Archive for the ‘travel’ Tag

Adventuring Baja: Mis-Adventures & Desert Mountains   4 comments

The sun rises over a forest of cirios trees, characteristic of the desert of the northern Baja Peninsula.

I’ve been sharing some of my adventures I’ve had during photography trips.  My goal is to show examples of how good image-making goes hand in hand with a spirit of adventure and spontaneity.  Last time I posted about my first trip down Mexico’s long Baja Peninsula.  This time we’ll continue with the fun down in old Mexico.  I wish I could have kept hold of all the film I shot on that trip (it was lost in a robbery).  The amount of digital image coverage that I have now is really pathetic, but I do like the quality.   One thing’s for sure:  I need travel Baja’s full length again soon in order to fill out my catalog.

Vibrant cactus of Baja California, Mexico.

Solo Soy un Turista Ignorante!

That first time down I was traveling with a friend.  He was planning a longer trip into Mexico proper, and we planned to split up and go our separate ways after finishing our tour of Baja.  Traveling with others is a lot of fun, but for me at least it’s only that way if I can at some point bid them goodbye to continue on my own.  So at the ferry terminal near La Paz we toasted those few fun weeks of road-tripping and he boarded the ferry to the mainland.

Not long after this, I was camped outside of La Paz in a lovely beach-side spot.  Facilities were rustic, so I’d found a nice spot a few miles away to park and use my solar shower.  It was surrounded by trees and felt private, so I showered au naturale.  It worked well for a few days.  Then one day, with shampoo in my hair, I became suddenly aware of the presence of three policia standing there.  One had binoculars around his neck and another was shouting in Spanish.  Hearing the word “imoral” used, emphasis on the last syllable, I hastily explained in my barely passable Spanish that I was only trying to keep the body that God gave me clean.

As the water continued to run over my bare body, I tried my best to reason with them.  I recall using the phrase “Solo soy un turista ignorante” at least twice.  Finally, with exasperated sidelong looks at one other, they apparently decided it wasn’t worth listening to me any further.  After all, they’d have to divide the bribe between them.  And they must have assumed (correctly) that I was hardly the richest gringo they’d ever come across.

Sailboat at harbor: Ensenada, Mexico.

That was not the only time I had run-ins with Mexico’s finest in Baja.  After being pulled over in Baja Norte, I talked a policia from a $100 bribe down to $20.  That young guy, who like so many you meet south of the border had lived in the U.S. for a time and spoke English, said on parting that I should be a lawyer I liked arguing so much.

In Ensenada I was actually cuffed and taken into the station, very close to being held.  A prostitute had been following me on my wandering walk back to my room one night.  On a whim I decided to cross the street and talk to her.  I offered to buy her a couple tacos and a pepsi but declined her desire for a more intimate interaction.  Turns out we were both being watched, and so with not much else going on, she and I presented an opportunity too good to pass up.  I ended up talking myself out of that one too.

By the way, I posted a travel-guide style series on Ensenada you may want to check out.  One of these posts garners a lot of hits.  In it I briefly mention the dance clubs and prostitutes of Ensenada.  I also posted a few shots of pretty senoritas I came across (but who are definitely not working girls).  They were quite young, and it’s a bit creepy that the post keeps getting hits.  I’m probably going to just delete it.

A cave sculpted from the granite of Baja Norte, Mex.

Granite Peaks and Clear Cold Nights

On the way back up the peninsula I decided to explore some of the Parque Nacional Sierra de San Martir.  A narrow road ascends into the mountains from the Pacific side.  Granted it was winter, but no other tourists were around.  It is a beautiful area of ponderosa pine forests, broken by large grassy clearings.  Most of Baja is true desert, but you might be surprised at the amount of green in high parts of the peninsula like this.

Granite mountains rise above the meadows in characteristic giant boulders and spires.  These peaks are a continuation of the intrusions that make up Joshua Tree to the north, and it was so much fun figuring out how to scramble up them.  There are a few trails, but the area just begs for off-trail exploration.

A towering ponderosa pine, with lightning scar, in the high country of Sierra San Pedro Martir, Baja, Mex.

The park happens to also be the site of Mexico’s national observatory, and after night fell I could definitely understand why.  I camped in a meadow at the base of the peak that holds the research telescopes.  It was bitter cold, which is a strange feeling in Mexico.  I actually couldn’t use my 8-inch Dobsonian reflector for more than 15 or 20 minutes at a time before having to retreat to my van and warm up in front of my little propane heater.  I’ve never seen the swirls of the Whirlpool Galaxy so clear and distinct!

That’s it for now.  I hope your weekend is fun and relaxing.  Thanks for reading!

The Pacific lives up to its name: Bahia, Ensenada, Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

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Adventuring Baja, Mexico   9 comments

Cardon cactus are reflected in a pool of water left by a precious desert rainstorm in northern interior Baja, Mexico.

Ever since the first time I decided to see what was south of California I’ve had a bit of a thing for this appendage on the west coast of North America.  Officially called Baja California, this Mexican state that occupies a long peninsula jutting south into the Pacific is commonly shortened to Baja.  You’ll hear Mexicans call it B.C, but this beautiful stretch of rugged desert country will never be confused with the Canadian province.

Although it is hardly Mexico’s only desert region, Baja bears a similar relationship to the rest of Mexico as the desert southwest does to the rest of the U.S.  And despite Baja’s hot dry climate it also bears similarities to Alaska.  Like America’s 49th state, Baja is separate from the rest of Mexico both geographically and culturally.  Americans who don’t quite fit in head to Alaska.  By the same token, if you’re a Mexican misfit you head to Baja.

