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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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5 Insider Tips on Renting Cars for Your Next Adventure

11 Oct

Autumn is the perfect time for road trips and renting a vehicle can save gas and prevent needless wear-and-tear. For those of us with wanderlust this can be invaluable. Here are five tips to save money, time, and headaches the next time you need a rental car.

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  1. Aim for the Sweet Spots – Rule #1 when renting vehicles – not all days cost the same. Week-long rentals generally offer the best bang for your buck. For instance, if you are renting for four or five days a week-long rental could be the same price or just a few dollars more. Likewise, many rental agencies offer specials on weekends. However, expect to pay more on holidays or during local events like concerts or festivals. Similarly, most locations have “peak” seasons for charging premium prices. For instance, rates spike in Phoenix in March for spring training. Having flexibility when planing your next adventure can save you cash.
  2. Use Costco Travel – This one is not free as a membership costs $60/yr. However, if you are renting four or five cars annually this can pay for itself. Costco Travel aggregates all the coupons for Enterprise, Avis, Budget,  and Alamo and automatically applies them to your reservation. This saves you countless hours searching the web for the latest coupon codes or deals. While some “discount” companies like National, Fox, and Dollar are not covered – these prices provide a benchmark if you want to search elsewhere for better prices. Hertz is the only major company not covered that has locations away from the airports.
  3. Reserve Early and Double Check Later – To secure the best rates try reserving at least three weeks in advance. In fact, I recommend making the reservation as soon as your trip plans are solidified. Earlier is usually better as prices tend to rise as more demand for that date occurs. However, prices also occasionally drop. It may be worth investing 5 to 10 minutes of time to double check prices as your next trip approaches. You could end up saving 50 bucks or more!
  4. Coverage Choices – I use American Express when renting cars because it covers my insurance. Make sure you have proper coverage in place without paying the extraordinary prices rental agencies charge. If necessary, call your insurance agent to find out what your policy covers. If you need to purchase coverage have the clerk explain everything as there are multiple levels of coverage including some that you may not need.
  5. Watch for Bait-n-Switch – This usually pertains to the class of cars. Because there are so many: economy, compact, intermediate, standard, and full size the differences can be vague. Some cars and SUV’s seem too fit into two categories. Rental companies will occasionally put you in a lower class of vehicle and then try selling you on an upgrade. This “upgrade” is actually what you are paying for in the first place! If necessary, be prepared to pull up the company website which shows and describes the class of vehicles. Additionally, companies will try selling “fake” upgrades. For instance, when renting a Jeep from the airport in Hawaii I was asked by the clerk if I’d like to upgrade to two-door model for $60. I let him explain the benefits and politely refused. When I got my vehicle I was able to choose a two-door one anyways!

If you have any other tips, stories, or if this post was helpful to you I’d love to read them in the comments section below.

Endless Journey

5 Tips for a Better Backpacking Trip

6 Oct

For many October represents the last month for backpacking without traveling. Here in the Southwest, it is the beginning of the backpacking season. Whether you live close to the mountains, forest, ocean or desert, these are five tried-and-true backpacking tips to help you get more out of your next adventure.

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Off-trail backpacking in the Weminuche Wilderness

  1. Pack Smarter – One way to maximize your travel load is to pack items that have more than one use.  For instance, mix olive oil in hot food for extra calories and  use it as a nighttime facial moisturizer. Likewise, a trowel is primarily used to dig latrines but can also come in handy in emergency situations. Carefully selecting multifaceted items helps keep pack loads lighter because you can do more with less. Traveling lighter also makes hiking more enjoyable.
  2. Invest in a Better Sleeping Pad – It’s amazing how many people still carry the old-school foam sleeping pads. While ultralight, inflatable sleeping pads are more expensive, it’s a worthwhile investment. Not only will you sleep better but you’ll be warmer as high-end inflatable pads are insulated and keep you off the ground. Improving your sleep quality in the backcountry means a more enjoyable experience and you’ll think more clearly too.
  3. Count Calories – Packing the right amount of food is an art and taking the time to stay organized pays back dividends. How much is too much? To save money, starting purchasing food several weeks before and stockpile. Visit a variety of grocery stores to get the best deals. Once your cache is complete, divide the food into days by meticulously counting  calories per package labels. Two-thousand calories per day is sufficient. Store in bags and label each day. Bonus tip: consume your heaviest and bulkiest items first. If buying dehydrated meals like Backpacker’s Pantry – buy in bulk to save money. These meals last for years.
  4. Cut Labels and Packaging – The majority of cutting will be performed on food packaging. Cut the ends without compromising freshness. If the original packaging is too bulky (usually bags) repackage altogether (except for jerky). Also be sure to cut the labels off of your tent, sleeping bag, and clothes. Labels and packaging add up. You could save between 12 – 15 ounces easy.
  5. Mental Preparation – I am huge proponent of mental preparation. Study the weather reports and comb over topographic maps. Make sure you know the elevation and distances for each leg of the trip. Identify an areas on your hike where the trail could be faint or a creek crossing difficult. If finding water is an issue, this is where you need to plan accordingly. Most adventures hold surprises and mental preparation could be the difference between having fun or making a serious blunder.
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Taking in a backcountry sunset in the South San Juan Wilderness

September Decisions

14 Sep

Autumn, the time when the weather cools, school starts, football returns, the leaves change and fall, and everyone’s lives get a little busier. This is notably true for landscape photographers as the fall is a consensus “favorite” season for many shutterbugs.

