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Leaving tomorrow for snowy Colorado

6 Oct

Tomorrow marks the start of my second annual visit to Colorado for autumn foliage. Last year, we visited the week earlier, stayed in lovely town of  Telluride,  and the timing was perfect for color. The weather was generally cooperative with a few minor afternoon storms and some overnight snows coating the high peaks of the San Juan Mountains.

This year appears a totally different story.  As I write this, a massive storm is pounding much of the state with up to a foot of snow.  It’s effects can be felt all the way to Phoenix, where temperatures have significantly dropped and the winds have picked up big time. Originally, the plan was to camp most nights and stay in a hotel to get a good night’s rest and get cleaned up before we return home, that’s now changed.

This year, we designated Ouray as our base camp. For those of you not familiar with the area, Ouray is the northern most town located on the San Juan Scenic Loop and is about an hour drive from Telluride and probably closer to two hours from Durango.  Getting there could be the biggest problem as the mountain passes are snowy, wet, and treacherous. By the time we reach the area tomorrow the worst of the storm should have passed, but forecasts are calling for lingering snow showers possibly as late as Sunday.

Driving the region’s back country roads can sometimes be a daunting task, but when wet and muddy obviously it can get extremely dangerous. There’s also the possibility the high winds would eradicate what’s left of the region’s foliage, which could significantly decrease photo opportunities.  The storm also brings plenty of promise as well. The mountains will look incredible and snow-covered foliage is a wonderous sight.  The weather should improve over our last couple of days in the region and conditions could be optimum for landscape photography.  It’s hard to tell what this trip will bring, my primary goal is to make it home safely, hopefully will a handful of really good photographs to share with you.

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!

New Colorado Wildflower Images

14 Aug

I’ve safely and successfully returned from my journey to Colorado and the wildflowers and mountains were spectacular! It was a very productive trip and I am looking forward to sharing my new images with you soon.  My approach to editing has changed with this trip.  I am using a lot more manual focus blending as well as extra blending for dynamic range.

The first the part of the process is reviewing all my images and then selecting the ones that are the sharpest and that have the best light. Next I determine the white balance and tone of the image and then I manually stack them in Photoshop. Once the images are stacked, I hand blend them and then edit for contrast and color.  Lastly, I’ve been returning to the images over the course of several days to give me time to digest what I am seeing and to ensure that my editing is in synch with my final vision. The result is a slower process, but I want to make sure that I am 100% satisfied with the image before I post them publicly.

Currently, I am about 20% of the way through the editing and I am selecting the pictures as they come to me. Here’s the first image I’d like to share with you. It is an image from Clear Lake entitled “Modularity.”  I’d love to hear your thoughts. I hope to share more with you soon as well as tell you more about my trip!

Gearing Up For Colorado

26 Jul

Trip preparations are reaching a climax this week as the countdown to Colorado begins in earnest. In less than 48 hours, I will be on the road to Durango and I am keeping my fingers crossed for prolific wildflowers and spectacular weather.  Speaking of weather, now is the time when I begin to obsess over forecasts. So far, I’ve confirmed that afternoon thunderstorms occur reguarly and a couple of sites are actually predicting days of rain. Yikes! As it is, this  news caused me to rethink my itinerary and I have some tentative backup plans in mind – just in case.

Before I discuss those, I’d like to share with you my mostly flexible plans for this trip. Day one brings me to Durango where I’ll be exploring the La Plata  mountains in the far corner of the state with a short hike to a high alpine lake.  For the next couple of days, I’ll be near Creede to meet a friend where we’ll explore the Wheeler Geologic Area.  For those of you not familiar with this place, it was originally designated as Colorado’s first national monument, but later lost its status due to the remoteness of the area. From the looks of it, you might think Utah or even Arizona.

Departing from Creede, my primary destination will be areas around Silverton most notably the Weminuche Wilderness area (see previous blog).  Depending on my mental and physical state, I researched several areas that I could potentially explore. These include: Ruby Lakes, Highland Mary Lakes,  Hope Creek, and the West Fork Trail.  These trails are scattered throughout the wilderness so a lot will also depend on logistics and of course, the weather.

