Nature, Landscape, and Night Sky Photography by Zach Schierl

Panoramas

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


The View from Above: Panoramas from Colorado’s Peaks

Panorama from the summit of Mt Sneffels

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

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

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

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

Panorama from the summit of Mt Sneffels

Mt Sneffels, San Juan Mountains, 14,158′

Panorama from the summit of Mt. McConnel

Mt. McConnel, Poudre Canyon, 8,008′

Panorama from the summit of Twin Peaks, Ouray, CO

Twin Peaks, San Juan Mountains, 10,798′

Panorama from the summit of North Baldy Peak

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

Panorama from summit of Mt Shavano

Mt. Shavano, Sawatch Range, 14,236′

Panorama from Crag Crest, Grand Mesa, Colorado

Crag Crest, Grand Mesa, 11,189′

Panorama from the summit of Courthouse Mountain

Courthouse Mountain, San Juan Mountains, 12,152′

Panorama from the summit of Mt. Elbert

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

 Larger versions of all panoramas available


Capturing Cosmic Dust with a Camera: the Zodiacal Light

Cameras can be strange machines. We tend to think of cameras as devices that faithfully record the nature of the landscape around us, which they do…at least most of the time. When this paradigm does break down, it is usually because the camera has failed to record something important, something that made a moment or an experience worth remembering. Oftentimes when this happens, we become disappointed. How many times have you been scrolling through vacation photos and lamented at how poorly they turned out? Sometimes we even realize the limitations of the camera in the moment itself. Perhaps you’ve experienced something akin to standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon at sunset and becoming so resigned to the fact that no photograph will ever satisfactorily capture the grandeur in front of you that you begin to ponder the option of chucking your camera into the great chasm below.

On rare occasions though, the camera delights us by managing to capture even MORE than meets the eye. After returning from a recent camping trip to the San Juan Islands in northwest Washington, I was surprised to find an unexpected apparition in some of the long-exposure photographs I took from our campsite on the west coast of San Juan Island.

Getting to the San Juans is no easy task; it took me about 5 hours to get there, even though “there” is just 35 miles by air from my front doorstep. As a result, the islands can feel remote and isolated, but standing along the coast at night is a not so gentle reminder that you’re actually only about eight miles across the Haro Strait from Victoria, a metro area of more than 300,000 people. Taking advantage of a somewhat rare, perfectly clear Pacific Northwest evening, I took a series of 15 second exposures looking west across the strait which I composted into this 180 degree panorama:

SanJuanIsland_NightSky_Panorama

Click photo to embiggen!

The first thing you notice is the egregious light pollution from Victoria. Even the skyglow from Vancouver, five times further away but seven times more populous, is visible through the tress. Amongst all of the artificial light sources though, some natural ones still manage to shine through. The faint tendrils of the winter Milky Way just barely register on the camera’s sensor but the bright winter constellations of Orion, Canis Major, and Taurus forcefully punch their way through. If you look really closely, you’ll see a faint, slightly elongated, pale blue glow hiding in-between the lights of Victoria and Sidney. This is a phenomenon known as the zodiacal light, and it’s what took me by surprise when I started putting these images together. Here’s an annotated version to help you out:

SJI_Panorama_Annotated

See it? It’s a slightly different color than the light domes and isn’t as round and symmetrical as the light radiating from the cities, but rather looks squished and creeps upward into the sky at an angle. What really betrays the nature of this mysterious glow is its location: it coincides almost perfectly with the ecliptic, the plane of our solar system which is also the apparent path that the Sun, Moon, and planets follow as they move across the night sky.

What does this have to do with the zodiacal light? Well, it turns out that the plane of our solar system is home to lots and lots of dust. Not the dust made of dead skin cells and carpet fuzz you find around your house, but rather interplanetary dust particles made mostly of carbon, silicon, and oxygen. These dust particles are really small, on the order of 10 micrometers in diameter, about the size of a mold spore. The exact source of this dust is controversial; most of it is thought to be the result of collisions between comets and asteroids although some may be leftover from the formation of the solar system itself, tiny pieces of debris that never got incorporated into a planet. Regardless of where it cam from, the dust is really good at reflecting sunlight. Just after sunset (or just prior to sunrise), the angle between the Sun, dust, and Earth is such that the light reflected of the surfaces of the innumerable dust particles reaches our eyes (or cameras) here on Earth, giving rise to the zodiacal light.

When you consider how small the dust is (and that the dust particles are on average more than 2 miles apart from one another!), it’s not hard to understand why the zodiacal light is so faint and difficult to spot. Due to a quirk of celestial geometry, spring is a great time to observe it from the northern hemisphere, but even then spotting it with the naked eye requires extremely dark skies. The conditions in the San Juans, while darker than many spots in Western Washington, are far too light polluted. However, digital cameras are MUCH more sensitive to faint sources of light than the human eye. It’s actually rather common for a camera to detect things in the night sky that aren’t visible otherwise. On the night I saw the aurora borealis for the first time about a year and a half ago, its presence was first betrayed to me as a faint green glow hugging the horizon on my camera’s LCD screen, hours before it became bright enough to see with the naked eye. If not for my camera’s ability to detect it, I would have been fast asleep instead of standing in a marshy field near the Canadian border when the aurora dramatically brightened a few hours later and streamers began appearing all over the sky.

