Nature, Landscape, and Night Sky Photography by Zach Schierl

National Parks

Crossing the Channel

Close-up of a small gray and red fox sitting in the grass
A small ocean inlet with blue-green water along a rugged coastline

Potato Harbor, Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park, California

Just a few dozen miles off the coast of Southern California lie the Channel Islands, eight motes of land jutting out of the sea a stone’s throw from the hustle and bustle of the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Of the eight islands, the only one with a significant human population is the tourist mecca of Santa Catalina, which draws over one million visitors per year. The remaining seven islands are sparsely populated and draw far fewer tourists. The four northernmost islands form an archipelago that is protected by Channel Islands National Park and the Nature Conservancy.

Back in March, we briefly visited the largest Channel Island: Santa Cruz. At 97 square miles in area, Santa Cruz is reached via ferry from Ventura or Oxnard. Our hour-long journey across the Santa Barbara Channel was choppy to say the least, but included close up views of Pacific white-sided dolphins and several majestic oil drilling platforms. Upon arrival, we were greeted by one of the most lush landscapes imaginable. Abnormally abundant winter rains had produced a tall, dense carpet of green grasses that blanketed the entire island. One of the resident rangers told us it was the greenest he had seen Santa Cruz in the seven years he’d worked there.

A trail passes through dense green grass with sunset-lit mountains in the background

A trail winding through the lush spring grasses on Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park

A view of an island covered in green grass with the deep-blue ocean and other islands in the background

Looking east from Santa Cruz toward Anacapa Island, Channel Islands National Park

An illuminated tent beneath a tree. The landscape is illuminated by moonlight.

Campsite on Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park. Landscape illuminated by a first quarter moon.  

Given their relative geographic isolation, the Channel Islands are notable for their high concentration of endemic plant and animal species found nowhere else on Earth. They are also home to some of the earliest evidence of human habitation in the Americas. Archaeological and geological evidence suggests that humans inhabited Santa Rosa, just east of Santa Cruz, as far back as 13,000 years ago. At this time, sea levels were much lower due to the massive amounts of water locked up in glaciers and ice sheets farther north. As a result, the four northernmost islands (Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel) were united into a “mega island” whose eastern edge was much closer to mainland California. This made it easier for plants and animals to reach the island, either by air (birds, plant seeds, etc.) or on floating rafts of debris (mammals, reptiles, etc.) Some species may have even been deliberately brought to the islands by humans.

As the most recent glaciation ended, sea levels began to rise, eventually splitting the mega-island into the smaller landmasses that exist today. Once isolated, the plant and animal populations that had established themselves on the islands, either organically or after being brought there by humans, began to evolve into species distinct from their mainland cousins. In some cases, distinct subspecies have evolved on individual islands in response to unique conditions.

Close-up of a small gray and red fox sitting in the grass

Close-up of a small gray and red fox sitting in the grass

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For visitors to Santa Cruz, the most obvious example of this phenomenon is the ubiquitous Santa Cruz island fox (Urocyon littoralis var. santacruzae). Coming from the mainland where a sighting (especially a daytime sighting) of a fox is a rare treat, we were surprised to see one within minutes of getting off the ferry. The island fox is descended from and appears very similar to the common grey fox, but is much smaller. A fully grown island fox weighs just 4-5 pounds, and is similar in size to a large house cat. Often the lush spring grasses exceeded the foxes in height, making them challenging to spot! Nearly extinct in the early 1990s, a highly successful habitat restoration and captive breeding program has the species thriving today. We ended up seeing several dozen in our short visit to Santa Cruz. Other subspecies of the island fox exist on five of the other seven islands, each with slight differences evolved in response to local conditions.

A small fox lies hidden in the grass

An island fox lurking in the tall grass

A small gray and red fox sits alongside a dirt path

An island fox on the trail to Smugglers Cove, likely hoping for a food handout.

With its pastoral landscape and unique wildlife, Santa Cruz feels a world away from metropolitan areas of Southern California. However, nightfall brought a stark reminder of just how close the islands are to the urban sprawl. Light pollution from Los Angeles, Oxnard, Ventura, Santa Barbara, and the numerous oil drilling platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel dominated the night sky from Santa Cruz.

