Archive for the ‘desert’ Tag

Wordless Wednesday: Canyon Country   8 comments

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Wordless Wednesday: Edge of the Erg   2 comments

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Friday Foto Talk: Depth   6 comments

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

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

Although I don’t like much structure in my life (understatement of the day!), I’m going to force myself to introduce a regular feature in this blog.  Although I won’t drift over to a photography education blog (already too many), just as I won’t drift over to a blog strictly focused on travel, I’m feeling the need from time to time to share some of the more interesting things I’ve picked up about photography.

But please do not think me some sort of expert who is passing on his considerable (in his own opinion) photography knowledge.  That’s exactly the sort of mis-impression I want to avoid.  Instead, please feel free to use these posts to give your take on the subjects covered.  I would very much like feedback on the images as well.  Enjoy!

The four images here were taken on my recent photo sojourn around the American West.  The subject today – depth – is one that’s near and dear to my photographic heart.  To this point I have been sticking with my passion, that is landscape and nature photography.  Perhaps if I ever wish to make a living at this I will need to change that focus, but for now I’m in my comfort zone, and depth is very relevant to this kind of photography.

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

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

One of the most rewarding yet challenging things about landscape photography is introducing a sense of depth into your images; 3-dimensionality if you will.  Think about it: you are taking a three-dimensional scene and rendering it on a two-dimensional medium.  So it’s not easy.  But it’s no where near impossible to accomplish either.  Here are a few tips:

  • Firstly, try to include at least two out of three of the following: foreground, mid-ground, and background.  All three are best.  When you’re starting out, you might forget about foreground.  But then you learn that it’s important, and end up going to the opposite extreme.  So while it’s important to have detail in your foregrounds, don’t forget about the mid-ground and background.  Don’t let your foreground overwhelm the rest of the image, at least not all the time.
  • The closer you can get to your foreground, the better, up to a point.  The foreground has to be sharp, and it’s usually best when the background is in focus as well.  What this means is a small aperture (say f/22) and focusing on a point in your scene that will provide the sharpest results front to back.  This point varies depending on your focal length and the characteristics of your lens, but is always somewhere in the front third of your scene (sometimes only a few feet in front).
  • Also, it helps if there are details in each of these parts of your images.  Don’t confuse detail with texture.  Texture is always nice of course, but I’m speaking of things that are interesting to look at.  Things that draw the eye are good for depth, but you want to keep your image as simple as possible too.  It’s a balancing act.
  • Light is important.  This is difficult to pin down, but if you’ve been taking pictures for awhile you probably are well aware of the difference between flat light and light with depth.   Unfortunately, good light is not always light that will provide depth.  In fact, flat light can be good for some scenes/subjects.  Sorry I can’t be more specific; my best advice is to try getting pictures with depth in different kinds of light.
  • Leading lines can help with depth.  The classic is a one-point perspective, like the railroad tracks merging in the distance, but your lines don’t have to be this obvious!
  • Dramatic clouds in the sky (as in the second image above) can really help.  It can put a sort of “roof” on your image.  Make sure to include enough of the sky to accomplish this.

Back to these four images.  I chose them because of the varying combinations of light and depth.  In addition, they are all desert scenes and so easier to compare.  The light in the first two, and to a lesser extent the last image, is fairly hard, as is typical for deserts.  The first two were taken around mid-morning, so we’re not talking classic golden hour here.  The second image has better light because of a filtering effect from the clouds (a storm was approaching) but neither has truly excellent light.  The third image has nice soft sunrise light, but little depth.  And the fourth has a great combination of depth and beautiful dawn light.

Gorgeous dawn light greets me as I enter Death Valley from the east.

Gorgeous dawn light greets me as I enter Death Valley from the east.

The first image has, at least in my opinion, nice depth.  It has a detailed and interesting foreground (the cactus) plus a mid-ground (the angled sandstone formation) that leads the eye deeper into the scene.  The background is a fairly detailed skyline plus clouds.  It would have been even better if the clouds were more dramatic (in which case I would have included more of the sky).  Note that the background rocks are not too far away, and so have some detail.  This can help with a feeling of depth.

The second image is dominated by leading lines and so can’t help but have decent depth, but the dramatic clouds really help put a roof on the image (even though they take up a fairly small part of the frame).  The third image was taken during the first rays of light in Death Valley.  Although there are much better images from this place all over the web, the light here is unusually soft (for a desert) and thus demonstrates that an image without much depth can still work well.

The last image has a lot going for it depth-wise, despite its weaknesses.  It lacks leading lines and the foreground and mid-ground are not delineated well.  It has a good sense of perspective from the decreasing sizes of the polygonal cracks in the salt.  It also benefits from interesting detail both in the foreground (the salt) and the background (the moon).  The moon helps to give the already somewhat 3D clouds even more depth.  Lastly, the image is topped off with a beautiful pinkish glow that results from the sun (which is still beneath the horizon) reflecting off clouds close to the eastern horizon.  It’s no surprise that this is one of my favorite images from Death Valley.

