Often when traveling, particularly via Interstate highway, I look for scenic byways that parallel my path. Places with scenery, where a few good photos can be taken, without going far out of my way. Washington State Route 821 through the Yakima River Canyon is such a route. If you are traveling on Interstate 82 between Ellensburg and Yakima, Washington (basically on the main route from Seattle to eastern Oregon, southern Idaho and Utah), it is worth taking the few extra minutes to travel this road. The road add about 15 minutes drive time, but less than 5 miles to the route. Of course, if you are tempted to get out and take a few photographs, go on a hike, or view wildlife, it may add much more than a quarter-hour to your trip.
If traveling south from Ellensburg toward Yakima, to reach this scenic byway, you can take the Exit 109 (signed Canyon Road, Ellensburg) and turn left onto Canyon Road at the bottom of the off ramp, or take Exit 3 on Interstate 82 (signed 821 South, Thrall Road) and turn right on Thrall Road at the end of the off ramp, then left onto Canyon Road. Once on Canyon Road, within several miles, you will be driving a 25-mile long, twisting two-lane highway that follows along the eastern shore of the Yakima River.
The river forms an oasis in the otherwise dry foothills on the east side of the Cascade Mountains. In the summer, lush pockets of green contrast with the dryland hills and cliffs above the river. In the spring, when the hills can be green, the contrast is between trees denser foliage along the river and the mostly grass and scrub brush on the hills. In fall, the riverside foliage, including a mix of cottonwoods, aspens and evergreen conifers, presents a contrasting yellows, reds and oranges. In winter, there is often snow along the river and in the hills. Whenever you visit, on this side of the Cascades, the weather is often sunny and the sky blue (no promises though!).
There are four recreation areas run by the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM). These offer places to stop with camping spots, picnic tables, and vault toilets. They also have boat launches, which present an additional way to enjoy the canyon – by boat, canoe or kayak. The river is calm throughout the canyon, but if you do boat the river, be sure to use the take out at the Roza Recreation Area to avoid the Roza Dam that is shortly downriver (above Roza, only non-motorized boats are allowed) . The first recreation area heading south on the road, Umtanum, is particularly worth a stop. Here a suspension bridge spans the river, leading to a fine hike up Umtanum Creek. The hike leads through Untanum Canyon, away from the river, and into the pristine wildlands of the Wenas Wildlife Area . The recreation areas have a $5/vehicle daily use fee (or use an Interagency, ie National Parks, pass).
Away from the recreation areas, there are plenty of pull overs along the road to practice photography or look for wildlife. Mule deer, elk, and bighorn sheep, as well as eagles, hawks, falcons and other birds frequent the area. Also be aware, that in spring and summer, rattlesnakes are also common.
Most of the photos illustrating this post were from my recent trip through the canyon earlier this month. The last several are from earlier trips.
Earlier this week Nahla, Tanya and I ventured out on Veteran’s Day in search of some the last fall colors of the season. Two weeks earlier, my friend and fellow photographer Bob Miller visited me in Tacoma. He asked for suggestions of photographic side roads he could visit on his drive home to Arizona. I suggested the Yakima Canyon Road, also known as State Route 821. Bob posted some great photos from the drive on Facebook.
I was particularly taken with one of his shots, taken from the suspension bridge over the Yakima River leading to the trail up Umtanum Creek. A year and a half ago, Tanya, Carson and I hiked this trail, and one of my favorite photos of Tanya (and Carson) was taken on this bridge. Because of Bob’s shot, I decided we should try the same road. Bob definitely had better color than we did, but it was worth the drive anyway. The day was cold and windy, but sunny. I came away with some good shots, and may post more of them later. But today, I want to feature the one I took from the bridge, just to show Bob what a difference two weeks makes. By the way, though it looks fairly warm in this photo, it was near freezing with the wind blowing about 20 mph. Brr!
While doing my series of posts about the Southwest, I did manage to get out one Saturday in October to hunt for autumn colors here in Washington State. As I’ve mentioned before, fall colors are not the best in the Evergreen State, but they can be found if you know where to look. Timing is also important, as they don’t last long and snow can come to the higher elevations unexpectedly anytime in October. That was the case two years ago when a few days after taking fall color shots at Mount Baker, a snowstorm hit and the area was snow-covered until spring.
This year, we headed over to Leavenworth, Washington a couple of weekends ago. I was accompanied by Tanya, her mother Maxine, and Nahla. Leavenworth was crowded, as it was the last day of their annual Octoberfest. It took us about 20 minutes to go the last 2 miles into town, and another 10 minutes to find a parking spot. But I was there for the color, not the beer and brats (though I did have beer and brats while there, how could I not?). After lunch, I left Tanya and Maxine in town and Nahla and I headed up Icicle Creek, just west of town, into the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. The color wasn’t too bad. I stopped at four or five places and got a few good shots.
After Icicle Creek, I picked up the girls and we drove up Highway 2 along the Wenatchee River as it winds through Tumwater Canyon. The color, I thought, was much better here, and I wished I had more time. However, it was already late and the sun set early this time of year. I shot until it got dark, and was quite happy with the results.The shot above is one of my favorites from the trip, shot at the very end of the day. It was shot on a tripod at ISO 200 and f11 for 30 seconds with a circular polarizer (actually it is two merged shots, one with the polarizer set for the water and the other with it set for the foliage).
