Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West

Colorado

Rocks and (Musk)Rats of the Rockies

stream meanders along the Fall River, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
stream meanders along the Fall River, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Textbook stream meanders along the Fall River, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

A few weekends back I led my semester-ly geology field trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. Each time I end up finding new gems that I had previously overlooked, such as the spectacular stream meanders along the Fall River pictured above. One good flood and the stream will erode through the narrow strip of land separating the two meanders, leaving the bend in the middle of the photo high and dry. Places like this are a great opportunity for students to see in action a geologic process that every introductory geology instructor teaches in the classroom.

Despite many areas of the park still being covered in umpteen feet of snow, wildflowers are beginning to appear in the lower elevations around Estes Park:

Early blooming pasqueflower in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Early blooming pasqueflower in Moraine Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Longs Peak shrouded in a late-season storm, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Longs Peak shrouded in a late-season storm, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

The biggest cause for excitement actually occurred after the field trip was over. I had intended to stick around in the park for a longer hike after setting the students free, but I quickly realized I had left my filled camelback on the kitchen counter. Lacking any sort of water carrying device, not wanting to shell out the cash to buy one, nor desiring to try to fashion one out of ungulate intestines, that plan was foiled. In lieu of a hike I headed for a short stroll around Lily Lake to try to get some pictures of the incoming storm enveloping Longs Peak.

While snapping the above photo, I was startled by what sounded like a cannonball being dropped into the lake behind behind me. My initial suspicion of hooligans launching boulders into the lake was discredited when I turned around and saw no one within half a mile. I made my way to the edge of the lake and remained motionless; after a few moments, this little guy appeared:

Muskrats in Lily Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Beaver? Otter? Furry fish?

Lily Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Lily Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Noticing the presence of a nearby mass of chewed up sticks (above), I hastily assumed I was in the presence of a beaver. In short time, a second critter appeared and the pair began to tussle, albeit sadly behind a willow bush from my point of view. It soon became clear that these animals were more agile and less chunky and rotund than your typical beaver. Not being able to see them clearly with the naked eye, my next guess was river otter, which persisted until I got home and took a closer look at the pictures below. Otters would have a tough time leading their carnivorous lifestyles with only those gigantic incisors to work with. I was out of ideas (this is why I lead geology field trips, not wildlife watching trips…) , so I was forced to the internet where I learned that I had just seen my first muskrat.

Muskrats in Lily Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Two combative muskrats in Lily Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park

Muskrats in Lily Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Nice teeth!

Finally, on the way home, I made a quick stop at a rock shop in Estes Park that I’ve driven past dozens of times. I quickly discovered that knowledge of basic geological principles is not a prerequisite for owning a rock shop when I found a large bin of black limestone labeled:

estes_park_rock_shop

{facepalm}


Earth, Wind & Snow

Boulders in the snow at Horsetooth Reservoir
Horsetooth Reservoir in the snow

Horsetooth Reservoir after the first significant snowfall of 2015

After the first two winter storms of the year did nothing but lower Northern Colorado’s collective faith in local weather forecasters, we finally got our real snowfall of the year over the past few days. After a predominantly grey and shivery Thanksgiving weekend, the clouds finally revealed some blue sky today so I headed out to Horsetooth Reservoir for a few hours to grab some photos before the afternoon slate of NFL games kicked-off.

Horsetooth Reservoir is a local landmark and apart from the obvious water-based recreational opportunities, there are several world-class bouldering spots located along the east shore of the reservoir that make for some interesting winter scenes. I half expected to see some bold (feel free to pick a stronger word if you prefer…) boulderers throwing caution to the sheets of ice coating most surfaces, but despite this location’s proximity to Fort Collins (~10 minutes), I was pleasantly surprised to have the place all to myself. With no boats on the reservoir and two ridgelines separating me from the ongoing holiday shopping hustle and bustle down below, Horsetooth was unusually serene.

Boulders in the snow at Horsetooth Reservoir

A popular bouldering spot at Horsetooth Reservoir; a bit slick today!

Snowy trail at trees at Horsetooth Reservoir

Snowy trails and trees along Horsetooth Reservoir

After wandering around for nearly an hour, I began to notice that nearly every branch and blade of grass was encrusted in about a half inch of crystal-clear ice. Not only that, but the ice had invariably accumulated on the east side of the vegetation, suggesting some fairly persistent west winds over the past few days. A far cry from the sunny serenity of Sunday afternoon!

Ice accumulation on dry grass blades

Ice accumulation on dry grass blades

Ice on branches

Ice accumulation on shrubs after a recent winter storm


Summer Fades, Winter Enters

Golden aspens and creek in Rocky Mountain National Park

While the snow may be falling and the vegetation dying, I am still alive and well here in Northern Colorado. This past spring, I somewhat rapidly went from working zero hours per week to working 50-70 hours per week which, as they say, “crimped my style” when it comes to photography.

We’ve had a glorious month of unseasonably warm fall weather here in Colorado and I was fortunate to get the chance to take several trips into the high country over the past few weeks to photograph fall colors. The presence of a leaf blight on many aspens in Northern Colorado (due to a fungus that took hole during our spring & early summer deluge) led to dire speculation that this season’s leaf show would be a letdown. Indeed, I did come across occasional unsightly stands of aspen with leaves that looked as though they been crisped by a torch. But many other locations appeared completely unaffected and lived up to the annual hype. Enjoy the photos!

Note: 2016 photography calendars will be available soon! Details to come…

Golden aspens and creek in Rocky Mountain National Park

Aspens along the lower Roaring River, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Red, yellow, and green aspens

A bright palette of red, yellow, and green aspens in Wild Basin, Rocky Mountain National Park. Nature’s stoplight! Just not quite in the correct order…

Golden aspens near Pennock Pass, Colorado

Pennock Pass, Colorado

Golden Aspens near Pennock Pass, Colorado

Pennock Pass, Colorado

Fallen aspen leaves on a trail in Rocky Mountain National Park

Fallen leaves litter a trail in Wild Basin, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Poison ivy changes colors in the fall

Aspens aren’t the only plant that change color in the fall! Poison ivy (Toxicodendron rydbergii) can often have colors to match.


Greyrock Trail Loop, Poudre Canyon, Colorado

Poudre Canyon before sunset
view of greyrock mountain and meadow

Greyrock Mountain and Greyrock Meadow

And now for a few more photos from before winter roared back into Colorado this past week:

Earlier this winter we took a day trip up Poudre Canyon, about a half hour northwest of Fort Collins. One of the more popular trails here is a ~5.5 mile loop combining the Greyrock Trail and the Greyrock Meadows Trail. A short spur trail heads up to the summit of Greyrock Mountain (pictured above) near the apex of the loop but we opted to pass on this route due to icy conditions and dwindling daylight. Despite ranging in elevation from 5,500-7,000 feet, the trail was surprisingly snow free, save for the lower sections that were well-shaded by the canyon walls.

The highlight of the hike is most certainly the spectacular granitic rock formations surrounding Greyrock Mountain. I say granitic because the rock here is actually not granite but what geologists call quartz monzonite; essentially granite with slightly less quartz and slightly more feldspar (hence the pinkish color). A seemingly trivial difference perhaps but an important one to geologists trying to unravel the history of the rocks. The steep, smooth faces of Greyrock Mountain wouldn’t look out of place amongst the granite domes of Yosemite National Park. There’s also some good sized pegmatite dikes that criss-cross the area. We found some very large and attractive quartz and feldspar crystals poking around the meadows that surround Greyrock Mountain.

A view of Greyrock Meadow

Standing on a large pegmatite dike looking down into Greyrock Meadow. The continuation of the dike can be seen as the prominent vertical pink stripe on the hillside just beyond the meadow.

On a non-geology note, the trails winds through several different burn scars, apparently of different ages based on the amount of regrowth in different areas. Many of these burned areas are likely due to the High Park Fire of 2012, one of the largest wildfires in Colorado’s history which ravaged the lower sections of Poudre Canyon. There had apparently been a large windstorm here recently, as there were numerous downed trees, some dead snags but some still very much green and alive, strewn across the trail:

downed Ponderosa Pine on the trail

One of many large, recently downed Ponderosa Pines on the Greyrock Meadow Trail.

On the hike back down to the trailhead (on the Greyrock Meadows Trail), we were treated to a spectacular sunset over Poudre Canyon as well as views of the distant Mummy Range in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Poudre Canyon before sunset

Golden hour light looking east down Poudre Canyon

Sunset above Poudre Canyon

Sunset over Poudre Canyon


Fun in the Fort Collins Foothills

Horsetooth Rock

Horsetooth Rock, a famous Fort Collins landmark, is composed of hard Precambrian pegmatite.

It is currently snowing so hard I can barely see across the street. Fortunately, I haven’t been able to say this very often this winter, and I strongly suspect it won’t even be true 10 minutes from now. After six winters in the Pacific Northwest, once again residing somewhere where “warm” and “dry” are not mutually exclusive weather conditions has been quite refreshing. The mild weather has made hiking and all the other outdoorsy things that are practically a prerequisite for obtaining a Colorado driver’s license quite enjoyable. I’ve written about some of my adventures up to Rocky Mountain National Park but have yet to share any photos of our more immediate surroundings here in Fort Collins.

Fort Collins itself, lying at the extreme western edge of the Great Plains, is…well…flat. The only sledding hill I’ve yet seen here is a pathetic 20 foot run down the side of a large pile of gravel in the corner of the college football stadium parking lot. (As you’ll notice though, there is very little snow in any of these photos, so this is sort of a moot point.) Immediately west of town though lie the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, a beautiful landscape of ridges and valleys that mark the boundary between the plains and the Rockies.

Fort Collins at sunset

Overlooking Fort Collins just before sunset from cuestas (ridges) between town and Horsetooth Reservoir.

Lichens on sandstone boulders

Colorful lichens coating sandstone ledges of the Cretaceous-age Lytle Formation, Coyote Ridge Natural Area.

Geologically speaking, the foothills are fascinating (though geologists find just about any landscape fascinating…heck even Iowa has one of the largest asteroid impact craters on Earth lurking just beneath its surface) because they  represent where the Rocky Mountains pushed their way up through the crust. Prior to the uplift of the Rockies, this portion of Colorado was covered in a thick, continuous stack of colorful but more or less flat-lying sedimentary rock layers, much like one sees at the Grand Canyon today. Eventually, the Rockies thrust their way upward through the sedimentary rock, forcing the formerly flat layers to tilt toward the east. Over time, the softer sedimentary layers were (relatively) easily eroded away, forming long north/south trending valleys. Other layers were harder and resistant to erosion, forming dramatic sloping ridges known as cuestas and hogbacks that parallel the valleys.

The resulting pattern of alternating ridges and valleys is striking and has practical uses as well. In many places, streams flowing out of the mountains have been dammed at the point where they slice through the ridges, forming long, slender reservoirs that flood the valley bottoms. Horsetooth Reservoir, which provides some drinking water for Ft. Collins and irrigation water for the plains, is perhaps the best example.

Devils Backbone hogback

Devils Backbone, a nearly vertical hogback of Dakota Sandstone south of Fort Collins.

Slightly further west, the landscape changes as the sedimentary layers give way to the igneous and metamorphic rocks that compose the bulk of the Rockies, forming famous local landmarks such as Horsetooth Rock (above) and Arthur’s Rock.

The plethora of city, state, and county parks that protect large swaths of the foothills are increasingly important as the cities below the foothills encroach on wildlife habitat. Mammals like deer, elk, bobcat, and bear are abundant in the foothills. As the cities below continue to push up against, and even into, the foothills, it’s not uncommon to read stories in the local newspaper about a moose, bear, or mountain lion wandering into town.

Mule deer on cliff

Mule Deer, Maxwell Natural Area

Black-tailed prairie dog, Coyote Ridge Natural Area

Black-tailed prairie dog, Coyote Ridge Natural Area

Cottontail rabbit in snow

Cottontail rabbit, Coyote Ridge Natural Area

Eagles Nest and Cache la Poudre River

Eagles Nest Rock and the North Fork of the Cache la Poudre River

Mahoney Park, Bobcat Ridge Natural Area

Mahoney Park, Bobcat Ridge Natural Area


Top 10 from 2014

As in past years, with the coming of the New Year I decided to take a look back at all the photos I took in 2014 and select some of my favorites to share with you here on the blog. Between finishing graduate school (yippee!) and making a permanent (for now) move from the Pacific Northwest to Colorado, I had less time to devote to photography than in previous years. Nevertheless, picking out my favorite photos was difficult as usual and a good reminder that I was fortunate to have the opportunity to experience and photograph a a number of new places in the past year, from the coasts of Olympic National Park to remote alpine basins in the Rocky Mountains.

