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Backpacking and Photography in the Petrified Forest National Park

13 Jun

Exploring the Painted Desert and Black Forest areas of the Petrified Forest National Park

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“The Wanderers” Early morning dappled light in a remote area of the Petrified Forest

The Petrified Forest National Park lies along the remote eastern border of Arizona near the small railroad town of Holbrook. Surrounded by the Hopi, Navajo and Zuni Indian Reservations, vast rolling badlands feature copious amounts of petrified wood. A paved road connects two visitor centers. The drive between features various landmarks, overlooks, pueblos, mesas and other Route 66 curiosities.

The park closes at sunset and does not have a campground. The only way to spend the night is by backpacking. Entrance fees are $20 and backcountry permits are free. Of course, bring plenty of water!

Timing your visit to this arid high-desert playground is tricky. Expect 40-degree differences between highs and lows. There are no perfect months for weather. Late spring and early fall are top choices for comfortable days and chilly nights.

The mission of my June 1st visit  to successfully capture the full moon. We choose to enter the backcountry from the unnamed trail near the Painted Desert Inn (historic landmark) in the northern sector. There are no topographic maps available at the visitor center and a GPS is highly recommended.

After setting up camp, I settled upon a rocky perch ringed with various geologic oddities overlooking crimson badlands for the sunset session. Light was harsh and a 400 mm lens would have been useful. Photography was tricky especially finding suitable foreground compositions and capturing adequate depth of field.

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“Extraterrestrial Flapjacks”

 

As the light waned I was almost to busy pursuing my goal of the perfect shot to notice the absence of the full moon. The sky was ninety-percent clear but obviously it was hiding somewhere. I could not even see a source of light! As I packed up my belongings writing off another opportunity to capture one of my favorite subjects…the moon peeked out behind the veil of thick clouds. I worked quickly to capture the scene and to my delight to develop an adequate rendition of my experience.

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“Lunar Fortress”

As the night progressed the clouds thickened and when I awoke I knew that it would be a fantastic sunrise.  The color appeared quicker than anticipated as I scrambled up a steep, clay mesa behind our campsite near a wash. While I had not scouted this spot the night before, I was pleased with the unending views as well the abundant petrified logs.

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“Primordial Firewood”

While I expected the sky to clear, a fresh new layer of clouds flew into the scenery. I climbed higher above the badlands for a bird’s eye before settling on a distant location. I predetermined a safe way down and knew that I’d have just enough to time to capture the best light.

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“Solitary Awakening”

While the day heated up we ventured out for one last round of sight seeing before returning to our vehicle. The desert smelled of rain and distant storm clouds confirmed our senses. I had difficulty finding the location I had visited earlier but stumbled upon miles of other enticing scenic interests. I’d love to learn about your favorite interpretation of my experiences. Thanks for reading and sharing!

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“Day of the Sky”

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“The Long Wood”

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Arizona’s Top 3 National Monuments Part 2

7 Jul

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Arizona is brimming with enchanting places to explore including over a dozen national monuments. This is the second of a three part series on my favorites, including the pros and cons, best times to visit, and other key travel tips.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

A long, winding dirt road pierces the desert floor leading toward a crest of crimson cliffs. While speckles of jubilant yellow dot the hillsides, this is a foreboding place. Chiseled by arroyos and protected by chollas, views fan out beyond the unseen international border. Despite the crusty terrain, the ride is smooth and the warm, dry air is surprisingly fresh.

By mile four, undulating gardens of distinctive cacti animate the landscape. In the fading light of day, these haunting figurines mimic the human form. Normally, the patriarchal saguaro rules the Sonoran but in this lonely pocket of country features a rival. The banana-shaped organ pipe cactus is not as tall as the saguaro but much wider. While common in Mexico, organ pipe are only found in this US park, which is also a UNESCO biosphere reserve.

