Archive for the ‘travel’ Tag

Friday Foto Talk: Video on the Move   5 comments

This is the 3rd part of my mini-series on video for the unrepentant still photographer.  The over-arching premise is that, no matter how in love with still photography you happen to be, there is always a enough time to add in a bit of videography.  If you need real reasons to press that play button, check out Part I.  For tips on things to watch out for when getting started, check out Part II.

Note that in order to watch the videos here you have to click the title at top left.  That will take you to my Vimeo page, where you simply press play to watch them.  There’s a full-screen option.  By the way, they haven’t been edited, even for length.  On my to-do list.  Now let’s get into it!

Video & Focal Length

Last time I recommended starting out simple, by placing your camera on a tripod and recording without moving the camera.  You can also keep things still while hand-holding the camera.  But choose a fairly wide-angle lens for this.  If you zoom in beyond, say, 70 mm., it will be next to impossible to hold the camera still enough.  Even with focal lengths around 50 mm. it’s hard.  Use a tripod.

There is another issue with focal length when recording video.  When you use a medium focal length, on the order of 50 mm., you are replicating the approximate field of view for human vision.  It means that the viewer will not be distracted by either an unusually wide angle, with its distortion, or by any unsteadiness and jittering of the frame that may happen when you zoom in to longer focal lengths.  This doesn’t mean you should avoid those different focal lengths; that’s one big advantage of shooting video with a DSLR.  It’s just that as a rule of thumb 35-60 mm. is a good baseline, or default, focal length.

Camera Movement:  Panning

If you do follow my advice from last post and start out by locking the camera down on a tripod while recording (and in that case you’ll be choosing moving subjects that are interesting in some way), it won’t be long before you get bored and start moving the camera.  The most basic kind of camera movement is panning.  If you shoot a lot of landscapes like me, panning will show you the whole area.  It’s sort of the video equivalent of an establishing shot in still photography.

You have two basic choices.  You can just pan like most people do with their phones, pivoting around while pointing the lens at what you want to include.  Or you can pan while on the tripod.  An in-between option is a monopod set up for video.  In the first case, just winging it by hand, you should realize that a camera phone has a very wide-angle lens.  Any deviations from a smooth pan (short of tripping over your own feet!) are masked by the wide angle of view.  Speaking of hand-holding for video, there are stabilizer rigs that you hold/wear that will make it much easier to keep things smooth while panning and otherwise moving the camera.

For the video below, I bushwacked to a very beautiful & secluded spot in Olympic National Park.  I climbed onto a rock beside a lovely falls and panned through the scene by hand.  Even though I used a wide-angle, you’ll see a couple small errors toward the end.  If I had used a stabilizer rig it would have been smoother.

Panning on the Tripod ~ Which Head?

If you pan on a tripod, which is what I’d try first for longer focal lengths, you have another choice to make.  Do you buy a so-called fluid panning head?  And how nice/expensive?  You can literally spend thousands on a super-smooth fluid head for video.  You’re thinking why can’t I just use my regular ballhead?  Sure. But if you go this route you will have to develop quite the steady technique.  You’ll also need to limit how long a focal length you use and probably accept small hitches in the final product.

‘But’, I hear you saying, ‘my ballhead has separate panning movement.’  Yes it does.  But it’s there for shooting a series of still shots on a plane (a panorama, for e.g.).  It’s movement isn’t really smooth enough for video panning.  That said, I have used my ballhead (not the panning base) to pan through shots.  I use the ballhead itself though, not the pan.  And I don’t do it with particularly long focal lengths.

Panning Heads:  What to Buy

If you go for a panning head, and if you’re not yet a serious videographer, I would buy an intro. model.  But intro. doesn’t mean cheapest.  Cheap fluid heads are like cheap tripods.  You’ll soon regret your purchase.  Get one a bit further up the scale, one with some good reviews by practiced videographers on a budget.  Figure on spending at least $100 and probably closer to $150 or even a bit more.  Look at the Manfrotto fluid heads in that range.

EXTRA ~ FOR OWNERS OF LONG TELEPHOTO LENSES ONLY

If you have a long telephoto or zoom, and especially if you plan on shooting wildlife, you’ll probably want a Gimbal head.  Wimberley is a popular brand but there are others just as good.  Gimbals aren’t cheap.  But when using big lenses they are more stable, balanced and move more easily than on a ballhead.  As a bonus Gimbals allow smooth panning and other movement during video recording.  So with big lenses it is your go-to head, whether you are doing still photography (following a bird in flight, for e.g.) or video.  There are partial Gimbals that clamp onto your ballhead.  Cheaper than a full Gimbal, these are better than using just the ballhead but not as good as the full version that replaces your ballhead.

Next time, more video on the move: tips for when you’re in the field and want to shoot a video or two to go along with your still shots.  Have a fantastic weekend and happy shooting!

 

Advertisements

Friday Foto Talk: Point of View – Ethics & Legality   4 comments

For this swirling pool on Colorado's St. Vrain River, I went for a POV looking down on it.

For this recent shot of a granite-lined pool on Colorado’s St. Vrain River, I went for a downward-looking POV.

After the recent posts on point of view (POV), I realized I had been taking it for granted.  It’s the kind of thing that experienced photographers model naturally when shooting.  But they gloss over it and don’t talk about it enough when teaching.  Novices tend to be busy figuring out their cameras, exposure, where to focus, etc.  As a result they may not pick up on how important POV is until later on.

But here’s a simple fact: the sooner you learn to quickly and purposefully adjust your point of view, the faster your photography will improve.  Why is POV so important?  Because it’s all about finding the best compositions.  And in photography composition means everything.  So be sure to check out POV Part I and POV Part II.  This week let’s take a step back and look at some consequences of changing POV in the quest for the perfect shot.

Last post I showed the male mountain bluebird. Here is his mate near the nest at 11,800 feet elevation in Colorado.

Last Wednesday featured a male mountain bluebird. Here is his mate near their nest at 11,800 feet (3600 m.) up in the Colorado Rockies.

An image whose point of view is of another creature's point of view (note what the elk is looking at).

An image whose point of view is of another creature’s point of view (note what the elk is looking at).

Okay.  You got the message of the last two Foto Talks.  You’re moving around with purpose, shifting POV in all directions, shooting away.  You’re well on your way to better photos.  And maybe on your way to trouble as well.  Here are some quandaries common to photography, along with ideas on how to handle them.

POV & Ethics

  • Be Kind to the Environment.  Moving closer to your foreground subject could mean trampling delicate vegetation or disturbing other living things (stirring up sediment in a sensitive aquatic environment, for example).  Just last night I saw a portrait photographer trampling flowers while shooting a family, and this was inside a national park.
  • Be Kind to Fellow Photographers.  In places with other photographers around, working a subject with many different POVs (normally laudable) could result in you selfishly “hogging” the subject (next post will have the counterpoint to this).

SOLUTIONS 

  • Strike a Balance.  While a strong commitment to getting the shot is necessary to get good images, it’s also important to avoid being insensitive or rude.
  • Be Aware of where you are and of those around you at all times.  I’m not saying to take your mind off the photography or to worry about what others think of you lying there on your belly.  But at the same time, be conscious about damaging sensitive habitats.  Think about the critters, including your fellow photographers.
The subalpine flower meadows of Mt. Rainier, Washington are a place where you should be careful where you step.

The subalpine flower meadows of Mt. Rainier, Washington are a place where you should be careful where you step.

POV, Legality & Permission

Are you going to hop that fence to get closer to your subject, grab a quick shot and get back before the property owner comes along?  What about entering a questionable area in some foreign country?  Laws are different there and enforced in different ways.  Do you really want the shot that badly?