I’ve written about Baja before on this blog, in travel-pictorial style geared to those considering a visit.  This little series highlights adventures I’ve had there, in hopes it will pique your interest and let you know just enough to have yourself an adventure down there.

Desert wash with palms, Baja California Norte, Mexico.

But first let’s deal with the elephant in the room.  Being nervous about travel to Mexico is completely understandable.  But painting the whole country with the same broad brush is unfair.  Unfair to Mexicans yes, but mostly unfair to you.  There are certainly places to avoid because of drug-related gang violence.  And it’s a sad truth that in recent years these areas have expanded and become more risky.  For example they include large chunks of beautiful states like Michoacan, and even those places that were once fun and safe to explore when based in tourist centers like Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta.  And yet in places like Baja and the Yucatan you can confidently go pretty much anywhere, having a grand old time on the cheap.

Rains in any desert can result in amazing color, and Baja is no exception.

A Slice of Paradise on the Sea of Cortez 

I’ll start with two mini-adventures I had in Baja on the first trip down there.  I went with a friend in my VW camper-van, which I’d recently purchased.  We camped our way down the peninsula in early wintertime, taking two full weeks to get from Oregon down the California coast and all the way to the southern tip at Cabo San Lucas.

We traveled the unpaved route down the eastern (Gulf of California) side from San Felipe, following the route of the famous off-road race, the Baja 500.  I had my mountain bike and rode part of it while my buddy drove.  A disclaimer:  I was shooting film at the time and ended up losing most of the images, including those from both this and the next adventure.

At the rustic-hip community of Mulege we heard about an idyllic place called Agua Verde.   When we started the steep descent to the Sea of Cortez, bouncing down that rocky little road that clung to the mountainside, things got a little hairy.  I thought my van was going to topple into the abyss on a few occasions.  There’d been a hurricane not long before and the road had just become (borderline) navigable a week before.

But when we arrived we immediately knew it was worth the rough detour.  A lovely pristine cove of blue-green water, lined with a white-sand beach, sparkled between rocky cactus-studded promontories.  Just one family lived down there, and they cooked us a nice meal one evening.  We camped right out on the beach, lounging and hiking, fishing, then lounging some more.  I had my telescope and the night skies were like jewels on velvet.  There was even a meteor shower, the Orionids!  The coast of the Sea of Cortez is a kayaker’s paradise, and Agua Verde wasn’t the only place that blew me away with its rugged beauty.  But its pristine nature sticks out in my mind.

Typical Baja landscape just inland of the Sea of Cortez.

A Cool, Revealing Swim

When you arrive in the southernmost bulge of the Baja Peninsula after the long dusty drive, the gateway city of La Paz, sitting next to its protected harbor, is a welcome pause.  But continuing south from there, the landscape changes.  More rain falls, not much but enough to water the central range, a spectacular jumble of granitic peaks.  Streams run off the mountains through steep gorges.  There are waterfalls up high and hot springs lower down.

Near the little town of Miraflores we camped near a beautiful streamside hot spring at the mouth of one of the canyons.  On arrival I left my friend to set camp and hiked far up into the gorge.  Very soon the cool crystal-clear water was too much temptation.  I found a remote spot and skinny dipped into a plunge pool at the base of a falls.  I had not seen a single soul the entire time.  But while paddling on my back I looked up and got a shock.  Standing on a giant granite boulder was a young woman in cutoffs and long dark hair.  She grinned down at me.

This is not the girl from the story – I lost the film shots of her. This senorita spoke not a word of English.

After getting over my embarrassment I asked her to look away while I got out and put my shorts back on.  I got ready to embarrass myself further with my Spanish, but she spoke excellent English.  We enjoyed a hike back down the canyon, jumping into another pool on the way.   Alas she was traveling with her boyfriend, who was waiting near the canyon mouth.  Believe it or not that was not the only time I was caught in a “vulnerable” position.  And the next time nearly got me arrested.  But that’s for the next post, sorry!  Thanks very much for reading, and have a great weekend.

Bidding adios to another beautiful Baja day along the Pacific.

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.

Eclipse Mania: 10 Best Places to Watch, Part II   7 comments

An amazing close-up of a diamond ring and prominences. Photo by Aris Messinis of a 2006 eclipse in Greece.

I’ve been doing a series on the upcoming total solar eclipse on August 21st.  The last post listed 5 of my favorite places in the west that lie in the path of totality.  Now let’s move east across America’s heartland and into the south, following the path of the shadow as it races coast to coast.  Make sure to comment below with where you plan to be on eclipse day, or where you’d like to be if the boss would just give you more time off!

Whether or not you’ve decided where to watch this eclipse, this list of events breaks it down by state.  You may find something of interest for the time period leading up to the main event.  The images here show some of the landscapes of the regions covered by the list.  My collection of solar eclipse photos is very slim because up until now I’ve focused on visual observation.

The rising sun lights up the Grand Tetons along the shore of Jenny Lake on a peaceful morning. It will not be so quiet on the morning of August 21st.

The Rest of the List

6.  Big Sky Country, Wyoming

The big sky country of Wyoming is an excellent alternative to the busy Tetons of western Wyoming.  The path crosses the Wind River Range, passing over the state’s highest summit, Gannet Peak.  A pack trip into the Winds, even a climb of Gannet, would be amazing.  If you’re able to organize a trip like this at the last minute my hat is off to you!

You could see the eclipse on the largest expanse of American Indian land along the path, the Wind River Shoshoni Reservation.  One option here is to drive Hwy. 20 along the east side of Boysen Reservoir, looking for a spot there at Boysen State Park, or north along the Bighorn River toward Thermopolis (which is barely within the path of totality).  Here is one source for events and activities on the reservation.

