Archive for the ‘American Southwest’ Tag

Visiting Zion National Park: Part II   7 comments

The area around Zion remains sparsely populated enough to get a feel for what ancient people saw as they passed through.

This continues the series on Zion National Park in Utah.  We’ll focus this time on the history of American Indians in this part of the desert southwest.  Check out Part I for Zion’s pre-human history – its geology.  If you plan on visiting Zion, or any other place, with photography being a big deal for you, I recommend learning about the place instead of perusing photo after photo of it.

In other words, find out what’s interesting about to you about the place.   Try to tailor your visit so you hit spots that feature those interesting aspects, even if they’re outside of your planned destination (in this case the park).  Resist the temptation to visit too many spots based merely on your admiration for the photos others have captured there.  Sorry, end of lecture!



If you’re interested in the natural and human history of Zion, you’d do well to visit an interesting little museum upon arrival.  The Zion Natural History Museum is located on the left not far past the west entrance.  Turn left just after passing the turnoff for the campground, which is on the right.  While worthwhile, by far most cultural artifacts are not on display here.  They are housed in Springdale at park headquarters in a large collection of more than 20,000 items.

If you have a keen interest, you can make an appointment to see this collection.  Just email the curator at  You’re not guaranteed to get in, and it may help to have a group so they make the time for you.  Your goal is to find an NPS staff member with time to give you a personal (and free) tour of the collection.  You can learn some basics by reading in the Park Service’s website for Zion, along with other sites (go beyond Wikipedia!).  But if you can make time for the hands-on approach, you’ll get much more out of it.

View up Zion Canyon at dusk.

View of East Temple at dusk.


The first people in North America were hunters traveling with and hunting herds of wooly mammoths, gathering plants for food and medicine along the way.  Most of the evidence we have for these people comes from their spear points and other stone tools like scrapers.  The points, called Clovis and (slightly later) Folsom, are distinctively fluted and usually associated with mammoth remains at kill sites, tagging them as belonging to these ancient hunter/gatherers even where direct dating is impossible (which it usually is).

Although to my knowledge there have been no Clovis or Folsom sites documented for Zion itself, there have been points found north and west of the park.  So it’s reasonable to assume these wanderers walked the canyons and plateaus of what would thousands of years later become known as Zion National Park.  The fact that these canyons are subject to dramatic flash floods means that archaeological evidence tends to be swept away.

Somewhat more evidence ties later hunter/gatherers to the Zion area about 8000 years ago.  These hunter/gatherers, who hunted bison and smaller mammals (mammoths, sloths and other ice-age megafauna had been hunted to extinction), may have even set up seasonal camps.  But there are precious little remains to go off of.

Beaver-tail (or prickly pear) cactus with dried fruits growing in east Zion. A staple of American Indians for thousands of years, the fruits were eaten fresh and raw or made into a jelly. The nopales (cactus pads) were sliced and eaten, and also used to treat wounds and swelling.

Beaver-tail (or prickly pear) cactus with dried fruits growing in east Zion. A staple of American Indians for thousands of years, the fruits were eaten fresh and raw or made into a jelly. The nopales (cactus pads) were sliced and eaten, and also used to treat wounds and swelling.


There is evidence of these ancient farmers at Zion.  Basket-weavers, known for their baskets woven of willow and other plants, lived here between about 300 B.C. and 500 A.D.  Since their artifacts degrade easily, they are very rare.  Not much evidence was left behind at Zion, but what there is points to early farming.  These people were succeeded by two groups in the so-called Formative Period from 500 to 1300 A.D.


These people lived in the north of the region up on the plateaus near springs.  Some farmed a cold-tolerant form of corn, some led a more mobile hunting/gathering lifestyle, and some were semi-nomadic.  These hunters did not use bows and arrows.  Rather they threw spears (or arrows) using an ingenious implement called an atlatl.  Atlatls extend the reach of your arm, increasing leverage and speed greatly.  I’ve tried them and they do indeed fling the arrow fast.  But I realized right away that to gain accuracy would require much practice.

Both of these groups, left behind rock art.  It’s very sad that much of this art has been vandalized by clueless visitors.  More remote sites like the Cave Valley petroglyphs off of Kolob Terrace Road are in much better shape.  But even these have been damaged.  As a result, good luck getting any ranger to tell you how to get to this rock art.  The Parowan Fremont sketched unique art characterized by anthropomorphs with triangular or trapezoidal bodies and limbs.

Fremont rock art is characterized by anthopomorphic figures with blocky triangular bodies.  The squiggly line at left represents a journey.


Farming the southern canyon bottoms were an Ancestral Puebloan group known as the Virgin Anasazi.  As the name “puebloan” suggests, they were sedentary, occupying small settlements.  They were farmers who left behind food storage sites (see below) along with stones for grinding grains called manos and metates.  Later on the farmers began building stone and masonry structures alongside their partly underground dwellings and storage sites.

The two groups evidently had some contact, even though they lived in different environments. They traded tool-making stone and very likely food and medicinal plants as well.  There is no evidence for conflict between them, though some suggest the arrival of Southern Paiute and other tribes from the north may have had something to do with their leaving the area.


There is an ancient grain-storage site you can hike to from Zion’s visitor center.  Ask a ranger for directions to the trailhead for the Archaeology Trail.  It’s short, steep and you get a good view of the canyon.  There is not much left of the 1000 year-old Virgin Anasazi site, so get the ranger to give you a few tips to see what there is to see.  But it’s definitely a great way to stretch your legs when you stop at the visitor center.  You can ponder the reasons why the Ancestral Puebloans left their dwellings so abruptly, almost as if they intended to return after visiting friends or relatives elsewhere.

Frozen dew at the end of autumn, Zion National Park.

Frozen dew at the end of autumn, Zion National Park.