Another primary area of interest in Ice Lake Basin in the San Juan National Forest. This is a popular area known for its spectacular scenery, gorgeous wildflowers, and large crowds.  A couple of factors play into my visit. The primary variable is going to be….drum roll please…the weather and how comfortable I feel backpacking during potentially deadly summer monsoon storms.  My goal is to spend two nights in the upper basin,  which would give me enough time to scout out the most optimal sunrise compositions, which of course, I’ll be sharing with you.

San Juan Mountains near Telluride, July 2008

After that, it’s a couple more days in the Weminuche Wilderness exploring more lakes, peaks, and wildflower fields. That’s my trip in a nutshell and do I have some backup plans if rainy and gloomy days impede on my time in the mountains. My first trip alternative is the Great Sand Dunes National Park. I have never been to this place and I love photographing and exploring sand dunes, so this is certainly a possibility. The weather forecast looks promising there and the high temperatures should be pleasant. The downside it is a few hours out of my way so requires plenty of extra driving.

My other options closer to home include: Coyote Buttes, Bisti Wilderness, and exploring the ruins around the four corners area. The biggest drawback to these possibilities is the heat. I’d prefer not to hike in temperatures in the low to mid 90’s so these are excursions for a different time of the year.  That being said, I plan on making the most of my time so I will do what I have to do to get the best images possible.

In conclusion, I am looking forward to sharing with you some of the images and experiences from this trip  in the upcoming few weeks. If you have any tips, suggestions or advice  I’d love to hear from you. Thanks so much for reading and I hope you enjoyed this update on my travels.

Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado Upcoming Trip

16 Jul

Mid summer marks the time when a limited window of opportunity opens to explore some of our country’s most dramatic alpine landscapes.  This year marks my fourth annual pilgrimage into some of the most wild and remote places in the Western United States.  Some of the places I’ve been to in the past include: the Ruby Mountains, the Great Western Divide, the Bechler River Wilderness, and the Galatin Mountains.

Early July, Ruby Mountains, Nevada

Early July, Ruby Mountains, Nevada

Depending on the location, there is at most a three-month window to get to these places before the inclement weather settles in. This is the main reason why summer has a special place in my heart. For me, it is the most intrepid time of the year.  This year I am planning a visit to the Weminuche Wilderness.

To those of you not familiar with the area, the Weminuche occupies the far southwestern corner of Colorado to the immediate  east between  Durango and Silverton.  Its location is at nearly the epicenter of the San Juan Mountains and at just under 500,000 acres, it is Colorado’s largest wilderness area. This is a place that contains three 14,000 foot peaks as well as the headwaters for many major streams and rivers including the Rio Grande, San Juan, and Animas Rivers.  The Weminuche is also the state’s  deepest and most impenetrable wilderness. Many of its spectacular back country locations are accessible only by long hiking trails where days of backpacking travel are necessary.  Some years, the trails are snowed in until the middle of July and a snowstorm  is not uncommon in September.

To date, I’ve spent about a week in the state of Colorado on two different trips that both involved staying in my favorite place called Telluride, which also happens to be nearby.  During my travels, I’ve driven around the western periphery of the Weminuche, but I have never ventured into it.  The Weminuche proper is surrounded on almost all sides by other wilderness areas, generally consisting of the same mountains and rugged terrain, but technically of different names. Trying to familiarize yourself with a general wilderness area this large and complex is like trying to put together a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle.

I am waiting on several more maps coming in the mail.

I am also waiting on several more maps coming in the mail.


The research is intensive.  For me, it started with a map followed by a guide-book and then more maps and books and finally Internet research. Moreover, this will be my first solo backpacking trip in several years and will also be my longest.  Some of the other major considerations I must take into account are: road conditions, weather, driving distances, supplies, hiking miles, wild animals, altitude acclimatization, and wilderness rules/regulations.