Despite being a relatively short 3-hour drive from Denver, because of its size the sprawling prairie along the North Platte River east of Casper, Wyoming is a good option.  Get there ahead of time and scout the big-sky country.  You’ll be exploring an area that pioneers crossed on their way west on the Oregon Trail.  Try the national forest south of Glenrock and you’re sure to find a suitable spot on public land to watch the eclipse.  There are a couple campgrounds sure to be full, but you could get there days ahead and stake out a spot on a gravel road somewhere.

Slide Lake, not far east of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, is in the path of totality.

7.  Kansas City or St. Louis Area

These two midwestern cities are within the path, but just barely.  The south edge of the path passes over K.C.s city center, while the north edge passes through St. Louis.  So for K.C. you need to be on the north end of town and for St. Louis the south side.  The Gateway Arch is not in the path of totality.

So you could see it in an urban or a suburban setting.  The town of St. Joseph, MO, north of K.C., sits on the banks of the Missouri River.  It is squarely on the center line, so is an excellent choice in the K.C. area.  I can imagine a very fun party atmosphere at riverside there.  The center line passes over I-70 halfway between the two cities, very near the college town of Columbia, then crosses the great Mississippi River near the small town of St. Mary.  Here’s a list of events.

Historic Bollinger Mill, Missouri is just inside the path of totality.

8.  Land Between the Lakes, Kentucky

This stretch of lovely open forest interspersed with grassy meadows and wetlands straddles the border between Kentucky and Tennessee.  Many small towns are nearby so unlike many areas of the west this spot offers better chance to snag a room at this late date.  It’s covered by a National Recreation Area, and their website lists planned events plus camping, parking and other details.   One big advantage to LBTL:  it’s the point of maximum duration (2 min. 40 sec.).

This area would be especially good for a shorter trip.  One as short as a few days would suffice to see Mammoth Cave or (for country music fans),Nashville, both destinations within striking distance.  In fact, if you’re into seeing it from a city, Nashville is just inside the path of totality.

Land Between the Lakes, Kentucky is where the maximum duration of this eclipse will occur.

9.  Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina & Tennesee

The center line actually misses Great Smoky Mtn. National Park, crossing the Appalachians just south of it.  However, the path of totality covers much of the park.  In other words, seeing the eclipse somewhere in this area would be a great excuse to see this (very) popular and beautiful park.  The challenge, as everywhere, is to find lodging.  Clouds are a risk in this area, with its late summer thunderstorm activity.   As my sister lives nearby, it is where I’ll be if camping turns out to be too chancy for the other places I’m considering.

Clingman’s Dome, at 6643 feet the 3rd highest peak east of the Mississippi, offers the highest viewpoint for the eclipse in the park.  The mountain straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina border and lies just inside the path of totality.  It’s a winding road then a half-mile (paved) trail to the top.  That is far too short a hike to cut the crowds significantly, so arrive very early.  Another great option is to park somewhere along Foothills Parkway, which runs along the western side of the park.  It has several great viewpoints where you can watch the shadow bands play across the rolling Smokies.

The Foothills Parkway runs along the west side of Great Smoky Mtns. National Park. And this is not the weather anyone wants on eclipse day!

10.  Charleston, South Carolina

This is where we’ll say so long to the great American eclipse of 2017, at 2:49 p.m. local time.  Just north of Charleston the center line leaves the continent and heads out into the Atlantic Ocean at a place called Bull’s Bay.  The area north and south of here is a boater’s paradise, so being either on the water or next to it on one of the barrier islands is the thing to do.

Right on the center line is Cape Romain.  This maze of barrier island channels, marsh and beach is mostly covered by a wildlife refuge.  The only access is by boat.  If interested in this, contact the people at Bull’s Island Ferry.  Another possibility very close to the center line is Buck Hall Recreation site, which has a campground, trails and boat ramp.  It’s closed for camping but otherwise open for the eclipse.  If I don’t go west I might launch my kayak there, using my bike as a shuttle (forget about parking).

You can kayak if you have a boat or find one to rent.  Just paddle out from one of the boat ramps in the area and see the eclipse on the water.  Or land somewhere to set up a tripod.  If you’re up for a longer paddle, it’s a an hour and a half one-way to Bull’s Island, a natural environment of beaches and trails.  Get hold of a good map and talk to a local for advice on route-finding.  You don’t want to get lost.  Getting on a guided paddle trip is a possibility, even at this late date.  Check out Coastal Expeditions or Sea Kayak Carolina.

That’s it for now.  I don’t know about you, but I’m getting pumped up for this!  Have a great weekend.

The sun goes down on the Intracoastal Waterway.

Eclipse Mania: 10 Best Places to Watch, Part I   3 comments

Rural central Oregon along the John Day River will see a total eclipse of the sun.

This post, which is a continuation of my mini-series on the upcoming total solar eclipse, is a departure from my normally gimmick-free approach.  It’s a top-ten list of all things, places to travel for the Great American Eclipse.  I chose these places for their attractiveness as destinations in their own right as much as for their suitability as places from which to see this eclipse.  That’s partly why the images are of the places not eclipses.  Also I have not yet gotten that serious about photographing solar eclipses, preferring to give them my full visual attention.

In thinking about where to be on August 21st, I’ve come to a conclusion.  There are just too many great places to choose from.  These are my favorites, but I’d love to hear where you all are going (or with more time would like to go).  Add to the list in the comments below.  Places are listed as general destinations, west to east.  I’m not ranking them 1st to 10th best.  In the descriptions for each you’ll find suggestions for specific places to be on eclipse day.

