clouds started appearing just before the start of the partial phase and, predictably, our group’s anxiety rose.  There ensued an argument over whether to abandon the mountain and go out onto a wide plain that lay before us to the west.  The reasoning was simple: no orographic lifting on the plain and so less chance of clouds.  Air masses get pushed up a mountainside, cooling and condensing to form clouds.

After much hand-wringing debate it was decided to split the group, with one contingent heading out onto the plain and one remaining on the mountain.  I decided to stay up on the mountain.  That was partly because my girlfriend and I were comfortable picnicking and sipping some Efes pilsen I had smuggled in.  But it was also because the most experienced eclipse-chaser in the group (an author who was about to see his 14th eclipse!) had decided to stay put.

Those lucky enough to be on the Oregon Coast will be first to see the eclipse. Enjoy!

Clouds increased as the partial phase wore on.  I was having too much fun to care, playing with kids from a nearby village and joking around with the soldiers (they let me drive an armored vehicle!).  The government had insisted on our group being protected in the remote area.  As totality approached the air suddenly cooled.   Minutes before it happened most of the clouds dissipated.  I saw for the first time how during a solar eclipse the atmosphere can change in interesting ways.  It’s more noticeable when you’re elevated, such as on a mountain.  It was a spectacular eclipse!

The moral of the story is this: don’t stress a few clouds on eclipse day.  It can only negatively influence your experience.  Yes, a storm front will do a great job of hiding the eclipse.  But as far as partly cloudy skies go, keep the faith and stay positive.  The cooling of the atmosphere just before totality could stabilize the air enough to decrease the big puffies just in time.  By the way, the group that went out onto the plain also got a clear view of the Turkey eclipse.  But it was still satisfying to be one of those who had chosen to chill out on the mountain.

Thanks for reading.  Good luck and have a wonderful eclipse experience!

The sun sets over Pacific near the island of Iwo Jima after being eclipsed at noon: July, 2009.

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Eclipse Mania: What’s your Excuse?   3 comments

Total solar eclipse sequence, Zambia 2001 by Fred Espenak.

I’ve noticed quite a few (facebook) friends are skipping this eclipse, even though all are within a day’s drive and a few live only an hour or so from the path of totality.  The reason?  They are afraid of the media’s predictions of apocalyptic disaster: traffic, crowds, food/water shortages, and assorted catastrophe.  Many of them are skipping the path of totality in favour of staying home to see a dramatically inferior partial eclipse.  I’m amazed that anyone still takes media hype and exaggeration seriously.

Of course I realize this will be a popular event, and if you don’t have a good plan (the reason I’m doing this series) you will have to endure hassles in order to get into position to see it.  But those people who do go to the trouble will be, years later, certainly not regretting doing so.  They won’t be talking about how epic the crowds and traffic were.  They’ll be talking about how incredibly epic the total eclipse of the sun was.

At first I assumed that these friends have simply seen enough eclipses and don’t want the (perceived) hassles involved in seeing yet another one.  I was giving them the benefit of the doubt.  But something about that didn’t make sense, so I asked why.  Some of them answered, saying yes, they have already seen eclipses and are not interested in this one.  One even said they weren’t that special.  That last is a sentiment I can respect if it’s based on actually seeing one (but certainly not several).

The strange fact is that these people are from the U.S.  That means that, to see a number of eclipses, they flew overseas, booked tours, or otherwise planned to be in the paths of totality.  The last total solar eclipse in North America was in 1979, and that was only visible from the Pacific Northwest.  The next one is in 2024 and does not boast the coast to coast path that this one does.

I don’t know of anyone who would fly halfway across the globe to see enough solar eclipses to be satiated, and then avoid driving a few hours to see one on his own turf.  That’s not how eclipses work.  You either love them and are motivated to travel long distances to see one, or you’re not impressed and don’t bother to see them at all unless they happen to pass over your house.  Put another way, for U.S. residents, there is no good excuse for missing this eclipse other than a disinterest in natural wonders.

Ozette Lake, a large and relatively unknown lake on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, is only a few miles from the rugged coast, but it has an exceptionally pristine night sky.

I must conclude that people not seeing this eclipse just do not know what they’re missing.  I think some must be confusing (very common) total lunar and (quite rare) total solar eclipses.  Or, since they seem to be looking forward to the partial eclipse, are unaware of the vast difference between a total and partial solar eclipse.  Some may be genuinely afraid of traffic and crowds, but as I’ve said earlier in this series, a little planning plus a willingness to share an “eclipse party” kind of atmosphere easily mitigates that concern and reveals it to be what it really is, a lame excuse.

So let me put it as strongly as I can.  The only good excuse for missing this eclipse (again, aside from disinterest in nature) is that you live on another continent and have upcoming opportunities to see one nearer to you.  Also, a partial solar eclipse is forgettable and barely worth your time, while a total solar eclipse is something you will remember your whole life, especially if you’ve never seen one before.  My first one was one of the best days of my life and I had a smile plastered onto my face until I went to sleep that night.  My fellow Americans: do not miss this eclipse!

The Africa eclipse of 2001 was one I wanted to travel to but couldn’t.  It took a full decade for me to finally visit this part of the world.  Zambia eclipse of 2001, image by Fred Espenak.

Posted July 22, 2017 by MJF Images in Nature Photography, Travel photography

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: How to Decide Where to Watch   Leave a comment

An amazing image of the 2016 Indonesian eclipse. Photographer: Alson Wong. The detail, that prominence!

