This September, Tanya and I are planning to take a trip to Utah and Arizona. The American Southwest is one of my favorite places in the world. It combines the best of my two passions: photography and geology. And though I’ve been to the Southwest perhaps twenty times or more, on this upcoming trip, we are planning on going to some places I’ve never been before, including Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, and the north rim of the Grand Canyon.
We will probably also go to Antelope Canyon as well, since I’ve never been there and it is one of the top photographic destinations in the world. I’m just a bit wary about how crowded and commercial it has become (see this blog by photographer Stephen Penland). If any of you have gone to Antelope Canyon, please let me know what you think.
I enjoy planning for trips such as this, reading guidebooks, looking at maps, making internet searches, and thinking of photographic possibilities. This year, the planning started perhaps a bit early because I wanted to get a permit to the Wave. You need a permit to hike into the Wave, and there are only permits for 20 people per day. There is a lottery for 10 daily slots on the internet four months ahead of your visit. Thus Tanya and I put in our lottery applications last month, and we were not chosen. The other 10 daily spots are given out by in-person lottery the day before your visit at the ranger station in Kanab, Utah. Right now I’m not planning on trying for two of these permits as we will be traveling to the Paria area (in which the Wave is located) from the other direction (from Page and not from Kanab). So, the Wave may have to wait for some other trip. But with so many other great photographic locations waiting in the area, I’m not too upset.
Our first stop of the trip will be Arches National Park outside Moab, Utah. I have been there perhaps four or five times before, but the last time was nine years ago. It’s certainly time for a visit again. The photo above was from that trip to Arches in 2005. I hope to get some great light like this again, in fact, I’m planning on it!
I still haven’t had much chance to get out for some new photo adventures, so here’s one from five years ago this month (or close enough, the actual trip started in September but ended in October). I took these images on a raft trip through Stillwater and Cataract Canyons on the Green and Colorado Rivers in Canyonlands National Park . Tanya and I joined the trip about 1/3 of the way in, at Mineral Bottom; the trip actually started at Green River State Park and traveled through Labyrinth Canyon prior to reaching Mineral Bottom. My brother Rob joined us on the trip (though he came down earlier and made the entire trip). My good friend Rob Tubbs organized trip and served as trip leader.
As is typical with river trips, the trip starts (or ends) with a shuttle. In this case, we started with a shuttle. We drove most our gear and extra beer down to Mineral Bottom, then drove Hite (the take out site) on Lake Powell. From there, we few back in a small plane, dropping into the canyon to land on a weedy dirt runway at Mineral Bottom. Then it was time to load up, and off we went.
The Green River through Labyrinth and Stillwater Canyons (120 miles) is all flat water, making it one of the classic canoe/sea kayak trips in the United States. We were in rafts, not canoes or kayaks. The advantage of floating it on a raft is that, unless you are rowing, you can kick back and enjoy the view without the effort. Plus you can carry a lot of gear, food, and beer. Much scenery was appreciated; much beer was drank.
Unlike the first portion of the float, the final leg of the journey, 45 miles on the Colorado River through Cataract Canyon, has loads of whitewater, most of it coming in a single day. One of our rafts flipped in Cataract (luckily, not the one Tanya and I were on – my brother wasn’t so lucky), providing even more excitement for the BRD (big rapids day).
I highly recommend this trip for anyone thinking of an American Southwest float trip. The trip can easily be customized to your own personal level of expertise, time and cost. You can do the whole thing with an outfitter, or on a private trip. The float through Labyrinth can be done completely on your own, taking out at Mineral Bottom. The float through Stillwater (without continuing through Cataract) requires a pickup by jet boat at the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers (for a ride back up the Colorado to Moab). Several outfitters can provide this service at reasonable prices.
I’m considering going again someday by kayak, taking a little more time to photograph. Concerning this trip five years ago, I was happy with the photos I came away with, though none were out of this world. I think the black and white conversions I made from the trip worked the best. As always, your opinions are welcome.
Here are some more details about the Paria Canyon hike along with some more photos.
There are four trailheads: three starting trailheads (assuming hiking downstream), all in Utah: Wire Pass, Buckskin Gulch, and Whitehouse campground; and one ending trailhead, at Lee’s Ferry, AZ. My hiking buddies (Rob Tubbs, an friend from grad school; his wife, Deanna; and daughter, Abby; and my brother Rob) and I choose to start at the Whitehouse trailhead because there were better camping options on this route (there are no places to camp in Wire Pass and very few in Buckskin Gulch). The Whitehouse trailhead is on the Paria River, two miles south of the Paria Contact Station on US Highway 89, roughly mid-way between Page, AZ and Kanab, UT. The Buckskin Gulch and Wire Pass trailheads are south of US 89 on House Rock Road. Roads to all the trailheads, at the time of this writing, were passable by passenger car.
Buckskin Gulch is a tributary to the Paria River, and hits the Paria 7 miles from the Whitehouse trailhead. Wire Pass is a tributary to Buckskin Gulch, and is relatively short. Hiking Wire Pass cuts off a portion of Buckskin Gulch.In addition to the hike to Lee’s Ferry, it is also a popular hike to start at Wire Pass or Buckskin, hike to the Paria, then upstream to the Whitehouse trailhead.
Permits: a permit is needed to hike from any of the trailheads, and there is a limit of 20 overnight permits per day. Needless to say, we didn’t see a lot of people on the 6 days we were in the canyon. Permits are also needed for day use, but there is no limit on the number of permits issues. Dogs are allowed, but also need a permit. Permit information can be obtained here.
