Archive for the ‘New Mexico’ Tag

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: 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.


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.

Mountain Monday: The Mogollons   20 comments

This post is one day late for International Mountain Day.  But right on time for Mountain Monday!  It highlights a relatively remote place in western New Mexico.  I’d been wanting to go to this part of the southern Rockies for a long time, and earlier this year I finally made it.  I drove up a dirt road that ended at a gate marking the boundary of the Gila Wilderness.  The road continued beyond the gate, growing worse and clinging to the side of a mountain.

I parked and began to hike along the rough jeep track, recognizing it as an old mining route.  I followed it toward the head of a canyon.  Poking around I found some weathered shacks, a couple adits and other remnants of the gold & silver boom of the late 1800s.  There is a ghost town not far from here called Mogollon.  On the way back, as the sun sank lower, the air cooled and fog began to form over the mountains to the west.  It made for a mystical scene.  The sunset that followed was nice, but this shot was my favorite because of its mysterious feel.

The Mogollon Mountains of New Mexico's Gila Wilderness march off into the distance.

The Mogollon Mountains of New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness march off into the distance.

Single-image Sunday: Frames   10 comments

Early morning in the Bisti/De Na Zi Wilderness, New Mexico.

Early morning in the Bisti/De Na Zi Wilderness, New Mexico.

It had been quite awhile since I’d used this simple technique, but recently I had a golden opportunity to use it.  Photographic frames (or frame within the frame) are actually more common than you might think.  But they’re usually much more subtle than this image shows, particularly natural frames.  I was inspired by this week’s Daily Post.  Check out many more examples over there at Frames.

Bisti/De Na Zi Wilderness

I recently checked out an area that I’d been wanting to get to for awhile.  It’s in a fairly remote part of the western U.S. in northwestern New Mexico.  Just north of Chaco Canyon, it’s a protected area called the Bisti/De Na Zi Wilderness.  It’s usually just called Bisti, which is a shortened translation of the Navajo word for adobe walls.  I like the second part of the name better.  It’s an exact rendering of the Navajo for cranes.  South of the wilderness are petroglyphs of cranes.  I love cranes and it’s a beautiful name for them, but with little time, I didn’t locate them on this trip.

 Landscape photographers have been coming here in increasing numbers, so you’ll see plenty of images online if you search.  But these are mostly shots of the interestingly shaped hoodoos (pinnacle-like rock formations), with the most popular being a large wing-shaped formation.  Of course I went for a different take, so explored the canyon floor and an area outside the main concentration of hoodoos.

Despite De Na Zi’s popularity I didn’t see another soul.  I got up very early to be out there at sunrise.  It can be difficult to know how to proceed when you first foray into an unfamiliar area.  And when you start out in the dark pre-dawn hours, it can even be quite disorienting.  This is what I was feeling as I hiked out there into the De Na Zi, still half-asleep.  But there was a moon so I soon got used to it and relaxed, enjoying the detached feeling and the solitude.  See the Extra below for some guidance on confidently heading out into unfamiliar lands to shoot.

I found this little arch just after sunrise.  The badlands beyond were receiving full sun while the grainy rock of the arch, inches from my camera, had just been touched by the sun.  I had to scramble up to it and it was a little precarious to position the tripod, but not too bad.  It was very quiet out there as the shadows gradually shortened and the sun rose, promising a hot August day ahead.  Thanks for looking!

EXTRA: Finding your Way

I don’t use a GPS while hiking & photographing.  Too much temptation to locate and find specific things instead of exploring for my own compositions.  Also I have a good sense of direction and rarely get truly lost.  The most important thing to possess, though, is the right attitude.  I don’t mind wandering around temporarily unaware of exactly where I am (I don’t call this lost).

But whenever I go hiking with others, I realize that most folks do mind not knowing where they are, and do call it being lost.  So for most people who want to go off-trail to find unique photo opportunities, I recommend a GPS.  Learn how to use it in a local park before trying it out in the wilderness.  Even for short forays away from the road, it’s nice to tag your parking location so you’re able to head straight back to the car, particularly if the sun has gone down.

