Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West

Nightscapes

Does the Milky Way Really Look Like That?

The Milky Way is visible in the night sky over a smoke filled lake.
The Milky Way stretches from horizon to horizon with some clouds hovering near the horizon.

The summer Milky Way from Cedar Breaks National Monument in southern Utah.

Capturing stunning images of the night sky has become much easier in recent years. The low-light performance of modern cameras (and even my six-year old Nikon D750) far outpaces the capabilities of cameras made even a decade ago. Recently, I was flipping through some old astronomy magazines from the early 2000s and was shocked not only by the (low) quality of the wide-field astrophotography of the day, but also by the incredibly expensive gear used to produce those images at the time. 20 years ago, it was extremely difficult to capture a detailed image of the Milky Way without a high-end camera and an expensive tracking mount.

Today, even some phone cameras can capture passable images of the Milky Way. Stunning panoramas of our galaxy stretching from horizon to horizon are now a dime a dozen on social media. Given the advanced abilities of today’s cameras, it is natural to wonder: “Does the Milky Way really look like that?” Do the spectacular Milky Way images we see plastered across the internet accurately represent what the human eye can see? Or is this incredibly rich detail only visible to a high-tech camera sensor? Or, more nefariously, could these images simply be the result of some Photoshop trickery? The answer, perhaps not surprisingly, is a combination of all three!

Let’s begin by discussing one way in which most Milky Way images are not representative of what the human eye would see: color. The Milky Way will always look monochromatic to the naked eye. However, the reason why has to do more with the physiology of the human eye than any deception on the part of the photographer. Let me explain.

Some photographers do like to crank up the saturation of their Milky Way images beyond belief. Night sky photos with vibrant blues, purples, oranges, and pinks are the tell tale signs of digital embellishment. Rather than point fingers, I’ve created my own version below to illustrate:

A photograph of the Milky Way with extremely vibrant colors

An image of the Milky Way (and a meteor) over Mt. Adams in Washington state…with the saturation slider cranked up to 100 in Adobe Lightroom.

To be clear, these colors aren’t real. This is Photoshop trickery, pure and simple. Here’s what the same image looks like without the saturation increase:

A photograph of the Milky Way galaxy hovering over a tall volcanic peak.

The same image, with natural color.

Much more subdued, certainly, but look closely and you’ll see that there is still some color there! Here’s the good news: those colors ARE real! Notice the pale green sky behind Mt. Adams. That’s airglow, a phenomenon caused by gas molecules in our atmosphere re-emitting energy they absorbed during the day in the form of ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. If you open the photo full screen and look really closely, you can also see some small pink-ish blotches along the plane of the Milky Way. These are hydrogen gas clouds—stellar nurseries if you will—glowing with the characteristic ruddy hue of ionized hydrogen.

Now for the bad news: while these subtle colors are “real”, you’ll never actually see them with the naked eye. Why not? To sum it up, our eyes suck at seeing colors at night. We see using two different sets of cells in our retinas: rods and cones. The cones are what allow us to see color. Unfortunately, the cones only work when there is lots of light entering our eyes, like during the day. Our rods are mostly responsible for our night vision and they are, sadly, colorblind. This is why the night sky (and low light scenes in general), always appear in shades of gray. Only a few of the brightest stars and planets emit enough light to trigger our color-seeing cones. The diffuse glow of the Milky Way does not.

Cameras on the other hand don’t have rods and cones. They are much better at picking up color in low light, so they naturally produce images that are more vibrant than what we actually experience…no editing necessary!

With this in mind, let’s remove the color entirely from our Milky Way image:

A photograph of the Milky Way galaxy with all color removed

Our Milky Way image converted to black and white, a more accurate approximation of what the human eye sees at night.

With the color out of the picture, is this now what the Milky Way actually looks like to the naked eye? Yes…under certain circumstances.

