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Photographer’s Guide to Rafting through the Grand Canyon, Part 2 – Marble Canyon

Rafting through Marble Canyon

Unless you hike in at Phantom Ranch, your raft trip through the Grand Canyon will start at Lee’s Ferry. At Lee’s Ferry, the Colorado River runs green and cold, as the water is freshly released from Glen Canyon Dam several miles upstream. The color often seems impossibly green, especially when shooting with a polarizing filter. Just south of Lee’s Ferry, the Paria River flows into the Colorado River, typically adding brown silty water to the Colorado; however, not enough to change to green color. Shortly thereafter, the walls of Marble Canyon rise up around the river.

Sunset at Lee’s Ferry, the night before the start of the trip
Navajo Bridge from the pedestrian bridge the day before the launch

Marble Canyon, though not nearly as deep as the Grand Canyon, is wonderful to photograph. The sedimentary rocks that form the canyon walls, often make spectacular, colorful cliffs which plunge straight down into the river – particularly the Redwall Limestone. The resultant photographic experience is quite different than in the Grand Canyon proper, which cuts through older granitic and metamorphic rocks, leaving the sedimentary formations high up on the sides of the canyon, often not visible from the river.

Navajo Bridges on the first day on the river

As you leave Lee’s Ferry and the Paria River behind, Marble Canyon gradually deepens as the river winds south and west, cutting downward through the Paleozoic sedimentary rocks that are found at the top of the Grand Canyon proper. Several miles south of Lee’s Ferry, the canyon is already several hundred feet deep, with sheer vertical cliff walls. Here is the Navajo Bridges (the original highway bridge and the neighboring foot bridge added much later). It’s fun to shoot from the day before your trip begins then again looking up at the bridges on the first day of the trip. The spot is also popular with Californian condors. These huge birds are probably more easily photographed from the bridges than from your raft. You will likely see other condors on occasion throughout the length of Marble Canyon.

A couple miles downstream from the bridges you will encounter the first rapid of the trip at Badger Creek. While not a small rapid, Badger Creek Rapid, along with the other rapids in Marble Canyon, is rather tame compared to the big drops in the Grand Canyon proper. Depending on flow levels and the experience of you boatmen/guides, your trip may not stop to scout any rapids within Marble Canyon, so most of your photography in Marble Canyon will be of scenery rather than whitewater action unless you bring a waterproof camera. That said, my recent trip did stop to scout Mile 24 Rapid because it is unusually difficult at low water levels (and indeed it was, the raft I was on flipped and two of our other boats dump-trucked their passengers and boatmen).

While you may not shoot much white-water action in Marble Canyon, you can create some wonderful shots of rapids should your trip camp next to any (and most campsites both in Marble and Grand Canyons are adjacent to rapids). By camping near rapids, you can shoot the canyon with the rapids in the foreground during the golden hours, using long exposures to make the white water smooth and silky.

Soap Creek Rapid, where we camped the first night, photographed near sunset with a long exposure. The green on the rocks is algae exposed by low water levels. The first several days of our trip, the water level in the river was lowered to facilitate work on Glen Canyon Dam.
29-mile Rapids, where we camped on our second night on the river. The green, dark grey, and white colors on the rock wall are due to the unusually low water levels
Kwagunt Rapids at sunrise, where we camped the 4th night of the trip

Much of the scenery in the Grand Canyon occurs in side canyons to the Colorado. Many trips stop to hike in several of these side canyons. Cathedral Wash, located at river mile 3, upstream of the Navajo Bridges, is quite pretty and can be hiked either up from the river or down from the road into Lee’s Ferry. The next canyon downstream worthy of a photographic stop is North Canyon, at about river mile 20.5. We didn’t stop there on my recent trip, but did so on one of my earlier trips back in the late 1980s.

About 30 river miles are so below Lee’s Ferry is Vasey’s Paradise, a gushing spring shooting from the red rock above the river, with ferns and other green covering the slopes below the spring. This is often mentioned as a good photographic location. However, on my recent visit, the spring was trickling rather than gushing, and much of the vegetation was brown and dead. Consequently, it was not very photogenic. I suspect the decades long drought on the Colorado Plateau has contributed to the decrease in spring flow such that now is it a shadow of its former self. If you do stop here, beware of poison ivy.

