Archive for the ‘desert southwest’ Tag

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

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

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

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

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

A Hard Lesson

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

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

Marble Canyon Narrows, Death Valley National Park.

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

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

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

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

A sobering reminder: upper Marble Canyon.

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

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

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

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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 SW Road-Trips: Four Corners   5 comments

Sunrise at Lone Rock Beach on Lake Powell.

Here’s a sad story:  Imagine driving through a typical developed section of the United States.  You drive by a continuous series of shopping complexes, fast-food joints, theaters, condo developments and all the rest.  It’s just the way it is, right?

Now imagine a long-time local in the car with you.  Inevitably he or she would be able to point and tell you that not long ago this was all farmland (or forest, or grass meadows, or swampland, or tidal marshes).  I’ve heard this told of many areas across the country, and I could tell the story for numerous places that I’m personally familiar with.

America has experienced continuous growth and development for quite some time now, and the effects are many.  This blog series is about one of them, the swallowing up of rural farm- and ranch-lands as the suburbs have pushed outward.  We’ve lost much of the on-the-land character here, and visitors from other countries, along with younger residents, simply do not know what the country was once like.

When you come upon a rare round barn in rural America, you stop and take a picture: east Oregon desert.

Thankfully rural America does still exist in places.  But in order to see it, you must be willing to get away from the popular routes and sights.  It’s one of those things that is easy to say but much harder to put into effect during a trip.  The internet tends to push us into narrow tourist-trails, perhaps more so than travel books and magazines once did.  But the internet can also give you ideas for getting off those beaten trails to explore just a little bit of the original character of the country and its people.  It’s that rural character that made this country great in the first place.

The last few posts have been exploring the Desert Southwest with some of my favorite road-trips.  This post continues with that theme, moving east and south to explore the Four Corners region, especially the native tribal lands of southern Utah, northern Arizona and western New Mexico.  It’s part of a big loop starting and ending in Page, Arizona.  Next time we’ll cover the southern leg of the loop.  If you are flying in and renting a vehicle, your trip could start in Arizona from either Phoenix or Flagstaff.  Or you could fly into Albuquerque or Santa Fe, New Mexico and start the loop on the eastern end.

The famous Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River near Page, Arizona.

Page to Cortez

Page, Arizona is a little town on the shores of Lake Powell.  It’s popular with snowbirds and retirees, but is probably best known as a minor tourist town.  It’s the base town for house boat trips on the lake and also for desert tours.  The town is set in ridiculously scenic desert, so it’s popular with photographers.  There is a balloon fest the first weekend of November (image below).

If you love slot canyons and can’t resist an over-photographed location, visit nearby Antelope Canyon.  It’s on Navajo land and a guided tour costs anywhere between $20 and $40, not including the $6 tribal fee.  The cheaper option is for the lower canyon while the upper costs more.  Both are stunning visually.  Another superb but over-shot location is Horseshoe Bend just south of town (image above).  The whole area is like candy for landscape shooting.  I recommend a sunrise at Lone Rock Beach (image at top).  You can camp right there on the beach.

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

If you have extra time a great side-trip from Page travels Hwy. 89A past Marble Canyon on the Colorado River and up to Jacob Lake.  Turn south on 67 and enjoy the cool pine forests on a short jaunt to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  Our trip will take us east into very different country.  This is vast, unpeopled desert, dotted with small communities that are a mix of American Indian, white ranchers and more recent immigrants.  Many towns are dominated by native tribal people.

Looking east over the upper Grand Canyon from the North Rim.

Drive to Kayenta, AZ and turn north toward Monument Valley on the Utah border.  As you near this iconic place of the west, the terrain begins to look like an old John Ford movie.  There is a fee to enter the tribal park, and it is 100% worth it.  Make sure and stop for some Navajo fry bread at road-side and chat up the friendly locals.  I’ve camped out in the desert here and had locals roll up in their pickup trucks to check me out.  Instead of running me off their reservation they’ve been friendly once they know I’m just after a good night’s sleep.

A young Navajo pony is curious about the white stranger in Monument Valley.

Continue north, making sure to stop and look behind you for the view from the movie Forrest Gump.  Mexican Hat on the San Juan River is a tiny town typical of this part of the country.  Stop for lunch and learn something from a local or two.  Continue up the San Juan to Bluff, another interesting little place.  There are spectacular rock art panels along the river just west of Bluff.

Pictographs: southern Utah.