  • Example 1:  Unexpected problem in a Foreign Land.  In a busy public area in Malawi I was shooting a cute little baby with big brown eyes, after asking her mom.  The unexpected result: a policeman became suspicious, approached me and wanted to take my camera away.  I had to do some quick talking, show them my pictures, and get the mom to back me up.
  • Example 2:  Dangerous & Illegal POV turns out OK.  Another example is the image below, which is a few years old.  I had driven past this spot with a fantastic view of Portland, Oregon many times.  But I could never see a safe way to shoot there.   For the same reason that makes the spot such a great POV:  it’s on a busy, curving freeway ramp that swings out over the Willamette River.

But one day I noticed a spot where the ramp widened, with just enough room to park.  It even had a curb for a bit of protection from traffic.  It required a quick maneuver in the heavy traffic.  The first time I did it was on my motorcycle, which made it quite easy.  But I knew it was illegal to be there so didn’t stay long.  I quickly set up my tripod and captured the shot I had been after.

Portland, Oregon is a town of bridges, like the Steele Bridge here spanning the Willamette River at dusk with a crescent moon.

Portland, Oregon is a town of bridges, like the Steele Bridge here spanning the Willamette River at dusk with a crescent moon.

SOLUTIONS:  Asking vs. Apologizing

You’ve probably heard the old expression “better to ask forgiveness than beg permission”.  Sounds good, right?  But in the real world you have to weigh risks and be able to handle things diplomatically if you get caught or challenged.    Here are a few examples:

  • In villages and on treks I’ve seen photographers surround some poor kid doing something cute, with no thought of whether it was okay with the parents.  That is horrible ugly tourist behavior.  With kids you should almost always ask the parents first.  Or be ready to be apologetic and honest about your motivations.
  • For sensitive areas (political or military), I would avoid them outright.  If you insist, always ask first.
  • Photographing someone’s property (including their bodies) also begs you to ask first.  But we’re entering a gray area.  If you make it a rule to always ask, you may not get many good shots.  You could miss the light, for example.  Then in reality you’re asking to return another time.
  • One more example: on a city street photographing people.  Unless you shoot first, you’ll probably miss that great candid shot.  For some subjects, however, it doesn’t matter, street performers for example.  So you may as well ask first.
One of my favorite child images, I didn't ask permission first in order to get this candid. But in an out of the way place, people are more chill, and I smiled a lot. Mom invited me in for tea.

One of my favorite child images, a Sherpa boy waiting for his dad to come home.  I didn’t ask permission first, but in a part of Nepal away from tourists, I was willing to risk it.  I smiled a lot and his mom invited me in for tea.

SOLUTIONS:  The Quandary

The last two points above illustrate a quandary unique to photography.  Do you forego the quick shot and engage first, or do you strike while the iron is hot and talk later?  Each of us have to handle it in our own way, realizing that each situation is different.  Ultimately we need to accept responsibility for our actions.  It’s safest to ask permission first, especially if there is the slightest doubt.  But whatever happens, it’s important to be honest and pleasant.

Okay that’s it for now.  Next week we’ll look at other issues to be aware of when actively changing your point of view.  Happy shooting and have a wonderful weekend!

Sunset over the high tundra of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

 

Friday Foto Talk: Visualization, Part I   18 comments

This image was the result of waking up just after sunrise and while still sleepy walking into a fog-suffused meadow in the Sangre de Cristo Mtns., New Mexico, visualizing an image that would capture that mood.

The result of waking up just after sunrise and while still sleepy walking into a fog-suffused meadow in the Sangre de Cristo Mtns., New Mexico, visualizing an image that would capture that mood.

I want to follow-up on last Friday’s post on Pre-visualization. This is Part I and next Friday I’ll conclude with Part II.  I strongly believe that most of our best pictures are captured when we are in the right frame of mind, and a big part of that is visualization.  Although pre-visualization can result in great images as well, I don’t think it’s as important a skill as visualization.  It’s not easy to put these ideas into words, but here goes!

At least it is easy to describe the difference between the two types of visualization.  I thought about calling the subject of this post Syn-Visualization; that’s because it takes place while you’re out photographing.  Pre-visualization on the other hand happens before-hand, while you’re planning a shoot.  A simplistic distinction I admit.  The two certainly overlap and lead one to the other.  Observation while out shooting is directly related in that it can lead to and be spurred by both kinds of visualization.

I had walked by this tall cliff of andesite near Mt. Hood many times, waiting for the right conditions to image it so as to show some of the lush environment along the creek that cut into the lava flow to expose it.

I had walked by this interesting cliff near Mt. Hood (Oregon) many times, waiting for the right conditions to show some of the lush environment along the creek that it borders.

Oklahoma_Sept-2014_6D_030-Edit

While in Oklahoma, I’d been pre-visualizing images of tall-grass prairie in wind.  The warm mood of this sunset allowed me to capture it, but with just the barest sense of movement instead of a longer exposure that would blur the textures of the grass.

Visualization in Practice

Let’s use a hypothetical example to show both kinds of visualization at work.  On a first visit to a place you might observe something about a subject that you want to highlight.  Unfortunately the light and other conditions aren’t quite right, so you shoot a more or less documentary (objective) photo of the subject.

Thinking about it afterwards, you spend some mental energy visualizing your desired image, planning that second visit (it may be the next day or next year).  Then when you’re onsite again, you are faced with different conditions, different from last time and different than your pre-visualization.  Your mood and state of mind are different.  There may even be things that have changed about the place.  A large log has fallen into a waterfall, for example.

Unfazed and with an open mind, you observe everything about the subject and conditions.  You observe the mood of the place, and inevitably your own state of mind influences your interpretation of that mood.  You begin to visualize an image that may to some degree be influenced by your pre-visualization and planning.  Or you may throw out all thoughts of realizing your pre-visualized image and visualize a different image.

All of this should lead to getting the best possible image.  A picture that does more than just record your being there.  One that is deeper than what you thought was possible after your first visit.  And as a bonus, you could end up being more artistically satisfied with your image than with one that is simply about the light, one that gets a lot of “wows” & “stunnings” online (although it could do both).  The more conscious visualization you do, and the more time you spend behind the camera, the more all this “virtual photography” takes place in your subconscious (read on).

Any safari-goer would love to get an image of a charging black rhino, right? This one wasn't charging but he was covering the ground between us a bit too quickly, especially since he had caught me outside the vehicle (a no no in Kruger N.P.)

Any safari-goer wants an image of a charging black rhino, right? This curious guy wasn’t charging, but was covering the ground between us a bit too quickly, especially since he’d caught me outside the vehicle (a no no in Kruger N.P.)

The result of visualizing pretty Mexican girls who wanted to clown around, and I borrowed a piece of fabric with Mexican flag colors as a backdrop.

While in Mexico I pre-visualized images of a pretty Mexican girl smiling.  I ended up with three young friends who wanted to clown around, causing me to change my mind and visualize them together, a borrowed piece of fabric with Mexican flag colors as backdrop.

Subconscious Visualization

Let’s go deeper into how visualization might help your photography without much conscious effort.  Both pre- and visualization can happen in the subconscious as well as the conscious mind, but there’s an important difference.  Subconscious visualization while out shooting is made conscious (or explicit) when you make the photograph.  It doesn’t always happen of course, but there’s at least a decent chance it will.  In contrast, subconscious pre-visualization moves to the front of your mind in the less useful form of an explicit pre-visualization.  Who knows if it will be made into an image or not, but the chances are slim compared to onsite visualization.

Pre-visualizing aspens in front of the Grand Tetons for most has them in fall colors, but spring green and their exposed trunks meant visualizing something different.

