Archive for the ‘North America’ Tag

Single-image Sunday: Colorado National Monument   6 comments

This is the first time I’ve visited this part of Colorado.  I’ve passed through before but never drove up the amazingly twisted and steep road into the national monument named I think more for the plateau and river than for the state.  The Colorado River flows through the Grand Valley, which is fog-covered in this shot.  The monument is a beautiful collection of canyons and rock formations spilling off a mesa that is part of the much larger Colorado Plateau.

Fog-filled Monument Canyon, Colorado N.M., Colorado.

Fog-filled Monument Canyon, Colorado N.M., Colorado.

It’s very near the Utah border, and here you are in terrain that is much less about the Rocky Mountains and more like the red-rock canyon country of the desert southwest.  There are plenty of great canyon hikes, and the mountain biking in adjacent lands is world class (google Fruita Colorado mountain biking).  Driving west through the Grand Valley and into the town of Grand Junction you are leaving the Rockies and entering the Colorado Plateau.  The river goes from more of a swift river of mountains to one that cuts through spectacular sandstone canyons.

Waking the first morning to fog in the canyon bottoms and lowlands, the sun didn’t show its face until the middle of the morning.  But I still had a grand time shooting the rock formations, wreathed in fog, for which this National Monument is known.  The spire front and center in the photo is called the ‘kissing couple’.  The view is southward down Monument Canyon and into the east-west running Grand Valley.

Hope you’re enjoying your weekend.  Friday Foto Talk, by the way, is on a bit of a hiatus.  It’ll be back, promise.

Grand Canyon’s North Rim   4 comments

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

Here you’ll find the other, less-crowded side of the Grand Canyon.  Many years ago I visited the South Rim, and experienced the highway that some of the trails over there can be.  It is a spectacular place no matter which side you visit, so don’t let anyone convince you it is not worth visiting the South Rim.  What I would do, if I went over there, is hike one of the quieter trails too, like the trail down to Hance Rapids, or Grandview Mesa.  While hitch-hiking across the west in 1987, I did a two-night hiking trip down the Hance Trail to the Colorado River, camping next to Hance Rapids.  Then I ascended to Grandview Mesa to spend my second night.  It was a short steep climb out on the third day.  This is a rugged but not ridiculously strenuous backpack trip – truly spectacular.  But it was long ago, so perhaps it was easier than it might be if I did it today.


On Grand Canyon’s north rim is a spectacular overlook called Angel’s Window.

The North Rim is definitely less crowded than the South, but it’s not empty either.  There is another separate area on this side of the canyon that is certainly worthwhile as well.  It’s called Toroweap.  A couple years ago I was in the area and wanted to detour to the Canyon.  But being early Spring the road to North Rim was still snowed in.  Somebody told me about Toroweap, that it was lower in elevation and free of snow.  Toroweap is less visited than any road-accessible area in the this park because it is relatively unknown and also reaching it requires a long drive on gravel.

The North Rim proper lies between 7000 and 8000 feet in elevation, and is always cooler.  If you travel between the South and North it is a 2 ½-hour drive.  I much prefer the idea of accessing it from either Page, Arizona or Kanab, Utah.  I was headed from Page to Kanab (the gateway to Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument and Zion National Park).  It was a simple detour to visit the North Rim from here, and a very scenic one at that.

Dead trees tower over the north rim of Grand Canyon near Bright Angel Point.

There are quite a few short trails on the North Rim, and a few longer ones that descend into the canyon.  Unlike the South Rim, where the trails all descend into the canyon, and are thus strenuous, the North Rim is kind to casual hikers.  For example the trail out to Cape Final is only about 2 flat miles one way, and the view is outstanding.  Other trails visit viewpoints to the west, and are again nearly flat.  There is an outstanding backpack trip on the North Rim as well.  It descends into the canyon to run along the spectacular Thunder River.

The Grand Canyon’s temple-like formations are on display in the view from Bright Angel Point on the north rim.


But I was not able to hike much while here.  I did something to my foot in Page and was trying to let the plantar fasciitis symptoms that resulted calm down.  The Park Service was doing some prescribed burning during my visit, unfortunately, so the canyon was quite smoky in places.  Since the wind was mostly from the east, I headed out on the road to Cape Royal (which lies in that direction) and stayed out there for most of two days.  The skies were very clear on the night I spent out there, so I took the opportunity to do some stargazing and starscape photography.