Shuttle: Unless you want to backtrack back up the canyon, this is a one-way hike. There’s no quick way to drive from the starting trailhead to the end. Unfortunately, the quickest paved route is not currently an option because the highway between Page, AZ and Lee’s Ferry is out for the foreseeable future due to a landslide which took out a portion of the road on February 20th. Now the quickest route involves driving the length of the unpaved House Rock Road. In our case, I followed Rob Tubbs’ Ford F350 truck in my little Hyundai Elantra. Now, while I’m a proponent of the drive-fast-over-washboards-on-dirt-roads method, I’m a piker compared to Rob Tubbs, whom I swear is a teacher at the Drive-As-Fast-As-You-Can-on-Desert-Roads School. There was no way to keep up with him, but we did eventually make the drive. In total, the shuttle took 3.75 hours, with about half the mileage over dirt roads. (Google Maps suggests the round trip over the same roads should take approximately 5.5 hours). It is also possible to leave your cars at one end and hire a shuttle company to do the driving.
Best season: This is definitely not a place to go hiking when it’s raining. The flash flood danger is serious. Plus, as the Paria River drains a large area north of the hike, a thunderstorm miles away can cause a flood in the canyon. August is typically the rainest month of the year here, with May having the least rain; though floods have been recorded in every month of the year. The peak visitation is during April and May – but with the permit system, the canyon is never crowded.
Trail conditions: there is no official trail. Much of the trip is in water. On our hike, I estimate 20% of the trip was walking in the river – mostly in the narrows section. The water was typically ankle-deep, but occasionally knee-deep. Of course, water depths depend on the weather – flash floods occur every year and can be dangerous. It’s best to plan the hike during the dry season (spring). In the lower portion of the canyon, where the canyon opens up, there is an unmaintained overland trail (with many river crossings) which is much easier than walking along the river – which contains many large boulders in this portion of the canyon; these create deeper pools.
A large portion of the hike, when not actually in the water, is on muddy river bank. Quicksand is fairly common, both on the muddy riverbank and in the water itself. It’s not dangerous, but you can sink quickly up to your knees (this happened to me once), and it is difficult to get out of without help. You can avoid quicksand by testing suspect locations with a light foot before putting all your weight on it. Also, when crossing the river, favor rocky spots rather than slow water spots.
Buckskin Gulch is known for having large pools of standing water that sometimes must be waded or swum, as well as one point where boulders block the route. In previous years, these boulders present a problem where some climbing might be necessary. Currently, we found the boulder section, several miles upstream from the confluence with the Paria, was easily passable without scrambling. Report from other hikers who had done the complete length of Buckskin reported no large pools of water either. Of course, this could change with the next rainstorm.
Guidebook: there is a guidebook with maps of all three canyons (Paria, Buckskin, and Wire Pass) available at the Paria Contact Station for $9. This is well worth the money, particularly as it shows the locations of springs. My one complaint about the maps is that they lack north arrows, which can sometimes make it difficult to orient the maps properly (every map is oriented differently, with the river/canyon running lengthwise on the page).
Shoes and clothing: I wore hiking boots with gore tex socks over wool socks. Don’t bother with the gore tex socks – they just filled with water. Most people hike in sandals or tennis/running shoes. I chose hiking boots for the ankle support – but the boots never completely dried out the whole trip. Your feet will get cold. You might consider neoprene socks to help keep them warm.
Even in warm weather, it can be cool in the narrows section of the canyon where there is plenty of shade. This is even more true in Buckskin Gulch where it is rather dark. Take warmer clothes than you would think are necessary based on the weather.
Water: the river water is very silty and will quickly clog a water filter. Luckily there are a number of springs in the canyon where fresh water can be obtain. We drank from these springs without using filtration (do take some care how you fill your bottles if not using a filter). The springs are well marked on the guide maps, but still may be hard to find. We had a particularly hard time finding one called Shower Spring. The boy scout leader we met told us his scout group planned to camp there, yet when we arrived, we saw them hiking off down the canyon. But then, we couldn’t see the spring. We just about gave up looking for it, but as we were running low on water, I gave one last look. I crossed the river and found a hidden trail through tall, thick pampas-type grass, and behold, a big spring with lots of water! The last spring, aptly named Last Reliable Spring, was easier to find, but has a low flow rate so it took time to fill our bottles. The final 12 miles of the hike do not have any reliable water sources. If you plan well, you can minimize the water you have to carry by planning your daily mileage around the spring or by camping near by the springs. Do remember to carry enough water – you’ll need it, even in April or May.
Campsites: there are campsites marked on the map, but many other campsites are available – just be sure to camp high enough above the river in case the water comes up overnight. Within the narrows section of the canyon, campsites are much harder to find. And in the full 18 miles of Buckskin Gulch, there are only a couple, including the one we stayed at our second night, shortly up canyon from Buckskin’s confluence with the Paria.
The Scoop on Poop: When you check in at the Paria Contact Station, you will be given human-waste disposal bags. These consist of one or two silver bags with some dry chemicals in them. These bags open up to rear-end size. And a yellow mesh bag to carry the used silver bags. The ranger writes your permit number on the silver bags, so if perchance you leave one in the canyon, they will make you come and get it (okay, they’d probably give you a fine; she said they started putting numbers on the bags after some hikers started leaving the used bags in the canyon thinking the rangers came through and picked them up). Luckily, you are only required to use these bags within the narrows section of the canyon. Elsewhere, you can dig “cat holes” away from the river and campsites. In our case, we were only in the narrows for about a day and a half. It’s amazing how your body can react when forced with the possibility of using one of these bags. Four of the five of us were able to “hold it” and carried out empty bags. Concerning toilet paper, that comes out with you, even if using cat holes.