Have you ever captured anything on camera that you found surprising? Share your thoughts or stories in the comments below.


Mt. Shuksan in High Resolution

Introducing Mt. Shuksan:

Shuksan_Vertical_Crop

This image strip is just a small part of a 45 shot, 550 megapixel panorama I recently took of Mt. Shuksan from the Mt. Baker Ski Area. Since WordPress doesn’t offer me a way to display a picture of this size at full resolution, I’ve uploaded a (nearly) full resolution version of the image to GigaPan.com and included a link below (just click on the photo).  There are lots of cool features that you can see if you play around with the image and zoom in;  such as the terminus of the aptly named Hanging Glacier just below the summit peak, lots of cornices along the summit ridge, innumerable avalanche tracks, some really interesting linear and polygonal features in the snow (developing avalanche scarps?) and even some waterfalls and the entrance to an ice cave!

This was the first time I had made a panorama of this size and resolution. Photoshop’s Photomerge feature (which I n0rmally use for panoramas) had trouble handling so many images so I ended up using a free program called Microsoft Image Composite Editor to stitch and blend the images together. While this program doesn’t allow for editing of the final panorama, I was able to easily export the composite image and make minor adjustments to contrast and brightness in Photoshop.  The individual frames were shot in RAW mode using a ball-head tripod and a 200mm zoom lens on a Nikon D90. Exposure settings were set manually and kept mostly constant in order to facilitate seamless integration of all 45 images.

Click the image below to explore the GigaPan:

Shuksan_Final_WEB


The Golden Gate (Bridge)

Golden_Gate_Fog_1

Bridge_Vertical1

San Francisco.

I’ve always thought that it would be one of the few large cities where I could actually stand to live. Never mind the fact that my current and projected foreseeable future income levels will not permit me to live in any of the parts of the city to which the above statement applies. Or the fact that the next major rupture of the San Andreas or Hayward faults is going to make things look…shall we say…”less attractive”. Ignore those minor details for now. All I mean to say is that it seems like a nice place to live, which is a thought that perplexes me, given that in general, the idea of living in the same metropolitan area as several million other human beings makes me want to look up job listings for “hermit” and run away into the hills screaming. San Francisco though seems to have a charm and a combination of positive attributes though that most other cities do not.

For starters it is located in one of the most scenic environs of any city in the country. Rolling grassy hills, redwood groves, long stretches of sandy and rocky beaches, rugged coastline, appealing architecture, fortified islands, all within an hours drive of the city center. Hard to match that. Seattle comes close (the view of Mt. Rainier on a clear day? ahhhhhhh) but it gets marked down because it gets, on average, 14 more inches of rain each year. Salt Lake City has gorgeous mountains but it is covered in snow for part of the year and tends to get smothered by thick layers of pollution that get rammed up against the western flanks of the Wasatch. And all cities east of the Rockies are automatically disqualified because they’re east of the Rockies. To some Phoenix might seem sort of scenic, what with the 50 foot high cacti and mountains and all, until you realize that in reality it is a sizzling hell hole with literally no sustainable water source and is totally unfit for large quantities of human habitation. At least San Francisco has Yosemite just a few hundred miles away that it can poach water from. Also, it sort of seems like everything in San Francisco is painted either white or a nice bright pastel color. Painting everything white does wonders for a city; it makes it feel larger, cleaner, less claustrophobic, and lends a nice airy, ethereal quality to everything.

San Francisco also has what in my opinion is one of the few man-made creations that actually contributes to the beauty of a place rather than besmirching it: the Golden Gate Bridge. In case you’re not familiar with the bridge, it is one of the few things in San Francisco not painted white or pastel, but rather a bright burnt orange (actually “international orange” for those of you who want to go out to your local Home Depot and pick up a gallon). The “Golden Gate” for which the bridge is named (and not vice-versa) is a narrow strait that connects the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco Bay. In a somewhat eery coincidence, U.S. Army Captain and explorer extraordinaire John C. Fremont bestowed the now famous name upon the strait in 1846, two years BEFORE the strait was used as the point of arrival for millions of millionaire wannabees seeking riches in the newly discovered gold fields east of Sacramento. Fremont had given it the name Golden Gate because he recognized the area’s potential importance in opening up trade with the Orient, completely unaware (obviously) that the discovery of real gold in California is what would cause the population of the city just to the south of the strait, San Francisco, to multiply by 18,000% in just six years, and make the Golden Gate known worldwide. In the 1920s, fed up with the 20 minute ferry ride across the strait, some folks decided it would be a bright idea to build a bridge across it, apparently thinking that sitting in traffic for more than 20 minutes waiting to cross the strait while constantly having to yell at the driver in front of you to stop futzing with their iPhone and drive would somehow be more pleasant than the leisurely ferry crossing.

Ship_Golden_Gate

Yang Ming container ship is greeted by the Golden Gate Bridge

An unique perspective on the 1.7 mile-long suspension bridge can be obtained by going beneath it. If you don’t have a boat, fear not, in another stunning coincidence, the U.S. Army conveniently constructed a masonry fortification, Fort Point, on the point right beneath the south end of the bridge in 1853*:

Under the Bridge: the remains of Fort Point, built in 1853 to secure San Francisco Bay from enemy attack.