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

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

Thanks so much for reading.  If you have interest in any of the images, they are available for purchase either as a download or beautifully printed (framed or unframed).  Just click on an image and the rest is easy.  Note that they are all copyrighted and not available for download (the versions here are too small anyway).  Again, thanks for your cooperation and interest.  Please don’t hesitate to ask questions, add your thoughts, or give feedback (positive or negative) on the images.

In Praise of the Prickly Pear   8 comments

Hot pink prickly pear cactus bloom, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.

Hot pink prickly pear cactus bloom, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.

I recently realized something.  I have until recently avoided photographing a worthy subject just because it is common. It is the lowly beaver tail cactus, a member of the prickly pear family.  It grows across the interior western United States, touching the Pacific Coast in southern California.  It took quite awhile for me to come around on this rather unspectacular cactus.  But now I am taking the time to notice its subtle charm.

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

Beaver tail cactus, a member of the prickly pear family, is a common sight in Snow Canyon State Park, Utah.

You see, I’ve noticed that this plant and I have some things in common.  It is on the surface unpleasant when you first glance its way, having a heavily creased face and a generally sour appearance.  It’s also worth avoiding at certain times, such as early mornings before it’s had a cup of coffee.   But it cannot completely conceal a certain rough charm, when the light is right.  And its interior is pulpy and soft, in stark contrast to the face it shows to the general public.

The wrinkles of a prickly pear that has gone to purple in Zion Canyon, Utah.

The wrinkles of a prickly pear that has gone to purple in Zion Canyon, Utah.

More than once I’ve squatted down to look at something on the desert floor, and had my bottom stuck with the painful spines of a small prickly pear I hadn’t even noticed.  I’ve also been annoyed when huge prickly pears blocked my way, forcing me to detour.  In many drier areas of the American West, beaver tail is ubiquitous, the most common spiny succulent growing.

The plant can take on amazing colors, particularly just after flowering, or when it’s stressed and the chlorophyll drains out of its body.  When a plant loses its green chlorophyll, other pigments (such as anthocyanins) impart vibrant purples, pinks, reds and other shades.  In fact, this is precisely what happens when a leaf goes from green to red or yellow in autumn.

After the bloom: a prickly pear's dried flowers show their version of fall colors in Zion National Park, Utah.

After the bloom: a prickly pear’s dried flowers show their version of fall colors in Zion National Park, Utah.

Prickly pears are wrinkly and spiny, and the beaver tail is no exception.  The spines keep most animals from eating it (for the moisture it contains inside) and the wrinkles are an adaptation that lessens the drying effect of desert winds.  These features give it an interesting look when the light is right.  Like other photographers, I mostly have ignored the prickly pear.  That is until it blooms.

Springtime in the deserts of the American Southwest means hot pink beaver tail cactus are in bloom.

Springtime in the deserts of the American Southwest means hot pink beaver tail cactus are in bloom.

In the deserts of the southwestern U.S.A., prickly pear blooms in late March or April – springtime.  The amount of winter rainfall and other factors influence how showy the blooms are, but the size and color (usually pinkish) of the flowers never disappoints anyone.  It is only recently that I’ve begun to really see how beautiful it can be at other times of the year.

So here’s to our common beaver tail cactus.  I will never take it for granted again.

Beaver tail cactus grows abundantly in Snow Canyon State Park, Utah.

Beaver tail cactus grows abundantly in Snow Canyon State Park, Utah.

Baja California III   2 comments

Along Ensenada, Mexico's waterfront are a number of places to eat fresh and cheap seafood (mariscos).

Along Ensenada, Mexico’s waterfront are a number of places to eat fresh and cheap seafood (mariscos).

This post is about some of my experiences with people here in Mexico.  I love the focus on family, and the mellow attitude most Mexicans have toward rules and regulations.  There seems to be too many Americans these days who are in love with rules and regs., official and otherwise, if it allows them to act with disdain towards people they come across during the day.  This is not very true in Mexico.  And on the Baja Peninsula, which is this country’s wild west, things are pretty relaxed.

Elephant Tree in Black and White

An elephant tree grows large in the desert of interior Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

 There is a general lack of people photographs here, and I apologize for that.  If you’ve read some of my posts from other countries you know I do not have an aversion to taking photos of people.  But for me it has to be the right atmosphere.

The enormous granite boulders of the northern Baja Peninsula desert catch the day's last light.

The enormous granite boulders of the northern Baja Peninsula desert catch the day’s last light.