Without further ado, here are my ten favorite photos from 2014 in chronological order. Here’s wishing you all a healthy and happy new year!

1. Tulip Fields at Sunset, Skagit Valley Tulip Festival, Washington

Filed at Skagit Valley Tulip Festival

Held annually in April, the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival is a must see for any spring visitor to NW Washington, photography buff or not. On weekends, especially sunny ones, the tulip fields that spread out across the Skagit Valley about an hour north of Seattle are overrun, making photography difficult. Fortunately, I lived only about a half hour away and was able to visit on a less-busy weekday evening in order to photograph the picture-perfect bulbs in their prime and without the crowds.

2. American Bison, Yellowstone National Park

A solitary bison in Yellowstone National Park

I’m going to come clean: this is the only photo on this list taken from the confines of my car! I was departing Yellowstone at the end of an impromptu day-trip to the park while attending a geology conference in Bozeman when I spotted this solitary bison along the road. Fortunately, no vehicles were coming up behind me so I was able to grab my camera and capture the glow of the late afternoon sunlight and the diffuse reflection of the bison in a pool of late-season snow melt.

3. Milky Way, Airglow, and Light Pollution from Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park, Washington

Milky Way and airglow from Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park

Living near Seattle doesn’t exactly do wonders for one’s chances of observing rare celestial events. What’s one to do? Get above the clouds of course! I was thrilled to be visiting Olympic National Park during the peak of the Cameleopardalids meteor shower in May. In order to get an unobstructed view, we made the drive up to Hurricane Ridge just before midnight in hopes of catching some meteors. As you may recall, the meteor shower fizzled spectacularly but all was not lost: I was able to capture this panorama of the summer Milky Way emerging from the disgusting Seattle light dome (over 50 miles away as the crow flies) as it rose in the west. Despite the light pollution, I also managed to capture the ghostly green glow of an atmospheric phenomenon known as “airglow” (which I’ve written about previously) and the low lying clouds smothering the Elwah River Valley several thousand feet below.

4. Giant Green Anemone (Anthopleura xanthogrammica), Olympic National Park

Close-up of a Giant Green Anemone in Olympic National Park

I developed a slight infatuation with seeking out and photographing marine life during my two years in Western Washington. Timing trips to the coast with some of the lowest tides of the year helped me discover a wide variety of anemones, nudibranchs, sea stars, urchins, and much more. Anemones were perhaps my favorite group to photograph, their neon-colored and delicate tentacles waving back and forth in the surf.

5. Panorama from Hole-in-the-Wall, Rialto Beach, Olympic National Park

Panorama from top of Hole-in-the-Wall, Rialto Beach, Olympic National Park

Rialto Beach is one of the most popular spots in Olympic National Park…for obvious reasons. The short 2-mile hike to Hole-in-the-Wall was one of my favorite experiences this year. Once reaching the famous rock formation, we found an nearly entirely overgrown path that led us up to a viewpoint on the crest of Hole-in-the-Wall, getting us away from the surprisingly scant Memorial Day crowds and immersing us in expansive views of sea stacks, rocks, and islands along the Olympic coast.

6. Summer Wildflowers at Ice Lake, San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Wildflowers at Ice Lake

Despite my ravings about Rialto Beach in the previous photo, our trek to Ice Lake in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado was hands down my favorite hike of the year, and one of my most memorable ever. My only regret about this day was that we weren’t prepared for an overnight (or at least a hike back to the car in the dark!), which means I missed out on what was surely a epic sunset from the basin. Click the link above for more photos of this spectacular place.

7. Ice Lake Panorama, San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Panorama of Ice Lake, San Juan Mountains

Did I mention Ice Lake was spectacular? It snagged two of the coveted spots on the top 10 list. That means you have to go.

8. Circumpolar Star Trails from Escalante Canyon, Colorado

Star Trails from Escalante Canyon

Photographing star trails is a bit more complex in the digital age than it was with film. This was only my second legitimate attempt, but I was happy with how it turned out. Extremely long single exposures suffer from a variety of maladies so this photo is actually a composite of over 100 consecutive 30″ exposures (for the stars), and one 3″ exposure for the foreground juniper which I illuminated with a headlamp. In post-processing, I had the pleasure of removing more than a dozen aircraft which passed overhead during the hour or so it took to gather the series of exposures. I elected not to remove the two meteors (astronomical objects flashing through the frame are fine by me) but I’m looking forward to doing some more star trail photography from places not on major transcontinental flight paths.

9. Exclamation Point, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado

Black Canyon of the Gunnison from Excalmation Point

I love this photo because it exemplifies how the canyon got its name. Despite being taken at 10 o’clock in the morning, the narrow gorge carved into dark Precambrian metamorphic rocks remained shrouded in shadow, while its surroundings (and portions of the canyon bottom) are basking in the bright, mid-morning sunshine. This photo was taken from an overlook on the remote and seldom visited North Rim of Black Canyon, which offers the most spectacular views into the narrowest portion of this amazing gorge and is truly worth the effort to visit.

10. Waving Aspen and Grasses, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Waving aspen tree, Rocky Mountain National Park

I didn’t purchase any new camera gear this year, but was the recipient of a 9-stop neutral density filter for my birthday, a filter I’ve been wanting to experiment with for a while now. That filter allowed me to take this photo, a 30″ exposure at f/22 in broad daylight, and capture the motion of a colorful aspen and meadow grasses waving in the wind on a autumn day in Rocky Mountain National Park.

 

 

 


A Sheep, a Sheep! My Kingdom for a Sheep!

2 bighorn sheep ewes in BIg Thompson Canyon
2 bighorn sheep ewes in BIg Thompson Canyon

Two bighorn sheep ewes in Big Thompson Canyon, Colorado.

After some memorable elk encounters this past fall, I’ve been on the lookout for more wildlife viewing opportunities over the past few months. A flock of several thousand Canadian geese passing overhead while extricating my car from a foot of snow at the Denver airport didn’t quite cut it so on a recent weekend, we headed out in search of one of Colorado’s most iconic creatures: the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep.

It turns out that late November and early December is the best time of year to view Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep here in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies. This time period marks the annual bighorn sheep rut, or mating period. While the bighorn sheep rut attracts far less attention than the fall elk rut, at this time the sheep descend from higher elevations to avoid deep snowpack and are frequently seen along canyons such as the Big Thompson, just a short half hour drive from Fort Collins (where I now live).

If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Big Thompson Canyon is better known as the site of a number of large and particularly deadly floods in the past few decades than as prime bighorn territory. But in late autumn and early winter, this is the place to be for some serious sheep spotting and shooting (with a camera of course!). This is not to say the sheep are always easy to spot. The beige bighorns, with the exception of their white butts, blend into the brown and shrubby landscape extraordinarily well. Here’s a view of the second pack of sheep we spotted to better illustrate the challenge:

Four bighorn sheep in Big Thompson Canyon

Find the FOUR bighorns!

You can see the problem: brown vegetation + brown rocks + (mostly) brown sheep = hard to spot sheep. It’s like Where’s Waldo, only in real life and with sheep instead of fictional characters with questionable fashion sense. Anyways, when whizzing by at 50 mph (the minimum speed required to avoid being rear-ended by folks hellbent on getting to Estes Park) on a road with little to no shoulder, it helps to have at least one pair of eyes apart from the driver to scan the cliffs and ledges so loved by the sheep for movement or a flash of a white rump.

In the end we spotted two groups of bighorns in about two hours in the late morning, the first group containing one ram and three ewes, the second two rams and three ewes. The first group was bedded down right along the Big Thompson River, just a stone’s throw from the highway right at the entrance to the canyon. With a little creative parking and scrambling, I was able to get some good close-ups of the sheep (see top photo and below). The second group was larger and more active, but was in a gully across the river over a hundred yards from the road, well outside the range of my pathetic telephoto equipment.

The presence of two rams in the second group was exciting because it afforded the possibility of seeing the famous bighorn sheep head-butting combat ritual in action. Alas though, these rams seemed much more interested in quietly grazing on the scant remaining greenery than in slamming their heads together at speeds of more than 30 mph (who wouldn’t?)

Bighorn Sheep ram in Big Thompson Canyon

A good look at the large curved horns on the male bighorns, used in head-butting competitions with other males for the right to mate with prime females.

A bighorn sheep ewe in Big Thompson Canyon

The bighorn sheep will continue to be visible in the Big Thompson area throughout the winter (as they avoid the deep snowpack at higher elevations) although once the rut concludes they become much more averse to human contact and populated areas. Unlike some other notable large mammals of the Rockies, bighorn sheep tend to be most active during daytime hours, making them relatively easy to spot if you have a keen eye.

 


Photographing the Night Sky from Colorado

Colorado is a great place for those of you who, like me, are perpetually torn between looking up and looking down. Colorado’s spectacular geologic landscapes keep me occupied during the day, but at night a whole different world opens up overhead. Colorado is a great place to look at and photograph the night sky for several reasons:

  • It’s relatively dark. With the exception of the Front Range megalopolis (where I now live), there are few egregious sources of light pollution, especially when compared to just about every state east of here.
  • It has the highest average elevation of any state. This is important because looking through the Earth’s atmosphere at the stars is like looking through a glass of water at a friend sitting next to you. The higher you go, the thinner the atmosphere becomes, and the better and steadier your view of the night sky.
  • It has good weather. Clear skies can be found regularly throughout the year, unlike in the black hole of astronomy known as the Pacific Northwest.
  • It has lots of public land where you can theoretically spend all night outside taking photos without fear of getting shot.

I spent a good chunk of this past summer honing my astrophotography skills and if you’ve never tried your hand at it, I encourage you to give it a try. It has certainly made me a better all-around photographer. First and foremost, astrophotography is an exercise in patience, both at the camera itself and then in front of the computer afterwards, and patience is a valuable virtue in all aspects of photography. Ironically, as comfortable as I am outside under the stars, astrophotography actually pushes out of my comfort zone photographically. Apart from minor brightness or contrast adjustments and cropping, I tend to eschew significant post-processing of my photos. When photographing the night sky though, some quality alone time with Photoshop and Lightroom is pretty much a necessity in order to get something that looks good.

Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon.

The summer Milky Way spans the sky from horizon to horizon as seen from near Delta, Colorado. The galactic center is located just above the southern horizon (right).

I’m not here to give you a step-by-step guide to night sky photography, that’s been done before (try here, here, or here), but simply to encourage you to try it. All you really need to get started is a DSLR, a tripod, some patience, and somewhere dark. Like ACTUALLY dark. Sadly, light pollution has gotten so bad that most people reading this will have never seen a truly pristine night sky. Driving to the suburbs does not qualify as “dark”. Here in the Denver/Boulder/Fort Collins light pollution-opolis, even after driving two hours up to 12,000 feet in Rocky Mountain National Park, you’ll still only see roughly HALF as many stars as can be seen with the naked eye from a truly dark location. To see if there are any pristine night skies near you, check out this nifty site, which is basically Google Maps with an overlay of light pollution severity. You’re looking for areas with the darkest black color and as you’ll see, they are becoming few and far between.

What’s great is how many different ways there are to incorporate the night sky into your photos. With wide-field astrophotography, the entire night sky is the star of the show (pun intended). Accomplished by using fast, wide-angle lenses combined with relatively short exposures (30 seconds or less, unless you have a motorized mount), this method can reveal spectacular detail in the night sky unseen by the human eye, such as the spectacular interstellar dust lanes in the Milky Way. If you pair the Milky Way with a terrestrial landscape illuminated by moonlight, the possibilities for composing spectacular nightscapes become nearly infinite.

Milky Way center close-up

Close-up of the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. Dark arms of starlight-obscuring dust, star clusters, and emission nebulae (pink) are visible in this 1-minute exposure.