For most photogs. pre-visualizing aspens in front of the Grand Tetons has them in fall colors.  For me, spring green and exposed trunks meant visualizing something different.

I believe that visualization (both conscious and subconscious), much more so than pre-visualization and planning, leads to images that accurately reflect the nature of the subject and your own take on that subject.  It’s for the simple reason that visualization happens when you are faced with your subject, light and other conditions of the moment.  Images based on good observation and visualization reflect your own style better too.  Pre-visualization is subject to extraneous influences.

All of these benefits depend on how observant and conscious you are when you photograph.  If, while you’re out shooting, you are thinking about an argument you had with someone, or about the election and that guy with the fake hair, you can’t expect much useful visualization to take place.  I’m the first to admit I don’t always succeed at this level of attention while shooting, but the effort is worthwhile.

Visualization concludes with the next Foto Talk.  Thanks for reading, happy shooting, and have a super week!

The Columbia River Gorge in Oregon is a good place for visualization. Here at a restored area I was trying to depict the gorge the way it was before dams, with wetlands lining the length of the river.

The Columbia River Gorge in Oregon is a good place for visualization. Here at a restored area I was trying to depict the gorge the way it was before dams, with wetlands lining the length of the river.

 

 

 

Visiting Zion National Park – Part V   2 comments

Fall hikes in Zion’s side-canyons can bring you to splashes of color like this.

Let’s continue the series on Zion National Park with specific recommendations on places to go.  I’m not really one to try and “guide” people on their travels.  Sure, I’ll have to get used to it if I decide to hang out a shingle and start leading photo trips.  But I believe once you have a general feel for an area, and as long as you have an adventurous spirit, you can do just fine on your own.  The key is having the time and desire to fumble around on your initial visit.  So to avoid some of that read on.

Sandstone detail on Checkerboard Mesa, East Zion.

Detail of fractured cross-bedded sandstone on Checkerboard Mesa, East Zion.

IF THIS IS YOUR FIRST TRIP:

Zion Canyon is a must-see.  So considering its popularity it’s a good idea to plan your first trip for a less-busy time. Try early spring, say mid-Feb. to early March.  The front or tail ends of fall color are good too.  Forests of tripods sprout at Zion during peak fall color in late October & early November.  The NPS actually publishes visitor numbers by month, so by all means check that page out when planning a trip. 

In springtime of course you’ll have longer days than in late autumn.  Plan at least two and probably three days for the main part of Zion.  That’s one full day for the canyon and a day each for East Zion and a longer hike.  The 3rd day could also be spent driving up Kolob Terrace or Kolob Canyons.

Walk along the Riverside:  Do an easy stroll along the Virgin River.  Or better yet two walks: in the lower canyon from the visitor center, and at the upper canyon’s Riverside Walk.  Both the Pa’rus Trail from the visitor center and the Riverside Walk up-canyon are wheelchair-accessible.  

At sunset there are many photo opportunities along the canyon bottom, especially with fall colors.  For the upper Riverside Walk, if you’re willing to get your feet wet, your photos will be better for it.  Photographers more prepared and more averse to wet feet than I am use hip-waders.  If you continue up into the Narrows, make sure you’re prepared by talking it over with a ranger.

Dusk along the Virgin River in the lower canyon near Springdale.

Dusk along the Virgin River in the lower canyon near Springdale.

Short Hike to Emerald Pools or Hidden Canyon:  If it isn’t too busy (go early morning), Emerald Pools is definitely worthwhile.  The trailhead leaves from the Zion Lodge shuttle stop and it’s about 3 miles round-trip.  Up-canyon from Emerald is the trailhead for Weeping Rock.  Do the short walk to the crybaby rock then take the trail on up to Hidden Canyon.  It’s a fairly short but steep hike.  For more strenuous hikes, read on…

Climb to a Canyon Viewpoint:  If you have the energy and time, do a longer hike in the Canyon.  The same trail to Hidden Canyon climbs steeply beyond to an amazing bird’s-eye view at Observation Point.  It’s 8 miles round-trip with a 2100-foot elevation gain.  There is another way to get to this outstanding viewpoint, but it requires driving to East Mesa trailhead over a rutted road.  Any vehicle with decent clearance should have no problem, though if it’s wet or snowy up there forget it.  

On my first day in the canyon back in the early ’90s I hiked to Observation Pt. then got lost coming back down off-trail.  Got cliffed-out, had to turn around, saw big cat tracks, and hiked back in the dark.  In other words a typical hike for me at the time.  But it was such a great intro. to the area.  

Zion Canyon from a high viewpoint along a sheep trail.

Angel’s Landing, despite its harrowing reputation, is quite a popular hike.  So do it early.  From the Grotto shuttle stop, you ascend the west (left) canyon wall 2.4 miles and 1500 feet to a jaw-dropping view.  The last 1/2 mile is true mountain-goat territory, so no small kids and no fear of heights allowed!

Explore East Zion:  East Zion is a spectacular area of the park, and is also your best chance to see bighorn sheep.  Don’t miss it.  Head past the turnoff for the main canyon and drive up the switchbacks, through the tunnels and into a land of slickrock and pinyon pine.  Park wherever you see an interesting side-canyon and simply walk up it, turning around as you please.  If you keep going you’ll be stopped sooner or later anyway by intimidating cliff walls. 

_MG_5759-Edit

Canyon Overlook is a wonderful little trail that begins at the first (longer) tunnel’s east entrance.  The trail is quite popular and parking is limited.  So I recommend doing this at dawn for the great photo opportunities at trail’s end.  Except for this trail and the long one near the park’s east entrance, no other marked trails exist in East Zion.  But don’t let that stop you from exploring the area on foot.  

About Foot Travel at Zion:  

  • Be kind to the environment and if you’re off-trail walk on sandy canyon-bottoms or on bare sandstone slickrock.  Avoid the crusty and fragile soil at Zion and throughout the Southwest.  It’s actually alive!
  • At Zion you have quite a lot of choice, anything from simple hikes (on- or off-trail) to technical canyoneering descents.
  • Not to discourage you from exploring off-trail, but use good judgment.  If you head up (or worse, down) some random canyon on your own, realize it’s quite easy to get in over your head.  You may end up wondering when your simple canyon walk turned into technical canyoning without a rope (which I can say from cruel experience is not a very good feeling!).
  • Putting all the above together, think about signing up with one of the specialty outfitters for a guided canyon adventure.  I’m sorry I can’t make personal recommendations since I haven’t used any guides at Zion.  To research the park’s guides, Google away!

Next time we’ll go deeper with some lesser known places to explore at Zion.  Perfect for repeat visitors or people who have more time on a first visit.  Have a wonderful week everyone!

This spectacularly cross-bedded Navajo Sandstone could be mistaken for being at Zion, but it’s not far away in Snow Canyon State Park.

 

Visiting Zion National Park – Part IV   6 comments

A fall scene along the Pine Creek canyon bottom, Zion N.P.

A fall scene along Pine Creek’s canyon bottom, Zion N.P.

Happy New Year!  Friday Foto Talk will return next week.  Let’s continue the travel series on Zion National Park in Utah.

Zion is the 7th most popular national park in the U.S.  More than 3 million people visited last year alone!  What makes it feel more crowded than a park like Yellowstone (which sees at least a half million more annual visitors than Zion) is that most people come to see a single strip of ground: Zion Canyon.  The mandatory shuttle system has helped greatly, but the main entrance at Springdale is very much a hectic bottleneck at busy times. 

Zion is popular for good reason; it’s spectacular!  By all means plan a visit.  This post (plus the next one) is to help you navigate the numbers of people and have a great time.  I’ll begin with some basic tips on travel to Zion, then next time get more specific with recommendations on places to see and photograph for both first-time and repeat visitors.  For planning online, start with the Park Service’s Zion site.

