Archive for the ‘southwest’ Tag

Adventuring in Death Valley: Part I   6 comments

Easy walking in Death Valley: a recent flash-flood has left a smooth deposit of mud.

If you have followed this blog for awhile you know that this chunk of southeastern California desert is one of my favorite places to explore and photograph.  I’ve had a thing for it since my first visit in the early 1980s, and its more recent popularity hasn’t dimmed my enthusiasm.  It seems that no matter how well I get to know the place there is always someplace new to hike and explore.

I’ve written of Death Valley before, posting a lot of photos along the way.  Most of what I’ve written of the place in this blog has been geared toward those planning a trip there, with recommendations on places to visit, hike and shoot.  For this short series of posts I’m sharing a few of the adventures I’ve had in this stunning part of the Mojave Desert.  I hope the stories will encourage you to take off and explore on your own.

The simple beauty of Death Valley’s sand dunes beckons for a morning walk.

If you do plan to get off the pavement, if you strap a backpack on and take off into a canyon, up a ridge-line or across an alluvial fan, keep a few things in mind:

  • There are few trails here.  They aren’t really needed, as the landscape lends itself to following natural features like canyons and washes.  This fact brings with it the responsibility to take full charge of navigation.  Bring a good detailed map, and I’m not speaking of the one you get when you pay the entrance fee.  See below for more on this.

 

  • Death Valley is very very dry.  Depending on temperature this means you need to carry much more water than almost any other place you’ll ever hike.  If you visit spring through early fall you need about a quart/liter of water per person for every hour you plan to be walking.  In wintertime you can get by with less.

 

  • Cell service is close to nonexistent.  You are on your own, so be self-contained.

 

  • If you plan on driving off-road be prepared.    Think of driving off-road here just the same as if you’re hiking off-trail.  That is, with respect for the fact that help is nearly impossible to reach.  And even if you do will take a long time to arrive.  It’s also quite expensive.  See below for more on driving off-road in Death Valley.

 

  • Snakes are common.  While you’ll probably be fine as long as you’re alert while walking and don’t put your feet or hands anywhere you can’t see, be aware that the side-winder rattlesnake is not the most mellow venomous snake.  If you’re in a remote area and get bit by one, you may end up losing an appendage.

 

  • Last but not least, if you visit May to September limit your ambitions.  A general tourist itinerary on mostly paved roads is the way to go in the hot summer months.  It’s a good time for a first visit.  If you want to explore a lot on foot and/or four-wheel into the backcountry, go in the cooler months.  One exception:  summer’s a great time to hike in the high Panamints, climbing Telescope Peak or one of the other mountains in the park.

The classic view of Telescope Peak from Badwater.

 

Navigation in Death Valley

A topographic map, along with the ability to read it, is probably the most important of the “ten essentials”.  And this applies whether you carry a GPS, or are like me and still carry a compass, old-school-style.  Before going, practice crossing terrain you’re already familiar with, using a map to locate yourself in relation to landmarks.  Try navigating without the GPS, starting with out and back routes and progressing to off-trail loop hikes.  Whatever your approach, avoid following the GPS blindly like so many do.  Use it as a general guide instead, always being ready to alter your course from the straight-line GPS route to take into account features of the terrain, or interesting tangents!

Canyon hiking is superb at Death Valley, and your options are near limitless.  From a short jaunt up Mosaic Canyon to a trek up lonely Bighorn Gorge, there’s a canyon hike that’s just the right length and remoteness for you.  Just remember that dry falls are nearly as common here as they are in southern Utah’s canyon country.  Take a rope or be prepared to turn around.

Distance and terrain can be very deceiving here.  It’s tempting to park off the side of the paved road and strike out for a canyon mouth.  But walking up an alluvial fan is much tougher than it looks.  Allow plenty of time even when rambling around the “flat” valley floor.  That said, some of my best adventures have started out by crossing the valley or ascending an alluvial fan.

Climbing the big peaks such as Telescope is well worthwhile.  Elevation can pose a problem, especially since you’re spending much of your time at or below sea level.  Snow can fall during much of the year too.  So you’ll need to be prepared for mountain weather in the higher reaches of the Panamints.

Hiking in the area south of Furnace Creek puts you in the badlands of the Furnace Creek Formation.  The clayey hills are quite unstable and crumbly, so use caution.  Most of all, do not attempt to traverse steep hillsides in the Golden Canyon/Zabriskie Point area.  It’s not only hazardous, it mars the delicate formations that people come to see and photograph.  For this area it’s best to use established trails.

When hiking Death Valley’s canyons geology is always front and center: Red Wall Canyon.

Off-Pavement in Death Valley

There are many unpaved routes in Death Valley, but not all are open to vehicles.  While driving in washes is allowed for some areas, off-roading is not allowed in the National Park.  Obtain up-to-date road conditions and restrictions from the rangers upon arrival.  Buy a good detailed map for the area you plan to explore.  As mentioned above, navigate with map and GPS just as you do if you’re walking.

Make sure your vehicle has excellent tires and at least one spare (two minimum for some roads, like the one to Racetrack Playa).  Most of the unpaved roads require high-clearance, and many of them are 4WD only.  Bring a shovel and portable air compressor (for re-inflating tires after softening them for sandy areas).  Lastly, don’t forget about the threat of flash floods.  Don’t park overnight in washes if there is any chance of rain in the region, and camp up on benches away from where water runs.

Evening is near in far south Death Valley, where the Ibex Dunes are known for the spring bloom of sand verbena.

