The last destination on our Alaskan journey was the Kenai Peninsula and the town of Seward. After a few days respite from the wildfire smoke in Wrangell-St. Elias, it returned with a vengeance as we headed back to Anchorage and down to the the coast:
After baking in the heat of the Alaskan interior for the last week, the marine climate of Seward was a welcome change. We even had a bit of rain for one of the few times in our entire trip.
While temperatures in Seward we’re somewhat more mild, the coastal location meant the humidity was not. On our first day in Seward, we partook in a brutal hike up to the Harding Icefield in Kenai Fjords National Park. The hike itself was not abnormally difficult, but we were definitely not used to the combination of heat and humidity, leaving me feeling physically ill at several points during the slog up the mountain. The day had started off overcast, but as we climbed, the clouds evaporated leaving us with stellar views of the rapidly retreating Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield from which it originates. An icefield is essentially a large mass of interconnecting glaciers. The Harding Icefield is the largest — and one of only four — remaining icefields in the United States. The Exit Glacier itself has retreated more than a mile in the last 200 years, leaving trees and other vegetation to begin re-occupying it’s former valley.
The white and blue ice of the glacier made for a stellar contrast with the lush green vegetation of the alpine zone:
The wet climate of coastal Alaska results in extremely heavy snowfalls, making this one of only a handful of places in the world where glaciers flow all the way down to sea level to meet the ocean. Known as tidewater glaciers, these glaciers exhibit complex patterns of advance and retreat that, unlike standard alpine glaciers, are not purely the result of variations in climate. While warmer temperatures or prolonged drought can certainly reduce their mass, the movement of tidewater glaciers is also subject to complex interactions between the ice, the geomtery of the ocean floor, and the depth of the water into which they flow.
On our second day in Seward, we took a water taxi into the heart of Kenai Fjords National Park and then kayaked to within about a quarter mile of the terminus of Holgate Glacier. Tidewater glaciers have a tendency to “calve”, in which large chunks of ice break off the glacier and fall into the ocean, necessitating a safe distance. Glacier “social distancing” if you will. It is not hard to find videos on YouTube of people getting too close to calving tidewater glaciers, with quite predictable results. From our safe distance, we observed and heard several calving events in the few hours we were kayaking around the bay, but unfortunately I was not adept enough at kayaking into position quickly enough to actually capture one on camera.
Our boat ride back to Seward through Resurrection Bay also resulted in sightings of sea lions, seals, puffins, and even two pods of orcas: an exciting end to the trip!
The second stop on our Alaska trip of 2019 was Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve. The largest national park in the United States, Wrangell-St. Elias spans more than 13 million acres in the wilderness of southeast Alaska. Our destination was the old mining town of Kennecott, situated deep in the park’s interior between the volcanic Wrangell Mountains and the coastal St. Elias Range.
Due to the tire issues mentioned in my last post, we opted not to take our Subaru down the 60-mile long McCarthy Road, the main access route into the park. In hindsight, we probably would have been fine, as the road was in excellent condition (at least relative to the roads we’d been used to driving in Utah. The similar-in-length Hole in the Rock Road makes the McCarthy Road look like a recently-paved superhighway). Fortunately, we were able to book a last minute van shuttle from Kenny Lake, AK to the end of the McCarthy Road. Regardless of your mode of transportation, you then walk across a footbridge spanning the glacial silt-laden Kennicott River into the town of McCarthy. (The only vehicle access to McCarthy is via a private, and very expensive, bridge a bit further downstream.) Kennecott is another 5 uphill miles by shuttle, bike, or foot:
Strangely, reaching Kennecott would have been much easier in 1919 than it was in 2019. The McCarthy “Road” is actually an old railroad grade originally built in 1909 to bring supplies in and ore out of the famous Kennecott Copper Mines. From 1911 through the late 1930s, the Kennecott mines shipped millions of tons of copper ore to Cordova on the Alaska coast via the Copper River and Northwestern Railway. The town had state of the art amenities at the time, including one of the best hospitals in the territory as well as the first X-ray machine in Alaska. While the mines closed in 1938, Kennecott Copper remains one of the larger copper-producing companies in the world, perhaps best known for the massive Bingham Canyon Mine just outside of Salt Lake City.
Following the closure of the mines, Kennecott lay mostly deserted for decades before beginning to draw tourists in the 1980s. Much of the land and buildings within the town were acquired by the National Park Service in 1998 and added to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Restoration and stabilization of historic buildings in Kennecott is ongoing. Today, you can actually explore many of these buildings, including the town power plant (photo below) and the massive concentration mill (photo above), a 14-story wooden structure where copper ore was crushed and then mechanically and chemically concentrated into the high grade ore that was eventually shipped out via the railroad.