I’ve been doing a series on the upcoming total solar eclipse.  I realize it is late in the game, with only about 8 weeks until eclipse day.  But if you haven’t made plans yet don’t worry.  You still have time and this series is for you!  And even if you’ve already made plans, you will find stuff here that will be useful once you hit the ground.  Plus, this entire series of posts will help you plan for future eclipses.  If this will be your first solar eclipse believe me, there will be others.  It’s an addiction!  Now let’s look at a few criteria I’ve found useful for deciding where to watch a total solar eclipse.

A. Ease of Access to Center Line.

Despite the fact that a solar eclipse is over in minutes and your travel plans may include a full vacation (say, two weeks), the actual eclipse needs to be your primary consideration.  You probably already know, but it is absolutely essential to be in the path of totality.  Close is not good enough.  All you’ll see is a partial not total eclipse if you are outside of the path of totality.  And a partial eclipse is just not all that special.

It’s also important to be well within the path of totality, not near the edge.  Get as close as you can to the center line.  Otherwise you’ll see an off-center and slightly shortened eclipse.  Within a quarter mile or so of the center line is very good, but try to get right on it if you can.

The area along the path of totality that you plan to visit has to have several places to stand and look up (I know, duh!), with no serious obstructions such as dense forest.  Work with the very accurate and well-done interactive maps online.  I recommend this one.

Lastly, don’t pin all your hopes on one location.  You’ll want a plan B and plan C, in other words a few alternative locations from which to watch in case something goes wrong with your first choice.  The places need to be easy to access, on public property or on previously arranged private land.  Arrive early!

The little-appreciated Ochoco Mtns. in central Oregon are in the path of totality.

B.  Dry Climate.

This is a tricky one.  Although you don’t want to be clouded out on eclipse day, it is easy to assume too much precision and accuracy when looking at climatic data.  In other words, don’t over-think this.  Accept the inevitable: an element of chance.  When eclipse planning you can think of climate in two ways: large scale and small scale, or path climate and micro-climate.  See below for a detailed look at both of these applied to the upcoming eclipse.

A solar eclipse path is very long but narrow, so climate can very dramatically along the path but not much across the path.  You need to examine the climate along the path of totality and use that as one, not the only, factor influencing your decision of where to watch.  Obviously the climatic information you research needs to be for the time of year that the eclipse is happening.

2016 eclipse, Indonesia. Photographer: Muhammad Rayhan.  Nice diamond ring, plus note the hint of shadow bands in the clouds.

C.  Inspiring 

Last but not least I recommend seeing any total solar eclipse in a location that inspires you.  It’s not just for the eclipse experience itself, but for the time you will spend before and after the eclipse.  You have to decide where along the path is a place that stokes your imagination, all the while taking the other factors into account.  And don’t forget that this eclipse will probably be the most hyped in history.

For me it means choosing a beautiful but not necessarily sexy natural place.  What I mean by this is that it does not have to be in an iconic location like in front of the Tetons, Painted Hills, or any other of my favorite landscape photography subjects.  The eclipse itself will almost make any spot worthwhile.  Notice I said ‘almost’.  Anyplace with a view of the sky is not a view I share.

The bottom line for me is that, while I don’t expect (nor do I wish) nobody else to be around, I do want to avoid all the hassles that go along with a mob scene.  That would take away too much from the experience.  But I do want to be in a nice natural environment, preferably with open views toward the western horizon, the direction from which the shadow comes.

It’s truly amazing how many beautiful places lie along the path of this eclipse: Grand Teton National Park, WY.

  Climate Variations for this Eclipse

Path Climate

For this eclipse, which is happening in late summer, there are a few general path-climate considerations to be aware of.  The part of the western U.S. traversed by the path is generally very dry, sunny and hot in August.  There is frequent thunderstorm activity in the Rockies and even in eastern Oregon.  But those normally happen in mid- to late afternoon, and the eclipse is early in the day.  So that probably is not a big factor.

In the central U.S. the climate is again generally dry during late summer.  But the same issue – thunderstorms – is a slightly bigger concern because of the higher humidity.  That trend continues to become a bigger factor as the path travels east and slightly south, entering more humid climes later in the day.  The southeastern U.S. is humid and hot in August.  The eclipse there is in mid-afternoon, so the chances for clouds are greater than in the west.

But the west may not be the best for one reason: fire.  Granted it is unlikely that a fire would be so big (or so close) as to greatly affect your experience.  But August is fire-season in the west, and the risk of dense smoke, or even being forced to evacuate, cannot be ignored.

Interesting shot by photographer Alson Wong of the 2008 Chinese eclipse, over-exposing the corona but showing the moon’s surface being illuminated by earth shine.  A good tradeoff!

Micro-Climate

Micro-climate will factor into your decision of where to watch once you’ve decided on a general area to go.  One common example: the rain-shadow effect, where mountains tend to keep clouds and rain on the upwind side; that is, in the direction that prevailing weather tends to come from.

But keep in mind that micro-climate is also specific to the time of year.  For example areas east of the Cascades, along with the east sides of ranges in the Rockies, are in rain shadows in winter but in summer receive moisture (in the form of thundershowers) coming up from the Gulf of Mexico.

For micro-climate much more than path climate, local knowledge is invaluable.  If you know people who live in the area you are going, quiz them on local variations in cloudiness on a typical August day.  Get on chat groups and try to filter out all the self-described expertise that plagues the internet.  Focus on those who seem to be actual outdoors people and who have lived in the area for a long time.  Not easy I know.  It’s why I’m relying on my own experiences and talking with locals on previous trips.

The August eclipse will be seen by farmers across the heartland of the U.S.

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.

 

Rural America: Summary Musings   15 comments

Rural ranchland of southwestern Colorado.