Late September is an unpredictable time as the last days of summer usher in a wide variety of atmospheric conditions. Humidity decreases, so does the bugs and crowds, creating innumerable possibilities for those fortunate enough to travel.

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I was hoping to revisit my favorite waterfall while in Yellowstone. This shot was captured in September 2009.

I find myself currently in this position with my girlfriend who works for a major airline, the opportunities are endless to explore new places. The plan was to return to Yellowstone, as September is known as the “golden month” in the world’s first national park. However, the upcoming weather forecast is calling for below normal temps and extended periods of precipitation (rain/snow mix), which makes backpacking less fun.

Long story short we decided to look elsewhere. Some of the places we considered were Acadia National Park and Baxter State Park (ME), Blackwater Falls SP (WV), Cathedral Gorge State Park (NV), Lassen Volcanic NP and Channel Islands NP (CA), and now the search continues. We still haven’t decided on a destination although it is now looking like California again. What places do you recommend during this time of year?

In other news, I am back in editing mode working on my new releases gallery. Most of the images will be from summer backpacking trips around the San Juans as I am diligently working toward a printed version of my book. However, you’ll also discover images from other states too. It is a work in progress but check back regularly for frequent updates and happy leaf peeping!

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A high key black and white image from Yellowstone Lake in early October

 

 

 

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.

 

Arizona’s Top 3 National Monuments Part 1

26 Jun

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

Canyon De Chelly National Monument

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A gaping chasm of sandstone reveals a lush valley with zigzagging patterns of stately cottonwood trees. Hidden in this oasis are myriads of ancient ruins, linking the past to present. My strongest impression is indulging in the palpable silence of sunrise while standing on the precipice of a sheer 1,000-foot cliff. A whispering breeze slices through the stillness of this lonesome landscape. Carefully navigating the rocks only inches from certain death invigorates my soul. Occasionally I hear from a companion, a cawing raven struggling in the cross currents.

Canyon De Chelly is the premier national monument in Arizona and a top-shelf scenic attraction. Established in 1931, the Navajo Nation owns this national historic treasure. A series of roads surround it connecting unique vistas with interesting names and stories. Getting around may confuse first-time visitors as Canyon De Chelly actually comprises four canyons and features complex geology.

Many viewpoints feature wide, sprawling platforms perfect for scrambles and exploring. It is easy to find solitude among the many nooks, overhangs, and ledges. However, there is only one public trail in the park. A 1.2-mile route (Whitehouse Ruins Trail) leads down a winding rock passage from an overlook to the valley floor. Further exploring is prohibited without a Navajo guide. (Easily book a private or public sightseeing tour near the visitor center. Prices are negotiable.)

The most iconic landmark is Spider Rock, a lone, towering spire in a secluded basin that shimmers at sunset. A brief 10-minute walk introduces the best views but some sight lines are obscured by dense foliage and dangerous outcroppings. Local residents (a.k.a.) outgoing canyon dogs sometimes tag along for fun. The Spider Rock Overlook is about a half-hour drive (16 miles) from the visitor center and campground.

 

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Photo by Dean Hueber see more of his work here

 

In addition to the campground, other lodging options include an in-park hotel and several others in nearby Chinle, a town of about 5,000 people. The privately owned Spider Rock Campground adds the unique experience of staying in a Navajo hogan. A three-day stay is a perfect introduction to this spellbinding place. Canyon De Chelly is a true four-season park with fall colors usually occurring toward the end of October. It is a five-hour drive from Phoenix or about fours from Albuquerque, NM.

 

 

Leaving for Frozen Yellowstone This Week

16 Jan

I am preparing for my first photography trip of 2012 to  Yellowstone National Park. Later this week, I’ll arrive in Bozeman, MT  where I’ll spend nearly a week exploring the frozen tundra of Yellowstone in search of interesting landscapes and wild animals. While I have spent some time in Yellowstone during a snowstorm, it was during the fall and not the frozen heart of winter.

My experience in dealing with sub-freezing temperatures is limited and I am not exactly sure what to expect. Considering that I have lived in Arizona for the past 16 years , I am not used to hardcore winter photography where temperatures can drop below zero.

Just minutes before a huge snowstorm hit Yellowstone Lake

Just minutes before a huge snowstorm hit Yellowstone Lake, captured in early October

Because I’ll be assisting another photographer in leading a large group – I don’t exactly have the autonomy I normally do on a photography excursion by myself.  However, I am still hoping to come away with some quality images. Currently, the weather forecast looks like snow, snow and more snow so I am not sure how that is going to translate into landscape images, which I favor over wildlife scenes.  My goal is to push the bounds of my creativity and hopefully come up with something unique, especially if the light is less than spectacular.

Any suggestions or tips for dealing with the cold weather are greatly appreciated. I have hand and feet warmers, but I am still not sure how equipped or prepared I am in dealing with the frigid temperatures.

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