Without GPS, I just keep track of my route using landmarks and position of the sun/moon/stars, occasionally turning around and studying the terrain.  So I’m normally confident of the general return direction.  It’s not as exact as a GPS, but terrain usually dictates an indirect route anyway (something that GPS users sometimes forget).  Even if you use a GPS, I suggest getting used to using landmarks and awareness of route direction relative to your parking spot, the direction the road runs, and the sun (or moon/stars if it gets dark).

Friday Foto Talk: Macro & Close-up Photography, Part IV   12 comments

A sunny meadow is home to a large spider in New Mexico's Sangre de Cristo Mountains. 21 mm., 1/250 sec. @ f/22, ISO 200.

A sunny meadow is home to a large spider in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains. 21 mm., 1/250 sec. @ f/22, ISO 200.

This post will explore ways to incorporate your macro photography into regular shooting.  I’m of the belief that the human brain naturally desires to order the world.  So we all categorize, some more than others.  While this isn’t in itself a bad thing, it can lead to a sort of tunnel vision (really several tunnels).  All it takes to broaden your perspective is to realize that all our categories lie on a continuum.  Putting that into practice of course is a bit tougher.

So how does this apply to photography, and in particular macro & close-up photography?  Well, once you are comfortable getting close with a macro lens, extension tubes or close-up filter, consider attempting to get super close to subjects while also showing much of the surroundings.  In nature and landscape photography, this can be a powerful way to highlight one small part of nature while showing the landscape as well.

I’m calling this one Flying Duck Kiss. 100 mm. macro lens, 1/6 sec. @ f/14, ISO 200.

I captured the image at the top of this post last month in northern New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  I’ve sort of fallen in love with these mountains over the past couple of years.  Waking for sunrise a thick fog greeted me, so not much chance at a big landscape image.  But I stayed out well past sunup, wandering through a lovely meadow.  I was fascinated by the tall blooming mule’s ear all around.  It was quite a bright scene, but I used my tripod anyway.

The lens I used, a Zeiss 21 mm., focuses extremely close.  So close in fact that I consider it a “wide-angle macro” lens.  Most macro lenses are of much longer focal length.  But if your goal is to show much of the environment around your subject, a wide angle lens that focuses close is the ticket.  If you don’t have that lens, consider getting the Canon 500D close-up filter.  More on that accessory in Part V of this series.  I think it’s much easier to use than extension tubes, especially with wide-angle lenses.

I was able to get very close to the spider web, making an already large web look even bigger.  At 21 mm. not only were the silhouetted mule’s ears prominent, the landscape beyond – the morning sun filtered through the fog-shrouded forest – is highlighted as well.

A closer look at that spider web, using the 100 mm. macro lens: 1/125 sec. @ f/4.0, ISO 100.

A closer look at that spider web, using the 100 mm. macro lens: 1/125 sec. @ f/4.0, ISO 100.

One challenge to these sorts of photos is depth of field.  You’ll want to focus right on your subject, and since it’s very close, you’re almost guaranteed to blur the background to a certain extent.  You can use f/22, which is the smallest aperture for most lenses.  But diffraction effects introduce some softness at tiny apertures.  How much softness depends on the lens.  The Zeiss happens to be pretty darn sharp at f/22, though not nearly as much as it is at f/8.  A tradeoff.

You could also focus-stack, taking several images (at an intermediate aperture like f/8 or f/11), focusing on things at ever-increasing distances from you.  You then combine those images using Photoshop to get a picture with sharp focus front to back.  Currently I don’t have Photoshop, so I’ve been collecting focus-stacked sequences and saving them for possible use later.

Of course you don’t have to have everything in focus.  Even wide-angle lenses will blur things to one degree or another.  If you get super-close to your main subject and use your largest aperture (f/2.8 for e.g.), you’ll blur much of the background, even if it’s not that far away.  You won’t blur it as much as using, say a 200 mm. focal length at f/2.8, but that’s okay.  When you do this it helps to have a very strong subject.