We’ve been rambling through the rural western U.S. on a series of road-trips.  Now it’s time to pause for a bit of reflection.  I’m greatly enjoying this series and hope you are too.  It’s been great to get away from photography topics for awhile and celebrate the reason I do it in the first place.  I first got into photography on my first ever solo road-trip at the tender age of 18.

A couple months after graduating high school I escaped my east-coast birthplace and drove across country in my Pontiac.  I’d been given a little manual camera as a gift.  Knowing nothing of the rule of thirds or anything else about photography, I shot many rolls of Kodachrome on that trip.  To this day documenting subjects I find while traveling is my #1 reason for doing photography.  I’m more serious about it now, with the added motivation of artful expression thrown into the mix.  But it’s still all about exploration and inspiration.

An old wood Baptist church sits in the Ozarks of southern Missouri.

America celebrates horses (and doesn’t eat them): wild foal and mare, North Dakota.

The trips I’ve featured in this series have balanced visits to natural wonders with route variations that take in remnants of rural America and its history.  What is so fascinating about many parts of the country is the way that these three (the land, its human history and the way people interact with it now) are interwoven.  It’s possible when traveling in sparsely-populated areas, especially in the West and parts of the Midwest, to feel the power that the landscape exerted on past explorers and settlers, both native and white.  And it’s fascinating to see how the land continues to influence the way modern people live on it.

An old-time antebellum mansion on Georgia’s Atlantic coast.

Tending the land demanded bigger families in America’s past.  These folks lived at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in what was New Mexico Territory.

But everywhere you go in this great country it’s impossible to escape the obvious: things have changed in fundamental ways.  Gone are those days when most people made their living off the land, when they stayed at or very near their birthplaces for their whole lives.  Here’s an important fact about American history: those relative few who did not stay home were critical to shaping the young country.  They were responsible for America spreading westward to the Pacific.  They created the reality of the American spirit and formed the basis for the myths that would later be woven into that reality.

A cemetery out on the windblown plains of western Oklahoma.

Interior of a round barn: southeastern Oregon.

Nowadays nearly everyone moves somewhere else.  The same kinds of motivations are at work for us as for our forebears: a desire to start anew.  But since travel today does not entail near the hardship of days past, many more people move.  A person who is willing to take the chance that moving across country may mean that some of the family will die on the way is quite different than one who drives a U-Haul to California for a new job.  The latter is taking risks, but nothing like the former, whose life could literally collapse around her.

A cabin draws a small herd of free-range horses at the base of remote Steens Mountain, Oregon.

Crystal River runs down one of my favorite little valleys in the Colorado Rockies, home to a lucky few.

In my own travels through the west I’ve often tried to put myself into the boots of those risk-takers.  I imagine riding into rough country without maps, where my destination was more hope than reality, where I was in very real danger of being assaulted by robbers or bands of vengeful braves.  The change that has overtaken the world has not spared the western U.S.  But in out-of-the-way corners it is still possible to see things that have changed little, or even not at all.  And that’s what this series was all about.  (I say ‘was’ but I’ll return to the theme again when the mood strikes.)  Thanks for reading!

Spring daffodils bloom at an old cabin in Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee.

The Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee live up to their name.

Rural America ~ Desert SW Roadtrips: San Diego to Santa Fe   7 comments

Technicolor sunrise over the grinding pits (metates) at a native village site in Mine Wash, Anza Borrego, California.

Our photographic journey through rural America continues with the final segment of road-tripping the Desert Southwest.  I’m approaching these trips from a rural perspective because, despite profound change, much remains of the flavour of America in its halcyon days.  All you need to do is get off the beaten track, slow down and explore.

We start this long road-trip along the southern reaches of the Desert Southwest on the Pacific in San Diego.  And I can’t think of a better place to end but in the historic center of the Southwest, Santa Fe.  If you’re flying in and renting a vehicle, you might use LAX instead of San Diego.  And dropping off in Albuquerque rather than Santa Fe may make more sense depending on airfares and vehicle rental.

Mogollon Mountains, New Mexico.

San Diego to Tucson

Despite my aversion to using interstate freeways, save some time and start out by traveling east on I-8.  Give at least a little time to Anza Borrego, southern California’s premier desert state park.  Great little canyon hikes are found just off the freeway.  Or for more depth detour north into the park’s heart by turning left onto Hwy. 79 to the charming town of Julian.  Then drive east on Hwy. 78 into the Mojave Desert.  If you come this way an interesting spot to check out is Mine Wash, site of a former native village (see image at top).

Keep going east to El Centro, heart of the Imperial Valley.  This is where, courtesy of massive diversion of the Colorado River, America grows winter vegetables.  The agricultural area draws great numbers of day-workers from Mexico.  I’ve spent some time in this area working.  At the Mexicali border crossing I’ve stood in line with hundreds of Mexicans at 4 a.m.  (Don’t ask me why I was crossing back over the border at that hour!)  They were patiently waiting to cross to work the fields until sunset, then queuing up again to cross back into Mexico after dark.  I honestly don’t know how they can do this day after long, hot day.

Teddy bear cholla cactus blooms during summer monsoon rains in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert.

Pass through the town of Yuma, where the temperature is routinely well above 100 deg. F in the summer.  Keep going east on the freeway into Arizona, then turn south at Gila Bend on Hwy. 85 toward Ajo.  This little town has some character, but is dominated to some degree by the presence of a nearby border control base.  The money that the U.S. has thrown into border control since 9/11 can be easily appreciated in this unpopulated desert region.  You’ll see plenty of their SUVs around, but don’t worry.  They are very good at distinguishing tourists from vehicles that warrant their suspicion, and will generally leave you alone.  Still, be ready to stop at checkpoints if you’re anywhere near the border.

