If you find yourself in northeastern Arizona and are traveling near Ganado, consider stopping by the Hubbell Trading Post, the oldest continuing operated trading post in the Navajo Nation. This place oozes history of the American West. John Lorenzo Hubbell purchased the trading post in 1878 shortly after the Navajo people were allowed back onto their land after their forced exile to Bosque Redondo. Hubbell prospered, and he built a trading empire throughout the Navajo Nation including several trading posts and a stage line. The trading post at Ganado was operated by the Hubbell family until 1957 when they sold it to the Park Service. While the site is a National Historic Site, it is still operated as an authentic trading post where you can buy a can of Coke or a jar of pickles; brooms or horse tack; a Navajo blanket, basket, or turquoise jewelry; or many other items. It’s part store and part museum. The Park Service also runs a small visitor center detailing the history of the post.
Outside the main trading post, visitors are free to roam the grounds, viewing historic farm machinery, the bunkhouse and guest hogan, or visiting with the horses and Navajo Churro sheep. The Park Service leads tours of the property five times daily ($2 per person), or you can pick up a self-guided tour booklet. There are separate tours of the interior of the Hubbell family residence.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument is a bit off the beaten track and missed by many visiting the Southwest. In fact, in my many travels to the Southwest, our trip last month was the first time I had been there. It certainly deserves more visitors than it gets; it is a wonderful place which combines scenery, ancient history, and traditional Navajo culture. First, the canyons are beautiful, and deserving of national monument status without their historical and cultural aspects. But what really makes it special are the many large and small ancestral Indian ruins sprinkled throughout the canyons and the Navajos who to this day make it their home. These canyons have been continually inhabited for nearly 5,000 years.
The park is made up of two main canyons that join together near the park entrance. These are Canyon del Muerto and Canyon de Chelly itself. There are many other smaller canyons that branch off these main two. The canyons start as a shallow wash and gradually deepen; eventually the walls reach a height of 1,000 feet. The stunning vertical red, yellow and orange sandstone walls contrast with the green cottonwoods and small agricultural fields, tended by resident Navajos, in the flat, canyon bottom.
There are two ways to see the canyons, above from the canyon rims or from below, inside the canyons themselves. The South Rim Road travels 36 miles along the southern side of Canyon de Chelly. There are seven viewpoints along the road, the best (in my opinion) are the White House Overlook and Spider Rock Overlook, but all are worth a stop. The North Rim Road traverses 32 miles along the northwest rim of Canyon del Muerto to three overlooks – all are worth stopping at.
While the views from the rim are good, to really experience the canyons you need to see it from within. To travel inside the canyons, you either need to go with a Navajo guide or hike in yourself on the only trail open without a guide – the White House Trail. This trail takes you from the rim at the White House Viewpoint, down the wall, and into the Canyon de Chelly just up canyon of the White House Ruin – so named because of one of the buildings is painted white. The ruin has two levels, one on the floor of the canyon and one some 30 feet higher on the canyon wall. The hike is well worth doing, but can be brutal in the hot sun of the afternoon. Most of the trail is in the sun throughout the day, expect perhaps late afternoon. You might try going first thing in the morning (which is what Tanya and I did). The ruin will be in the shade in the morning and in full sun in later in the afternoon. Be warned if you take a tripod. The ruin is surrounded by a 5-foot high wire fence. My tripod was too short to extend over the top of the fence, and I ended up shooting images of the ruin by setting the camera on the top of the fence and “hanging” the tripod down like a plumb bob to help steady the camera. This way I was able to get sharp photos with shutter speeds as low as 1/15 seconds. Such fences are also around other ruins in the canyons.
The other way to get into the canyons is to hire a guide. We took a “half day” tour from Changing Woman Tours. In this case, a half day was about three hours, which is barely enough time to start to see the canyons. Be sure to inquire about the length of your tour. Some half day tours are four hours. Full day tours can be six or more hours. In hindsight, I should have picked a longer length trip. There is just too much to see in only a few hours. Our tour guide, Victoria Begay, was quite knowledgeable, and we learned much about the history of the area. Because we had earlier hiked to White House Ruin, Victoria took us up Canyon del Muerto. It is my understanding, however, that most tours go up Canyon de Chelly. If you prefer to go one way or the other, be sure to ask your guide. Most people, us included, opt for a vehicle tour – typically in a 4-wheel drive supplied by the tour company. Hiking and horseback tours are also available. Tour costs vary. Our tour, for just the two of us and the guide, cost $165.