A side-trip north toward Blanding, Utah takes you into the recently designated Bear’s Ears National Monument.  You can stop along the roadside in this area and walk cross-country, exploring randomly, and come upon ancient Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) ruins and rock art.  It’s that rich with prehistoric treasures.  A hiking trip into Grand Gulch will take you into the heart of this amazing piece of America.  This place has become a political hot-button issue, as the Utah state government attempts to convince the current president (who is sympathetic) to undo its protective Monument status.

Bear paw petroglyph: Bear’s Ears Natl. Monument, Utah.

Ancestral Puebloan granaries set in a cliff overhang: Bear’s Ears, Utah.

Continue east on Hwy. 162 to the Four Corners area.  This is where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona come together, the only place in the country where four states meet.  But let’s take a little detour to see some unique native ruins and drive an out-of-the-way little valley lined with pretty ranches and farms.  You can turn north on Hwy. 262 or the road a few miles to the east.  Or in Bluff just set your GPS to find Hovenweep National Monument.

Square Tower under winter stars, Hovenweep National Monument, Utah.

You’ll come to the main ruins of Hovenweep, where the visitor center and a nice campground are located.  A short loop hike takes you around Little Ruin Canyon, where the Ancient Ones built towers of the local stone.  Driving the dirt roads north from here will lead you to short hikes that visit other towers (directions at the visitor ctr.).  I recommend doing this for the strong feelings you’ll get with nobody else around.  The ghosts of a past long before this was called America haunt this lonely region of shallow sandstone canyons.

The towers of Little Ruin Canyon, Hovenweep National Monument, Utah.

Retrace your steps back south and find Ismay Trading Post Road (ask a ranger for directions or study the map).  Take this straight east into Colorado.  It’s a beautiful way to enter the state.  You can stop and take a short hike into the public lands of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument on the north side of the road.  Too soon you’ll reenter the modern world at Cortez, where you can gas up and stock up.

Cortez is jumping-off point for Mesa Verde National Monument.  Learn about the Ancestral Puebloans whose ruins and rock art you’ve already been seeing, and visit their truly amazing cliff dwellings.  I recommend not stopping with seeing Cliff Palace but also doing the ranger-guided hike to Balcony House.

Rock art of the Fremont people, who came after the Ancestral Puebloans: Colorado.

Spruce Tree House on a beautiful October morning at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Cortez to Santa Fe

From Cortez head south on Hwy. 491 into New Mexico. You will reach the Navajo town of Shiprock.  You are now in the nation’s largest American Indian reservation, in both area and population.  Navajo Nation covers nearly 30,000 square miles!  Nearby sits the “ship of the desert”, Ship Rock.  Approach it on undeveloped roads and tracks.  But remember you are not technically in the U.S. here.  It is Navajo land and you must abide by their rules.  On the plus side they are generally very chill and willing to let a person just be.

From Shiprock drive east to Farmington where you have a choice.  You can head south on Hwy. 371.  then, after about 35 miles, turn left on road 7297.  Drive a few miles on the sandy road to parking for Bisti/De Na Zin Wilderness.  After hiking through this geological wonderland, continue on the unpaved roads to reach U.S. Hwy. 550.  Or you can continue east of Farmington to Hwy. 550 and head south.

The Bisti/De Na Zin Wilderness, New Mexico.

Either way I recommend taking the turn off Hwy. 550 for Chaco Canyon.  The recognized center of Ancestral Puebloan culture, Chaco is home to a complex of dwellings, rock art and spectacular kivas (excavated places of spiritual practice).  The hike out to Penyasco Blanco ruin offers sweeping views of the canyon and passes the famous Supernova pictograph.

Continue southeast on Hwy. 550 to the oddly named town of Cuba, where a turn east on route 126 takes you up into the mountains.  The Desert SW is not all desert, especially in New Mexico’s high country.  Here you’ll find forest and grassy mountain meadows.  In some places ranches are still running cattle according to season as they have done for centuries.  In others the land has been protected to preserve its unique plants and animals.

A wind-powered pump at a ranch in remote northwestern New Mexico.

The road ends at Hwy. 4, where you’ll turn left and continue east through Valles Caldera Preserve, a lovely ancient caldera now covered with grass and pine trees.  You will finally leave forest and mountain behind when you reach Los Alamos.  Still an active research complex, this is where America developed the world’s first atomic weapon.