Longer exposures (or lots of short ones “stacked” together) document the motion of the stars across the night sky. I have a soft spot for star trails because they are a beautiful reminder that the world we live in is in constant motion; the dramatic and graceful arcs traced out by the stars are due to OUR rotation, not the stars.  Star trails centered around the North Star (Polaris) can be especially striking since the north star is almost exactly above the rotational axis of the Earth, and thus moves very little throughout the night.

Star Trails over Escalante Canyon, Colorado

Star trails (centered on Polaris) over Escalante Canyon, Colorado

Probably the most challenging type of astrophotography, and really the only one that requires specialized (often expensive) equipment, is telescopic imaging. My experience in this category is limited, given the aforementioned factors (donations always happily accepted!), but I’ve tried it on a handful of occasions by using friend’s equipment or telescopes at observatories I have worked at. Telescopic astrophotography allows detailed images of galaxies, star clusters, and nebulae, many of which are not even visible to the naked eye. While good images can be obtained by fitting a DSLR to a telescope (below, center and right), the best images are obtained using stand-alone CCD cameras optimized for astrophotography (below, left).

Deep-sky images taken with telescope

A variety of galaxies and nebulae imaged via telescope. 

Some objects, like the Moon, are big and bright enough that a telescope is not needed to get decent images. I got this photo of last month’s total lunar eclipse with a standard 55-200mm zoom lens, and even had enough light gathering ability to capture the planet Uranus less than a degree away from the Moon!

Total lunar eclipse October 2014

Total lunar eclipse on October 8 2014, as seen from Fort Collins, CO

Beyond the technical challenge, what ultimately thrills me most about astrophotography is being able to capture photons that have been en route towards us across the vast universe for dozens, hundreds, or even millions of years. After that long of a journey, it feels like our duty to ensure that at least some of those photons have the honor of being recorded in some state of permanence. Give it a try and it won’t be long before you find yourself in the middle of nowhere waiting for your camera to finish a 1-hour exposure. A perfect change to sit back and ponder the vastness of the universe looming over your head.

 


The View from Above: Panoramas from Colorado’s Peaks

Panorama from the summit of Mt Sneffels

Why do we climb mountains? For the sheer physical challenge. For the adrenaline rush. For the smell of danger that accompanies looking over the edge into 2,000 feet of nothing but thin air. For the mental high that comes from conquering a summit. To temporarily escape from the chaos of humanity stewing below. “Because it is there”. Your answers may vary. I climb mountains for all of these reasons, with different ones taking priority depending on my mood (although I have a limit to how much danger I am willing to smell…). Ultimately though, as a photographer, I climb mountains for the view.

With the highest average elevation of any state, Colorado has no shortage of mountains, and thus no shortage of views. Some of the best come from the summits of Colorado’s famous 14ers, a group of 53 peaks whose crests reach to more that 14,000 feet above sea level. At this altitude, other than birds and oncoming thunderheads, there is nothing left to look UP at. No mightier peaks obstruct your gaze and if you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of a plane flying a few thousand feet below.

However there is not a direct correlation between higher elevation and better views. Far from it. After all, the 14ers have done nothing special to earn their fame, they have simply been the recipient of enough geologic good fortune that their summits exceed the ultimately meaningless and arbitrary 14,000′ mark. As a result, the Mount of the Holy Cross, topping out at 14,009′, is one of Colorado’s most famous mountains, in large part due to those uppermost nine feet. Meanwhile, Grizzly Peak, just 14 feet lower (13,995′), lies nearly forgotten just a few dozen miles away (lost in the shuffle of six—that’s right six—different Grizzly Peak’s in the state) yet provides an equally majestic vantage point.

Below I’ve put together a collection of panoramas shot from different summits around the state in an attempt to present the diversity of Colorado’s mountain peaks. Every summit, no matter how high, has a distinct atmosphere and feel, from suburban hills where you can down onto sprawling subdivisions and strip malls, to remote wilderness peaks where the only sign of mankind might just be the jet contrail 15,000 feet above you.  Seeing summit panoramas always encourages me to get outside and fight Earth’s gravity once again. So go find any good chunk of rock that sticks up a bit above its surroundings, walk, hike, bike, climb, or crawl up it, and you are sure to be rewarded. My only specific advice is to find a peak without a road to the top. Views are best enjoyed in solitude and few things as demoralizing than spending hours trudging up a mountain only to find a gift shop, parking lot, or a family of six enjoying a three course meal in the back of their hummer at the top…or worse, a combination of all three.

Panorama from the summit of Mt Sneffels

Mt Sneffels, San Juan Mountains, 14,158′

Panorama from the summit of Mt. McConnel

Mt. McConnel, Poudre Canyon, 8,008′

Panorama from the summit of Twin Peaks, Ouray, CO

Twin Peaks, San Juan Mountains, 10,798′

Panorama from the summit of North Baldy Peak

North Baldy Peak, West Elk Mountains, 12,850′

Panorama from summit of Mt Shavano

Mt. Shavano, Sawatch Range, 14,236′

Panorama from Crag Crest, Grand Mesa, Colorado

Crag Crest, Grand Mesa, 11,189′

Panorama from the summit of Courthouse Mountain

Courthouse Mountain, San Juan Mountains, 12,152′

Panorama from the summit of Mt. Elbert

Mt. Elbert, Sawatch Range, 14,440′ (highest point in Rocky Mountains)

 Larger versions of all panoramas available


The grand old Rocky Mountains!

Fall color along Bear Lake Road
Peaks and Clouds from Bierstadt Lake

Clouds linger over the Continental Divide as seen from Bierstadt Lake

The grand old Rocky Mountains!

Their bold and massive forms,

Like Pyramids of age,

Defy the sweeping storms!

-Enos A. Mills, 1887

A hectic few months has kept me away from the website recently but fortunately not from my camera. My recent move to Fort Collins, CO means that my new backyard playground is Rocky Mountain National Park, only an hour from my doorstep and home to some truly spectacular scenery, especially in the fall when the aspens and willows turn golden and storms begin to dust the high alpine tundra with snow.

Fall color along Bear Lake Road

Fall colors along Bear Lake Road

My arrival in Fort Collins happened to coincide with the annual fall elk rut, in which bull elk gather large groups of females (called harems) together to mate. The many large grassy parks in RMNP are a popular gathering place for the elk and hundreds of people can be found lining the roads and trails skirting the meadows each evening to observe them in action. Even though I used to regularly see elk in our backyard growing up, this was a new experience for me.  After an evening of watching and photographing the bull elk mate, lock antlers with other males, and toss back their heads to bugle, I can now confidently check “witness an elk rut” off my non-existent bucket list. I would share some of my photos of this unique spectacle, but in order to keep this website rated PG-13, I had better pass…

Elk cow and calf

An elk cow shares a tender moment with her calf.

While snow starts to fall in the high Rockies in late September or early October, the weather usually remains pleasant well into October or even November. We’ve had a few storms the past few weeks that have dropped some not insignificant amounts of snow in the high country so every hike I’ve taken so far has been an exercise in scouting trails less likely to be covered in snow and ice.

Loch Vale in Rocky Mtn NP

The Loch Vale in Rocky Mountain National Park

Earlier this week I decided to hike to the base of the east face of Longs Peak and Chasm Lake. I was unsure if I would actually be able to make it to the lake given its 11,700 foot elevation but I had picked Chasm Lake because I had noticed that the last (and highest) mile of trail hugged a south facing slope. A south facing slope equals more direct sun and theoretically less snow. My scouting paid off; the trail was nearly snow free save for some hard packed, but easily traverse-able snow just above tree line and the final 200 yards to the lake. The final 200 yards presented a bit of a challenge: a 30 degree slope guarding the lake that was basically one gigantic ice rink. I wasn’t going to be getting up the main trail without crampons but thankfully, a series of rock ledges alongside the trail were solid and dry, providing an alternative route up the final 200 vertical feet to the lake with only a little Class 3 scrambling required. Upon finally reaching the lake, I was met by a wonderful late autumn scene and quite happy to have avoided the the colossal disappointment of hiking 4+ miles only to get turned around with only a few hundred yards to go.

Chasm Lake and Longs Peak

The Ships Prow (left) and Longs Peak (14,259′, right) tower above Chasm Lake

The snow and ice had the added benefit of deterring the crowds that seem to linger in the park well into the fall. The previous week I had hiked to Loch Vale in a busier section of the park and just getting to the trailhead had involved being stuffed like sardines in a park shuttle bus. Chasm Lake though I had all to myself for over an hour, save for a pair of climbers descending from Longs Peak, the highest summit in the park. The east face of Longs Peak is an imposing sight, “abrupt and precipitous for three thousand feet” according to Enos A. Mills, an early resident of the area and the driving force behind the creation of Rocky Mountain National Park in 1915. The silence was stunning, save for the occasional high-pitched “eeeeeeeee” of a pika, the intermittent roar of the wind whipping up loose snow, and the din of fallen icicles and chunks of glacial ice crashing their way to the base of the cliffs.

At eve and morning lighted

With liquid gold all around,

Thy crests and hills and valleys

Gleam bright with glory crowned.

—Enos A. Mills, 1887

Rocky Mountain Aspen and grass

Aspen and grass waving in the wind in Horseshoe Park

Sunset and Moon from Moraine Park

Sunset and gibbous moon from Moraine Park


Speechless in the San Juans: A Day at Ice Lake

Panorama of Ice Lake, San Juan Mountains, Colorado

It’s no secret that I love mountains. It’s also not much of a secret that the San Juan Mountains of Colorado are my favorite mountains. I love the San Juans for a number of reasons. One of them is geology. Look at a map and its easy to lump the San Juans in with the rest of the Rockies, but geologically speaking, they’re a whole different ballgame. Formed not by uplift but by some of the largest and most violent volcanic eruptions in Earth’s history (think Yellowstone only MUCH, MUCH larger…), the San Juans have a personality all their own. They are tall (12 peaks above 14,000 and 314 above 13,000), large (more than 10,000 square miles, as opposed to the long but skinny ranges that dominate the rest of Colorado), and so steep that only three ski resorts exist here.

I also love the San Juans for the solitude they can offer. 5+ hours from major metropolitan areas (*cough*Denver*cough*), escaping the crowds here is much easier than in the rest of the state’s mountains (*cough*Aspen*cough*).

As of last weekend though, my number one reason to love the San Juans is that the San Juans contain Ice Lake, which might be the most beautiful location I’ve visited on Earth to date.

Panorama of Ice Lake, San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Ice Lake reflecting Vermillion Peak, Golden Horn, and Pilot Knob

Ice Lake is a glacial tarn located at 12,300 feet not too far from the mining town of Silverton. Fortunately, it’s one of the few major destinations in the San Juans that you can’t get anywhere close to with a jeep, which drastically limits the number of people that you see and the number of engines that you hear. Instead, it is accessed via a steep 3.5 mile hike from a trailhead along South Mineral Creek. It’s been on my list of places to go for several years now and my girlfriend Michelle and I recently got a chance to spend a few days in the San Juans and make the short but steep trek up to the lake. Hiking in Colorado’s high mountains in the summertime can be challenging. Near daily vicious afternoon thunderstorms make it hard to spend any appreciable time above tree line. Despite the fact that a good chunk of this hike was above treeline, we didn’t hit the trail until a little after 8am but fortunately the weather gods cooperated on this day.

While the scenery along the trail is spectacular, all is forgotten once you catch your first glimpse of Ice Lake. One look at the brilliant neon blue water and you suddenly feel as if you’ve been hiking through a prison yard for the last few hours. I’ve never seen water so vividly colored; some of the hot springs in Yellowstone are the only things that come even remotely close. The color is caused by the presence of “rock flour” in the lake, extremely fine sediment left over from the days when large glaciers scoured out Ice Lake Basin and ground the fragile volcanic rocks into a powder. These sediment particles are so small that they remain suspended in the water, scattering blue light toward the eyes of every astounded hiker and backpacker that reaches the basin.

Several lakes in Ice Lake Basin

Ice Lake (blue) and unnamed lake (green) with U.S. Grant Peak (13,767′) towering overhead.

Clouds reflected in a pond in Ice Lake Basin.