A panorama of the California coastline showing many large light domes degrading the view of the night sky.

Nighttime panorama from the cliffs above Scorpion Ranch on Santa Cruz Island. See annotated image below for a description of the different features.

Nighttime image of Light Pollution from Santa Cruz Island with sources labeled

Our return trip was delayed because the choppy seas prevented the ferry from reaching the anchorage on Santa Cruz on time, giving us a few extra hours to sit on the beach and enjoy the peace & quiet of the island. The winds died down enough for a smooth ride back across the channel where we even spotted a couple of migrating gray whales. Apparently I need more practice shooting photos from a moving platform, as the whale pics all turned out pretty blurry. Have another fox instead!

A small fox sits in the grass


Pyroclastic Pixels Goes to Italy!

Colorful clouds and sea at sunset in Manarola.
Colorful buildings and a view of the sea from Vernazza

The village of Vernazza occupies rocky cliffs and ravines along the Ligurian Coast of Italy. 

We recently returned from a week in Italy; a refreshing change of pace, both scenically and climatically, from winter in the Utah desert! While we spent the majority of the trip enjoying the historic sights of Florence and Rome, just a handful of hours after touching down in Italy, we were aboard a high-speed train bound for the Cinque Terre, a rugged section of Ligurian Sea coastline where we spent the first several days of our trip hiking, exploring, and ingesting some of the best seafood of our lives. The Cinque Terre (“five lands”) consists of five small villages clinging to the rocky shore, surrounded by ancient stone terraces, vineyards, and olive groves, and crisscrossed by a network of hiking trails that, since 1999, have been part of the Cinque Terre National Park. A hot tourist spot in peak summer season, in March, with the temperatures still far too cold and the skies much too drizzly for a dip in the sea, the streets and trails were definitely still enjoying the relative calm of the off-season. On the stormiest day, we struggled to find an open restaurant or market to grab a bite to eat!

The five villages (from south to north: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare) are spread out along a six mile stretch of shoreline. A regular train connects the five villages to one another and the larger cities of Liguria, making its way along the coast via a series of long, dark tunnels, only to pop out into the open briefly to stop at the station adjacent to each town. Coming from La Spezia (the closest major city to the Cinque Terre), we hopped off the train at Manarola, our home base for our all-too-short stay:

The train station in Manarola, Cinque Terre

The train station in Manarola. A hundred-yard long pedestrian tunnel connects the station with the town, here seen peeking through gaps in the steep cliffs.  

Like the other four towns, the colorful buildings of Manarola cling to the hillsides in impressive fashion. The terrain, while steep, is relatively easy to traverse thanks to the vast network of dry stone terraces, originally built centuries ago. Not only do the terraces help minimize erosion of the precipitous slopes, the treads provide flat surfaces on which grapes, olives, lemons, and other food products are grown. Most of the trails that wind through the Cinque Terre follow these historic terraces, providing an easy walking path, great views, and an up-close look at many of the vineyards which are still operated to this day.

The village of Manarola spreads out below vineyards in a large ravine.

The village of Manarola as seen from the terraced vineyards that surround the town.

Colorful clouds and sea at sunset in Manarola.

A colorful sunset in Manarola, looking north along the Cinque Terre coast.

Colorful buildings of Manarola line the waterfront at dusk.

The Manarola waterfront at dusk.

The streets of Manarola at night. The local fishermen had all removed their boats from the harbor for safe storage on the streets because of the storm and high surf.

Despite the convenience of the train, the most enjoyable way to travel between the towns is to walk. Hiking is one of the primary attractions here, and the five villages are connected by a famous 7-mile long coastal trail that follows the curves of the shoreline in dramatic fashion. So dramatic in fact, that many segments have been closed for years due to landslides that have made them dangerous and impassible. On day two, we struck out from Manarola to hike to the next village to the north: Corniglia. With the direct route along the coast closed indefinitely, we undertook a more circuitous route up through the vineyards and terraces to the village of Volastra, then back down a steep grade to Corniglia. The views of the Ligurian Sea from this trail were phenomenal, despite the occasional rain & thunder.