Look closely at the Milky Way in the image above. Notice the detail. It’s complex. It’s interesting. Some parts are brighter, others fuzzier, with dark blotches and voids winding sinuously from upper left to lower right. The Milky Way is a complex place, and this manifests itself in our view of it from Earth. In this regard, this photo actually does a pretty good job of depicting what the Milky Way actually looks like. You CAN see this detail and complexity with your own eyes…provided that a few things are true:

#1: You have a dark sky. For most people, light pollution prevents the Milky Way from being seen in its full glory. If you want to see the kind of detail shown in a photo like this one, you need to be somewhere dark. Not “turn off the porch light” dark. Not “drive out to the edge of town” dark. Not even “drive an hour up into the mountains” dark. Light pollution is incredibly pervasive and the view of the Milky Way can be degraded for literally hundreds of miles from a major city. Even some of the most remote wilderness areas in the United States are still awash in the glow of artificial light. Places like eastern Oregon, central Idaho, northern Nevada, and southern Utah are among the few locales where you can still experience a pristine night sky. A view of the Milky Way from anywhere else simply doesn’t compare.

#2: Your eyes are dark adapted. Remember the rods from earlier? While our rods allow us to see fairly well in low light, they need at least 20-30 minutes of darkness in order to reach peak sensitivity. This period is known as “dark adaptation” and it is a key ingredient of a successful stargazing session. Gazing at the Milky Way before your rods have had time to fully dark adapt is like looking at a Van Gogh or Monet with dark sunglasses on; you miss many of the finest details. If you walk out of a brightly lit RV or tent and look skyward expecting to see the Milky Way like it appears in a photo, you’ll be quite disappointed. Even using a headlamp or checking the time on your phone while waiting for your eyes to dark adapt can inhibit the process. For this reason, astronomers typically use red lights at night because our rods are less sensitive to that color, making it easier to preserve night vision.

#3: You are in the right place at the right time. We live in the suburbs of the Milky Way galaxy. When we look toward the center of the Milky Way (downtown), it looks brighter, because we are looking at a greater concentration of stars, gas, and dust. When we look away from the center, it looks dimmer. Images like the one I’ve been using in this post are taken looking downtown…toward the galactic center. This portion of the Milky Way is only visible during certain times of year. In late fall, it’s behind the Sun, making it rather difficult to photograph or see. Late evening in the summer and early fall, or early morning in the Spring is the ideal time to catch it. At other times of year, when the galactic outskirts grace our sky, the Milky Way is much more ho-hum. You’ll also want to avoid the Moon, whose glow will mostly overwhelm the diffuse and relatively faint Milky Way.

If all three of these things are true, then yes, the black and white image above is a good representation of what the Milky Way looks like to the naked eye. Sadly, only about 20% of North Americans can even see the Milky Way from their homes, much less see it under ideal circumstances. Light pollution has masked the view of our home galaxy to the point that most of us no longer know what it should look like. Ecologists call this “shifting baseline syndrome”, a phenomenon in which each successive generation comes to regard the state of the environment around them as “normal”. In other words, as we degrade our environment, we gradually forget what things used to be like, or, in this case, look like.

While increasingly rare, such a view of the Milky Way is one of the most spectacular sights in the natural world. I vividly remember a backpacking trip I took over a decade in Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park in New Zealand. The Milky Way appeared so bright that it cast shadows on the ground, and I was able to read a book (albeit barely…) by its light. Oddly enough, sometimes the “darkest” skies are actually the brightest because so many stars are visible.

Fortunately, light pollution is an easy problem to fix. Many outdoor light fixtures are poorly designed and allow light to escape upward into the night sky. While our modern lives certainly require light at night, that light is almost always needed on the ground, not up in the sky. Illuminating the sky or the crown of a tree makes no one safer or more secure from hazards real or imagined. Light fixtures that direct light downwards (known as “fully shielded” fixtures) eliminate much of the problem. Cities that use such lights, like Flagstaff, Arizona (where I grew up), produce substantially less light pollution than other cities of comparable population. You can see the summer Milky Way from downtown Flagstaff…a city of nearly 100,000 people. Simple actions can go a long ways toward preserving the view of the Milky Way for future generations. (For more on what you can do to combat light pollution, check out the great work being done by the fine folks over at the International Dark Sky Association.)

The Milky Way is visible in the night sky over a smoke filled lake.

A view of the Milky Way over Crater Lake in southern Oregon. A layer of smoke from the 2020 Oregon & California wildfires is seen near the horizon.


Backpacking the Olympic Coast

Clouds and mist surround several large rocky islands sitting in a calm bay
A hole in a rock along the coastline is filled with large green anemones, while waves crash in the background.

