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.
I’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.
Kasha-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.
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.
El 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.
While in Santa Fe, Tanya and I visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. We had missed it on our previous trip there, so we wanted to be sure to see it this time. We enjoyed learning about Georgia O’Keeffe and seeing some of her paintings, though quite frankly, both of us we disappointed that more of her work was not on display. That said, it is worth a visit if you are in the area and enjoy the work of this truly American iconic artist.
Non-flash photography is allowed in the museum, though some pieces are marked for no photography signs. Additionally, no tripods are allowed.
One of the issues of photographing paintings and other artwork is getting the color correct. Most museums, not just the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, have title cards next the artwork that is neutral grey. To get the true color of the piece, also take an image of the title card. Then in Lightroom, use the color balance eyedropper tool to get the correct color balance. Copy the color balance to the image with the artwork, and instantly the colors in the artwork are correct. For more on this technique, see my earlier post on the subject.
Exploring the work of Georgia O’Keeffe in a museum is one thing, but seeing the places she painted with your own camera lens is another. So a day or two after seeing the museum, Tanya and I traveled north of Santa Fe to the region around Abiquiu, where Georgia O’Keeffe lived, to see in person some of the places she painted. We didn’t drive into Abiquiu proper (not there is much town there) because we walked around it several years ago. But if you do visit, the church there is very photogenic. Tours of Georgia O’Keeffe’s house are also available through the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.
Our first stop was Plaza Blanca, or, as Georgia O’Keeffe called it, the White Place. Plaza Blanca is a spectacular set of white limestone cliffs, small canyons, and hoodoos just north of Abiquiu. To reach the White Place, driving west out of Abiquiu on US Highway 84, shortly after passing over the Rio Chama, turn right on County Road 155. After a mile or two, this good dirt road becomes paved. Shortly after the road becomes paved, turn left on a dirt road through the gate for the Dar al Islam . When the road splits, stay right and come to a small parking lot. The White Place is a short walk down the hill.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to explore Plaza Blanca in detail as it was already late afternoon and I wanted to the Ghost Ranch before sunset. The Ghost Ranch is about 10 miles north of Abiquiu on US 84, and while driving there, we stopped to take some pictures of the badlands and red rock cliffs along the highway a mile or so before the turn off for the Ghost Ranch. There is also another spot worth noting between Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch. The highway between Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch climbs up out of the Rio Chama valley west of town. At one point, there is a pullout with a good views of the Rio Chama both looking back to Abiquiu in one direction and toward the mountains in the other. We stopped here on our way back from Ghost Ranch during the blue hour.
Today the Ghost Ranch is an education and retreat center owned by the Presbyterian Church. But you need not be a church member or go on a retreat to visit or even stay there; all visitors are welcome. When arriving at the Ghost Ranch, visitors check in at the Welcome Center. There is a $5/person fee for day visitors. You can also join in at meals in the dining hall (for a small additional fee) or even stay overnight if not full (reservations are available). For visitors not partaking in a retreat or organized educational event, the day pass offers access to hiking trails, the ranch’s museums (an anthropology museum and a paleontology museum), restrooms, trading post, and the rest of the campus grounds.
I had very little knowledge of the Ghost Ranch, other than it was a good place for photography, prior to our arrival. The Welcome Center was closed when we drove up, but a woman was just leaving the building as we got out of the car. It turns out she was the Executive Director of the ranch. She suggested a couple hikes, invited us to dinner at the dining hall, opened the Welcome Center to let us use the restrooms, and told us a bit of history about the ranch. Apparently, the ranch was originally owned by a pair of cattle rustlers and thieves, who kept their pilfered livestock in a box canyon on the ranch. To keep people out, they told stories of evil spirits that haunted the area. This led to the original name Ranch of the Witches which was eventually changed to the Ghost Ranch. Arthur Pack, an east-coast conservationist, purchased the ranch in the 1930s. He sold a small piece of it to Georgia O’Keeffe, who kept a studio there and painted many of the Ghost Ranch landscapes. Pack donated the ranch to the Presbyterian Church in the 1950s to be used as a retreat center.
The ranch is set at the base of a series of red-rock cliffs and small canyons and badlands, quite reminiscent of much of southern Utah. Its most famous geologic feature is Chimney Rock, an orange and red sandstone spire jutting out from a cliff face (shown in the featured images above, as well as one image below). Tanya and I did about half of the Chimney Rock hike, far enough to get a good photograph (the one below). Based on the angle of the setting sun, which was backlighting the formation, we didn’t complete the hike so I could get a better shot entrance road to the ranch. The image above was shot just before sunset along the entrance road, next to an old log cabin (which Tanya explored while I took pictures).
In all, we spent less than half a day exploring the Georgia O’Keeffe country around Abiquiu. From this short outing, I know I want to go back for more.