The main tribe to enter the area from the north were the Southern Paiute.  Arriving around 1100 B.C., they obviously coexisted with the nearby farmers for some 200 years.  But their lifestyles were very different.  They hunted and gathered plants, occupying pit-houses and other semi-permanent structures only seasonally.  As such, these nomadic people were well equipped to handle the series of droughts interspersed with catastrophic flooding that began on the Colorado Plateau about 1300 A.D.  They remained while the Ancestral Puebloans and Fremont people left.

These tribes were the ones who greeted white Euro-Americans in the late 1700s.  And when I say greet I don’t necessarily mean warmly.  Many died from diseases brought west by the invaders; the rest were defeated and placed on reservations.  Such is the march of “progress”, but that’s the subject for next post.  We’ll continue with the story of Brigham Young and his flock of Mormons.  Have a great weekend!

The setting sun turns East Zion's cliffs orange above a vernal pool.

The setting sun turns East Zion’s cliffs orange above a vernal pool.

Happy Thanksgiving! Arch Leftovers   2 comments

To all of my U.S. friends I wish a Happy Thanksgiving.  And I send the same wishes to anyone else who might choose this day to give thanks for this wonderful world (and universe!) we all are privileged to live in.  (To Canadians, sorry I’m late!)  I am most thankful for all of you, who are sticking with me on my blog, even though I’ve not been great about checking out all your blogs while I’ve been on the road.  Thanks for this!

With so much food around on Thanksgiving it’s certain there will be leftovers.  Leftovers (and specifically turkey sandwiches) were always one of my favorite things about Thanksgiving.  So I’m posting this recent image I have titled Arch Leftovers.  It’s a picture I captured at Arches National Park in Utah.

When arches form by weathering and erosion from the sandstone fins in Arches and the surrounding region, one question comes up.  Where does the rock that occupied the spaces go?  Believe it or not, this is a great scientific question.  Weathering breaks the blocks that fall from the forming arches into smaller and smaller pieces. Eventually you end up with sand.  Since water does run in the desert washes, however infrequently, you’re safe assuming that most of the sand is carried away in streams. Actually, most is transported down to the nearby Colorado in dramatic flash floods.

Because this is a treeless desert region, erosion by wind, though it takes a back seat to water, is quite prevalent.  Sand is picked up by strong winds and, like sandpaper, wears away and sculpts the arches and spires in the park.  When it has done its job, the sand is unceremoniously dumped, unneeded and forgotten, into dunes.

These are not dunes the size of those in the big sandy deserts of the world.  Water carries away much of it before it can accumulate into big dunes.  Nevertheless the dunes that do pile into alcoves and niches in the cliffs take on graceful shapes and curves, especially in beautiful late day light.  It was windy just before sunset when I shot this, and the blowing sand gives the dunes a certain soft texture.

The wind blows often in Arches National Park, Utah, and these small dunes accumulate near the sculpted arches from which they are eroded.

Arch Leftovers.  Please click on the image for purchase options.  It’s copyrighted and not available for free download.  Thanks!

Friday Foto Talk: Pickin’ & Choosin’   12 comments

Birds fly south over fall colors along the Animas River in New Mexico.

Birds fly south over fall colors along the Animas River in New Mexico.

This Friday’s Foto Talk I am keeping it light.  We have the first of spring’s lovely days here in Oregon and I see no reason to get into a complex software tutorial, or equally heavy conceptual discussion.  This week it’s all about the fun part of post-processing:  when you have a memory card full of images and are sitting in front of your computer to view them for the first time at a larger size than the 3 measly inches on the back of your camera.  This is fun, right?

 Well, for some it can be anything but fun.  You know who you are.  You have a “little trouble” deciding which of the hundreds (or thousands) of images to select and which to toss.  Which of those selects are really good enough to enter into that photo contest?  In fact, this decision-making process should be fun but it often is anything but.

A small windstorm sweeps sand and dust down Death Valley toward the sand dunes.

A small windstorm sweeps sand and dust down Death Valley toward the sand dunes.  This is an image I originally only kept as a 1-star, but later came back to it and liked it better, increasing the rating to 3 stars.

It is a fact that you need to be flagging most of your photos as rejects.  Whether you toss them or keep them is up to you, but if you use a program like Lightroom, you have all sorts of ways to put your rejects immediately out of sight and out of mind.  For example, you can put only your selects from that shoot into a collection labeled as such, and from then on work from that collection, not the original folder.  This is the way I prefer, but there are still a bunch of images I just delete from the original folder, to save storage space and reduce clutter.

A detail shot like this one might escape notice if during your choosing you are not thinking "I need a few detail shots".

A detail shot like this one might escape notice if during your choosing you are not thinking “I could use more detail shots”.

I won’t go through the step-by-step procedure of picking photos.  This is one of the first things you will learn about Lightroom or whatever program you choose to organize your catalog.  I will say one thing however.  If you have many images from a shoot, avoid going through them one-by-one.  This takes way too long.  Learn to evaluate your images (along with those of others) from a thumbnail size.  It takes awhile to get the hang of this, but believe me it will save you tons of computer time.

If you are heavy on scenery and have few wildlife images, choose the animal!  This is a curious coyote in Death Valley.

If you are heavy on scenery and have few wildlife images, choose the animal! This is a curious coyote in Death Valley.

 My general procedure is to go through and select my picks from my rejects using general composition and color (which the thumbnail can give you).  For each pick I do view the image in loupe view, zooming in to 100% if I need to, all to make sure that focus is precise and nothing important is blurry.  If a photo is magnificent and a key element is even slightly blurred (such as a person’s or animal’s eyes), I toss that image.  Too bad too sad!

The road in Zion Canyon, Utah is lined with cottonwood trees.