Mental preparation becomes as important as physical preparation.  One of the focal points of my preparation for this trip is what do in case of a lightning storm. Colorado is known for its mid summer monsoon storms and its high peaks and lakes are like lightning rods. What happens if an electrical storm rolls in when I am ten miles and 3,000 feet up from my vehicle? Noted below is the best information I have found on this subject to date.

NOLS Lightning Safety Guidelines.pdf (application/pdf Object)

My trip is coming up fast and I have some other ideas and information to share with you about it before I leave near the end of this month.  I am also going to post a detailed itinerary and try to make this trip more interactive than what I have done in the past.  If you have any suggestions for restaurants,  campgrounds, driving tips,  or anything at all I’d love to hear from you. I am looking forward to sharing more with you in the future. Have a wonderful day!

Top Internet Websites for Trip Planning

4 Jul

One of the questions I was asked in a recent interview about photography was in regards to how I did my research to  information for the places that I go.  We’ve covered this topic before and today I thought it would be helpful  to list the top websites that I use for trip research. Most of these are pretty obvious, but I’ll explain to you how I use them.

Google
There are a couple different ways to use Google for Internet searches. The web search is the obvious primary function. The search topics I look for are the names of hikes or places and pictures.  One useful feature of this site  is the Google Images. This is an excellent way to find information. Not only is the search done by pictures, but it takes the user to the landing pages of those images. Sometimes this kills two birds with one stone. Instead of searching for articles containing your keywords, you do a keyword search on pictures and clicking on the image takes you to information on the pictures.

Amazon
For online book or map purchases, I believe Amazon is the best retailer. The navigation features of the website are user friendly, they offer suggestions for related products, and the prices and customer service are generally very good. I almost always use Amazon to purchase maps and guide books for areas outside of my home state, where it is harder to find information at your local bookstore.

Flickr
Flickr is probably my favorite site for obtaining or viewing images on places I am interested in visiting.  It is not necessary to have a membership in order to search and see results on their site. You can see my Flickr page here.

You Tube
I like this site for hard to find areas, especially when it comes to backpacking trips. Videos often times give even more significant and realistic impression of the places you are trying to research.

Nps.gov
NPS has several useful features that are sometimes worth checking out depending on when and where you are traveling. Each park has its own website so the layout and usefulness varies from site to site. Thus some sites have information and navigation features that are easier to use and find than others. The top reasons I visit are for viewing general park maps, getting contact information for the ranger stations, useful links for the weather and activities, and checking the park’s webcams.

Weather.com
In the last ten days before a trip, there is no site that gets more use than this one. The only other site that has a longer extended forecast is accuweather.com Other weather sites that I frequent are weatherundergound.com, who also has the best mobile site for weather and weather.gov, which is the national weather service’s web page that also gives the most detailed information available on issues like forest fires and storm advisories.

Trip Advisor.com
This is my default site for doing research on hotels and places to stay. I think Trip Advisor has the best and most honest reviews online. To books the hotels, it usually works best if you just go to the hotel’s actual website. Another useful site that I usually refer to for reviews is hotels.com, although I don’t trust the reviews on it nearly as much. It has a useful search feature of organizing hotels by cost, which is normally very accurate and current, and includes last minute deals.

I hope you had a wonderful holiday and found this information helpful.  If there are any websites that you love to use that I didn’t include please feel free to let me know. It always rewarding to hear from users!

Shooting Tips for Slot Canyons

13 Apr

I recently returned from a three day photography trip to northern Arizona, where the most productive photography was in Lower Antelope Canyon outside of Page. It was there that I met fellow landscape photographer and friend Justin Reznick and we spent several days together exploring the area and shooting this slot canyon.

In case you haven’t visited or are unfamiliar with this place,  Antelope Canyon may be the most photographed slice of real estate in this country or anywhere for that matter, and for good reason, It is a lot of fun and the scenery is stunning. Today I’ll share a couple of  my recent pictures along with a pair of my favorite approaches to photographing this incredible area.