The town of Ajo, Arizona has the feel of a small town in Mexico.

After a little walk around Ajo, with its Spanish Colonial feel, continue south into Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.  This is a wonderful desert park to explore, and the landscape photography is especially rewarding during the late summer monsoon season.  Sure it is hot this time of year, but the storms put on quite the light show.  I did a post on this park, so check it out for more detail.

Travel east again through the desert on Hwy. 86, passing beneath the telescopes of Kitt Peak.  This is one of the world’s premier observatories (it hosts the world’s largest solar telescope), and can be visited on tours or enjoyed at night when the public is invited to come at sunset and stay to peer at the stars through telescopes.  Continue east to Tucson, stopping at Saguaro National Park if you’ve never been there.  Also worth visiting is the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum, just west of town.

A drive through Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona.

Tucson to Silver City

Continuing east of Tucson you’ll have a decision to make.  If you’re in no hurry, and depending on how much time you want to devote to New Mexico, detour south to the interesting copper town of Bisbee, on the way visiting Tombstone, which is touristy but fun.

For superb hikes in mountains where Geronimo and his Apache brothers used to hole up where the U.S. Cavalry couldn’t find them, turn south off I-10 at Willcox and head up into the Chiricahua Mtns. on Bonita Canyon Drive.  For a stroll through pioneer history, stop at the Faraway picnic site and walk the mile or so through the old Faraway Ranch.  Further up this paved road, which ends at the visitor center, Echo Canyon to the Grotto is a short mile walk.

But if you make time for a longer hike, the amazing rock formations of Heart of Rocks Loop, accessible either from the visitor center or Echo Canyon, are where you should spend most of your energy.  It’s a 7+ miles round-trip trek.  Sadly I seem to have lost my photos of Heart of Rocks.  Time to go back!

In southern Arizona’s monsoon season frequent thunderstorms cause the desert valleys to green up.

Drive back down Bonita Canyon and turn south on Hwy. 42, Pinery Canyon Road.  This partly unpaved road takes you up and over the Chiricahuas, dropping east down a lovely canyon (image above) to a place called Paradise.  Along the way a campsite sits in open forest.  Once you leave the mountains you find yourself in a big desert valley.  There is a community near here based around ultralights and experimental aircraft.  It was established by an internet tycoon.  Also popular in this area is amateur astronomy.  The skies are some of the darkest and clearest on the continent, so stay up late and do some stargazing!

Summer monsoons cause wildflowers to bloom in Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains.

The desert garden landscape of the Chiricahua Mtns., AZ

Turn north on Portal Road and reach the freeway, where you’re not far from the New Mexico border.  Once in this unique state, which feels a bit like a developing country (or like its namesake to the south), set your GPS for Silver City.  The town, set at the base of the Mogollon Mountains (Mogoyon), is gateway to the rugged and remote Gila National Forest, the state’s largest.  The Gila includes America’s first wilderness area, of the same name, along with one named for the man who inspired the creation of wilderness areas, Aldo Leopold.

 

Whiskey or beer? New Mexico.

Silver City to Santa Fe

Silver City, New Mexico, a former mining town that now has a modern look, is still small enough to charm.  It’s home to those who’ve chosen to live set away from the rushed and busy world.   The history of this incredibly scenic area is interesting and multilayered.  About 45 miles north of town are the Gila Cliff Dwellings.  On the way make a quick stop at Pinos Altos, a little town whose mining past is not well-concealed beneath its mountain-rural present (image above).

Once you’re finished with the one-way trip to the cliff dwellings, travel west and north from Silver City on Hwy. 182.  Take the short side-trip to Mogollon, where the historic architecture and remnants of the mines are very well preserved and spectacularly situated.  From here you can continue on Hwy. 159 or 182.  Whichever route you take from here to Santa Fe, don’t be in a hurry.   If you take the time to wander, even stop and chat with a local or two, you may discover what makes rural New Mexico so unique.

The old mining boom town of Mogollon, New Mexico.

Gila Wilderness, New Mexico.

Here are a couple ideas for nature stops to anchor your travel from Silver City to Santa Fe.  If the time of year is right (November-January), consider visiting Bosque del Apache.  It’s a bird refuge near Socorro on I-25, host to huge wintering flocks.  Get there early in the pre-dawn hours – bundle up, it can be cold.  While you’ll have plenty of company in the form of bird photographers, the spectacle of tens of thousands of snow geese taking flight will raise your spirit right along with the noisy birds.  The area is also famous for Sandhill Cranes.

Breath the pristine air: El Malpais, New Mexico.

Another potential route north to Santa Fe takes in El Malpais, a geologically fascinating area of lava flows surrounded by sandstone rimrock.  Not many people seem to visit this vast and pristine area.  Acoma Pueblo, a native community dating from 1100, is a worthwhile stop as well, and is not far east of El Malpais; just an hour further east is Albuquerque.  On your way north to Santa Fe from there, make time to stop and contemplate the Rio Grande River, the lifeline of the region’s culture past and present (image below).

The Rio Grande flows through its canyon: central New Mexico.

Thanks so much for reading (I know, a lot of words!).  I so enjoyed taking you along on a few of my favorite roadtrips through the great Desert Southwest.  Happy shooting!

Bidding goodnight to another day: Salton Sea, California.

Rural America ~ Desert Southwest Road-trips: Kanab to Ridgway   9 comments

On the Ralf Lauren Ranch near Ridgway, Colorado on a crystal-cold late fall morning.