I almost never do casual people photography in the U.S., or most other developed countries.  Most people do not like it, and they are harder to approach anyway.  When it seems right, I always ask, and almost always engage the person in conversation, with some laughs thrown in.  My goal is to loosen them up.

The northern Baja Peninsula in Mexico shows off some color after rains.

The northern Baja Peninsula in Mexico shows off some color after rains.

But sadly, Mexico is getting to be more and more similar to the U.S.  There is a sort of standoffish vibe here now, and it seems to get more and more prevalent with time.  Perhaps not coincidentally, I have noticed a real increase in the desire to shop and accumulate stuff in Mexico.  I think the same is happening in China, but I don’t have enough visits to that country, so as to make that observation.

This statue of a native warrior in Ensenada, Mexico has one heck of a headdress.

This statue of a native warrior in Ensenada, Mexico has one heck of a headdress.

But go into the rural areas of Baja, and you will meet friendly farmers, ranchers and woodcutters.  They survive on the edge, working a dry piece of land, or even living off broad stretches of land.  I’ve met a few of these folks – always men it seems.  Things are still very much traditional in rural Mexico (not just Baja).  There is a traditional division of labor between men and women, and the woman runs the house with real power.

The Riviera, an architectural landmark in Ensenada, Mexico, basks in golden late afternoon light.

The Riviera, an architectural landmark in Ensenada, Mexico, basks in golden late afternoon light.

Actually, I’m fascinated with the traditional, matriarchal senora of rural Mexico.  I’d love to do a photo essay one day.  Another great thing to do would be to take a horse or burro and travel down the length of Baja, staying well away from bigger towns and cities.  I wonder if my horse could do it?  A burro and walking would definitely work better, what with the lack of grazing.

The cactus in Baja California's desert take on vibrant reddish hues after a winter rainstorm.

The cactus in Baja California’s desert take on vibrant reddish hues after a winter rainstorm.

I have stayed in Ensenada for a few days now, getting something done.  I’ve started to discover the out-of-the-way places: the little corner deli with great sandwiches, the best streetside stand for shrimp tacos, the sections where families walk, as opposed to those where streetwalkers walk.  It is pretty cool for a traveler who is normally on the move to be somewhere for awhile, to begin to get to know the place.

There is green space along Ensenada's waterfront.

There is green space along Ensenada’s waterfront.

In Mexico, it is usual for the town or city to at first appear very ugly.  Trash on the streets, a sad, polluted and concrete-lined ditch that used to be a stream flowing down to the sea, houses made of sheet metal and plywood.  But if you hang around, you start to notice how people use the place, how they make the best of things.  Eventually you start to ignore the negatives and focus on the positives.  I wish I were better at this, but I’ve always been a neither glass half-full or half-empty sort of person.  I’m really in the middle, though the really bad stuff I have a habit of completely ignoring.

A type of gall growing on a desert plant in Mexico's Baja Peninsula resembles a Chrismtas ornament.

A type of gall growing on a desert plant in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula resembles a Christmas ornament.

Ensenada draws tourists.  There are a few big hotels here, and quasi-resorts line the rocky coast to the north.  Cruise ships actually call here, disgorging passengers to roam the streets where tequila and trouble await.  I’m always one to be drawn to the seedy side of town, at least for one late-night foray.  What can I say, I like living dangerously.  Last night I went out, and visited a very popular bar.  On a Tuesday night it was elbow to elbow with locals, all having a drink and listening to a mariachi band, who played with real spirit while being jostled by people weaving their way through the crowd.

The Riviera is an architectural landmark in Ensenada, Mexico.

The Riviera is an architectural landmark in Ensenada, Mexico.

Then I went to a not so popular club, with maybe a dozen men sitting and watching girls dance.  I had a couple lap-sitters come my way, angling for that expensive drink, or possibly more?  After pleasantries (I want to help them learn their English after all!), I sent them gently away.  In Mexico the girls generally do not take everything off, and some even strip down to nothing less than you see on many American streets, in broad daylight.  So it seems somehow a bit classier than the typical place in the U.S. (which I haven’t visited in many years).

There are numerous sculpted caves in the granite of Baja California's desert.

There are numerous sculpted caves in the granite of Baja California’s desert.

It’s funny to see Mexicans all dressed up in their winter clothes, as the temperature dips to 60.  Many are women who are taking the opportunity to wear fashionable stuff, the kind that only comes in cold-weather style.   They are quite image-conscious here, slightly more so than in the U.S. I would say.  Of course this goes for the single senoritas much more so than the settled senoras.  I think men are too, but in a totally different, more subtle way.  Or maybe I pay more attention to the women.  This isn’t to criticize, just an observation.

The town of Ensenada on Mexico's Baja Peninsula shows a nice face when the light is right.

The town of Ensenada on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula shows a nice face when the light is right.