It’s probably too late now to catch much color there, but come next October, you may want to try Tumwater Canyon and Icicle Creek. Just remember, if you go during Octoberfest, you may need a little extra time to get through Leavenworth.
During our recent trip, Tanya and I originally planned to visit the North Rim of the Grand Canyon for three days. I reserved a spot at the North Rim Campground in Grand Canyon National Park back in May. However, life got in the way (at least in a good way), and Tanya was awarded a full-time teaching job 2 days before we left on the trip, and therefore, needed to be back in Tacoma sooner than our original plan. So I cancelled 2 nights of our campground reservation. As it turned out, we did get three days at the North Rim. Torrential rains hit the Utah-Arizona border area when we were staying in Page, Arizona. After Page, we were planning to camp in the Paria area for two nights before going to the North Rim. While we were able to drive to the campground near Paria, all the trails we wanted to hike in the area were inaccessible due to impassable dirt roads. So instead, we went to the North Rim two nights early.
Now, you may be asking, if Joe had to reserve a camping spot 5 months ahead of time, how could he just show up and expect to set up his tent? Good question. The answer is I didn’t expect it. We called the national park, but were unable to get through the voice mail system to find out if any spots were available. Instead we headed to the national forest, where “dispersed” camping is allowed without reservations – just find a spot and set up your tent (but don’t expect any amenities and bring your own water, toilet paper, and “cat-hole” digging device). Though we have done primitive car camping before, we weren’t prepared for it this time, having left our portable table and shovel at home. So we stopped in Kanab, Utah at the local Ace Hardware and bought a table and shovel ( a nice folding table actually, better than the one we have at home). Somehow we fit this new gear in the already overstuffed car and drove to the Forest Service ranger station in Fredonia, Arizona. There we asked directions to Crazy Jug Point.
When most people think of the Grand Canyon, they think of Grand Canyon National Park. But actually, a large part of the canyon’s north rim is outside the park and inside Kaibab National Forest. National forests are much less restrictive than national parks, including allowing camping almost anywhere. Crazy Jug Point is a great place to camp. It took about 2 1/4 hours to drive the roughly 50 miles from Fredonia to Crazy Jug (mostly on well maintained dirt roads). We arrived in mid-afternoon and found three other groups already camping there. However, we found a very sweet, nicely shaded spot, just 20 feet off the rim, out of sight of the other groups. The view was not quite on par with the view from the Grand Canyon Lodge at the North Rim in the park, but the lack of a crowd (and the price – free) make up for it. We stayed two nights. After our first night, the other groups left, and Tanya and I had the entire place to ourselves. Imagine, sitting on the edge of the Grand Canyon, sipping a cold beer (okay, wine for Tanya), watching the sunset without anyone else within miles. That was our experience at Crazy Jug on the second night.
For our 3rd night at the North Rim, we drove to the North Rim Campground in the park, a distance of 36 miles and about 1 3/4 hours. The campground there had all the amenities you’d expect for national park, with the added bonus of showers (which in my experience are not common in national parks). It is a good campground, and with a short walk (1/4 mile or so), you can see the canyon. But it is not a place for solitude. The campground was full (90 sites).
Photography wise, camping in the park offered more options and better views. There are ten north-rim viewpoints in the main portion of the park. Four of these are accessible by paved road or short trails, the others by day hikes. With only one night in the park, we drove to the four easily accessible viewpoints, only stopping at three, and I made plans to on where to go back to for sunset that night and sunrise the following morning.
That evening, I stayed close to the campground and went to Bright Angel Point, which is directly behind the North Rim Lodge. This is the most popular viewpoint on the North Rim. A 0.4-mile, paved trail leads from the lodge and visitor center out to the viewpoint proper. However, there are many great views along the way; the trail being along the top of a narrow promontory. Being close to the lodge and campground, I was joined by perhaps a 20 other people. Right at sunset, I was out at the end of the trail. With limited flat areas at the viewpoint, it was a bit difficult to find a spot to place the tripod and find a pleasing composition without getting people in the frame. However, I did get a good spot by stepping down a couple of feet off the trail and standing on a flat rock. I would caution those of you with vertigo; you might not want to do the same. The rock I was on was about 5 or 6 feet across, with drop offs on three sides of 50 to 100 feet. The sunset was not anything to write home about, and the crowd dispersed quickly after the sun went down. I stayed for another 45 minutes, bringing home some nice shots from the blue hour.
The following morning, I got up an hour and a half before sunrise and drove to Point Imperial, roughly an hour’s drive from the campground. Here on the last morning of our trip, before we made the quick two-day drive home (later that day, we drove from the North Rim to Mountain Home, Idaho, about 680 miles), I stood alone, just me, my tripod, and one of the best views on planet. It was cold (about 37 degrees F), it was early (about 5:45 am when I got there; sunrise was at 6:09 am), and I was rewarded by the best sunrise or sunset of the entire trip. I shot like a madman for an hour or so, still the only person at the viewpoint, and headed back to pack up camp. While the view is fantastic at Point Imperial, it is more limited, with many fewer vantage points, than Bright Angel Point or Cape Royal. The perfect place for some quick shots before hitting the road.
After years of wanting to see the North Rim and not making it, I found the North Rim did not disappoint. This area is a landscape photographers paradise. I would have liked more time there, but it wasn’t to be. Now, having seen it, I have a big reason to go back. If you want to see the canyon without the huge crowds common on the South Rim, head north. It is well worth it.
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.