Under the Bridge: the remains of Fort Point, built in 1853 to secure San Francisco Bay from enemy attack.

*Actually the Army did no such thing. You know, seeming as how the technology to build a massive metal suspension bridge across a deep, windy, 1.3 kilometer wide strait didn’t exactly exist in 1853. The engineers in charge of building the bridge eighty-odd years later did however build the bridge directly above the fort (they wanted to remove the Fort entirely but cooler heads prevailed), and so the Fort, being the rather inanimate object that it is, remains there to this day, providing a nice spot to stand and look out over the bay while holding on to your hat and listening to rush-hour traffic crawl past on the bridge high over your head.

Arguably the best, although not most unique, views of the bridge can be found north of town, just off of Highway 101 in the Marin Headlands where a number of overlooks along Conzelman Road provide spectacular vantage points from which to observe or photograph the bridge.  These overlooks aren’t a secret though, the ones closest to Highway 101 are predictably packed with people and it can be impossible to find a parking spot. However, the bridge is also partially obscured here, head further and higher up the road for more expansive views that, while still busy, become less so the further from the highway you get. and. The number of tripods also increases steadily as you get further and further from the interstate which I interpreted as a good sign since one of my goals was to get some photos of the bridge at sunset. As you can see in the picture at the top of the page, these overlooks are often slightly above the fog that socks in the coast from time to time.

Most people seem to stop and turn around at the one-way-road/18% grade sign that appears along Conzelman Road just before it begins to wind its way back down through the headlands to the coast. If you proceed onwards though, you will be rewarded by getting to shift your car into low gear, and also by a plethora of quieter and more secluded, albeit more distant, views of the bridge. The road ultimately deposits one at the trail leading to the Point Bonita Lighthouse, located at the northern entrance to the Golden Gate. The lighthouse was built in 1853, and yet several hundred ships still managed to wreck themselves in this area during the influx associated with the California Gold Rush, a testament to the ability of the area’s trademark thick fog to obscure any sign of the coast until its too late.

Point Bonita Lighthouse

Point Bonita Lighthouse, Marin County, California

More pictures of the local flora and fauna hopefully coming soon, including the biggest group o’ Grebes you’ve ever seen in one photograph.


Monterey, California: Famous for the Coast, Famous for the Cheese

Sunset at Fort Ord Dunes SP

Sunset at Fort Ord Dunes State Park

Did you know that Monterey Jack cheese takes it’s name from the city where it was first made by Spanish settlers and then later first commercially marketed by a Scottish immigrant? Neither did I. That is, until I came across a lovely, if somewhat small and water-logged (and apparently created on a home inkjet printer…) interpretive sign informing me of that fact on a recent hike to the top of the peak that now bear’s Jacks’ name:

Interpretive sign on Jacks Peak

The Sign

Located just outside of Monterey, CA, Jacks Peak is the highest point in Monterey County topping out at a whopping 1,068 feet above sea level.  The sign left me curious, and wanting to learn more about this mysterious Jacks fellow and his delicious cheese. After much additional research, I am now able to present you with the following information:

1. There is actually a fair bit of ongoing, spirited debate over who exactly should be credited with first making “Monterey jack” cheese. And Julius Caesar is involved…somehow.

2. According to the Monterey County Historical Society, Monterey jack is one of just four varieties of cheese to have been invented (created? first made? can one really “invent” cheese?) in the United States.  In other words, while the U.S. may be top dawg at spitting out fancy new electronic devices that start with a lower case “i”, we are seriously lacking when it comes to new innovation in the field of dairy products.

3. Due to it’s creamy texture, Monterey Jack is excellent for making grilled cheese sandwiches.

I probably could have kept this list going for a while but reading page after page about cheese made me hungry. Lacking any authentic Monterey jack, I instead “settled” for a large hunk of Tillamook aged medium white cheddar, a piece of cheese that was so tasty I seriously considering including a picture of it right after this period. In fact, I still am considering it.

Monterey is also famous for a number of other attractions, nearly all of which, sadly, have little or nothing to do with the cheese that so admirably and bears the city’s name. Most of them do, however, involve the ocean in some way or another which is a pretty good consolation prize if you ask me.

Boardwalk and ice plant

A boardwalk snakes through a field of invasive ice plant at Fort Ord Dunes State Park

Fort Ord Dunes State Park is one of the newer such attractions. Not new in the sense that the beach or the dunes itself are new (they’re quite old actually) but new in the sense that the land it occupies was for many years part of the Fort Ord U.S. Army post. In 1994, the Fort was closed and since then much of the land has been reclaimed and opened to recreational use. Over 10,000 acres were set aside by President Obama as Fort Ord National Monument 2012.  A small strip of the beach and adjacent dunes just north of Monterey became Fort Ord Dunes State Park (pictured above) in 2009.