The sun is out again, with clear blue skies after a stormy day yesterday.  So I will head out and try to get a few people pictures before posting this.  Thanks for reading!

The Baja California Desert in Mexico quietly bids goodbye to another day.

The Baja California Desert in Mexico quietly bids goodbye to another day.

I didn’t get any photos of people, though I met plenty today.  But I did get this photo of the Carnival ship that is docked in the harbor right now.

A Carnival cruise ship is docked in Ensenada, Mexico's harbor.

A Carnival cruise ship is docked in Ensenada, Mexico’s harbor.

 

Baja California II   9 comments

The sun rises over the desert of Baja California Norte, Mexico.

The sun rises over the desert of Baja California Norte, Mexico.

Still in Baja.  This was to be a short 1-week dip into Baja California Norte.  I’m a bit over that now, but this is the day for saying Adios to Mexico.  Several years ago I came down here with a friend and we went all the way down to the southern tip at Cabo San Lucas.  Actually I liked San Jose del Cabo more than the famous tourist center.  It is to the east of Cabo San Lucas and is more of a local’s town.  The beaches all face south, are uncrowded, and (this is crucial) in December the sun shines warmly on them.

The desert in Mexico's Baja California Norte has some surprises, including the rare California Palm, which grow in small canyons fed by springs.

The desert in Mexico’s Baja California Norte has some surprises, including a variety of palms which grow in small canyons fed by springs.

The other great thing about the southern part of Baja, in my opinion, is the canyon hiking.  About halfway between La Paz and Cabo, just south of the windsurfing mecca of Los Barrilles, you’ll find Agua Caliente.  There are dirt roads leading west away from the highway and towards the mountains.  A great camping site awaits you, and a short walk from your camp brings you to a riverside hot spring.  But if you keep hiking upriver, you enter a granite canyon that is sublime.  I don’t like using that word much, but it fits here.

The desert floor in Baja California Norte takes on festive colors in December.

The desert floor in Baja California Norte takes on festive colors in December.

There are waterfalls and plunge pools galore, and even a few boulder fields where you can run across the perfectly-placed rocks.  I love doing this, though I can’t seem to generate the speed that I once did.  The trick is to start slowly and to concentrate on the exact spot where your next foot will land.  As you pick up speed, you begin to look for that next spot well before your front foot lands on the rock before.

The constant winds on the Baja Peninsula have sculpted the granite outcrops of the interior desert.

The constant winds on the Baja Peninsula have sculpted the granite outcrops of the interior desert.

Soon you are on the edge of wiping out, which will happen immediately if you lose concentration.  You go until the boulder field ends or your legs give out.  We did it often while climbing in Alaska.  It was a way to break up the monotony of traversing truly enormous boulder fields.  Here in southern Baja, the rounded granite boulders are perfect for it.  And after you get all hot and sweaty you can hit the next freshwater plunge pool.  Excellent!

The plants of Baja California's desert will often bloom in mid-winter when the rains come.

Plants of Baja California’s desert will often bloom in mid-winter when the rains come.

This was the first road trip for my beloved VW Westy.  I had just purchased it the summer before, and it really needed an inaugural trip.  I slept above while my buddy slept below.  He continued through Mexico by taking the ferry from La Paz, while I returned north with the van.

Aloe and granite outcrops in the desert of the northern Baja Peninsula glow with golden light at sunset.

Yucca and granite outcrops in the desert of the northern Baja Peninsula glow with golden light at sunset.

I also loved a little place called Aqua Verde.  This is a little-known coastal settlement on the Sea of Cortez side of the Baja Peninsula just south of Loreto.  You take a dirt road from the highway just before it cuts inland.  When we took this road it got bad, narrow and with extreme drop-offs.  But this was because a tropical storm had hit the area just a month before.  The road should be better now.

An aloe plant and its characteristic white threads is yet another interesting plant of the Baja California Desert.

A yucca plant and its characteristic white threads is yet another interesting plant of the Baja California Desert.

It’s worth braving the death-defying road though.  It leads down to an extremely scenic embayment, complete with offshore islands and sandy coves.  And the water is indeed colored a beautiful greenish turquoise.  When we visited, there was only a single family living down there.  The matriarch will serve meals if you ask.  Otherwise you can camp just about anywhere near or on the beach.  But watch yourself or you will end up doing a lot of digging and cursing getting unstuck.  I recommend bringing a shovel.  There was one American guy down there.  From San Diego, he comes here every year to dive and spearfish.  He says the water off Southern California is just too polluted now.  He loves the family, and this is his time to commune with his beloved sea.  All he requires is his little dinghy and a wetsuit, and he’s happy.  I hope Agua Verde hasn’t changed!

A desert plant on Mexico's Baja Peninsula displays vibrant color after winter rains.

A desert plant on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula displays vibrant color after winter rains.