Continue east until you pass over the Rio Grande at Santa Clara Pueblo.  Here you can either turn south and go on into Santa Fe, or turn north on Hwy. 68.  The northern detour takes you alongside the beautiful Rio Grande River to the adobe-covered town of Taos, where you can visit the home of Jesse James on a self-guided walking tour of the charming town.  Taos Pueblo, a village adjacent to the main town, is a native community that you might consider visiting on a guided tour (click the link).

A frosty autumn morning along the Rio Grande River, New Mexico.

This leg of our loop ends in Santa Fe, a smallish city with many layers.  On the surface it might seem a little too slick with its modern adobe architecture.  But this place figures in the history of the Southwest from the very beginning and hosts a diverse population.  In North America you simply do not find places with this many layers of history.  At the least enjoy a good meal at one of its many restaurants and do a walking tour of downtown’s historic buildings.

Thanks for staying with this series.  I’m really getting a kick out of sharing some of my best road-trips through rural America.  Have a great weekend and happy shooting!

Monument Valley at dusk.

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.

 

Rural America: The Desert Southwest   3 comments

The ranch land near Zion Canyon in Utah is among the most scenic in the country.

We might as well face it.  America is no longer what it once was.  Not long ago this was a country that relied on small-scale farming and ranching.  They fed the cities with their increasingly important manufacturing economies.  Perhaps more importantly they helped to form the country’s very identity.  Farms, ranches and small towns have traditionally been a well that we drew upon to create a dynamic, growing nation.  Many American thinkers and inventors were born and raised in small-town farming communities.   To take a more specific example, American fighter pilots in both world wars learned their bold flying skills as young men in crop-dusting planes.  There are countless other examples.

Nearly every region of the country has become more developed and populated.  Cities have grown steadily; suburban areas surrounding them have grown even faster.   And it’s these so-called exurban areas that have spilled out into formerly rural areas.  Large parts of rural America have literally been paved over, changing them for the foreseeable future.  But it’s not all gone, not by a long shot.  You can still experience much of this country’s rural charm if you’re willing to leave the cities, get off the main highways and slow down.

And that is what this series is all about: travelling off the beaten track to experience some of the country’s rural charm. The introductory post discussed the growing rural-urban divide in America, but Part II left politics behind and focused on my home-region, the Pacific Northwest.  This post will zero in on a unique part of the country: the amazing Desert Southwest.

It’s always fun finding an old buckboard wagon. In the dry air of the Southwest, they are well preserved.

Geography & History

The unique geography of the Desert Southwest is centered on an enormous geographic feature called the Colorado Plateau.  This large chunk of elevated land extends across southwest Colorado, southern Utah and northern parts of Arizona and New Mexico.  But the desert SW region extends west of the Plateau into the southern Great Basin of Nevada and SE California.

It also includes the low, hot deserts of southern Arizona, and actually continues south into Mexico, though it’s a different culture altogether there.  Anyone considering a trip into the far southwest of the U.S., however, should seriously consider Baja California as an extension.  The peninsula is amazing, the people friendly, and it is far safer than mainland Mexico at the moment.

What draws visitors today presented challenges to early explorers and settlers.  It is an arid region of vast treeless plains on one hand, and steep bare-rock canyons and mountains on the other.  Rivers are often incised into inaccessible canyons and follow torturous routes.  One can’t easily follow a river for a distance then take a shortcut across a meander to save days of travel.  And if you do manage to exit a precipitous canyon, water is very difficult to find.

The beautiful Baja Peninsula, Mexico, is an extension of the Desert SW of the U.S.

Appropriation

Ancient Ones to Spain to Mexico to USA

This region has been occupied for thousands of years by native groups.  Spanish explorers entered the region beginning in the 16th century.  During America’s westward expansion in the 1800s, the Desert Southwest was merely a barrier to cross in order to reach California.  Most of it then belonged to Spain, and all roads led to Santa Fe.  This still-beautiful city was the only significant settlement in the entire region.  Today you can see some of the earliest buildings constructed by white people on the North American continent in Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico (see image below).

But you do not have to travel very far to see houses built long before that.  Chaco Canyon and other sites are what remains of the ancient ones.  Ancestral Puebloans (aka Anasazi), and before them the Basketmakers, inhabited these parts for thousands of years.  They had success farming maize (corn) and beans, and they even mined for copper, silver and gold.

A hike in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon takes you past the so-called Supernova pictograph.

