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.
On our recent trip to Utah, Tanya and I (with our friends Jim and Kris) spent two days in the Escalante area in the heart of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. I first took Tanya here about 15 years ago, when the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument was still relatively new and unknown to many. Not so much today, though it still gets a fraction of the visitors the Utah national parks get. We did three and a half hikes in the national monument, and while we weren’t the only people on the hikes, they were not like the hike we took in Bryce Canyon National Park a few days later where there were many hundreds of people on the trail. On each of the hikes we took in GSENM, there were long periods of time were we didn’t see other people. And on the half hike (can’t call it a full hike, it was only 1/2 mile round trip) we were the only ones there.
Still, it isn’t like it was 15 years ago. One hike we took, both last month and 15 years ago, was to Peek-a-Boo and Spooky slot canyons. The first time we did this hike, I think Tanya and I saw one other group of people and there were maybe two other cars at the trailhead. Last month, there were probably 20 cars at the trailhead, and other 20 that were parked down the road from the trailhead (that couldn’t make it all the way in due to not having high enough clearance). We saw plenty of people, from 4-year old kids to 70-year old grandmothers. However, there were few enough people that I didn’t have a problem setting up and using my tripod while in the slots. This trip, we also hiked down to Brimstone slot canyon (we didn’t do this 15 years ago); on that part of the hike, we only saw two other groups of people – so it is fairly easy to still find solitude in the GSENM.
The Peek-a-Boo/Spooky hike is, perhaps, the most popular hike in the GSENM, and rightly so. There are few other areas with such easy access to pretty and non-technical slot canyons. The two slots, as well as Brimstone, are tributaries to the Dry Fork of the Coyote, which itself has some nice narrows. The trailhead is on the rim of the Dry Fork canyon, and the trail down to the canyon bottom is a mile or less. Peek-a-Boo is almost directly across the canyon bottom from where the trail from the carpark ends. The two canyons make a nice loop, climbing up Peek-a-Boo and back down Spooky. Peek-a-Boo requires a short climb to get into, but from there on it is fairly easy to navigate, with only one spot where you need to crawl a short distance. Spooky is much narrower in many spots, and there is one set of large boulder-sized chockstones that requires climbing down through a hole in the boulders, back up canyon under a boulder, down through a very skinny hole, and then down canyon again under the remaining boulders. Down canyon from that spot there are no more obstacles, just plenty of super-tight sections where both your chest and back rub against the walls at the same time. Peek-a-Boo is not as deep as Spooky, and when we were there at mid-day, direct sunlight into the slot made photography difficult due to contrast issues. Spooky, being deeper and narrower, made for better photography, but it was much darker and a tripod was definitely needed.
Brimstone Canyon is about an hour’s walk down the Dry Fork from Spooky. This side canyon starts large and narrows and narrows until was impossible, for me anyways, to go further. It is very deep and extremely dark, but well worth the extra hike.
The day prior to our slot canyon adventure we hike to Upper Calf Creek Falls. Though the turnoff from the highway is unmarked, we still found 10+ cars at the trailhead. This relatively short trail goes downhill over slickrock and sand into the Calf Creek canyon to a lovely small waterfall. We chose this hike over the more popular Lower Calf Creek Falls because Tanya and I had not hiked it before. Lower Calf Creek Falls is larger and more spectacular, but you will find the trail more crowded as well. After our hike to Upper Calf Creek Falls, we stopped at the Calf Creek Campground – which is also the starting point of the trail to Lower Calf Creek Falls – for lunch and the parking lot was overflowing with cars of hikers to the lower falls.
Our third hike was down and back up through the Willis Creek Narrows (the featured photo above is from there). There are several points where Willis Creek canyon slots up. At it narrowest, the slot is perhaps only three feet wide, so it is not quite the claustrophobic adventure of Peek-a-Boo, Spooky, and Brimstone. But it has a small stream running through it, and we found it a easy, beautiful, and very relaxing hike. It is possible to do the hike without walking in the creek, at least at the water level present when we went, but I hiked in my sandals and just walked in the water.
The Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument offers many other hikes and slot canyons to explore. I’ve been to the area a half a dozen times, and each time I come away wanting to go back soon. If you haven’t been to this area of Utah, I highly recommend it. This national monument is on the list being examined by the Trump administration for possible elimination; it would be a crime if the protection the area is afforded by its national monument status is taken away.
In the half a dozen trips I’ve previously made to Capital Reef National Park, I was enthralled by descriptions of Cathedral Valley and knew I had to go there. However, until last month, I had never made it. Cathedral Valley is in the northern portion of the park. Park. There is a loop road through the valley, traversing both Park and BLM land. A high clearance vehicle is a must, 4-wheel drive is optional, but nice to have. The road is impassable if wet. In my previous trips to the park, I either had a car without the required clearance, or the weather didn’t cooperate. During my trip last month, I was determined to make it into the valley.
At first, it seemed like fate would prevent me from seeing Cathedral Valley once again, thanks our rental-car company. Tanya and I flew into Salt Lake and met up with our friends, Jim and Kris, who had flown in earlier that day. I had reserved a Jeep Grand Cherokee with Fox Rent-a-Car, picking that vehicle specifically for its high ground clearance. We got the Fox counter about half an hour after the plane landed, and there were two parties in line ahead of me. They gave the person two ahead of me a Grand Cherokee. When I got up to the agent, they said they didn’t have any Grand Cherokee’s left (having just given the last one away). Instead, they offered a Dodge Journey, which they claim was the same class of car (it is not, the Journey is a crossover, not an SUV). I was not happy. Tanya went through their parking lot looking at which cars had the highest ground clearance. We ended up with a Jeep Patriot, which had more ground clearance than the Journey, but not as much as a Grand Cherokee, nor is it as large. With 4 people and luggage, it was a bit of tight fit. But luckily, as I found out, the Patriot worked well on the Cathedral Valley road (later in the trip, but not in Cathedral Valley, we could have used the extra ground clearance, as we bottomed out a couple times).
After securing the car, we drove down to Teasdale, Utah, where we had an Airbnb booked for that night. Teasdale is immediately west of the town of Torrey and about 12 miles from Capital Reef. The next morning the sun was bright and the forecast was for clear skies and no rain – perfect for a Cathedral Valley drive. We drove into the park and stopped at the visitor center. It was a zoo, loaded with tourists from across the globe. But we would leave 99% of them behind by driving to Cathedral Valley. We purchased the road guide ($2.95 and well worth it) and set off. The road guide describes 41 historic, geologic, and/or scenic stops along the 96 mile (from the visitor center back to the visitor center) trip. The Cathedral Valley loop road itself starts at mile 11.7, and the first “stop” is the Fremont River ford at mile 12.2. The river was running at about 12 inches depth that day (according to the ranger at the visitor center), and we had little difficulty driving across the river even though I missed the shallowest part.
From there the road traverses up some hills into a broad valley called Blue Flats. In the middle of the valley is an old, abandoned well drilling rig (next to the last well it apparently drilled; the artesian well providing a flow of several gallons per minute). Jim and I found this most fascinating, as we are both groundwater geologists and often work with drill rigs in our day jobs. From there the road climbs out of the valley through the Bentonite Hills. Bentonite is a form of clay, and here for sure, the road would be impossibly slick to drive if wet. Bentonite also forms lovely rounded, colorful hills and badlands, and it was a delight to the eye to drive through this part of the road.
From there, the road continues climbing and eventually enters the national park, where there are several viewpoints of the lower South Desert, a scenic valley to the southwest of the road. The road continues to an overlook of upper Cathedral Valley, with a great view of a series of monoliths in the valley below. The monoliths are reminiscent, and about the same size as, cathedrals – thus, I believe, the name of the valley. Near this viewpoint is a campground with six primitive sites.