History aside, the natural landscape of Kennecott is really what makes it stand out as one of the most stunning places I’ve ever visited. The town is perched on the flanks of Bonanza Ridge, with rocky peaks towering more than 4,000 feet above and what remains of the Kennicott Glacier below. At first glance, it is not apparent (even to a geologist) that the mounds of rubble in the valley below ARE a glacier, but ice does lay beneath the veneer of debris. Like most of the world’s alpine glaciers, the Kennicott Glacier has retreated dramatically since the town’s heyday in the early 1900s, when its surface was level with or even above the elevation of the town. Today, you look down several hundred feet on to what remains of the glacier and the detritus it has brought with it out of the mountains. The origin of the glacier, and the dominant feature of the northern skyline, is the massive Mt. Blackburn, the fifth highest peak on the United States at 16,391 feet:
A few miles north of Kennecott, the Kennecott Glacier is joined by the Root Glacier, a somewhat more “normal” looking glacier that we spent nearly an entire day exploring. The experience was rather surreal given that the air temperature was nearly 90 degrees. Climates amenable to the formation of glaciers don’t often produce days where a swim in the frigid glacial melt water actually sounds appealing as opposed to horrifying, but that was certainly the case on this day.
As spectacular as the glacier was, there is something quite unsettling about walking around on one in a T-shirt. The signs and symptoms of a warming climate were all encompassing. We walked along deep gouges (surprisingly reminiscent of Utah slot canyons) carved into the ice by strong currents of melt water…
encountered many sublime pools filled with deep, electric blue pools of glacial melt water…
and carefully avoided deep shafts, known as moulins, that carry cascades of melt water into the internal plumbing of the glacier. In many places, we could hear the dull roar of the melt water boring tunnels through the ice beneath our feet. Glaciers like Root won’t survive many more summers with too many days like this one.
Despite the best efforts of the interpretive signs displaying historical photographs, and the park film showing the sights and sounds of the past, the sheer remoteness of Kennecott in 2019 makes it difficult to imagine the Kennecott of 1919: a busy town immersed in the deafening roar of copper mining, with a glacier not yet ravaged by climate change dominating the horizon.
With one job ending in June and the next not starting until September, we spent most of this past summer on the road. It’s now mid-October, and I’m finally getting the chance to seriously sort through the resulting pictures.
Our last big stop of the summer was Glacier National Park in Montana and neighboring Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada. Glacier was one of the few remaining national parks in the west I had yet to visit, so I was excited that we were able to squeeze this trip in. Despite uncharacteristically foul weather for mid-August, a harrowing experience on the park shuttle bus, campgrounds with problem bears (and problem campers), and an unscheduled detour to an auto parts store in Cardston, Alberta, we managed to get in 60+ miles of hiking among some truly first-class scenery. Our most memorable hike was the trek to Grinnell Glacier in the northeast corner of the park. Here are a few photos from that journey:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The least visited and most isolated of Utah’s five national parks, Capitol Reef hosts what is perhaps the quintessential Utah landscape. It is as if someone took small portions of the other four parks and mashed them into one; here you can find a plethora of arches and natural bridges, deep snake-like canyons, soaring Navajo and Wingate Sandstone cliffs, and even a few hoodoos thrown in for good measure.
The skinny sixty mile long park was originally established as a national monument in 1937, but became a national park in 1971. The odd shape stems from the inherent nature of the feature it protects: the Waterpocket Fold, a 100+ mile-long kink in the Earth’s crust known as a monocline. Creeks and rivers have dissected the fold over millions of years to reveal what is quite possibly the most colorful and diverse array of rock layers in Utah.
Capitol Reef is far from just about everywhere (which made the flat tire we experienced on the way that much more annoying). To the east and south lie the last major mountain range and river, respectively, to be mapped and added to the map of the lower 48 states. Not until the 1960s did a paved highway cross the Waterpocket Fold through Capitol Reef. In the northern part of the park, the Fremont River slices a narrow canyon through the Waterpocket Fold, its water creating one of the few habitable areas in the entire region. Petrogylphs attest to the importance of this year-round water source to ancient inhabitants. In 1880, Mormon settlers established the settlement of Fruita along the banks of the Fremont. The remains of this historic farming community and the abundant, lush green orchards and fields seem out of place in the otherwise stark central Utah canyonlands but add to the allure of the park.