Despite the area’s harsh climate and geography, this region has the longest history of European incursion in the west.  That is because the Catholic Church in Spain, specifically the Jesuits, established missions here going back to the 16th century.  Santa Fe was founded in 1608.  That’s 12 years before 102 travellers aboard a ship called the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock.

The San Miguel Mission in Santa Fe, originally built in 1610.

Santa Fe is the oldest capital city on American soil.  It served as the capital of New Mexico for Spain, then Mexico after their war of independence.  It was not long Mexico’s, as in the 1840s first Texas, then the U.S. military fought for control of New Mexico.  It was ceded to the U.S. in 1848 after the Mexican-American War.

Taos to the north is also very old.  The famous American frontiersman, Kit Carson, who first arrived in Santa Fe in 1826 and made his fame as a mountain man, scout and fierce fighter, lived there for years with his Mexican wife Josefa.  They had eight children together.

Window on the historic Kit Carson home: Taos, NM

The famous Santa Fe trail, like the Oregon Trail to the north, began as a trading route that later became much more important as a route carrying American settlers west.  Unlike the Oregon Trail it traveled through truly hostile (American) Indian country.  The Apaches and Comanche did not tolerate trespassers and were feared much more than most tribes to the north (some Sioux bands excepted).

An old trading post on the Santa Fe Trail, New Mexico.

Mining in the Southwest

The Desert Southwest has from the beginning of European exploration been a target of mining.  While ranching and farming faced the realities of the region’s dry, harsh climate and geography, mining had “only” to overcome the fierce Apache.  I mentioned the early missionary efforts by Spain.  If you know anything about imperial Spain, you know their desire to bring savage tribes into the Catholic fold was only surpassed by their lust for silver and gold.

When the U.S. took control of the Southwest, mining continued.  But since the American military generally had more success putting down native tribes than had the Spanish and Mexicans, and because the U.S. government put in place several incentives and subsidies (e.g. the 1872 Mining Act), mining bloomed in the region.  For visitors interested in history and in exploring rural parts of the region, the remains of mines large and small are not hard to find.  And so are the ghost towns that once boomed in support of the miners.

Old mine workings like this one are not hard to find if you ramble around exploring in the Southwest. This is in New Mexico’s Mogollon Mtns.

In the early 1850s Mormons began to settle the Desert Southwest.  Originally settling the Salt Lake Valley, they soon pushed south into canyon country.  The remains of their homesteads are visible in many places, and often in very scenic locations (see image below).  Like the Catholics long before them, they too founded missions in order to convert the natives.

Cowboys & Indians

One final piece of the region’s history has perhaps received much more attention than it deserves from a historical perspective.  Stories of the old west that romanticize cowboys and outlaws have always had the power to capture our attention.  In the Desert SW you can visit the old hideouts of legends like Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy, James Averill and the Hole in the Wall Gang.  It’s also easy to visit old movie sets and eat at the same cafes, drink at the same bars as did old-time movie stars like John Wayne and Gregory Peck.

Billy the Kid started young. Click image for the source webpage.

For example, Kanab, Utah celebrates the era of Hollywood westerns at the same time it enjoys its location close to scenic wonders like Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks.  Monument Valley is a place where the Navajo Nation shares the spotlight not only with the dramatic scenery but with the area’s history as setting for the famous collaboration between director John Ford and actor John Wayne.

The old Mormon homestead at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

Road Tripping the Southwest

It is somewhat overwhelming to contemplate a trip to this enormous region.  You can too easily bite off more than you can chew.  And you can’t have a good time if you’re behind the wheel for your whole vacation.  Decide what you’d most like to see and how much time you have.  Then decide whether you can swing several trips (preferable) or must choose the one area that most ignites your imagination.

In succeeding posts we will travel from west to east in a series of road trips.  They are those I have done, many several times, and I chose them because they not only visit spectacular natural wonders but take off down two-lane country roads with only locals (mostly bovine) for company.  The idea is to get you off the beaten track to see the charm of the rural Southwest.  I’ll repeat myself:  whatever you do don’t try to see everything at once.  You can’t travel, for example, from Anza Borrego in California’s Mojave to New Mexico’s high desert and hope to see much outside of gas stations and roadside eateries.  That is, unless you have at least 3 months to travel.  Thanks for reading!

Sunset at Monument Valley.

Friday Foto Talk: Video in the Field   1 comment

I’d love to know how much you all are getting out of this little series on video basics for still photographers.  Are you getting excited about shooting a video or two to go along with your stills?  Have you been pressing that red button more often lately?  Or at least thinking about it?