One of Zion’s best-known landmarks, the Great White Thrown rises far above the Virgin River.

WHEN TO GO:

Summer is busier than other times of course, and the heat can get pretty intense while hiking the usually shade-free trails.  I would avoid summer weekends unless you’re planning on getting way off the beaten track and well away from Zion Canyon. 

One good thing about summer, at least for photographers, is the late summer monsoon rains.  This weather pattern, widespread across the Southwest from July to early September, can bring spectacular clouds in the afternoon.  Just be careful.  Don’t get caught in high, exposed places when lightning is in the sky.

Spring is a great time to come to Zion.  The flowers are blooming and crowds are not normally what summer and some fall weekends can bring.  Higher elevations like Kolob Canyons may remain snow-covered well into spring. 

The mandatory shuttle up and down Zion Canyon begins in mid-March, so weekends leading up to that time can be pretty busy in the canyon.  If you’re planning to hike the narrows or do any other canyoneering, spring is when water levels are highest, making some canyons difficult or impossible.  In fact, if you plan to do much slot canyon exploration at Zion, I’d recommend summer or early fall.

Spring is the time of blooming cactus!

Autumn is a fantastic time to visit the park.  Fall colors in the canyons start around mid-October and run to about mid-November.  Starting 1st of November the shuttle quits running and cars are allowed in Zion Canyon.  Since this is usually prime time for fall colors as well, early November (especially weekends) can be quite crowded. 

The long Thanksgiving weekend is the de facto finish to the season at Zion.  The shuttle runs then however, making the canyon much nicer without all the cars of other November weekends.  Visitors largely disappear after Thanksgiving.    

Winter is a delightfully uncrowded time to visit Zion.  Last week of December can see a jump in visitors, but generally low temps. keep numbers down.  In some years, December and then again starting in late February, Zion is blessed with perfect late autumn or early spring-like weather. 

Unless you want the best chance for snow, I’d avoid January.  But in any shoulder season expect cold mornings.  Snow is not infrequent at these times, more so in East Zion and to the north in Kolob Canyons.  Cross-country skiing is possible at these times.

A hike through the snow along Taylor Creek in Zion's Kolob Canyons area.

A hike through the snow along Taylor Creek in Zion’s Kolob Canyons area.

GETTING THERE

Zion is located in the southwestern corner of Utah.  The nearest city of any size is Las Vegas, but Salt Lake City is not too far either.  St. George, about a 45-minute drive from Springdale, is the largest nearby town.  It’s the best place to fill up with gas and stock up on groceries or camping gear.    

Most visitors either drive their own cars or fly into Vegas or Salt Lake City and rent a car.  You don’t need four-wheel drive unless you’re planning to go into remote areas of the Grand Staircase.  But you’ll be happy to have a vehicle with decent ground clearance if you’re doing a self-drive tour of the Southwest.

And for many, Zion is part of a grand tour of the desert southwest, one that includes other parks in the area like Bryce Canyon, Arches, etc.  Just be careful you’re not leaving too little time for this kind of trip.  Don’t make the common mistake and do what ends up to be one long drive with short stops to look at rocks!  If you’re coming from afar, consider two separate trips to the region.   

There are two entrances to the main part of Zion.  One is at Springdale on the west end and this is by far the busiest.  The east entrance is perfect if you’re coming from Page, AZ or Bryce Canyon.  There are two areas to the NW of Zion Canyon: Kolob Canyons is accessible off I-15 between Cedar City and St. George; and Kolob Terrace (including the Subway hike) is accessed by a road heading north from the town of Virgin, not far west of Springdale.

The magnificence of East Zion in black and white.

The magnificence of East Zion in black and white.

WHERE TO STAY & GETTING AROUND

The choice of whether to camp or stay in a motel or lodge depends on the nature of your trip and your preferences.  Either is perfectly suitable for Zion.  By camping you have a bit more versatility, but the two campgrounds near the Visitor Center (Watchman and South) fill up every day in the busy season.  Besides those two, there’s only one other campground inside the park, Lava Point high up on Kolob terrace. 

For camping March through November at these two campgrounds you can make reservations up to 6 months ahead of time.  A loop with electrical hookups is kept open through the winter at Watchman Campground.  Lava Point is first-come first-serve and closes for winter.  Several campgrounds exist outside the park, open seasonally.  Check the NPS site for details on camping.

If you have a small RV/van you can find spots to free-camp in remote areas outside the park.  But that depends to some extent on season and whether you’re the type to fly “under the radar”.  For either camping in the canyon or staying at a lodge/motel in Springdale, make reservations as far ahead of time as possible.  Failing that show up in the morning on weekdays.  Zion Lodge is an option if money is no object.  If you stay there you get to drive your car up the canyon during shuttle season.

You don't even have to leave Springdale and enter the park for views like this.

You don’t even have to leave Springdale and enter the park for views like this.

The great thing about staying in Springdale or camping in the canyon is that you can park your car and not get back behind the wheel for the duration of your visit.  A free town shuttle runs along the main highway from Springdale to the entrance area, where you can hop on the park’s free shuttle and continue all the way up-canyon, getting off and back on as you please.  The last shuttle heads back down-canyon at 11 p.m.  You’ll need a car to visit East Zion and also for Kolob Terrace and Kolob Canyons. 

Several companies offer shuttles and tours throughout the park.  It’s a nice option if you want to limit your driving and concentrate on sight-seeing.  A shuttle is necessary if you have only one car and you’re planning a thru-hike of the Narrows or other one-way hikes.  Let’s face it.  Getting around is easiest when chauffeured by a local.  So whether you hire a one-off shuttle or spend one or more of your days fully guided, going with one of the local tour companies means you have one less thing to worry about. 

That brings us finally to the point of recommending places to go and photograph.  And without presuming to tell you exactly how your visit should go, the next post in the series is a guide to making the most of your time at Zion, whether it’s your first, second or tenth visit.  Have a wonderful 2016!

View across to Mountain of the Sun from atop the Sentinel Slide, Zion N.P.

View across to Mountain of the Sun from atop the Sentinel Slide, Zion N.P.

 

Visiting Zion National Park: Part III   10 comments

_MG_5761-Edit

Morning light at chilly East Zion.

Let’s continue the series on Zion National Park in Utah by picking up the story of human presence in this southwestern corner of Utah.  For the history of the ancient ones, the American Indian at Zion, check out Part II, and for the geologic history and formation of Zion, see Part I.

EARLY EXPLORERS

During the time leading up to the mid-1800s, the Zion area was wild and populated thinly by the Southern Paiute.  They may have avoided Zion Canyon itself because they believed it was inhabited by capricious spirits.  Their names for features in the canyon indicate as much: Temple of Sinawava (Coyote the trickster), Mount Wynopits (god of evil), etc.  All this time the area was claimed by Spain, and then by Mexico once they had gained independence.

In the late 1700s Spanish explorers penetrated southern Utah, apparently missing the Zion region.  But the reports of Escalante, Dominguez and Rivera, and the beautiful maps of the artist-cartographer Bernardo Miera, greatly helped later white settlers.  In particular the Mormons were intrigued by the Spaniards’ tales of Utah, a fact that would determine the future for the Zion area.

Bernardo de Miera's map of the 1776 Dominguez-Escalante expedition. Click image to go to source website.

Bernardo de Miera’s map of the 1776 Dominguez-Escalante expedition. Click image to go to source website.