1) Use a small, lightweight tripod instead of your big, bulky one. Slot canyons are tight and Lower Antelope in particular can have as many as 150 people passing through every hour.  Therefore, space is seriously at a premium.  It is to a photographer’s advantage to set up and shoot as quickly as possible. Many shots are taken near the ground from a lower perspective. A small tripod makes perfect sense.  The larger the tripod, the harder it is to travel through the slot canyon. Set up time is longer, and there is a good chance of damaging a larger tripod by accidentally banging on the narrow canyon walls when you move.

Versatility is a key component in your shooting success in slot canyons. Using a small, lightweight tripod allows me to scramble to achieve shots like this.

2) For compositions, look for scenes with a variety of depth and color. I look for compositions that give me angles to capture elements of the canyon that present it at its greatest depth. One element that helps provide depth is color. The color you see in slot canyons is simply a product of the intensity and temperature of the reflected light.

It is also important to pay attention to what is going on outside the canyon walls. If the sun is cutting in and out because of fast-moving clouds, the light is going to change often and this is critical information to understand to achieve your desired results in the slot canyon.

Once I get honed onto a scene,  I will work that scene using several varieties of the same general composition while continuing to pay close attention to the light. I’ll use the vertical lines and shapes of the sandstone to block any direct light and accentuate glare and form while creating abstract images.

Even though the color can be amazing, photographers can still create high quality images using a black and white conversion. This image uses the vertical and horizontal bands and erosion patterns of the sandstone to form a complex picture of shapes all accentuated by the reflected light.

In closing,  slot canyons allow the landscape photographer a high degree of photographic creativity in the field as well as in the digital darkroom.  If the light is right, you’ll have the opportunity to capture multiple stunning images in a relatively short period of time.  When you go to Lower Antelope Canyon, be mentally prepared to deal with crowds, travel light, and pay close attention to the light and its source.  You’ll have a wonderful experience!

Personal Update

4 Apr

Hi Everyone,

I am heading out of town tomorrow April 4th to meet up with a couple friends in Page, Arizona. I was hoping to shoot some slot canyons and otherworldly sandstone formations. Unfortunately, as of right now, the weather doesn’t look like it is going to cooperate all to well. The weather forecasts are calling for chances of rain Wednesday through the end of the weekend. Hopefully I’ll come back with some exciting new images and stories to share with you. I hope you all have a wonderful and blessed week.

Michael

Lost in the Desert Part Three – The Rescue

15 Feb

Sometime during the day, one hearty traveler ventured into the camp while I was attempting to summit Mica Mountain starting from the campground. I don’t recall the individual’s name, but he traveled alone and did not use any kind of shelter – he just slept in his bag. I thought this was unusual because it was quite cold and windy. He also told me that winds the preceding evening were strong enough to knock over one of the oldest and largest saguaros in the area.  We spent some time talking and getting to know one other that night and discussed traveling out together the following morning.

I can’t remember exactly how the events  unfolded, but I believe the following morning this individual decided to break camp earlier than we had planned. Unfortunately, I was still in the process of breaking down my camp and wasn’t able to accompany him. I think I left approximately an hour after he did. That’s really when the trouble started.  In and around the campground, there are a number of use trails, and it is difficult to discern which is the main trail leading out of the camp. I am not exactly sure where I got lost, but I think it happened pretty quickly.

One of the  interesting things about Saguaro NP East is  housing developments abutt the park boundaries. So when traveling in and out of the mountains,  many of the distant views are of residential areas. I think this gives the traveler a false sense of security because everything looks closer than it is, and it is impossible to tell the lay of the land.  At times, it almost looks like you can reach out and touch the houses, but they are much further off than they appear. Another major mistake I made was using these homes as a guide point to determine which way I should be traveling.  I’ll try to describe to you what happened next….