Late afternoon clouds reflected in a small pond in Ice Lake Basin

Unlike many of the other high alpine basins in the San Juans, Ice Lake Basin is HUGE! Covering nearing five square kilometers, the basin contains several other named and unnamed lakes as well as some of the most impressive wildflower fields I have ever seen. White, red, pink, and yellow varieties of paintbrush, elephant ears, asters, and columbines blanketed the basin. Wildflower season in the lower elevations has long past but up at 12,000 the show is just reaching it’s zenith!

Pink Paintbrush in Ice Lake Basin

One of many colors of Paintbrush found in Ice Lake Basin.

Rock Mountain Columbine

Hey look! Colorado’s state flower, the Rocky Mountain Columbine!

Interestingly, the other lakes in the basin were not nearly as brilliantly colored, but rather a more drab blue-ish green that was nevertheless spectacular, especially when the wind calmed and the waters began to reflect the ring of peaks surrounding the basin. We lucked into a day where the thunderstorms had trouble developing and so we were able to spend 5-6 hours exploring the basin, crossing fields bursting with wildflowers, and relaxing by the lakes. We were hoping to get a glimpse of the mountain goats that often frequent such basins, but we had to settle for a handful of marmots and a trio of llamas which another party had used to pack their overnight gear into the basin.

Unnamed lake below Vermillion Peak

Unnamed lake below Vermillion Peak (13,894′)

Golden Horn reflected in Ice Lake

Golden Horn (13,769) reflected in Ice Lake.

Lower Ice Lake Basin

Some of the views on the way up to Ice Lake. Here Corn Lily grows rampant in Lower Ice Lake Basin.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that this was one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. Walking through the basin, I was reminded of Robin Williams’ famous quip about Glacier National Park: “If this isn’t God’s backyard, then he certainly lives nearby.” Apparently God has now purchased a summer home in the San Juan Mountains because the scenery here is truly second to none.  

Ice_Lake_Basin_Panorama

Can’t remember ever being this sad about having to hike back to the car. Will have to come back and spend the night someday!


So long to the Pacific Northwest

Nooksack River Cascade
Nooksack River Cascade

Hard to hike far in the Northwest without coming across spectacular unnamed cascades such as this one near Glacier, WA.

After spending the first 18 years of my life in Arizona, moving to the Pacific Northwest for college was a bit of a change for me climatically. Even living on the “dry” eastern side of Washington, I couldn’t believe how the clouds could so easily stick around for weeks on end. Relocating to one of the cloudiest cities in the country two years ago was even more of an adjustment. Somehow I had gone from 300 days of sun to 300 days of clouds in just four short years (but also from 0.85 to 3.60 breweries per 100,000 people so there’s that…). Now, after six years in the Pacific Northwest (punctuated by a few summers on the Colorado Plateau), I’m trading the Cascades for the Rockies and moving to sunnier climes in Colorado!

Kamiak Butte Flowers

Mule’s Ears on Kamiak Butte in Eastern Washington.

The Northwest is home to some fantastically diverse and photogenic landscapes, perhaps more so than any other part of the country I’ve spent time in. In Washington alone you can find sand dunes, waterfalls, and prairies amongst the rolling hills of Eastern Washington, jagged sea cliffs and pastoral farmlands along the coast in the San Juan Islands, and glacier capped peaks and rainforests so lush you swear you’ve been transported to the Amazon in the Cascades and on the Olympic Peninsula. I figured now was a good time to share some photos that represent this amazing diversity and reflect a bit on my time in the Northwest.

Nooksack River Salmon

A spawning pink salmon on the South Fork of the Nooksack River takes its final breaths.

What really epitomizes the Northwest for me is the abundance of one of the most common substances in the Universe: water. Whereas in the Southwest water is hard to find, in the Northwest it is difficult to escape. Whether on the coast, in the foothills, or in the mountains, water is never far away, be it saltwater, freshwater, glacier water, or rain water. While backpacking in the Northwest, you can almost always count on coming across a stream every few miles to replenish your supplies (unless you’re hiking around and active volcano, as I unpleasantly learned a few years back), a welcome change from carrying 8 pound gallon jugs on your back. Prolonged droughts and water restrictions, a way of life for decades in the Southwest, are near unheard of in the Northwest. Large dams in the Northwest are being removed and reservoirs drained, something that would be a cardinal sin to even think about in the arid Colorado River Basin, lest we lose even a few drops of precious water. Major rivers in the Northwest actually reach the sea, rather than being sucked dry in the desert, a la the Colorado.

Skagit Valley Tulip Festival

At the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival

It is this abundance of water in its many forms that makes the landscapes of the Pacific Northwest what they are. Case in point: here in the mountains of Colorado, we have peaks higher than any in the Cascades and temperatures just as cold (if not colder), yet the glacier score is Washington: 3101, Colorado: 141. As I write this from my computer in Western Colorado, a few small drops of rain are beginning to fall from a storm cloud overhead and my neighbors are gathering to comment on the spectacle. This phenomenon sums up the difference between the Southwest and Northwest perhaps more succinctly than any prose I could ever write.

More photos from my Northwest adventures will be forthcoming since I have a huge backlog of images waiting for me to think of something moderately interesting to write about. Aside from that, plan on becoming much more familiar with the landscapes of the Rocky Mountains in the coming years as I explore my new (and drier) home!

Palouse Hills Sunset

Sunset across the Palouse Hills outside of Pullman, WA

Salt Creek Low TIde

Low tide at Salt Creek Recreation Area on the Olympic Peninsula.

Red Rock Crab Whidbey

A common coastline critter in the PNW: the red rock crab.

Slug Climbing Stairs

I call this piece “Slug Climbing Stairs”

Goat Hovander Park

Curious goats at Hovander Park in Ferndale, WA


Top 10 Images from 2013

So this is a taaaaad late, again, but since my shameless self-promotion retrospective was somewhat popular last year, I figured it was worth making another post highlighting my favorite images from the past year, even if it is now nearly a month into the new one. In honor of 2012, I chose my 12 favorite photos. This year I’ve chosen just ten, so as not to head down a road where this post gets ever so slightly longer and more agonizing to read each year.

As was the case last year, some of these photos you may have seen already if you follow me. Including some new images wasn’t difficult though, considering that I took an average of 1478 photos per month this past year, yet averaged just 1.5 posts per month. That adds up to 17,736 photos in the past year (a 221% increase over last year!). With the end of grad school in sight, hopefully I’ll be able to share photos more frequently this coming year, but for now I now humbly present my favorite (not necessarily for technical quality) 0.05% of the photos I took in 2013:

DSC_0195

1. Mt. Baker, Washington.

One of the things I dislike about the Pacific Northwest is that there are so many damn trees everywhere that even hiking to the crest of ridges and mountains in search of an expansive view is often a futile endeavor, especially in the lowlands. Unless that is, your summit has had the pleasure of being clear-cut in the past decade or so, in which case you can see halfway to Alaska (if it’s clear…).  I was surprised to find myself in one of these clearings on a January hike outside Bellingham following one of our biggest snowfalls of the year and took advantage by taking in a nice view (and some photos) of Mt. Baker and the foothills, alas one complete with more of the aforementioned clear cuts in the foreground.

Pacific Grove Monarch Butterfly

2. Monarch Butterfly, Pacific Grove, California. 

The town of Pacific Grove, California loves their butterflies. Monarch butterflies specifically. So much so that an image of one can be found on every street sign. In March I visited the official Monarch Grove Sanctuary where thousands of monarchs flock to reproduce each year. While I don’t doubt this claim, on my visit I saw about a dozen butterflies, none of which where in range of my camera. I found this one downtown, along the beach, in a much more accessible location. I’m not sure what this guy is eating but it looks delicious.

Golden Gate Bridge in the fog

3. Golden Gate Bridge Fog and Sunset, San Francisco, CA.

This was one of the few shots on this list that actually had some degree of planning behind it. I had recollections of a good vantage point of the bridge from trips to San Francisco made pre-camera toting days. Fog had been rolling in and out of San Francisco all day but it  seemed to be a thin layer and I surmised that if I could get above the clouds, I might be treated to a dramatic view of the bridge’s towers poking up above the fog where they could intercept the last rays of sunlight.  As you can see, that’s pretty much exactly what happened. It’s incredibly satisfying when hunches work out that perfectly. I only wish I had possessed one of these suckers so that I could have increased my exposure time and smoothed out the rapidly moving fog. If anyone is looking for a belated Christmas present or a donation, hint hint…

Blood Star at low tide

4. Blood Star, somewhere on the Olympic Peninsula, Washington.

While I like this picture enough to have a 5×7 framed on my bookshelf, it was the experience associated with it that makes it worthy of inclusion on this list. Back on Memorial Day weekend, I headed out to the Olympic Peninsula (oddly enough, not to look at sea stars but rather the Elwah River restoration project) and happened to stumble across some epic tide pools one misty morning. We’re talking sea stars comparable in size to small children, anemones and urchins the size of bowling balls, and masses of gargantuan mussels sufficient in size to keep the aforementioned sea stars fat and happy. Despite it being a holiday weekend and one of the lowest tides of the year, there were only a smattering of people wandering around the tidal zone.  I spent several hours taking photos in a steady rain while balancing the need to keep my camera dry AND myself from slipping on kelp and splitting my skull open on jagged basalt. Several groups approached me during this time and asked me if I was local and how I had found about this place. After responding “Uhh, not really…” and “the Internet”, I proceeded to have a few nice conversations about the incredibly diversity of marine life in front of us. What was interesting was that each and every group urged me to keep this location a secret before continuing on their way. And given that other spectacular tide pools in Washington have suffered from over-popularity, I’m going to honor that request.

Snake-3

5. Snake eat Snake.

Any year in which you get to photograph wildlife eating other wildlife is a darn good year in my book, even if it is only two snakes rather than say, a mountain lion taking down a deer in full stride.

Sunset at Black Canyon on the Eve of the 2013 Supermoon

6. Sunset at Gunnison Point, Black Canyon National Park, Colorado.

If you ever want to visit a National Park in the summer and don’t want to feel like you’re at Disneyland, you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere more spectacular than Black Canyon. Think you could go to the Grand Canyon or Yosemite and have a major overlook all to yourself at sunset in mid-summer? Think again. In case you didn’t notice, lurking just above the far right horizon in this photo is the 2013 Supermoon for an added bonus.

Lightning and the Big Dipper

7. Lightning and the Big Dipper.

I had to include at least one night sky shot in this list (its part of my contract). Neither subject here (lightning and the Big Dipper) is particularly interesting on it’s own, but I think together they make a nice pair. I really would have loved a wider-angle lens on this one; I had to wait about an hour longer than I would have liked for the Big Dipper to rotate into the field of view of the cloud tops, and by then the best of the lightning storm was past. I also wish there was something more interesting in the foreground but achieving that would have meant leaving my front porch, something that I was very loath to do on this particular evening for obvious reasons. As nice as a intriguing foreground would have been, being alive to share this photo is even sweeter.

A colorful Collared Lizard in Dominguez Canyon, Colorado

8. Collared Lizard, Dominguez Canyon, Colorado.

I’ve come across these flamboyant lizards more than a few times in the southwest. Normally they peace out as soon as you get within 10 yards or attempt to intimidate you from coming closer by launching into their patented push-up routine. This one seemed to want his picture taken though. Almost motionless for several minutes, I reeled off a couple dozen shots trying to get the focus just right.

Sunset from the Box Canyon sign above Ouray, CO

9. Sunset from the Sign, Ouray, Colorado.

Another shot that involved a fair bit of planning. Ouray, CO might be about the most picturesque town this side of the Alps. Back at the beginning of the 20th century, some yahoos thought that a big metal, light-up marquee advertising one of Colorado’s most famous natural wonders (Box Canon) would somehow be a good idea. Thankfully, the lights on this metal monstrosity have since gone dark and nowadays the sign is barely visible from town unless you know where to look. But the sign’s location on a precipice above town makes for a great sunset vantage point, especially following an intense summer thunderstorm which left some wispy clouds hanging around the amphitheater to catch the last rays of sunlight.

Golden Western Larches in the North Cascades

10. (Golden) Western Larches, North Cascades, Washington.
Since I just wrote about this trip a few months ago, I won’t say much here…other than that I hope you enjoyed these photographs, and I would love to hear your comments or criticism in the comments below! Happy (belated) New Year!