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Weekly Foto Talk: Where to Shoot and When, Part I   8 comments

Deadhorse Point in Utah is a very popular spot to photograph at both sunrise and especially sunset.

Deadhorse Point in Utah is a very popular spot to photograph at sunrise (above) and sunset.

I had to change the name from Friday to Weekly Foto Talk ’cause I’m a day late!  I’ve been making my way across the desert southwest through the winter’s first real storm.  It snowed overnight and the desert was frigid but beautiful this morning!

Say you’re going on vacation, perhaps to a national park.  Or much more relevant to late November, say you’re going to Hawaii, or the Virgin Islands.  Since you’re a serious photographer you’d like to get high quality shots of the place while your’e there.  The question comes up: where to go shoot?  And when? Should I go to this place or that place at sunrise?  Which one should I hit at sunset?

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Since this is a very broad topic, it will cover two parts, finishing next week with part II.  But it’s still much too broad.  What to shoot?  I’m realistic; I don’t want to go into that rather personal question.  So allow me to narrow things down.  I got the idea for this post when I read the flier given me by the ranger upon entering Arches National Park in southern Utah.

These newspaper-style publications are a feature of most national parks in the U.S.  Though they convey useful information on camping, trails and programs, not to mention a decent road map, they can also be tiresome.  Repetition of the same park rules you see on countless signs is typical, as are blurbs that incorporate scare tactics.  Apparently those who write these things for the federal government believe scare tactics are a good way to inform.

In most cases they wish to scare you on two fronts.  Firstly, they want you to believe not only that the animals in the park are wild (which might seem obvious to most of us) but that these critters would like nothing better than to claw/bite/trample you and those you love.  Also they want you to realize that, despite all those old cartoons featuring characters who survive 2000-foot falls and huge boulders toppling over on them, getting up and walking away with a body shaped temporarily like a spring, the terrain is real and quite unforgiving.  The cliffs are precipitous, the rivers swift, and the rocks as hard as..well as rocks.

A cottonwood tree along Kane Creek Wash near Moab, Utah was an irresistible attraction.

A cottonwood tree along Kane Creek Wash near Moab, Utah was an irresistible attraction.

Arches National Park’s flier was mercifully short on these gratuitously written blurbs, and for that I thank their local scribe. There was, however, one feature I found interesting. Arches is a magnet for photographers, and so the Park Service, in their constant spirit of helpfulness, included in their flier a list of suggested locations for photography. There were two lists of recommend places to shoot, one for sunrise and one for sunset.

 Being a stubborn lot, most serious photographers don’t like advice on where to shoot.  But when you’re unfamiliar with a place it is tempting to take this kind of simple advice – where to go and when – and run with it.  In traveling around the park, I soon realized that those subjects recommended for sunrise photography (such as Turret Arch) face east, while those that are supposedly good for sunset (such as Delicate Arch) are lighted by the setting sun.

Alone in the snow, a rock formation in the weird Goblin Valley of southern Utah.

Alone in the snow, a rock formation in the weird Goblin Valley of southern Utah.

Obviously the Park Service thinks we should all photograph the Arches’ wonders in front-light only.  But they aren’t the only ones.  Many similar lists that pop up during web searches are identical in their simplistic assumption of desired lighting.  There is an implicit assumption that it’s important to avoid shooting into the sun or even at much of an angle to it.  Of course this is silly advice.  You do want to shoot into the sun at times.  You do want to shoot at an angle to the sun. You do want to throw subjects into silhouette at times, etc. etc.

Light snowfall during the day brought something to shoot during an otherwise gray hike in the desert.

Light snowfall during the day brought something to shoot during an otherwise gray hike in the desert.

There are a couple other problems with taking this sort of simplistic advice too much to heart.  First, you’ll be shooting, almost by definition, what nearly everyone else is shooting.  I’m not saying you won’t get nice shots at popular spots if the light is good, and  I don’t completely eschew these over-shot subjects anyway (see top image).  But unless you do something different at those locations your shots will be part of a huge group of near-identical pictures.  

The second problem is more subtle.  Traveling around a place like Arches hitting all these recommended spots at the “right” times squelches exploration and creativity.  If you want to find your own unique compositions you need to explore on your own with no preconceptions in mind regarding where to go shooting and when.  I think you need to do mostly do things in this more challenging way in order to develop your own style.  

Molly's Castle near Goblin Valley State Park, Utah.

Molly’s Castle near Goblin Valley State Park, Utah.

What I suppose I’m saying is that the question of what to shoot and when can be answered by this simple encouragement:  go find out.  When I say go I mean it in its traditional sense.  You’re not “going” to the web or “going” to an article in a magazine, or even “going” to a trusted blog (hehe!).  You’re using your motorized conveyance of choice and then your own two feet to go find out.

Though I believe in it 100%, the above paragraph still seems to be a bit of a cop-out on my part.  So in the second part of this post, I’ll go into more detail.  I will pass on some tips on how to get started on the process of finding out what and where to shoot and when.  I should mention I already did a blog post on photo trip planning, so it’s not as though I don’t believe in planning ahead.  But this post’s next part will dive more into on-the-ground decisions and using recommendations and your planned itinerary wisely, not as a crutch.  Tune in next Friday for that (I promise)!

What self-respecting photographer would waste light like this on just a random, unremarkable place out in the desert?  This photographer.

What self-respecting photographer would waste light like this on just a random, unremarkable place out in the desert? This photographer.

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.

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