America is a big place.  There are large swathes of it that retain a rural or even wild character.  In the rural areas you’ll primarily see homes surrounded by lawns and landscaping.  No garden, no chickens, goats or horses.  No dairy cow supplying milk to the family.  And in fact little visual evidence of a family.  Where are all the kids who once cared for those animals, and after chores roamed the woods and fields?   Most likely riding to yet another stop on their busy schedules or inside looking at screens.

Things have obviously changed.  But in much of rural America there remains just enough of the traditional character (and characters!) to allow a casual visitor to be transported back to a simpler age.  That is what this series of posts is attempting to do, at least with its pictures.  Since I believe in passing on some of what I know in this blog and not just waxing lyrical, I’m highlighting a few select road-trips that I’ve done several times, journeys that will get you off the main tourist routes while still hitting popular destinations that in my opinion are not to be missed.

Last time we traveled from one favorite national park to another: Death Valley, California to Zion in Utah.  Check out that post.  For an introduction to the geography, culture and history of the Desert Southwest, check out the previous post.  Now let’s continue our journey through the Southwest, traveling from Kanab, Utah to Ridgway, Colorado.

Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, Utah.

Kanab to Ridgway

This trip begins where the last one left off, Zion Park.  Kanab is a short distance from Zion’s east entrance.  Unless you’ve already been there and want to save your time for new places, you’re going to want to begin with that scenic wonder.  Kanab is worth visiting for its movie history and small-town vibe.  Have breakfast at Nedra’s, where many old-time movie stars chowed down.  Rooms are fairly reasonable in town, but if you’re camping a great choice is Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park just north of town (image above).

An old barn in Kanab Canyon sits in a pasture used by horses cared for by the folks at Best Friends.

If you have two or three extra days on your hands, consider volunteering at Best Friends animal shelter a short drive north of Kanab.  Click the link to go to their site.  You can book it ahead and stay there either in a room or if you have a camper there’s a couple nice sites free for volunteers.  It’s the world’s largest true no-kill shelter and houses all manner of orphaned animals from dogs & cats to horses & pot-belly pigs.

Taking a break while walking one of the residents of Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, Utah.

If you’re traveling east from Kanab, you have a big decision to make.  You can either drive down Hwy. 89 to Lake Powell through Page into northern Arizona.  Or you can follow this trip and head north on 89 to join with Hwy. 12 east.  Both are spectacular journeys, and with a little time you could go as far as Page and then join this trip by either returning to Kanab or cutting across Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument on one of the rough dirt roads (high-clearance recommended).

An old western movie set slowly crumbles near Kanab, Utah.

So drive north from Kanab on Hwy. 89 and turn east onto one of America’s most scenic roads, Hwy. 12.  Head up through Redrock Canyon, stopping to take a short hike through hoodoos that are a preview of Bryce Canyon.  After a stop at Bryce a bit further east, continue to Escalante.  This is a very small town surrounded by stunning canyon country.  Stop and get a feel for what life was like for early pioneers in this isolated spot.  Self-reliance is still a prized commodity here, and you will meet some real characters.

Not far from the junction of Highways 89 and 12 in Long Valley, cows deal with the season’s first snowfall.

There is so much scenery and so many hiking and photographic opportunities in these parts that it is tempting to go off on a wilderness tangent.  I did a series on the Grand Staircase, so check that out for a little guidance and some image-inspiration.  Continue on to Boulder, a town subtly different than Escalante but still very much tied to its ranching roots.  The small towns around here are dependent on the steady stream of seasonal tourists.

Head up over Boulder Mountain, where you have a stupendous view out over the country you’re about to traverse.  The unique and spectacular Waterpocket Fold is at your feet up here among the aspens.  As you drop off Boulder Mtn., the country becomes greener.  Take one of the roads west off the highway and see some of the ranches and farms.  With a good map you can easily find your way to the little town of Torrey via the “back door”.  Torrey retains most of its original character and is less about tourism than most towns on this route.

Ranchland at the base of Boulder Mountain, Utah.

Bid a sad adieu to Hwy. 12 where it ends just east of Torrey.  Turn right on Hwy. 24 and drop down to Capitol Reef National Park.  Here you’ll find orchards and the preserved remains of Mormon homesteads, all clustered along the beautiful Fremont River.  Note that instead of going over Boulder Mtn. you can reach Capitol Reef by traveling the amazing Burr Trail.  Don’t worry, it’s a road perfectly passable in a passenger car.

Reefs in this part of the world are not underwater.  Quirks of the local geology, they are long, steep escarpments that formed a barrier to pioneers traveling westward in wagons.  Think of how reefs in the sea form a barrier to boats and you understand the name.  In this case the pass through Capitol Reef comes courtesy of the Fremont River.

A bit of the old west survives at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

Going east on Hwy. 24 you enter arid, unpeopled country.  It’s the perfect place to prepare for exploring a desert planet, which is why not far off the highway lies the Mars Desert Research Station.  You can make an appointment to tour the MDRS.  Turn north at Hanksville to stay on Hwy. 24 and travel toward the Interstate along the San Rafael Swell.  This is a magical formation to explore, with great canyon hikes.  Since it is not protected expect to share it with off-road vehicles, but it is definitely off the tourist track.  At its base lie the strange hoodoos of Goblin Valley.

Turn east on I-70 for a short drive to U.S. 191, where you’ll turn south toward Moab.  Moab was for most of its life a small remote town.  It briefly boomed during the uranium mining boom of the early 1950s.  Despite its current tourist-town status, I like Moab.  It draws an interesting mix of rock climbers, mountain bikers and off-roaders.  Drop in to the Red Rock Cafe for breakfast and you’ll see what I mean.