Last time we left off with some gear-oriented tips on panning and moving your camera while shooting video.  Let’s continue with the nuts and bolts on moving the camera through the scene.  If you’d like to view the videos I’ve posted, resist the temptation to click the play button right off; it won’t work.  Instead click the title at top left.  You’ll go to my Vimeo, where you can press the play button.

A Word about Gear

Last week I mentioned tripod heads designed (at least in part) for video.  But I don’t want to make it about buying specialty gear.  This series is for you who are just getting into video or thinking about it.  If you start getting serious and video becomes a big focus of your shoots, then it’s worth spending money on accessories.  For an intermediate level of enthusiasm, I’d limit purchases to an external shotgun microphone plus a fluid video head.

In terms of camera movement and shooting video on the fly, one of the more useful pieces of gear is one I already mentioned: a stabilizer rig.  Many times I’ve wished I had one, but it is another piece of gear to haul along.  For the following clip I had to hike up a rugged Utah canyon to get there.  So I’m not sure I would have brought a stabilizer along even if I owned one.  Despite the rock hopping, I think it turned out pretty smooth.  To see that video go to Canyon Hike

Another piece of gear (or two) to consider, if and when you get serious about video, is a rail and/or cart.  They both allow you to swing the camera through a smooth path or arc like you see in professional shoots.  The technique is used most often in portrait & event shooting, but landscape videographers sometimes use rails.  If you’re handy you can make them yourself.

Video Tips On Location

Now let’s go somewhere cool and see how to get started making moving pictures.  The advice below doesn’t include some major issues of sound.  Those are worth saving for a coming post devoted to audio.  A few tips is all you need to get started:

  • Focal length matters.  I talked about this last week but it’s worth expanding on.  The shorter your focal length and wider your angle of view, the easier it is to move the camera without shaky frame edges.  This applies whether you’re doing it by hand or on a support.  And it means that when you zoom in to long focal lengths it can be next to impossible to avoid a jittery look.  That’s what happened in the clip below.  In the excitement of being so close to Everest and its neighbours, I used a relatively long focal length and panned by hand, ending up with a jumpy video.

But before you slap that 16 mm. lens on, there is another effect when you’re shooting at very wide angles.  It depends on how close you are to scene elements (especially the foreground), and also how fast you pan the camera, but the frame edges can move in a rather distracting way.  Try it yourself and see: shoot a few panning video clips at a focal length of 16 or 17 mm.  It may be best to use a focal length near 50 mm. when panning, at least when you’re just starting out.

 

  • Go Manual.  Although there is nothing wrong with automatic mode when you want a quick video, I recommend getting used to shooting manually right off the bat.  Manual exposure and manual focus.  For example, in a nature scene where you want everything in focus, go about it this way:  While you’re in aperture priority mode, pick a smallish aperture (f/8 – f/11) for good depth of field.  Then point the camera at a place in the scene that represents the (approximate) average brightness of everything you’ll be panning through.  Note the settings (aperture, shutter speed and ISO).  Then go to manual mode and switch to those settings.  Autofocus on something about 1/2 to 2/3 into the scene.  Then switch to manual focus and leave it there for the duration of the clip.
  • Plan your clip.  Figure out ahead of time where to start and stop your video, then do a quick dry run before you press play.  Of course if you’re shooting live subjects you may decide to continue the clip or cut it short.  Still, getting an outline of the clip in your head ahead of time is a good idea.  Adjust your position to get the smoothest and quietest (if you’re recording ambient sound) motion.  While panning I generally try to avoid moving my feet.  Even if on a tripod, how you change position through a pan will affect the final product.
  • Slow down.  The most common beginner mistake is to pan and move the camera too quickly through the scene.  As always with camera movement during video, focal length is a factor.  The longer your focal length the slower you need to pan.  When you pan too quickly the scene appears to race by.  A further influence is how far away you are from whatever you’re filming.  When fairly close to the subject, go more slowly.  But don’t go to the other extreme.  A super-slow pan will bore your viewers, leading them to not finish the clip.  The best way to know the right speed for different lenses and various kinds of scenes is to experiment and play the clips back on your LCD.
  • Review & Repeat!  When you first start out shooting video, just like when you started still photography, you’ll shoot a lot of junk.  The key is to review the shot before moving on.  You’l likely find that it requires a number of takes to get it right.  For the waterfall at bottom, I did 3 or 4 takes before I got one I liked.  As you gain more experience you’ll more often get it right the first time.  This is a worthy goal.  You want to catch the most interesting goings-on, not to mention the most interesting light.