The road in Zion Canyon, Utah is lined with cottonwood trees.

Here are a few things I consider while choosing photos:

Exposure:  the ideal is a slightly too-bright photo, but there are a wide range of exposures that are acceptable to me.  It just can’t be way off.

Composition:  it should be pleasing to the eye, be balanced and have attractively arranged and framed elements.  Notice I said nothing about “rules”. 

Subject:  you want a clear subject (even if that subject is just beautiful light).  It needs to be something interesting to look at.

Focus and clarity must be spot on.  It cannot look too washed out, since post-processing will not save that, in my experience.

Variety:  as I go through, I will tend to choose a vertical even if it’s not perfect, if I have chosen nearly all horizontals thus far.  I will choose one with a person, an animal, some human element, if I have a group of shots where natural features dominate.

Context:  if I have specific uses in mind for the photos, or specific things to try in post-processing, I will select for that.  For example, I don’t reject a shot of a great sky, even if it lacks any sort of interesting composition.  That sky could be saved and used later in a composite (though I don’t do much of that).  If I plan to possibly do an article or a book, I will tend to choose more detail shots, just so I have a variety of those to choose from.

I often choose a picture specifically because it might look good in black and white, even if the color version I am viewing does not have much impact.

I often choose a picture specifically because it might look good in black and white, even if the color version I am viewing does not have much impact.

And a few more general tips:

        • Try to pick and choose as you shoot.  Don’t miss the light, or the pose.  Simply use downtime well by tossing out obvious poorly exposed, unfocused shots.  Be careful with this; your rear LCD is not a fine selection tool.
        • If you are on a trip and have a laptop with a decent display, use that to toss out more rejects.  The advantage of this over the previous method is that you can try out a developing preset or two to help you decide whether the picture is worth keeping.  But since no laptop will match even average desktop displays, use caution here as well.  Only trash the obvious rejects.
        • When you get back from your shoot or trip, if possible sleep on it before viewing your images.  Selecting among images, like any similarly visual task, can often be much more effective given time away from it.
        • If you have time, go through your images a second (or even third) time, further refining your selects.  This is where you would give them star ratings.  As with the above tip, it is best to let a little time go by before revisiting your images.
        • Try to avoid selecting two very similar images as equals in your collection.  It’s okay to have similar compositions.  In fact it is highly advisable to have both horizontal and vertical compositions of the same subject.  But force yourself to choose which is the 3 star and which is the 1 star (for example).  Which is better?  And since I have this one vertical that is great, can I trash this other vertical and just keep the horizontal alternative?
I had two nearly identical images to choose from here, one with people and one without.  In this case the choice was easly.

I had two nearly identical images to choose from here, one with people and one without. In this case the choice was easy.

I have in the past had a hard time deciding which of my photos are any good.  I’ve gotten a lot better but I still have trouble deciding which of the good ones are really good.  I think this is a fairly natural progression in learning to evaluate photos.  I think of context a lot more these days, and many shots I would have rejected before are saved (but not highly rated) just because I foresee uses for them.

These images here are part of a huge update of my website, in this case for my American Southwest galleries.  The image at top was chosen recently as an Earth Shot of the Day.  Earth Shots is a fantastic website that features one gorgeous image each day.  Check it out!

In Little Ruin Canyon the moon illuminates Square Tower, with Hovenweep Castle visible on the rim beyond.

In Little Ruin Canyon the moon illuminates Square Tower, with Hovenweep Castle visible on the rim beyond.

In Little Ruin Canyon the moon illuminates Square Tower, with Hovenweep Castle visible on the rim beyond.

In Little Ruin Canyon the moon illuminates Square Tower, with Hovenweep Castle visible on the rim beyond.

I included two pairs of images that I still cannot for the life of me decide which is better.  The pair above is from Hovenweep, a really interesting Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) site in the Four Corners region.  They are two slightly different compositions with Square Tower in the foreground.  Which do you prefer?  I really can’t make up my mind on this pair.

The other two (below) are from Death Valley’s salt flats, which fracture in fascinating patterns during wetter periods.  Both are early morning pictures, but one has better color saturation while the other possibly has more interesting detail and more subtle color.  It’s another tough choice.  Which do you prefer?  And why?

The morning sun hits the Panamint Range bordering Death Valley's salt flats.

The morning sun hits the Panamint Range bordering Death Valley’s salt flats.

The salt flats in Death Valley form interesting patterns that glow during dawn's light.

The salt flats in Death Valley form interesting patterns that glow during dawn’s light.

Hope you enjoy the images.  Go ahead over to my galleries if you want to see more.  Thanks so much for your interest.  Note that they are copyrighted and illegal to download.  These versions on the blog post are much too small anyway.  Click on any image to be taken to a larger version which is available for purchase by clicking one of the tabs to the upper right of the image (prints, downloads, etc.).  You can also contact me with any questions or special requests.  Thanks a bunch!

The sand dunes at Mesquite Flats in Death Valley, California, appear wave-like in the right light.

The sand dunes at Mesquite Flats in Death Valley, California, appear wave-like in the right light.

Smoky Photography at Grand Canyon   5 comments

A smoky view of the western part of Grand Canyon from the North Rim.

A smoky view of the western part of Grand Canyon from the North Rim.


This is a follow-up to a two posts on photography under smoky skies, one from Crater Lake and one from the North Cascades.  On my recent trip through the American West, I was as close as I’ve ever been to Grand Canyon’s North Rim.  Having never been there, I just had to make the side-trip up there.  I had heard that they were doing some prescribed burning in this part of the park.  Prescribed fires are very common in the West these days, as land managers try to reduce the amount of fuel in forests in order to discourage large damaging wildfires in future.

This fire, on the north rim of the Grand Canyon is one of several "prescribed burns" that took place in Fall 2012.