A tidepool filled with giant green anemones (Anthopleura xanthogrammica) along the coast of Washington in Olympic National Park.

Living in the desert of central Washington, it can be easy to forget that we live in a state with over 3,000 miles of coastline. While the high volcanic peaks of the Cascades are visible from our backyard (and thus remind us of their presence daily), the damp shores of the Pacific remain out of sight and out of mind most of the time.

Our most recent summer trip took us all the way to Washington’s western edge for a short backpacking trip along the coast in Olympic National Park. Coastal backpacking comes with a few unique challenges. For starters, predicting the weather along the coast is notoriously difficult, in part due to the relative lack of surface weather observations over the eastern Pacific and Gulf of Alaska, where most of our storm systems approach from. This fact ended up rearing its head on the final night of our trip.

Perhaps even more importantly, safe coastal backpacking requires that you know how to read a tide chart. The Washington coast experiences a fairly large tidal range, up to 10-12 feet during certain parts of the month. That’s enough to make vast sandy beaches completely disappear. A successful trip requires acute awareness of the timing and magnitude of the twice-daily high and low tides. The coast features many headlands (rocky outcroppings that jut out into the sea, often without any sort of “beach” whatsoever) that can only be traversed when the tide is below a certain level. Getting the timing wrong can (at best) result in having to sit on the beach for hours waiting for the tide to go out or (at worst) getting trapped in a dangerous situation as the tide rises and cuts off your escape route.

As this would be our first coastal backpacking trip, we obtained a permit for a fairly short and straightforward route beginning at Rialto Beach, heading north past the famous Hole-in-the-Wall, and eventually camping for two nights on the beach near the Chilean Memorial, the site of a shipwreck that killed 18 sailors all the way back in 1920. The terrain along this section of the coast was quite variable, ranging from long stretches of soft, sandy beach, to the slightly more annoying cobble and pebble beaches, to large boulder fields and headlands that were somewhat difficult to navigate with a heavy backpack:

A hiker with a large backpack navigates a pile of boulders along a coastline.

Picking our way along the rocky Olympic coast en route to our campsite at Chilean Memorial.

Alternating bands of dark and light colored rock stretch to the horizon along the coastline.

Tilted layers of sediment have been planed off by wave action near Hole-in-the-Wall, Olympic National Park, Washington.

Small plants grow along a rocky coastline

Cape Johnson, Olympic National Park, Washington. With not much beach to speak of, this is a great example of a spot where being aware of the tide situation is essential! 

After a little more than four miles of hiking, we arrived at the small, unnamed cove home to the Chilean Memorial and found a campsite just above the high-tide line among large pieces of driftwood. This sheltered cove made for a relatively quiet and peaceful camp, as the myriad rocks and sea stacks just offshore caught the brunt of the surf, limiting the amount of wave action reaching the beach. We enjoyed watching the landscape of the cove change over the next few days as the mist and tides repeatedly swallowed up and revealed the sea stacks and small rocky islands. We quickly discovered that the largest sea stack (pictured below) was connected to the mainland via a rocky isthmus at low tide, and ended up hiking out to it one evening to look back on our campsite.

Clouds and mist surround several large rocky islands sitting in a calm bay

View out into the Pacific Ocean at sunset from our campsite on the Chilean Memorial beach in Olympic National Park, Washington

Orange and purple light is reflected in the calm waters of the ocean surface at sunset.

Looking back toward the Chilean Memorial beach and Cape Johnson from the base of the large sea stack in the previous photo.

While we had our fair share of clouds and mist, it did clear up enough on one evening to reveal the night sky. The moon was just past full, so the Milky Way was only barely visible, but it was still fun to see the southern stars rise and set over the Pacific:

The Milky Way is just barely visible in the sky over the coastline

A faint hint of the Milky Way reveals itself despite the light cast by the rising moon (just behind the trees at left). 

Two people sit on a log illuminated by the glow of a campfire.

Enjoying a driftwood campfire on the beach.

Our trip came just a few days after the full moon, meaning that the low tides were some of the lowest of the month. These so-called “negative tides” are the best for exploring tide pools along the coast, as they reveal a greater variety of sea squishies:

Two large bright green anemones on a rock

Two giant green anemones in a tidepool in Olympic National Park, Washington.