Not all went well on that trip.  In Loreto on the return north, I had my van side-swiped by a drunk driver while it was parked.  Of course it was a hit and run.  But a small piece of the pickup that hit me was left at the scene, enough to identify the color and even the make of the truck.   Also, I interviewed every business owner on that street and sure enough, it was a swerving, speeding black Toyota pickup that hit me.

A temporary pool fills a depression in a granite outcrop on Mexico's Baja Peninsula.

A temporary pool fills a depression in a granite outcrop on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.

So I spent a couple days wandering the entire city looking for that pickup.  It was sort of fun playing detective, though getting the police to help was frustrating.  When I found a pickup which matched, I actually got a Mexican policeman to follow him, with me in the passenger seat.  When we pulled him over it turned out to not have any damage.  Then the next morning while walking I saw a nearly identical truck with the right damage, parked on the roadside.  But when I returned with a cop, the truck was gone.  I never saw it again.

An elephant tree reclines on a granite outcrop in the northern Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

An elephant tree reclines on a granite outcrop in the northern Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

On this current trip I did not make it down there, but I did spend some quality time in the desert.  I also hung about in Ensenada for a few days, getting some (cheap) body work done on my van.  Staying away from the Chiquitas has been key to my saving money doing it here instead of at home, where labor rates are much higher.  But I am feeling a little road weary, after almost 3 months.  It’s time to head home.  I can feel it.  But one more post on Baja to come, this time focusing, as I promised last post, on the people I met down here.

A saguaro basks in the warm late-afternoon light on Mexico's Baja Peninsula.

A cardon cactus basks in the warm late-afternoon light on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.

The crescent moon shines behind a towering cirios on Mexico's Baja Peninsula.

The crescent moon shines behind a towering cirios (or boojum) on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.

Baja California I   Leave a comment

A rare rainbow graces the desert during sunrise in Baja California, Mexico.

A rare rainbow graces the desert during sunrise in Baja California, Mexico.

This is my second trip to the Baja Peninsula, and sadly this time I could not travel all the way down to the southern tip.  But that is definitely something I’ll do again with more time.  On the bright side, on this trip I spent more time in the northern desert, specifically the Parque Nacional Sierra de San Pedro Martir.  There are two sections to this park, the northern (which I posted on last time) and the southern (which is bisected by Highway 1 and so is more accessible).

In Baja California Norte, Mexico, the desert plants often take the place of trees.

In Baja California Norte, Mexico, the desert plants (including these yuccas) often take the place of trees.

I drove down to the little town of El Rosario, which is where the highway turns inland from the Pacific Coast.  There I met a couple friendly American expats, one of which let me park and camp on his property.  The other guy has a restaurant, and since he’s a commercial fisherman this meant some excellent fish that night for dinner.  El Rosario is nothing special, but for this reason it is sleepy and traditional.  Other towns further down the Peninsula, such as Mulege and especially Loreto, have more going for them.  But predictably, this results in their also being touristy.  Loreto’s development as a retirement haven has completely transformed that formerly pleasant seaside town.

A beautiful ground cover is the reward for hiking out into the desert near El Rosario on the Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

A beautiful ground cover is the reward for hiking out into the desert near El Rosario on the Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

Striking inland, the highway heads down the granite spine of the Peninsula, and soon you find yourself in a beautiful desert.  It is floored with giant boulders of granite, and features an enormous variety of desert flora.  This is the unique Baja California Desert.  The endangered California Fan Palm grows here, as do the fascinating cirios (or boojum tree) and the amazing elephant tree.  You will also notice a wide variety of cactus species, as well as some species of the Sonoran Desert.  The Sonoran borders this desert to the east, and runs up along the Sea of Cortez into Arizona.

Cactus and granite are features of the landscape of the northern Baja Peninsula interior.

Cactus and granite are features of the landscape of the northern Baja Peninsula interior.

I camped and hiked in the area for a few nights, enjoying the desert under some very nice light.  This was courtesy of the weather, which turned stormy for a couple days.  The desert received significant rainfall while I was there, which made for happy plants and colorful skies.

Cactus are happy in the arid but not too dry interior of Mexico's Baja Peninsula.

Cactus are happy in the arid but not too dry interior of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.

The highway does run through here, and there are precious few tracks heading off into the hills.  And these are mostly 4wd only, especially when things are wet.  So with the loud Mexican truckers rumbling through here during the night, it’s important to find a track that will take you at least a quarter mile from the highway.  Then you can walk as far as you want in order to lose the sound of the highway.  With all the granite monoliths sticking up out of the desert, and the shallow canyons heading in all directions, you will soon lose the sound of  the truckers’ “jake brakes”.

Granite and towering cirios characterize the beautiful northern Baja Peninsula desert.

Granite and towering cirios (boojum) characterize the beautiful northern Baja Peninsula desert.