That’s it for this week’s Foto Talk!  Please don’t hesitate to share your own experiences with video.  Or ask a question about anything at all.  Have a wonderful weekend and happy shooting!

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

Sunrise over Lake Powell at Lone Rock.

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

Closures & Budget

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exception 1:  Chaco Canyon.  

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

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

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

 

Exception 2:  Mesa Verde.  

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

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Utah.

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Utah.

Exception 3:  White Sands National Monument.

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

Early morning at White Sands, New Mexico.

Early morning at White Sands, New Mexico.

DUSK TO DAWN CLOSURES 

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

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

Another recent image from the Grand Staircase, Utah.

Another recent image from the Grand Staircase, Utah.

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

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

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

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

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

Narrow   21 comments

A rare selfie in one of the narrow canyons of Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada.

Time for a themed post: Narrow.  It’s this week’s WPC travel theme, so check out all the other entries.

ONEONTA GORGE

I’ll start out close to home: Oregon’s Oneonta Gorge.  Nowadays it is quite famous, but I recall a time when only locals knew about it.  In the warmer months hordes of people hike up the short narrows, wading through the cool water to escape the heat.  In just a half-mile or less your progress is halted by a tall waterfall, where you can climb up a short way and jump off into the pool below.  So refreshing!

Green Oneonta Gorge, Oregon

Green Oneonta Gorge, Oregon

The narrows at Oneonta Gorge, full of water during the heavy rains of early Spring.

The narrows at Oneonta Gorge, full of water during the heavy rains of early Spring.

My pictures of Oneonta, however, were all captured in the worst weather I could manage, normally winter or early spring.  The canyon is at its greenest and the mossy walls drip with tiny waterfalls.  At these times it is dangerous to go further than the log jam.  The water is deep and swift and believe me, you wouldn’t want to be swept under the logs.  They would be pulling your body out later.

These logs testify to the power of Oneonta Creek when it floods during heavy rains.

These logs testify to the power of Oneonta Creek when it floods during heavy rains.

Wading through the icy water of Oneonta Creek during a winter storm.

 

DEATH VALLEY

While most of the canyons in this amazing place are not the ultra-narrow slots common to the Colorado Plateau, the park does boast a plethora of narrow canyons to explore.  One of the most famous is Titus Canyon.  Most times you can drive this canyon.  You leave the park on the east side and then re-enter it by descending Titus, passing a ghost town along the way.  There are other canyons near Titus that represent great hiking destinations.  Just hike north from the parking lot at the mouth of Titus Canyon.

You can drive down one of Death Valley's largest canyons, Titus.

You can drive down one of Death Valley’s largest canyons, Titus.

For a canyon hike in Death Valley, the one I most often recommend is Marble Canyon.  Access it by driving the dirt road from Stovepipe Wells, passable in a 2-wheel drive car (but check at the ranger station).  Walking up-canyon, you soon reach the narrows, where canyon walls reach hundreds of feet into the sky.  On a hot day try pressing your whole body against the grey limestone canyon walls.  Definitely a cooling experience!  By continuing up-canyon you eventually come to the beautiful marble that it’s named for.  Most of the way you are passing through limestone, stacks and stacks of it piled into layers at the bottom of the sea hundreds of millions of years ago.

Marble Canyon, Death Valley National Park, California.

SLOTS of the COLORADO PLATEAU

Spreading across southern Utah, northern Arizona and part of Colorado is an enormous feature called the Colorado Plateau.  It is an uplifted landscape characterised by naked sandstone bedrock.  Known throughout the world for its iconic scenery, the plateau is dissected by countless canyons of all description.

The heart of the Colorado Plateau is incised by the meandering San Juan River, Utah.

The heart of the Colorado Plateau is incised by the meandering San Juan River, Utah.

The Grand Canyon is of course the biggest, but many are so narrow that you have to squeeze yourself through.  These are the famous narrow gorges called slot canyons.  They formed because, during the plateau’s uplift (at the same time as the Rocky Mountains rose), fractures developed much like a rising loaf of bread.  It is along these fractures that the slots have been eroded by a combination of freeze-thaw action and flowing water.

One of the biggest concentrations of slot canyons lies in Zion National Park.  Many of these are accessible to any adventurous hiker – for example the two most popular hikes: the Narrows and the Subway.  But some others require specialized equipment.  Being a popular national park, there are plenty of outfitters who will guide you safely through the technical slots.  If you’ve never done any canyoneering before, let me tell you: it’s a blast!