Coast at Point Lobos

Looking south along the California coast from Point Lobos State Reserve

Clear on the other side of town is Point Lobos State Reserve, also part of the California State Park System.  The scenery at Point Lobos is breathtaking to put it mildly. In slightly more concrete terms, it was WELL worth the drive back into town to withdraw some cash so we could pay pay the cash-only $10 entry fee to the park. Now, you can also park on the highway and walk in for free but in my humble opinion, $10 is a small price to pay to keep one of the most spectacular stretches of coastline in the world preserved for all to see.  Like the nearby, and arguably more famous, 17-mile-drive and Pebble Beach area, the Point Lobos reserve protects rugged and rocky stretches of coastline, sheltered coves home to seals, sea lions, and sea otters, and one of the last remaining stands of Monterey cypress.  What you won’t find here though is multi-million dollar mansions and immaculately manicured golf courses dotting the coast which in my view improves the scenery to a level that is beyond my ability to communicate via words.

Monterey cypress, Point Lobos State Reserve

One of only two remaining groves of Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa) trees on Earth, Point Lobos State Reserve

Cirrus clouds above Lover's Point, Monterey, CA

Wispy cirrus clouds hover above Lover’s Point in Monterey, CA

Sunset from Carmel Beach

The hoards enjoy a beautiful winter sunset from Carmel Beach

Last but not least is Carmel Beach, located in the small hamlet of Carmel, which is distinctive in that it eschews street lamps and prohibits the wearing of shoes with heels higher than two inches.  It is also one of the few towns in the U.S. to forgo street numbers. While you mull on that for a bit, take note that Carmel Beach is oriented almost directly towards the late afternoon sun, making it an ideal location to spend the end of your day watching our local nuclear fusion reactor dip below the apparent horizon of the Earth (that’s a more astronomically correct way of saying “sunset”).  Note also that you won’t be alone. No matter though, just bring a blanket, a box of crackers, and some cheese and enjoy the show!

Sunset at Carmel Beach

Sunset at Carmel Beach


The Spectacular San Juans: A Trip to Yankee Boy Basin

Taking in the scenery

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

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

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

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

Trail headed up to Wright’s Lake

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

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

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

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

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

Yankee Boy Basin


The “Less” White One: Mt. Baker and the Ever-Shrinking Easton Glacier

View of Mt. Baker (right) and the Black Buttes (left) while hiking along the Railroad Grade moraine, left behind by the retreat of the Easton Glacier.

View of Mt. Baker (right), the Easton Glacier, and the Black Buttes (left) from the Railroad Grade moraine, evidence of the former extent of the Easton Glacier.

You’ll notice that the Sun is shining brightly in all of these photos which should immediately tip you off to the fact that I’m several months behind in posting, since getting pictures this radiant at the present time would require either a a 200-mile drive east, or a 500-mile drive south. I’ll gripe more about that in a future post, rest assured.

One of the consequences of the copious winter precipitation here in the Pacific Northwest is the simply massive quantities of snow that pile up in the Cascades, just a half hour or so to the east of my current, comparatively temperate residence. In many areas, not all of that snow can melt the following summer and having more snow than you can melt is one of the key ingredients for a glacier. Almost all of Washington state north of Seattle has been covered by glaciers or ice sheets at some point in the last 20,000 years but nowadays the only glaciers remaining in WA are those high in the North Cascades and Olympics, and the tendrils of ice that snake down from the summits of the mightiest Cascade Range peaks; Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens, Glacier Peak, and Mt. Baker.  Although the amount of glacial ice in Washington is getting ever smaller (Mt. St. Helens’ Crater Glacier is actually one of the few in the U.S. that is actually getting larger. Can you guess why?), according to the USGS Washington remains the 2nd most extensively glaciated state, 2nd only to Alaska. And they’re WAY further north so that’s sort of like cheating anyways.

Easton2

The Easton Glacier descending from the summit of Mt. Baker.

The Easton Glacier on the southern slopes of Mt. Baker is one such glacier that has undergone rapid retreat over the past century. Covered by more than a dozen glaciers, Mt. Baker is an active volcano that was known by the Lummi as Koma Kulshan, which roughly translates to “Great White One”.  Mt. Baker experiences some of the largest annual snowfalls anywhere in the world, including a U.S. record 1,140 inches (that’s 95 feet!) during the winter of 1998-1999 according to NOAA. So how could its glaciers possibly be getting smaller with that much snow?  To understand that, we need to understand a bit more about how glaciers work. If you groaned at that last sentence and would rather skip ahead to the pictures at this point, go ahead. I won’t be offended. In fact, since this is a website, I won’t even know. But you’ll be missing a really great analogy that I use in just a bit here so you should probably just stick with me for another paragraph or two. Plus glaciers are really cool. Pun wholeheartedly intended.

