Tag Archives: backpacking

Exploring The Desolation Wilderness

27 Sep

Backpacking The Sierra Nevada in September

I recently returned from a 3-night backpacking trip in the Desolation Wilderness. This adventure offered a cornucopia of surprises including 50-mph wind gusts, heavy rain and snow and campground thieves. It was a heck on adventure!

The serendipitous choice to visit this remote pocket of wilderness near South Tahoe was based on logistics, subject matter, budget, and weather. The 50-mph wind gusts were predicted but not accounted for. I simply did not believe the forecast. And snow was never mentioned…

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“Enchanted Dreams” Off-trail in the Desolation about an hour before the rain

Three of the four days featured stormy, windy, and overcast conditions while a layover day was mostly sunny and breezy. Temperatures never exceeded 65 degrees. The howling winds smashing the side of my tent often affected my sleep. The last night was notably piercing and the open basin sounded like a wind tunnel.

Fortunately the smothering rain changed to snow after sunset and the frozen sides of my tent helped weigh it down. If it hadn’t snowed my tent would have surely flooded. The next morning was gorgeous until 9:45 am when the weather soured. By 11:15 am I experienced blizzard-like conditions ascending 8500-foot Maggie’s Peak en route to the Bayview Trailhead.

Overall, the wilderness was gorgeous with shimmering water and shining slabs of granite. Most peaks here top out just south of 10,000 feet so there isn’t as much vertical relief for photography. We saw only 5 people over the last 3 days and I was elated with the level of solitude! Obviously, the weather had something to do with that.

I’ll have a few more pictures on my website soon. Enclosed are a couple of cell phone shots. If you want to learn more about this trip, hit me up and I’ll pen a follow-up!

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A remote lake in the Desolation Wilderness

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A view near base camp.

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

 

 

 

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?”

New Book Coming Soon

8 Oct

I’m currently in the process of working on a new book entitled, “Exploring and Photographing SW Colorado’s High Alpine Lakes.” Initially it will be available as an ebook and I also plan on publishing a print version as well. This book will focus on the San Juan Mountains with detailed driving, hiking, and photography instructions including what times to shoot for the best light as well as other tidbits of useful information. Detailed ratings of each location as well as descriptions of unpaved forest roads and recommended trip lengths will also be included. It should be completed by early next year.

Before the holiday season I’ll be offering a pre-order opportunity where the book will be available at 30% off the initial price. This is a excellent purchase for anyone interested in exploring the San Juans on foot or car with an emphasis on photography. It is sure to help improve your photographs and save you a lot time and effort in trip planning and decision making not to mention help you choose which roads are suitable for your vehicle and driving style without having to actually find out first hand!

Please look for the link in the future as I’ll have much more on this in the next month. I’m happy to answer any questions that you might have. Happy Shooting!!

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!

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!

Wild Moments #3 Lost in the Desert – The Expedition Pt. 1

3 Feb

In December  2004, I ventured into the Rincon Mountains of Saguaro National Park East for my first solo backpacking trip. It was a trip that I’ll never forget. For those of you that don’t know, the Rincon Mountains are part of the “sky islands,”   a group of mountain chains in the Coronado National Forest of southeastern Arizona that draw their name from the extreme biodiversity found within the topography.  The largest of the sky islands is Mt. Graham. At 10,720 ft, it is also the third highest peak in the state.

The Rincon Mountains top out at 8,664 feet, but draw distinction as being some of the roughest mountains in the state. A few years back, I read a book about hiking the Arizona Trail and the author claimed the Rincons, which traverse the state from north to south, were the most difficult part of the 772 mile hike.  Although there are over 100 miles of trails in the Rincons, there is one trail that serves as the artery into the park. It’s called the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail and it’s the one most backpackers use. It is an 18 mile trail (roundtrip) that journeys on the spine of the Rincons into the heart of the mountains. From its terminant, it is a manageable day hike to reach the top of the mountains.