The road then drops down into Cathedral Valley proper. There are a couple trails in this part of the valley, a short trail to a historic cabin and a 1.1-mile trail to provides up close views of the monoliths. Due to the time of day, and a pending dinner reservation at Cafe Diablo (great restaurant) in Torrey, we declined to take the trails and kept going. Here the loop road turns back to the east as it traverses the valley floor, magnificent valley walls all around. After passing some volcanic dikes – black vertical rocks that have cut through the older sedimentary rocks of the valley – there is a short side road to the Gypsum Sinkhole – an unusual, large, deep hole in the ground at the base of cliff where water dissolved away a gypsum dome.
The road leaves the national park, but another short side road takes you back in. This road takes you to Glass Mountain and the Temples of the Sun and Moon. Glass Mountain isn’t really a mountain, but a large mound of selenite crystals. Selenite is a form of gypsum, and the mound is similar to what was formerly at the Gypsum Sinkhole prior to the sinkhole forming. Nearby are the Temples of the Sun and Moon, two large and impressive monoliths in the middle of the valley floor. The road takes you to base of each. We saw several people camping just outside the park boundary on this road – a perfect spot to camp if you want to capture sunrise light on the two Temples. Not such a great spot if you want shade.
The main road continues through BLM land, offering more primitive camping spots with great scenery, including the dramatic Cainville Mesas. At mile 77.3, the road returns to the highway, about 18 miles east of the visitor center.
Cathedral Valley is a landscape photographer’s (and geologist’s) heaven. Photographically, the best way to capture it would be to camp along the loop, either in the small campground in upper Cathedral Valley or off the road in the BLM section, allowing you to be in the area during the golden hours. Even if you cannot camp along the loop, the road is well worth traveling (provided you have a high clearance vehicle and there is no rain in the forecast). Laurent Martries, in his book Photographing the Southwest, Volume 1 – a Guide to the Natural Landmarks of Southern Utah, proclaims Cathedral Valley as “one of the most remarkable spots on the planet.” I have to agree.
I recently returned from our quick trip to Utah. While there, I spent several hours in the middle of the night doing some Milky Way shots at Devils Garden in Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument (a fantastic place that I love and that my so-called President is trying to take away). I arrived at the Devils Garden parking lot at about 1:30 am on a weekday morning. I obviously wasn’t the only one with the idea of shooting there that night, as the parking lot had five other cars parked (by comparison, I took Tanya and our friends Jim and Kris back there later in the morning – around 10 am – and there were only two other cars there).
Devils Garden is a fairly small area filled with wonderful hoodoos and several arches. And I was a bit surprised by the number of photographers there there, but figured if everyone was polite with their lights, we could all get along. I headed toward one particular set of four hoodoos shaped like heads from Easter Island that I thought would look great with the Milky Way and some light painting. However, there was a group of people already working there. So instead, I went to Metate Arch and shot the image above. I did my light painting with a LED headlamp covered with an orange gel. I was pretty happy with the result, and hoped the other folks had moved on to another spot so I could capture the “Easter Island” hoodoos. But no, they were still there.
I talked briefly with another photographer, asking him if my light painting had hindered him, but he said no. He was not with the group by the Easter Island hoodoos also wished they would move. He had been photographing some hoodoos near Metate Arch, and we traded places. I had some trouble shooting this spot, the group down by the Easter Island hoodoos was in the corner of my composition and they rarely turned off their lights. Further the photographer now at Metate Arch was occasionally using his light, and that was partly in my shot as well. Between the two, I took five shots, none without some light from the other photographers – especially the group by the Easter Island hoodoos – whom it seemed when they finished with light painted, turned on red lights and keep them on until they started light painting again (for those who don’t know, when out doing night photography, using a red light helps keep your night vision). Rarely did they have both their normal and red lights off. The image shown here is the best of the lot I took – there is some red light from the photographer by Metate Arch (lower center) and the light on the Easter Island hoodoos (down in the lower left corner) isn’t too bad. I was able to use Photoshop to fix the image (see below), getting totally rid of the red light in the center, removing the light spot in the lower left, and dimming the rest of the light in the lower left (I thought it looked better with a little light there rather than making it totally dark). I am happy with the result, but by now I was starting to get a bit mad at the rudeness of the group down by the Easter Island hoodoos, who almost always had one light or another on.