Here are some of the sights from our quick trip to Capitol Reef this past weekend:
For the most part, the landscape at Capitol Reef is quite open, allowing vast views and superb light at sunset:
Not far from the park campground and visitor center are the remnants of an old trail leading up a sandy wash, then up a short but steep talus slope before arriving at a hidden basin containing hoodoos and other strange rock formations. Unfortunately it was just about noon and the light was about as direct and harsh as possible, but it was cool to explore an area off-the-beaten path yet still in sight of the tour buses below:
This past weekend we made our first foray into the interior of the Colorado Plateau since moving to Utah. Our destination was Coyote Gulch, a well-known tributary of the Escalante River that straddles the boundary of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Glen Canyon National Recereation Area. Below are some photos from the trip:
As a final note, Coyote Gulch has, for good reason, become an extremely popular destination over the years. We actually had some second thoughts about going after reading guidebooks that implored us not to visit on a holiday weekend in the spring (it was Easter) and after the BLM employee who issued our permit told us we would be “joining a party.” In the end, we found the over-crowding hype to be somewhat overblown. While there were more folks down there than you might expect to find in such a remote location, it could hardly be called a party. We camped in the most popular half-mile section of the gulch and couldn’t see anyone else from our site along the banks of the creek. We met just a handful of other groups on our hikes in and out of the gulch, and only occasionally encountered other people on our all-day hike down to the Escalante River and back. If you are seeking complete and total solitude or isolation, this is probably not the place for you. But we didn’t feel like the crowds detracted from the experience much if at all.
The increase in visitation to Coyote Gulch certainly creates challenges for the future. Hikers are now required to carry out all human waste, which seems to be a step in the right direction. However challenging keeping the gulch in pristine condition might be, I tend to believe that this situation is better, in the long-term at least, than the alternative. Coyote Gulch has been described as one of the last remaining echos of Glen Canyon, a small remnant of the scenic wonders that were submerged after the construction of Glen Canyon Dam and the filling of Lake Powell in the 1960s. Glen Canyon was lost ultimately because it was “the place no one knew.” The same cannot be said of Coyote Gulch. It is one of those places where the term “loved to death” gets thrown around, but ultimately we only fight to protect places that we love and value and it is hard to truly appreciate a place like Coyote Gulch solely through pictures. Hopefully the more people that go to Coyote Gulch and experience its majesty first-hand, the more people there will be to stand-up for it against future threats that are assuredly to come.
Sunset, nighttime, and sunrise are probably the three most exciting times for photography, and I got to hit all three on a quick trip to Bryce Canyon National Park this past weekend. I experienced a brilliant sunset, hiked into the Bryce amphitheater by moonlight, joined the masses for sunrise, and was back in my own home less than 24 hours after walking out the front door. I feel incredibly lucky to live close enough to such wonders that trips like this are possible. This impromptu trip was facilitated by the unseasonable heat wave currently gripping Southern Utah. On Sunday night, the overnight low at Bryce barely dropped below freezing (about 15 degrees above average for this time of year) making a quick camping trip a reasonable proposition.
This was actually my first trip to Bryce Canyon in the winter months. While snow has made itself scarce in Southern Utah the last few weeks, and most of the snow had melted away from the hoodoos, there was still quite a bit of the white stuff left on the north facing slopes, making for a gorgeous complement to the ruddy hoodoo hues.
Before hitting the trail for sunset, I took time to drive out to some of the overlooks at the south end of the park. Bryce Canyon may be known for hoodoo hiking, but south of the main amphitheater lie some truly mind-blowing views of the Grand Staircase and Colorado Plateau. The Paunsaugunt Plateau on which Bryce Canyon sits rises to elevations of more than 9,000 feet, allowing commanding views of the surrounding terrain. I truly believe that the view from Yovimpa Point is one of the best on the planet (albeit difficult to photograph), with a viewshed stretching from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, to Navajo Mountain and Lake Powell near Page, to the 11,000 monolith of Powell Point and the Aquarius Plateau.
As the sun dropped lower, I headed out on the trail to Tower Bridge. In hindsight I should have taken a picture of the mud, but I guess I was too preoccupied trying not to lose a boot to the bright orange morass. With winter freeze/thaw cycles still in full swing, the trails were all littered with fragments of rock fallen from the cliffs and hoodoos above, a good reminder of the primary process responsible for creating this unique landscape.
My visit happened to coincide with a full moon so Milky Way photographs were out of the question. The light made it quite easy to navigate the trails looking for interesting photo opportunities. In several hours of wandering around the amphitheater, I don’t think I turned my headlamp on once. It was seriously bright out there.
With the photo above, I was hoping for longer star trails but after just half an hour, my camera battery died. After scrambling to replace it, I discovered that someone (who shall remain unnamed…) had forgotten to charge their spare camera battery. With only enough power on the spare for a few dozen more exposures, I decided to pack it in for the evening rather than continuing with the star trials, and save my remaining juice for sunrise…which turned out to be a good call.
While Bryce is beautiful at any time of day, sunrise is truly the golden hour. Because most of the amphitheater faces east, sunlight creates so many interesting light patterns among the hoodoos that one almost can’t decide where to look. This was the 2nd morning since the switch to daylight savings, and the crowds reflected the fact that sunrise was now at a quite palatable 7:30 AM.
At first glance, Nevada’s Snake Range is just one out of the hundreds of long, skinny mountain ridges that comprise the Basin and Range Province of the western United States. Clarence Dutton, a geologist associated with John Wesley Powell’s geographic and geologic surveys of the western United States in the late 1800s, once referred to the Basin & Range as “an army of caterpillars marching toward Mexico,” referring to the seemingly interminable landscape of north/south trending mountain ranges and intervening valleys that dominate Nevada, southern California, and western Utah & Arizona.