I started out in mid morning on a typical December day. Temperatures were in the high 60s and it was sunny and relatively warm. At the trailhead, the topography is lower Sonoran desert. You’ll see a veritable display of plants such as saguaro, ocotillo, cholla, prickly pear, and barrel cacti as well as mesquite and palo verde trees amongst others. As the trail begins to climb, the topography soon changes.  Lower Sonoran desert gives way to high Sonoran desert and the larger cacti soon disappear. They are replaced with large boulders, wild grasses, and more trees. (If you are interested in the different biotic zones of this hike, you’ll find more information here)

By the time I reached camp near the seven mile mark, the temperature had dropped about  15 degrees. There were patches of snow at the campsite. When night began to fall, the wind picked up considerably and  the temperatures plummeted. Backpacking in the Rincon Mountains is not for the faint of heart. This was just the beginning of my adventure…(I’ve got my pictures from this hike on another hard drive and I will update this post with a few shots before my next post.)

Wild Moments in the Wilderness #4: Wild Weather + Bad Trail Maps = Mental Anguish

17 Jan

Ask any seasoned outdoor traveler and they’ll tell you that if you spend enough time outside, you’ll see just about every kind of weather imaginable. This is especially true when traveling in the mountains. Weather forecasts are generally unreliable when dealing with high altitude backcountry travel.  Currently, I find the national weather service’s website to be the best for detailed weather forecasts of hard to get to wilderness locations.

For example, this past summer Joyce and I were planning a series of two backpacking trips to the southern part of the Sierra Nevada mountains. In late September, the weather is usually clear and mild even into the far reaches and heights of the High Sierra. For the weeks leading up to our trip, I continuously checked the weather forecasts. The forecasts, much to my dismay were clear, clear and more clear skies. They called for unseasonably warm temperatures during the first leg of our trip.

However, the forecasts also predicted a strong cold front  coming into the region (from the Pacific NW)  by the middle of our trip. This was not supposed to change, and believe me, I scoured every website looking for anyone or anything calling for clouds.  

There weren’t any surprises concerning the weather (clear, blue Sierra skies) when we started our trip. Unfortunately, the weather on day two was even much hotter than what was forcasted. It was literally scorching hot without a cloud in the sky. Coincidentally, it was also one of our most arduous days of hiking. Despite the incredible scenery, this made traveling unpleasant. Oh, not mention, our National Geographic topographic map seemed entirely inaccurate. What looked to be a fairly straight line on the map was actually a winding, weaving, up and down, thigh burner of a trail. It ended up being at least 3/4 mile longer than what was stated.

When combined with the hot weather and long distances can really demoralize a hiker’s attidue.

This was sunset at Hamilton Lake taken on the hottest evening of the trip. The High Sierra Trail is visible on the far side of the lake - this is where it makes its final ascent towards the Great Western Divide.

The  following day the weather started to change. Just my luck, another perfectly clear sunrise without a cloud to be seen.

Taken shortly after sunrise near Hamilton Creek.

The Changing Day

Two hours later, the clouds came out of nowhere and started rolling and swirling around. At first it was in a concentrated area and then things really started to intensify. We didn’t break camp until almost noon and so thereafter the fog started descending on us – hard.  On this particular day, the map was even less accurate. It was a long, cold, strenuous, uphill venture and fresh bear scat along the trail added to the intensity and mystery.

This is the view from the top of a steep fall on the way to Tamarack Lake.

What was even more difficult was the fog covered all of our vantage points so we really had no visual frame of reference as to how how far our final destination was. Long story short, after several hours of exhausting travel we arrived at the lake.  A couple of times, I actually thought the fog might lift and we would be treated to a spectacular sunset. Alas, that never happened.

Later that night, it started to snow. It snowed hard for several hours, which seriously worried Joyce. Rule one for wilderness travel is to hope for the best, be prepared for the worst and keep a level head. That’s what we did and things turned out just fine. The next morning it was sunny and clear. Once again, not a cloud in sight. Later that day, the fog settled in, right on cue.

That’s about three days worth experiences summarized in three paragraphs. There are several lessons to learn from all of this. Remember, the difficulties in backpacking are 50/50 mental and physical. Weather patterns while traveling high in the mountains are completely unpredictable.  It is crucial to be both mentally and physically prepared for the worst. Keep a level head and take one step at a time. Don’t rely too much on trails maps for complete accuracy.  If you need to cut back on some weight, you can always leave some of your camera gear at home . Well, hopefully not! I hope you enjoyed this post. Look for #3 around next Friday.

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