Historical sites: portions of the canyon were historically used by Ancient Pueblo people (Anasizi). There are no ruins, at least that we saw, but there are several petroglyph sites (only one of which is marked on the guide map). If you go, the best petroglyph site we saw is between mile 24 and 25. There are several more recent sites as well. These include the remains of an irrigation pump from an ill-fated attempt to pump water out of the canyon in the 1949 at mile 17.5 and a historical ranch property right at the end of the trail in Lee’s Ferry.
Critters: We saw few animals on our hike other than birds, bats, lizards and mice (luckily only at our final campsite), but I did find a scorpion behind my backpack the night we camped in Buckskin Gulch. You should also be aware that rattlesnakes are occasionally seen. Reportedly there are also beavers (we did see some logs they had worked on), coyotes, jack rabbits, cottontail rabbits, ground squirrels, deer and bighorn sheep.
Overall, this is one hike I can highly recommend. The scenery is outstanding. The country is remote, but easily accessible. I waited about 30 years to take this hike – in hind sight, I should have gone a long time ago. It’s one fantastic hike.
I’ve been back several days now from my backpacking trip down the Paria River canyon (Paria is pronounced like Maria). We hiked out of the canyon on Thursday. I had hoped to post about the trip earlier, but after driving 900 miles on Friday, going to by sister’s surprise 50th birthday party on Saturday, Easter on Sunday, and with Monday being opening day for the Seattle Mariners (I’m a baseball nut and went to watch the game at Safeco Field on the big screen even though the game was in Oakland), I haven’t had a chance until now.
When people ask about where I went, I say the Paria River – which usually brings a confused look as they have never heard of it. They ask where it is, and I say mostly in the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument – which continues the confused look because they have never heard of it. So then I say, the 38-mile hike ends at where rafting trips through the Grand Canyon start (at Lee’s Ferry, Arizona) and most people then have a general idea.
The Paria River hike is one of the classic hikes in the American Southwest, and I have wanted to do it for over 30 years. Let me tell you, the hike did not disappoint. Much of the hike is through narrows, where the canyon walls are only 5 to 30 meters wide. The hike is considered as a rival to the much more famous Virgin River Narrows hike in Zion National Park.
The first day we got a late start (after having to drive the shuttle, placing a car at Lee’s Ferry to drive back at the end of the hike) only hiked about 3.5 miles, camping before the narrows begins. The narrows begin at about mile 4 and were spectacular. At mile 7, still in the narrows, we turned and went up Buckskin Gulch (a tributary to the Paria). We dropped our packs at one of the only campsites in Buckskin, about 1/4 mile from the confluence with the Paria, and day hiked several miles up Buckskin. That night, we camped where we had left the packs. The following day, we hiked 10 miles down the Paria, leaving the narrows. Though not in the narrows, this section of the canyon was still not wide and still very beautiful. Much of the hiking these three days was in the river itself. The following three days, more and more of the hiking was out of the river, as the canyon widened up. Besides the day hike up Buckskin, we also made the day hike to Wrather Arch – reportedly the largest natural arch in the world outside the state of Utah.
Here’s a few images from the trip. I’ll try to do a more complete blog post on the hike, with more photos, as time allows.
Tomorrow morning, I’m hitting the road with my brother Rob to drive down to Kanab, Utah. From there, we’ll drive east to the Paria Ranger Station to meet up with my old grad school buddy, Rob Tubbs, and his family to hike Paria Canyon. Over six days, we’ll hike from the White House trailhead down to Lee’s Ferry in Arizona, a total distance of 38 miles. I’ve been wanting to do this hike since I first heard about it, probably about 30 years ago. It is one of the classic backpacking trips of the American Southwest. You can read more about the hike here. I’m hoping to return with some great photos to share on the blog.
I just weighed my pack and “ouch!” The pack weighs 69 pounds (including 4 liters of water). Now I’m considering not taking the 70-200mm lens (with case, tripod collar, and quick-release plate, it weighs about 4 pounds). Would you take it? The tripod stays though, as do the two other lenses.
I tell you, it’s times like this I wish I had one of those 24-300 mm lenses instead my my three-lens kit. Well, I have two days to decide as we drive to southern Utah. Maybe I can take a few less clothes – I’ll be stinky after six days anyway, do I really need more than one pair of pants?
In anticipation of the trip, I’m posting this old shot of the Watchman in Zion National Park. Most of Paria Canyon is in the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, but I only have a handful of old slides from that area and they aren’t scanned (and I don’t have time to do it now), so you’ll have to put up with this shot from Zion. Zion is about 85 miles (by road) west of the Paria Canyon trailhead.
As many of you know, I completed a trip to Utah and New Mexico last autumn. One of the highlights of the trip was the several days Tanya and I spend in Santa Fe. I enjoyed my trip to Santa Fe so much, I’ve written an article about travel photography in and around Santa Fe for the Travel Photographers Network. They published the article this week, featuring my photo shown here as on their home page (you may recognize this photo, which I posted in black and white in a previous post). You can read the article here. While several images are embedded in the story, there is an associated album which includes 30 images from the Santa Fe region. While you are at the TPN site looking at my article, be sure to check out the other articles and photos on the site; it is a wonderful resource and community for travel photographers of all experience levels.