It is the presence of one of our nation’s least visited national parks, Great Basin, in the southern portion of the range that provides the first indication that the Snake Range might be somehow unique from its brethren. And indeed it is. Rising more than 7,000 feet above the surrounding terrain, the Snake Range is home to four of the five tallest peaks in the state of Nevada, culminating in 13,065′ Wheeler Peak, the second highest point in the state. The altitude and the lush spruce, fir, and aspen forests clinging to its slopes makes the area feel suspiciously like a piece of Colorado thrust up into the middle of the Nevada deserts.
Great Basin National Park is also famous for the groves of Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) found on rocky slopes near treeline. Currently believed to be the longest-living non-clonal organism on Earth, many of the bristlecones in the park exceed 3000 years in age. In an infamous 1964 incident, a Snake Range bristlecone felled by a researcher (the area had not yet been designated as a national park at the time) was posthumously determined to be nearly 5000 years old, which would have made it the oldest known tree on earth were it not for the fact that the tree was now quite dead. More recently however, a bristlecone estimated to be 5,065 years old was found in the White Mountains of eastern California, slightly surpassing the age of the doomed Great Basin tree.
In the final hour of my recent drive across western Utah to reach Great Basin NP, I encountered only a single other vehicle before arriving at the park entrance. The relative isolation of the park leads to perhaps its most unique attribute; Great Basin National Park is by many measures the darkest national park in the U.S., and one of the darkest locations in the country period. Sadly, my visit coincided with a full moon which, while preventing me from experiencing a light pollution-free night sky, did make for some good nightscape opportunities:
If you get sick of exploring the surface world, Great Basin also harbors a subterranean spectacle, the ornately adorned limestone cavern known as Lehman Caves. With alpine peaks, caves, ancient trees, and inky black night skies, it may seem miraculous that Great Basin remains one of the least visited national parks in the country. In 2015, Great Basin was visited by 98% fewer people than that big hole in the ground known as the Grand Canyon. Hopefully the photos on this page encourage you to stay far, far away 🙂
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:
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:
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.
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:
Driving across the southwestern United States, one could be forgiven for thinking that all deserts are the same. However, differences in elevation, temperature, topography, and precipitation make them distinct in ways that are often hard to comprehend from a fast-moving car.
For all their differences though, both the subtle and the striking, the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts share one thing in common; the most visible symbol of each is a large, majestic, and photogenic plant perfectly suited for the harsh conditions in which it evolved to inhabit.
For the Mojave Desert, that plant is the Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia). Not actually a tree but rather, as the scientific name betrays, a species of Yucca, early settlers bestowed the befuddling name upon this plant after noticing that the contorted arms resembled the prophet Joshua raising his arms to the sky in prayer.
Today, the Joshua tree is considered an indicator species for the Mojave Desert, as many other inhabitants of the Mojave (two-legged, four-legged, and winged alike) depend on it for survival. The Joshua tree grows through portions of western Arizona, southeastern California, and southern Nevada, but some of the largest and healthiest stands are protected within the boundaries of Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve.
For the Sonoran Desert, the symbolic plant is the saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea). Despite the nearly ubiquitous use of the saguaro as a symbol of the American Southwest, this excruciatingly slow growing cactus actually only grows in a small portion of the Sonoran Desert extending from extreme northwestern Mexico into south-central Arizona.
Like the Joshua tree in the Mojave, the saguaro is an integral part of the Sonoran Desert ecosystem. Birds such as the Gila woodpecker nest within the flesh of the cactus while the fruits and flowers provide a source of food for many other species, including humans. When the end finally comes for a saguaro (which can take well over 100 years), the flesh rots away to reveal an internal structure consisting of a series of wooden ribs, which often remain standing long after the saguaro dies:
Both the saguaro and Joshua tree face serious threats; in the long term from a climate that may change faster than they are able to migrate, and in the short term from a loss of habitat due to rapidly ballooning human populations in the desert regions that these giants inhabit.
No tour of Death Valley would be complete without a peek into the myriad of mysterious canyons that slice abruptly into the mountain ranges surrounding the valley. When rain does bless Death Valley, it often arrives quickly and in large quantities, which can quickly turn a storm from a blessing into a nightmare. With little soil and few plants to soak up the water, most precipitation ends up rapidly draining into creeks and streams. Canyons that are bone dry 99% of the year can almost instantaneously find themselves channeling deadly flash floods, mudflows, and debris flows. Each time this happens, the canyons get slightly deeper (and the mountains slightly smaller) as the water picks up and transports bits of rock down to the valley floor where it dumps them in large piles known as alluvial fans. If the mountains weren’t continually being uplifted by tectonic forces (which most of the ranges in Death Valley are), this process would quickly erase the mountains from the landscape.