Airglow: Denizen of the Dark Sky

I’ve been an astronomy nut ever since my parents gave me a small reflecting telescope for my 10th birthday. I located Saturn, complete with its too-good-to-be-true rings, within 10 minutes of setting it up for the first time, although my parents refused to believe me until they had a look for themselves. I majored in astronomy, own a telescope that barely fits in my car, and come to think of it, every “real” job I’ve ever had has involved astronomy. NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day has been my homepage for longer than I can remember.

Given my disposition towards both astronomy and photography, it seems superfluous to say that I’ve always enjoyed astrophotography.  Taking photographs of celestial objects presents a set of challenges not encountered by photographers who go home after the sun dips below the horizon, the majority of which revolve around the fact that most astronomical objects are rather dim, requiring long exposure times and extra equipment to capture.

Quite frequently I’ll get asked if I’ve ever seen any UFOs while gazing up at the sky. My standard response is that, while I’ve certainly seen a lot of weird *#&@ in the sky, I’ve yet to see anything that didn’t ultimately have a logical explanation, even if it took a little head-scratching to figure it out (high altitude weather balloons are the worst!).

A prime example of this occurred this past summer during a nighttime observing and photography session. I was attempting to get a 180 degree panorama of our home galaxy, the Milky Way, stretching across the summer night sky. I had my camera mounted on a tripod head that compensates for the rotation of the Earth, allowing me to take exposures several minutes in length while avoiding star trails in my images. It was dark and clear enough that I was able to get some good shots of the summer Milky Way and its complex and sinuous inky-black interstellar dust lanes, as well as some decent shots of some galaxies and nebulae through a telescope:

MIlkyWayThe Milky Way in the constellations of Scorpius and Sagittarius. This portion of the Milky Way is home to the nucleus of our galaxy, making the Milky Way appear brighter here than anywhere else in the sky.

Lagoon_NebulaThe Lagoon Nebula, also known as M8, a vast cloud of hydrogen gas giving birth to new stars. A “stellar nursery” as astronomers like to say.

While my shots of the galactic center in the southern sky were turning out well, as I began to pan my camera around to the east and then finally north, I noticed that faint but noticeable bands of diffuse red and green light were creeping into my image.

DSC_2917

My immediate thought was sensor noise. The CCD chip on my old DSLR (a Nikon D70) had a habit of heating up during repeated long-exposures. This thermal radiation from the sensor manifested itself as a bright purple/pink haze occupying one corner of the photo, making any attempt at serious astrophotography futile. Perhaps something similar was happening here. I quickly ruled this out for a number of reasons. Most importantly, the apparition was showing itself only in photos taken towards the north, meaning that the source couldn’t be the camera, but rather something in the sky itself. The colors ruled out high clouds, and it wasn’t in the proper direction to be the result of artificial light pollution. The closest city of any significant size to the northeast was several hundred miles away.

Whatever it was, neither myself or any of my observing companions could see it with the naked eye.  A bit eerie perhaps, but not at all uncommon. Many astronomical phenomenon are too faint to see without long-exposure photographs. In fact, the first time I saw the aurora borealis, I captured it with my camera several hours before it became bright enough to see with the naked eye.

A auroral display was actually my second thought. What I was seeing in my photos definitely resembled one. Red and green are the colors produced by nitrogen and oxygen, the two primary components of our atmosphere, after being excited by collisions with magnetic particles brought to Earth by the solar wind. Most auroral displays consist of some combination of these two colors and what I was photographing appeared only in the northern sky which fit the theory to a tee.  Furthermore, the Sun had been especially active in the week or so prior. It was perfect except for one slight problem: I was in Colorado.

Auroras in Colorado are definitely not unheard of….but not exactly common either. One thing was certain: if an aurora HAD crept this far south, then the northern portions of the country would simultaneously be getting the show of a lifetime. A quick check of spaceweather.com, the one stop shop for up-to-the minute aurora information, showed this was not the case. Strike two.

I actually didn’t figure this one out until many days later, when I inadvertently ran across an article about some Pacific Northwest photographers who had captured something called “airglow” in some photos of the Milky Way taken at Mt. Rainier around the same time. A momentary glance at their photos and I knew I had my answer.

Milky_Way_Pano

Here’s the final panorama I produced. The airglow (red and green splotches at left) was changing rapidly enough that it caused major headaches trying to stitch the images together. Consequently I didn’t quite get my 180 degree panorama, there’s a bit missing on the northern end (lower left).

Airglow is exactly what it sounds like (a rare thing in science, I know…): glowing air. Incoming solar radiation and cosmic rays ionize oxygen and nitrogen atoms in our atmosphere during the day and then then these atoms regain their electrons at night, emitting light in the process. This is similar to what happens during an aurora, except that it’s happening ALL THE TIME. Airglow is always there, it’s just really, really faint; you need to be somewhere extremely dark to have a chance of seeing it, even with a camera. Even a miniscule amount of light pollution will render it invisible. It does tend to be brighter when solar activity is high, although it is not nearly as dependent on the solar cycle as its brighter cousin, the aurora.

So what began as an unidentified and undesirable annoyance in my photos (and when trying to stitch together my panorama, boy it sure was!) turned out to be a rarely captured celestial phenomenon I had never even heard of, much less one that I had intended on photographing that evening.  Next time someone asks me about UFOs, I’ll just refer them to this page.


A Serpentine Spectacle

I’ve had some fascinating wildlife encounters the past few months. I’ve seen a mule deer give birth, encountered a herd of mountain goats at 14,000 feet, had some interesting run-ins with cows while camping (okay, cows aren’t technically WILD but still…), and even seen my first two porcupines. But the undisputed winner took place about five feet outside my bedroom door. The hill outside my door is covered in tall grass and shrubs. Anytime I have the door open, I hear the constant rustling of squirrels, chipmunks, cottontail rabbits, and the occasional coyote making their way through the grass. One day though, the rustling turned out to be this:

A Garter Snake consumes a Smooth Green Snake

Just to be clear, that’s a garter snake (likely either Thamnophis elegans or Thamnophis marcianus…any snake people out there?) going NOM NOM NOM on a smooth green snake (Opheodrys vernalis). Now that’s not something you see every day.

I was fortunate enough to observe this spectacle in its near entirety, which in this case was almost two whole hours. The garter snake moved little; it was so focused on its meal that it seemed not even to notice me or the handful of other people watching the blatant act of serpentine cannibalism unfolding before our eyes. Every 30 seconds or so, the garter snake would open its mouth wide and constrict its jaw muscles slightly, entombing a few more millimeters of the green snake into its gullet. The green snake, which was consumed head-first, remained alive as it was being swallowed, as if being subjected to some diabolical form of medieval torture. Every few minutes it would engage in some futile thrashing for a few moments before the garter snake would wrestle it back into submission. At one point, a second green snake arrived on the scene and made a few jabs at the garter snake before retreating back into the grass.

A Garter Snake consumes a Smooth Green Snake

Things got really wild in the final minutes. In what appeared to be a last ditch effort to avoid being completely ingested, or perhaps just a metaphorical middle finger to the garter snake, the green snake managed to tie the remaining few inches of its tail into an enormous knot. This befuddled the garter snake for a short while; it was already struggling with its decision to swallow a snake equivalent in size to itself and the knot didn’t make things any easier. After a few minutes though, the garter snake managed to open its mouth even wider and down the remainder of its meal, knot and all. Shortly after, the garter snake sluggishly slithered away, likely with a bad case of the meat sweats, and I went back inside feeling glad that I’m not as low on the food chain as the green snake.

The Smooth Green Snake ties its remaining tail in a knot to make life difficult for the Garter Snake

Garter Snake wrestling with a Smooth Green Snake it has partially eaten


Boulders to Bullion: A Tour Through the Mayflower Gold Mill

Spend enough time driving or hiking around western Colorado and you will inevitably be introduced to the rich mining history of the area. This is especially true in the San Juan Mountains where it’s hard to hike for more than a few miles without running into an assortment of old and dilapidated mining structures, ranging from head frames covering mine shafts that plunge hundreds or thousands of feet into the mountains, to bunkhouses that still contain the metal skeletons of the rickety old beds slept upon by early 20th Century miners. Most of these buildings have been abandoned; left to slowly decay and disintegrate under the weight of the dozens of feet of snow that accumulate in the mountains each winter. However a handful have been preserved or restored by local historical societies, such as the Mayflower Gold Mill just a few miles outside of Silverton, Colorado.

A mill is an integral part of any mining operation. While Hollywood seems to think that western gold rushes involved a handful of old grizzled, bearded men fishing fist-sized gold nuggets out of streams with their gold pans, the reality is that most of the rock mined in Colorado had concentrations of gold and silver that were best measured in parts per million, and concentrations of other metals like copper or zinc that were only somewhat higher. The purpose of a mill like the Mayflower was to take in this low-grade ore and spit out material concentrated in gold, silver, and a plethora of other valuable metals while leaving the rest of the rock, known as “gangue”, behind.

The crushing room inside the Mayflower Gold Mill

The crushing room inside the Mayflower Gold Mill.

The Mayflower Mill opened its doors in 1929 and was a technological marvel for its time.  It was the last of the San Juan mills to close, in 1991, long after most of the mines in the area had ceased production. Ever since 1991, while the exterior of the mill has undergone stabilization at the hands of the San Juan County Historical Society, the interior of the mill has been left more or less untouched. The mill closed suddenly; one day it was open for business, the next it was shuttered for good as the prices of gold and silver plummeted and no one ever came in to clean up. Piles of partially crushed ore still lie on stationary conveyor belts, waiting patiently to continue their trip through the mill. Pairs of rubber gloves still lie on counters and railings, now covered with a thick layer of dust. Calendars with pictures of scantily clad women still hang from rusty thumb tacks in offices and control rooms. If all this wasn’t eerie enough, the power went out about five minutes after I entered the mill and from then on the only light source other than sunlight streaming through a handful of windows was the flashlight in my hand. Walking through you would never guess that it’s been closed for only 22 years; the place looks like its been abandoned for a good half-century and much of the equipment looks much older, yet somehow advanced for its age.

The tour through the mill is self-guided and costs $8 which at first seemed steep but ended up being well worth it. Not for the quality of the interpretive signs dispersed throughout the mill (despite the extremely friendly and helpful staff, the signs could use some serious work) but merely for the pleasure of exploring the mill itself, one of the most fascinating man-made structures I’ve ever been inside.  My computer is telling me I have something like 48,000 photos on my hard drive at the moment. I’m willing to bet more than 95% of those were taken outside. Why? Well to be honest, I don’t generally find man-made buildings that fascinating so I’ve never been that much of an indoor photographer. Once in a while, I find myself somewhere like the Mayflower Mill that changes that, at least temporarily 😉

Iron balls used in the milling process

Piles of iron balls were bounced around in large drums to help mutilate the ore into pieces as small as a grain of sand!

While milling ore to produce gold and other metals may seem somewhat alchemistic, in essence the process consists of two phases: crushing the rock into very, very, VERY small pieces, and then using a variety of noxious chemicals to separate the metal from the rock based on their physical properties. Ore would arrive at the mill in large metal buckets that zipped downhill along an aerial tramway that connected the mill to the Mayflower Mine several miles and several thousand feet above the Mill in Arrastra Basin:

A view of the aerial tramway connecting the Mill and the mines in Arrastra Basin

A view of the aerial tramway originating from the Mayflower Mine in Arrastra Gulch. The miners would often ride to work in the empty buckets headed back up to the mine. Hard to imagine a commute with a better view!

The crushing is then accomplished using a variety of progressively diabolical looking devices that to this day are covered in rock dust and surrounded by little piles of partially crushed ore that fell off of one of the many conveyor belts snaking through the mill. Normally there are buttons that you can press which turn on some of these devices for a short period of time but this was thwarted due to the aforementioned power outage. This was the device that I would have most liked to see in action:

A spiral classifier used to sort crushed ore

A spiral classifier, used to separate different sized pieces of crushed ore.

Debris lies on the ground around one of the ore crushing devices

Pieces of partially crushed ore scattered around the base of an enormous jaw crusher.

The separation occurred in a series of tanks and vats that, while not visually impressive, still seemed to reek of the boiling concoction of lead and cyanide they once contained. My gut feeling was that hanging around this part of the mill for a long time would probably be a bad idea. The final product was rich-enough in gold that access to the areas where the final stages of separation took place was restricted to only a handful of employees who were continuously monitored by a network of security cameras. Unbelievably, even after all this, the ore would still need to be sent to a smelter for further purification and processing before pure gold bullion, or other metals were obtained.