Tanya and I just got back yesterday from a quick trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Santa Fe is one of our favorite places in the American Southwest for many reasons, but one in particular (for me at least) is that the Santa Fe region is a wonderful place to photograph.Santa Fe is at elevation 7,200 feet (2,195 meters) above sea level, and with the elevation, spring was just starting to blossom out there. The quick shot posted here was taken at the Estrella Del Norte Vineyard about 15 miles north of Santa Fe. It has lovely grounds, and I’d like to go back some day when the grape vines are green and the flowers blooming. As you can see in this image, the cottonwoods in the background were just starting to leaf out. Enjoy this shot, and I’ll post more in the next few days.
One of the challenges of shooting in RAW format is deciding what and how much processing to do. (Tangent – why is RAW capitalized? It is not an acronym such as JPEG or TIFF. It simply means unprocessed. In Wikipedia, it isn’t capitalized. But somehow, it doesn’t look right to me. I’m usually a stickler for correct writing – just ask anyone at my day job where I edit everyone’s reports; they may even call me a grammar nazi – but leaving it uncapitalized when every other file format is capitalized seem wrong. So grammar nazi or not, I’m capitalizing it.) When shooting in JPEG mode, the camera does the processing for you. You can always tweak it later, but the majority of the work is done. With RAW, you should do the heavy lifting and process the image yourself, at least if the default processing by your RAW converter program (Lightroom in my case) doesn’t do a good job. And it is rare when I find I can’t do a better job processing than the default.
But the question remains, what to do and how much? Some might answer, just enough so that it looks like it did in real life. But what is that? Take, for example, the images presented here. These are shots of water seeping out of sandstone near Moab, Utah. I’ve included both my processed versions and the original RAW versions from Lightroom with zeroed developing (with all the sliders set to zero – realize, however, there still is some processing involved, it is impossible to present true RAW images, some processing must occur to translate the images into something humans can view). I took these images in the shade on a sunny, blue-skied morning. So these were naturally lit by a broad, blue sky, which cast a rather flat, blue light onto the sandstone. Does that flat, blue light truly show what I saw, or do my processed versions show what I saw? The answer is up to me as the maker and you as the viewer. Did I go too far?
Well, what did I do to turn the RAW images into the finished images? They were first processed in Lightroom, correcting for lens distortion and chromatic aberration. Then I set the white point and the black point to add contrast, took a little off the exposure, and adjusted the highlights and shadows to bring detail into the blacks and whites. I added some clarity to add a bit of sharpness and some vibrance to add saturation. I then adjusted the color temperature, increasing it to remove the blue tint. I then added a radial filter to lighten the water patterns and darken the rest. And finally, made minor changes to many of these adjustments to fine tune them. I then took the images to Photoshop, performed Tony Kuyper’s triple play to add punch to the highlights and shadows, lighten up the orangy-browny vegetation on top, and added a “smart glow” to punch up the color a bit. In total, it took about 10 minutes each to do all this work.
I’d think the most controversial of these changes would be the changes to the color, in particular adding vibrance and the smart glow. The rest is pretty standard old-school darkroom photography made digital (except perhaps the Kuyper triple play, that doesn’t really change the images that much). The problem here is deciding what is too much in terms of the color. Because the subjects were in shadow, it is difficult to determine what the colors would look like in the sunshine. And of course, what sunshine are we talking about? Sun at noon? Sun at sunset?
I guess the answer is it depends. Did I take it too far? I don’t think so; you may. But these are close to what I wanted to show when I took the images. So for me, the answer is no; I processed them as I thought proper. For you the answer may be different. If you think so, let me know your thoughts.
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.
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.
Tanya and I are about to head back out into the internetless wilderness of the American Southwest once again after spending three nights in Page, Arizona. Therefore, I wanted to post one more image from our road trip. This is the sun rising on Monument Valley last week, between the two Mittens, with the East Mitten featured. Monument Valley was incredible. I’ll post more about it when I get home and have more time.
Today we are heading to the Paria region to camp and do some day hikes. Unfortunately, we did not get a permit for the Wave (I bombed out on the internet lottery last June and also in the in-person lottery yesterday). However, there are many other great places to hike to in the region. Some of you might remember that I backpacked through the Paria River Canyon last year. This year, I want to show Tanya some of that country.
Our last three days in Page have been rainy on and off, so I decided not to go to Antelope Canyon, even though the Upper Canyon was open (I don’t know if the Lower Canyon was open or not). Something about visiting a slot canyon while it is rainy does not sit well with me! However, today it is sunny once again without a cloud in the sky. Hopefully the sun will dry out some of the dirt roads we are planning on taking over the next few days.
I’ll post more photos once I get home. Meanwhile, we are off on the road once again.
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!
One chore I accomplish each winter is to edit my photo library for all the photos I neglected to edit earlier in the year. Editing is a thankless task that some notable photographers even suggest is unnecessary due to disk drives being inexpensive. However, it is hard enough for me to find the photos I want when things are edited, let alone when I don’t edit.
Editing, at least for me, has one big added benefit. By going over those thousands of image I took that I didn’t pay a lot of attention to earlier, I always find some hidden gems that I missed earlier (along with lots of dogs – but more on that in a later blog). As my Christmas present to you, I offer a look at some of the hidden gems I’ve found thus far during my editing. Merry Christmas everyone!
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.
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 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.
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.