In the early 1800s, trappers and mountain men, while mostly staying to the north and east, did explore Utah.  They found (a word I use loosely) many of the old Indian trails like the Old Spanish Trail.  These would several decades later be used by white settlers.  John Fremont explored Utah in the mid 1840s but he too missed Zion.

It should be noted however that the quirky and tough mountain men befriended many natives that they met.  (They preferred Indian to white women as brides.)  Some of them took secrets of their travels to their graves.  So the odd mountain man could have walked up the Virgin River looking for beaver sign.  Or even wintered in the relatively mild climate of SW Utah.  We know Jedediah Smith, perhaps the widest-traveled mountain man (and my personal favorite), knew of the Virgin River.  We just don’t know if any of them stepped foot in Zion Canyon.

This is actually a replica not the real deal. But forts were required to subdue the native populations of the west.

This is actually a replica. But forts were certainly required to subdue the native populations of the west.

THE MORMONS

Led by their leader and prophet Brigham Young, in the summer of 1847 thousands of Mormons arrived in the valley of the Great Salt Lake.  This was after their persecution back east (their founder and original prophet Joseph Smith was murdered while in prison).  At the time the area was beyond the boundaries of the U.S.  A year later that changed as all of Utah (including Zion) was part of the huge area ceded to the U.S. by Mexico.  This was the result of Mexico’s defeat in the Mexican-American war.

That didn’t deter Brigham Young.  He later became territorial governor of Utah, but the relationship between the government and Mormons has always been a tempestuous one (it’s a great story of its own).  After being named president of the Mormons, Young sent parties to explore SW Utah in the 1850s.  A mission to convert the Southern Paiute was established near what is now St. George not far from Zion.  They took Indian lands in order to grow corn and other cash crops, including cotton.  It didn’t take long for many Paiute to die of disease and starvation.

Mormon leader Brigham Young.

Mormon leader Brigham Young.

Because cotton and tobacco could be grown in the mild climate of SW Utah, and also because many of the settlers were originally from the American South, the area was named Dixie.  The mission and settlement was largely unsuccessful and many fled.  But Young kept it alive, sending more settlers south.  He also sent Mormons to other places in the intermountain West.  Mormons discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill in California and even founded Las Vegas (of all places).

Under the cottonwoods in Zion Canyon, Utah.

ZION & THE POLITICS OF PLACE-NAMES

John Wesley Powell (another favorite figure of mine) led an expedition to the Zion area in 1872, recording the canyon’s name as Mukuntuweap.  This is a Southern Paiute name meaning “straight canyon” or “arrow quiver” depending on who you believe.  Powell may have been using the actual Indian name for the canyon or he may have gotten it wrong.  But in 1909, when the area was given national monument status, it was called Mukuntuweap.

This is despite the fact that it was named Zion decades earlier.  In 1858, the Mormon Indian interpreter and explorer Nephi Johnson explored the canyon (he is recorded as the first white person to see it).  Despite the typical Mormon take on it that he was just exploring, he was very likely looking for a place to hide and lay low.

Johnson was directly involved in the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857, not far north of St. George.  About 120 California-bound emigrants from Arkansas, including women and children, were murdered by Mormon militia-men (disguised as American Indians).  A group of Southern Paiute, under direction of Johnson, also took part.

The town of Springdale at the entrance to Zion Canyon was founded by Mormon farmers in 1862.

The town of Springdale at the entrance to Zion Canyon was founded by Mormon farmers in 1862.

In 1861 another Mormon settler named Isaac Behunin, armed with information from Johnson, entered the canyon and built a one-room log cabin at the site now occupied by Zion Lodge.  Like anyone, Behunin needed a name for his spectacular new surroundings: “A man can worship God among these great cathedrals as well as in any man-made church – this is Zion.”

Under great political pressure from Mormons, who had all along been calling the place Zion and who were angry about the Paiute name, the acting director of the Park Service bowed to pressure and renamed it Zion.  This was fortuitous for the Mormons, since the iconic director of the NPS Stephen Mather, who was dead-set against a name-change, was on leave at the time, suffering one of his long bouts of depression.

When the fantastic canyon, which by this time was well known thanks to the wonderful paintings of Frederick Dellenbaugh (see below), became a National Park in 1919, it was called Zion.  And so it remains today.

Zion is a biblical word meaning place of refuge and peace.  Considering their long migration to seek refuge from persecution, it’s a name near and dear to Mormons.  But Nephi Johnson and the Mountain Meadows Massacre in a way twists the ideal of Zion.

A Dellenbaugh painting of the Springdale farmland and Zion Canyon in springtime.

A Dellenbaugh painting of the Springdale farmland and Zion Canyon in springtime.

TOURISM ARRIVES

A road was completed up Zion Canyon in 1917 and Wylie Way Camp was established to house pioneering visitors.  Early tourists came to Zion in special convertible buses.  Using these buses, Zion became part of the “Great Circle”, which took in Bryce Canyon, Zion and the Grand Canyon’s North Rim.  When you take the shuttle bus or drive up Zion Canyon today, as you crane your neck trying to view the soaring canyon walls, you may wonder why that fantastic original idea of topless buses didn’t last.

Zion became Utah’s first National Park in 1919, and in that year about 3700 people visited.  William Wylie’s camp was purchased and Zion Lodge was completed in 1925.  Tourist access continued to increase when the road to Zion became a thru-route in 1930.

After three years of innovative but dangerous road engineering that cost one worker his life, a tunnel was completed through the high cliffs east of Zion Canyon, connecting the park to points east.  The Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, with its charming skylight windows overlooking Pine Creek Canyon (its route is very close to the cliff wall), is still one of the country’s most marvelous road-works.

Eastern entrance of Zion - Mount Carmel Tunnel.

Eastern entrance of Zion – Mount Carmel Tunnel.

The same year the tunnels were finished (there are actually two), tourist numbers had increased to about 55,000.  Visitation hit one million annually by 1975 and two million in 1990.  In 1997, with visitor numbers exploding and the canyon becoming a veritable parking lot in summertime, the Park Service instituted a long-overdue mandatory shuttle system.  From mid-March to the end of October, and also Thanksgiving weekends, you must take the free shuttle to access Zion Canyon.

Annual visitor numbers are now in excess of 2.5 million.  So Zion can be quite a busy park.  Next post in the series will focus on ways to come away from Zion with a positive experience while avoiding the potential negatives of all those fellow visitors.

Autumn is a magical time at Zion: ranch not far from the west entrance at Springdale.

Visiting Zion National Park: Part II   7 comments

The area around Zion remains sparsely populated enough to get a feel for what ancient people saw as they passed through.

This continues the series on Zion National Park in Utah.  We’ll focus this time on the history of American Indians in this part of the desert southwest.  Check out Part I for Zion’s pre-human history – its geology.  If you plan on visiting Zion, or any other place, with photography being a big deal for you, I recommend learning about the place instead of perusing photo after photo of it.

In other words, find out what’s interesting about to you about the place.   Try to tailor your visit so you hit spots that feature those interesting aspects, even if they’re outside of your planned destination (in this case the park).  Resist the temptation to visit too many spots based merely on your admiration for the photos others have captured there.  Sorry, end of lecture!

Zion_National_Park_Nov-2013_5D3_046-Edit

VISIT THE MUSEUM

If you’re interested in the natural and human history of Zion, you’d do well to visit an interesting little museum upon arrival.  The Zion Natural History Museum is located on the left not far past the west entrance.  Turn left just after passing the turnoff for the campground, which is on the right.  While worthwhile, by far most cultural artifacts are not on display here.  They are housed in Springdale at park headquarters in a large collection of more than 20,000 items.