Capital Reef National Park was our last stop on our Southwest trip which ended in October. I love this place. The campground at Fruita is, in my opinion, among the best camping spots in the Southwest. The tent sites are mostly on grass, not dirt like most spots. The campground is very well shaded by trees. And it is situated next to several fruit orchards (apples, pears, cherries, apricots, and peaches), where campers are free to pick fresh fruit (free for “in orchard” eating, a small, reasonable, self-service fee is charged for taking some home). Need an apple for your day hike, stop by the orchards on your way to the trailhead! The Fremont River runs next to the campground, and scenic sandstone cliffs tower above it. And if you like wildlife, Fruita is mule deer central (not surprisingly with lots of green stuff to eat, a reliable water supply, and fruit dropping from the trees). And typically, it is fairly easy to get a camping spot. I’ve camped there four times, and have only been aced out once. You guessed it, that time was this trip.
We went to Capital Reef on the spur of the moment. Our original itinerary called for us to drive to Moab, but as it was a Friday in the prime autumn season, I worried about finding a camping spot. So we opted to go to Capital Reef instead (like I said, I’ve never had a problem there). Well, the park must be becoming more popular, because we arrived before 3 p.m. and it had been full since noon. We had the option of camping anywhere on BLM land outside the park, but we had just done that for the previous three nights (one night at Bisti and two nights outside of Natural Bridges National Monument) and the western sky just outside the park was very dark with rain clouds. So we opted to find a motel in Torrey, about 10 mile west of the park. This worked well. It was nice to get a shower, and we had dinner at the fabulous restaurant Cafe Diablo. (It’s worth a trip to Torrey just to go to this restaurant. We ate there about five years ago and loved it then. At that time, the chef made a special meal for Tanya, who is gluten intolerant. This time, they had a gluten-free menu, and the food was as good as we remembered.)
Capital Reef is an unusual national park. It is only a few miles wide, but many miles long. This is because the park follows the Waterpocket Fold – a nearly 100 mile long monocline (that is a steeply inclined stack of layered rocks). Waterpocket Fold, which generally runs north-south, sticks up dramatically out of the ground, forming a formidable barrier to east-west travel. Thus, early settlers in the area thought of it like a barrier reef (which restricts travel by boat). It is called “capital” because it has some rock domes that resemble the Capital in Washington, DC and other such architectural domes. There are only three east-west roads through Capital Reef, and only one is easily traveled – Highway 24, which follows the Fremont River and goes through Fruita. Fruita was originally a Morman settlement (that’s where the fruit orchards originally came from).
Unfortunately, this trip we only had time to explore the region of the park near Fruita and along the Scenic Drive, a ten-mile paved road extending south of Fruita on the west side of the park. But there more than enough scenery for our two days in the area.
I highly recommend visiting Capital Reef. But be warned, Torrey seems to be growing, there are many more motels there than just five years ago. In a way, it reminds me of Moab before it became “Moab” (if you know what I mean). This park is getting more popular every year; try to get there before Torrey gets too big and Capital Reef gets too overrun.
I’m a geologist by training. So it comes as no surprise that I like taking photos of rocks. And no surprise I like taking trips to the American Southwest, which has some of the best rock formations in the world. Of all the rock exposures in the Southwest, the Bisti Badlands, perhaps, contains the best of the best. The Bisti Badlands are part of the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM describes the wilderness as:
… a remote desolate area of steeply eroded badlands which offers some of the most unusual scenery found in the Four Corners region. Time and natural elements have etched a fantasy world of strange rock formations and fossils. It is an ever-changing environment that offers the visitor a remote wilderness experience.
And let me tell you, the BLM isn’t kidding with that description. The place is full of hoodoos, spires, and other badland features. You could spend a year to explore the place fully, but even then you wouldn’t be done. The landscape changes with each rain storm, as erosion creates new hoodoos and destroys others.
Bisti is fairly easy to get to. It is perhaps an hour south of Farmington, New Mexico, about 2 miles off (along a good gravel road) of highway NM 371. At least that gets you to the wilderness’ only amenity – a parking lot (two actually). That’s it - no campground, no picnic tables, no restrooms, no shade, no water; just a parking lot and a trail registry.
If you want to be there for the golden hours, you either have to drive in the dark or set up a primitive camp, which is what Tanya and I decided to do (more my decision than hers; I’m sure she would have rather slept in a motel than camping on a dried mud bed). We camped just off the gravel road, about 1/4 mile from the parking lot (see below). Not the best site, but it did allow me to get into the wilderness for some good light.
With a trail registry, you might think there would be trails. You’d be wrong. No trails either. This makes it somewhat difficult to navigate in the badlands. A GPS is recommended, especially if you want to find some of the most photogenic spots (GPS coordinates for some of the formations are available in Laurent Martes‘ book Photographing the Southwest Volume 3 – a Guide to the Natural Landmarks of Colorado & New Mexico and at several websites, such as this map provided by Isabel and Steffen Synnatschke); and of course, I don’t own one. In my research about Bisti, several sources describe how easy it is to get lost there. Being a geologist, I usually don’t worry about getting lost (most geologists I’ve known, myself included, have a built-in sense of direction); but I thought it can’t hurt to have the topographic maps for the region, so I downloaded them before the trip and promptly forgot to bring them.
Undaunted, Tanya and I tried to follow the directions from the parking lot to some of the interesting formations listed in Martes’ guidebook. Since we weren’t planning on coming back until after sunset, Tanya was a bit concerned about getting lost, but I assured her we’d have no problem. And we didn’t get lost, but we did have trouble finding the formations described in the book. Luckily there are lots of photo opportunities besides the book’s listed attractions. However, next time I go there, I’ll bring a GPS.