Here’s the (very) quick and (very) dirty version: A glacier is a body of ice that flows downhill. During the winter, snow accumulates on the glacier, temporarily adding to its mass. When temperatures warm the next summer, the snow on the lower, warmer portion of the glacier will melt (as will some of the ice) but some of the snow on the upper, colder portions will survive and turn into ice, replenishing the glacier. If more ice is added in the upper part of the glacier than can melt in the lower part, then our glacier gets larger. If less ice is added than is lost, the glacier gets smaller. If they two equal, the glacier stays put. As hard as it might be to believe given the massive snowfall on Mt. Baker, rising global temperatures mean that in most years, the Baker glaciers lose more mass during the summer due to melting then they gain during the long, dreary, snowy winters. In geology speak, this is known as a “negative mass balance” and, if left unchecked, it spells doom for a glacier. Now, its completely normal for a glacier to have a negative mass balance year every once in a while. No biggie. Rather, it’s when negative becomes the new normal that the glacier will begin shrinking and will continue to shrink unless something changes to bring it back into balance.

Easton_Melt

Meltwater flowing down the surface of the Easton Glacier in September.

Think of it this way: let’s say you wake up really hungry tomorrow morning and you decide to make yourself some bacon. Before you know it, you’ve gone right ahead and eaten that entire package of bacon all by yourself. I’m sure you can all empathize with THAT feeling.  Anyways, while that may not be the healthiest breakfast you’ve ever had, doing so once probably isn’t going to have much of an effect on your long-term health. You’ll go for a run the next day and burn those calories right back off, much like a glacier might experience a low-snowfall year followed by a record breaking snowfall the next year to make up for it. (Note: by now you’ve hopefully noticed that this analogy starts to break down when you consider that a glacier LOSES weight during a negative mass balance year…)  But if you start eating an entire package of bacon by yourself every few days, or even once a week, well….sad as it is to say, you might start having some serious health issues. Same is true for a glacier. If you lose mass one year, it probably won’t be that noticeable. But if temperatures increase, if the summer melting season becomes longer and you start losing mass year after year after year, then regardless of how much snow falls in the winter, it won’t take long before you start shrinking, and shrinking fast.

For example, here is a more expansive view of what the Easton Glacier and its surroundings looks like today:

EastonTrough

The long valley or trough stretching across the image represents the path carved out by the ice when the glacier was much larger than it is today. Just 25 years ago, much of the trough you see in the immediate foreground would have been filled with ice. The prominent ridge on the opposite side of the trough is a feature known as a “lateral moraine” (rhymes with “romaine” as in romaine lettuce, which I can emphatically say is far less tasty than bacon). A moraine consists of loose sediment that was once trapped within the ice. When a glacier is stable, i.e. when it doesn’t shrink or grow but rather sits in the same for an extended period of time, all that sediment gets deposited in large piles around the edges of the glacier when melting occurs. The presence of a moraine here tells us that the Easton Glacier once filled the entire trough to the level of the far ridge, and did so for a prolonged period of time. Considering that the ridge crest is more than 200 feet above the floor of the trough, we can see that not only is our glacier retreating, but that it was also once much thicker than it is today.

One way to get an estimate of how long the glacier has been gone from a particular area is to look at the vegetation (or lack thereof). While the time it takes for vegetation to sprout up in an area uncovered by a glacier varies widely (depending on factors such as soil development, climate, and species), often times smaller plants will begin to reestablish themselves within about 20 years or so of the glacier’s exit. In this case, much of the bare, brown/orange colored land in the center of the image was covered by ice as recently as the 1980s.  Even more amazing: follow the valley downhill to the right. Look how far down we have to go before we encounter even the slightest sign of grasses, much less trees. Scale is a little tricky in this picture but see that greenery way way down at the downhill end of the trough? That point is over a mile away from where the picture was taken and it happens to mark the approximate terminus of the glacier in the mid 1800s, near the end of a cool period known as the Little Ice Age. The Bellingham Herald has a nice article on the retreat of the Easton Glacier over the past 100 years, with spectacular photos comparing the modern glacier to how is appeared in 1912, here. As you can see, it is now a shell of its former self. Other glaciers on Mt. Baker are in a similar predicament.

Meltwater

Easton Glacier remains one of the easiest glaciers to access anywhere in the continental U.S. The toe of the glacier can be reached by hiking for about 2 miles along a moderately strenuous but well-maintained hiking trail. Eventually this trail crosses a wooden swing-bridge over the meltwater creek that issues from the glacier. From here, you simply head off trail and hike up the old glacial trough for an additional mile and a half or so (at the time of publication at least…) until you hit ice.  This part of the hike is decidedly more strenuous but as you can see from these photos, the scenery is spectacular!  Exploring the terminus of the glacier is fascinating! Huge piles of mud and debris deposited by the melting glacier cover the ice near the toe, masking the ice and making travel treacherous. A large meltwater stream emerges from the base of the glacier through one of these piles as if by magic. The ice near the terminus is heavily crevassed so one must tread carefully when hiking on the ice itself.

So next time you’re in the area, check it out before it’s gone entirely. Who knows, maybe you’ll even burn off the calories from that pound of bacon you ate for breakfast!

Hiking down the moraine. Glacier Peak on the horizon at left.

Hiking back down the moraine towards the trailhead. Glacier Peak visible on the horizon at center-left.


The World’s Most Spectacular Meeting of Land and Sea: Big Sur, California

Big Sur coast looking south from Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

We interrupt the recent Colorado-centric nature of this website to bring you an important dispatch from the western shore of the North American continent, also known as the Golden State of California.