If you have a keen interest, you can make an appointment to see this collection.  Just email the curator at miriam_watson@nps.gov.  You’re not guaranteed to get in, and it may help to have a group so they make the time for you.  Your goal is to find an NPS staff member with time to give you a personal (and free) tour of the collection.  You can learn some basics by reading in the Park Service’s website for Zion, along with other sites (go beyond Wikipedia!).  But if you can make time for the hands-on approach, you’ll get much more out of it.

View up Zion Canyon at dusk.

View of East Temple at dusk.

ANCIENT TRAVELERS

The first people in North America were hunters traveling with and hunting herds of wooly mammoths, gathering plants for food and medicine along the way.  Most of the evidence we have for these people comes from their spear points and other stone tools like scrapers.  The points, called Clovis and (slightly later) Folsom, are distinctively fluted and usually associated with mammoth remains at kill sites, tagging them as belonging to these ancient hunter/gatherers even where direct dating is impossible (which it usually is).

Although to my knowledge there have been no Clovis or Folsom sites documented for Zion itself, there have been points found north and west of the park.  So it’s reasonable to assume these wanderers walked the canyons and plateaus of what would thousands of years later become known as Zion National Park.  The fact that these canyons are subject to dramatic flash floods means that archaeological evidence tends to be swept away.

Somewhat more evidence ties later hunter/gatherers to the Zion area about 8000 years ago.  These hunter/gatherers, who hunted bison and smaller mammals (mammoths, sloths and other ice-age megafauna had been hunted to extinction), may have even set up seasonal camps.  But there are precious little remains to go off of.

Beaver-tail (or prickly pear) cactus with dried fruits growing in east Zion. A staple of American Indians for thousands of years, the fruits were eaten fresh and raw or made into a jelly. The nopales (cactus pads) were sliced and eaten, and also used to treat wounds and swelling.

Beaver-tail (or prickly pear) cactus with dried fruits growing in east Zion. A staple of American Indians for thousands of years, the fruits were eaten fresh and raw or made into a jelly. The nopales (cactus pads) were sliced and eaten, and also used to treat wounds and swelling.

BASKET-WEAVERS & ANCESTRAL PUEBLOANS

There is evidence of these ancient farmers at Zion.  Basket-weavers, known for their baskets woven of willow and other plants, lived here between about 300 B.C. and 500 A.D.  Since their artifacts degrade easily, they are very rare.  Not much evidence was left behind at Zion, but what there is points to early farming.  These people were succeeded by two groups in the so-called Formative Period from 500 to 1300 A.D.

PAROWAN FREMONT

These people lived in the north of the region up on the plateaus near springs.  Some farmed a cold-tolerant form of corn, some led a more mobile hunting/gathering lifestyle, and some were semi-nomadic.  These hunters did not use bows and arrows.  Rather they threw spears (or arrows) using an ingenious implement called an atlatl.  Atlatls extend the reach of your arm, increasing leverage and speed greatly.  I’ve tried them and they do indeed fling the arrow fast.  But I realized right away that to gain accuracy would require much practice.

Both of these groups, left behind rock art.  It’s very sad that much of this art has been vandalized by clueless visitors.  More remote sites like the Cave Valley petroglyphs off of Kolob Terrace Road are in much better shape.  But even these have been damaged.  As a result, good luck getting any ranger to tell you how to get to this rock art.  The Parowan Fremont sketched unique art characterized by anthropomorphs with triangular or trapezoidal bodies and limbs.

Fremont rock art is characterized by anthopomorphic figures with blocky triangular bodies.  The squiggly line at left represents a journey.

VIRGIN ANASAZI

Farming the southern canyon bottoms were an Ancestral Puebloan group known as the Virgin Anasazi.  As the name “puebloan” suggests, they were sedentary, occupying small settlements.  They were farmers who left behind food storage sites (see below) along with stones for grinding grains called manos and metates.  Later on the farmers began building stone and masonry structures alongside their partly underground dwellings and storage sites.

The two groups evidently had some contact, even though they lived in different environments. They traded tool-making stone and very likely food and medicinal plants as well.  There is no evidence for conflict between them, though some suggest the arrival of Southern Paiute and other tribes from the north may have had something to do with their leaving the area.

ARCHAEOLOGY TRAIL

There is an ancient grain-storage site you can hike to from Zion’s visitor center.  Ask a ranger for directions to the trailhead for the Archaeology Trail.  It’s short, steep and you get a good view of the canyon.  There is not much left of the 1000 year-old Virgin Anasazi site, so get the ranger to give you a few tips to see what there is to see.  But it’s definitely a great way to stretch your legs when you stop at the visitor center.  You can ponder the reasons why the Ancestral Puebloans left their dwellings so abruptly, almost as if they intended to return after visiting friends or relatives elsewhere.

Frozen dew at the end of autumn, Zion National Park.

Frozen dew at the end of autumn, Zion National Park.

RETURN OF THE WANDERING LIFESTYLE

The main tribe to enter the area from the north were the Southern Paiute.  Arriving around 1100 B.C., they obviously coexisted with the nearby farmers for some 200 years.  But their lifestyles were very different.  They hunted and gathered plants, occupying pit-houses and other semi-permanent structures only seasonally.  As such, these nomadic people were well equipped to handle the series of droughts interspersed with catastrophic flooding that began on the Colorado Plateau about 1300 A.D.  They remained while the Ancestral Puebloans and Fremont people left.

These tribes were the ones who greeted white Euro-Americans in the late 1700s.  And when I say greet I don’t necessarily mean warmly.  Many died from diseases brought west by the invaders; the rest were defeated and placed on reservations.  Such is the march of “progress”, but that’s the subject for next post.  We’ll continue with the story of Brigham Young and his flock of Mormons.  Have a great weekend!

The setting sun turns East Zion's cliffs orange above a vernal pool.

The setting sun turns East Zion’s cliffs orange above a vernal pool.

Visiting Zion National Park: Part I   20 comments

Zion Canyon from Bridge Mountain.

Zion Canyon from Bridge Mountain.

I’m going to change pace and do a short travel series: an in-depth look at Zion National Park.  I’ve not done one of these for a long time.  As usual I’ll start with Zion’s natural history, including geology in this post.  Then I’ll go on to human history and life on display at Zion.  I’ll finish with travel logistics and recommendations for various visit lengths, focusing of course on photography.

If you haven’t yet visited Zion, this series will be an in-depth introduction with tips, but without presuming to tell you exactly where and how to photograph the park.  If you’ve been to Zion before, you will learn some interesting stuff about the park and probably find out about one or two out-of-the-way photo spots.

But mostly this is about background knowledge.  I strongly believe the more you know about a place the better your experience and photos will be.  Though my posts are always heavily illustrated, I hope you’ll try to forget the pictures when you go out yourself.  Do your own thing and get pictures that represent your own unique take on the park.

East Temple from just east of the tunnels.

East Temple from just east of the tunnels.

REGIONAL SETTING

Zion National Park lies in southwestern Utah, in an area called Dixie.  That term is normally associated with the southern states (Alabama, Georgia, etc.).  Utah’s Dixie is certainly where the climate is warmest in the Beehive State.  But it’s much drier than the humid South.  Zion is at the southwestern edge of the Colorado Plateau, that huge regional uplift of sedimentary rocks that covers parts of four states and defines much of the dramatic scenery of America’s desert southwest.

THE GRAND STAIRCASE

Zion is also on the western edge of a geologic feature called Grand Staircase.  This is a large series of cliff-forming sedimentary layers that steps downward from north to south.  Some of the area’s highest and youngest rocks are to the north near Bryce Canyon while some of the lowest and oldest rocks are exposed to the south in Grand Canyon.