Throughout my many trips to the American Southwest, somehow I’ve always missed Monument Valley. So on our trip earlier this month, Tanya and I made sure to see it, and I’m sure glad we did. The scenery and photography were superb. Monument Valley, by virtue of its role in many movies, as well as countless published still photographs, screams American West, making it one of the top attractions in the Southwest. This is one reason I’ve avoided it in the past. I prefer my scenery without huge crowds. And withthe popularity of Monument Valley, it was sureto be crowded. As it turned out, it wasn’t too bad – though it certainly wasn’t deserted, Tanya and I were able to visit many of the viewpoints on the Scenic Drive without anyone else present.
The view from the hotel/visitor center, as well as the nearby campground is amazing. It sits above the valley with a view of the iconic West Mitten, East Mitten, and Merrick Buttes so close it feels like you can reach out and touch them. Just a quick trip to see this view and nothing more is worth the $20 entry fee (per car) into the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. But to get the most out of the park, the Scenic Drive is definitely worth taking.
There are many tours available into valley, including many photo tours. And I heard tours being sold because the Scenic Drive road is unsuitable for passenger cars. This is not true. The road, though unpaved, it completely drivable (when not wet) by two-wheel drive cars except perhaps cars with very low clearance. And it isn’t necessary to take a tour to come back with good photos (we did not take any tours). However, the general public is limited to the Scenic Drive route; even short walks off the viewpoints or road are not allowed. Therefore, you may consider a tour, as many tours go to areas not open to the public. Additionally, the Scenic Drive is only open to the public during limited hours. Photo tours allow access to the valley at many times of the year when the Scenic Drive is closed during sunrise and sunset.
The published hours for the Scenic Drive are 6 AM to 8:30 PM in May through September and 8 AM to 5 PM the rest of the year. However, it seems that the Park’s definition of September is different from mine. On the day we left Monument Valley, September 4th, I wanted to do a quick drive to several of the viewpoint on the Scenic Drive, driving to the gate at about 6:30. It was not open, and did not open until 8 AM. Needless to say, I was not very happy about that. Luckily, during the evenings we were there, it was open until 8:30 PM, and I was able to be out on the Scenic Drive at sunset.
Though the scenery is fantastic, Monument Valley is not without its annoyances. The “loose” interpretation of the opening hour for the Scenic Drive being just one. We camped for two nights at Monument Valley. For the photography, this was great. The campground there is called The View Campground, and with good reason – the view is amazing. Step outside your tent at sunrise and set up the tripod! However, for a camping experience, I suggest picking someplace else. The sitesare called “wilderness” sites, but there is nothing wilderness about them. These “wilderness” sitesare crowded together on a sandy slope overlooking the valley. The sites are small, semi-flat spots suitable mostly for small tents only. There are no picnic tables, fire pits, or even a water spigot (water is only available from the bathroom sinks). We saw many people cooking in the parking lot and not at their campsites. I think the campgroundis set up to “encourage” people to eat in the restaurant (which we did for one lunch). But then, the restaurant closes to non-hotel guests at 7 PM, so if you wanted to be out photographing at sunset then have a nice meal, forget it. The campground restroom was nice with electricity and running water, and even has showers. However, even thoughfairly new (it just opened this year), it was not built with commercial grade fixtures and some of the hardware was already falling off.
Another annoyance, at least to me, were the many roadside sales booths, some looking like rundown shacks, at many of the viewpoints along the Scenic Drive. It seemed like no matter which way you turned, there was someone trying to sell you something – be it a tour, a piece of cheap jewelry, or having your picture taken on a horse. And if you do want to buy some the jewelry (like Tanya did), be sure to have cash and exact change. While the commercialization of such a natural wonder is sad, I can’t really blame the Navajo people, many of who live in the valley in near poverty.
Commercial photography is prohibited in Monument Valley (and all Navajo Parks) without a permit. I did obtain a permit, but it was not easy. I will write a post on Navajo photo permits in a later post.
Moab was the first stop on our recent Southwest trip. Moab is an amazing photography town. Two national parks are right next door – Arches National Park is only a few miles outside of town; Canyonlands National Park is a short drive further. But there is much to see and photograph outside the parks as well. I’ve been to Moab perhaps five times and have not come close to seeing it all. This trip, we camped in Arches and I concentrated on photographing places I hadn’t photographed before (including a couple of spots outside the park, like Bowtie Arch).
Because of our schedule, even though we spent three days there, I only had one afternoon golden hour opportunity for photography. Though the weather was good, there was a lot of haze in the air. With those conditions, I decided to pick between making the pilgrimage to Delicate Arch with dozens of other photographic acolytes (which I have photographed before, but only many years ago and in the middle of the day) or hiking in the Klondike Bluffs area – a remote part of the park that I had never been. With the less the haze making less than ideal conditions, I decided on Klondike Bluffs and I was not disappointed. I hiked to Tower Arch, and though part of Tower Arch was in shadow, the photography was good. And besides that, I was the only person on the trail. It was an amazing experience.