This fire, on the north rim of the Grand Canyon is one of several “prescribed burns” that took place in Fall 2012.

Because of the fires, I almost skipped the North Rim (again).  I was hoping to do some star photography, and very clear air is necessary for that.  I’m very happy I swallowed my misgivings and headed up there.  By the way, for some detailed travel-related tips on the North Rim, check my previous post.

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

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

The image above was one of my first views of the canyon.  When you approach on the longish highway that traverses a flat, forested plateau, your first view of the canyon is always a stunner.  You know it is there, but the majesty and scale is always surprising.  In the late afternoon the skies were quite smoky, but this view towards the west is actually pretty clear.  The fires were to the west of my location here, which meant the light was ruddy red, yet I was not enveloped in smoke (where good photos are extremely difficult to get).

The sunset was pretty darn incredible.  I pointed my camera towards the west, where smoke was thicker.  Because of this, I did not even need to use a graduated neutral density filter to darken the sky.  This is quite remarkable; pretty much any other sunset photo like this would require this filter.  And no need to add saturation during post-processing, though you do need to add some clarity and contrast to cut through the haze.

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

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

After sunset, the air cooled appreciably and the smoke steadily decreased.  You can see this in the starry image of the rising full moon below.  There is some haze around the moon, but the sky above is bright with stars.  It looked like I might get the best of both worlds!  As it turned out, photographing towards the west was still impacted negatively by the haze, but only for the stars.  The landscape part, the lower part of the image at bottom, turned out fine.  I processed the sky separately, and then merged the two in Photoshop.

The full moon rises on the North Rim of Grand Canyon, as Orion, Jupiter and company shine above.

The full moon rises on the North Rim of Grand Canyon, as Orion, Jupiter and company shine above.

Photographing during smoky conditions allows you to do at least two things: (A) While staying away from the worst of the smoke, try pointing the camera away from the sun, with your subject  bathed in light filtered through the smoke.  (B) As the sun gets very low, and depending on how hazy your foreground and mid-ground is, try photos towards the setting sun with a sky fully or partially shrouded in orange smoke.

I had a fine time up on the North Rim, despite (or maybe because of) the smoky conditions.  Thanks for reading.

A full moon lights this view from the North Rim westward down the length of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

A full moon lights this view from the North Rim westward down the length of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.


Death Valley I: Intro. & Travel Tips   2 comments

A full moon sets over Death Valley's salt flats as dawn approaches.

A full moon sets over Death Valley’s salt flats as dawn approaches.

Sorry for the long break in blogging; I’ve been out of touch in Death Valley, California.  This is my favorite place in the Golden State.  That’s saying something, since I believe California is one of the nation’s top 5 most beautiful states.  Most people seem to believe California is L.A. and the Bay Area.  Perhaps they think of Yosemite as well.  But it is a huge state and includes beautiful coastline, mountains and (especially) deserts.  Southern California’s once-beautiful, now-sullied coast is not what I’m talking about here.  Those are areas I avoid at all costs.  Instead, I tend to hang out in northern Sonoma County, the Mendocino Coast, the northern Sierra, and the Mojave Desert.

A rocky and barren wash cuts through one of Death Valley's many many side canyons.

A rocky and barren wash cuts through one of Death Valley’s many many side canyons.

Death Valley is the heart of the Mojave Desert.  It’s an enormous national park, and is difficult to see in a brief visit.  My recommendation is for a full week the first time you come. At least spend three nights.  Most people, however, do not give the park enough time.  It is “on the way” between Las Vegas and the coast, and so normally gets short shrift.  That’s too bad.  It is a stunning desert destination.

In the years since President Clinton turned Death Valley from National Monument to a National Park, it has become much, much more popular than it was in the “good old days”.  Twenty five years ago I hiked through the dunes and up canyons here.  I not only never saw another hiker, but never expected to see anyone else.  You were on your own, with cliffs often turning you back with no rope and gear.  Now many canyon hikes have plenty of hikers along with wood ladders and ropes as aids.

A common animal for visitors to spot in Death Valley, California, is the resourceful coyote.

A common animal for visitors to spot in Death Valley, California, is the resourceful coyote.

But Death Valley is still a fantastic place to visit.  Since it is so large, it is pretty easy to leave others behind.  I know this sounds like I am too conscious of other visitors.  But I really feel that in a desert environment, solitude is an important part of the experience.  Also, in a desert like Death Valley, you have no trees to block views.  Everything is wide open, and this makes even relatively few people seem like a crowd.  Stay tuned for a post that will highlight some of the less-popular but still beautiful areas of the park.

The unusual depositional features on the floor of Death Valley near the continent's lowest point are the result of very occasional water flows and rapid evaporation.

The unusual depositional features on the floor of Death Valley near the continent’s lowest point are the result of very occasional water flows and rapid evaporation.

You really should hike Death Valley to get a good feel for the place.  The canyons leading into Death Valley (really a huge canyon itself) represent some of the best canyon hiking in the western USA.  There are plenty of broad washes, narrow canyons, technical slots, and so on.  The variety is incredible.  The geology is ultra-cool, and for a long  time the park has been the site of many a college field trip (that is exactly how I first visited, in fact).

That said, there are plenty of sights to see without doing much hiking.  Many visitors are happy to come stay in the lodge at Furnace Creek, and spend their time golfing and playing by the pool.  Furnace Creek is really the center of the park.  It is centrally located, the Visitor Center is here, and there are two lodging options.  In addition, there are two campgrounds here.  Texas Springs is geared toward tents, while Sunset is set up for Rvs.  Lodging and camping is also available at Stovepipe Wells, which is only a half-hour drive from Furnace Creek.

The morning sun hits the Panamint Range bordering Death Valley's salt flats.