In October 2015 (just a few months before our visit), portions of Death Valley received several inches of rain in just a few hours, a nearly unprecedented storm for such a dry environment. Many roads were damaged or wiped out completely by floods and debris flows and portions of the park remained closed even several months later.
One of the most interesting canyons in Death Valley is Gower Gulch, located just south of Furnace Creek. Until recently, Gower Gulch was a small, run-of-the-mill canyon carved into the soft, buff-colored badlands of the Furnace Creek Formation. Things took a dramatic turn in the 1940s when the waters of the nearby (and much larger) Furnace Creek Wash were deliberately diverted into Gower Gulch in an attempt to prevent them from flooding populated areas downstream. With the drainage area of Gower Gulch enlarged by over 16,000%, periodic floods began to incise Gower Gulch at an alarming rate. The Gulch has deepened by more than 20 feet in just the last several decades, an erosion rate nearly unheard of in the geological world. The rapid erosion rate has caused some unintended consequences to overlooks, roads, and other park infrastructure but has simultaneously provided geologists with a fascinating window into what happens when you make a stream too big for its own britches.
Gower Gulch had experience once of these erosive floods just a few months prior to our visit. The lower walls of the canyon were still coated in a thin layer of tan mud left behind by the October 2015 floods. In many cases, the mud line was 10-15 feet high. Little imagination was needed to realize that Gower Gulch would be a terrifying place to be during such an event!
An hour north of Gower Gulch is Mosaic Canyon. Cut into the Panamint Mountains the rise to the west of Death Valley, Mosaic Canyon also experiences mudflows and debris flows during intense rains. The bedrock of the canyon is ancient dolomites, limestones, and marbles; in many places, these rocks have been polished to a shine by floodwaters roaring through the canyon.
The highlight and namesake of the canyon though are the spectacular deposits of breccia (a sedimentary rock made of coarse-grained, angular rock chunks cemented together by a finer-grained matrix) that have been pasted onto the canyon walls by repeated debris flows. The high carbonate content of the rocks allows percolating water to quickly cement the debris flow deposits together into a solid layer that can adhere to the canyon walls. The fragments of rock within the breccia are a representative sample of those that comprise the Panamint Mountains, and thus vary widely in color making the breccia appear like a complex fresco created by a powerful force of nature.
One can hike up Mosaic Canyon (some moderate scrambling required) for about a mile and a half, admiring the rock formations, before coming to a ~50 high cliff (a waterfall during wet periods) that inhibits further upstream travel. Hiking up Mosaic Canyon is truly spectacular, each bend reveals a new assortment of geological treasures, only some of which are pictured here.
Wind gets far more credit for shaping the surface of the Earth than it should. Contrary to popular belief, wind is a relatively poor sculptor of landscapes, especially when compared to water in its many forms.
Remove water from the equation though, and the influence of wind becomes magnified. The planet Mars is a great example. Dry for billions of years, with no streams or ocean waves to shape its landscape, Mars has become a barren land of sand dunes and sandblasted rocks.
If you want to experience a Mars-like landscape without the inconvenience of a long flight, Death Valley just might be your best bet. Here, water is so sparse that the effects of wind are more prominent and striking than anywhere I’ve ever visited.
My personal favorite wind-driven geologic phenomenon are what are geologists call “ventifacts.” Ventifacts are rocks (usually boulder-sized) that have essentially been sandblasted by wind-blown sand particles for extended periods of time. Ventifacts are consequently pockmarked with an array of pits, grooves, gouges, striations, and etchings that betray their uncomfortable past. Near Badwater in southern Death Valley, a low, linear ridge covered in boulders of dark black volcanic rock juts out into the valley, intercepting the strong winds that often blow along the valley’s length. Nearly every rock on this ridge shows these telltale signs of sandblasting. Combined with the lack of vegetation, photos from here resemble many of those taken by the Mars rovers more than just about anywhere else on Earth.
Larger ventifacts like the one below often take on an exceptionally strange shape. This is because wind (even very strong wind) is incapable of picking up anything bigger than a large grain of sand, and even then it can’t lift it more than a few feet off the ground. The result is that the bottom two or three feet of the bounder gets abraded away, while the top remains relatively intact, leading to the classic “hourglass” shape of large ventifacts.
All of the sand blown along the valley has to go somewhere. In several locations around Death Valley National Park, mountain ranges act as obstacles to wind, and where the wind stops or slows, the sand is deposited in large dune fields.