While in Arches, I also decided to work on some night photography. Again, the conditions weren’t perfect. As I mentioned, the sky was hazy, and since there was some moonlight (it was a couple of days before first quarter), the skies were not completely dark. But the moonlight did allow me to get some moonlit landscape shots. And since the moon was not close to full, I was still able to get a lot of stars in the shots. Overall, I’m happy with the results.
Enjoy these shots from Arches National Park.
When you live in western Washington and are a nature photographer, you better have a a fallback subject to photograph in the rain. Luckily, we have such a subject – waterfalls. The Pacific Northwest is chock full of waterfalls. The most comprehensive list of local waterfalls is the Northwest Waterfall Survey. This site lists more than 2,000 waterfalls in Washington, about 1,250 in Oregon, and around 225 in Idaho.
When I decided to venture forth last Friday, I didn’t need the Northwest Waterfall Survey to pick a place to go. I had just the place in mind – the Lewis River in Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The Lewis River drains the south and east sides of Mount Saint Helens. I’d been in the area before, but had only photographed one waterfall previously. Yet, I know of several more. So, I headed out with Greg Vaughn’s book, Photographing Washington, in hand to explore the upper Lewis River valley.
The day was near perfect for waterfall photography – cloudy, with light rain on and off, but not much wind. Cloudy days work well for waterfall photography because of the contrast inherent when viewing white water, particularly when surrounded by dark forest. The rain gives the foliage a nice saturated look. And because, if you like the silky water look (like I do), you need long exposure times, so lack of wind helps.
To reach the Lewis River area, turn east off I5 at Woodland, take Highway 503, and just keep going. The highway, also known as the Lewis River Road, eventually turns south, but Lewis River Road keeps going straight eastward, eventually turning into Forest Road 90. The lower and middle portions of the river are dammed in three spots, forming large reservoirs. Near the end of the third lake, Road 90 turns right. Turn and stay on Road 90 (going straight will put you on Forest Road 25, which travels north away from the Lewis River).
About 5 miles from where Road 90 turns, turn left onto Forest Road 51 (shown as Road 9039 on Google Maps) to go to Curly Creek Falls.The trailhead to Curly Creek Falls is about 1 mile down the road, just uphill from the one-lane bridge over the river. An easy, 0.1-mile trail brings you to the viewpoint. The bottom of the falls is partly obscured by trees at the viewpoint, and a better view might be gained by bushwhacking down the steep hill. I had Nahla with me, so I stayed at the viewpoint.
Curly Creek Falls is one of the most unusual waterfalls in the Northwest – a waterfall with a natural arch over it. Actually, according to the Northwest Waterfall Survey, it has two arches spanning it. When I was there last week, however, the water was high and I could only see the top arch. The water level falls rapidly over the summer, exposing the second arch, and then eventually drying up the waterfall entirely. (According to the Northwest Waterfall Survey, the creek bed has intersected a lava tube, which shallows the entire flow prior to the falls. If that isn’t strange enough, this phenomenon reportedly did not happen prior to 2003.) If you continue down the trail another 0.25 miles past Curly Creek Falls, there is another, though less impressive, waterfall – Miller Creek Falls. The Northwest Waterfall Survey reports the view of Miller Falls is “quite obscured by several trees.” With bigger and better waterfalls waiting, I skipped it and headed back to the car.
Back out to Road 90, continue up valley for another approximately 3.8 miles to Big Creek Falls. This one is a bit tricky to find. There is no sign and the parking area (on the left side of the road) has been blocked off. If you drive over Big Creek, you’ve gone a bit too far. There is room to park on the shoulder near at the driveways to the blocked parking area. A short, now apparently unmaintained trail, leads east out of the former parking area.
The viewpoint described by Northwest Waterfall Survey and in Greg Vaughn’s book is no longer there (well it is partially there; the pad is there, but there are not guard rails and it’s a steep fall off the edge). You can see the falls from here, but the view is mostly obscured by trees. It looks like a nice set of falls, but I didn’t take my camera out of the bag. Further down this trail, about 1/2 a mile, there is another waterfall, Cave Falls. Reportedly, it’s a great waterfall, but only the bottom part is visible, and even that part is obscured by trees. Considering it was raining and I was with the dog, I skipped it and drove down the road.