The morning sun hits the Panamint Range bordering Death Valley’s salt flats.


I assume you will not come during summer, but if you do, bring a gallon and a half of water for any day hike, and be careful about being too ambitious.  Europeans on their summer vacations will plunge right in to the Southwest’s hotter parks, including this, the hottest one.  North America’s highest recorded temperature (134 degrees Farenheit, or 57 Celsius!) was recorded in Death Valley during summer.  If you’re smarter than this and come during the late fall to spring period, you can be more adventurous in terms of hiking.

Spring often features blooming cactus, and the weather is near perfect.  But March and April are also some of the most crowded times at Death Valley.  It seems strange for me to use the word crowded in the same sentence as Death Valley.  But the fact is that this formerly off-the-beaten-track destination is now firmly on the American Southwest tourist track.

The dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park, California form fascinating patterns of shadow and light.

The dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park, California form fascinating patterns of shadow and light.

The autumn months (October and November), are popular but not as much Spring is.  Winter months (December through February) can often be the best time to visit.  Nights will be chilly, and there is always the possibility of snow in the higher elevations of the park.  But it is uncrowded and for photographers this time of year features better light, in general, than do the warmer months when the sun is high and harsh.  In February the days are getting longer and warmth usually trumps the fading cold of winter.

In my opinion March is the perfect time to visit, but again it is also the most popular.  If you time your visit for early March, before any of the West Coast’s Spring Breaks occur (when schools take a week off), you should be just fine.  Spring Break normally happens in mid-March to mid-April.

A different view of the famous Artist's Palette in Death Valley National Park, California.

A different view of the famous Artist’s Palette in Death Valley National Park, California.

Whatever time of year you come, be as self-sufficient as you can possibly be.  Have plenty of drinking and radiator water in the car, and consider bringing extra gasoline as well (gas is available but expensive). Do not take your car (rental or not) on to tracks that it is not built to handle.  Even if you have a 4WD, remember the old saying, that a 4WD vehicle only allows you to get stuck worse, and further from civilization than does a regular car.

A mesquite grows in the sands of Death Valley in California.

A mesquite grows in the sands of Death Valley in California.

Death Valley is a wild landscape, one that does not suffer fools lightly.  Keep your ambitions in line with your abilities, turn around before you get your vehicle in over its head, drink plenty of water, and you should have yourself a grand (and safe) time.  Stay tuned for more posts on Death Valley.

Valley of Fire, Nevada   4 comments

The Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada has a history of visitors that goes back thousands of years before Sunday drivers from nearby Vegas.

This is Nevada’s oldest and largest state park, located about an hour’s drive from Sin City.  On my way out of southwestern Utah (sad), I turned off Interstate 15 and slept near the entrance to the park.  The stars were affected by the bright half-moon but were nonetheless amazing.  So I did a couple starscapes (see below).  In the morning the sun rose into a clear sky and light became harsh within a half hour.  I captured the photo above about 15 minutes after sunrise.

The fall-blooming desert chicory adds color to Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada.

I had stopped at a small picnic area called Lone Rock, which is at the turnoff for “the cabins”.  There was nobody around, it being early on Black Friday, so the rock was indeed lonely.  But I was joined in spirit by those moccasin-clad travelers of a different age.  It was a big surprise to find these petroglyphs on a rock behind the Lone Rock.  There are other better-known rock art panels throughout this park, like Atlatl Rock on the Petroglyph Canyon Trail.  Park at Mouse’s Tank.  They date from as old as Fremont Basketmaker people, about 3000 years ago, but there is also art from as recent as several hundred years ago.

I stopped at a little pull-off with a sign explaining some geology – pretty basic stuff, of course, but interesting.  I wanted to do a hike into the maze of shallow canyons and slickrock that you view when you stop at Rainbow Vista.  It was still early, with nobody around.  There is a military firing range not too far away, and the boom-boom of the big guns echoed off the rocks.  This is one drawback to a visit here, but quiet does return when they stop.

It was during one of these quiet periods that I heard what sounded like somebody knocking rocks together.  I looked around and finally saw some movement in the distance.  There was a small herd of sheep some 1/2 mile away, and they were running around, making the noise.  I thought I was hearing their hooves knocking on the rocks, but I noticed as I drew closer to them that the rams were butting heads.

A desert bighorn ram at Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada watches for danger as the herd he is part of gets down to the business of mating season.

I stalked closer, using the terrain to conceal myself.  I cursed the fact that my 100-400 lens had been stolen.  In fact, I had only brought my little Canon S95 point and shoot camera with me on the hike, as I thought I would only be shooting pictures of the odd flower or cactus.  Dumb!  I got my first good view of them, but they had seen me first.  Some of the rams had enormous full-curl horns.

Several large rams make up the most obvious part of a November mating herd of desert bighorn sheep in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada.

It was very clearly mating season, and so the extent of their interest in me varied enormously between the sexes.  The females kept leading the herd away from me (there were a couple young ones).  Meanwhile the males only glanced my way from time to time.  I stalked them for quite some time, even crawling on my belly along washes to get close enough.  I was hoping the photos taken with my p & s camera would show more than specks for animals.

Seldom noted during the discussion of the battles between bighorn rams is the point of it all.

Not surprisingly, the pictures did not turn out that well.  I am sitting here right now in Vegas thinking about a return.  I wonder if I could find the herd.  When I finished my bighorn hike and got back to the road, I noticed that traffic had gone from an occasional car to a stream of them.  The horde had arrived from town, having finished their Black Friday morning shopping.  It was actually crowded; such a change from the quiet and empty morning hours.

I left and drove through the enormous desert landscape of Lake Mead Recreation Area.  The lights of Vegas formed a glowing dome above the horizon as the November dusk quickly took over.