I’ve also used the ever-versatile 50 mm. lens with my Canon 500D close-up filter and found I’m able to limit the amount of background while also blurring it.  What I suppose I’m saying is that you should never limit yourself.  Use the gear you have in all possible combinations.  Vary the distance to subject and point of view.  Experiment!

After you’ve become somewhat familiar with operating in the space between macro and ‘normal’ landscape shooting, you should have a better ability to match the techniques you use to your goals for the images; that is, what you want to say about your subjects.

Though I’ve described combining macro and landscape here, it should apply to other subject matter as well.  Can you think of ways to do this with portrait?  Or sports?  Other subjects?  Leave a comment, don’t be shy!  Okay, that’s it for today.  Next week I’ll conclude the series with a look at gear and accessories for macro & close-up photography.    Have a fun weekend!

Fading blooms of summer, Garden of the Gods, Colorado. 21 mm., 1/125 sec. @ f/22, ISO 200.

“We will become…silhouettes when our bodies finally go”:  Colorado.  21 mm., 1/125 sec. @ f/22, ISO 200.


The Apache   2 comments

I wanted to show some photographs I found of Apache warriors.  I often find myself in country populated by the ghosts of the original inhabitants, and it makes me realize how little time has actually passed between their time and ours.  I also thought you should see some of the country these impressive American Indians roamed through.

A placard near Gila Hot Springs, New Mexico.

A placard near Gila Hot Springs, New Mexico.

It was almost dark when I came upon the well-done placard pictured above.  It’s located near the remote Gila Hot Springs, New Mexico.  It tells the story of the Apache and their battles in the late 19th century, and it does so with a perfect blend of text and pictures.  These men and women gave the U.S. Cavalry all they could handle.  Yes there were women in the war parties.  A few were fierce warriors, fighting alongside Cochise and Geronimo.  And medicine women were on hand.  They were useful as healers of course.  But at least one, a famous Apache medicine woman called Lozen, was said to accurately foretell the enemy’s movements.

Freely crossing the U.S.-Mexican border, the Apaches battled just as many Mexican as U.S. soldiers.  I think they would not have been much hindered by today’s fences and SUV-bound border patrol.  They mostly engaged in guerrilla warfare.  And as long as playing field was fairly level, they usually had the upper hand.  Heavy artillery was their eventual downfall.

The warriors took refuge in rugged mountains and canyons to rest and recharge.  Ranges like the Gilas, the Chiricahuas and the Dragoons offered abundant shelter (including caves), water, game, food plants and medicinal plants for healing the wounds of battle.  The unique geologic characteristics of the mountains made pursuit difficult.  For example, the Chiricahuas have expanses of maze-like rock formations near their summits.  This allowed the Indians to easily ambush parties of soldiers.

Morning breaks over Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona.

Morning breaks over Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona.

There is not much to say about the character of these warriors that cannot be understood by looking at their photos.  But that record is incomplete.  Cochise, reported to be tall, muscular and graceful, was never photographed.  Neither was Mangas Coloradas.  The only way we know of what these Apache may have looked like is their sons, whose images we often do have.  Geronimo was an exception, as he was both famous and not shy of the camera.  But even he is only known from a few photos.




The Apache Indian wars came to an end, inevitably, when their numbers were reduced, allowing the survivors to be rounded up and sent to distant reservations.  Cochise was able to live out his life in a free state, dying of natural causes in 1874.  His body lies at an unknown gravesite somewhere in Arizona’s Dragoon Mountains.  Geronimo was not as lucky.  He died in 1909 on an Oklahoma reservation, far from the mountains and canyons of his birth.

Friday Foto Talk: Macro & Close-up Photography, Part II   9 comments

Alpine gentian growing at over 12,000 feet elevation in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Alpine gentian growing at over 12,000 feet in elevation, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

(Since I wasn’t going to be on a computer tomorrow – Friday – I meant to schedule this post ahead one day.  But I mistakenly hit Publish!  Haha~so it’s a day early, what’s the harm!)