I ended up photographing three other spots, two of which are shown below, in total spending about two hours at Devils Garden. I never did make it to the Easter Island hoodoos as the light-happy group of photographers there never left the spot. And frankly, even now, days later, I’m still a bit peeved at that selfish and rude group.
Aside: rant directed at that group of photographers: seriously people, would you sit in the front row of a movie theater and talk on your cell phone for the entire movie? Do you enjoy shining your flashlight in other people’s eyes at night? Do you never turn off you high beams when other cars approach on the highway? And it’s not just the lights. It’s hogging the spot. It’s one thing to arrive early and setup at a preferred spot for sunrise – sunrise only last 10 or 15 minutes. But honestly, 2 hours without moving at a place that has dozens of potential shots? Have you no creativity? Obviously not! How many shots of the same set of hoodoos do you need? I suppose you never learned to share your toys when you were a kid either.
With the capabilities of today’s digital cameras, night photography is continually growing in popularity, and you will often find other photographers out with you at the same time as many sites, such as Devils Garden. Such situations beg for politeness and etiquette. If you find yourself out with other photographers at night, please be respectful and use your light sparingly. In places such as Devils Garden, where there are multiple subjects, try not to hog one spot. Nighttime photography is much more difficult than daytime work, it is more difficult to control the camera, more difficult to focus the lens, more difficult to get a composition, and demands long shutter speeds. It is difficult enough that you shouldn’t have to also battle light pollution from other photographers.
Later this month, Tanya and I will be off for a quick trip to Utah with friends. Nahla, unfortunately, gets to stay home with our housesitter. Rather than driving down like we usually do, due to only having a week for the trip, we will fly down to Salt Lake and rent a car. We plan on spending two days at Capital Reef National Park, before heading down to Escalante for two days, and finishing up with two days at Bryce Canyon National Park. This is a great time to go; it is usually sunny and warm, but not yet hot, with fewer thundershowers (than summer) ruining those slot canyon hikes. In anticipation of the trip, I’m posting a few shots from my past trips to the area. The one above is from the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument. The two below are from Capital Reef and Bryce Canyon. Looking forward to getting more shots like these.
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.
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 have been on the road for the past week and only today have an internet connection. We’ve been enjoying a trip through the American Southwest, first stopping in Moab and camping in Arches National Park, then on to Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly National Monument. Last night, taking a few days off from camping, we pulled into Page, Arizona and are staying a very nice AirBnB.
This morning, we were scheduled to go to Lower Antelope Canyon at 8 a.m. and Upper Antelope Canyon at 11 a.m. However, we woke to rain and a weather forecast of 70% showers or thunderstorms and a flash flood watch. And though the sun is shining at this very moment, we decided that investigating slot canyons was not a good idea in this weather. Thus, I’ve been working all morning downloading flash cards from earlier in the trip. So my loss due to weather is your gain because I get to post this image of Bowtie Arch near Moab, Utah.
Moab is known for Arches National Park, and we did camp there. However, not all the arches are in the park. Bowtie Arch, also known as Bowtie Pothole Arch is a small arch very close to its larger and more famous cousin, Corona Arch. Both are not in the park but rather are reached from a fairly easy, but fun, 1.5 mile hike off the Potash Road 10 miles south of Moab. The path is well marked and makes use of several cables for steep spots and even one short metal ladder. My photo reference book suggests afternoon is a better time to photograph Corona Arch, but morning (when we went) worked very well for Bowtie Arch and okay for Corona Arch (by walking underneath the arch and photographing the sunlit side).
I hope to post another shot from the road soon, but until then, enjoy this image of Bowtie Arch.
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.
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.
During my recent southwest road trip, I took lots of good photos. Unfortunately, I took lots of bad photos too. And lots of mediocre photos. And lots of duplicates. In other words, I have a lot of editing to do. If I calculate it correctly, I tripped the shutter button 3,852 times over the 18 days on the road. Considering I didn’t take any photos on the first or last days, that averages out to almost 240 photos per day.