On a recent visit to Monterey, CA to visit my girlfriend, we decided to drive south along the famed Pacific Coast Highway and spend a night in the Big Sur region of central California. To invert the timeless words of Douglas Adams: “this has been widely regarded as a good move.”  The local tourism bureaus like to tout the area as “The world’s most spectacular meeting of land and sea”.  While I generally get somewhat uncomfortable and squirmy around such subjective superlatives, there is no denying that at Big Sur, the land does indeed meet the sea; as exemplified by the fact that, on more than one occasion, I would have quite easily been able to walk directly from solid earth into the ocean, had I chosen to do so.  I didn’t choose to do so but the point is that I could have and I imagine it would have been quite a spectacular meeting if I had. Maybe next time.

Partington Cove, Big Sur

McWay Falls, Big Sur

The Big Sur region is home to a plethora of beautiful and intriguing attractions, of which we had time to sample only a smattering. California Highway 1 meanders its way through Big Sur, rarely in a manner which permits one to safely exceed 30 miles per hour, but almost always in a manner which provides spectacular views of the jagged coastal cliffs along the Pacific Ocean below. Fortunately, pullouts are ample, thus avoiding the need to try and enjoy the view while simultaneously keeping the car from punching through the guardrails and plunging into The Sea.

One of the highlights is Juila Pfeiffer Burns State park, home to a 80-foot high waterfall that plunges into an aquamarine cove surrounded on three sides by ragged sea cliffs. Big Sur also marks the southern extent of the range of the Coast Redwood. Although these trees are not nearly as large or prevalent here as they are further north along the California coast, small gulches and canyons along the coast harbor small, yet impressive groves of these stately conifers.

Michelle admiring the redwood trees along the Canyon Trail in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

From the “proof that spending time amongst a large quantity of tourists is never boring” department, I present the following tale as a humorous anecdote. Looking at the above pictures, It doesn’t exactly take a trained eye to notice that the natural environment of the Pacific Coast is wholly different than just about anywhere else in the country. Nevertheless, while milling about a trailhead in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, I had the pleasure of overhearing an exchange between two other groups of hikers in which one group proudly informed the other that “this place really reminds us of the time we visited the red rocks in Sedona, Arizona. It’s amazing how similar it looks.”   For those of you unfortunate enough to not be familiar with Northern Arizona, Sedona looks ABSOLUTELY NOTHING like the above pictures but instead more like this.

Lest you doubt my incredulity over the above comparison, let’s do a brief comparison of the landscapes shall we:

Big Sur

Sedona

Color of rocks

Everything but red

Red

Vegetation

Coast Redwoods, Monterey Pine, Laurel, Oak

Pinyon pine, juniper, sagebrush, manzanita, cacti

Ocean

Yes

Yes, 300 million years ago

Annual precipitation

42 inches

19 inches

Commonly observed fauna

Seals, otters, whales, evil seagulls

Squirrels, javelina, rattlesnakes

Elevation

Duh…it’s the sea

4,300 feet

Geologic features

Sea cliffs, sea arches, mountains, waterfalls

Buttes, mesas, canyons, plateaus

Extremely pricy resorts and hotels

Yes

Yes

Highway frequented by excruciatingly slow RV’s

Yes

Yes

Alright, so maybe there are some similarities after all. But not the kind that would lead one to compare a wet, foggy shoreline to a labyrinth of redrock canyons and mesas in the middle of a desert. I wanted to say something along the lines of “what have all y’all been smoking?” or “excluding hallucinations, have you ever actually BEEN to Arizona?” but I kept my mouth shut and moved on.

And last but not least, enjoy a few pictures of the native inhabitants of the area:

Sea otter in Monterey Bay willing to work for his/her afternoon snack. We watched this otter floating on his back cracking open various sea critters for a good twenty minutes.

A bloom (or swarm…experts seem to disagree on the proper term for a group of jellyfish) of aquarium-bound jellyfish. We saw a whole bunch of these floating in the ocean from a pier in Monterey which sort of made me never want to go in the ocean again.


Rocky Mountain High…literally

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14,433 feet!


Mountains of Sand

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

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

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

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

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

Medano Creek meanders its way across the sand flats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking north towards the Sangre de Cristo Mountains at sunset.

Walking along the dune crests at sunset.

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

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


Obituary for a DSLR

My trusty Nikon D70 died today after nearly 35,000 shutter actuations, in a beautiful place no less; more than 10,000 feet above sea level along the West Fork of the Cimarron River, high in the ice-sculpted pinnacles of the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. Given that it had pluckily survived numerous 5+ foot drops onto hard, rocky surfaces, many torrential downpours, hitchhiking across the sheep-filled land known as New Zealand, and being partially submerged in mineral-rich water as I uncontrollably floated down Havasu Creek, it seems odd that a light bump against a ratty-looking old lodgepole pine is what ultimately brought it to what in hindsight seems a rather ignominious end. Alas, this accidental tap caused the camera’s shutter to cease operating, casting the camera’s 6.3 megapixel CCD chip into a state of eternal darkness, never again to capture the majestic photons emitted by the incomparable scenery of this great Earth.