Point Imperial is a viewpoint on the far east end of the road that provides a nice view up-canyon to the east.  Cape Royal has a nice view of the eastern part of the canyon as well, but you’ll also have a great view down-canyon to the west from there.  Between these two viewpoints along the road in several places, there are nice views to the east.  And so a setting sun will give you great light until it sinks too low and the light climbs out of the canyon.  The smoke lying to the west over the main road to the lodge actually made the light on the canyon ruddy and orange, and even softened it somewhat.

The attractive Grand Canyon Lodge sits spectacularly on the north rim at Bright Angel Point.


I also visited the main tourist area, where the visitor center, campground and the Grand Canyon Lodge are located.  Another nice viewpoint, the Bright Angel, is accessible from here.  I had a great time photographing along the short trail out to the point.  The ½ mile trail traverses a rock spine where you can scramble out to get interesting shots (if you’re not too afraid of heights!).  You will definitely feel as if you are traversing a catwalk – on a stupendous scale!

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


There are unpaved roads that access areas to the west of the main road, but because of the smoke I did not explore this area.  You can also descend the North Kaibab Trail (from near the lodge) for a day hike.  Descending all the way to the river involves an overnight.  It’s easy to spend 3 or 4 days here just checking out the various viewpoints and shorter trails.  I spent about 2 ½ days, and hit most of what you can access from paved roads without feeling rushed.


Sunset at Bright Angel Point on the north rim of Grand Canyon.

There is a beautiful forest covering the plateau here, so make sure to spend a little time strolling through the pines.  The canyon rim, with it’s drop-dead views, is of course the main show.  But it is certainly not the North Rim’s only charm.  For example, wildlife encounters (including cougars!) are a possibility.  The South Rim is just too busy for this.  I hope to return someday to hike Thunder River.  Until then, it’s onward and upward.  I’m heading up the Grand Staircase and into the Canyons of the Escalante – the subject of my next post.



The Grand Tetons: Overview   Leave a comment

In Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, old homesteads cluster together in an area known as Mormon Row.

I’ve been here a couple times over the past two years, once late August last year, and now in early October.  One of these years I may visit during the mid- to late-September period of peak Autumn colors.  But then again, given it’s popularity for photography workshops and groups during that time, maybe not.  Even now there are plenty of photographers here. I’m really not the type to fight other photographers for tripod space.

All that aside, it is really a nice National Park. I like the fact that it is less crowded and has less uptight staff than Yellowstone just to the north.  Who amongst us mountain lovers cannot love the Grand Tetons.  They are spectacular mountains, named by French trappers for the “big tits” they might have thought often about while paddling endless miles in search of beaver.  But as you can see from the pictures, if there are breasts like this on a woman somewhere, I would like to see them (or maybe not!).  The mountains, especially the Grand Teton, which at 13,770 feet (4200 meters) is the highest in the range, are by no means smooth.  In fact, they rise in jagged splendor from the Great Plains to the east.

A view of the high alpine country, Grand Tetons, Wyoming includes a beautiful tarn, erratics and an arrete.

Geological Tangent (feel free to skip if you’re not especially interested in how mountains are formed)

The Grand Teton is obviously the highest in the range viewed from most any angle, here from near park headquarters at Moose, Wyoming.

The Grand Tetons’ steepest side is to the east, on the Wyoming side. This sheer mountain front lies along a steep-angled fault in the earth’s crust called by geologists a normal fault.  The mountains rise (or remain static) while the basin drops along a steep (70 degrees or so) fault zone.  Jackson Hole is the lowest point of this down-dropped basin.  “So what” you might say.  How does this tie into the formation of the Rocky Mountains?  Well, this is a big deal.  It’s the main geological process that has made continents out of what was originally not much more than volcanic islands sticking out of a much-larger-than-now ocean.