We did stay out until sunset, then with darkness settling in, headed back to the car. It was fairly easy to find. Since we were there relatively close to the autumn equinox, the sun set almost due west. So I knew if we headed straight toward the sunset, we should find the road, if not the car, without problem. As we got close, the only other person there (another photographer) reached his car and turned on its lights – perfect, a guiding beacon for us! We thanked him for the light when we got back and talked about how hard it was to find noted landmarks. He was using the same book as us, and had a GPS, and still had problems (which made me feel a little better). However, he was spending several days in the area (driving out each day from Farmington), so I assume he eventually found the spots he wanted.
We were only there for one night. The next morning, I decided to photograph west of the road, which is described in the book as an area with interesting hoodoos that is impossible to miss. Sure enough, about a ten-minute walk west of the parking lot, it was hoodoo city! I communed with the rocks through sunrise and eventually headed back to help Tanya pack up.
Bisti is a fantastic place for landscape photography. If you go, take a hat (there’s no shade), take lots of water, and take a GPS (or at least remember that the sun sets in the west).
I’m not sure I’d ever heard about Chaco Culture National Historical Parkprior to researching where I wanted to go on my Southwest trip last September. But as I did my research, I became excited about this place. What self-respecting travel photographer, or at least those who like to get off the beaten path, would not want to go there! And off the beaten path it is. Is there any other national park in the lower 48 with vehicular access that requires driving at least 21 miles off the highway, with 13 or more miles of, to quote the Park Service, “rough dirt road?” That may not seem very far, but when you are traveling the road in the late afternoon in hopes of getting a camping spot (in a campground with only 49 spots and nothing else even remotely nearby), that 21 miles seems longer.
Because it is so remote, the night sky is incredible there (the nearest town of any size if Farmington, New Mexico, about an hour and half drive from the park). The park has an observatory and hosts a night sky program help visitors appreciate the astronomy visible there. In fact the night sky at Chaco was declared a critical natural resource in 1993. I’d like to show you the images I took of the night sky at Chaco, but I made a rookie mistake. When shooting a star trail shot from our campsite, the battery run out on my camera! Lesson learned – always have a fully charged battery when doing star trail images (leaving the aperture open for hours tends to suck up a lot of battery life).
The park wasn’t created for the sky though, it was created to preserve one of the largest collections of ruins in the Southwest. It is on par with Mesa Verde National Park, but built in a shallow canyon instead of on cliff walls (making access to the ruins much easier). Here’s how the Park Service’s website describes Chaco:
From AD 850 to 1250, Chaco was a hub of ceremony, trade, and administration for the prehistoric Four Corners area–unlike anything before or since. Chaco is remarkable for its multi-storied public buildings, ceremonial buildings, and distinctive architecture. These structures required considerable planning, designing, organizing of labor, and engineering to construct. The Chacoan people combined many elements: pre-planned architectural designs, astronomical alignments, geometry, landscaping, and engineering to create an ancient urban center of spectacular public architecture–one that still awes and inspires us a thousand years later.
The place is so full of ruins there are even some within the campground. We only spent one night there, but could have easily spent several days. The park contains many major excavated (or partially excavated) sites along the loop road, and more if you want to hike. If you only have a little time when visiting there, such as we did, be sure to go to Pueblo Bonito, the most excavated of the large ruins. Many of the images featured here are from that site. Pueblo Bonito was a major center of ancestral Puebloan culture between AD 850 and 1150. It covers over 3 acres, was four and five stories tall, and contained more than 600 rooms. It is shaped like a large “D” and contains two plazas and dozens of kivas. The place is amazing and quite photogenic.
In addition to ruins, there is canyon and desert scenery to be shot. And wildlife as well. Amazingly, the park is home to an elk herd (who visited us in the middle of the night at the campground). Coming from Washington State, where elk frequent the forests, it was hard for me to believe they also like this place with high summer temperatures and no trees.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park is worth the drive. Check it out the next time you’re in New Mexico.
During our Southwestern trip, we spent three days in Santa Fé. Both Tanya and I decided this place is magical, at least it seemed so when we were there. Maybe we were fooled by were we stayed, in a bed and breakfast in the old section of town. And of course the weather was great, but we thought this would be a great place to live. Of course, the city is a haven for artists, and perhaps that had something to do with my liking it. Reportedly, Santa Fé has more art galleries per capita than any other city in the United States. It is seemingly chock full of museums as well.
And if you like southwestern cuisine, this is the place to go. The official state of New Mexico question is “Red or green?” For those not in the know, this refers to the kind and color of chile sauce (usually just called “chile”) served with your meal. I usually preferred the green, but you can always ask for it as “Christmas” and get both!
Though we spent three days there, I actually didn’t take that many photographs there. I wish we more time in Santa Fé, it is really a great place for travel photography. Here are few highlights of images I did capture in Santa Fé. As always, any comments are welcome.
I’m continuing my series of posts about my trip to the Southwest with a look at New Mexican churches – adobe churches in particular. I’ve always enjoyed photographing churches, at least those with classic architectural styles. And in New Mexico, there is nothing more classical than adobe.
If you are interested in seeing churches such as these, I highly recommend traveling the high road between Santa Fé and Taos. There are a number of highly photogenic churches along this route, many described in Laurent Martes‘ excellent book on photographing the natural landmarks of Colorado and New Mexico (okay, I know churches aren’t natural landmarks, but the book is titled Photographing the Southwest Volume 3 – a Guide to the Natural Landmarks of Colorado & New Mexico and does mostly cover natural subjects). By traveling this road, you’re bound to come up with at least one or two decent images – there is always at least one church with good light upon it.