The final shot…

Not even the most exquisitely crafted prose can capture the stunning allure of the natural setting in which the D70 ultimately met its demise.  Its final hours were spent summiting the rocky, yet green and verdant slopes of 12,152 foot Courthouse Mountain, a impressive edifice that is but a mere foothill to the soaring 14,000 foot peaks of the San Juan’s above. Despite it’s striking appearance, more than 1200 other peaks in the state of Colorado exceed it in height, although after today’s passing, none will exceed it in sentimental significance. A more glorious and perfect day could nary have been found; the weather gods were beaming upon the landscape below, basking the D70 in warm, unintterupted sunlight as it ascended the mountain, strapped to the shoulders of its loving owner.

The south face of Courthouse Mountain, composed of layer upon layer of volcanic tuff and breccia.

Courthouse Mountain Trail

The last photo with a human being in it…

From the summit, the D70 faithfully recorded its final panorama; a wide swath that included the jagged crags of Dunsinane Mountain and Precipice Peak, the dark green lodgepole stands of the Uncompahgre Wilderness, and the distant summits of Uncompaghre Peak and Mt. Sneffels, gripping tightly to their last vestiges of winter snow. To the north, beyond the exquisitely layered deposits of Chimney Rock belaying its violent volcanic history, lay the verdant Uncompahgre Valley, home to the towns of Ridgway, Montrose, and Delta. Along the eastern base of the mountain lay the valley carved by the West Fork of the Cimarron River, on an arrow straight path north to eventually meet the mighty Gunnison River.

Panoramic View from Courthouse Mountain, looking east into West Fork Cimarron River valley. Chimney Rock and Silverjack Reservoir visible at left, Precipice Peak at right.

View from Courthouse Mountain looking south and west towards San Juan Mountains.

The perilous promontory of Precipice Peak

Until such time that a suitable replacement can be procured, the D70 will be replaced by a small, yet capable Canon point-and-shoot camera. In lieu of flowers, please send Amazon.com or B&H Photo gift cards.


A Crater Lake Comparison

College and blogging go together about as well as tofu and….well…about anything. Keeping up with this site, which by definition requires photographs, is even more challenging. Apart from several thousand photographs of Whitman Mission National Historic Site (where I volunteer and write another photography blog), I take very few photos during the semester, given that pictures of classrooms are boring and I don’t often take to lugging a DSLR around to weekend frivolities.

It was a visit to Crater Lake in the summer two years ago that prompted me to start this website in the first place.  Somehow though, that attempt went fallow and I never got past creating an account and drafting a first post. That post, with the awe-inspiring title of  “Photography Challenges at Crater Lake National Park”, and packed with 576 words of my mind-numbingly painful drivel, still sits in my “Drafts” folder to this day, staring at me with sad eyes much like whatever this is.

Happily, I now have a second Crater Lake visit to share photos from.  If you’ve ever wanted to see snowdrifts engulfing multi-story buildings, you should visit Crater Lake NP in the early spring. Driving up Oregon Hwy 62 from Medford, my thought progression went something like this: “Hmm…not very much snow yet”, “Strange, I thought we’d be getting into some snow by now”, “Wow, maybe we’ll actually be able to hike around a little at the lake”, “Holy crap, the snowbanks are taller than the car”, “Whoa, now they are taller than my 6′ 3″ housemate!” I truly have never seen such quantities of snow in my life. Entering the few remaining open buildings required travel through snow tunnels in order to access the doors. The road to the rim of the lake is kept open year-round, and after seeing the massive snowbanks and realizing how much manpower must be required to accomplish this, I had to ask the question “why”?  The volunteer ranger on duty didn’t really have a clear cut answer, mumbling only something about “politics” and “tradition.” We were also informed that this winter had been “a dry one” and that the fact that we were even able to see the lake was rather fortuitous, as more than 50% of winter days are so cloudy that the lake surface is not even visible from the rim.

Crazy snow.

Crater Lake Lodge, closed for the season

Wandering around the shuttered Crater Lake Lodge area felt eerily like a scene from The Shining (filmed at the nearby Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood) with the Crater Lake Lodge buried up to the 4th floor by snowdrifts.  One advantage to the snow was the lack of the oppressing clouds of mosquitoes that plagued us during the summer visit.

Crater Lake Panorama, March 2012

For comparison purposes, here are some images from that July 2010 visit, starting with a shot taken from almost the exact same vantage point at the first photo in this post (note the position of the peak towering over the lodge). The only difference in that here I’m not standing on top of thirty feet of snow.

Crater Lake Lodge, sans 30' snow drifts

Crater Lake at Dusk

The Moon and Venus setting behind Crater Lake

Crater Lake Panorama, July 2010

I clearly remember being surprised on that visit at how much snow remained present, even in mid-July.  Several trails were still closed. After last week, this no longer seems extraordinary. If anything it seems a small miracle that it ever melts at all and that Crater Lake is not covered by some sort of permanent glacier.


el Cañón del Colorado

According to my calculations, it has been 865 days since I last visited the Grand Canyon. Having grown up about an hour away from the Big Ditch, this seems sort of, well, unnatural.  It’s been even longer since I’ve visited in the winter, which is sad because winter tends to be the only that that a visit to the Grand Canyon doesn’t make you feel like you’re fighting your way through your friendly local neighborhood Super Wal-Mart.