You can see from the list that I’m biased toward areas of natural beauty, fully aware that these will attract a lot of crowds.  I’ve spent time in all of these areas and know some of them very well.  When it comes to specific spots to watch from, I’m partial to elevated positions.  And with this eclipse we’re in luck.  Because the path is generally oriented east-west, and North America’s mountain ranges run mostly north-south, it passes over many of America’s high places.  If you’re watching from a city the roof of a building is worth going for.

This house near Oregon’s Painted Hills will have a glorious view to the west as a total solar eclipse comes its way.

As mentioned in the last post, if possible choose a spot with a good view toward the west, the direction from which the shadow comes rushing at you.  That way you can anticipate totality better, have a better chance of seeing effects like shadow bands, and generally have a more complete experience.

This eclipse will feature a fairly high sun position, hitting land in mid-morning and leaving the east coast in mid-afternoon.  That will present some challenges composing wider-angle landscape photographs.  On the other hand, less atmosphere along the viewing path means better resolution for zoomed-in, frame-filling detail shots of the eclipse.  If you’re shooting this eclipse, good luck!

High up in a part of the Tetons only accessible by hiking, and on the center line!

The List

1.  Oregon Coast

The center line of the path of totality hits the coast at a spectacular little state park called Fogarty Creek.  This state park will of course be far more crowded this August 21st than the many times I’ve stopped and roamed along it’s rocky shore.  But that is where it all starts, on land at least, at 10:15 in the morning local time.

Just to the south of the center line is Government Point, a headland with an expansive view out over the ocean to the west.  Boiler Bay directly north of the point is a very interesting place to explore at low tide.  Little Depoe Bay is a scenic little town not far to the south.

But a long stretch of coast will be under the moon’s shadow that morning.  The path of totality stretches from the towns of Pacific City in the north to Waldport in the south, and there are many little coves, parks and harbors from which to choose.  Two of the coast’s largest towns – Newport and Lincoln City – are in the path of totality.  Newport, with its bridge and scenic old harbor, is the more interesting of the two.

A bright morning on the Oregon Coast Trail, which on August 21st will turn dark for a brief time.

2.  Cascade Mountains, Oregon

The center line of the eclipse path crosses the high Cascades just north of Mount Jefferson, and the nearest highway is U.S. 20 over Santiam Pass, also in the path of totality.  There is a Forest Service road (4220) coming in from the north that takes you to Ollalie and Breitenbush Lakes, plus a trailhead for the Pacific Crest Trail.

Taking the trail from the Breitenbush Lake Trailhead will take you south toward the center line.  But don’t expect to find parking anywhere nearby.  I’m not sure what the Forest Service’s plan is, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they close the area to traffic completely, forcing you to bike in.

If you can access the area, hike from the trailhead about 4 miles to spectacular Park Ridge, with views of Mt. Jefferson and plenty of wildflowers (and other hikers) for company.  Jefferson Park, a paradise of lakes and meadows, is a couple miles further on, but campsites there won’t be available.

One other option, if you can talk your way into taking over someone else’s reservation, is Breitenbush Hot Springs, accessible by turning off Hwy. 20 at Detroit.  It’s a hippy dippy backwoods retreat along a beautiful stream in the forest, and is almost smack dab on the center line.  The hot spring is channeled into several beautiful pools overlooking the river.  It should be a wonderful party at Breitenbush, with plenty of new age spiritual flavour.

The center line for this eclipse passes directly over the right (northern) shoulder of Mount Jefferson in the Oregon Cascades.

3.  Painted Hills, Oregon

This would be an incredible place to see the eclipse.  But like state parks near the center line on the Coast it will be mobbed by people.  Also, the meager lodging is booked in this area, so you’d need to drive in from a distance or convince a rancher to take some money to park and camp on their land.  But if you can find a place to stay, this expansive area offers many options other than the Painted Hills for great watch spots.  One could visit the Painted Hills during a visit, just not on eclipse day.

There is a hike called Blue Basin just north of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument Headquarters.  The 3-mile loop hike takes you up high with a view to the west over the fossil-rich badlands.  Perfect for this eclipse!  Also there’s an overlook off Hwy. 26 just west of tiny Dayville.  It looks west on Picture Gorge and the John Day River.  Parking is slim but you might be able to park down along the road and walk up.  This is not a well known spot.

Grassy prairie along Bridge Creek near Mitchell, Oregon, a tiny town that will see plenty of visitors come August.

4.  Stanley & the Sawtooths, Idaho

Another popular place but with amazing natural beauty and many options other than Stanley and Redfish Lakes, which will no doubt be as busy as they’ve ever been.  You could hike out to Sawtooth Lake and choose to see the eclipse from there or from the ridgeline east of the lake.  It’s 4.5 miles one-way to Sawtooth Lake with 1800 feet of elevation gain.  If you can do this, you will experience a truly spectacular setting for the solar eclipse.

For those with a lot of energy, there is another spectacular option just to the east of Stanley.  Climbing Borah Peak, highest mountain in Idaho and just north of the center line, would be beyond rewarding.  Your challenge for Stanley is to find a place to camp or stay.  But this eclipse with the Sawtooth Mountains as backdrop would be an absolutely incredible sight.

The Grand Tetons from near Driggs, Idaho: yet another mountainous area covered by this solar eclipse.

5.  Grand Tetons, Wyoming

You couldn’t ask for a better place for an eclipse trip, that is if you can handle the mob scene around eclipse day itself.  If you can find lodging or camping near enough and an out-of-the-way spot for eclipse day; and if you can plan for a lengthier stay, you can explore two of America’s grandest national parks (Grand Tetons and Yellowstone).  It would arguably be the premier trip for this eclipse.