Zion Canyon from Angel's Rest.  The famous Narrows of the Virgin River are at the head of the canyon in the background.

Zion Canyon from Angel’s Rest. The famous Narrows of the Virgin River are at the head of the canyon in the background.

If you want to hike the Subway, I recommend either getting a permit way ahead of time or doing it off-season.  Permits are required April through October, so November is a perfect time to do it.  It’s not a short hike but anybody in good shape and with some experience should have no problem.

The Subway in Zion National Park, Utah.

The Subway in Zion National Park, Utah.

Yet it’s easy to get a feel for slot canyons without investing a lot of time.  Simply drive up to East Zion (beyond the tunnels), park at a likely spot and set off up one of the canyons, turning around at your whim (or when your way is blocked).  This is a great way to explore the park.

A side-canyon in East Zion, Utah.

To the east of Zion is another wonderland of slots: the Escalante country.  A drive down Hole in the Rock Road near the town of Escalante brings you to numerous hikes into the typically narrow tributary canyons of the Escalante River.  You don’t have to brave that long washboard road, however.  Get a good map and explore the numerous canyons accessible from Highway 12.

There is such a thing as a slot that is too narrow:  southern Utah.

There is such a thing as a slot that is too narrow: southern Utah.

Nearby Bryce Canyon, while not known for slot canyons, nevertheless has an amazing hike you should do if you visit.  It drops below the rim and wanders among the hoodoos (rock pinnacles) that make the park famous.  It’s like a maze of narrow passages, including one named Wall Street (image below).

Aptly-named Wall Street in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

Aptly-named Wall Street in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

Capitol Reef National Park also has some amazing narrow canyon hikes.  One I can recommend hiking is the strangely-named Muley Twist Canyon.  Drive the Burr Trail Road (an adventure in itself) and near its summit you can hike either up- or down-canyon, exploring Muley Twist to your heart’s content.  A shorter canyon hike at Capitol Reef is Grand Wash, located at the end of the scenic drive (turn off at the Visitor Center).

The Wave is a sculpted stretch of sandstone in southern Utah.

The Wave is a sculpted stretch of sandstone in southern Utah.

Continuing east across the plateau you’ll find more fun canyons to explore in the Moab area, including Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.  You could spend your whole life doing nothing but hiking canyons on the Colorado Plateau and never finish with them.  There are just so many.  It’s a true wonderland.  But be smart when you go canyon hiking.  Take the ten essentials plus a hiking partner (or at least let someone know where you’re going and when to expect your return).

A slot in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

A slot in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

Squeezing through a slot canyon.

Squeezing through a slot canyon.

Thanks for looking!

Visiting Zion National Park – Part VI   8 comments

A soggy-sneakers shot of the Virgin River, upper Zion Canyon.

We’re almost finished with Zion National Park!  I’ve gone into a bit more detail than I expected I would.  Last post was a guide for first-timers.  This post suggests places to go if you’re planning a return trip.  But even first-timers will find the following useful if planning a little more time for in-depth exploration of the park.

IF YOU ARE RETURNING TO ZION

Do the Narrows:  A return trip is the time to get off the beaten track by visiting one of the northern areas and/or hiking into the backcountry.  The Narrows is the most famous back-country hike at Zion (closely followed by the Subway below).  You’ll need a permit and car shuttle to do the usual one-night backpack trip, but it can be done as an out and back from the end of the road in Zion Canyon. 

Do some research and planning for the Narrows, starting of course at NPS’s site.  And for any back-country exploration a great website is Canyoneering USA.  Tom Jones (no not that Tom Jones!) writes for this site, and he also has a classic guidebook for Zion.

Hike the Subway:  Situated in the Left Fork of North Creek off of Kolob Terrace Road, the 9+ mile hike to the Subway has become extremely popular in recent years.  In fact, so popular that the NPS has a lottery permit system in place if you’re doing it from March through October.  Check the NPS site for details.  Another popular slot canyon with a lottery system is Mystery Canyon.

A hike along Left Fork offers image possibilities galore.

A hike along Left Fork offers image possibilities galore.