One of the things that has always amazed me about the Grand Canyon is the fact that you can literally be standing 20 feet from the edge and have no idea that it even exists. Unlike many of our other semi-urbanized natural wonders, you can’t really see it that well, if at all, from the parking lot.  The Canyon was “discovered” by European settlers with horrendous depth perception in 1540 .  A soldier named Cárdenas was searching for the Seven Cities of Cibola under the command of his boss, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado when he and his small regiment stumbled upon the canyon. Cárdenas were either inherently godawful at judging distance and depth or they were really really drunk at the time because they thought that the river at the bottom was only 6 feet wide. Dangerously low on water, Cárdenas sent several soldiers down into the canyon, thinking that they could reach the river, obtain water, and return to the rim within a few hours. The erroneous nature of that estimate soon became clear and whatever horror stories Cárdenas’ men told the rest of their party were apparently bad enough to keep any other Europeans from visiting the canyon for more than 200 years.

The hordes gather at Mather Point

A raven surveys the canyon from Hermit's Rest

Looking west from Desert View, the last rays of sunlight stream into the canyon

People watching at the Grand Canyon is always a fun little activity this time of year.  On one side of the spectrum you’ve got people in shorts who are flabbergasted at the fact that the canyon rim is covered in a foot of snow and are then forced to purchase very overpriced souvenir sweaters from the gift shop. On the other side we find the individuals (read: Phoenecians) who are dressed down like Randy from A Christmas Story (I can’t put my arms down!) even though it’s actually like 40 degrees outside.

Due to the snow, trails down into the canyon are notoriously treacherous this time of year so we stuck to the rim for the day.  One of my favorite places on the South Rim is a little-known overlook called Shoshone Point.  It’s unsigned and doesn’t appear on any park service maps yet can be rented out for weddings and other special events during the summer.  It’s about a one-mile walk from the main park highway on a dirt road.  Since the park service pretty much refuses to acknowledge that it exists this time of year, not only is it one of the most spectacular viewpoints, but you basically get it all to yourself as well. Unless other people see you parked on the side of the road in an entirely non-descript patch of forest and decide to check things out for themselves. Then you might have a bit of company. But hey, still better than dealing with 8 billion tour buses!

Mid-afternoon panorama from Shoshone Point

Watchtower at Desert View


Great Basin Thunderstorm

Thunderstorm in the Great Basin, Spring Valley, NV


To the beach!

There are good and bad things about having no class on Wednesdays.  The good part is that I don’t have class on Wednesday’s which gives me a full free day in the middle of the week to go do and see things relatively close to Dunedin (homework? what homework?).  The bad part is that I seem to be the only person that ended up with no classes on Wednesdays and people don’t seem too keen on skipping class during the first week of the semester. This past Wednesday was perfectly sunny and 23 degrees (that’s in Celsius and if you don’t know how to convert it, you should.  Go do it and then come back…) which means I didn’t exactly feel like sitting around all day so I decided to explore. This is where I went:

Pretty sweet, especially considering it took me less than an hour of bus rides and walking to get there. No offense to Eastern Washington, but it sure as heck beats anything within an hour of Walla Walla.  It’s called Tunnel Beach and the tunnel down to the beach was built in the 1870’s.  A local wealthy bigwig, John Cargill, had it built so his family could have easy access to the otherwise inaccessible (without ropes at least) beach at the base of the cliffs.  I’ve been told by several people that Cargill’s daughter died in the waters here but I have been unable to substantiate these claims so I’m leaning towards thinking that this is a load of crap (That’s right Tara, I said “crap” again.  Be happy it wasn’t in the title this time.)  I didn’t get very far onto the beach because I didn’t feel like getting pinned against the rocks by a tide that was coming in at a rate that I was not aware tides were capable of obtaining.  On account of the 50+ mph winds, the waves crashing ashore were by far the largest I have ever seen, although having lived in a desert my entire life, this is probably a pretty worthless statement.

Sea Arch at Tunnel Beach

The “tunnel” of Tunnel Beach

The sign at the top told me that the walk back up to the trailhead from the beach would take 40 minutes.  Given that I made it back up in 11 minutes, I think I can safely say I would have hit their time estimate even had I suffered a mid-shaft femur fracture en route but I was still quite hungry after getting back to town.  Fortunately, I ran into the Bacon Buttie truck once again on the way back to my flat.  My current theory is that they managed to implant a small radio transmitter that monitors my hunger level inside the first one they sold me because it sure feels like they appear out of nowhere in the most random places whenever I am most famished.  I have received a few complaints that I have not yet posted a picture of the modern wonder of the world that is the Bacon Buttie so I aim to remedy that right now:

If that doesn’t make you want to abandon vegetarianism, I don’t know what will.  Anyways, that’s it till next week.  I am embracing my inner tourist this weekend and going to Milford Sound (which, for those of you who are geologically inclined, is actually a fjord and not a true sound) which is the most popular attraction in New Zealand and has apparently been voted the “world’s best travel destination” for the past several years.  So that should be fun…or a nightmare depending on how many other people had the exact same idea for this weekend.