My biggest question concerning the adobe churches I photographed was how best to portray them – in color or in black and white? I leave it to you to decide, providing most images in this post with both versions.
I think they look good both ways, but if forced to make a choice, I’d generally chose the black and white versions. There are exceptions, of course; ever photograph is different. In the examples given here, I do like the black and white images better; they generally do a better job of conveying what I want the to convey. I love the look of a cross on a church really standing out – and that works well with these images except for the image of the San Juan de Los Lagos steeple and black cross, there the color version portrays my vision better. I also love the high contrast of the black and white images. However, I’d like to hear your comments – color or black and white?
For those who care – these black and white conversions were all done rather quickly in Lightroom. If I get serious about any of these, I’ll probably redo the conversions in Photoshop. I like both programs for how easy they make black and white conversions and the ability to adjust the brightness of each color in the images separately. This makes it very easy to turn an all blue sky dark (and make those crosses really stand out).
On our recent trip, Tanya and I spent a couple of days camping outside Ouray, Colorado in the San Juan Mountains. I had hoped that being there in late September would result in nice fall colors in the aspens. That was not the case; it seems fall colors are late this year (I’ll need to remember this for future La Nina years, and next year appears to be another).
While I didn’t get the good fall colors I had hoped for, I did have fun shooting the area. With only two days, my photography was limited to a couple of areas: along the “Million Dollar Highway” between Ouray and Silverton and along State Highway 62 (and south of it along various county roads) between Ridgway and Dallas Divide. The photos here were all taken in these areas. Enjoy, and feel free to tell my what you think.
One stop Tanya and I made on our trip last month was the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado. This is an amazing place. At its deepest, the Black Canyon is 2,722 feet (829 meters) deep. At its narrowest, it is 1,100 feet (335 meters) wide. It is so deep and so narrow, that little sunlight reaches the bottom. No wonder it is called Black. Of course, this presents great difficulties in photographing it.
Our original plan was to spend a night at the campground at the park. So I spent a lot of time studying various viewpoints and sunlight times and angles (using the Photographer’s Ephemeris, which is a really great program by the way, and free for desktop or laptop use) for early morning and late afternoon of our projected days at the park. As is turned out, we only made a short stop there, maybe two or three hours in the brutal, mid-afternoon sun. Not the best conditions for photography. The range of contrast was huge – puffy white clouds to dark, canyon shadows. The rock making up the canyon is mostly dark; that didn’t help. And several of the viewpoints we visited looked westward, toward the sun. Ouch! Could conditions be worse?
What’s a photographer to do? HDR of course. (For those of you who don’t know, HDR stands for high dynamic range. HDR photography works by shooting the same scene several times with different exposures and combining them together in a computer.) I occasionally shoot with HDR in mind, and this was one of those occasions. All the images presented in this blog are HDR images.
For those who care about such things, my typical HDR workflow is thus: 1) shoot three shots (or more if needed) in RAW using the autobracket feature on my DSLR (tripod mounted of course), 2) upload into Adobe Lightroom, 3) in Lightroom, on one of the shots, set the white balance and correct for chromatic aberration, then copy those settings to the other shots in the set, 4) export to Photomatix Pro using the Details Enhancer for tone mapping , 5) save the new HDR image and import into Lightroom, 6) go through my normal Lightroom workflow I normally use for RAW photos, and 7) give finishing touches (if needed) in Photoshop. The images here have been through steps 1-6. When shooting the original images, I check the histogram to make sure the set of images includes at least one image with the histogram not pegged up against the right side and at least one image with the histogram not pegged up against the left side.
Normally, I don’t use HDR if I can preserve the entire dynamic range with my regular workflow. Two of the images presented here that I was able to use my non-HDR workflow. However, I ran them through my HDR workflow to see how they looked and thought they looked better with HDR.
I’m not a fan of that over-processed HDR look that is popular with some. I like my HDR images to look life-like. A couple of these push that envelope, particularly the one with the Painted Wall below. What do you think? Are any of them overdone?
During my recent southwest road trip, I took lots of good photos. Unfortunately, I took lots of bad photos too. And lots of mediocre photos. And lots of duplicates. In other words, I have a lot of editing to do. If I calculate it correctly, I tripped the shutter button 3,852 times over the 18 days on the road. Considering I didn’t take any photos on the first or last days, that averages out to almost 240 photos per day.
This is what I love about digital photography – you can take a lot of pictures. This is what I hate about digital photography – you can take a lot of pictures. Digital cameras give you the freedom to experiment. They give you the freedom to bracket. You can bracket exposures, apertures, compositions, etc. Of course, you could do this with film, but it got to be real expensive.
I confess, I am a bracketer (is that even a word?), and truth be told, probably an over-bracketer. This is especially true when traveling on a trip like this one. I went some places where I will likely never visit again. And I wanted to make sure I got the shot right. So, I bracket. I basically bracket exposures, using the auto-bracket feature on my camera. But often I also bracket apertures. And I usually bracket compositions. And, of course, with each change in composition, I bracket exposures again – and on it goes. I end up burning a lot of pixels. I love this ability to take lots of images, so that I get the perfect one.
Formerly, when I shot film, I was much more selective; and though I did sometimes bracket, never to the extent I do now. For example, the images accompanying this blog are of the House on Fire ruin in Mule Canyon, Utah. If I was still shooting slide film, I might have taken 10 or 20 shots at this site, knowing I was unlikely to come back for many years if ever. This trip, I took 126 images at this location. I love being able to do that.