This place is a desert botanist’s dream.  What diversity!

This species of fan palm is usually only found these days in gardens, but in Baja California, Mexico, it still grows in the interior of the Peninsula.

This species, the California fan palm (left), is usually only found these days in gardens, but in Baja California, Mexico, it still grows in the interior of the Peninsula.

Make sure you are not like the 99.9% of people who rush down the peninsula headed for the warmth of Baja California Sur.  I do understand.  Mostly Canadian, but plenty of American snowbirds as well, they all have their favorite places to land, and they’re in a hurry to get there.  But it’s a long long drive (well over 1000 miles one-way from San Diego to Cabo), so make it a point to stop and stretch your legs in some of the fine desert you’ll pass.

A big saguaro cactus soars into the Baja skies.

A big cardon cactus soars into the Baja skies.

And this stretch in the north, where the highway crosses Parque Nacional Sierra de San Pedro Martir, is some of the most beautiful on the entire peninsula.  If you like stars, do more than stop and take a walk.  Camp here at elevation.  Although the stars are nice and bright on the beach as well, they have an extra sparkle up here.  Next up is a bit more on the people and culture here.

A rare desert rainstorm has left pools of water among the granite and saguaro of Baja California Norte, Mexico.

A rare desert rainstorm has left pools of water among the granite and cardon cactus of Baja California Norte, Mexico.

Death Valley V: Geologic History   Leave a comment

The morning sun hits the Panamint Range, as viewed from Death Valley.

The morning sun hits the Panamint Range, as viewed from Death Valley.

This is the second of three posts on the natural history background for a visit to Death Valley National Park in California.  I hope it sparks some interest in these subjects, because if you visit this desert park, you will be hard-pressed to ignore its stunning geology and arid ecology.

GEOLOGIC HISTORY

The rocks exposed in Death Valley go back nearly two billion years.  As you walk through canyons like Titus or Marble, you will see layer upon layer of a dark gray sedimentary rock (often weathering red to orange).  A great thing to do on a hot day in a canyon is to go into the shade of these walls and lean your whole body against the cool gray rock.  This is limestone, and it tells of a time when this area was covered in a warm subtropical sea.

The famous Artist's Palette in Death Valley as viewed from atop the ridge that is most often photographed.

The famous Artist’s Palette in Death Valley as viewed from atop the ridge that is most often photographed.

Back in Paleozoic time (250-600 million years ago), there was a quiet coastline not far east of here one very similar to the modern Atlantic coast of North America.  Marine algae and other small creatures pulled CO2 and calcium out of the seawater to form their shells. These lime muds accumulated layer upon layer, eventually to become limestone.  Sand, silt and mud covered the shallow marine shelf at times, leading to sandstone, siltstone and shale.

Later, during the time of dinosaurs (the Mesozoic), the whole region was the focus of mountain building, thus emerging from the sea.  And mountain building means plate tectonics.  At that time, the ancestral Pacific Plate (called the Farallon Plate by geologists) pushed underneath the western edge of North America – a subduction zone.

Recently formed salt crystals decorate the floor of Death Valley in California.

Recently formed salt crystals decorate the floor of Death Valley in California.

The incredible pressures generated along this subduction zone made the limestone and other rocks pay dearly for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  These sedimentary rocks were originally deposited in horizontal layers, and as you can easily see in the naked mountains of Death Valley, they have been folded, faulted, and otherwise tortured.  Masses of granitic magma, melted crustal rocks from below, pushed up into the sedimentary rocks.  This granite is best exposed to the south, in Joshua Tree and other parts of southern California.

A view of Death Valley from above Artist's Palette shows the playa with its salt pan.  A large alluvial fan is at upper left with dark inselbergs emerging in places.

A view of Death Valley from above Artist’s Palette shows the playa with its salt pan. A large alluvial fan is at upper left with dark inselbergs emerging in places.

The spectacular results of this ultra slow-motion collision can be seen on any canyon hike in Death Valley.  In addition, many of the rocks have been changed – metamorphosed – into a wholly different kind of rock.  The uplifted area was slowly worn down by erosion over a long, long time, eventually forming a low plain.  In other words, there were no rocks formed, in this case from the Jurassic to the Eocene, a period of 130 million years!  The missing time interval shows up as an ancient erosional surface in the rocks, what is called an unconformity.

 Unconformities are important horizons in any rock sequence, and this one shows itself in various places across Death Valley.  You can see a textbook example of an angular unconformity (the most obvious kind) in Darwin Canyon.  This canyon is about 19 miles from Panamint Springs (where you’ll ask for directions and road conditions).  It shows as a line in the rocks (surface in 3 dimensions) where layers below are at a completely different angle than those above.  In the same area is some fantastic folding.

Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park, California, offers great opportunity to photograph landscapes in black and white.

Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park, California, offers great opportunity to photograph landscapes in black and white.

THE BIG RIP

Long after the dinosaurs had disappeared, starting several million years ago, this area began to be torn apart by rifting at the edge of North America.  It’s a process that continues today.  By this time the subduction zone off the west coast had shrunk northward, where it still grinds away off the coast of Oregon and Washington.  It was replaced by the San Andreas Fault, which still marks the boundary between the North American and Pacific tectonic plates.

The lateral sliding movement of the enormous Pacific Plate moving north past the western margin of North America is essentially torquing the entire western part of North America.  It’s caused a clockwise rotation and the crust has broken into large fault block mountain ranges bounded by normal faults.  This rifting (as rifting typically does) opened pathways for lava to rise and erupt.  Throughout Death Valley you will see areas of volcanic rocks – mostly tuff (rock made from volcanic ash) and basalt (dark lava rock).  Ubehebe Crater in the north past Scotty’s Castle is just one example.

The skies above Death Valley are the playground of Navy pilots from nearby China Lake.

One of the only times you’ll look up from the stunning landscape of Death Valley is when a deep boom makes you notice the Navy jet pilots from nearby China Lake, who make the skies their playground.

 The fault-block mountains caused by rifting are Death Valley’s most obvious geological structure.  But in this far southern part of the Basin and Range, you are looking at a deeper level of rifting.  So there are not only the steep normal faults, but also low-angle “detachment” faults.  Think about the steep normal faults that border the mountain fronts curving and taking on more shallow angles as you mentally travel down their surfaces, and you have a great idea of a detachment.

Incidentally, remember the granite formed during the Mesozoic?  Go south, to Joshua Tree and other places in Southern California, and you’ll see the masses of granite all around.  This means you are seeing much deeper levels of the rifting of North America than you see in the northern Basin and Range.  Keep going and you’ll come to the Gulf of California, where the Sea of Cortez has already invaded the rift.  It’s as if a giant zipper was slowly opening, south to north along the western edge of the continent.

A black and white rendition of the simple beauty of Death Valley's sand dunes.

A black and white rendition of the simple beauty of Death Valley’s sand dunes.

 Back to detachment faults: they can cause whole mountain ranges to literally slide down a sort of shallow ramp, ending up miles from where they started.  Tucki Peak may have slid in this manner.  They really are the most efficient way to rip apart a continent!  You can see these large, low-angled surfaces where they help to form the geographic features called turtle-backs.  One such site is about 16 miles south of Badwater, where if you stop at Mormon Point and look north into the Black Mountains, you’ll notice one of these ramp-like detachment faults.

One more post coming to finish up with Death Valley, this one on the Ice Ages and the pup fish.

The golden light of a late afternoon warms the dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park.

The golden light of a late afternoon warms the dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park.

Death Valley III: Hiking the Silent Desert   2 comments

The sand dunes of Death Valley National Park can turn golden in the first light of morning.

The sand dunes of Death Valley National Park can turn golden in the first light of morning.

I think Death Valley National Park – by virtue of its size alone is worth more than a couple days – offers some of the best desert hiking in the West.  The last post highlighted some great ‘starter’ options.  But if you are an avid hiker like me you’ll want to go beyond the “standards” that any ranger will steer you towards.  And this goes double if you visit during a busy time like March/April, or to a lesser extent October.

The massive bulk of Tucki Peak looms behind the dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley, California.

The massive bulk of Tucki Peak looms behind the dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley, California.

I don’t want to give the impression that you should avoid springtime in Death Valley.  With perfect temperatures, blooming cactus, and a fresh look to the sparse but fascinating plant life of the desert, there are reasons aplenty to come here at that time.  And since this is a huge and still little-visited park, we aren’t talking Yosemite- (or even Yellowstone-) crowded here.

I prefer November through February.  But this last visit was my seventh time to the park, and each time for a solid week.  So as they say, it’s all relative.  If I were coming for the first time, I would consider a week in March/April, but one without Spring Break happening in any of the West Coast states (this is somewhat important!).

Redwall Canyon in Death Valley National Park sports soaring orange and red walls.

Redwall Canyon in Death Valley National Park sports soaring orange and red walls.