The western side of the Tetons will be less crowded than the Jackson Hole area.  The charming town of Driggs, Idaho lies at the base of the mountains.  There are trails into the high country from near Driggs, routes that will take you to high viewpoints with expansive views to the west.  The Table Mountain trail, while difficult at 12 miles round-trip, would take you to one of the most spectacular places to see the eclipse.  If you’re a climber, you might be able to score a spot on a guided climb of the Grand Teton for the event, that is if someone cancels.

Tune in next time for the rest of the list.  Have a wonderful weekend!

The Oregon Coast!

Eclipse Mania: How to Decide Where to Watch   Leave a comment

An amazing image of the 2016 Indonesian eclipse. Photographer: Alson Wong. The detail, that prominence!

I’ve been doing a series on the upcoming total solar eclipse.  I realize it is late in the game, with only about 8 weeks until eclipse day.  But if you haven’t made plans yet don’t worry.  You still have time and this series is for you!  And even if you’ve already made plans, you will find stuff here that will be useful once you hit the ground.  Plus, this entire series of posts will help you plan for future eclipses.  If this will be your first solar eclipse believe me, there will be others.  It’s an addiction!  Now let’s look at a few criteria I’ve found useful for deciding where to watch a total solar eclipse.

A. Ease of Access to Center Line.

Despite the fact that a solar eclipse is over in minutes and your travel plans may include a full vacation (say, two weeks), the actual eclipse needs to be your primary consideration.  You probably already know, but it is absolutely essential to be in the path of totality.  Close is not good enough.  All you’ll see is a partial not total eclipse if you are outside of the path of totality.  And a partial eclipse is just not all that special.

It’s also important to be well within the path of totality, not near the edge.  Get as close as you can to the center line.  Otherwise you’ll see an off-center and slightly shortened eclipse.  Within a quarter mile or so of the center line is very good, but try to get right on it if you can.

The area along the path of totality that you plan to visit has to have several places to stand and look up (I know, duh!), with no serious obstructions such as dense forest.  Work with the very accurate and well-done interactive maps online.  I recommend this one.

Lastly, don’t pin all your hopes on one location.  You’ll want a plan B and plan C, in other words a few alternative locations from which to watch in case something goes wrong with your first choice.  The places need to be easy to access, on public property or on previously arranged private land.  Arrive early!

The little-appreciated Ochoco Mtns. in central Oregon are in the path of totality.

B.  Dry Climate.

This is a tricky one.  Although you don’t want to be clouded out on eclipse day, it is easy to assume too much precision and accuracy when looking at climatic data.  In other words, don’t over-think this.  Accept the inevitable: an element of chance.  When eclipse planning you can think of climate in two ways: large scale and small scale, or path climate and micro-climate.  See below for a detailed look at both of these applied to the upcoming eclipse.

A solar eclipse path is very long but narrow, so climate can very dramatically along the path but not much across the path.  You need to examine the climate along the path of totality and use that as one, not the only, factor influencing your decision of where to watch.  Obviously the climatic information you research needs to be for the time of year that the eclipse is happening.

2016 eclipse, Indonesia. Photographer: Muhammad Rayhan.  Nice diamond ring, plus note the hint of shadow bands in the clouds.

C.  Inspiring 

Last but not least I recommend seeing any total solar eclipse in a location that inspires you.  It’s not just for the eclipse experience itself, but for the time you will spend before and after the eclipse.  You have to decide where along the path is a place that stokes your imagination, all the while taking the other factors into account.  And don’t forget that this eclipse will probably be the most hyped in history.

For me it means choosing a beautiful but not necessarily sexy natural place.  What I mean by this is that it does not have to be in an iconic location like in front of the Tetons, Painted Hills, or any other of my favorite landscape photography subjects.  The eclipse itself will almost make any spot worthwhile.  Notice I said ‘almost’.  Anyplace with a view of the sky is not a view I share.

The bottom line for me is that, while I don’t expect (nor do I wish) nobody else to be around, I do want to avoid all the hassles that go along with a mob scene.  That would take away too much from the experience.  But I do want to be in a nice natural environment, preferably with open views toward the western horizon, the direction from which the shadow comes.

It’s truly amazing how many beautiful places lie along the path of this eclipse: Grand Teton National Park, WY.

  Climate Variations for this Eclipse

Path Climate

For this eclipse, which is happening in late summer, there are a few general path-climate considerations to be aware of.  The part of the western U.S. traversed by the path is generally very dry, sunny and hot in August.  There is frequent thunderstorm activity in the Rockies and even in eastern Oregon.  But those normally happen in mid- to late afternoon, and the eclipse is early in the day.  So that probably is not a big factor.

In the central U.S. the climate is again generally dry during late summer.  But the same issue – thunderstorms – is a slightly bigger concern because of the higher humidity.  That trend continues to become a bigger factor as the path travels east and slightly south, entering more humid climes later in the day.  The southeastern U.S. is humid and hot in August.  The eclipse there is in mid-afternoon, so the chances for clouds are greater than in the west.

But the west may not be the best for one reason: fire.  Granted it is unlikely that a fire would be so big (or so close) as to greatly affect your experience.  But August is fire-season in the west, and the risk of dense smoke, or even being forced to evacuate, cannot be ignored.

Interesting shot by photographer Alson Wong of the 2008 Chinese eclipse, over-exposing the corona but showing the moon’s surface being illuminated by earth shine.  A good tradeoff!

Micro-Climate

Micro-climate will factor into your decision of where to watch once you’ve decided on a general area to go.  One common example: the rain-shadow effect, where mountains tend to keep clouds and rain on the upwind side; that is, in the direction that prevailing weather tends to come from.