Stone terraces and vineyards frame a few of Corniglia in the distance

A damp hike through terraced vineyards on the “high trail” between Manarola and Corniglia.

Agave and other plants cling to a rocky sea cliff

We were surprised at the how many different kinds of agave and cacti graced the slopes of the Cinque Terre. It was odd to see so many of the familiar “desert” plants from our Utah home in such a temperate climate! Here, several agave cling to a vertical cliff not far from our lodging in Manarola. 

After enjoying a picnic in Corniglia, we opted for a short rest and utilized the train to reach the next town of Vernazza. Vernazza was by far the busiest and most active town we visited; it was hard to imagine what the crowds would be like in the sweltering heat and humidity of summer. Interestingly, Cinque Terre, which attracts ~2.5 million visitors each year, faces many of the same challenges as Zion National Park in our own backyard: namely, lots of visitors and not a lot of room for them to spread out. The peak-season crowding has gotten bad enough that the Cinque Terre National Park, much like Zion, has begun exploring the use of reservation systems and other strategies to mitigate the crowds in peak season. Another parallel between Cinque Terre and Zion: deadly flash floods. In 2011, heavy rains swelled many of the streams that the villages are built along (or literally over in many places), killing several and burying the main streets of Vernazza and Monterosso in over a dozen feet of mud. While the towns have mostly recovered, the reality is that this will always be a very geologically active place. Nature doesn’t like near-vertical terrain.

Coloful buildings line the harbor in the village of Vernazza

A view of colorful Vernazza from high above its harbor.

Steep cliffs rise out of the sea in the Cinque Terre

Looking southeast along the Cinque Terre coast from the coastal trail between Vernazza and Monterosso. Vernazza is the prominent village in the center of the photo; Corniglia and Manarola are just barely visible through the mist in the background.

The city of Levanto and surrounding hills

The town of Levanto, just north of the Cinque Terre and the start of our hike to Punta Mesco

On our final day, we left the Cinque Terre proper and headed to the small town of Levanto, just to the north. Our plan was to hike a lesser known section of the coastal trail that traverses a wide peninsula jutting out into the Ligurian Sea, and then back to the Cinque Terre and Monterosso via Punta Mesco. Oddly, we saw far more people along this stretch of trail than we seen the past few days in the Cinque Terre, including an excursion of an Italian hiking club numbering at least 100 people. After a few dreary days, we finally got to bask in the beautiful Mediterranean sun on this trek, and were rewarded near the end with exquisite views of the entire Cinque Terre coast from Punta Mesco.

Panorama of the Cinque Terre Coastline

A panoramic view of the Cinque Terre from Punta Mesco along the coastal trail between Monterosso and Levanto.

A few days hiking (and eating) in the quiet and laid-back Cinque Terre were a great way to kick off our trip and ease us into tackling the hustle and bustle of Italy’s larger cities!


The Many Faces of Limestone

Star trails over Notch Peak
Grotesque cave formations in Lehman Caves, Great Basin National Park, Nevada

Bizarre and grotesque cave formations in Lehman Caves, Great Basin National Park, Nevada

Limestone is a unique character is the rock world. There are only a handful of rocks that can be dissolved in water, and limestone is by far the most common of that group (other members include salt and gypsum). Most limestones are composed of the skeletal remains of deceased marine organisms (a handful are formed by entirely inorganic processes), so their presence generally indicates that an area was home to a warm, shallow sea at some time in the past. Fossils of coral, clams, snails, and other water-loving critters are often abundant in limestone, and in some ways, a chunk of marine limestone IS one gigantic fossil!

The aforementioned critters make their shells out of calcium carbonate, which is soluble in slightly acidic water. Most water on Earth’s surface is slightly acidic (due to interactions with carbon dioxide in our atmosphere) so interesting things can happen when water and limestone interact…especially if you give them lots of time! In particular, groundwater is capable of dissolving huge voids in limestone bedrock over long periods of time, forming features such as sinkholes and caverns.