Here are a few more random pictures from inside the Mayflower, which truly is a photographer’s dream, ESPECIALLY when the power is out. I was so caught up in taking pictures inside that I completely forgot to get a picture of the mill from the OUTSIDE!

A rack full of every size drill bit imaginiable!

Every size drill bit imaginable!

A pile of old milling equipment

Piles of old equipment in a dark corner of the mill. Actually, since the power was out when I visited, just about the whole place was dark…

A little workplace humor

A little workplace humor for good measure!


A Little Southern Utah in Western Colorado: the Dominguez Canyon Wilderness

Pedestrian Bridge over the Gunnison River

Pedestrian bridge over the Gunnison River at the entrance to Dominguez Canyon

Colorado is known for its mountains, and with an average elevation of 6,800 feet rightfully so, but tucked away in the far western part of the state are a number of spectacular red rock canyons and landscapes that look like they were lifted straight out of a Southern Utah travel guide by some sort of magical, three dimensional silly putty. Colorado National Monument is home to the perhaps the best known of these canyons but several equally impressive chasms can be found just to the south in the Dominguez Canyon Wilderness Area.

Wind-sculpted boulders on the floor of Dominguez Canyon

Wind-sculpted boulders in Dominguez Canyon

Dominguez Creek is a tributary of the Gunnison River just north of Delta, CO that flows year-round through a series of spectacular canyons cut into sedimentary rock of varying red, orange, and pink hues. About a mile upstream of its confluence with the Gunnison, the canyon splits; Big Dominguez Canyon to the west, and Little Dominguez Canyon to the south. Gentle trails undulate along the floors of both canyons for dozens of miles, all the way up into the headwaters of the drainage system on the Uncompahgre Plateau. I chose to hike up Big Dominguez Canyon, which I knew was home to some year-round waterfalls (ended up being nearly dry…) and impressive rock art. This turned out to be a really good decision as you’ll see shortly. Since most of my hiking recently has involved steep mountain trails at elevations often 11,000 feet, trekking along a relatively flat trail at 5,000 feet was a welcome respite that allowed me to cover quite a bit of ground.

Dominguez Canyon is located within a federally designated wilderness area, one of 43 such areas in Colorado. The Wilderness Act of 1964, which celebrates its 50th anniversary next year, defines wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

In many ways, these values were on display in Dominguez Canyon; despite the area’s proximity to Grand Junction, I hiked about 15 miles (told you it was flat) and didn’t see another human soul until I was almost back to the trailhead. Apart from some rumbles of thunder that echoed magnificently through the canyon in the early afternoon, the landscape was perfectly silent, despite its location only a half dozen miles from U.S. Highway 50. In other ways they were not, such as when I came across piles of metal equipment associated with an old mine (likely copper based on the abundance of azurite and malachite in the surrounding rocks), although being geologically inclined I’m never one to complain about this sort of thing since there are few things as fun and adrenaline-inducing as poking around old mine dumps for an hour!

Dominguez Canyon Petroglyphs

One of the larger petroglyphs in Dominguez Canyon? A turtle? A chunky centipede? Other ideas?

Dominguez Canyon is also known for being prime Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep habitat, yet a quick glance at the trailhead register told me that seeing these creatures is by no means guaranteed. The BLM asks people to record the number of sheep they spot in the register on their way out, and I noticed that the handful of groups that had visited in the last few weeks had either A) seen more than 20 sheep or B) seen zero sheep. Hit or miss indeed. Despite my best attempts at making convincing sounding sheep noises, my visit was sadly a miss; I had the pleasure of recording a big fat zero in the register as I departed, despite frequently taking breaks to scan the red cliffs for any sign of movement and feeling insanely jealous of the groups just days before that had hit the bighorn sheep jackpot. Despite the lack of sheep, some smaller and less wooly residents of the canyon made themselves known and were even nice enough to pose for a few photos:

Western Collared Lizard on a rock

Western Collared Lizard, Dominguez Canyon Wilderness, CO

A Canyon Treefrog in a puddle

Canyon Treefrog, Dominguez Canyon Wilderness, CO

Despite the nearly continuous presence of distant thunder, which almost prompted me to turn back about an hour into the hike, I didn’t feel a single drop of rain the entire day. Yet when I returned to the junction between Little and Big Dominguez Canyons late in the afternoon, I discovered that the creek coming out of Little Dominguez Canyon, which had been nothing more than a pathetic looking transparent trickle at 10 A.M., had been transformed into a thick brown torrent of mud and debris accompanied by the extremely potent aroma of fresh cow pie. Yum.

A muddy Dominguez Creek following a flash flood

This waterfall along Dominguez Creek had been nearly dry just a few hours earlier.

In hindsight I wish I had taken a “before” picture for comparison but that morning the creek was flowing with less gusto than your typical garden hose so my camera and I weren’t exactly drawn to it. Clearly the headwaters of Little Dominguez had gotten a lot of rain in a short amount of time and seeing this dramatic transformation was a good reminder that flash floods can strike areas far removed from any significant precipitation and validated my decision to hike Big Dominguez Canyon instead.

As spectacular as the canyon was, I can only imagine how enchanting it would be at sunrise or sunset when the low-angle of the Sun illuminates the fantastic geology or in the spring when snow melt swells the creek. Always good to have an excuse to go back!


From the San Juans to the San Juans

They are separated by more than 1600 kilometers. One barely rises above sea level while the other boasts six peaks exceeding 14,000 feet in elevation. One is most easily accessed by kayak or porpoise, while in the other it is difficult to escape the incessant drone of Jeeps, dirt bikes, and ATVs that trawl the vast network of old mining roads. One is beset by a  deluge of by rain eight months out of the year, whereas the other is inaccessible except by ski, snowshoe, or helicopter for six. To the untrained eye, the San Juan Islands of NW Washington and the San Juan Mountains of SW Colorado couldn’t be more different.  My current job situation has me living about an hour away from the mountains for 3 months out of the year, and an hour or less away from the islands for the other 9 months. And viewed through the lens of a camera, I have discovered that there are more similarities that you might expect. The first of which will probably be rather obvious:

They both posses stunning scenery:

View from Deception Pass State Park towards the Olympic Mountains

View from Deception Pass State Park on Fidalgo Island looking southwest across the water towards the Olympic Peninsula.

Rosy Paintbrush with Red Mountain #1 in the background

Rosy Paintbrush in an alpine meadow near Red Mountain #1 (yes, nearby can be found Red Mountain’s #2 and #3. The old miners were a creative bunch.) in the San Juan Mountains.

Both offer opportunities for “extreme” sports:

A paraglider enjoys a view of the San Juan Islands

A paraglider enjoys a serene aerial view of the San Juan Islands and several tankers headed for the oil refineries in Anacortes, WA.

Descending Mt. Sneffels in the San Juan Mountains

Descending a scree-filled colouir after summiting 14.150′ Mt. Sneffels in the San Juan Mountains. While most of the climb is straightforward and requires only a hefty amount of scrambling, there is one tricky section near the summit during which a fall would likely mean the end of one’s mountain climbing days…or any other days for that matter.

Both were shaped and sculpted by vast quantities of ice:

Glacial striations in the San Juan Mountains near Ouray

Glacial striations in slate high above the Uncompahgre Gorge in the San Juan Mountains. The parallel grooves in the rock were carved by rocky debris trapped along the base of a long-gone glacier that was partially responsible for scouring out the gorge.

A ferry passes rock outcrops in the San Juan Islands

A Washington State Ferry passes a cliff of glacially scoured rock in the San Juan Islands. Glacial striations identical to those in the previous photo are ubiquitous throughout the San Juan Islands, evidence that the area was buried beneath more than a mile of ice during the peak of the last glaciation, about 15,000 years ago.

And finally, both are home to curious wildlife:

An American Pika in the San Juan Mountains

An American Pika investigates a bush at 11,000 feet in the San Juan Mountains.

A Blood Star in a tide pool A Blood Star investigates a California mussel below sea level in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

In case you didn’t know, that’s what starfish look like when they are curious.


And the Thunder Rolls: the Southwestern Monsoon

A 1-minute exposure captures several complex lightning bolts during a storm over Western Colorado on July 7th.

Two complex lightning bolts strike a mesa in Western Colorado in this 1-minute exposure.

One of my favorite things about the southwest is the sheer ferocity of the thunderstorms that arrive like clockwork every summer. It has always seemed to me a particularly violent way of delivering water to the desert. Anyone who has visited Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, or Colorado in the summer knows how an apparently benign, cloud-free, blazing summer afternoon can spawn a multitude of life-threatening thunderstorms in a matter of hours. Known as the monsoon season, late summer in the American southwest is a time during which many areas can receive as much as half their annual rainfall in the span of just a few short weeks. Generated by the arrival of tropical moisture from the south, these are thunderstorms that force one to begin any summer hike involving peaks or ridges in the wee hours of the morning to avoid being caught in an unpleasant situation.  These are thunderstorms that claim the lives of dozens of people every summer, sometimes via lightning strikes, but more often via sudden deluges of water known as flash floods that result when rain falls so fast and so hard that it doesn’t have time to soak into the soil, and instead collects in raging torrents of water, mud, trees, and rocks that can travel vast distances, sweeping unsuspecting hikers dozens of miles away from the nearest raindrop off their feet. These are also storms that produce truly unforgettable memories (the fondness of which is directly proportional to how close shelter is at the time…) and great photographs, again assuming adequate shelter is close at hand.

Thunderstorm clouds swirl above western Colorado

Storm clouds begin to swirl during a late evening monsoon thunderstorm.

Perhaps most mercifully though, these are the storms that ultimately temper the stifling heat that dominates the southwest early in the summer. Ironically, this oppressive heat actually brings about its own demise; the intense heating of the land surface in the early summer (May and June) is responsible for causing the monsoon rains that eventually bring temperatures back down to somewhat more humane values by late July and August.

Cloud-to-cloud and cloud-to-ground lightning bolts

A pair of lightning bolts; one cloud-to-ground and one cloud-to-cloud.

Two words are all one really needs to fully describe conditions in the American southwest in the early summer: “hot” and “dry”. Temperatures soar well into the 100s in many locations and relative humidity values in the low single digits are commonplace. As anyone who has ever lived on the 2nd floor of a poorly ventilated apartment building in the southwest in the summer knows: hot air rises. This basic thermodynamic fact can be used to explain just about every aspect of what is formally known as the North American Monsoon, or any monsoon, or just about any form of weather for that matter. As the Sun heats the land surface, warm dry air begins to rise high into the atmosphere due to its lower density. This rising air column leaves a void, a sort of a partial vacuum if you will, behind it, creating an area of low atmospheric pressure over the sizzling southwestern states. This partial vacuum creates a welcoming pathway for warm, moist air from the tropics to slowly begin seeping its way north from Mexico and the Gulf of California.  As the month of June comes to a close, this tropical moisture has begun to saturate the air around the Four Corners region. Gone are the days of single digit humidity values, and by early July, the Sun, instead of heating bone-dry air, is heating air that is rich with moisture.

Cumulus clouds over Mt. Elbert signal a developing thunderstorm.

Large cumulus clouds, the infant stages of a monsoon thunderstorm, hover over Colorado’s highest point, Mt. Elbert. Clouds like these are a sign to hikers to get off the mountain and start heading for shelter; a scene like this can develop into a full-blown severe thunderstorm in as little as an hour.

Now when moist air rises, the water within it condenses into water droplets, first creating puffy cumulus clouds, and eventually enormous cumulonimbus thunderheads that can reach heights of more than 50,000 feet above the Earth’s surface. These storms normally develop in the afternoon, after the Sun has had several hours to warm the surface and generate a robust rising column of air. To give you an idea of just how fast these storms can expand, and since WordPress won’t let me post videos, here’s a fun little animated GIF showing about 15 minutes of growth in a late evening thunderstorm over the West Elk Mountains of Colorado. Notice the stars in the background:

15 minutes of thunderstorm growth in an Animated GIF

While the annual arrival of the monsoon may be predictable, the individual storms that it produces are not in the slightest. The isolated nature of the storms can be incredibly surreal; I’ve been in locations where 2″ of rain and nearly a foot of hail fell in a matter of 30 minutes, while the ground half a mile away remained completely dry. And while the North American Monsoon may not pack quite the same punch as its southeastern Asia cousin, it nevertheless is a significant event, in both negative and positive ways, for all who live in the area. Good in that it provides the southwest with badly needed moisture in the late summer, and bad in that its unpredictable nature never fails to catch those unfamiliar with the weather pattern off guard. In addition, storms during the first few weeks of the monsoon will often generate copious amounts of lightning, but very little rain, sparking numerous wildfires in tinder-box dry forests that haven’t seen rain in months, fires that are nearly impossible to extinguish until heavier rains arrive to douse the flames.