Now comes the hate part – I must edit those 126 images from the House on Fire ruin. And I must edit those 3,852 images from the entire trip. This will take a lot of time. And I usually fall behind in my editing; for example, I still have images from last May that should be edited.
Besides time-consuming, editing is aggravating in deciding which image is better. Is this one better than that one? Is the focus slightly better in this one? Did this slight change in composition make a difference; is it noticeable; is it better, worse, or the same? It reminds me of an episode of the The Bob Newhart Show, which ran in the 1970s. (I suppose I dated myself with this comment, but I really loved that show.) In this particular episode, Emily Hartley (Newhart’s wife on the show) describes to Bob how she hates going to the eye doctor – not because it hurts, but because there’s too much pressure deciding if the letters on the vision chart are clearer with lens one or lens two. The doctor presses for an answer over and over, lens one or lens two. In my case, I’m pressing myself over and over, image one or image two (or three or four…)
The ability to take thousands of photos with a digital camera has made some of us photographers sloppy. There are those who say digital cameras have made photographers sloppy in that they take shortcuts because an image can always be fixed in Photoshop. I don’t mean that kind of sloppiness; I always try to take the highest quality image I can to limit post-processing. By sloppy, I mean not being selective of the images we take. I am guilty of this with my over-bracketing. But my over-bracketing is a response to a desire to take the highest quality image to start with; it’s an attempt not to be sloppy and leave it to Photoshop to fix! In fact, I often will not take an image, even though it may have a worthy subject, if the light is not very good – you cannot fix bad light in Photoshop! Even so, I end up with way too many images.
I guess, in the end, there are no shortcuts to doing the work of photography. Either you have to take the time to think about the best exposure and composition in the field or take the time editing in the office. The work must be done one way or the other. However, thinking in the field is a quicker and less painless process (as long as you trust yourself to do it right) than editing endless numbers of very similar images. High time for me to think more, trust myself more, and shoot less. Perhaps editing these 3,852 images will help me to finally learn that lesson.
My Great American Road Trip is over. After traveling just over 4,100 miles (6,600 km) and driving through seven states, Tanya and I arrived home to Tacoma Monday night. I had hoped to post sooner after coming home, but have experienced computer difficulties (remember the days when photographers didn’t care about computers?) My storage device, which holds most of the photos of the trip, has only allowed me to download the first several days worth of images. (I’m hoping and praying it I don’t lose the rest!) Consequently, this blog isn’t exactly the one I had planned for my return, but it will have to do for now.
So while I’ve been frustrated (with my computer equipment) since coming back home, the trip itself was wonderful. The weather couldn’t have been better (well, that’s not totally true, but then when has a photographer ever been satisfied with the weather; it can always be better). We generally had highs in the 80s F (high 20s C) and lows in the 50s (10-15 C). No rain at all, at least until we got back to Washington. Though there were some totally blue skies, most skies provided at least a few clouds to break up the blues (like I complained about in August). Only one day did clouds obscure good, late afternoon light. And we got to experience a lot of the American West.
I thought it fitting that since we drove westward to come home and end our trip, I post a sunset shot to illustrate this brief blog. This particular sunset is from Dinosaur National Monument in Utah.
Now, after a week on the road and away from computers, Tanya and I are at a B&B in Santa Fe, New Mexico. We’ve had a great trip so far, both in terms of places visited and having good weather. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a good weather on a road trip – a few rain drops on the windshield, but otherwise great weather, a mix of totally blue skies (boring photography wise) with scattered clouds (nice photographically).
I’ve included a few shots from the first half of the trip here. Please forgive any issues with these images, they have not been through my normal workflow. Instead of going through Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, they have been somewhat randomly selected and minimally processed with Picassa. I’m working on a very slow laptop, without much memory. This makes it very hard to do editing of the RAW files produced by my camera, and optimizing with Picassa is slow (not to mention not having the capabilities of Lightroom and Photoshop). Regardless, these few images can give you an idea of what we’ve seen so far.
The trip started with a long drive from Tacoma to Twin Falls, Idaho – about 650 miles. The next day we drove to Dinosaur National Monument, roughly 400 miles. This may be the best, closest exposure of sandstone slickrock to Washington State. Two nights there, including a side trip to Fantasy Canyon – a small, but must-visit place for nature photographers.
We then drove south through western Colorado to spend a night with my now retired geology professor from Texas A&M University (where I received a Masters in geology). He is retired and maintaining an orchard and vineyard in Palisade, Colorado. Much wine was drunk when staying with him and his wife!
Leaving Palisade, we drove over the Grand Mesa, made a short stop at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, and drove on to Ouray, Colorado. We spent two nights there in the San Juan Mountains. I was hoping for good fall color with the aspen trees, and was partially rewarded. Some had turned already and others were still green. Regardless, the views were fantastic.
Then it was on to Taos, New Mexico, where we spent a night camping on the Rio Grande and visited Taos Pueblo. We took the high road into Santa Fe from there and have been enjoying the city for two nights now.
I hope you enjoy these few photos from the first half of the trip. I’ll post more once I get back home. The top one is of the Sneffels Range in Colorado. It is part of the San Juan Mountains. This is the view from the north, along West Dallas Creek Road. I was hoping for shots from this area with yellow aspens, but they had not turned yet on the north side of the range like they had further south.
The next shot is of a pictograph (pictographs are painted, petroglyphs are carved) call Sun Dagger. It is located in northwestern Colorado. Reportedly it was used by the Fremont People as a sundial.