But keep in mind that micro-climate is also specific to the time of year.  For example areas east of the Cascades, along with the east sides of ranges in the Rockies, are in rain shadows in winter but in summer receive moisture (in the form of thundershowers) coming up from the Gulf of Mexico.

For micro-climate much more than path climate, local knowledge is invaluable.  If you know people who live in the area you are going, quiz them on local variations in cloudiness on a typical August day.  Get on chat groups and try to filter out all the self-described expertise that plagues the internet.  Focus on those who seem to be actual outdoors people and who have lived in the area for a long time.  Not easy I know.  It’s why I’m relying on my own experiences and talking with locals on previous trips.

The August eclipse will be seen by farmers across the heartland of the U.S.

Rural America ~ Desert SW Roadtrips: San Diego to Santa Fe   7 comments

Technicolor sunrise over the grinding pits (metates) at a native village site in Mine Wash, Anza Borrego, California.

Our photographic journey through rural America continues with the final segment of road-tripping the Desert Southwest.  I’m approaching these trips from a rural perspective because, despite profound change, much remains of the flavour of America in its halcyon days.  All you need to do is get off the beaten track, slow down and explore.

We start this long road-trip along the southern reaches of the Desert Southwest on the Pacific in San Diego.  And I can’t think of a better place to end but in the historic center of the Southwest, Santa Fe.  If you’re flying in and renting a vehicle, you might use LAX instead of San Diego.  And dropping off in Albuquerque rather than Santa Fe may make more sense depending on airfares and vehicle rental.

Mogollon Mountains, New Mexico.

San Diego to Tucson

Despite my aversion to using interstate freeways, save some time and start out by traveling east on I-8.  Give at least a little time to Anza Borrego, southern California’s premier desert state park.  Great little canyon hikes are found just off the freeway.  Or for more depth detour north into the park’s heart by turning left onto Hwy. 79 to the charming town of Julian.  Then drive east on Hwy. 78 into the Mojave Desert.  If you come this way an interesting spot to check out is Mine Wash, site of a former native village (see image at top).

Keep going east to El Centro, heart of the Imperial Valley.  This is where, courtesy of massive diversion of the Colorado River, America grows winter vegetables.  The agricultural area draws great numbers of day-workers from Mexico.  I’ve spent some time in this area working.  At the Mexicali border crossing I’ve stood in line with hundreds of Mexicans at 4 a.m.  (Don’t ask me why I was crossing back over the border at that hour!)  They were patiently waiting to cross to work the fields until sunset, then queuing up again to cross back into Mexico after dark.  I honestly don’t know how they can do this day after long, hot day.

Teddy bear cholla cactus blooms during summer monsoon rains in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert.

Pass through the town of Yuma, where the temperature is routinely well above 100 deg. F in the summer.  Keep going east on the freeway into Arizona, then turn south at Gila Bend on Hwy. 85 toward Ajo.  This little town has some character, but is dominated to some degree by the presence of a nearby border control base.  The money that the U.S. has thrown into border control since 9/11 can be easily appreciated in this unpopulated desert region.  You’ll see plenty of their SUVs around, but don’t worry.  They are very good at distinguishing tourists from vehicles that warrant their suspicion, and will generally leave you alone.  Still, be ready to stop at checkpoints if you’re anywhere near the border.

The town of Ajo, Arizona has the feel of a small town in Mexico.

After a little walk around Ajo, with its Spanish Colonial feel, continue south into Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.  This is a wonderful desert park to explore, and the landscape photography is especially rewarding during the late summer monsoon season.  Sure it is hot this time of year, but the storms put on quite the light show.  I did a post on this park, so check it out for more detail.

Travel east again through the desert on Hwy. 86, passing beneath the telescopes of Kitt Peak.  This is one of the world’s premier observatories (it hosts the world’s largest solar telescope), and can be visited on tours or enjoyed at night when the public is invited to come at sunset and stay to peer at the stars through telescopes.  Continue east to Tucson, stopping at Saguaro National Park if you’ve never been there.  Also worth visiting is the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum, just west of town.

A drive through Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona.

Tucson to Silver City

Continuing east of Tucson you’ll have a decision to make.  If you’re in no hurry, and depending on how much time you want to devote to New Mexico, detour south to the interesting copper town of Bisbee, on the way visiting Tombstone, which is touristy but fun.

For superb hikes in mountains where Geronimo and his Apache brothers used to hole up where the U.S. Cavalry couldn’t find them, turn south off I-10 at Willcox and head up into the Chiricahua Mtns. on Bonita Canyon Drive.  For a stroll through pioneer history, stop at the Faraway picnic site and walk the mile or so through the old Faraway Ranch.  Further up this paved road, which ends at the visitor center, Echo Canyon to the Grotto is a short mile walk.

But if you make time for a longer hike, the amazing rock formations of Heart of Rocks Loop, accessible either from the visitor center or Echo Canyon, are where you should spend most of your energy.  It’s a 7+ miles round-trip trek.  Sadly I seem to have lost my photos of Heart of Rocks.  Time to go back!

In southern Arizona’s monsoon season frequent thunderstorms cause the desert valleys to green up.

Drive back down Bonita Canyon and turn south on Hwy. 42, Pinery Canyon Road.  This partly unpaved road takes you up and over the Chiricahuas, dropping east down a lovely canyon (image above) to a place called Paradise.  Along the way a campsite sits in open forest.  Once you leave the mountains you find yourself in a big desert valley.  There is a community near here based around ultralights and experimental aircraft.  It was established by an internet tycoon.  Also popular in this area is amateur astronomy.  The skies are some of the darkest and clearest on the continent, so stay up late and do some stargazing!