The next set of falls down the road are easily the most accessible, arguable the most scenic, and probably the easiest to photograph. Lower Lewis River Falls, is the first of four large falls on the Lewis River. Northwest Waterfall Survey ranks Lower Lewis Falls as the 20th best waterfall in the Pacific Northwest. A little over 5 miles from Big Creek brings you to the Lower Lewis Recreation Area. Park at the day-use area (or camp here if you want to do more than a day trip), and the viewpoints of the falls are just a short walk away. There is a viewpoint directly at the top of the falls and several more downstream. For the view of the falls shown above, go to the furthest downstream developed viewpoint. It is also possible to get right down in the riverbed above the falls via a set of stairs, but with the high water I found, the bottom of the stairs was closed. At low flows later in the summer, it is possible to get some interesting shots from above the falls. The falls face west, and according to Greg Vaughn, are shaded in the morning, which makes that a good time for photography (if not there on a cloudy day like I was). With the western exposure, they also may get good light late in the day.
The next set of falls on the Lewis River is Middle Lewis River Falls. It can be reached by hiking 1.7 miles upstream from Lower Lewis Falls (the trail continues on to Upper Lewis River Falls and Taitnapum Falls) on the Lewis River Trail or by driving a mile down the road to the Middle Falls trailhead. From the trailhead, take the trail off the southern side of the parking lot which leads to the Lewis River Trail and turn upstream. The falls are about 1/2 mile from the trailhead. These falls are not as scenic as the Lower Falls, but are worth a quick visit if in the area. Unfortunately, the view from the trail is not the best – you cannot get an entire view of the falls in your frame. Reportedly, the view is better from the rocks in front of the falls, which are easy to reach from the trail. However, when I was there, these rocks were under flowing water, so I settled for the inferior view. Middle Lewis River Falls comes in at 46th on the Northwest Waterfalls Survey top 100 list.
When visiting the Middle Falls, it is also worth a stop to see Copper Creek Falls. Unfortunately, when I was there last Friday, I only had Greg Vaughn’s book with me, which describes a 1/2 mile loop trail to the falls. I didn’t see that trail, so didn’t visit the falls. Northwest Waterfall Survey states that the falls are accessed by a trail from the Middle Falls Trailhead parking lot. This trail leaves the left side of the parking lot and parallels the road and travels several hundred feet to a bridge over the falls. (This goes to show you should do your research before your trips! Had I done so properly, I could have seen these pretty little falls.) I did see Lower Copper Creek Falls, which are very close to Middle Falls. However, to get a good view of these falls, you need to be down at river level, which wasn’t possible when I was there due to high water.
If not hiking from Lower or Middle Falls, the next two falls on the Lewis River are reached by hiking about 1/2 and 3/4 miles from the Quartz Creek Trailhead respectively. That is the way I went. Quartz Creek Trailhead is about 1.7 miles from the Middle Falls Trailhead, just before the road crosses Quartz Creek. Hiking down the trail to the Lewis River, brings you in first to Taitnapum Falls. There is only one viewpoint for these falls, and that view is partially obstructed by trees. Due to steep canyon walls, scrambling for a better view looked extremely hazardous to me. A tall tripod will help take a few of the trees out of your frame.
A short distance further down the trail, you will come to Upper Lewis River Falls. The official viewpoint is down a short spur trail from the Lewis River Trail. This puts you directly above the top of the falls, making it difficult (if not impossible) to capture the entire falls in a single frame. Northwest Waterfalls Survey states the best view is from river level, which is accessed by bushwhacking down along the north side of Alec Creek (which the trail crosses a bit further downstream from the viewpoint). With the high water, I doubted I could get a good view even from there, and it was getting late in the day, so I hiked back to the car to visit one last waterfall for the day. Upper Falls is the tallest falls of the four on the Lewis River at 58 feet. It is similar in form to Lower Lewis Falls, and in fact, comes in on the top 100 list at number 24, only four spots lower than Lower Falls.
My last stop was Twin Falls. To reach this waterfall, travel about 9.5 miles further up the road, turn right on a side road to the Twin Falls Campground (at the time of my visit last week, the campground sign was missing, but the road is obvious if you are watching your mileage). Twin Falls is a double falls (the top one is only partially visible) on Twin Falls Creek that almost falls directly into the Lewis River. The campground is on the shore of the Lewis River directly across from the falls, and good photos can be captured from the shore at the campground. Northwest Waterfalls Survey report contrast can be a problem when photographing the falls, so a cloudy day like I had last week is the perfect time to photograph them.
Depending on how adventurous you are, there are more waterfalls in the area to visit. Northwest Waterfalls Survey lists many, some with easy access, others with impossible access. East of Twin Falls, Big Spring Creek Falls is very pretty and right next to the road. Or if visiting Big Creek Falls, there is a 3/4 mile trail to the viewpoint of the 250-foot tall Hemlock Creek Falls. You could easily spend several days in the area exploring nothing but waterfalls (but take time to look at the forest and flowers as well!).