Of course your pictures of the Subway itself are not exactly going to be breaking new ground.  But it’s a fantastic canyon filled with photo opportunities.  It’s also a great challenge if you’re trying to “up your game” in terms of canyoneering.  If you plan to do an overnighter here, you’ll need a permit from the Park Service.  You can hike the Subway from the bottom-up and back or as a top-down semi-technical descent (entering from above the Subway).  Either way plan to get your feet wet.

Almost posted my shot of the Subway itself, but I don’t want to ruin it for you in case you’re not looking at any photos before you go there. This is looking down-canyon in Left Fork at sunset.

Do an off-trail canyon adventure.  Several companies offer guided hikes in canyons where you’ll generally need a shuttle and knowledge to get to remote trailheads.  You can also descend one of the amazing technical canyons at Zion. 

Canyoneering here (called canyoning in Europe) is renowned far and wide.  It requires rope and other gear, plus experience if you’re not going to do a course with one of the outfitters.  For photography you’ll need to leave the DSLR behind or have a foolproof way to keep your gear dry.  One of the best sources of information on canyoning at Zion is Tom Jones and CUSA

Hike Kolob Canyons.  This is the separate part of the park to the north off I-15.  The Taylor Creek trail is wonderful and feels very uncrowded compared to Zion Canyon’s trails.  For a longer walk, Kolob Arch (one of the world’s largest arches) is amazing and even less peopled.  I did the roughly 14-mile round trip and saw no other people.  No campground exists at Kolob Canyons, but there is one to the south at Red Cliffs Recreation Area, at the mouth of a gorgeous canyon I strongly recommend exploring.

Red Cliffs Recreation Area, although it isn’t in the park, is nonetheless a marvelous place to go.

Drive to Lava Point.  The Kolob Terrace Road, which starts near the town of Virgin, is a beautiful drive up to Zion’s high country.  Go past the trail-head for the Subway and let your imagination be your guide.  You’ll pass large monoliths that beg to be explored off-trail (remember, don’t trample the biological crust).  Or hike one of the trails near Lava Point.  Sunset from this area offers the opportunity to shoot unique pictures of the park.  There’s a campground up here too!

Hike Zion Top-to-Bottom.  A memorable way to enter Zion Canyon is to do a long one-way hike from the high plateau to the canyon bottom.  For West Rim, you’ll leave your car in Springdale (outside of shuttle season leave it at the Grotto).   Then drive or get shuttled up to the Lava Point Trailhead.  Then it’s about 14 miles and 3700 feet down to the canyon.  Healthy knees required!

For East Rim, get shuttled or drive a second car to the trailhead near the east entrance and hike 11 miles one-way to Weeping Rock trailhead in the canyon.  At first you climb gently, then it’s rolling until the big descent to the canyon floor.  From there you take the shuttle or pick up the car you left outside of shuttle season.  You can also start from East Mesa Trailhead; local shuttle drivers know where this is.

If you’re cheap like me and don’t want to pay for the shuttle you just hike from the east entrance, descend to the canyon, then climb back out for a very exhausting 20-miler.  I did it in combination with my mountain bike, but that’s because I didn’t know that wasn’t allowed!  For West Rim without a shuttle, do it from the bottom up: a 2500-foot elevation gain and drop.  You don’t go all the way to Lava Point unless it’s an overnighter.  Instead turn around at West Rim Spring.

Both of these hikes can be done as overnight backpack trips (where you’ll need a permit) and both are fantastic.  The West Rim route is longer and more diverse while the East Rim trip accesses more side-trails for a backpack trip.

Desert bighorn sheep prefer the higher country at Zion.

Desert bighorn sheep prefer the higher country at Zion.

Ride a horse up on Sand Bench.  In season (March – October) you can ride horses at Zion.  Though you can do a short jaunt along the Virgin River, a better way to become one with your mount is on a longer ride on the enormous slump block (type of landslide, see Part I) that is Sand Bench.  Prices are fairly reasonable I believe, though I don’t pay for riding horses (spent too much feeding mine!). 

For photography, hiking the 3-mile Sand Bench loop at sunset is a winner.  Pack a good flashlight for the hike down.  I personally resist the temptation to join all those other photogs. on the bridge over the Virgin River in the lower canyon.  I don’t want the same exact picture as everybody else has.  Which brings me to the topic for my final post in this series: Photography at Zion.

That’s it for now.  Enjoy ‘going deep’ at Zion, and have a wonderful week.

Prickly pear cactus growing up on the Sentinel Slide (aka Sand Bench).

Prickly pear cactus growing high above the Virgin on the Sentinel Slide (aka Sand Bench).

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