Summer monsoons cause wildflowers to bloom in Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains.

The desert garden landscape of the Chiricahua Mtns., AZ

Turn north on Portal Road and reach the freeway, where you’re not far from the New Mexico border.  Once in this unique state, which feels a bit like a developing country (or like its namesake to the south), set your GPS for Silver City.  The town, set at the base of the Mogollon Mountains (Mogoyon), is gateway to the rugged and remote Gila National Forest, the state’s largest.  The Gila includes America’s first wilderness area, of the same name, along with one named for the man who inspired the creation of wilderness areas, Aldo Leopold.

 

Whiskey or beer? New Mexico.

Silver City to Santa Fe

Silver City, New Mexico, a former mining town that now has a modern look, is still small enough to charm.  It’s home to those who’ve chosen to live set away from the rushed and busy world.   The history of this incredibly scenic area is interesting and multilayered.  About 45 miles north of town are the Gila Cliff Dwellings.  On the way make a quick stop at Pinos Altos, a little town whose mining past is not well-concealed beneath its mountain-rural present (image above).

Once you’re finished with the one-way trip to the cliff dwellings, travel west and north from Silver City on Hwy. 182.  Take the short side-trip to Mogollon, where the historic architecture and remnants of the mines are very well preserved and spectacularly situated.  From here you can continue on Hwy. 159 or 182.  Whichever route you take from here to Santa Fe, don’t be in a hurry.   If you take the time to wander, even stop and chat with a local or two, you may discover what makes rural New Mexico so unique.

The old mining boom town of Mogollon, New Mexico.

Gila Wilderness, New Mexico.

Here are a couple ideas for nature stops to anchor your travel from Silver City to Santa Fe.  If the time of year is right (November-January), consider visiting Bosque del Apache.  It’s a bird refuge near Socorro on I-25, host to huge wintering flocks.  Get there early in the pre-dawn hours – bundle up, it can be cold.  While you’ll have plenty of company in the form of bird photographers, the spectacle of tens of thousands of snow geese taking flight will raise your spirit right along with the noisy birds.  The area is also famous for Sandhill Cranes.

Breath the pristine air: El Malpais, New Mexico.

Another potential route north to Santa Fe takes in El Malpais, a geologically fascinating area of lava flows surrounded by sandstone rimrock.  Not many people seem to visit this vast and pristine area.  Acoma Pueblo, a native community dating from 1100, is a worthwhile stop as well, and is not far east of El Malpais; just an hour further east is Albuquerque.  On your way north to Santa Fe from there, make time to stop and contemplate the Rio Grande River, the lifeline of the region’s culture past and present (image below).

The Rio Grande flows through its canyon: central New Mexico.

Thanks so much for reading (I know, a lot of words!).  I so enjoyed taking you along on a few of my favorite roadtrips through the great Desert Southwest.  Happy shooting!

Bidding goodnight to another day: Salton Sea, California.

Rural America ~ Desert SW Road-Trips: Four Corners   5 comments

Sunrise at Lone Rock Beach on Lake Powell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Page to Cortez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pictographs: southern Utah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cortez to Santa Fe

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

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

The Bisti/De Na Zin Wilderness, New Mexico.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monument Valley at dusk.

Rural America: Desert SW Road-trips ~ Death Valley to Zion   11 comments

The morning sun hits Death Valley’s salt flats.

The series on rural America continues.  The goal is to give you ideas for how to make your trips into the various regions of this huge country about more than ticking off scenic wonders and tourist hot spots.  Although America’s rich rural character has been in many areas replaced by suburban sprawl, it remains in more places than you might expect.

This and one or two succeeding posts begins a look at select road trips in the amazing region of the U.S. called the desert southwest (DSW).  Check out the last post for an introduction to the DSW.  Each time I travel here I find new detours and variations.  Some lead to interesting but relatively unknown scenic splendors.  But the best thing about these routes is they all reveal rural charms that are easy to miss if you stick to the main highways.  So let’s dive right in, starting in the west and moving east.

Death Valley to Zion

Of course any trip through the Desert SW is going to focus at least as much on nature as it does on rural areas.  This one is no exception.  For the obvious reason of its harshly dry climate, ranching is more important than farming in most areas along this route.  Cattle ranching in Nevada and SW Utah takes place largely on public lands.  Once in SW Utah you are in an area of the state called Dixie.  The town of St. George is large and bustling, but there are plenty of scenic small towns in the area to explore.

Scotty’s Castle is at the center of many of Death Valley’s best stories.

Ghost Towns of Death Valley

Start by traveling (if you fly in, from Los Angeles or Las Vegas) to Death Valley National Park in California.  It’s one of my favorite places in the world.  Here you can alternate rambles across sand dunes at sunrise and hikes through stunning canyons with a visit to a ghost town or two.  They are what remains of the gold mining that took place here in the 1800s and early 1900s.

The best known example is Rhyolite, which is not in the park but very accessible just across the Nevada border.  Beatty, the town nearby, will give you a glimpse of small-town life in the Great Basin of Nevada.  If you’d visited Rhyolite in the 1990s you would have seen an operating mine, and you will see the remnants of this more modern open-pit gold mine in the Bullfrog Hills above the ghost town.

Feral burros, left over from the days of gold and silver prospecting, roam the Mojave Desert of Death Valley National Park.

A spectacular pair of ghost towns lie on the opposite, western side of Death Valley, in the Panamint Valley.  You can drive right to the first, Ballarat.  But if you’re in hiking shape I highly recommend heading up nearby Surprise Canyon, parking at the obvious end of the passable part of the dirt road and continuing on foot.