Redwall Cavern (HDR panorama, composite of 16 images)

But drought cannot harm another highlight of Marble Canyon: Redwall Cavern. Not really a cave, Redwall Cavern is an huge, deep alcove at river level carved out of the Redwall Limestone. In his exploration of the canyon, Major John Wesley Powell described Redwall Cavern as being able to sit 50,000 people. That might be an exaggeration, but it could easily fit several thousand. The floor of the cavern is deep, soft sand. Reflected light off the canyon wall lights the inside of the alcove with a warm red glow. To get the entire mouth of the cavern in a single shot requires an ultra-wide-angle lens. Alternatively, you can stitch several images together to form a panorama covering the entire cavern. To have detail both inside and outside the cavern, consider using HDR. Also consider shooting silhouette shots of people to give a sense of scale. Good shots can be made most anytime of day, but are probably best in the morning when the sun lights up the opposing canyon wall.

View of Marble Canyon looking upstream from Redwall Cavern
View of Marble Canyon looking downstream from Redwall Cavern

Past Redwall Cavern, there is a natural bridge, the Bridge of Sighs, on river right at about river mile 36. It’s not most photogenic arch you’ll ever see, but if you want to catch a shot of it, be prepared as it is only visible along a short section of river and you’ll likely be shooting from the boat rather than stopping.

Bridge of Sighs

Near river mile 41.5, you will pass the very scenic Royal Arches. These large alcoves are easily photographed from your raft as you float by. At mile 43.3, you can see the remains of Anasazi Bridge, a wooden structure build by the Ancestral Puebloan people to connect two cliff ledges, high above the river on the right. It is quite distance from the river, and without a long telephoto lens, difficult to shoot. At river mile 47, you will pass the Triple Alcoves, and like the Royal Arches, good shots can be made from your raft.

Rafting by the Royal Arches
Rafting by the Triple Alcoves

Shortly past the Triple Alcoves is Saddle Canyon. This side canyon is definitely worth exploring with your camera. A short hike (about 1.4 miles one-way) up the canyon leads to a slot canyon and scenic waterfall. (Unfortunately, we did not stop on my recent trip. I did hike up this canyon on one of my earlier trips through the Grand Canyon, however).

At river mile 53, you reach one of the highlights and most icon shots of the entire Grand Canyon, the Nankoweap Granaries. Almost every raft trip stops here and takes the short, but steep (about 0.6 miles and 600-foot elevation gain), hike up to the granaries. With the granaries in the foreground right and the canyon in the background left, it is truly a world-class spot. A moderately wide-angle lens works well, or you can stitch together a panorama, possibly using HDR to help with the contrast. Touching or otherwise disturbing ancient structures in Grand Canyon National Park is prohibited, so please be careful not to touch or lean against the granary walls. It would be a shame if the Park Service decided to fence off this area sometime in the future due to visitors interfering with the structures. Besides shooting compositions with the granaries, try shooting the canyon by itself, the view of which, even partway up the trail, is amazing.

The Nankoweap Granaries (HDR panorama, composite of 25 images)
View of Marble Canyon from the trail to the granaries, looking downstream

There are no major sights through the rest of Marble Canyon until the Marble Canyon ends and the Grand Canyon begins at the Little Colorado River at river mile 61.5. The Little Colorado River is a major tributary of the Colorado River that flows year round due to the discharge of Blue Spring at about 200 cubic feet per second. Blue Spring, which is located about 15 miles upstream on the Little Colorado from its the confluence with the Colorado River, is aptly named. The water emanating from the spring is a wonderful turquoise blue color and the color carries downstream all the way to the confluence. However, the blue waters can occasionally be overwhelmed by brown dirty water during extended rainy periods or flash flood events further upstream in the Little Colorado basin (the Little Colorado is typically dry upstream from Blue Spring). This more typically occurs in the “monsoon” season of late summer.

The Little Colorado River

The high mineral content in the waters of the Little Colorado River also lead to incredibly white sand deposits along the river banks in the area near the confluence. The white sands, blue waters, red canyon walls, and dark green water of the Colorado River make the lower reach of the Little Colorado River an amazing spot to do photography.

White sand deposit above the waters of the Little Colorado

Most commercial river trips stop at the Little Colorado River for several hours, and some private trips stop for longer periods which allow hiking up the canyon. The confluence of the Little Colorado River and the Colorado River is a sacred place for several Native peoples. It is also one of the last places the endangered humpback chub lives (a type of fish). Please respect the land and water in this area.

As mentioned, below the Little Colorado River, the Grand Canyon begins (though you’d be hard pressed to see any distinct change in the canyon walls). In my next post in the series, I’ll cover the next 75 miles of river and canyon, from the Little Colorado River to Deer Creek.


Mossy Cave

One quick, last post about my recent trip to Utah. On our last morning there, before driving back up to Salt Lake City and the airport, we took the short hike in Bryce Canyon National Park to Mossy Cave. This short trail travels along a stream up to a mossy grotto that weeps groundwater. It is a pleasant and beautiful little hike that let you experience Bryce Canyon without the huge crowds or paying an entry fee. The grotto (ie the “cave”) is interesting from a geologic perspective, but difficult (at least for me) to photograph. More photogenic are scenes along the stream, looking up into the surrounding hoodoos and formations, and a small waterfall on the stream.