Limestone is an abundant rock in our neck of the woods, especially in the mountain ranges astride the Utah/Nevada border in the Great Basin. Throughout much of the Paleozoic Era (541 to 252 million years ago), this region was covered by a series of vast, warm, shallows seas, much like the one that now draws millions to the Bahamas every year.

A great place to see limestone in action is the area around Great Basin National Park. Tucked away in extreme east-central Nevada, Great Basin is one of my favorite national parks, far removed from the hoards that descend annually on many of the west’s more well-known attractions. You have to make an effort to get here and at first glance, the Snake Range of Great Basin NP looks pretty much like any other mountain island rising up out of the Basin & Range. Upon closer inspection, it’s actually home to a stunningly diverse array of landscapes: The 2nd highest peak in Nevada (Wheeler Peak at 13,065 feet), some of the world’s oldest trees, and arguably the darkest night skies in the Lower 48 all reside here.

Various cave formations in Lehman Caves

Stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, shields, and other speleothems (cave formations) abound in Lehman Caves.

But limestone is ultimately the reason a national park exists in this corner of Nevada. A small portion of the area was originally set aside as a national monument in 1922 to protect Lehman Caves, a stunning cavern eaten into the 500 million year old Pole Canyon Limestone. Only in 1986 was the monument enlarged into a National Park encompassing both the caves and the surrounding mountain landscape.

While small in size, Lehman Caves is exquisitely decorated with a wide variety of speleothems (cave formations). Stalactites, stalagmites, shields, draperies, cave bacon, cave popcorn, soda straws, and helectites surround you at every turn as you wander through the cave. Photos show details not immediately visible to the human eye in the dimly lit cave, revealing an underground world that looks more like a well manicured sci-fi movie set than a natural place sculpted by nothing more than the water, limestone, and time.

Small stalactites aligned with fracture patterns in the limestone

Baby stalactites on the ceiling of Lehman Caves trace out fracture patterns in the Pole Canyon Limestone. Groundwater containing dissolved calcium carbonate seeps through these fractures, eventually emerging into the cave where the decreased pressure causes the calcium carbonate to precipitate out of solution, forming stalactites. 

Caves formations in Lehman Caves

Back on the surface, no trip to Great Basin NP is complete without a hike to admire some of the oldest living things on the planet: the Great Basin Bristlecone Pines (Pinus longaeva). Curiously, even these trees have an intimate relationship with the limestone that is so common here. Most of the bristlecone pine groves throughout the Great Basin are found growing on soils derived from limestone or dolomite (a limestone relative). For some reason, the bristlecones seem to prefer this rock type, perhaps because many other species do not, thus minimizing competition. The easily accessible grove on the flanks of Wheeler Peak (pictured below) is perhaps the most notable exception. Here the trees grow not in limestone, but among hard quartzite boulders deposited by old glaciers.

Scraggly bristlecone pine tree

Admiring a several thousand-year-old Bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaeva) in Great Basin National Park, Nevada

Ice and moss along a creek in Great Basin National Park

Early-season ice accumulation along Lehman Creek, Great Basin National Park, Nevada

About an hour east of Great Basin, slightly younger (~490 million years) limestone in the House Range forms another unique feature: Notch Peak. At just 9,658 feet, Notch Peak doesn’t measure up in altitude with many other summits in the region. It’s claim to fame is its 2,200 foot sheer northwest face, one of the tallest cliffs in North America. Where exactly it ranks on that list depends on your definition of “cliff,” but there seems to be little debate that it is the tallest limestone cliff on the North American continent. The peak is striking, especially when viewed from the west, where the full magnitude of its 4,000+ foot rise from the Tule Valley below is apparent.

Panorama of the House Range, Utah

The House Range and Notch Peak (right of center) at sunset. 

We spent an enjoyable evening camping in the shadow of Notch Peak and had hoped to hike to the summit the next day via Sawtooth Canyon on the east side, but unfortunately car issues derailed that plan.

Star trails over Notch Peak

Autumn star trails over Notch Peak, House Range, Utah. The mountains are lit by the light of a first quarter moon.