While it is a spectacular area, realize you will be trekking 10 fairly rugged canyon miles roundtrip.  But if you bring a water filter you can carry much less weight in water than usual in these parts.  You might even see waterfalls along the way depending on recent storms.  Be prepared for thick brush in the canyon bottom.  Arriving at Panamint City with its scenic brick smokestack, you’ll experience the real deal.  It has a true lonely ghost-town feel.

One of the surviving buildings of Ballarat Ghost Town, the snow-capped Panamint Range soaring beyond.

One more cool “ghost town” to visit in the Death Valley area is Gold Point, Nevada.  It is actually north of the park, but if you’re up there to visit Scotty’s Castle anyway, it’s not all that much further.  I put ghost town in quotations because a half dozen or so souls live there with the ghosts year-round.  You can not only see a historic old-west saloon, you can go in and have a beer!

The Great Basin of Southern Nevada.

Rural Southern Nevada

Traveling east across southern Nevada you’ll pass the glitz of Las Vegas.  If you stay on the freeway it is a relatively short high-speed cruise along Interstate 15 to St. George, Utah.  But consider a short detour north into the rural southern Great Basin.  So turn north on U.S. Highway 93 toward the little town of Caliente.  Turn south on State Hwy. 317 to make a loop back to Hwy. 93.

Take your time and you’re sure to see a sparsely populated part of Nevada that will make you forget all about the neon phenomenon of Las Vegas.  It’s what the Great Basin is all about, what nobody speeding along I-15 could imagine.  You can extend your detour north to Cathedral Gorge State Park, an area of badlands with cool little slot canyons.  Some of the valleys where cattle roam are surprisingly green and grassy.  Others are arid, treeless expanses, with the Great Basin’s characteristic long ranges shimmering in the distance.

On a detour through rural southern Nevada, some areas don’t look very desert-like.

And others do: badlands of Cathedral Gorge, NV.

Dixie in Utah

Not long after crossing out of Nevada you arrive in bustling St. George, southern Utah’s largest town.  St. George is still dominated by its founders the Mormons, but nowadays it’s perhaps best known as a retirement haven.  For outsiders, the town is most notable as gateway to southern Utah’s world-famous scenic wonders.  Of course you can’t miss Zion National Park once you’re this close.  But a destination much nearer to town is the compact but stunning Snow Canyon State Park.  In this part of America it’s impossible to miss nature.  But remember this series is about where the people of rural America live.

Small-scale farming & ranching survives in small towns along the Virgin River bottom: Rockdale, Utah.

There are several towns surrounding St. George that retain the rural character of Dixie.  A drive north to Pine Valley features lovely scenery and the rural charm of this part of Utah.   And even in towns just off Interstate 15, places like Leeds and Toquerville, rural character remains.  If you get off at Leeds, wander over to the west side of the freeway and up the hill to historic Silver Reef, an old mining town.  Also nearby is spectacular Red Cliffs Recreation Area.  A very worthwhile canyon hike with a pretty little campground at the trailhead. If you drive to Toquerville, turn north on Spring Rd. to visit Toquerville Falls.

On the way to Zion most visitors race in eager anticipation past the scenic little towns of Virgin and Rockdale.  The roadside scenery between Rockdale and Springdale is lovely, especially in autumn (image below).  But once in Springdale you’ve entered the chaos of a uniquely American phenomenon: the National Park gateway town.

Valley of the Virgin River near Zion National Park, Utah.

Polygamy & Canyon Hiking

You can see where some of the Mormon Church’s most devout families live if you drive south of Hurricane (on the way to Zion) on Hwy. 59 to Colorado City on the Arizona border.  Keep going and this is an excellent way to travel to the north rim of the Grand Canyon or to Kanab, Utah.  Drive around the small town, which is called Hilldale on the Utah side, and you’ll see women in very traditional dress.  Polygamy is still widely practiced in these parts.  And as Forest Gump said, “that’s all I’m going to say about that.”

If you want to stretch your legs while you’re in the Hilldale/Colo. City area, there is a great canyon hike nearby.  Are you detecting a pattern?  A nice canyon hike is never far away when you’re traveling in these parts.  Drive north of town to the Water Canyon Trailhead.  You can get directions on Google Maps, but don’t think that means this is a popular place.  It’s more of a local’s hike.  The road becomes quite sandy and rutted, but you should be able to make it in a sedan if you go slow.

Water Canyon lies south of Zion Park, Utah.

After parking continue hiking up-canyon to pretty narrows and a small falls, where as the name suggests water usually flows (image above). A short scramble up the left side of the stream takes you past the apparent blockage and on up the canyon.  The trail eventually ascends steeply out of the canyon and up onto the mesa above.  Looking north you can see the southernmost temples of Zion.  Extending the hike this far is for lovers of longer, more rugged hikes.

Thanks for reading this rather long post!  This road-trip is definitely one I highly recommend.  Plan about two weeks to do it.  I’ve met people who have raced through in one week, and that’s including Bryce Canyon!  I have trouble getting out of Death Valley in less than a week.  Have a great weekend and happy shooting everyone!

The desert mountains along Death Valley’s eastern Nevada boundary light up at sunset.

 

Rural America: The Desert Southwest   3 comments

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

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

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

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

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

Geography & History

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

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

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

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

Appropriation

Ancient Ones to Spain to Mexico to USA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Window on the historic Kit Carson home: Taos, NM

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

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

Mining in the Southwest

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

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

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

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

Cowboys & Indians

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

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

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

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

Road Tripping the Southwest

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

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

Sunset at Monument Valley.

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