In the case of the Rockies, back in the Dinosaurs’ prime time (the late Cretaceous) some 55-90 million years ago, the enormous Pacific tectonic plate (actually geologists call it the Farallon Plate to distinguish it from the modern Pacific Plate) got serious about pushing east against the North American Plate.  It had been doing so for a long time before this, but during the time the Rockies were formed it dove beneath the continent (as oceanic plates will do) at a much shallower angle.  This forced mountain building much farther inland than usual.  The tectonic collision resulted in buckling, folding, mashing and munching in rocks buried deep within the earth.  This “Laramide Orogeny” initially formed a large, high plateau, like modern Tibet.

Much of the massive compression during collisions between ocean basins and continents happens because numerous islands (which don’t dive down beneath the continent as well-behaved oceanic crust typically does) are slammed up against the continent.  It’s a process called accretion, and is responsible for  much of western California and the coastal ranges of the Pacific Northwest and Canada.  Anyway, as hinted at above, the orogeny did not push up the high mountains of the Rockes right away.  That’s what many people believe when they learn about this stuff.  Instead, the action took place deep below ground and very slowly (geological things are mostly very slow).

One thing that happened, other than the aforementioned folding and mashing, was melting.  Rocks on the continent melt at a relatively low temperature compared to those under the oceans.  Plus, since they’re made of a more diverse assortment of rocks, which all melt at different temps., the melting is really partial.  This means a lot of smallish magma chambers separated by solid (but hot!) rock.  I know, a lot of detail.

But here’s the kicker:  melted rock is lighter than solid rock.  And what’s more, partial melting then cooling of continental rocks result in granite and its relatives.  These are some of the lightest rocks around.  You might not be able to tell, with a piece of (oceanic) basalt in your left hand, a piece of granite in your right; but if you wait a half-million years, your right hand will start to rise while your left sinks.

This is what happens with mountain ranges like the Rockies (and Alps, Caucuses, etc.).  After much of the damage has been done by the compression and heating deep within the Earth, the crust adjusts.  The lighter rock, some still molten, rises and pushes up the land.  One other thing though.  The Earth’s crust along a mountain range like the Rockies thickens (’cause of the buckling and melting both).  But there’s a lot more rock added beneath the mountains than what is pushed up.  In other words, the root of the mountains, deep beneath our feet, is much more impressive than the height of the mountains.  This fact leads to a flexing upward of the entire crust along the length of the mountain range, as the crust adjusts to the added mass below.  This so-called isostatic adjustment really is the main cause for the creation of high country.

Anyway, once the mountain range is well on its way to being nice and high, two things happen.  The main thing, of course, is erosion.  (This is part of the reason for the root being much greater than the height.)  Water and (much later in the case of the Rockies) glacial ice, begins early and never, ever gives up its assault on the high ground.  Erosion, as you might have heard, always wins in the end.  But in the meantime, as long as the tectonic collision continues, the (lighter) mountains continue to rise, and the age-old battle with erosion is waged.

Mount Moran stands at the north end of the high Tetons in Wyoming.

Now we are finally back to the Tetons.  Well, the story is a bit complex, but the main thing you need to realize is that once all this land is lifted up, you often get stretching along the far (east) side of the mountain range from the big oceanic plate that’s causing all this havoc.  This area behind the mountains has long been called by geologiasts (even before the theory of plate tectonics) the “foreland belt”.  In the case of western North America, there was more than this normal extension along the foreland.  After all those ages of compression along the edge of western North America, which lifted the West we enjoy today from beneath the waves, the situation reversed in a big way.

Well into the Tertiary (the time of the rise of mammals), a pulling apart began, forming the Basin and Range.  We went from compression to extension because the Farallon Plate disappeared beneath North America and the modern Pacific Plate started to slide past the edge of North America along the San Andreas Fault.  Like people, continents, at least along their active margins, are rarely standing still.  They’re either getting munched or being pulled apart, albeit much more slowly than we our changes.  North America’s western edge has now entered a period where things could start getting pulled off it instead of added.  Eastern Africa is a bit further along this path, and a sea will eventually invade the Great Rift Valley there.  The same might occur here too, starting in SE California and southern Nevada and extending northward.