This is what I love about digital photography – you can take a lot of pictures. This is what I hate about digital photography – you can take a lot of pictures. Digital cameras give you the freedom to experiment. They give you the freedom to bracket. You can bracket exposures, apertures, compositions, etc. Of course, you could do this with film, but it got to be real expensive.
I confess, I am a bracketer (is that even a word?), and truth be told, probably an over-bracketer. This is especially true when traveling on a trip like this one. I went some places where I will likely never visit again. And I wanted to make sure I got the shot right. So, I bracket. I basically bracket exposures, using the auto-bracket feature on my camera. But often I also bracket apertures. And I usually bracket compositions. And, of course, with each change in composition, I bracket exposures again – and on it goes. I end up burning a lot of pixels. I love this ability to take lots of images, so that I get the perfect one.
Formerly, when I shot film, I was much more selective; and though I did sometimes bracket, never to the extent I do now. For example, the images accompanying this blog are of the House on Fire ruin in Mule Canyon, Utah. If I was still shooting slide film, I might have taken 10 or 20 shots at this site, knowing I was unlikely to come back for many years if ever. This trip, I took 126 images at this location. I love being able to do that.
Now comes the hate part – I must edit those 126 images from the House on Fire ruin. And I must edit those 3,852 images from the entire trip. This will take a lot of time. And I usually fall behind in my editing; for example, I still have images from last May that should be edited.
Besides time-consuming, editing is aggravating in deciding which image is better. Is this one better than that one? Is the focus slightly better in this one? Did this slight change in composition make a difference; is it noticeable; is it better, worse, or the same? It reminds me of an episode of the The Bob Newhart Show, which ran in the 1970s. (I suppose I dated myself with this comment, but I really loved that show.) In this particular episode, Emily Hartley (Newhart’s wife on the show) describes to Bob how she hates going to the eye doctor – not because it hurts, but because there’s too much pressure deciding if the letters on the vision chart are clearer with lens one or lens two. The doctor presses for an answer over and over, lens one or lens two. In my case, I’m pressing myself over and over, image one or image two (or three or four…)
The ability to take thousands of photos with a digital camera has made some of us photographers sloppy. There are those who say digital cameras have made photographers sloppy in that they take shortcuts because an image can always be fixed in Photoshop. I don’t mean that kind of sloppiness; I always try to take the highest quality image I can to limit post-processing. By sloppy, I mean not being selective of the images we take. I am guilty of this with my over-bracketing. But my over-bracketing is a response to a desire to take the highest quality image to start with; it’s an attempt not to be sloppy and leave it to Photoshop to fix! In fact, I often will not take an image, even though it may have a worthy subject, if the light is not very good – you cannot fix bad light in Photoshop! Even so, I end up with way too many images.
I guess, in the end, there are no shortcuts to doing the work of photography. Either you have to take the time to think about the best exposure and composition in the field or take the time editing in the office. The work must be done one way or the other. However, thinking in the field is a quicker and less painless process (as long as you trust yourself to do it right) than editing endless numbers of very similar images. High time for me to think more, trust myself more, and shoot less. Perhaps editing these 3,852 images will help me to finally learn that lesson.
My Great American Road Trip is over. After traveling just over 4,100 miles (6,600 km) and driving through seven states, Tanya and I arrived home to Tacoma Monday night. I had hoped to post sooner after coming home, but have experienced computer difficulties (remember the days when photographers didn’t care about computers?) My storage device, which holds most of the photos of the trip, has only allowed me to download the first several days worth of images. (I’m hoping and praying it I don’t lose the rest!) Consequently, this blog isn’t exactly the one I had planned for my return, but it will have to do for now.
So while I’ve been frustrated (with my computer equipment) since coming back home, the trip itself was wonderful. The weather couldn’t have been better (well, that’s not totally true, but then when has a photographer ever been satisfied with the weather; it can always be better). We generally had highs in the 80s F (high 20s C) and lows in the 50s (10-15 C). No rain at all, at least until we got back to Washington. Though there were some totally blue skies, most skies provided at least a few clouds to break up the blues (like I complained about in August). Only one day did clouds obscure good, late afternoon light. And we got to experience a lot of the American West.