Big beautiful cottonwoods grow in the canyons surrounding Moab, Utah.

Of course you’ll want to visit Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.  But there are many other worthwhile hikes and bike rides in the region.  A great driving loop from Moab heads up over the La Sal Mtns. Loop Road and down to Castle Valley and the Colorado River.  Turn east on Hwy. 128 to visit Fisher Towers, then return west along the river back to Moab.  Many of the ranches along this route have been converted to guest and dude ranches.  But they give you a glimpse into the rural life of SW Utah.

Near Canyonlands National Park an old fence reminds of a time when cattle herding was one of the few jobs available.

From Moab go south on 191 a short distance to Hwy. 46 and turn left (east) toward La Sal and the Colorado border.  Cross out of Utah on a gloriously uncrowded route that becomes increasingly green.  You are in a transition now, passing off the Colorado Plateau into the Rocky Mountains.

Welcome!

Drive through tiny settlements with names like Bedrock, Redvale and Placerville, rural Colorado at its best.  When faced with confusing junctions, always take the road that heads east.  At Placerville, after driving through a lovely little valley lined with Colorado blue spruce, turn east again onto Hwy. 62.

A late-autumn scene on the Dallas Divide, Colorado.

Take Hwy. 62 over Dallas Divide through some of America’s most beautiful rural mountain scenery (images above and below).  For a closer look, turn up toward the peaks on the West Fork Road and drive through Ralf Lauren’s spectacular ranch (image at top).  To avoid trespassing stay on the road until you reach National Forest land.  Back on Hwy. 62, continue on to Ridgway, a still-authentic ranching community.  If it’s autumn and the aspens are in leaf, you will run out of space on your camera’s memory card!

A ranch is nestled among colorful aspens high in the San Juan Mtns. near Ridgway, Colo.

An off-pavement loop drive from Ridgway heads east up gravel county road 8 to Owl Creek Pass.  You can free-camp up here and then continue north to rejoin pavement near U.S. 50.  Turn left (west) here and drive to Montrose, the largest town in these parts.  Stock up and then make the short drive back down to Ridgway.  I’m going to leave you in Ridgway, which while lovely is rather remote.  From here you can go south through the interesting town of Ouray, then over the high passes of the San Juans and down to Durango.  You could also head north and east toward Aspen into the high Rockies of western Colorado.

Rural SW Colorado is perhaps best in the fall.

There are two big towns (Durango and Grand Junction) near enough Ridgway to drop the rental and fly out.  Denver is farther away but with enough time a trip that begins in Vegas and ends in Denver would be memorable indeed.  Despite our little foray into the Rocky Mtns. the next leg of our journey continues the Desert SW theme.  We’ll travel south through the Four Corners into New Mexico.  Thanks very much for reading and have a great weekend!

A corral sits in a remote Utah canyon as a storm moves through at sunset.

Rural America: Desert SW Road-trips ~ Death Valley to Zion   11 comments

The morning sun hits Death Valley’s salt flats.

The series on rural America continues.  The goal is to give you ideas for how to make your trips into the various regions of this huge country about more than ticking off scenic wonders and tourist hot spots.  Although America’s rich rural character has been in many areas replaced by suburban sprawl, it remains in more places than you might expect.

This and one or two succeeding posts begins a look at select road trips in the amazing region of the U.S. called the desert southwest (DSW).  Check out the last post for an introduction to the DSW.  Each time I travel here I find new detours and variations.  Some lead to interesting but relatively unknown scenic splendors.  But the best thing about these routes is they all reveal rural charms that are easy to miss if you stick to the main highways.  So let’s dive right in, starting in the west and moving east.

Death Valley to Zion

Of course any trip through the Desert SW is going to focus at least as much on nature as it does on rural areas.  This one is no exception.  For the obvious reason of its harshly dry climate, ranching is more important than farming in most areas along this route.  Cattle ranching in Nevada and SW Utah takes place largely on public lands.  Once in SW Utah you are in an area of the state called Dixie.  The town of St. George is large and bustling, but there are plenty of scenic small towns in the area to explore.

Scotty’s Castle is at the center of many of Death Valley’s best stories.

Ghost Towns of Death Valley

Start by traveling (if you fly in, from Los Angeles or Las Vegas) to Death Valley National Park in California.  It’s one of my favorite places in the world.  Here you can alternate rambles across sand dunes at sunrise and hikes through stunning canyons with a visit to a ghost town or two.  They are what remains of the gold mining that took place here in the 1800s and early 1900s.

The best known example is Rhyolite, which is not in the park but very accessible just across the Nevada border.  Beatty, the town nearby, will give you a glimpse of small-town life in the Great Basin of Nevada.  If you’d visited Rhyolite in the 1990s you would have seen an operating mine, and you will see the remnants of this more modern open-pit gold mine in the Bullfrog Hills above the ghost town.

Feral burros, left over from the days of gold and silver prospecting, roam the Mojave Desert of Death Valley National Park.

A spectacular pair of ghost towns lie on the opposite, western side of Death Valley, in the Panamint Valley.  You can drive right to the first, Ballarat.  But if you’re in hiking shape I highly recommend heading up nearby Surprise Canyon, parking at the obvious end of the passable part of the dirt road and continuing on foot.

While it is a spectacular area, realize you will be trekking 10 fairly rugged canyon miles roundtrip.  But if you bring a water filter you can carry much less weight in water than usual in these parts.  You might even see waterfalls along the way depending on recent storms.  Be prepared for thick brush in the canyon bottom.  Arriving at Panamint City with its scenic brick smokestack, you’ll experience the real deal.  It has a true lonely ghost-town feel.