A variety of marine life in a small rocky pool of water.

A crowded tidepool containing multi-colored aggregating anemones (Anthopleura elegantissima) in Olympic National Park, Washington

A hole in a rock along the coastline is filled with large green anemones, while waves crash in the background.

A tidepool filled with giant green anemones along the coast of Washington in Olympic National Park.

In addition to the living tidepool organisms, we also observed large quantities of dead jellyfish (at least three different species) washed up on the beaches, including several massive (~2 foot wide) lion’s mane jellies:

The gelatinous remains of a red and orange jellyfish sit on the beach next to rocks and seaweed

A deceased (?) lion’s mane jellyfish (Cyanea capillata) washed up on the beach in Olympic National Park, one of many, many such jellies we found on our trip.

For our third and final night, the original plan was to hike most of the way back to the car and camp along Rialto Beach near Hole-in-the-Wall. Prior to departure, the weather forecast for this night had called for a fairly robust storm coming in off the Pacific. With an ailing tent that has become somewhat more, shall we say, permeable than one would desire, we briefly debated whether to just call it quits to avoid the chance of getting soaked. Surprisingly, we were able to get enough cell service on the beach to check an updated weather forecast, which showed a drastically reduced chance of rain and little precipitation expected. Consequently, we decided to stick with the original plan and set up camp in the trees at the north end of Rialto Beach. Our decision to stay was quickly validated as we observed a number of whales spouting and breaching throughout the afternoon just offshore.

A camper sits next to a tent under a tarp, scanning the skies with binoculars.

Our final campsite along Rialto Beach. From this vantage point, we saw a number of whales (likely humpbacks) spouting and breaching off-shore throughout the afternoon and evening. 

12 hours later, at 3 AM, when I was emerging from the tent for the third time to re-secure our tarp and shelter in the face of driving rain, wind, and large, deafening waves crashing up against the bluff just a few feet from our tent, I wasn’t so sure. A great example of the fickle coastal weather I suppose, and a good character building experience as Calvin’s dad would say.

While intense, the storm was brief, and by morning the skies were clearing, making for a pleasant stroll down Rialto Beach back to the car. All in all, the trip was a refreshing change of scenery from our predominantly mountain-based adventures the rest of the summer!

White puffy clouds dot the sky over a long sandy beach

Benign clouds greeted us in the wake of the storm for our short hike out to the car on the final morning. 


Views of Tahoma

A green forested valley with a conical volcanic peak in the background. Many different types of clouds in the sky.
White icefields and glaciers at the summit of a peak are visible through some clouds

Light from a nearly full moon illuminates the glaciers and icefields on the summit of Mount Rainier. 

At 14,411 feet, Mount Rainier is the highest peak in Washington and in the entire Cascade Range. British naval officer Peter Rainier never even saw the mountain that now bears his name, but he had a friend that did. Clearly, it paid to have connections in the 1700s. Oddly, Rainier did fight against the Americans during the Revolutionary War, making the fact that we continue to utter his name when referring to this grand peak all the more peculiar. Mount Rainier was originally known as Tahoma or Tacoma by the Salish-speaking indigenous tribes of the Pacific Northwest. There are periodic rumblings about renaming the peak, much like the name of Alaska’s Mount McKinley was officially reverted to Denali in 2015. Hopefully that will indeed happen someday…

Irrespective of name, Tahoma dominates the skyline from Seattle and much of the Puget Sound region. Tacoma and other towns to the south of Puget Sound are literally built on layers of debris deposited by gigantic lahars (volcanic mudflows) that periodically race down its flanks, filling river valleys on their way to the sea. The threat of future lahars and volcanic activity looms over those who live in its shadow. From my vantage point in the Yakima Valley of central Washington, the foothills of the Cascades obscure all but the uppermost few hundred feet of its glacier-clad summit (and which will, thankfully, block any future lahars). Obtaining a better view requires venturing into the mountains. Recently, we spent a weekend camping high on a ridge about a dozen miles to the south of the volcano’s summit. Our campsite in an old clear cut provided stellar, if slightly obscured views of Tahoma’s bulk.