It’s time for Part II of this little series on macro and close-up photography.  So let’s get right to it.  Following are tips for successful macro and close-up photography:

  • Composition is still king.  Just as with all photography, paying attention to everything in the frame – how it’s arranged and what can be excluded to help simplify things – is the pathway to success.
  • Look for interesting stuff.  I know, duh!  With macro, keeping an eye out for small bits of color, or really anything that stands out, will help you to zoom in (crouching or on your hands and knees) to find fascinating details that weren’t noticeable from afar.  Keep an eye out for small movements in your vision’s periphery; it could lead to cool little critters.
  • Patience is even more important than usual.  With flowers, waiting for the breeze to pause can have even the shy among us cursing like sailors.  Get the picture set up and use LiveView with focus set, then wait for the perfect moment to trip the shutter.  Try using burst mode; one of the images in the burst sequence will usually be in focus.
This pretty lily blooms in very dry, desolate desert areas of southern New Mexico during late summer monsoons.

This pretty lily blooms in very dry, desolate desert areas of southern New Mexico during late summer monsoons.  The wind was trying to keep me from getting the shot.

  • Depth of field will be a challenge.  Macro lenses have an innately narrow depth of field.  And don’t expect close-up filters or extension tubes to do much better in that regard.  Specific techniques for dealing with this are coming in the next post.  The caterpillar below, who was moving surprisingly quickly, I shot hand-held, with fairly shallow depth of field and fast shutter speed.  The fungus below that was stock still on a dark background, so I was able to shoot from the tripod with small aperture (for good depth of field), not worrying about having to blur the background.
Shallow depth of field meant that I couldn't get all of this caterpillar in focus, so I focused on his head.

Shallow depth of field meant that I couldn’t get all of this caterpillar in focus, so I focused on his head.

A strange fungus I found growing on a pine tree in El Malpais, New Mexico.

A strange fungus grows on a charred pine tree in the high country along the Arizona-New Mexico border.

  • A tripod is usually necessary.  With subjects that don’t move, or with flowers & other things that move back and forth (in the breeze), a tripod is really a no-brainer.  In low light a tripod is even more critical.  But even when light is bright and shutter speed is faster, a tripod results in more keepers.  On the other hand, with fast-moving critters, a tripod may be more of a hindrance.  Last point on tripods: never avoid a macro opportunity just because you don’t have a tripod with you.  It’s still worth it, though your skills and patience will certainly be tested.

Western fence lizard, El Malpais, New Mexico. Hand-held and autofocus allowed me to catch him before he scampered off.

  • Focus is a pretty big deal.  You’ll find yourself using manual focus (with or without LiveView) much more often than usual.  It allows much more precise adjustment, especially when using LiveView.  With critters and other subjects that move, autofocus may be best.  Next time we’ll go more into how camera position directly affects both your selective focus and depth of field.


  • Work that subject!  Just as with landscapes, portraits and other kinds of image-making, moving around and changing point of view, getting shots from several different distances, and in general trying to exhaust all possibilities is the way to go.  Not only will it increase your chances for more good images, it will also help greatly to tell a story about the subject.


  • Related to the above point, try not to obsess about getting as close as possible.  While filling the frame can certainly be effective, it’s just one way of showing your subject.  Just as wildlife photography dominated by close-ups cries out for a few shots showing the animal’s surroundings, macro and close-up photography needs to mix in wider views to show context and help tell the whole story.
Although this butterfly is so beautiful it's tempting to fill the frame, stepping back to show the purple flowers it was alighting on results in an image that communicates more.

Although this butterfly is so beautiful it’s tempting to fill the frame, stepping back to show the purple flowers it was alighting on results in an image that communicates more.

  • Find good light.  Golden hour, with the sun very low, is not just a good time for larger landscapes.  It can also result in dramatic macro and close-up images.  But bright sunlight also presents problems of contrast, and the higher the sun goes the harsher the light.  Next time we’ll look at ways to mitigate these issues.  A high overcast sky, with flat, even light, is good for illuminating all parts of your subject equally.