Snow Canyon State Park, Utah   9 comments

Near St George, Utah, sunset illuminates Johnson Canyon and the cottonwoods hanging onto their leaves.

I’m being reminded on an almost daily basis why I think this country is the most beautiful in the world.  I haven’t been everywhere of course, and I make the comparison only to highlight the beauty here, not to somehow take away from that spread all across the globe.

The southwestern Utah desert hosts some very coloful lichens which grow on rocks and other surfaces; here at Snow Canyon State Park.

I have yet another playground in this part of the Southwest.  It’s the Utah State Park called Snow Canyon.  No, it’s not named for its climate.  In fact, today was Thanksgiving and Snow Canyon reached about 70 degrees with nothing but sunshine.  Snow is not common here.  It was named for an early Utah family, the Snows.

The basalt lava-rock forming the lowlands here at Snow Canyon State Park, Utah wraps around the older sandstone promontories.

At 7011 acres of canyon country, and only a half hour’s drive from St George, it is one of the best State Parks I know that is near a population center.  Chugach State Park in Alaska, in Anchorage’s backyard, has to take the prize for most awesome State Park near a town (if not most awesome period).

Ancient sand dunes, petrified and laid bare at Snow Canyon State Park in southwestern Utah.

Snow Canyon has very interesting geology and botany.  There are big and bold sandstone monoliths that form cross-bedded petrified sand dunes of the upper Kayenta Formation, along with the Navajo Sandstone.  These two formations, which along with the desert dunes include sands and muds laid down by streams, were formed in the Jurassic, a period when dinosaurs roamed the river valleys and deserts of North America.

Water from springs collects in Snow Canyon, Utah.

The sandstone, though it is much older, stands up above surrounding black lava rock.  Normally, the older rock lies below the younger rock.  Here, because you had lava flowing down an already eroded landscape, there is what geologists call “inverted topography”.  The lowest parts of Snow Canyon are underlain by rocks as young as a few thousand years old, while the highest peaks are close on 200 million years old!  The basalt was extremely fluid when it erupted (indicating a general lack of gases – water – in the lava), and so it sought out the low places between the sandstone outcrops.  There is much time missing between the Navajo Sandstone and the more recent basalt.

The canyon wall in Snow Canyon State Park, Utah, has etched on it the names of some early pioneers.

This unusual geology has resulted in a varied and interesting topography, as well as a nice (for scenery) mix of desert soils and bare outcrop.  The variety starts with color: the sandstone is red and white; the basaltic lava rock nearly black.  The basalt, though it is much younger than the sandstone, has been much more weathered.  So you will see a sandy desert soil over the basalt in the canyon bottom, with a fascinating assemblage of desert plants.  This contrasts starkly with the nearly bare rock of the scenic red sandstone.

Snow Canyon State Park has what is called “inverted topography”, where the much younger basalt lava rock (foreground) lies well below the much older red sandstone.

There are several varieties of cactus, a nice mix of pretty desert shrubs, and a few juniper trees scattered about.  The basalt hosts an enormous variety of beautiful lichen, and the sandstone also has its share of this colorful symbiosis between algae and fungus.  In moist north-facing alcoves, you will find mosses.

The animal life includes coyote and rabbit, along with the occasional mountain lion.  A variety of birds, including spotted towhee, canyon and rock wren, and bluebirds make their homes here.  Yes, you will hear the cascading song of the canyon wren here.

Beavertail cactus, a member of the pricklypear family, is a common sight in Snow Canyon State Park, Utah.

The park also has some history.  Etched in the canyon wall are several pioneer names from the late 1800s.  You know they are real because one of them was named Harman.  Nobody these days names their son Harman!

This is the preferred outdoor workout place for several nearby fitness spa/ranches.  So in the mornings you will see plenty of vans providing support for sweatsuit-clad “biggest losers”.  They’re the ones who have that incredibly determined look on their red faces as they pass you, huffing and puffing, on the paved bike trail that traverses the length of the canyon.  You will also see plenty of St George’s serious cyclists, clad in colorful lycra.

A group of hikers from a nearby fitness spa/resort get a scenic workout at Snow Canyon State Park in southern Utah.

I think about taking things for granted when I visit places like this.  I’m sure people who use this place for a daily workout venue appreciate its scenic beauty, but I wonder if they take the time to slowly walk through the draws and slickrock slopes here.  I’ve been guilty of the same thing.  Once you decide a place is for running/skiing/biking through, that is the way you always experience it.  I think it is a pretty cool idea to occasionally just grab a camera (or binoculars if you’re a birder) and force yourself to go slow through your favorite local place.

Just outside Snow Canyon State Park, Utah is Johnson Canyon.

I did just that – went slowly – during sunset and the succeeding Thanksgiving morning.  At night I photographed the moonlit landscape and stars.  In the morning, I found all sorts of “intimate landscapes” to photograph.  When the sun became too harsh, I retreated to shaded canyons.  The last time I was here it was springtime, and there were clouds to provide some pretty great light.   Also, the plants had that desert-spring glow to them.  But this time (autumn) was fine too!  In fact, this state park is one of the best I’ve ever seen for landscape and nature photography.  The possibilities are nearly endless if you take the time to explore the park’s nooks and crannies.

Beavertail cactus grows abundantly in Snow Canyon State Park, Utah.

I hope you enjoy the photos.  If you are ever in St George, make a point to make the short drive to Snow Canyon.  I recommend camping at the small campground there, so you are up and at ’em for early morning photography.  The light is somewhat more shaded during late afternoon in the park, as opposed to early mornings.  But this depends, of course, on the season.  Summer is likely to be extremely hot here, but having only been in spring and fall, I can’t say that it’s too uncomfortable.  As they say, it’s a dry heat.

Dusk falls at Snow Canyon State Park in Utah.