The weather was quite variable throughout the weekend, ranging from mostly clear (but hazy) upon arrival, to partly cloudy, to overcast, to bouts of dense fog. Our view of the mountain was constantly changing. One evening I decided to capture a time-lapse of cloud movement and formation in the two hours leading up to sunset:

Sadly I did not notice the beer can stuck on top of the tree in the foreground until it was too late. Oh well. On another evening, a spectacular stack of lenticular clouds developed over the summit:

A green forested valley with a conical volcanic peak in the background. Many different types of clouds in the sky.

A series of stacked lenticular clouds above Mt. Rainier.

A series of stacked lenticular clouds above a conical volcanic peak

Closer view of the stacked lenticular clouds.

A nearly full moon provided sufficient light for photographing the mountain after dark:

A large volcanic peak illuminated by moonlight with stars in the background sky.

Tahoma bathed in the light of a nearly full moon.

Not to be outdone by Tahoma, the pinnacle of High Rock just to our west also put on quite the show at sunset, with the light of the setting sun casting an amazing shadow of the peak and it’s summit lookout tower on the foreground mists:

The setting sun casts a pink glow on low clouds above a rocky pinnacle with a lookout tower.

Sunset, High Rock, Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Washington

A nearly full moon rises over a forest of trees

A nearly full moon rises over the forests of the Cascade Mountains.

After this trip and our stunning view of Mt. Adams a few weeks ago, our goal for the summer is now to camp in the shadow of all of Washington and northern Oregon’s stratovolcanoes. Next up: Mt. St. Helens!


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


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. 


Sunset to Sunrise at Bryce Canyon

Sunrise at Bryce Canyon lights up rock formations

Sunrise light illuminates rock formations at Bryce Canyon National Park

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.

Panoramic view from Farview Point, Bryce Canyon National Park

Looking east from Farview Point. Note how all the snow has melted from the south facing slopes, but much remains on the north aspects

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.

Hoodoos, fins, and walls at Bryce Canyon National Park

Late afternoon sun illuminates hoodoos, fins, and walls along the trail to Tower Bridge at Bryce Canyon National Park

Bristlecone Pine and snow at Bryce Canyon National Park

A scraggly Bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaeva) between residual snow patches along the trail to Tower Bridge

View of Powell Point from Bryce Canyon National Park

A classic Bryce view at sunset: looking northeast towards Powell Point (10,188′) and the Aquarius Plateau

Moonrise over Powell Point and the Sinking Ship, Bryce Canyon National Park

The full moon rising over Powell Point and the Sinking Ship

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.

Stars and constellations above Bryce Canyon

The constellation Orion hovers over the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park

Star trails above Thor's Hammer, Bryce Canyon National Park

Star trails above Thor’s Hammer, Bryce Canyon National Park

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.

Limber Pine in sunrise light at Bryce Canyon National Park

A famous and tenacious Limber Pine (Pinus flexilus) at Sunrise Point observes yet another sunrise

Hoodoos at sunrise, Bryce Canyon National Park

Hoodoos at sunrise, Bryce Canyon National Park

People watching sunrise at Bryce Canyon National Park

The crowds assemble for sunrise at Bryce Canyon National Park


Escape to the Snake Range: Great Basin National Park

light from the full moon illuminates Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park
light from the full moon illuminates Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park

Wheeler Peak by full moonlight, Great Basin National Park, Nevada

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.

Wheeler Peak just after sunset

Wheeler Peak just after sunset on the summer solstice

Sky pilot and Wheeler Peak

Abundant sky pilot (Polemonium viscosum) in a glacial cirque beneath Wheeler Peak, Great Basin National Park

Panorama from summit of Wheeler Peak

Looking north along the Snake Range from the summit of Wheeler Peak (13,065′) on a beautiful June day

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.

bristlecone pine, Great Basin National Park

A twisted and contorted Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) on the slopes of Wheeler Peak, Great Basin National Park

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:

Ful moonlight over Wheller Peak and Stella Lake

Light from the rising full moon illuminates Wheeler Peak and Stella Lake, Great Basin National Park

A Western Tiger Swallowtail pollinates and feeds from a crimson columbine

A Western Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio rutulus) feeds from a crimson columbine (Aquilegia formosa) along Baker Creek, Great Basin National Park

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 🙂