That’s it for now.  I’m about to cross the border into Mexico for a short visit and a dip in the Sea of Cortez.  Have a super weekend and happy shooting!

And now for a non-macro: sunset over the Bighorn Mountains, Wyoming.

And now for a non-macro: sunset over the Bighorn Mountains, Wyoming.


Wordless Wednesday: Jeweled Chamber   11 comments


A Visit to Photograph Santa Fe & Taos, New Mexico   8 comments

Adobe rules in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Adobe rules in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

I had never been to this part of the country and I wanted to see why it was so popular as a travel destination.  Great Sand Dunes National Park was still closed because of the Govt. shutdown, and thinking it might open very soon (which happened) I made the detour down from south-central Colorado last week.

I drove down to the little town of Questa in spitting snow.  Camping above the Rio Grande River, I woke next morning to find about 4 inches of snow had fallen.  The weather gradually cleared and warmed a bit over the next few days.  I made my way first to Taos and then to New Mexico’s capital Santa Fe.  Both are chock-full of adobe architecture, some of it very old and restored.  This post will give tips for visiting the region and touch on its history.  Images of the architecture will take center stage.

The Rio Grande Gorge near Questa, New Mexico on a snowy morning.

The Rio Grande Gorge near Questa, New Mexico on a snowy morning.

Both Santa Fe and Taos are great for strolling and exploring.  Santa Fe is the more touristy of the two and is larger.  But you’ll find no tall buildings in Santa Fe, and really not much traffic.  Both are small enough to walk but Taos is very much a town compared to Santa Fe, which is a small city.

Cathedral Basilica of St Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Cathedral Basilica of St Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Santa Fe

I started in Santa Fe, America’s oldest state capital (and highest at 7000 feet).  It was founded by the Spanish in 1607 and played a big role in the early western expansion of the U.S.  Many famous people have spent time here, both in historic and more recent times.  The artist Georgia O’Keefe lived and painted here in the early 20th century.  It also has a world-renowned opera.

There is paid parking throughout the downtown area, in old-fashioned coin meters.  If you’re willing to walk into the center, you can find free parking.  I visited the friendly Capital Coffee, which is only 5 minutes walk from the edge of the historic center.  After coffee, I used their parking lot to strike off into the streets and shoot.  I was only a little over an hour doing this.  I would not take advantage and spend half the day parked there.

Adobe houses are, above all, simple.  You can see the straw used to mix the adobe.

Adobe houses are, above all, simple. You can see the straw used in the adobe.

I recommend simply wandering through the streets around the central plaza.  The plaza (zocalo in Mexico) is a good landmark to keep circling back to.  There are innumerable art galleries to visit of course.  The town is a magnet for artists of all stripes.  I focused on shooting exteriors here.  I photographed mostly when the sun was low but not so low that shadows dominated.

Built in 1607, this is America's "oldest" house, though since it is adobe, it's been continuously patched and rebuilt over the years.

Built in 1607, this is America’s “oldest” house, though since it is adobe, it’s been continuously patched and rebuilt over the years.

Rather than list places to visit, I urge you to check out Wiki’s travel guide (which includes a walking map) or do your own Googling.  For the rich history of this 400+-year old city, you couldn’t do much better than start with the Palace of the Governors.  This is the former center of Spain’s colonial government here and is now New Mexico’s state history museum.

While you’re strolling, it’s very worthwhile trying to get access to the placitas (commonly called courtyards in most areas).  Placitas characterize the architecture here. Found throughout Latin America as well, here these delightful open-air spaces are surrounded by low-slung adobe buildings.  During my travels in Mexico, Central and South America, courtyards have been a favorite place to chill out and soak in the sun: reading, journaling and relaxing.

Inside a traditional placita.

Inside a traditional placita, this one at the Blumenshein Home in Taos.

Traditionally several families would live in the homes bordering the placita, sharing it as an outdoor living and animal husbandry area.  Some flowers and other plants were grown but placitas were not traditionally devoted to gardens as they mostly seem to be these days.  Modern placitas (courtyards) also differ in being most often surrounded by one single-family dwelling.