Death Valley has not shortage of dunes but the most accessible are the Mesquite Flat Dunes near Stovepipe Wells. Unfortunately, the proximity of these dunes to paved highways means that they are also one of the most visited locations in the park. Upon arrival at the dunes a bit before sunset, we were immediately greeted by the high-pitched insectile buzz of an amateur drone (currently prohibited in national parks) hovering overhead. Fortunately, such devices have a limited range and we were soon free of the annoyance. Even though the Sun was getting low, our plan was to stay awhile. Before long, the Sun set, the stars came out and we had the dunes almost entirely to ourselves as the nearly full Moon illuminated our path:
One unique feature of the these dunes is the presence of large patches of dried & cracked mud between the dune crests. Having been to dozens of different sand dunes, seeing anything other than sand (and the occasional hardy bush) in a field of sand dunes in a strange sight. The origin of the mud is connected to the fact that the dunes lie nestled against the base of the Panamint Mountains. Periodically, mudflows and debris flows burst forth from the canyons at the foot of these mountains, migrating their way into the low spots between the dunes. The mud dries quickly in the arid climate, forming the large mudcracks. The sand dunes, constantly in a state of motion, eventually bury most of the mudflow deposits, leaving only portions peeking through.
Coming up in part three, we leave the valley behind and explore the myriad of canyons cut into the mountains ringing Death Valley. Then it’s on to Joshua Tree!
Badwater Basin in Death Valley, the lowest (and hottest) point in North America at 282 feet below sea level, has long been on my list of places to visit in person. In part because of the superlative involved but also because Death Valley on the whole is a geological Mecca of sorts. A few weeks ago, I finally got to make my pilgrimage, but not without a few surprises. First of all, I never expected to be wearing four layers (including thermal underwear) and a winter hat when taking my picture next to the famous Badwater sign. I also didn’t expect visiting Badwater to be one of the least interesting things that I saw in Death Valley. This is not a knock against Badwater, but rather a testament to the fact that even after visiting 32 of the 59 national parks in the US, I can honestly say that Death Valley was one of the most spectacular and diverse I have been fortunate enough to spend time in.
With a week off before Christmas, we were looking for someplace “warm” to camp. We had originally planned to head to southern New Mexico and Texas to check out the Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains area. However, in the days leading up to our departure, the forecast lows plunged into the low 20s. It wouldn’t kill us, but we figured we could do better. Heading to Death Valley turned out to be a good audible as the lows were only in the low to mid 40s, quite pleasant by December standards. Oddly enough it was a bad experience during the depths of winter in 1849-50 that gave Death Valley its foreboding name. One member of a lost and ragged group of prospectors is said to have quipped “goodbye Death Valley” as they finally departed the basin that had given them such torment. Today though, armed with an automobile and several large water jugs, winter is an ideal time to take in the spectacular sights of Death Valley. After several days in the park, saying “goodbye” was the last thing I wanted to do.
The first thing to know about Death Valley: it’s big. Nearly 3,000 square miles big. The national park that protects it and the surrounding mountains covers upwards of 3.3 million acres—about the size of Yellowstone and Grand Canyon National Parks combined—making it the largest national park in the U.S. outside of Alaska. It takes awhile to get around and the character of the valley varies wildly along its 100+ mile length. All parts of the valley share some common characteristics though: heat (average July high: 116.5 F), aridity (2.3 inches in a good year), and low elevation (over 500 square miles of the valley lie below sea level).
Death Valley has been low for a long time but the dryness is a comparatively recent development. During the last glacial maximum (geologist-speak for “ice age”) 12,000-30,000 years ago, the surrounding mountains received so much precipitation that Death Valley turned into an 100 mile-long lake known as Lake Manly. Since Death Valley is bordered on all sides by mountains, streams draining out of the mountains had no easy way out. Over time, as the climate dried and the lake evaporated, thick layers of salt were deposited on the valley bottom. This is why most of the valley floor appears white. With the encouragement of the rangers, I tasted it and can confirm that it is indeed salt!
In many locations (in particular a spot known as “Devil’s Golf Course”), the salt grows into some fantastical yet potentially dangerous formations. The valley here is a wonderland of 1-2 foot high irregular mounds of salt & mud, all encrusted with razor sharp blades and daggers made of salt crystals (see photos below). While the salt is relatively brittle, falls are still to be avoided at all cost. Walking around Devil’s Golf Course reminded me of the time I completed shredded a brand new pair of leather hiking boots in one week of doing geology field work on fresh, sharp a’a lava flows in Hawaii. The only difference was the a fall here would quite literally rub salt in your wound, not a pleasant thought at all.
Near Badwater Basin are some spectacular and very colorful badlands sculpted out of young, soft, clay-rich sedimentary rocks. We arrived in Death Valley our first day just in time to catch sunset over the badlands (photo at top of page) and then hiked through them the next day after we started to desiccate from walking around on the salt flats too much.