One of the surviving buildings of Ballarat Ghost Town, the snow-capped Panamint Range soaring beyond.

One more cool “ghost town” to visit in the Death Valley area is Gold Point, Nevada.  It is actually north of the park, but if you’re up there to visit Scotty’s Castle anyway, it’s not all that much further.  I put ghost town in quotations because a half dozen or so souls live there with the ghosts year-round.  You can not only see a historic old-west saloon, you can go in and have a beer!

The Great Basin of Southern Nevada.

Rural Southern Nevada

Traveling east across southern Nevada you’ll pass the glitz of Las Vegas.  If you stay on the freeway it is a relatively short high-speed cruise along Interstate 15 to St. George, Utah.  But consider a short detour north into the rural southern Great Basin.  So turn north on U.S. Highway 93 toward the little town of Caliente.  Turn south on State Hwy. 317 to make a loop back to Hwy. 93.

Take your time and you’re sure to see a sparsely populated part of Nevada that will make you forget all about the neon phenomenon of Las Vegas.  It’s what the Great Basin is all about, what nobody speeding along I-15 could imagine.  You can extend your detour north to Cathedral Gorge State Park, an area of badlands with cool little slot canyons.  Some of the valleys where cattle roam are surprisingly green and grassy.  Others are arid, treeless expanses, with the Great Basin’s characteristic long ranges shimmering in the distance.

On a detour through rural southern Nevada, some areas don’t look very desert-like.

And others do: badlands of Cathedral Gorge, NV.

Dixie in Utah

Not long after crossing out of Nevada you arrive in bustling St. George, southern Utah’s largest town.  St. George is still dominated by its founders the Mormons, but nowadays it’s perhaps best known as a retirement haven.  For outsiders, the town is most notable as gateway to southern Utah’s world-famous scenic wonders.  Of course you can’t miss Zion National Park once you’re this close.  But a destination much nearer to town is the compact but stunning Snow Canyon State Park.  In this part of America it’s impossible to miss nature.  But remember this series is about where the people of rural America live.

Small-scale farming & ranching survives in small towns along the Virgin River bottom: Rockdale, Utah.

There are several towns surrounding St. George that retain the rural character of Dixie.  A drive north to Pine Valley features lovely scenery and the rural charm of this part of Utah.   And even in towns just off Interstate 15, places like Leeds and Toquerville, rural character remains.  If you get off at Leeds, wander over to the west side of the freeway and up the hill to historic Silver Reef, an old mining town.  Also nearby is spectacular Red Cliffs Recreation Area.  A very worthwhile canyon hike with a pretty little campground at the trailhead. If you drive to Toquerville, turn north on Spring Rd. to visit Toquerville Falls.

On the way to Zion most visitors race in eager anticipation past the scenic little towns of Virgin and Rockdale.  The roadside scenery between Rockdale and Springdale is lovely, especially in autumn (image below).  But once in Springdale you’ve entered the chaos of a uniquely American phenomenon: the National Park gateway town.

Valley of the Virgin River near Zion National Park, Utah.

Polygamy & Canyon Hiking

You can see where some of the Mormon Church’s most devout families live if you drive south of Hurricane (on the way to Zion) on Hwy. 59 to Colorado City on the Arizona border.  Keep going and this is an excellent way to travel to the north rim of the Grand Canyon or to Kanab, Utah.  Drive around the small town, which is called Hilldale on the Utah side, and you’ll see women in very traditional dress.  Polygamy is still widely practiced in these parts.  And as Forest Gump said, “that’s all I’m going to say about that.”

If you want to stretch your legs while you’re in the Hilldale/Colo. City area, there is a great canyon hike nearby.  Are you detecting a pattern?  A nice canyon hike is never far away when you’re traveling in these parts.  Drive north of town to the Water Canyon Trailhead.  You can get directions on Google Maps, but don’t think that means this is a popular place.  It’s more of a local’s hike.  The road becomes quite sandy and rutted, but you should be able to make it in a sedan if you go slow.

Water Canyon lies south of Zion Park, Utah.

After parking continue hiking up-canyon to pretty narrows and a small falls, where as the name suggests water usually flows (image above). A short scramble up the left side of the stream takes you past the apparent blockage and on up the canyon.  The trail eventually ascends steeply out of the canyon and up onto the mesa above.  Looking north you can see the southernmost temples of Zion.  Extending the hike this far is for lovers of longer, more rugged hikes.

Thanks for reading this rather long post!  This road-trip is definitely one I highly recommend.  Plan about two weeks to do it.  I’ve met people who have raced through in one week, and that’s including Bryce Canyon!  I have trouble getting out of Death Valley in less than a week.  Have a great weekend and happy shooting everyone!

The desert mountains along Death Valley’s eastern Nevada boundary light up at sunset.

 

Friday Foto Talk: Photographing People ‘in Flow’ ~ Candids & Travel   Leave a comment

While shooting landscape in southern Utah, some hikers "rudely" inserted themselves into my photo. The nerve!

While shooting the landscape of southern Utah, these hikers “rudely” inserted themselves into my photo. The nerve!

If you haven’t been following along, I’ve been doing a little series on the idea of flow in photography.  Flow is that state of hyper-focus that we’ve all experienced, perhaps not enough in the modern era of distractions.  Last week’s Foto Talk looked at people photography in general, but was biased toward portraiture.  This week is a follow-up that focuses on my favorite kind of people photography: serendipitous candid shots done either traveling or while engaged with another subject (landscapes, as above, for example).