The trail  starts from a small parking area along Highway 12 between the town of Tropic and the turnoff to the main entrance to Bryce Canyon National Park. The day before we took the Mossy Cave hike, we took a hike in the main part of the park. Needless to say, we were not lonely on the trail. There may have been one 30 second span where we did not see any other hikers, but most time, it was not different in the number of people than walking down the sidewalk in downtown Seattle. The Mossy Cave trail was different, only a few other people, well at least until near the end of our hike when a tour bus pulled up and spit out a crowd.

If you have an extra hour when visiting Bryce Canyon, I highly recommend the Mossy Cave hike.

The stream along the Mossy Cave Trail

Small windows in the formations above the trail.

The small waterfall near the end of the Mossy Creek Trail

I couldn’t post about Bryce Canyon without at least one shot of the “main event.” This was taken shortly before sunrise from near Inspiration Point. Sunrise at Bryce Canyon National Park is an experienced not to be missed. Just do not expect to be the only one there. I shared this view with hundreds of other people.


The Doors of Los Cerrillos

Los Cerrillos DoorI’m continuing my series of posts on New Mexico. While Tanya and I stayed in Santa Fé, we did take a day trip to Albuquerque to visit Petroglyph National Monument. Rather than take the Interstate, we drove the Highway 14, also known as the Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway. To fully explore this scenic byway, you may need a full day. We only made a few stops, the longest being in the small town of Los Cerrillos.

Los Cerrillos was founded in the late 1800’s as a mining town, mostly for turquoise. A boom town for a short while, the mines began shutting down in the early 1900’s and the town shrank. Today, according to Wikipedia, the population is less than 250 people. The town certainly has an old west feel to it. Many of the building has small signs telling of their individual histories as boarding house, store, saloon, etc. There is only one paved road in town. There is also a state park, Cerrillos Hills State Park, with hiking trails and a visitor center in town, which we unfortunately didn’t have time to visit.

I spent an hour of so wandering the streets and visiting the Mining Museum ($2 entry fee). What struck me about the town was the large number of great looking doors. Many photographers, me included, seem to like to take pictures of doors, and Cerrillos has more than its share. I also thought the church was quite photogenic. The museum was fun as well. It’s not large, but it is stuffed with old bottles, coffee cans, glass insulators, and antiques of all types, as well as rocks and minerals.

If you find yourself driving between Albuquerque and Santa Fé, try the Turquoise Trail and consider a stop at Los Cerrillos. It will be well worth your time.

The church in Los Cerrillos, New Mexico

The church in Los Cerrillos, New Mexico

Cerrillos Door Bell

How about this door bell?

Another great door

Another great door

Or how about this one, a door without the fence

Or how about this one, a door without the fence

You can find other quirky things in Los Cerrillos, such as this radio

You can find other quirky things in Los Cerrillos, such as this radio

Wall decoration

Painting of the Virgin along a wall in Los Cerrillos

Scene outside the Museum

Scene outside the Museum

Cow skull and bottles inside the Mining Museum

Cow skull and bottles inside the Mining Museum

Bottles, Mining Museum

Bottles, Mining Museum


Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

Tent RocksKasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument is a small  national monument in New Mexico. Located roughly halfway between Albuquerque and Santa Fé, and about 25 miles west of Interstate 25. Though more popular since it gained monument status in 2001, it is still relatively unknown, so much so that there are not even exit signs for it on the interstate. Yet, Tent Rocks, is definitely worth a visit.

A capped tent as viewed from the Cave Loop Trail

A capped tent as viewed from the Cave Loop Trail

The park is home to a large number of cone-shaped “tent” rocks and hoodoos made in white- to tan-colored volcanic ash and tuff deposits (left from a series of pyroclastic flows, or nuée ardente, off the Jemez volcano to the north – as a geologist, I just had to get some geology in).  Many of the tents have boulder “caps.” The tents range from in height from a few feet to nearly 100 feet. The park is a day-use only facility run by the Bureau of Land Management rather than the National Park Service. The park opens at 8 am in the winter and 7 am in the summer and closes at 5 pm and 7 pm respectively, with the entrance gate closing an hour before the park. There is a $5 entrance fee (or use your National Parks pass).