If salt daggers, ancient lakes, and badlands aren’t enough excitement for one day, you’ll be happy to know that the northern end of Death Valley has experienced some volcanic activity within the past few thousand years. In a stark contrast to the bleak white salt flats of the southern valley, the valley landscape here is shrouded in dark black cinders and volcanic cones. The centerpiece is a large hole known as Ubehebe Crater, a type of volcanic feature known as a “maar.” Maars are the result of “phreatomagmatic eruptions” (your new scrabble word for the day; it will just take you a few turns and some incredibly good luck to be able to play it…), which occur when magma beneath the Earth’s surface comes into contact with groundwater. The heat from the magma causes the groundwater to flash into steam, creating a violent explosion, and, as so often happens with violent explosions, a large hole in the ground. The red and white sedimentary rocks that existed prior to the eruption still appear beneath the volcanic cinders in places creating a beautiful palette of colors.
More photos of sand dunes, mountain canyons, and the spectacular geology of Death Valley to come!
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…
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
I grew up about 90 minutes away from Petrified Forest National Park and, aside for a quick lunch stop about 10 years ago, had never visited before last week. While this is nowhere near as inexcusable as living in Arizona for decades and never visiting the Grand Canyon (yes, such individuals exist…I’ve met many), it still seemed like a bit of an oversight on my part. Or it could simply be a reflection of the inordinate number of outdoor activities that exist in northern Arizona; even living in the area for 10+ years isn’t enough time to hit everything. Either way, after finally venturing into the Petrified Forest, I can emphatically say that it should be mentioned with the best that northern Arizona has to offer.
Located amongst the vast Painted Desert of northeastern Arizona, the main attraction of Petrified Forest is of course the petrified wood. The formation of petrified wood is initiated when downed trees are quickly buried by sediment. Once entombed in the sediment, the lack of oxygen prevents the logs from decaying as they normally would when exposed directly to the atmosphere. In this case, the logs (none of which remain standing, despite the name “Petrified Forest”) were likely brought here in massive logjams along an ancient river system that existed during the Triassic period. A combination of sediment from the river and ash from nearby volcanoes buried the logs, not to be seen again for more than 200 million years. During this time, as the logs became buried under an increasingly deep pile of overlying sediment, dissolved silica began to crystallize in the pore spaces of the wood as quartz, eventually replacing all of the organic material while maintaining the original shape and structure of the log.
Petrified wood is not particularly rare. Good examples abound in Yellowstone National Park, Washington state, Utah, Colorado, Oregon, Alberta, New Zealand…the list goes on and on. What makes Petrified Forest National Park unique is the quantities found here. Due to the aforementioned Triassic log jams, large quantities of wood were concentrated in small areas. In a location known today as Jasper Forest (see photos below), movement was not possible without walking over a nearly uniform carpeting of small petrified wood fragments and frequently having to clamber over 2-3 foot diameter logs. Truly stunning!
Another unique aspect of Petrified Forest is the colorful canvas on which the wood is found. The wood is eroding out of a rock unit known as the Chinle Formation, which essentially consists of all of the river sediment and volcanic ash the buried the trees in the first place. More than 1000 feet thick in the park, the Chinle Formation is composed primarily of extremely soft mudstones, clays, and volcanic ash. Water is able to easily sculpt the soft rock into fantastically colored and oddly shaped badlands that make a spectacular backdrop for the logs.
Petrified Forest National Park faces an issue not encountered by most other national parks, namely, the wholesale theft of the very resource it was established to protect. For this reason, the park is only open during daylight hours (from 8-5 in the winter) to minimize opportunities for looting. It strike me as very sad that such measures are necessary. With a little geological perspective, it becomes clear how incredibly lucky we are to experience a landscape like Petrified Forest at this moment in time. So easily eroded is the Chinle Formation that in many locations, several inches of it are removed each year. This may not sound like much, but geologically speaking, that’s a veritable bullet train of erosion. While it took tens of millions of years for the Chinle to be deposited, it will be erased from our planet by the unceasing forces of weathering and erosion in a tiny fraction of that. The petrified logs, being comprised mostly of silica, are harder and will last a little longer, but are still brittle and will eventually be washed into the Little Colorado River and swept downstream along with the colorful Chinle badlands.
What all this means is that the colorful Painted Desert/Petrified Forest landscape we see today is one that is extremely temporary. While this is true of most landscapes we see on Earth today—our planet likes to re-build, re-arrange, re-shape, and remove constantly—the Painted Desert is even more ephemeral than most. While mountain ranges comprised of harder, erosion-resistant granite or quartzite (like most of the Rockies) can stand the test of time to some degree, the longevity of the Painted Desert, its soft sediments, and its brittle petrified wood is comparatively brief. Stealing this treasured natural resource only abbreviates our time with the Petrified Forest even more.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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
Legend has it that many years ago at Yosemite National Park, when asked by a visitor what to do if she only had one day to see Yosemite, a park naturalist responded, “I’d go down to the Merced River, put my head in my hands, and cry.” By extension, if one day to visit Yosemite necessitates tears, then surely allotting just one day to see Yellowstone, a plot of land nearly 3 times larger, is some sort of federal crime. Yellowstone is after all, 3 times larger than the state of Rhode Island (Pyroclastic Pixels fun fact™: 16 of our 59 national parks are larger than Rhode Island). Recently I found myself in Bozeman, Montana (just an hour or so north of Yellowstone) for a geology conference with 24 hours to spare so I rented a car and headed to Yellowstone for the day. The key to seeing anything in such a large park in such a short amount of time is focusing on one very small area. Since I actually hadn’t seen any geysers during my last trip to the Yellowstone area a few years back , I decided to head to the Old Faithful and Upper Geyser Basin.