Remember that the photos you see here are copyrighted, so if you are interested in one, please contact me.  You can also simply click on a photo to be taken to my website. They are much too small to be of any use if you were to try to download them anyway.  Thanks a bunch for your interest and appreciation.

The tilted layers of sandstone at Snow Canyon State Park are moonlit and stand out against the starry sky.

Slickrock Hiking in Zion   2 comments

Getting out on the steeply sloped slickrock in Zion National Park requires sticky soles and little fear of heights.

Just one more post from Zion National Park in Utah, so sad to be leaving!  I was ready to hike Angel’s Landing yesterday, but changed my mind.  Angel’s is a popular hike, for a reason of course.  Instead I stayed on the east side of the park and hiked up a big canyon just above the tunnels.  It was an amazing hike.

Autumn holds on in one of Zion National Park’s many canyons.

I didn’t cover that many miles, going up the trail-less canyon until it got too gnarly to continue (at least without rope and gear).  The light was nice because of some clouds, so I stayed until it got dark.  I hiked out first by moonlight, then by headlamp.  I climbed up on the canyon wall for sunset, and boy was it fun.  The slope of the bare sandstone along the canyon wall allowed me to “friction hike”.

In the canyons of Zion National Park in Utah, yucca are a common sight.

For those uninitiated in such hiking, this is when you walk on crazily tilted sandstone “slickrock” without slipping.  It helps to have good grippy soles on your shoes.  I recently bought a new pair of running shoes, and they worked like a charm.  The only problem with this incredibly freeing form of desert locomotion is that it tends to get you in trouble.  All of a sudden you realize the slope has gotten just a bit too steep, and you have to carefully backtrack.  But it certainly allows you to get to places you would never get to if the canyon were cut into some other type of rock.  Sandstone (and especially Navajo Sandstone) is the best for slickrock friction hiking.  I’m also glad my tripod has sticky rubber feet.

One of Zion’s so-called temples looms above a slickrock canyon on the park’s east side.

Shooting until blue hour and then having to descend a steep slickrock slope as it got dark was definitely exciting.  The crescent moon helped a little bit, and I got off the steep stuff before it got so dark I had to use my headlamp.  I was feeling pretty darn great when I finally reached my van (and a snoozing dog).  It was a shortlived feeling though, when I realized I had left my headlights on.  The road passes through two tunnels here, and I had passed through one – with headlights on – just before parking at the mouth of the canyon.  It was a little difficult getting people to stop on the road, in the middle of nowhere, in the dark.

Hiking canyons in Zion National Park often involves narrow sections called slots.


In situations like this, you get to see just how many people in this world take the news of bad things happening a little too literally.  It’s easy to think the whole world is full of creeps and criminals if you consume too much news.  But I was soon able to flag down a nice guy who gave me a jump.  All’s well that ends well!

In order to access the spectacular east side of Zion National Park in Utah, driving through two tunnels is required.


The late-afternoon sun prepares to set over the upper elevations of Zion National Park in Utah.


The high east side of Zion National Park in Utah shows its moody side.




Oh Zion, How You’ve Changed   5 comments

In Zion National Park, Pine Creek flows down a canyon nearly as spectacular as Zion Canyon itself.

The last time I visited Zion National Park in southwestern Utah, it was with my uncle about 15 years ago.  It was my stay-at-home uncle’s only western road trip.  He has never had a driver’s license.  We visited Death Valley too, and we had a grand time.  But this post is not about that trip, it’s about my most recent one (which is still going).

Now that was not that long ago, in my opinion.  But this park has changed.  It is much more heavily visited than a decade and a half ago, of course.  It’s become one of those heavily visited parks, like the Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite or Yellowstone.  There is a shuttle system in the canyon now, and I learned there has been since 1997!  Although I’m visiting in November, when the Park Circus allows you to drive into the canyon, it is busy enough to imagine how much of a nightmare it would be if they did not ban private vehicles from April through October.

The east side of Zion National Park is higher and sees frequent dustings of snow in the fall.

Perhaps not surprising but still disappointing is the change in the surrounding communities.  Springdale at the western entrance is the most heavily affected.  When I visited in the 90s, this was still just a quiet ranching community.  St George nearby had started to grow as a retirement haven, but the surrounding communities were still quiet, with very few services.

I drove through Springdale the other day and was disappointed.  It resembles Gatlinburg, Tennessee, at the entrance to Great Smoky N.P.  All Springdale needs is a Dollywood!  Okay, it’s not as bad as Gatlinburg, but I think it’s catching up.  There are a cluster of restaurants, motels, and assorted ugly garbage clogging what once was a glorious entry into Zion Canyon.  They have one of those big theaters, IMAX I think, to show you on a screen what you can simply go into the canyon and see for real.

On the bright side, the towns a bit further from the entrance, Rockville and Virgin, are free of tourist clutter.  From Rockville you have some nice views toward Zion Canyon.

The road in Zion Canyon, Utah is lined in places with cottonwood trees.

Luckily, the entrance on the other side of the park is not like this.  If you come through the east portal, near Mount Carmel Junction, it still looks like rural Utah.  Long Valley on Hwy. 89 as well as Utah Hwy. 9 cutting west to the park, still have a nice feel.  There are some housing developments springing up nearer the entrance, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.  I approached Zion on Hwy. 9, after a snowy morning at Red Canyon near Bryce.  It was night-time, and cold.  There were more deer on the road than you could shake a stick at, including some very big bucks with huge racks.  I drove slowly, and found a camp off the road to Orderville Canyon.

A sandy wash in Zion Canyon, Utah has seen a freezing night.

Next morning I drove into the park, and immediately noticed I had company.  Granted, it was a gorgeous Sunday, but after the Grand Staircase, it felt confining.  And I was on the quieter east side of the park!  When I drove through the spectacular Mt Carmel tunnel and down into the canyon proper, the traffic tripled.