To best see and photograph the tent rocks, you need to park the car and take a short hike. There are only a few trails in the park, with the two main trails starting at the picnic area. These are the Cave Loop Trail, which is 1.2 miles long, and the Slot Canyon Trail, a mile long (one way), that branches off the Cave Loop Trail half a mile from the parking lot. The featured shot above was taken from the loop trail between the parking lot and the start of the canyon trail. The Slot Canyon Trail is more strenuous of the two, but also more scenic.  You can easily combine the two trails, like Tanya and I did, to create a longer walk. If you have time for just one, take the Slot Canyon Trail.

Shortly after leaving the loop trail, the Slot Canyon Trail enters a steep canyon cut through the volcanic ash deposit. Though typically 20 feet wide or so, 500 feet or so from the entrance to the canyon, it forms a tight slot reminiscent of some of the slot canyons in Utah and Arizona (except not in sandstone).  Shortly before the tight slot portion, on the west wall of the canyon, a bit off the trail, there are several petroglyphs carved into the rock, including an impressive one of a snake.This is not the only evidence of former inhabitant in the area. The cave, on the Cave Loop Trail, is a small alcove in the ash deposits with a roof black with soot deposits of ancient campfires.

Past the slot section, the canyon opens up bit and there is a great view of the tents looking back down canyon. The trail continues up the canyon which eventually curves westward and upward through some tall tents. Eventually the trail climbs steeply up out of the canyon with good views back toward the upper part of the canyon just traversed, toward the mouth of the canyon, as well out to the plains of the Rio Grande Valley and the far off mountains.

Because of the light-colored rock, mid-day light is not very good for photography. Early morning or late afternoon work well, but beware of the park’s hours. Because of the park’s hours, spring and fall are probably the best seasons to visit. We visited on an April afternoon, with nice afternoon light, leaving shortly before the park closed. A wide-angle lens is needed in the slot canyon, while in places, a telephoto lens will be helpful to isolate tents in your compositions.

This is near the narrowest portion of the slot canyon

This is the slot canyon, which gets a bit narrower beyond this point.

Scene along the Slot Canyon Trail where the canyon is a bit wider

Scene along the Slot Canyon Trail where the canyon is a bit wider

View down canyon shortly past the narrows

View down canyon shortly past the narrows

Hoodoo along the Slot Canyon Trail near where the trail climbs up out of the canyon

Hoodoo along the Slot Canyon Trail near where the trail climbs up out of the canyon

Cluster of tall tents at the head of the canyon

Cluster of tall tents at the head of the canyon

Dark sky above the tents in the canyon

Dark sky above the tents in the canyon


Chimayo

Santuario de ChimayoEl Santuario de Chimayo is Catholic church and shrine in New Mexico about 30 miles north of Santa Fe. It is located in the town of Chimayo, along on the High Road to Taos.  While the high road has a number of other adobe churches worth photographing, Chimayo offers much more. Besides the main church, there is another smaller chapel near by, a trading post, and colorful grounds where the faithful pray and leave offerings. If in Santa Fe, it is well worth the drive to Chimayo to see the church and grounds.

If you do visit, you probably will not be alone. Sometimes called the “Lourdes of America,” Wikipedia claims Chimayo has 300,000 visitors per year and is the most important Catholic pilgrimage site in the United States. The main church, El Santuario, has a adobe-walled courtyard and twin bell towers topped with crosses. The nave is decorated with a large carved crucifix and various altarpieces, all from the 1800s. On the side of the nave is a separate prayer room/vestibule literally lined with hundreds discarded crutches from people believed to be healed from the “holy dirt” of the church. One wall of the prayer room, as well as many other walls elsewhere on the grounds, is covered with photographs of people also helped by the shire. The holy dirt is located  within a hole in the floor of a small room attached to the prayer room. When we visited, a woman was kneeling on the floor, scooping holy dirt into a Ziploc bag to take home.

The second church is the Chapel of Santa Niño de Atocha. The chapel was built in 1856, but fell into disrepair to be renovated by the Archdiocese of Santa Fe in the early 1990s as a children’s chapel. It is decorated with modern artwork, but still maintains its historic feel.

Unfortunately, photography within both the churches is prohibited. However, many wonderful photographs can be captured by walking around the grounds and in the nearby portions of the town as you can see by the examples I’ve posted below.

Certain parts of the grounds are full of crosses and other items left by pilgrims and visitors to the site.

Certain parts of the grounds are full of crosses and other items left by pilgrims and visitors to the site.

The door to the Santo Nino Chapel

The door to the Santo Nino Chapel

The Virgil Trading Post

The Potrero Trading Post and Virgil Store

Cross in the courtyard of the Santuario de Chimayo

Cross in the courtyard of the Santuario de Chimayo

Shire to the Virgin Mary, covered with rosaries and candles

Shire to the Virgin Mary, covered with rosaries and candles