The third shot is of Split Mountain and the Green River at Dinosaur National Monument in Utah. This scene, taken shortly after sunrise, is about 1/4 mile up the river from our campground.
The final shot is of the San Francisco de Asis church in Ranchos de Taos, a short distance south of Taos, New Mexico.
It’s amazing what being Freshly Pressed does. My blog had 23 views on September 5th, a rather typical day. Then on September 6th, WordPress featured my blog Mountain Blues in their Freshly Pressed blogs, resulting in 2,784 views that day and over 3,000 the next day. Wow! Prior to Tuesday, I had 5 subscribers to my blog and now, at last count, I have 73! All I can say is thank you to all who visited the blog over the past few days, all who left comments, and special thanks to all my new subscribers. But now, with all you guys watching, I feel pressure to come up with new, exciting blogs. There certainly is some freedom in living in obscurity. Maybe after a few more blogs, all you new subscribers will get tired of me and take yourselves off the list. I hope not, but one never knows.
So in light of that pressure, what to blog about. I haven’t had much chance to do any photography since my trip to Blue Mountain and Deer Park. Between the day job, preparing for the Mountaineers Photo exhibition and reception (see my last blog), and researching sites to go on my upcoming vacation, there hasn’t been much time for new photography. So, this blog is more about my pending vacation. I briefly wrote about it several weeks ago, but serious planning is now going on. Several weeks ago, it was still an idea, more of an ephemeral vision than a hard date on the calendar. Now we have an itinerary, have some hotel reservations set, and have a house sitter arranged. Now it is starting to seem real.
Normally I’m a kind of go-with-the-flow guy; and if time was not of the essence, I’d consider just taking off without a set itinerary. But, there’s a lot to see and photograph, and only a limited time to do it. Besides, I like the planning; I like pre-visualizing potential shots. The only hard dates are the start, the finish, and the three days in Sante Fe where we’ve already paid half our hotel bill. Most everywhere else we will be camping.
Tanya and I love the American Southwest. I’ve made quite a few trips down there, mostly to Utah. We haven’t been in several years, so felt it was time to go again. Tanya expressed a desire to go to Sante Fe, and that’s were the seed of this trip was planted. The tentative itinerary has us driving first to Dinosaur National Monument, then on the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, down to the San Juan Mountains area of Colorado, over to Taos, then on to Sante Fe, and on the way back stopping at Chaco Culture National Historic Park, the Bisti Wilderness, Natural Bridges National Monument, and Moab.
The idea was to go see some new places in the Southwest, or at least spend more time in places I’ve only touched lightly long ago. Of all these places, I have only spent significant time in the Moab area. I have actually been to Dinosaur National Monument, twice – once a quick stop in 1983 while driving down to grad school in Texas (Texas A&M), and once a rafting trip in the early 90s. Though the raft trip was several days long, I didn’t get to see much beyond the river; so this new trip will explore new territory there. In 1984, on my way back from grad school, I stopped for about an hour at the Black Canyon, so that really doesn’t count either. And I spent several hours in Sante Fe while a teaching assistant on a geology field camp, again in 1984. And I recall a distant memory of when I was young, perhaps in junior high school or maybe grad school, on a family vacation, we drove through the San Juan Mountains. I’ve never been to Natural Bridges, Bisti, Taos, or Chaco Canyon.
So, this blog is supposed to be about photography, not about where I traveled ages ago. Thus I needed something to illustrate it with, so I dug out the old slide albums. It was hard finding anything decent to show, but finally found the two images here, taken long ago in Dinosaur National Monument. Most of those old slides are pretty bad; my composition and exposure skills have come a long way in the past 30 years. Hopefully with this upcoming Great American Road Trip, I’ll bring some better shots home.
We finally had a decent summer weekend. It was sure a long time coming this year. And where was I when the weather finally reached over 80 degrees? Up in the mountains photographing wildflowers and snowfields? Photographing tidepools in Olympic National Park at Ruby Beach or Kalaloch? Or even enjoying a family picnic sans camera? No, no, and no. I was stuck inside my studio most the weekend working on processing portrait shots. It’s not that I hate processing photos, in fact I like it; for me, processing is part of the art of photography. I like taking a RAW image and turning it into a thing of beauty (though repeating the same enhancements over and over again on a series of portraits can get a bit tedious). But when the weather is nice, I should be out shooting!
Alas, the portrait work needed doing, regardless of the weather. So I slaved over the computer most the weekend (and am actually happy with the amount of work I got done). However, I couldn’t help be dream of being outside, taking photographs in a beautiful landscape. With that, my day dreams turned to my pending vacation. Late next month Tanya and I hope to drive down to southern Utah and northern New Mexico. We are planning to go to some spots I’ve never been before, and I’m excited about the photographic opportunities.
I love the American Southwest. In part, I think, it is due to my formal training as a geologist. I like seeing all the bare rocks – no soil, trees or other vegetation covering their colors and patterns. And as a travel and landscape photographer, I can’t think of a more photogenic area. I like the American Southwest so much I named my photography company after a character, Seldom Seen Smith, in the Edward Abbey novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. For awhile, I had been visiting southern Utah about every other year. But now it’s been about four years and I’m itching to go again. Seeing some of New Mexico will be great too. I haven’t been there in over 25 years, not since my Texas A&M grad school days when I was a teaching assistant on a geology field camp. I imagine it has changed much in that quarter century.
Now on Monday, the rain has returned to Tacoma, and dreaming of a vacation in the Southwest has only gotten stronger. In support of my vacation dreams, I’m posting these shots from some of my previous trips to Utah. These are images I haven’t much shown before. I hope you enjoy them.