Two young Malawian boys who somehow didn’t become members of Madonna’s family.

Serendipity & Candids

Serendipity implies little or no thinking ahead.  But it’s okay to have a general approach.  It’ll vary depending on whether you know ahead of time that you’ll be photographing people.  And whether or not you like shooting without first asking permission.  But serendipity means at the very least that your subject(s) don’t know they’re going to appear in your photos until very close to the time you press the shutter.

  • Why should you do this kind of photography?  Say you’re traveling, whether on a short weekend trip close to home or half-way around the world.  You naturally want pictures, right?  Suppose on this trip you head out on foot to look for interesting stuff to photograph.  You might think you’ll be shooting buildings and “the sights”, but in most places you will come across people as well.  You already know they usually make the best images from a trip, and that’s because people speak to us of the place where they live much more strongly and eloquently than any building or mountain can.
I didn't even think about a shot of this Rasta woodcarver on the shores of Lake Malawi until he took a smoke break. I think he represents well the chill atmosphere of the lakeside part of that country.

I didn’t even think about a shot of this Rasta woodcarver on the shores of Lake Malawi until he took a smoke break. I think he represents well the chill atmosphere of the lakeside part of that country.

 

  • So whether or not your goal on a shoot is to photograph people, be ready anytime you’re out in even a lightly populated area.  I don’t always follow this advice, being somewhat shy most of the time.  But traveling in foreign lands is different; I’m much more outgoing.  I’ve learned that approaching people is easier than it seems.  For one thing they may be just as curious about you as you are of them, and for another many people want to help visitors, and that includes helping them get good photos.
Usually I have trouble approaching girls this pretty, but she and her friends turned out to be full of fun and easy to shoot.

Usually I have trouble approaching girls this pretty, but she and her friends turned out to be full of fun and easy to shoot.

  • The first question photographers who want candid travel shots ask themselves is, “to ask or not to ask first”.  While I do shoot the occasional picture when someone isn’t expecting it, I normally ask first.  But don’t make the mistake I made at first, which is to go right up and ask to shoot their picture.

 

  • Instead of letting your camera get in the way right off the bat, spend a little time with people before asking to shoot.  Minimize the fact you have a camera (I know, easier said than done when you have a big white lens!).  Be curious about them, advice that applies to all photography subjects.  And if you’re not genuinely curious, shoot something else.

 

  • As with all people photography (and in fact all photography), have fun!  When you approach strangers, joking around and even making a bit of a fool of yourself are sure-fire ice breakers.
This cute little Sherpa girl, who was shy at first, had such a big playful personality that I had to force myself to stop and get pictures.

This cute little Sherpa girl, who was shy at first, had such a big playful personality that I had to force myself to stop and get pictures.

 

  • All this engagement takes more time than if you simply shoot and move on to the next subject.  You may miss a shot or two by focusing on the person first and the pictures second.  And you’ll probably get fewer photos.  But the images you do get will hopefully be better, and most important they will mean more to you.

 

  •  Now it’s time to ask for pictures.  You can simply smile and ask, or you can take more of an indirect approach.  You could point out the aspects of the setting, light, or of your subject that attracted your attention and made you approach in the first place.  Whatever you do, be honest about what you want and respect their decision if they decline.
At first, this beauty in a remote little Zambian village said no. I didn't push, just photographed her friend who had said yes. Luckily she changed her mind.

At first, this beauty in a remote little Zambian village said no. I didn’t push, just photographed her friend who had said yes. Luckily she changed her mind.

 

  • There is one more issue that inevitably comes up when doing this kind of travel photography, and that’s how to express your gratitude if they say yes.  Your subject may request money, especially if you’re a tourist in a foreign country.  If it’s obvious that you are better off financially than they are, it becomes even more of a temptation to pay.  I generally don’t pay for pictures.  But there are a few exceptions, such as when someone has organized a way to direct a little tourist money to local people and I really want the pictures.  But I do believe that paying results in a less desirable relationship between photographer/tourist and subject/local.  I also think there are too many other ways to show gratitude (see below).  But ultimately whether or not you pay for pictures is a personal decision.
While I didn't pay this young Sherpa in a Himalayan teahouse directly, I did tip him well.

While I didn’t pay this young Sherpa in a Himalayan teahouse directly, I did tip him well.

 

  • Showing gratitude and sharing your pictures is about more than just showing the back of your camera.  While traveling I carry a small portable printer (Polaroid Pogo but there are others).  I print a wallet-size picture direct from the camera and it’s always a hit.  If they ask for emailed pictures, always always follow up.  I recommend you use low-resolution versions that are good for computer display.  Another great way to show gratitude if your subject is a vendor is to buy something.
Happy kids aren't hard to find in Cambodia, but I got great reactions from this group along Angkor Wat's moat when I handed out pictures. They are holding them and note my little red printer at lower left.

Happy kids aren’t hard to find in Cambodia, but these “urchins” along Angkor Wat’s moat were quite excited when I handed out pictures (which a couple are holding).  Note my little red printer at lower left.

That wraps up people photography & flow.  I hope you enjoyed the pictures.  Granted, some of the above points are not specific to the idea of flow.  It is good advice whether or not you experience flow while shooting candids.  But all of will help create a comfortable atmosphere, and to help both you and your subjects relax and have a good time.  It doesn’t guarantee experiencing flow but it sure helps.  Thanks for reading and have a grand weekend!

The sun sets on a southern Thailand beach as this fire-dancer practices for the evening performance.

The sun sets on a southern Thailand beach as this fire-dancer practices for the evening performance.

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