Before I get to the geysers, let me take a moment to describe a game that I highly recommended you play when visiting Yellowstone. The game is titled “How long can you be in the park for before seeing someone taking an ill-advised wildlife photo” and my score on this visit was 23 seconds, shattering my previous personal best by several minutes. While still in sight of the Roosevelt Arch (the iconic stone portal erected at the north entrance to Yellowstone in 1903), I witnessed a family of four exit their minivan and the parents proceed to usher their children, with their backs turned, to within about 10 yards of a herd of grazing bison in order to take a photograph. Fortunately no one got gored, but not everyone is so lucky. As interesting as the geology and thermal features are, for me the preponderance of wildlife is unquestionably the prime appeal of Yellowstone. When one is bombarded by sightings of elk, bison, bears, coyotes, herons, swans, and bighorn sheep within 5 minutes of entering the park, it can be easy to feel like you are touring some sort of very large zoo. But it is important to remember that these animals are still very much wild and there are no cages or fences between you and a very, very, very bad day. If you want to get a close look at wildlife, bring a pair of binoculars or a good telephoto lens and keep your distance. There is, after all, a very good reason why these are handed out at the entrance station.
I arrived at Old Faithful just in time to witness an eruption (the crowds gathered around on benches tipped me off). After watching from amongst the masses, I decided I wanted to spend the rest of the day somewhere a little quieter. A long hike into the wilderness was sadly out of the question, in part because of time and in part because hiking alone in grizzly bear country is generally considered to be inadvisable. Instead I decided to head up the short trail to Observation Point which, while only about half a mile from Old Faithful, is still long enough to leave 99.99% of other park visitors behind. I watched the next eruption from the Point, several hundred feet above the geyser. Honestly the most fascinating part of watching from this vantage point was observing the number of people sitting on the benches ringing the geyser steadily increase over the half-hour preceding the eruption and then incredulously watching more than half of them leave before the eruption was even over.
At this point I got it in my head that it would be fun to make a time-lapse video of an eruption cycle, which involved me hiking back to my car to get my tripod and then climbing back up the hill. Once I had everything set up, I realized I had forgot my remote timer (not at the car but at home several states away) and would have to try to do the time-lapse by hand. This didn’t go so well for a couple of reasons. For one, whenever you set up a tripod anywhere, other people automatically assume you are some kind of expert on the area and start asking you lots of questions that you are in no way qualified to answer. And second, about a minute into the eruption itself, my focus shifted to a grizzly bear and cub that I spotted ambling out of the forest at the bottom of the hill (I ran into the same two bears on my hike back to the car about an hour later). The time-lapse didn’t turn out too well but it was still a fun day of people-watching, geyser-gawking, and wildlife-spotting. My tally after 9 hours in Yellowstone: three Old Faithful eruptions, hundreds of elk, dozens of bison and trumpeter swans, four grizzly bears, three marmots, one coyote, one bighorn sheep and 288 photographs!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.”
While Zion National Park may not normally be known for its waterfalls, spring snow runoff and the occasional summer monsoon thunderstorm can turn the park and its stunning red and white sandstone cliffs into a veritable Yosemite of incredible waterfall action.
I made a brief stop in Zion as part of a 1200 mile drive from Washington to Arizona for the holidays. I had visited Zion in the past during the spring when runoff from the high country surrounding the canyon was at its peak but despite the fact that the entire western United States had been getting hammered by a massive cold front for the past 2 days, I never expected to see the number of waterfalls that I did. Not only were they more numerous then ever before, even the relatively reliable ephemeral waterfalls, such as the one near the parking area at Temple of Sinwava, flowed with significantly greater gusto that I had ever seen before.
For an interesting comparison, here’s a shot taken from almost exactly the same spot (notice the bare tree on the left is the same as the tree on the right in the previous photo) in the summer of 2009.
Perhaps the most spectacular waterfalls were those found in the small alcove that is home to Weeping Rock. A short but wet hike up the Hidden Canyon Trail provided a vantage point of these falls. Getting decent photographs was a challenge. With heavy rain, wind, and nearly 100% humidity, it was next to impossible to keep rain off the camera and keep my lenses from fogging up.
The day after these photos were taken, the entire Park was shut down and evacuated due to severe flash flooding, road washouts, and the threat of a dam failure upstream on the Virgin River.