Here are a couple strenuous and less crowded (but still well known) options:

  • Marble Canyon is accessed from a dirt road that takes off from the airstrip at Stovepipe Wells.  It is normally okay for a 2wd with decent clearance.  You’ll be able to drive further up into the mouth of the canyon if you have a good 4wd vehicle, but not really all that much further.  It is a big and bold canyon, and you can make this as long a hike as you want by turning around at the place of your choice.  The adjoining Cottonwood Canyon is also accessible.  If you’re a scrambler you could spend a week in this area.
  • Telescope Peak: The climb from Mahogany Flats to the park’s highest point, Telescope Peak at 11,050 feet (3370 meters), gives you an experience that is completely different from that on the valley floor.  You can spend a truly wintry day up here and then sleep in the dunes under the stars at 80 degrees!  The first time I climbed Telescope, we snow-camped at Mahogany, got up at 1st light for melted-snow oatmeal and Death Valley Dates, then proceeded to plow through hip-deep snow drifts to the summit.  We got back near dark, feeling very played out.  We were young bucks too!  And this was late March!  The next time I did Telescope, in April, it was a hike of 5-6 hours. Completely different.
The texture in a sand dune at Mesquite Flats in Death Valley, California sets off the view toward the dark Funeral Mountains in the distance.

The texture in a sand dune at Mesquite Flats in Death Valley, California sets off the view toward the dark Funeral Mountains in the distance.

And here are a few hikes where with one exception I’ve never seen another hiker.  Not all are strenuous:

  • Mesquite Flat Walks: The dunes at Mesquite Flat touch the highway at one place, and it’s here where almost everyone walks into them.  If you want to climb the highest dune here, this is the place.  But I’ve been to Namibia and even the highest one here is but a dimple.  Better is to pick a different access point, especially if you want footprint-free pictures.  Also, you can commune with the inter-dune ecology in complete solitude.  Here are two options:
  1. Park along the Marble Canyon road just past the airstrip at Stovepipe Wells. If you look to the right you’ll see a line of low dunes.  Walk toward them.  There might be someone else doing this, since if you camp at Stovepipe it’s easy to just hike out here from your campsite.  Amazingly few people do this though.
  2. Park at the site of the historic Stovepipe Well (get directions to it from somebody at the village of Stovepipe).  From here you can walk out into the valley towards the dunes.  It will take about a half-hour minimum to get into the dunes.  You can easily do a sort of triangular loop from your car, with the far end of the triangle being empty and beautiful sand dunes.  The only tracks you’ll see are those of the critters that prowled about on the previous night.  If your sense of direction is not the best, have a GPS so you can get back to your starting point.  Or you could just wander in the dark until you find your car.
  • Lamoigne Canyon: This is a fascinating side-canyon hike on the opposite side of the valley from the highway, between Stovepipe Wells and the junction with the road to Wildrose.  If you have a 4wd you can drive a rough jeep trail most of the way across the valley to the canyon’s mouth.  If not, you’ll need to walk it.  The latter is the way I did it, and it turned into an all-day hike.

When you get to the canyon mouth, go up the left fork, which is easy to distinguish for its striking white volcanic tuff rocks. This is the only canyon in Death Valley that is cut into volcanic tuff.  At the top of this canyon, you can climb up and over to the main Lamoigne Canyon t o the north.  Then descend this to make an adventurous loop.  Or do this in reverse.

Get directions and advice from the ranger at Stovepipe, and have a good map and plenty of water.  I actually saw people on this hike, which was odd until I caught up with them and discovered they were botanists from the USGS and University of Nevada.  We talked about the different plants growing on the volcanic tuff.

  • Panamint City:  This is a small ghost town located way up a gorgeous canyon on the Panamint Valley side of the park.  From Ballarat (another ghost town) drive as far up the Surprise Canyon road as you can and park.  Work your way up the canyon bottom, switching sides as needed to avoid brush and other obstacles.  You will pass waterfalls as the canyon narrows, and some truly enormous barrel cactus.  It takes some perseverance to make it all the way to the ghost town.  This is a real ghost town, with nobody but the former residents around.  If you can talk to ghosts, ask them why in the world they named this place a “City”.  This is one great hike!
An old wagon at Furnace Creek Ranch, Death Valley, CA.

An old wagon at Furnace Creek Ranch, Death Valley, CA.

Just a further point on the western Panamint side of the park. Make it a point to come over here, and not just to hike Surprise Canyon or Darwin Falls.  It’s quieter and its side canyons contain abundant water in the spring – very different from the main valley.  You’ll probably see wild burros and also you can walk out on the pancake-flat playa – a great experience.  There is also a little-visited (even by me) dune field on the north end of Panamint Valley.

A small group of feral burros (Equus africanus asinus) roams the Panamint Valley of eastern California.

A small group of feral burros (Equus africanus asinus) roams the Panamint Valley of eastern California.

You can do a loop, driving the Wildrose road into the Panamint Range to visit Mahogany Flat (with its photogenic charcoal kilns). You can camp at Wildrose.  Then go down into Panamint Valley and drive back up to Panamint Springs (near where the Darwin Falls hike is located).

Next up is a geology primer for D.V., with some sights I haven’t covered yet.

A colorful sunrise greets the sand dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park, California.

A colorful sunrise greets the sand dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park, California.

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.

 

 

 

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