Photographing these storms is most easily accomplished at night, when you can simply point the camera at the storm (provided you and your metal tripod are somewhere reasonably safe), leave the shutter open for a few minutes at a time, cross your fingers, and hope for a few well placed strikes. While the best bolts inevitably occur in the two seconds your camera is processing your most recent exposure, or are located juuuuuuuuuust outside the camera’s field of view, rest assured that the light show that nature puts on will still be exponentially better than anything you could possible see on your computer monitor or TV screen.

The crest of a large thunderhead stops just shy of the Big Dipper

The crest of a large thunderhead stops just shy of obscuring the Big Dipper.


The Spectacular San Juans: A Trip to Yankee Boy Basin

Taking in the scenery

Note: I’m reaching back into the archives here. I have about 10 posts in my drafts folder, all in various stages of completion and many from this past summer, that I’ve decided it’s finally time to post. This is one of them. And yes I know this is my 2nd consecutive post with glacial and geological undertones. I’m not sorry, glaciers are totally radical man!

On my lifetime list of most spectacular landscapes, Yankee Boy Basin in the San Juan Mountains ranks quite high. I’ve seen expansive fields of wildflowers with different species spanning every color of the rainbow plus some. I’ve seen 100 foot high waterfalls that have undoubtedly been the setting for numerous Coors commercials. I’ve seen craggy, majestic mountain peaks and pinnacles sculpted over millions of years by the work of a posse of many abrasive glaciers. I’ve seen aqua blue lakes appear seemingly out of nowhere as they fill from the meltwater of a lobate rock glacier. I’ve seen ribbons of crystal clear snow melt water plunging in an endless stream of cascades straight down the side of a mile wide glacier cirque. Never though have I seen all these things in one place. Yankee Boy Basin truly has it all. It rivals anything I ever saw in the mountains of New Zealand. Throw in the fact that I saw up-close and in person just about every glacial and periglacial feature I learned about in geomorphology class and it doesn’t get much better. Miraculously, you can actually get here with minimal effort, especially if you have a 4WD vehicle (or, in our case, the ability to rent one), and don’t mind driving on roads that look like this:

Section of shelf road cut into cliff heading back down towards Ouray from Yankee Boy Basin

Mind you, merely walking around on a level surface at nearly 13,000 feet involves a fair bit of effort and energy expenditure.  Altitude acclimatization definitely makes things easier but even then, running around in excitement is definitely not recommended since I imagine the scenery would not be as greatly appreciated if you are passed out on the floor of the basin. Amazingly, over 1500 individuals each year blatantly ignore this advice during an annual 17 mile footrace up and over nearby 13,114′ Imogene Pass.  In an additional twist that can only be explained as a classic example of male one-up-manship, in the early 1990’s, some folks decided that running 17 miles at extremely high altitude was not torturous enough and thus the Hardrock 100 was born.  Participants in this masochistic race traverse 100 miles of rough terrain at an AVERAGE elevation of over 11,000 feet, climbing up the passes and peaks in the vicinity of Yankee Boy Basin.  The total elevation gained and lost during the race is a mind-boggling 67,984 feet. Yeah, altitude does crazy things to people.

Trail headed up to Wright’s Lake

One of the neatest features of Yankee Boy Basin is a 50 yard wide body of water called Wright’s Lake.  Wright’s Lake is bounded on the east by a terminal glacial moraine which forms a small ridge meaning that the lake does not come into view until you are practically wading into it. I had not seen any pictures of the lake prior to the hike so I was unsure what to expect. After smoking my little brother up the short trail from the road, I came around the edge of the moraine to see an enormous rock glacier flowing down from Gilpin Peak 1000 feet above me and terminating at the edge of an aquamarine blue lake, a sight which exceeded even my most hopeful expectations. The sight of a lake sourcing a not-insignificantly sized stream with no immediately obvious source of replenishment is an odd one indeed until you realize that the wall of talus on the far side of the lake is cored with ice.

Panoramic View of Wright’s Lake. Gilpin Peak and rock glacier at left, Mt. Sneffels at right.

Rock glaciers are interesting beasts. They are essentially glaciers covered with a layer of rock that serves to insulates the ice which continues to flow downslope under the influence of gravity. To completely cover a glacier in rock, one naturally needs a lot of rock. The peaks in the San Juans generally consist of extremely crumbly, scuzzy volcanic tuff and ash deposits. Gilpin Peak, the summit from which the rock glacier descends, is no exception as it looks like the whole mountain could slough off into the valley during the next stiff breeze. Debris from the peak above the glacier falls from the sheer cliffs ringing the basin and accumulates on the surface of the ice. The insulating effect of the rock has allows these small remnants of ice (the San Juans were home to much more extensive glaciers during the most recent glacial period) to survive here even though the current climate in the San Juan’s is too warm and dry for traditional glaciers to survive.

From Wright’s Lake, it is about 1.5 miles and another 1500 feet up to the summit of Mt. Sneffels, one of Colorado’s famous 14ers (peaks over 14,000 feet high) and one that is not on anyone’s list of “easiest to climb”. On this day, the notoriously nasty conditions on the summit of Sneffels was apparently even from a quarter mile below. From the lake you could easily hear the wind whipping around on the summit ridge and thunderstorms were approaching from the west.

As I finally get around to finishing this post in early January, I am struck by the thought of how this amazing landscape is now buried under many, many feet of snow. While I am sure that the San Juan’s are equally inspiring in the winter, perhaps even more so to many people, thinking about this gives me an even greater appreciation for such places, given just how short of a window we have each year to experience alpine landscapes such as this one. The winter of 2011-2012 was an incredibly dry one in Colorado, and many places such as Yankee Boy Basin were mostly snow-free and accessible by May or June. In a normal snowfall year, vehicle access to these high altitude basins is often impossible well into July or even August, leaving potentially as little as 6 weeks before next winter’s snows begin to reclaim the land once again.

Yankee Boy Basin


Rocky Mountain High…literally

When hiking, alone and sleepy, though a dark, pre-dawn, dense forest of tall lodgepole pine, every shadow and tree stump looks like a bear. It’s a great way to get your heart rate going early in the morning. I had risen from my restful (save for some early morning screaming and yelling coming from the campground across the road) sleep at 4:30 A.M. in an attempt to climb Colorado’s highest peak, Mt. Elbert, without getting myself electrocuted. I found myself mentally preparing to defend my White Chocolate Macadamia Nut ClifBar to the death at least half a dozen times over a 1 hour period. Not only is Mt. Elbert the highest point in Colorado, it is also the highest point in the Rocky Mountains as well as the 2nd highest point in the entire continental United States, just 65 feet lower than California’s Mt. Whitney.  Despite its height, the summit of Mt. Elbert can be reached via several well-traveled trails. All require a fair bit of elevation gain but the one I was forced to use as a result of not possessing a 4WD vehicle climbs 4,900 feet  in 4.5 miles, a healthy climb regardless of altitude.

Summer is generally considered a bad time to climb any peak that involves spending time above treeline because of the summer monsoon thunderstorms that are ubiquitous across the southwest. Unlike its Indian counterpart, the southwest monsoon generally doesn’t deposit several feet of rain on the surface (although they can produce some locally heavy, but brief, downpours) but they can, and often do, produce copious quantities of lightning. Lightning, as you most likely know, hits high places. Mt. Elbert is the highest point in Colorado. A person standing on Mt. Elbert, would then, by extension, temporarily be the highest thing still attached to the ground in Colorado. Put two and two together and you can see this makes for a potentially life-threatening situation.  The problem with these lightning storms is that they can develop incredibly rapidly and without warning out of clear blue sky. Your best chances of avoiding them is to hike early….really early.

I camped about 100 yards from the Mt. Elbert trailhead the night before the hike. A developed forest service campground was located directly across from the trailhead whose “services” I could utilized for $15 per night. Option #2 was to drive across the road and set up camp in a small clearing for $0 per night. The only things I would be missing (considering that I could simply walk across the road to use the water spigots) were the fire pit and picnic tables located in each developd campsite. Considering that I was alone (thus making a picnic table a bit unnecessary) and that a complete fire ban was in effect, I decided to save my hard-earned moolah.

Venus and Jupiter in the pre-dawn sky at the trailhead

Several vehicles were in the parking lot upon my arrival at 5 A.M.  By the midway point of the ascent, I had managed to pass all of these groups, save for a pack of Boy Scouts who had ascended beginning at 1 A.M. in order to see the sunrise from the summit. Lunatics. After about an hour or so of hiking through the forest, the Sun rose above the horizon just as I hit timberline at about 11,500 feet.  If you climb mountains on any regular basis, you’re probably aware that treeline on many peaks is a welcome sight. The lack of foliage generally provides reassurance that you’re almost there, in addition to providing spectacular vistas of the surrounding countryside. In other words, treeline often tells you: “Hang in there! Just a little bit longer!”

Treeline on Mt. Elbert invokes no such warm and fuzzy feelings. Rather, treeline on Mt. Elbert is merely a courtesy reminder that you are less than halfway there and that you still have more than 3,000 vertical feet to climb through ever decreasing oxygen levels. And the vistas aren’t anything to write home about from this point to boot.

Breaking out of the trees at 11,500’…still 3,000′ to go!

One of the few inhabitants of the upper mountain, the American Pika is a small, elusive rodent that call the scree slopes its humble home.

Mt. Elbert also redefines the term “false summit.”  Fortunately, for my sanity, I had thoroughly read a number of guidebooks and was well prepared for this matter. Good thing otherwise I probably would have consider hanging myself after reaching  the 2nd one and finding the true summit still out of my reach (fortunately, the lack of trees would have made this a tricky proposition…). On the way down, I encountered a number of weary and inquisitive hiking parties just below the lower-most and most evil false summit (still nearly 1000 vertical feet from the true summit) whom I regrettably had to inform that they still had a good hour or more of trudging to go. Judging by their reactions and creative use of profane adjectives, they were not as well-prepared for this as I was.

Nearing the first of the false summits. This one is particularly nasty since it is in plain view from the beginning of the trail.

Skirting around the edge of false summit #1, false summit #2 comes into view….

…and then the true summit finally appears on the horizon!

The view from the summit is, as would be expected, spectacular, although not necessarily any better than a number of other, lesser peaks in Colorado. Mountains fill the field of view as far as the eye can see in all directions. Several other Sawatch Range 14ers are visible from the summit including Colorado’s 2nd highest peak, Mt. Massive to the north (Mt. Massive is aptly named, it consists of four individual peaks of 14,000+feet along a 5 mile ridge) and La Plata Peak to the south. The view on a clear day (which it was) stretches all the way to Pikes Peak outside of Colorado Springs, almost 100 miles to the southeast, and the Maroon Bells outside of Aspen.  Being the first person apart from the overachieving group of scouts to summit that morning, I had the place all to myself for about half an hour. By the time summit-er #2 showed up at about quarter to 9, clouds were already starting to build up around the mountain so I decided to head back down.

View to the south along the Sawatch Range from Mt. Elbert. 14,000 foot peaks and other notable summits are labeled.

View to the north from Mt. Elbert. The mutiple peaks of Mt. Massive are at right. The prominent ridgeline in front of Mt. Massive is the ridge followed by the Mt. Elbert trail.

Sadly, having reached the highest peak in the Rockies, my options for setting a new personal elevation record are now somewhat limited unless Warren Buffet unexpectedly names me in his inheritance or I find a big bag of money on the street (those are pretty much the same if you think about it…) and decide to go to Alaska or South America (to make a donation, you can find my contact information on the About page). Or, on a slightly cheaper thought, Mt. Whitney anyone?

14,433 feet!