But the rim of that last southern step (it’s a doozie!) tops out at 8800 feet in elevation on the north rim of the Grand Canyon.  That’s very similar to the top of Bryce (the northern step) at 9100 feet.  So the Grand Staircase not so much steps downward in elevation but in geology.

BREAKS & CANYONS

Zion Canyon, centerpiece of the park, plus Cedar Breaks to the north, are located where the land “breaks” downward off the high eastern plateaus of south-central Utah to meet the lower deserts of SW Utah and southern Nevada.  These breaks are also known as the Hurricane Cliffs, which continue south into NW Arizona.

The towns in this part of Utah, largest of which is St. George, are situated near the foot of this dramatic sandstone escarpment, at a relatively low elevation compared with much smaller burgs up in the plateau country to the east.  The Virgin River and its tributaries have cut generally SW-facing canyons down through the escarpment.  The most dramatic of these is Zion Canyon.

The Hurricane Cliffs 'break' down off the Colorado Plateau here at Kolob Canyons, part of Zion National Park, Utah.

The Hurricane Cliffs ‘break’ down off the Colorado Plateau here at Kolob Canyons, part of Zion National Park, Utah.

The lower terrain near St. George, Utah is exemplified by Snow Canyon State Park, but the land continues to drop to the south and west.

The lower terrain near St. George, Utah is exemplified here at Snow Canyon State Park, but the land continues to drop to the south and west.

GEOLOGIC HISTORY

THE GREAT JURASSIC DESERT

The most prominent formation at Zion is Navajo Sandstone.  It forms most of the named dome-like features at Zion, such as the Patriarchs, the Sentinel, and White Throne.  The Navajo, which is generally a whitish sandstone, preserves record of an ancient desert.  This desert, which existed in the Jurassic age (dinosaur times), was dominated by enormous sand dune fields (ergs) similar to today’s Sahara Desert.

You can tell the rocks are ancient sand dunes because of cross-bedding.  Take a good look at the sandstone walls at Zion and notice the lines angled at about 35 degrees to the main rock layers, which are nearly horizontal.  A great place to see cross-bedding is at Checkerboard Mesa near the park’s east entrance, but you’ll see it everywhere in East Zion east of the tunnels.  The rocks behind the sheep below show cross-bedding.

Desert bighorn sheep at East Zion.

Desert bighorn sheep at East Zion.

The desert sands of the Navajo formed when plate tectonics, beginning a couple hundred million years ago, dragged this area north from equatorial to much drier latitudes in the vicinity of the Tropic of Cancer (30 degrees north).  This is the latitude, both north and south of the equator (Tropic of Capricorn), where the world’s major deserts are still found.

Also contributing to desertification in the Jurassic were the mountains building to the west of Zion in Nevada and California.  These ranges, which were the result of tectonic collision at the western edge of North America, are now gone, eroded away.  But in the Jurassic they formed an effective rain-shadow, blocking rains coming off the Pacific and helping to dry things even further.

A side-canyon in East Zion has a stream carrying sand eroded from the Navajo Sandstone, itself built from dune sands eroded from a long-gone ancient mountain range.

A side-canyon in East Zion has a stream carrying sand eroded from the Navajo Sandstone, itself built from dune sands eroded from a long-gone ancient mountain range.

PRE-DESERT TIMES

There is more than Navajo Sandstone at Zion, however.  The Virgin River has cut so deeply into the rocks that, despite the great thickness of the Navajo, other formations are visible beneath it.  These record shallow seas, meandering streams and floodplain environments.  For example, the Kayenta and Moenave Formations below the Navajo are reddish stream deposits formed in climates that changed from subtropical (for the older Moenave) to semi-arid (for the overlying Kayenta).

These older formations form the rubbly slopes and red cliff bands low on Zion’s canyon walls.  They’re also prominent above the town of Springdale, and up on Kolob Terrace Road.  Solid red cliffs of Kayenta, formed at the edge of that great encroaching desert, lie directly beneath the hard white sandstones of the Navajo.

If you gain a high vantage point you may notice the red “hats” or caps on top of the Navajo Formation’s highest white domes.  These belong to the Temple Cap and Carmel Formations, at 160 million years the youngest rocks at Zion.  Their reddish color is clue to wetter conditions returning in the late Jurassic.  A warm sea even invaded again, this signaled by limestones of the Carmel Formation.

The Navajo Sandstone is in places stained with iron oxide, where fractures have allowed fluids to penetrate the rock and move iron from other formations.

The Navajo Sandstone is in places stained with iron oxide, where fractures have allowed fluids to penetrate the rock and move iron from other formations.

UPLIFT & EROSION

Time didn’t stop after deposition of the Navajo and other Jurassic rocks at Zion.  Sedimentation continued into the Cretaceous and beyond; yet, save for an important exception (see below), younger rocks of the Zion region have been stripped away by erosion and transported down the Colorado River into the Pacific Ocean.

Erosion is a big deal at Zion.  The Colorado Plateau continues to be shoved upward by tectonic pressures (a 5.8 magnitude earthquake shook Zion in 1995).  Over time, this uplift has increased river gradients dramatically, resulting in very active erosion by streams and rivers as well as landslides.  Wind has helped sculpt the landscape.

Basaltic lava flows form a stark contrast with iron-stained Navajo Sandstones.

Basaltic lava flows form a stark contrast with iron-stained and dune cross-bedded Navajo Sandstones.

YOUNG LAVA FLOWS

If you drive up to Lava Point on the Kolob Terrace Road, you will notice dark lava flows, which flowed out of vents that opened up as this area began to stretch (rift), starting about 2 million years ago.  This young age places the lava flows (which being basalt were quite fluid) in the Ice Ages, which were fairly wet times at Zion.  Think about the terrain at that time, which was dramatic canyon country as it is today.

This combination of climate, active basaltic volcanism and topography tells you something must have happened (and it did!):  lava-dammed lakes.  If you hike the Subway, a lake formed in that canyon when lava dammed the Left Fork; it extended all the way up to the Subway itself.  If you’re observant you’ll notice fine lake muds and silts laid down by this lake.  You pass right by them when you’re hiking back out of the canyon.

By the way, let’s put some numbers on this story.  Most of what you see at Zion is between about 200 and 160 million years old, placing it squarely in the Mesozoic Era, age of dinosaurs.  Less noticeable rocks beneath these are as old as 250 million years, while the young lavas are between 1.5 and 200,000 years old.

Dusk falls on the Kolob Terrace, with a large dome of Navajo Sandstone catching the glow above red Kayenta sandstones. Footprints of sauropods (huge plant-eating dinos) have been found in the red formation.

Dusk falls on Kolob Terrace, with a large dome of Navajo Sandstone catching the glow above steep red and mauve slopes of the Kayenta.  Beneath that in the foreground are brick-red rubbly cliffs of the Springdale Member of the Moenave Formation. Footprints of sauropods (huge plant-eating dinos) have been found here.

TROPICAL SEAS AT ZION?

The older pre-dinosaur strata is worth mentioning because it is prominent at nearby attractions, such as Grand Canyon to the south of Zion.  Most prominent of the area’s oldest rock formations is the Kaibab.  It dates back to Permian times about 260 million years ago.  In these ancient times, an embayment of the ocean we call Panthalassa lapped at the edge of the world’s only landmass, the supercontinent Pangaea.  At that time this region, later to become Utah and Arizona, was near the equator.

The Kaibab is mostly limestone, formed in warm, shallow seas.  It’s visible in places low along the Virgin River within the park and also dramatically in the Hurricane Cliffs near the town of Hurricane and north along the east side of I-15.  It’s interesting to realize that the Kaibab, which hides low in Zion’s deep canyons, forms the high rim of Grand Canyon to the south.  This tells you something about the layout of the Grand Staircase.