So I know I’m taking a while to get back to the Tetons.  The Basin & Range extension that continues today results in steep-angled normal faults, which in brittle rocks close to the surface is the way any rock will respond to being stretched.  The normal faults along the eastern back-side of the Rockies are the furthest east of these faults; nost occur in Nevada and bordering states, where the crust is much thinner.  But in the thicker crust of the rockes, these faults are responsible for some of the most spectacular mountain scenery of western North America.  The Grand Tetons are just one example.  It really is the end-game of mountain building here, where the thickened crust under the western Plains has fallen dramatically down while the Tetons have risen along the Teton Fault.  There is only so much rising and thickening to be accomplished before things start to break apart.

The battle between the rise of these mountains along the Teton Fault on one hand, and erosion on the other, creates the rugged, fantastic mountain landscape that climbers and photographers, that all of us really, admire.  But count yourself lucky that you are alive to enjoy it right now.  After all, it’s a temporary situation.  Remember, erosion always wins in the end.

In the Gros Ventre Mountains east of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, an earthquake in the 1950s created a beautiful lake. The well-named Red Hills are in the background.

Back to the Trip

I know that was a long-winded explanation, but if you sorta got it, you get the whole thing about mountain building throughout the world.  Well, besides the building of strictly volcanic mountain ranges, but a lot of the same concepts apply there too.

I spent a half a week here in the Tetons this time, not doing as much hiking as last year (see image of the tarn 2nd from the top, taken at the top of Paintbrush Canyon).  Also last year, I made it up the rough dirt road east of the Tetons, where there’s a gorgeous, quiet lake (image above).  But I did manage to wake for each sunrise this time, even though they were mostly blah in terms of color.  The leaves on the aspens and cottonwoods were browning rapidly, and the whole landscape looked dry and thirsty.  Fires continuing to burn in the region added some haze and smoke to the air.  In short, light for photography was not ideal.

But along came the evening of the 8th of October.  Clouds built through the afternoon over the Tetons, and I took a run along the excellent bike trail that stretches 20 miles from the town of Jackson and Jenny Lake in the Park (no I didn’t run 20 miles!).  After the sun set behind the mountains, as I expected might happen, the clouds lit up.   All of a sudden we had a fiery sunset!  I was not at one of the classic locations for landscape photography in this area, but near the park’s headquarters in Moose.

Ansel Adams made places like the Snake River Overlook and Oxbow Bend famous, and to get dawn and dusk shots from these spots you would need to fight for your tripod space.  I’m not into it.  So I just walked around the Snake River bridge near Moose, finding a spot where I could get a nice panorama of the Tetons.  I was happy.  One more post on the Tetons is to come, focusing on the wildlife.

The Grand Tetons surprise me with a fiery sunset on my last night in the park.

Crater Lake   2 comments

As our state’s only National Park, we in Oregon really cherish this paradise in the southern corner of the state.  Crater Lake is North America’s deepest and one of the world’s clearest lakes.  It is famous for its deep blue color, its clarity, and its geologic background.  When John Hilman became the first white explorer to see it in 1853, he was astounded, calling it a very deep, blue lake.   For me, it seemed past time to re-explore Crater Lake during the summer-time, when it is most accessible.  My last visit a year and a half ago was during the depths of winter, when cross-country skis and snowshoes are the only mode of transport.  I spent three days there last week.

Crater Lake in southern Oregon was described by the first white person to see it as a “deep blue lake”.

Crater Lake is about 6 miles across and almost 2000 feet (600 meters) deep.  What makes it such an awesome and unique lake is that it lies within the throat of a big collapsed volcano, a caldera, which suffered its climactic eruption about 7000 years ago.  It is not technically a volcanic crater, which is the word geologists apply to the hole in the top of a volcano created when the volcano explodes and ejects material out over the countryside.  Geologists figure that the original volcano, which is called Mount Mazama, was over 12,000 feet (3600 meters) high and quite massive.

The Phantom Ship, a small island in Crater Lake, Oregon, is so called because in certain light conditions it seems to disappear.

Calderas are generally larger than craters, and are created when the volcano erupts magma from beneath its summit, leaving a void underneath which leads to a massive and catastrophic collapse of the summit area.  Caldera eruptions can be large, and they can be enormous!  They are almost never modest in size.  They are this planet’s biggest volcanic eruptions.  And speaking of volcanoes and National Parks, Yellowstone (the world’s oldest park) is occupied by what is probably the world’s largest active caldera.  It could erupt any year now (or it could take 10,000 more years!), and with devastating consequences.