But this time of year, being chilly and relatively uncrowded (relatively being the operative word), is an excellent time to explore the backcountry a bit.  Trails are uncrowded and trail-less canyon routes empty.  So I took a couple short hikes up side canyons, and I was feelin’ good in the sunshine.  I even saw a couple desert bighorn sheep (see image below).  The day was capped off nicely when my football team won big (I have satellite radio).

A desert bighorn sheep prowls the slickrock country of Zion National Park in Utah.

I ran into some serious-looking photographers, and only a couple seemed to want to use their feet to help their photography.  This is the biggest mistake would-be landscape photographers make in my opinion.  I think most (not all) know that their brain not their fancy gear is their best tool.  But their second-best tool, two legs & two feet, too many people ignore.  Sometimes I feel a bit foolish, running about, scrambling down road embankments, climbing roadcuts and spending perhaps too much time with one subject.  But then I say to myself, “Oh yeah, this is the only way I get half-way decent shots.  At least for me!”

The grass grows tall in Zion’s Pine Creek Canyon bottom.

I’ll admit this aversion to easy vantage points isn’t as important when the light is fantastic.  But at the very least I think you’re guaranteed to get shots that look a little different from everyone else’s.  When I saw a line of tripods on a bridge over the Virgin River, for example, I stopped a half-mile down and walked along the river bank to get the shot at bottom.  It’s not an award-winner, and it might not even be a better photograph than the group at the bridge got.  But I sure enjoyed the process!

Fallen autumn leaves litter mule’s ears in Zion National Park, Utah.

Okay, that’s my tip for the day: use your feet!  The conditions here now are not ideal (too clear), but I’ll stay and hike some.  I missed the end of the storm that passed through over the weekend.  I guess I’m too used to the Pacific Northwest, where the storms don’t clear up nearly as quick as they do here.  The light in Long Valley was so great at sunset the other day that it is hard not to regret not getting to Zion in time for it.  Stay tuned for more Zion!

A view of the Virgin River as it exits Zion Canyon near Springdale, Utah.

Grand Staircase IV: Ode to My Playground   2 comments

A close-up view of sandstone strata in the slickrock country of southern Utah, very near the location called “the wave”.

I have to say goodbye, for now, to my playground the Grand Staircase.  Hopefully I can visit on this trip my other favorite playground of the southwest, Death Valley.  Before I go, an ode to this beautiful and forbidding land. 

When I was 12 years old my family took all of us to Colorado to visit my uncle in the Air Force. It was my first time west, and I loved it. We visited several areas outside Colorado Springs, including Pike’s Peak, Cripple Creek, and Garden of the Gods. I remember just going ape clambering over and playing on the rocks, sliding down steep gullies, and generally making my mom crazy with worry.

Calf Creek flows thinly over the sandstone near its confluence with the Escalante River in Utah.


My horizons had expanded forever. My beloved woodsy park at home had suddenly become small. I saw that even in adulthood I would play like this, because there was such a thing in the world as adult-sized playgrounds: big mountains and big canyons! Maybe I have a hardwired penchant for this kind of fun.

All of this is to explain why I believe that Grand Staircase/Escalante is like one giant playground. Every time I stop along the roadside to take a few pictures, there is a very real chance that hours will pass before I get back to the van. Often I will have only traveled a mile or less down a canyon, walking much more than that, shooting loads of pictures, and losing track of time. It’s definitely my kind of playground.

Dramatic striations (called desert varnish) mark the sheer walls of a shady rock alcove near the Escalante River of southern Utah. A pond remains frozen in early Spring.

The whole region, including the bordering national parks, is a wonderland of slickrock escarpments, sandy washes, forested plateaus, and (famously) slot canyons. A slot is a very narrow section of a canyon. Canyon walls are near vertical and only a matter of feet to yards apart. In some of the more narrow spots you literally have to squeeze your body sideways to get through.

Banded sandstone appears to flow at “the wave”, a location in southern Utah now famous among photographers.

Tips for slot canyon hiking

  • Figure on a much slower pace than regular trail hiking. Even on a non-technical canyon route, you won’t do much more than 1 mile an hour (perhaps much less).
  • Get some local knowledge of the route, specifically whether it is a technical slot and where it turns technical.
  • Wear your most streamlined backpack, and put anything not safe for water in a dry sack if the slot is wet.
  • Often you will come up on a dropoff into a pool of water, depth unknown. To jump in or not to jump in…don’t until you know how deep it is.
  • On the bright side, there is often a way around dropoffs.  Look and scout. A rope, gear for fixing anchors, and knowledge of how to use it will allow you to stay in the canyon bottom more, and actually save you time over scrambling around.
  • Most of the slots in the Escalante country are dry for much of the year, but watch out in Spring or in wet years.  Neoprene socks will keep your feet warm.  For slots with swimming involved, consider a neoprene suit.  The water can be pretty cold even in hot weather.
  • Never travel a slot when the weather is too threatening. Get out quick when you see the water rising or it turns from clear to muddy. If you hear a roar upcanyon, put on your spiderman suit quick! Seriously, climb up as high as you can if you hear a roar. Even a couple feet more height can save your life.

    Pine Creek flows through the forests of Box-Death Hollow wilderness in southern Utah.


I will very likely come back here, maybe next Spring! I want to bring my truck next time. My van does not like washboard roads much at all, and there is so much to see of Hole in the Rock Road.  Hope you enjoyed the photos.  Remember that clicking them takes you to my website, where purchase is easy as pie.  No illegal downloading please.  These versions are too small for much use anyhow. 

The quiet and idyllic ranch land beneath Boulder Mountain in southern Utah basks in late afternoon light.

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