Pile o’ Marmots

I could probably write a full-length entry about marmots if I really tried. After all, I did write entire essays on chocolate chip cookie recipes and the Twilight saga for English class last semester. But that really doesn’t sound like the way I want to spend the next hour and a half of my life. I would much rather spend that time sleeping instead which is sort of appropriate since marmots supposedly spend a lot of time doing that too. So instead I will simply give you these pictures of some plump Yellow-bellied Marmots proudly standing watch over their burrows in the San Juan Mountains. And also tell you that a common nickname for the marmot is “whistle pig”  due to the loud whistle the creature emits to alert nearby marmots when it feels threatened. So far I have failed in unearthing the origin of the “pig” part of this nickname, given that marmots are actually most closely related to ground squirrels and bear about as much resemblance to a pig as I do (I realize that this is making a rather bold statement about my personal appearance, if you disagree for some reason, feel free to discuss in the comments).

I didn’t even see the two below until after I had taken the picture. Only a fool would attack a burrow being defended by three of these vicious and intimidating rodents.

Another marmot doing its best to blend in with the lichen…


Mountains of Sand

Sunset over the Great Sand Dunes. Note the sunlight catching the thin layer of sand being blown across the surface, no more than a few inches above the ground. Saltation in action!

Sunset over the Great Sand Dunes. Note the sunlight catching the thin layer of sand being blown across the surface, no more than a few inches above the ground. Saltation in action!

I’ve been to my fair share of sand dunes; St. Anthony Dunes and Bruneau Dunes in Idaho, Oregon Dunes on the Pacific Coast, Coral Pink Sand Dunes in southern Utah, Juniper Dunes near Walla Walla, and a handful of dunes in New Zealand that I don’t remember how to pronounce much less spell.  By comparison though, the Great Sand Dunes in south-central Colorado truly deserve their title. In fact, one feels somewhat uncomfortable using the term “dune” due to its complete and total inability to convey the grandiose scale of this geological wonder. A weary traveler approaching them might be liable to exclaim “That’s no dune!” (if you didn’t catch that cleverly placed Star Wars pun, you should watch this short video clip immediately) upon the realization that these are no ordinary dunes.  No, they are perhaps better described as a small mountain range made of sand. When one first looks upon the dunes, it seems inconceivable that the entire massif could be made of sand. After slogging my way to their summit though, I assure you that they are.

Approaching the dunes from the south…Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the background.

Before beginning to ascend the dunes, one must first cross Medano Creek, a small stream originating in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that flows between the mountains and the dunes. Due to the abnormally low snowfall in the Colorado mountains this past winter, by the time I visited in mid-June, this was a non-issue. The creek was only a few inches deep and therefore easily traversed.  Medano Creek is nevertheless just one of many features that makes the Great Sand Dunes stand out from their sand dune brethren around the world. The presence of a reasonably reliable water source along the base of the dunes creates a beach-like environment that, judging by the number of families with small children, is very conducive to building sand-castles.

Medano Creek meanders its way across the sand flats

The hike up to High Dune (which confusingly is NOT the highest dune; that title belongs to nearby Star Dune which is about 100 feet higher) is well-traveled yet there is no official trail so everyone ends up taking a slightly different route making it difficult to find footprint-free sand for good photographs. Hike past High Dune though and you are almost immediately alone in the midst of many, many square miles of untrodden, pristine, windblown sand. Anyone who has ever hiked up a sand dune before knows that you have to expend quite a bit of energy to extract your sinking foot from the sand after each step.  The somewhat demoralizing thing about hiking through sand dunes is that what takes you an hour to hike up, you can run down in less than a minute. Given that the running down part is thoroughly enjoyable; hiking the sand dunes is, in a way, analogous to waiting in line at Disneyland for two and half hours in order to go on Splash Mountain for two minutes. The analogy fails in that Splash Mountain doesn’t leave you picking sand out of every part of your body for the next three months and you don’t get an on-ride photo running down the sand dunes.  However, even hiking up the dunes, while difficult, is still a very enjoyable experience.

A lone hiker trudging up a small foredune on the way to High Dune provides an excellent sense of scale

Hikers cross the final ridge to High Dune underneath a 3rd quarter Moon

Wow, I’ve written three entire paragraphs without even MENTIONING geology yet!  This must stop now before they make me give my degree back. Anyhoo, most of the sand originates in the San Juan Mountains to the west, is transported to the edge of the vast San Luis Valley and then blown eastward by prevailing winds for many miles before the sand slams into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and accumulates in a ginormous pile at their base. The color of the sand is a bit difficult to describe. During the day, it appears slightly off-white, cream, or ivory you might even say. However look at the sand closely and you’ll see that it consists of many orange to pink to yellow colored grains; colors which are brought out in all their glory at sunset.  In a few spots on my hike/run down the dunes, the innards of the dunes were visible, exposing the intricate bedding pattern that results from sand being blown up the shallow side of the dune and then cascading down the slipface.

A series of 1-m scale sand avalanches slide down a steep slipface

A rare outcrop of sand reveals the layering that underlies the sand dunes

Sunset in the dunes was one of the most indescribable experiences I’ve ever…umm…experienced. Never mind that positioning yourself correctly on the dunes allows you to watch the sunset half a dozen times if you start at the top and slowly move your way downhill, the colors and patterns in the dunes brought out by the Sun setting through the smoke and haze in the western sky (much of it regrettably emanating from wildfires in New Mexico fires)  were spectacular. The low angle of the sun revealed the small-scale dunes that are ubiquitous yet nearly invisible in the harsh mid-day lighting (see photo at top of page).

Looking north towards the Sangre de Cristo Mountains at sunset.

Walking along the dune crests at sunset.

Since this has already ballooned to one of my longer entries, let’s go ahead and make this Part 1 of 2. The dunes are just one of many attractions in the San Luis Valley/Sangre de Cristo region. The other attractions that I will detail soon may or may not include an alligator farm…

And that my friends, is called a “cliffhanger.”


Where the Rivers Run Orange: Remnants of a Colorado Silver Rush

The San Juan Mountains have a way of making you feel uneasy.  Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the most infamous cannibal of our time, one Alferd Packer, consumed five of his fellow prospectors here during the winter of 1873-1874. But while the alpine scenery rivals or exceeds that of any mountain range I’ve ever visited, the fact that many of the streams cascading down the steep slopes run with a neon, metallic orange color that coats every last pebble along the streambed in a golden veneer lets you know that something is wrong.

A very orange and acidic Red Mountain Creek

While you might think that someone dumped a truckload of kool-aid into the mountains, in reality it’s because the San Juan’s used to be gold and silver country. Looking at a topographic map of the San Juan’s is like looking at some sort of twisted and tortuous treasure map, with literally thousands upon thousands of tiny crosses marking the locations of long defunct mine shafts, many of them waiting to swallow up the unaware hiker.  The majority of these mines were established in the later 1800’s when silver in previously unheard of concentrations was discovered in the mountains, along with smaller amounts of gold, zinc, copper, and other heavy metals. Like an enormous hardrock gopher mound, the San Juan’s are riddled with underground mining tunnels. It is possible to travel between the towns of Silverton and Telluride, several hours apart by road, without ever setting foot on the surface of the Earth.  While few active mines still exist, the imprint that the mining had on the land is readily apparent to anyone traveling between Ouray and Silverton on U.S. Highway 550, commonly known as the Million Dollar Highway (for reasons which are disputed…) which, due to the persistent lack of guardrails along its more perilous stretches, is not for the faint of heart.

Ouray, Colorado: founded as a mining town in 1876 and the self-proclaimed “Switzerland of America”

Ouray County Road 31 heads into the mining district with Red Mountain looming in the background

Remnant buildings and tailings of the Guston Mine

Ouray County Road 31 branches off of Hwy 550 about halfway between Ouray and Silverton and winds through the Red Mountain Mining District for several miles. This area, located about 10,000 feet above sea level, was home to a number of rowdy mining towns during the its heyday in the 1800’s. Since I am rarely (ok, never) mistaken for a history buff, an excellent history of the Red Mountain District written by people who know what they are talking about more than I do can be found here. The road is marked as a 4WD on maps road but seemed very well maintained. I ventured that I could have gotten my trusty Toyota Corolla down it when dry, but probably not at a rate much faster than I could walk it. As a result, I parked my car along the highway and struck out on foot. In hindsight this was both a good and a bad idea. Bad in that the skies of Colorado decided to unleash their first drops of moisture in months, when naturally I had left my rainjacket at home. Thankfully, old mine buildings make for decent shelter if you can find one that doesn’t look like it will collapse in the slightest gust of wind. However this was good considering that the road basically turned into a clay bog as soon as it started raining which means that I would have been S.O.L had I decided to drive instead of walk.

The mainframe of the Yankee Girl Mine, one of the most productive and lucrative silver mines in the San Juan’s

Acid mine drainage along a creek near Red Mountain

A short walk in along Road 31 and it becomes immediately apparent that the land has been completely and utterly gutted by the silver mining process. It is the bright orange creeks and streams catch your eye first. This phenomenon is known as acid mine drainage, and occurs when rainwater or snowmelt comes into contact with metal-rich rocks, such as the rock that composes the tailings piles that surround all of the old mines. The water leaches metals, most commonly iron, out of the rock and into to the water. The iron then oxidizes resulting in the highly acidic, bright orange water that flows throughout the region. Perhaps even more pervasive than the orange creeks though is the smell. Nearly all of the mines and tailings piles are accompanied by a metallic, musty odor that leaves you with the funny feeling that it would probably be a bad life decision to inhale the air for an extended period of time. The smell is truly difficult to describe, the closest analogy I can think of is the hydrogen sulfide so commonly associated with the geysers and hot springs of Yellowstone, although this still falls short. This smell was much less sulfurous and disagreeable, and while I wouldn’t go as far as to say it was pleasant, it wasn’t bad enough to make me cover my airways with a bandanna or seek refuge somewhere else.

The National Belle Mine overlooks the former site of Red Mountain Town

One of the last remaining structures in Red Mountain Town

Stop number two for the day was the remains of another 19th century mining camp: Ironton. Unlike the Red Mountain District, which was so extensively mined that it is essentially located on a barren hillside that has been mostly stripped of trees, Ironton and its associated mines, such as the Colorado Boy seen below, are nestled deeper within the forest. A well marked trail leads to Colorado Boy but many of the other sites in the area are located along routes that have been nearly completely reclaimed by the forest, making them difficult to find without a good map and good sense of direction since GPS devices don’t work worth a darn in the dense woods.

One of about a dozen structures still standing in Ironton

Mainframe of the Colorado Boy Mine

Just south of Ironton, spanning a large gully known as Corkscrew Gulch, lies a bridge that I am convinced was the inspiration for the rickety wooden span in Shrek that Donkey and Shrek traverse in order to cross the boiling lake of lava.  Oddly, this interesting relic isn’t listed on any maps of the area and I was unable to find many pictures of it online, yet it was one of the highlights of the day. I initially spotted the  bridge from below, it wasn’t even obvious that it was a bridge at first but being the curious cat that I am, I was naturally intrigued. After about a half hour of bushwhacking my way up the ridge on the west side of the gulch, I located the trace of an old, overgrown wagon road that eventually led me to the edge of the canyon and the bridge abutments. Now this bridge, missing as many planks as it was, would have been completely impassable regardless but for whatever reason, one of the two cables spanning the gulch had been cut causing the span of the bridge to hang like a limp wet noodle across the canyon. The bridge is in such bad shape that the weight of a house fly alighting on the remaining cable would likely cause the remainder of the structure to plummet several hundred feet to the streambed below. Interestingly, upon further research, this bridge was at one point the longest suspension bridge in Colorado. To this day, it holds the unofficial title of “sketchiest bridge in Colorado” and I don’t envision it relinquishing this title any time soon.

Sketchy bridge from the bottom of Corkscrew Gulch

View of the bridge from slightly uphill

A closer and more detailed view of the sketchiness

Despite the glaring environmental ramifications and water quality issues associated with the mining that took place here, , spending an afternoon exploring the mines was a fascinating step back into the exciting history of the San Juan Mountains and southwestern Colorado. The mines are so prevalent and such a seemingly integral part of the landscape here that it is sort of difficult to imagine the San Juan’s without them. Just don’t drink the water….