I thought it fitting that since we drove westward to come home and end our trip, I post a sunset shot to illustrate this brief blog. This particular sunset is from Dinosaur National Monument in Utah.
Now, after a week on the road and away from computers, Tanya and I are at a B&B in Santa Fe, New Mexico. We’ve had a great trip so far, both in terms of places visited and having good weather. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a good weather on a road trip – a few rain drops on the windshield, but otherwise great weather, a mix of totally blue skies (boring photography wise) with scattered clouds (nice photographically).
I’ve included a few shots from the first half of the trip here. Please forgive any issues with these images, they have not been through my normal workflow. Instead of going through Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, they have been somewhat randomly selected and minimally processed with Picassa. I’m working on a very slow laptop, without much memory. This makes it very hard to do editing of the RAW files produced by my camera, and optimizing with Picassa is slow (not to mention not having the capabilities of Lightroom and Photoshop). Regardless, these few images can give you an idea of what we’ve seen so far.
The trip started with a long drive from Tacoma to Twin Falls, Idaho – about 650 miles. The next day we drove to Dinosaur National Monument, roughly 400 miles. This may be the best, closest exposure of sandstone slickrock to Washington State. Two nights there, including a side trip to Fantasy Canyon – a small, but must-visit place for nature photographers.
We then drove south through western Colorado to spend a night with my now retired geology professor from Texas A&M University (where I received a Masters in geology). He is retired and maintaining an orchard and vineyard in Palisade, Colorado. Much wine was drunk when staying with him and his wife!
Leaving Palisade, we drove over the Grand Mesa, made a short stop at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, and drove on to Ouray, Colorado. We spent two nights there in the San Juan Mountains. I was hoping for good fall color with the aspen trees, and was partially rewarded. Some had turned already and others were still green. Regardless, the views were fantastic.
Then it was on to Taos, New Mexico, where we spent a night camping on the Rio Grande and visited Taos Pueblo. We took the high road into Santa Fe from there and have been enjoying the city for two nights now.
I hope you enjoy these few photos from the first half of the trip. I’ll post more once I get back home. The top one is of the Sneffels Range in Colorado. It is part of the San Juan Mountains. This is the view from the north, along West Dallas Creek Road. I was hoping for shots from this area with yellow aspens, but they had not turned yet on the north side of the range like they had further south.
The next shot is of a pictograph (pictographs are painted, petroglyphs are carved) call Sun Dagger. It is located in northwestern Colorado. Reportedly it was used by the Fremont People as a sundial.
The third shot is of Split Mountain and the Green River at Dinosaur National Monument in Utah. This scene, taken shortly after sunrise, is about 1/4 mile up the river from our campground.
The final shot is of the San Francisco de Asis church in Ranchos de Taos, a short distance south of Taos, New Mexico.
It’s amazing what being Freshly Pressed does. My blog had 23 views on September 5th, a rather typical day. Then on September 6th, WordPress featured my blog Mountain Blues in their Freshly Pressed blogs, resulting in 2,784 views that day and over 3,000 the next day. Wow! Prior to Tuesday, I had 5 subscribers to my blog and now, at last count, I have 73! All I can say is thank you to all who visited the blog over the past few days, all who left comments, and special thanks to all my new subscribers. But now, with all you guys watching, I feel pressure to come up with new, exciting blogs. There certainly is some freedom in living in obscurity. Maybe after a few more blogs, all you new subscribers will get tired of me and take yourselves off the list. I hope not, but one never knows.
So in light of that pressure, what to blog about. I haven’t had much chance to do any photography since my trip to Blue Mountain and Deer Park. Between the day job, preparing for the Mountaineers Photo exhibition and reception (see my last blog), and researching sites to go on my upcoming vacation, there hasn’t been much time for new photography. So, this blog is more about my pending vacation. I briefly wrote about it several weeks ago, but serious planning is now going on. Several weeks ago, it was still an idea, more of an ephemeral vision than a hard date on the calendar. Now we have an itinerary, have some hotel reservations set, and have a house sitter arranged. Now it is starting to seem real.
Normally I’m a kind of go-with-the-flow guy; and if time was not of the essence, I’d consider just taking off without a set itinerary. But, there’s a lot to see and photograph, and only a limited time to do it. Besides, I like the planning; I like pre-visualizing potential shots. The only hard dates are the start, the finish, and the three days in Sante Fe where we’ve already paid half our hotel bill. Most everywhere else we will be camping.
Tanya and I love the American Southwest. I’ve made quite a few trips down there, mostly to Utah. We haven’t been in several years, so felt it was time to go again. Tanya expressed a desire to go to Sante Fe, and that’s were the seed of this trip was planted. The tentative itinerary has us driving first to Dinosaur National Monument, then on the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, down to the San Juan Mountains area of Colorado, over to Taos, then on to Sante Fe, and on the way back stopping at Chaco Culture National Historic Park, the Bisti Wilderness, Natural Bridges National Monument, and Moab.
The idea was to go see some new places in the Southwest, or at least spend more time in places I’ve only touched lightly long ago. Of all these places, I have only spent significant time in the Moab area. I have actually been to Dinosaur National Monument, twice – once a quick stop in 1983 while driving down to grad school in Texas (Texas A&M), and once a rafting trip in the early 90s. Though the raft trip was several days long, I didn’t get to see much beyond the river; so this new trip will explore new territory there. In 1984, on my way back from grad school, I stopped for about an hour at the Black Canyon, so that really doesn’t count either. And I spent several hours in Sante Fe while a teaching assistant on a geology field camp, again in 1984. And I recall a distant memory of when I was young, perhaps in junior high school or maybe grad school, on a family vacation, we drove through the San Juan Mountains. I’ve never been to Natural Bridges, Bisti, Taos, or Chaco Canyon.
So, this blog is supposed to be about photography, not about where I traveled ages ago. Thus I needed something to illustrate it with, so I dug out the old slide albums. It was hard finding anything decent to show, but finally found the two images here, taken long ago in Dinosaur National Monument. Most of those old slides are pretty bad; my composition and exposure skills have come a long way in the past 30 years. Hopefully with this upcoming Great American Road Trip, I’ll bring some better shots home.
We finally had a decent summer weekend. It was sure a long time coming this year. And where was I when the weather finally reached over 80 degrees? Up in the mountains photographing wildflowers and snowfields? Photographing tidepools in Olympic National Park at Ruby Beach or Kalaloch? Or even enjoying a family picnic sans camera? No, no, and no. I was stuck inside my studio most the weekend working on processing portrait shots. It’s not that I hate processing photos, in fact I like it; for me, processing is part of the art of photography. I like taking a RAW image and turning it into a thing of beauty (though repeating the same enhancements over and over again on a series of portraits can get a bit tedious). But when the weather is nice, I should be out shooting!
Alas, the portrait work needed doing, regardless of the weather. So I slaved over the computer most the weekend (and am actually happy with the amount of work I got done). However, I couldn’t help be dream of being outside, taking photographs in a beautiful landscape. With that, my day dreams turned to my pending vacation. Late next month Tanya and I hope to drive down to southern Utah and northern New Mexico. We are planning to go to some spots I’ve never been before, and I’m excited about the photographic opportunities.
I love the American Southwest. In part, I think, it is due to my formal training as a geologist. I like seeing all the bare rocks – no soil, trees or other vegetation covering their colors and patterns. And as a travel and landscape photographer, I can’t think of a more photogenic area. I like the American Southwest so much I named my photography company after a character, Seldom Seen Smith, in the Edward Abbey novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. For awhile, I had been visiting southern Utah about every other year. But now it’s been about four years and I’m itching to go again. Seeing some of New Mexico will be great too. I haven’t been there in over 25 years, not since my Texas A&M grad school days when I was a teaching assistant on a geology field camp. I imagine it has changed much in that quarter century.
Now on Monday, the rain has returned to Tacoma, and dreaming of a vacation in the Southwest has only gotten stronger. In support of my vacation dreams, I’m posting these shots from some of my previous trips to Utah. These are images I haven’t much shown before. I hope you enjoy them.