In Crater Lake’s case, rain and snowmelt (mostly snow) filled the caldera over the period of a few hundred years, and now evaporation is balanced with precipitation so that the water level never fluctuates by much (it’s varied only about 16 feet (10 meters) over the last 100 years.  There are no streams leading into or out of the lake.  The rim of the caldera, where most visitors congregate, is at an elevation of over 7000 feet (2000 meters), and at this latitude, and next to the moist North Pacific, that means major snowfall – 40 or more feet (13 meters) every winter.

One of America’s most scenic roads follows the treeline rim around, with numerous pull-offs.  So like most American National Parks, one can certainly experience “overlook fatigue”.  But probably not as much as some (Blue Ridge Parkway & Bryce Canyon spring to mind).

It is at least 1000 feet (300 meters) down to the lake from the rim, and it is so steep that only in one spot is it possible to hike down to it.  Here is your cure for overlook fatigue.  Hike down to Cleetwood Cove, and take a scenic boat cruise out to the largest island in the lake, a volcanic cinder cone known as Wizard Island.  Here you can swim in the cold lake and hike to the summit of the cone, spending hours on the island.  There are also numerous hikes from spots along the rim, including The Watchman and Mount Scott.

I came here to reconnect with one of my favorite National Parks, and to try for some great shots of the stars over the lake (later post).   The park is unlike the popular National Parks such as Yellowstone, Yosemite and Great Smokies.  There are few policemen posing as rangers here, so you can pretty much do your own thing and not be hassled.  For example, I rode my motorcycle there, arriving at night after one night spent near McKenzie Pass, a stunning spot in its own right.

Once inside the park, I parked at a picnic area and walked up to a level spot on the rim to pitch my tent.  I had to find a site screened from the road below, but otherwise had no worries about rangers prowling the roads at night, hoping to catch scofflaws like me camping illegally.  I had a stunning view out over the lake, as the Milky Way soared above.  Then at dawn, I woke to take pictures of  sunrise over the vast expanse of blue water below.  Coffee was conveniently taken at the picnic area where I parked the bike.

I left my tent there for the next two nights, sleeping as late as I wanted with only hawks for company.  I was on the quiet north rim, well away the park’s only real concentration of people (at Rim Village on the south side of the lake).  There is one large campground a few miles below Rim Village, called Mazama.  This is where RVers go, and where most official campsites in the park are.  There is also a small, tent-only campground at Lost Creek, in the southeastern corner of the park.  But since there are only 16 sites, it always fills early in the day.  It is worth trying for this camp first, and if that fails, going to Mazama (which can also fill, even during the week).

Wildflowers at Crater Lake National Park, Oregon, include pink monkeyflower.

I did one major hike and a few smaller ones.  I hiked to the top of Mount Scott, the highest peak in the park.  At almost 9000 feet, it was the only remaining major Cascades peak in Oregon that I had not yet climbed.  Some of my climbs have been technical, some (like Scott here) just hikes.  But I have been longing to return to Crater Lake in summer for no other reason than to finish my quest.  Now it is time to finish the rest of the Cascades, a few in Washington and one in Canada.  Wildflowers and some friendly fellow-hikers were my reward.  The view was rather hazy because of fires in the region.

On my last full day at Crater Lake the smoke cleared in late afternoon and I was able to get some nice shots of a small island called Phantom Ship in late-day light (image above).  Then I ate a picnic dinner, lay back and watched the stars come out one by one.  I finally jumped on my bike and rounded the lake to a point where the Milky Way was perfectly placed.  There I spent a couple hours shooting long exposures, stars over the lake with a starkly beautiful whitebark pine snag for foreground.

Hiking up to my campsite on the rim at about 1 a.m. I fell immediately into a deep sleep.  Utter peace for this moment in my life, atop a giant volcano that had its day of great thunder long ago, and now lies also in deep slumber, beneath the deep & cold, clear-blue waters of Crater Lake!














Sunset over Crater Lake from the highest point on the rim, Cloud Cap.

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