I found Taos to be much easier than Santa Fe in terms of wandering in and out of placitas, but you might have better luck than I did in Santa Fe.

The Scottish Rite Cathedral is located a mile or so from the center of Santa Fe but is a magnificent building worth photographing.

The Scottish Rite Cathedral is located a mile or so from the center of Santa Fe but is a magnificent building worth photographing.

The moon rises over the Scottish Rite Cathedral in Santa Fe.

The moon rises over the Scottish Rite Cathedral in Santa Fe.

I like Taos a little better than Santa Fe.  Santa Fe seems a bit strange to me.  Maybe it’s because of all the tourism clashing with history clashing with the modern influx of wealthy retirees clashing with the older residents of the area (many Native American) clashing with the new-age types.  It seems to me to be a place lacking an identity. Also, real estate prices are way out of whack.

So much of the adobe in Santa Fe looks like it was built yesterday, which I think takes away from the real history of the place.  Taos suffers some of the same, but I’ve found this effect to run rampant throughout the world, anywhere history and authenticity gets in the way of modern life and “progress”.  At least they keep to adobe construction and style here.

A house in Taos.

A house in Taos.


Taos has some of the same vibe as Santa Fe but it’s much smaller and has a definite character.  Besides being a gateway to mountain recreation (including great skiing), Taos is a fine place to wander around and photograph.  Kit Carson, the famous scout and mountain man lived here.  Or I should say his hispanic wife and their kids lived here while he passed through from time to time.

One of the few windows in Kit Carson's old home.

One of the few windows in Kit Carson’s old home.

The restored placita next to the Kit Carson Home in Taos, New Mexico.

The restored placita next to the Kit Carson Home in Taos, New Mexico.

There is a main plaza in Taos as well.  In Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America these zocalos or plazas seem to be much more “alive” with activity than in Taos and Santa Fe.  I think it’s because of all the limitations in the U.S. for people to just set up carts with cheap eats.  Here they serve as centers for shopping, much of it high end.  In Mexico they’re places for street performers, strolling couples and great street food.  The ones in New Mexico look just like zocalos but are not the same at all.

A church-bell in Taos.

A church-bell in Taos.

You can park very near the plaza at one of the public parking lots (feed coins into the meters) or look for free spots 10 minutes walk to the plaza.  You can just wander through the streets surrounding the plaza.  The placita bordered by Kit Carson’s house is interesting, restored to near what it would have looked like.  The placita at the Blumenshein Home is a great one too, and the narrow street it’s on, Ledoux, is lined with attractive adobe architecture.

A great mural at the entrance to Ledoux Street in Taos, New Mexico.

A great mural at the entrance to Ledoux Street in Taos, New Mexico.

A couple places I neglected on this trip but which are certainly worth checking out are Taos Peublo just north of town and Ranchos de Taos a couple miles south of town.  Taos Pueblo has some of the oldest buildings in the area.  At Ranchos de Taos, the deservedly famous San Francisco de Assisi Mission Church is an amazing building.  I suppose I need to skip some things to have an excuse to return!

A bit of fall color in Taos, New Mexico.

A bit of fall color in Taos, New Mexico.

This high and beautiful area of New Mexico is certainly worth visiting.  The climate is darn near perfect and the Sangre de Cristos Mountains are gorgeous.  Also, the Rio Grande River flows through it.  It’s a very beautiful stream that runs in and out of rugged canyons.  One morning I took a frosty walk along the river and found some fall colors (image below).

As usual, clicking on any of the images takes you to my gallery page, and all the pictures are copyrighted and not available for free download without my permission. Please contact me if you are interested in any of them; they’ll be uploaded to my site soon.  Thanks for reading and have a superb week!

The Rio Grande River and colorful cottonwoods between Santa Fe & Taos, New Mexico.

The Rio Grande River and colorful cottonwoods between Santa Fe & Taos, New Mexico.

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