Instead of following the ridgeline down and off the mountain at approximately a 45 degree angle, I descended straight down a 90 degree angle.  Needless to say, before I realized  I was traveling in the wrong direction, I had already passed the point where it made sense for me to try to turn around and retrace my steps. I wasn’t even sure if I could find my way back if I tried. Part of the problem was there were a considerable amount of game trails in the wilderness and I was deceived into believing that I was traveling on an actual hiking trail. I saw an astonishing amount of deer during this adventure.  At one point, I must have spooked a herd of nearly 50, right in the middle of day, just galloping through the groves of giant saguaros. It was really quite a site.

Once I realized that I was lost, my game plan was to follow the washes down and out of the wilderness. Often times, the washes represent the path of least resistance. Occasionally, they cliff out and you are forced to circumvent around. That happened a couple of times, and I basically resorted to bushwhacking through some nasty desert terrain. By this time, my water supply was quickly dwindling. I had a couple different plans for my water. One strategy that I’ll sometimes use is to hold the water in my mouth for as long as I can without swallowing, which keeps your breathing passages hydrated and moist. If had completely run out of water, I knew that I could probably find some stored in the park’s many barrel cacti and would not hesitate to cut one open if my life depended on it.

That ended up not being the case, but I was a complete mess by the time I wandered off the mountain. I never saw a single soul during the entire length of my descent, which took about twice as long was what it should have taken. My thighs to my ankles were completely covered in scratches ranging from one to five inches in length. It literally looked like I had been attacked by a wild animal. By the time I reached the base of the mountains, I ended up in a remote section that had just a single trail. That trail eventually led out and I ended up soliciting a neighbor for some water and the use of their phone.  As it turned out, I was a good 15 mile drive from my car when I should have been able to walk right off the trail and throw my gear into my trunk. I called the park for assistance, and they sent a ranger out to drive me back. After searching all my stuff for “petroglyphs,” he returned me to my car. It was the only time I had to be “rescued” and I was thankful  I made it out in one piece. It was quite the adventure!

Lost in the Desert Part Two

8 Feb

I arrived at the barren Juniper Basin campground, nearly seven miles from the trailhead, to have my pick of campsites. I was the only one there.  By this point, I was at about 6,000 feet in elevation and there were patches of snow just starting to appear. There was a small stream near the campsite, with just enough running water for cooking, cleaning, and drinking. There was also an outhouse, bear boxes (bears in the desert!), and fire pits. My goal for the following day was to hike to the summit of Mica Mountain at 8,666 feet.  This was an ambitious goal, as getting there involved a round trip hike of nearly 20 miles.

That night, the winds were some of the hardest I  have ever experienced in the backcountry. As I understand it, over 60 mile per hour winds were whipping through the mountains. I could hear the wind coming before it smacked into my tent. The next morning, after a breakfast of soup and dried peas, I readied myself for the long day ahead. Because it was the middle of December, I was dealing with one of the very shortest days of the year. Daylight was certainly at a premium. I was also leery about starting too early because of the weather and running into any potential predators, specifically mountain lions, which are known to frequent the area. 

It was  beautiful day and I encountered just a few small hang-ups along the way. Specifically, around the area of Tanque Verde Peak, where I lost sight of the trail and spent close to a half hour trying to find it. That incident set me back a bit. The snow got deep as well, and it was quite a different scene when I arrived at Manning Camp.

I want interrupt here for just a brief moment and apologize for not having any pictures. I checked my old hard drive earlier today and cannot find the images from this trip. Anyway, Manning Camp is a high camp used by the park service as a backcountry HQ. It is located at about 8,000 feet near a number of intersecting trails.

I knew I didn’t have far to go to get to the summit, just 1.4 miles and in the end I decided to be prudent and turn around so I could get back before dark. This part of the story reminds me of an image I took of an eight point buck just lying in the snow, not 25 feet from the trai. It didn’t even flinch when it saw me coming. It just laid there and chilled. So cool! I’d love to share it with you, oh well…not today I guess. Anyway, I arrived back at camp safely an hour before dark, fueling skepticism in my mind that I could have summited the mountain and returned safely in time. No matter, I really didn’t want to potentially cross paths with a mountain lion at dusk anyway.

To my surprise, there was one other adventurous soul setting up camp upon my return….to be continued on the next post.

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