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At nearly 331,000 acres Organ Pipe Cactus NM is the largest national monument in AZ with 95% of the land designated wilderness. Park visitors can explore via two scenic loop drives. The Ajo Mountain drive is the most popular and scenic. It is a 21-mile, one-way loop that traces the base of the mountains before circling back toward the visitor center. Across the highway is the Puerto Blanco Loop, a 37-mile drive through mostly open desert and gaping views. Other rough 4WD roads are options for longer stays and seasoned visitors.

The park has several official hiking trails but the premier trek is summiting 4808-foot Mount Ajo, the areas highest peak.  This is a full-day hike, partially off-trail totaling 9 miles with a cumulative elevation gain of 2800 feet. Definitely not for beginners. A shorter and easier option is hiking the trail from the campground to the visitor center. Enjoy pleasant views of the mountains while traversing through copious cholla gardens. There are a few benches along the way.

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The exceptional Twin Peaks Campground, featuring 360-degree views, was fully remodeled less than ten years ago. There is reliable vacancy nearly year round. If interested in hotels, find a few in the town of Ajo about 35 miles away.

Summers at Organ Pipe Cactus NM are hot. The ideal times to visit are between November and early April with pleasant daytime highs and cool nights. Delicate ground flowers such as poppies and owl clover flourish in late February and early March. The strength of annual blooms vary and flowers wither when daytime highs exceed 85 degrees. Saguaros and organ pipe cacti don’t bloom until May.

Dining choices are also limited. There is a convenience store and small diner in Lukeville, a military-border town about seven miles away. Purchase a few snacks and cold water at the visitor center, otherwise, it’s a lengthy drive to a restaurant.

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If you are interested in seeing the best of Organ Pipe Cactus NM consider joining me on a group workshop. Due to high springtime demand of my private tours,  I’m assembling a 3-day group event in March of 2018. If interested, message me for more information.

 

Photographing Ice Lake

16 Jun

In addition to hiking, my book also includes a photography section for each lake. This provides useful information for both the serious shooter and the casual looking to improve his or her (smartphone) shots. While each chapter is unique, topics include instructional, technical and creative advice. Also discussed are nearby points of interest, strategies for finding the best composition and more.

You might learn something that isn’t obvious too. For instance, notice the distance from the water in the picture below. It’s about a half mile and 500 feet of elevation away. In many spacious basins, it is challenging to explore everywhere in one visit. That’s why tips on where to go help.

Below is partial excerpt for a popular location in the San Juan Mountains. July and August are the perfect times to visit. For an amazing experience, consider personal instruction and guidance by yours truly this year! Find more information about this here.

Exertion Point

Ice Lake Basin, Colorado, August

Capturing or witnessing Upper Ice Lake Basin’s signature alpenglow is an exclusive experience available to those willing to spend the night. Golden Horn is the most iconic peak and befittingly shows off the best display of crimson morning light, both before and immediately after sunrise.

During times of peak wildflowers, compositions are plentiful. The most iconic shots feature alpenglow reflections and successful ones accentuate form. Consider shooting at an intimate tarn as opposed to Upper Ice Lake. Sunrise images won’t display the lake’s vivid color, which needs direct midmorning light. Be sure to bracket shots or use a graduated neutral-density filter.

Another alternative is shooting Ice Lake’s hefty outlet stream. Several sections of rippling cascades offer excellent vantage points. These dynamic compositions usually do not include the lake. Use a wide-angle lens and try blending for depth of field.

Perhaps skip the water altogether and fill your foreground with a bouquet of splashy wildflowers. This works best on still mornings and emphasizes spectacle. Whatever you choose, the best plan is staying more than one night to ensure the greatest opportunity for success.

Sunrise is not the only time for mesmerizing photography. Midmornings on partly cloudy days also yield outstanding results. Remember to use a polarizer and shoot when the groundcover is in partial shadow. Even in harsh midday light, the lake photographs well with a smartphone.

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Hiking Hope Lake

10 Jun

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Below is an excerpt from my new book, Capturing Colorado: Hiking & Photographing Lakes of the San Juan Mountains. Celebrate summer with a definitive guide to Colorado’s finest range. Find out more about this exciting guide here.

Clouds play hide-and-seek amid unearthly red peaks and motley fields of flowers en route to Hope Lake. The price to pay for this special occasion is a paltry one – 2.5 miles and 1500 feet of altitude gain. A relative drop in the bucket compared with the taxing work necessary to reach other locations with similar scenery. Hiking is part of the allure, making this adventure an ideal choice when exploring near Rico and Telluride.
Begin on level dirt venturing through a shaded forest before reaching a hillside gulley. The streambed is wide and shallow but floods after heavy rains. An unobstructed presentation of a looming crest soon appears. Accentuated by the chattering sounds of water, these stately sights impress.
Effortless hiking continues for over a mile, including a brief downhill stint on a series of meandering switchbacks. Views progressively improve with shimmering Trout Lake and the unorthodox skyline of the Lizard Head Wilderness afar. Twenty-five minutes of walking brings the confluence of two major waterfalls and the trail traces them upwards. A wooden sign marks the beginning of this climb, which is a natural resting spot. Nearby, a tree-covered ravine makes an enchanting place to investigate.
The final push takes place on moderate switchbacks through a timber canopy and open understory. An occasional window offers compelling views of an imposing peak. Walk on soft ground while enjoying the roaring sounds of water splashing down the mountain.
Above the trees, enter a medium-sized meadow with unbelievable vantages of the burnt-orange slopes of 13,897-foot Vermillion Peak. Enjoy outstanding views of this mysterious mountain amid dizzying scenery. Wandering forward toward a notch in the hills, catch your first glimpse of soothing Hope Lake. You may find yourself wondering, “Is this place real?”

Cell Phone Pics from My Colorado Autumn Trip 2015

16 Oct

Below are five of my favorite cell phone shots from my trip a few weeks ago to central Colorado to photograph fall colors. All pictures were captured with my Samsung Galaxy S6 and have not been edited. Enjoy!

Road to Gore

“Road to the Gores” A quiet, peaceful mountain road leads into the Gore Mountains north of Silverthorne.

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“Colors of the Fall” Sunrise on a secluded section of the Maroon Bells scenic loop trail.

Aspen Forest

‘Pure Gold’ I noticed this vibrant, peak stand of aspens on Castle Creek Road outside of Aspen, CO.

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Dappled mid morning light on the Maroon Bells amidst overcast skies.

Hanging Lake

The Hanging Lake Trail outside of Glenwood Springs was a workout delight! Definitely one of the best workout trails I have ever hiked and the payoff at the end was outstanding.

What Does Landscape Photography Mean to You?

31 Dec

I thought  I’d wrap up the year by posting some of my favorite images taken in 2011.  I’ve decided to feature these images in a series called “Landscape Photography Is….” I hope you all enjoy and happy New Year!

Landscape Photography Is…

Finding Your Own Vision

sunrise at Joshua Tree National Park, California, March

Executing an Idea

Antelope Canyon, Arizona, April

 Seeing in black and white

Antelope Canyon, Arizona, April

Noticing the little things

Parry Agave, May

Visiting new places

North Falls, Oregon, May

All about timing, planning, and persistence

American Basin, Colorado, August

Hiking and backpacking

Ice Lake Basin, Colorado, August

Appreciating the subtle beauty of nature

Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado, October

Using light to create drama

San Juan National Forest, Colorado, October

Taking chances

Frozen waterfall, Colorado, October

God’s gift to us!!

Tonto National Forest, Arizona, November

I’d love to hear what landscape photography means personally to you. Also, which of the above images are your favorite. Have a wonderful New Year!

The Top Three Western States for Landscape Photography

19 Sep

As landscape photographers, we all have different visions and reasons to shoot the subject matter we chose.  At times, the experience of traveling to these places is as lasting a memory as some of the images that I create.  The following is my personal list of western states that I enjoy the most for landscape photography,  some interesting statistics, and characteristics that embellish them.

1. Colorado

Land Mass – 104,000 square miles or 8th largest in the country

Population – approx 5 million  or 22nd most in the country

Approx. Percentage of State Visited – 40% including the entire western border from Dinosaur National Monument to Grand Junction and Cortez

Pro’s:  Arguably the most scenic mountains in the US accompanied with superior wildflowers, and the most prolific autumn foliage in the Western United States. Diverse topography featuring many southwestern geologic features including sand dunes and red rock.  Summer monsoons and early autumn storms make fine art landscape photography possible at almost any time of day.  More accessible roads and fewer hiking and camping restrictions than found in most states.

Con’s: No access to beaches or coastline, eastern part of the state is flat, ATV’s are very popular and disruptive to solitude

Summary:  There is no better place in the United States to photograph than Colorado if mountains are your subject matter of choice.  Here you’ll find more than 60% of the 14,000 ft. peaks located in the United States. That’s more than twice as the next state Alaska, which is more than six times its size! Addition, Colorado also boasts some of the most dramatic weather in the country, hence the name colorful Colorado. In the summer months, the afternoon skies are littered with clouds during its monsoon season. Fall arrives early in the alpine areas and it is typical to get snow during peak fall foliage. This phenomenon is uncommon or not possible in most other states. Spring brings budding aspens and wildflowers in the foothills of its ranges. A true four season state, Colorado offers the best of the best for alpine scenery mixed with enough topographical diversity and southwestern reds to make every connoisseur of the landscape a happy camper.

2. California

Land Mass – 163,700 square miles or 3rd largest in the country

Population – approx 37.2 million, which is  the  most in the country

Approx. Percentage of State Visited – 40% including most of the areas south of San Francisco to San Diego, most of the Sierra Nevada’s and the Channel Islands

Pro’s: The most diverse topography, best alpine lakes, longest coastline, largest island, best sand dunes, tallest mountain, highest waterfall, and most national parks in the country.

Con’s: Poor air quality/smog, overcrowded parks, state running out of funds and tourism is being affected

Summary: The most obvious choice for number one, due to its sheer size and location California finishes a distant second on my list. While the Sierra Nevada’s offer some of the best backpacking in the world, there are too many clear days and way too many bugs to rate it ahead of the mountains in Colorado for landscape photography.  Air quality can also be an issue there, as it is in states desert park’s like Death Valley and Joshua Tree.  Yosemite and its sister parks King’s Canyon/Sequoia offer big views, lakes, trees, waterfalls and certainly crowds. In the spring, the Mohave Desert is joy to photograph as is the eastern Sierra during all seasons. California’s coastal ranges from Santa Cruz to Santa Monica are arid, homogenous and somewhat uninspiring.  However, its beaches offer as much opportunity as anywhere in the country. The Golden State is a place landscape where photographers have to work much harder to get original, high quality landscape shots.

3.Utah

Land Mass – 84,900 square miles or 13th in the country

Population – 2.7 million residents or 34th in the country

Approx. Percentage of State Visited: 80%

Summary: Utah seriously challenges California for the number two position on this list. I gave the nod to California for its diversity and size, but Utah probably offers more bang for the buck and as a whole is arguably a more photogenic state.  Utah’s most famous scenery comes from the southern part of the state, some of which it shares with Arizona like Monument Valley and the Wave. One also can’t forget the Subway, the Watchman, Mesa Arch, Zebra Canyon, the Narrows, Calf Creek Falls and Delicate Arch as well many others…From its famous national parks to the Wasatch and Uinta Mountains in the north, Utah offers world-class scenery throughout.  Its diverse climate and landscape makes it an excellent choice for visitors year round.

Pro’s: Most iconic southwestern landscapes in the country, easy to find solitude, five national parks, slot canyons, fall foliage, deserts, above average wildflowers and excellent alpine scenery.

Con’s:  High entrance fee’s to state parks, no access to coastline, middle part of the state is generally uninteresting, ATV’s very popular

Honorable mention: Wyoming, Oregon

Not included in these rankings: Montana, Idaho, and New Mexico

I’d love to hear some other opinions on this subject whether you agree or disagree. Please feel free to chime in!

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