Thought I'd throw in a shot from the Grand Canyon, because the Kaibab Limestone is exposed so well here at Toroweap on the North Rim.

Thought I’d throw in a shot from the Grand Canyon, because the Kaibab Limestone is exposed so well here at Toroweap on the North Rim.

THE SENTINEL SLIDE

More recently during the Ice Ages, the climate at Zion was wetter than today’s.  The Virgin and other rivers carried more water, thus flash-flooding was more frequent and violent.  Four thousand years ago a huge landslide blocked the Virgin River and formed a 350 foot-deep lake in Zion Canyon.  This enormous slump block came off The Sentinel, so it’s called the Sentinel Slide.

The lake extended from Canyon Junction all the way to Angel’s Landing.  Sediments settled out on the canyon floor, partly filling its natural V-shape.  The river could not be stopped for long of course, and the natural dam was eventually breached.  The resulting flood drained the lake and formed the V-shaped inner canyon between Court of the Patriarchs and Canyon Junction.

So now you know why Zion Canyon is flat-bottomed; it’s the old lake-bed.  You can see the remains of the Sentinel Slide above you on the left as you drive up-canyon.  For a closer view hike or go on a horse-back ride on the Sand Bench Trail, which climbs up on top of the slump block itself.  By the way, the Sentinel Slide still acts up from time to time.  In 1995, part of the old slide slipped, briefly blocking the river.  The road was flooded for a time until the Virgin, never to be denied for long, re-established its channel.

Stay tuned for more from Zion National Park!

Looking down-canyon at sunset from atop Sand Bench, which is the huge slump block of the Sentinel Slide.

Looking down-canyon at sunset from atop Sand Bench, which is the huge slump block of the Sentinel Slide.  I’m on top of one of the huge blocks moved by the slide.

 

The Apache   2 comments

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

A placard near Gila Hot Springs, New Mexico.

A placard near Gila Hot Springs, New Mexico.

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

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

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

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

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

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

_MG_1775

_MG_1774

_MG_1773

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

Glacier National Park in Spring: Things to Do   13 comments

Springtime in East Glacier, Montana

Springtime in East Glacier, Montana

Lets continue with Glacier National Park in springtime.  This post will suggest things to do if you visit the park in early season (May & June).  Check out the introductory post too.  I visited this beautiful park in NW Montana last month.  Though much of the park was snow-free, most of the high country was inaccessible because of snow.  The famous Going to the Sun Road, which crosses spectacular Logan Pass, was closed from the Avalanche trailhead & campground on the west side all the way over to the east entrance at St. Mary Lake.

Spring was in the air at lower elevations, with green meadows, flowers and busy critters.  That atmosphere, combined with relatively few other visitors and all those waterfalls made the trip very worthwhile, despite Logan Pass & St. Mary Lake being closed.

Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.

Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.

A Caveat:  If you’re going to Glacier to knock some shots off your photography bucket list, you should stop reading right now and find another avenue of research.  For one thing, it being early season, I wasn’t able to access ever-popular Triple Falls or St. Mary Lake (at Sun Point).  So I’m not much help for these two very popular places to shoot at Glacier.

The internet features thousands of pictures from these two spots, and it seems everybody with a camera wants to (or feels they should) see and shoot them.  They’re on the itinerary of every photo workshop at Glacier (they have to be, people would feel cheated if they weren’t).

That’s why, as those who’ve been reading this blog for awhile have probably already guessed, I’ve happily skipped them on all my trips to the park, even in summer or fall when they’re accessible.  Besides, I don’t need to keep a group of workshop participants happy.  And I don’t do bucket lists.

St. Mary Lake, East Glacier

Here are a few ideas for things to do if you come to Glacier in early season (photography suggestions follow each one):

  • Rivers & lakes are plum full in spring.  So it’s a great time to float the Flathead (north or middle forks) in a raft.  These rivers approach Class III but are mostly mellow Class I & II.  Look for outfitters based in Kalispell or Whitefish, or closer to the park at West Glacier.  This is a favorite weekend activity for local residents of the Flathead Valley.

** Action shots on the river, especially if you’re able to capture people’s expressions in the great light of a lowering sun, will make you popular with companions.  If you’re nervous about shooting on the water, buy a relatively inexpensive waterproof point and shoot camera.  But the chances of capsizing on the Flathead, especially in a raft, are slim indeed.

Swiftcurrent Creek spills over a raucous waterfall on its way from the lake of the same name.

Swiftcurrent Creek spills over a raucous waterfall from the lake of the same name.

  • Camping lakeside is a wonderful way to spend a weekend in May or early June here.  Lake McDonald is an obvious choice, but Bowman Lake, also on the west side, is more out of the way and gorgeous as well.  You’ll need to drive a gravel road into Bowman, but it’s well graded for 2WD, and in early season not too washboarded.  On the east side, camping (and hiking) along Two Medicine Lake is a superb choice.

** Campfire pictures (and videos) are sure winners.  I’m talking people pictures, not close-ups of the fire.  Help to get your group in the mood to sing and dance, then stand back with your camera on a tripod and capture both freeze-frame (higher ISO) and movement-blur shots.  Or zoom in for a close portrait of someone telling a story, face to the firelight.  Can you think of other ideas?

  • As long as you’re camping by a lake, spring is a fantastic time to paddle, either in kayak or canoe.  Morning is best to avoid any wind that may come up.  And drop a line if you’re so inclined.

** Photograph canoes & kayaks in quiet, peaceful, and watery settings at sunrise, sunset, or even in the moonlight.  Shots of people (fishing?) or just the empty boats can both work.  Sure these can look a bit cliche, but if you’re genuinely trying to capture the mood of a peaceful paddle, these types of pictures can really shine.  Of course sunset or sunrise by a lake also provides the perfect chance to shoot landscape if the light is right.

Lake Sherburne, East Glacier

Lake Sherburne, East Glacier

  • Wildlife watching & photography is great this time of year.  Dusky grouse were mating when I visited in May, and the deep “thump thump thump” calls of the male permeated the forest everywhere I went.  I saw moose and plenty of deer, along with bighorn sheep.  Mountain goat are quite common as well, especially if you hike to one of the high rocky ridges, such as Apgar Lookout near the western entrance.

I didn’t see bears this time, but they are mostly out from hibernation at this time of year.  Note: there are plenty of grizzlies in this park, so travel in groups if possible and make noise when you’re hiking (especially if alone) in areas where you can’t see far (no bells, loud talking instead).  Discretion is the better part of valor: shoot grizzlies from a distance!

** You have to be patient to get pictures of dusky grouse, but the males (like males of any species, including us) are easier to approach when they’re displaying and their minds are elsewhere.  The real challenge is to get a shot of a female!

** Bighorn sheep are fairly easy in most areas of Glacier because they are habituated to humans.  But in order to observe more natural behaviors, and to get close to young ones, you need some patience.  For both sheep and goats, if the terrain and your abilities allow, climb above them at a fair distance and circle around.  Then descend slowly, approaching from above.  That tends to keep them much more relaxed than if you were to approach from below, where most of their danger comes from.

Dusky grouse displaying his inflatable neck sac, the sound a deep thump-thump.

Dusky grouse displaying his inflatable neck sac, the sound a deep thump-thump.

 

Next time I’ll cover hiking at Glacier.  It might have to wait until a follow-up trip in a few weeks, after which I’ll be able to recommend not only good trails for spring, but perfect hikes for summer as well.  Happy traveling!

 

Flowers bloom in springtime from an out-of-the-way spot I found along Flathead Lake, Montana.

Spring flowers bloom above Flathead Lake, Montana.

%d bloggers like this: