Nature, Landscape, and Night Sky Photography by Zach Schierl

photography

Mt. Adams, Mosquitoes, and the Milky Way

The night sky including the Milky Way and the streak of a meteor is seen over a tall mountain peak.
Reflection of Milky Way and volcanic cone in a tranquil lake.

Bright Jupiter rises above the summit of Mt. Adams, with the summer Milky Way reflected in the calm surface of Takhlakh Lake, Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Washington. 

Mt. Adams is a striking feature of the western skyline from here in the Yakima Valley of Central Washington. Here’s what it looked like from our neighborhood at sunrise a few months back:

Pink morning light on a snow-capped mountain peak with a full moon setting in the background.

A setting full moon and sunrise light on Mt. Adams as seen from the Yakima Valley.

The towering volcanic cone looks close enough to touch, but in reality, reaching the base of Washington’s second highest peak requires a nearly three hour drive down a labyrinth of Forest Service roads. We’ve been wanting to explore the Mt. Adams area since we returned to Washington last year. With winter’s grip beginning to ease in the higher elevations of the Cascades, earlier this week we finally got the chance.

Mostly clear skies, calm wind, and a dark moon made for some great photo opportunities. While it may be debatable, I think some of these were worth their weight in mosquito bites. Several small ponds dot the lower flanks of Mt. Adams and snowdrifts still lingered in the shadier patches of forest, making the entire landscape somewhat damp. Consequently, the mosquitoes were ferocious! Sadly, our mosquito “repellent” only seemed to attract more. I was quickly reminded that a vastly underrated aspect of living in the southwest is the lack of bugs!

Volcanic cone and wispy clouds reflected in a tranquil mountain lake.

Mt. Adams reflected in Takhlakh Lake, Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Washington. (Not pictured: immense swarms of mosquitoes.)

Several five-petaled white flowers with yellow centers and bright green leaves dot the forest floor.

White avalanche lily (Erythronium montanum), one of the first wildflowers to emerge from the swampy ground as the snow melts away. 

Orange sunset light on a tall, snow-capped mountain peak is reflected in a foreground pond.

Mt. Adams reflected in Takhlakh Lake at sunset.

Orange and pink sunset light on the summit of a tall snow-capped mountain.

The forests just to the west of Mt. Adams happen to be located nearly in the center of the four large active stratovolcanoes of the south Cascades: Mt. Adams, Mt. Rainier to the north, Mt. St. Helens to the west, and Mt. Hood just across the Columbia River to the south in Oregon. A variety of relatively short but steep hikes in the area ascend lesser peaks, resulting in fantastic views of all four volcanoes, plus the dense forests of the Cascades:

Panorama of forested landscape dotted by tall volcanic peaks.

Panorama from Council Bluffs. Three Cascade Range stratovolcanoes (and the remains of a fourth) are visible (click to enlarge): Mt. Rainier (far left), the remains of the Goat Rocks volcano (center left), Mt. Adams (right), and Mt. Hood (far right). The upper portion of Mt. St. Helens’ eviscerated cone was also visible through the trees to the west.

A tall mountain capped with snow and ice is surrounded by dense, dark green forests and a dark blue lake.

The dense forests on the west flanks of Mt. Adams. Council Lake at bottom.

The real fun came after nightfall. Dark skies are much harder to find in Washington than in Utah, and this was my first good look at the Milky Way since last summer. The calm weather allowed me to capture the Milky Way’s reflection in Takhlakh Lake. Jupiter was kind enough to rise directly above the summit of Mt. Adams. And I got lucky and captured the brightest meteor of the evening in one exposure. This was certainly a case of being in the right place at the right time! (One might argue that the “right time” would have been a few months from now, when all the mosquitoes are dead, but then the Milky Way would not have been positioned so perfectly.)

The night sky including the Milky Way and the streak of a meteor is seen over a tall mountain peak.

A meteor takes aim at Jupiter as Mt. Adams and the Milky Way are reflected in Takhlakh Lake. 

A dark blue twilight sky is bisected by the glow of the Milky Way, and reflected in a tranquil pond.

The Milky Way begins to emerge from evening twilight. 


Alaska (Part Three)

White and blue glacial ice contrasts with lush green carpet of vegetation
A valley containing a glacier is partially obscure by a bank of clouds

Morning clouds partially obscure the Exit Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

The last destination on our Alaskan journey was the Kenai Peninsula and the town of Seward. After a few days respite from the wildfire smoke in Wrangell-St. Elias, it returned with a vengeance as we headed back to Anchorage and down to the the coast:

Tree dotted grassy plain with mountains obscured by smoke

Wildfire smoke obscures the Chugach Mountains en route to Anchorage

After baking in the heat of the Alaskan interior for the last week, the marine climate of Seward was a welcome change. We even had a bit of rain for one of the few times in our entire trip.

While temperatures in Seward we’re somewhat more mild, the coastal location meant the humidity was not. On our first day in Seward, we partook in a brutal hike up to the Harding Icefield in Kenai Fjords National Park. The hike itself was not abnormally difficult, but we were definitely not used to the combination of heat and humidity, leaving me feeling physically ill at several points during the slog up the mountain. The day had started off overcast, but as we climbed, the clouds evaporated leaving us with stellar views of the rapidly retreating Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield from which it originates. An icefield is essentially a large mass of interconnecting glaciers. The Harding Icefield is the largest — and one of only four — remaining icefields in the United States. The Exit Glacier itself has retreated more than a mile in the last 200 years, leaving trees and other vegetation to begin re-occupying it’s former valley.

A deep mountain valley with a braided stream and some clouds

Looking down the valley partially occupied by the Exit Glacier just a few hundred years ago.

The white and blue ice of the glacier made for a stellar contrast with the lush green vegetation of the alpine zone:

White and blue glacial ice contrasts with lush green carpet of vegetation

Exit Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

Looking out over the Harding Icefield, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

Deep fissures in glacial ice

Crevasses in the Exit Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

The wet climate of coastal Alaska results in extremely heavy snowfalls, making this one of only a handful of places in the world where glaciers flow all the way down to sea level to meet the ocean. Known as tidewater glaciers, these glaciers exhibit complex patterns of advance and retreat that, unlike standard alpine glaciers, are not purely the result of variations in climate. While warmer temperatures or prolonged drought can certainly reduce their mass, the movement of tidewater glaciers is also subject to complex interactions between the ice, the geomtery of the ocean floor, and the depth of the water into which they flow.

On our second day in Seward, we took a water taxi into the heart of Kenai Fjords National Park and then kayaked to within about a quarter mile of the terminus of Holgate Glacier. Tidewater glaciers have a tendency to “calve”, in which large chunks of ice break off the glacier and fall into the ocean, necessitating a safe distance. Glacier “social distancing” if you will. It is not hard to find videos on YouTube of people getting too close to calving tidewater glaciers, with quite predictable results. From our safe distance, we observed and heard several calving events in the few hours we were kayaking around the bay, but unfortunately I was not adept enough at kayaking into position quickly enough to actually capture one on camera.

Two kayakers approach a large glacier

Kayaking toward the terminus of the Holgate Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

A hand holds a small piece of ice that has broken off of a glacier

Tiny iceberg, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

Our boat ride back to Seward through Resurrection Bay also resulted in sightings of sea lions, seals, puffins, and even two pods of orcas: an exciting end to the trip!

The fin and head of a black and white whale is visible just above the water line

Orca, Resurrection Bay, Alaska

Three black fins just upward from the ocean surface

Orcas, Resurrection Bay, Alaska

A small black and white bird with orange beak and feet

Horned Puffin (from the Alaska Sealife Center in Seward, because the photo was better than the wild ones…)


Wildflowers in the Foothills

Brown and yellow spotted bell shaped flower on the forest floor
Brown and yellow spotted bell shaped flower on the forest floor

Chocolate Lily (Fritillaria affinis), Teanaway Community Forest, Washington

Today was our first 90 degree day, so I can confidently say that summer has arrived here in Central Washington. As Washington slowly begins to relax stay-at-home restrictions, the last few weekends have brought our first few forays into the mountains since early this year. We’ve deliberately avoided  highly visited areas, which in Washington is basically synonymous with “trails with views”. The highlight of these excursions instead has been the wildflowers, which are currently in full bloom at elevations between about 2000 and 4000 feet. With higher elevations still buried in snow, the off-the-beaten path trails in the Cascade foothills are the sweet spot right now:

Large three petaled pink flowers with very large leaves

Pacific trillium (Trillium ovatum), Teanaway Community Forest, Washington

Purple-pea shaped flowers with whorled leaves holding small droplets of water

Lupine, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Washington

Six petaled yellow flowing hanging downward on the forest floor

Glacier Lily (Erythronium grandiflorum), Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Washington

Blue-purple flower on the forest floor with water droplets

Oregon Anemone (Anemone oregana), Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Washington

Bright pink uniquely shaped flowers on the forest floor

Fairy slipper (Calypso bulbosa), Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Washington

Pink and deep red flowers hanging from a shrubby plant

Gummy gooseberry (Ribes lobbii), Teanaway Community Forest, Washington

Brown mushroom on forest floor with deep cavities

Morel mushroom, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Washington

Small green frog on the forests floor with black stripe across its face

Pacific tree frog (Pseudacris regilla),which, oddly enough, lives in the ground


Alaska (Part Two)

Several people stand on the crest of a white and blue mass of glacial ice

Exploring the Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, Alaska

The second stop on our Alaska trip of 2019 was Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve. The largest national park in the United States, Wrangell-St. Elias spans more than 13 million acres in the wilderness of southeast Alaska. Our destination was the old mining town of Kennecott, situated deep in the park’s interior between the volcanic Wrangell Mountains and the coastal St. Elias Range.

Due to the tire issues mentioned in my last post, we opted not to take our Subaru down the 60-mile long McCarthy Road, the main access route into the park. In hindsight, we probably would have been fine, as the road was in excellent condition (at least relative to the roads we’d been used to driving in Utah. The similar-in-length Hole in the Rock Road makes the McCarthy Road look like a recently-paved superhighway). Fortunately, we were able to book a last minute van shuttle from Kenny Lake, AK to the end of the McCarthy Road. Regardless of your mode of transportation, you then walk across a footbridge spanning the glacial silt-laden Kennicott River into the town of McCarthy. (The only vehicle access to McCarthy is via a private, and very expensive, bridge a bit further downstream.) Kennecott is another 5 uphill miles by shuttle, bike, or foot:

A red and white building with a sign saying "Kennecott"

Kennecott, Alaska. The 14-story wooden concentration mill is seen in the background.

Strangely, reaching Kennecott would have been much easier in 1919 than it was in 2019. The McCarthy “Road” is actually an old railroad grade originally built in 1909 to bring supplies in and ore out of the famous Kennecott Copper Mines. From 1911 through the late 1930s, the Kennecott mines shipped millions of tons of copper ore to Cordova on the Alaska coast via the Copper River and Northwestern Railway. The town had state of the art amenities at the time, including one of the best hospitals in the territory as well as the first X-ray machine in Alaska. While the mines closed in 1938, Kennecott Copper remains one of the larger copper-producing companies in the world, perhaps best known for the massive Bingham Canyon Mine just outside of Salt Lake City.

Following the closure of the mines, Kennecott lay mostly deserted for decades before beginning to draw tourists in the 1980s. Much of the land and buildings within the town were acquired by the National Park Service in 1998 and added to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Restoration and stabilization of historic buildings in Kennecott is ongoing. Today, you can actually explore many of these buildings, including the town power plant (photo below) and the massive concentration mill (photo above), a 14-story wooden structure where copper ore was crushed and then mechanically and chemically concentrated into the high grade ore that was eventually shipped out via the railroad.

The interior of the Kennecott Power Plant, with massive boilers used to produce electricity and steam heat for the mines and town residents.

History aside, the natural landscape of Kennecott is really what makes it stand out as one of the most stunning places I’ve ever visited. The town is perched on the flanks of Bonanza Ridge, with rocky peaks towering more than 4,000 feet above and what remains of the Kennicott Glacier below. At first glance, it is not apparent (even to a geologist) that the mounds of rubble in the valley below ARE a glacier, but ice does lay beneath the veneer of debris. Like most of the world’s alpine glaciers, the Kennicott Glacier has retreated dramatically since the town’s heyday in the early 1900s, when its surface was level with or even above the elevation of the town. Today, you look down several hundred feet on to what remains of the glacier and the detritus it has brought with it out of the mountains. The origin of the glacier, and the dominant feature of the northern skyline, is the massive Mt. Blackburn, the fifth highest peak on the United States at 16,391 feet:

Wooden buildings cling to a slope with glacier covered mountains in the background

Old mining buildings in Kennecott cling to the slopes above the debris-covered Kennicott Glacier, which originates on the slopes of Mt. Blackburn, seen in the background.

A few miles north of Kennecott, the Kennecott Glacier is joined by the Root Glacier, a somewhat more “normal” looking glacier that we spent nearly an entire day exploring. The experience was rather surreal given that the air temperature was nearly 90 degrees. Climates amenable to the formation of glaciers don’t often produce days where a swim in the frigid glacial melt water actually sounds appealing as opposed to horrifying, but that was certainly the case on this day.

As spectacular as the glacier was, there is something quite unsettling about walking around on one in a T-shirt. The signs and symptoms of a warming climate were all encompassing. We walked along deep gouges (surprisingly reminiscent of Utah slot canyons) carved into the ice by strong currents of melt water…

The Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska

The Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska

encountered many sublime pools filled with deep, electric blue pools of glacial melt water…

The Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska

and carefully avoided deep shafts, known as moulins, that carry cascades of melt water into the internal plumbing of the glacier. In many places, we could hear the dull roar of the melt water boring tunnels through the ice beneath our feet. Glaciers like Root won’t survive many more summers with too many days like this one.

A channel of water flowing across a white glacier carves a tight bend in the ice

Meander in a meltwater channel, Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska

Brown sediment fills in interestingly shaped cracks in glacial ice

Patterns of sediment in the ice, Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska

Despite the best efforts of the interpretive signs displaying historical photographs, and the park film showing the sights and sounds of the past, the sheer remoteness of Kennecott in 2019 makes it difficult to imagine the Kennecott of 1919: a busy town immersed in the deafening roar of copper mining, with a glacier not yet ravaged by climate change dominating the horizon.

Cluster of pink flowers overlooking a debris covered glacier at sunset

Clusters of fireweed overlooking the Kennicott Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, Alaska


Alaska (Part One)

A cluster of bright pink wildflowers growing in a gravel bar along a river
A cluster of bright pink wildflowers growing in a gravel bar along a river

Dwarf fireweed (Chamerion latifolium) along the banks of the Toklat River, Denali National Park, Alaska

A highlight of summer 2019 was a hastily arranged trip to Alaska at the end of June and beginning of July. With a summer of unemployment (translation: freedom) looming, we obtained surprisingly cheap tickets from Seattle to Anchorage and then rented a car for a two week journey around the state.

It was a fun yet somewhat strange trip, for a number of reasons. For one, Alaska was experiencing record high temperatures (90 degrees F in several places that we went) and extensive wildfires during our visit. Two words that summarize the trip would be “hot” and “smoky”. We were prepared with a LOT of warm clothes and rain gear and used hardly any of it.

We were not mentally prepared for the omnipresent light. Even though we never ventured above the Arctic Circle, and thus the Sun did technically set each day, it did so only for a few hours between about midnight and 3 am, never getting far enough below the horizon to result in true darkness. It’s one thing to know in your mind that it won’t get dark out, but another another to actually experience it. It’s even more disorienting when you are sleeping in a tent or the back of a Subaru Outback most nights. I hadn’t really considered (again, a hastily arranged trip…) the photographic implications either. With the ideal light for photos coming in around 11 pm-midnight and 3-4 am, it was hard to be out and about at the “golden hours” while also taking advantage of the few pseudo-dark hours to actually sleep.

Anyways, after a day of stocking up on supplies and food in Anchorage (I’m told there is a gorgeous mountain range at the edge of town, but we never really saw it), we headed north to our first stop: Denali National Park. We were fortunate enough to catch a distant and smoky view of Denali itself as we approached the park. While we would be much closer to North America’s highest mountain later in the trip, we wouldn’t see it again.

View of snowy peak through a layer of smoke

Denali, the highest point in North America, seen through the smoke from Denali State Park.

Denali National Park is unique in that, while a road does exist, you can’t take a private vehicle into the heart of the park. Travel along the main park road is on foot or via concessionaire-operated school buses. We opted for the cheapest bus option, the “un-guided” tour that allows you to get off the bus pretty much where ever you want in order to have a look around. We took the bus into Denali on two consecutive days, made a few short forays on foot into the backcountry, and explored some of the maintained trails near the park entrance:

Gray clouds hover over a landscape of scattered trees and shrubs

A roadside scene in Denali National Park, Alaska

A landscape of barren rock, green vegetation, and distant glaciers and snowy peaks

View of the Teklanika River Valley and Alaska Range, Denali National Park, Alaska

A landscapce of brown and red rocks and soil, and green vegetation

Oxidized volcanic rocks of the Teklanika Formation on the slopes of Cathedral Mountain, Denali National Park, Alaska

Bright pink wildflowers growing on a rocky slope

Scammon’s springbeauty (Claytonia scammaniana) clings to a rock slope on Cathedral Mountain, Denali National Park, Alaska

A river flows through rocky crags, as someone stands on a bridge over the river

Exploring a trail along the Savage River, Denali National Park, Alaska

A caribou stands alongside a river flowing out of a snowy mountain range

A caribou grazes along the banks of the Savage River, Denali National Park, Alaska

Aside from the geological scenery, Denali is also crawling with wildlife. I can emphatically say that the bus makes for a pleasant and safe place from which to observe grizzly bears, caribou, moose, and other potentially threatening organisms at close range. A few of the wildlife encounters we had off the bus were decidedly less enjoyable.

Three grizzly bears amble in a field of green grass

Three damp grizzly bears in a grassy meadow, Denali National Park, Alaska. Photo taken from the bus. 

Three moose forage in a pond

Three moose browse the bottom of a shallow pond, Denali National Park, Alaska. Not a bus photo, but we were at the top of a hill several hundred feet above the pond. 

Several white sheep clamber among a cliff of rocks

Three Dall sheep (Ovis dalli) scramble on rocky cliffs high above the Denali Park Road. 

A tourist stand alongside a river scanning the mountains with binoculars

One human (Homo sapiens) observes the previously pictured Dall sheep (Ovis dalli) through binoculars.

After four days in Denali, our rental car no longer possessed a complete set of safe and functional tires, resulting in a new rental car and an unscheduled detour to Fairbanks before our next destination: Kennecott and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Until next time!


Sands and Sage in Central Washington

A cliff of basalt with patches of snow
A cliff of basalt with patches of snow

Layers of basalt form the rim of Echo Basin, a large coulee in central Washington.

Apparently a global pandemic is what it takes for me to have time to post new photos. We are thankful to be healthy and safe here in Washington and hope you are as well. Just before things started getting rough, we were excitedly welcoming the end of winter’s icy gray grip and had begun exploring the desert landscapes of central Washington.

The Pacific Northwest may not be known for its sand dunes but about one hour north of the Tri-Cities (Kennewick, Pasco, and Richland) lies the Juniper Dunes Wilderness Area, a ~7,000 acre BLM-managed anomaly in the middle of privately-owned central Washington farmland. The dune field itself extends well beyond the wilderness area, and is used heavily by off-highway vehicles. Most of the year, reaching the wilderness area on foot requires a several mile sand slog through the OHV area. Fortunately, in the spring months, the owners of an adjacent ranch allow access through their property, permitting direct and quick access to the heart of the dune field.

Puffy white clouds over a field of sand dunes covered in sagebrush

Large swaths of the Juniper Dunes are mantled with sagebrush and grasses, as well as some of the northernmost juniper trees in North America.

I first visited the Juniper Dunes on a geology field trip a decade ago and it is been on my list of places to revisit ever since. The dunes are a mix of active, shifting, barren sand, and partially stabilized dunes covered in grasses, moss, and sagebrush. The area also represents the northernmost extent of the western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis), a few of whose berries will be proudly featured in an upcoming brew from the Pyroclastic Pixels brewery. 🙂

Ripples in a sand dune, grasses, and clouds

Juniper Dunes Wilderness Area, Washington

During our visit at the beginning of March, the first vestiges of spring were appearing: namely, abundant sunshine and a handful of small wildflowers poking their heads out of the sand:

Tiny bell shaped yellow and red flowers poke up out of the sand

One of the first wildflowers of the season, Yellow Fritillary (Fritillaria pudica), poking through the sand.

A few weeks later, and just a few days before a statewide shelter-in-place order took effect, we “socially distanced” ourselves by heading to the White Bluffs, a several mile-long stretch of chalk-colored cliffs along the banks of the Columbia River directly across from the Hanford Site. Part of the Hanford Reach National Monument, the bluffs are a mixture of fine sediment, some deposited by the ancient Columbia River itself, and some by massive floods that swept across central and eastern Washington during the last “ice age” 12,000 to 18,000 years ago. Persistent winds scour loose sand from the cliffs and associated landslides, depositing it in a large dune field along the crest of the bluff.

Rocks sculpted by the wind sit on the ground with a view of a large river in the background

Wind abraded chunks of sediment rest on the ground with the Columbia River in the background.

White, chalky cliffs above a river

The White Bluffs, Hanford Reach National Monument, Washington

White, chalky cliffs above a river

Cliffs and sand dunes, Hanford Reach National Monument, Washington

The aforementioned floods shaped much of the modern topography of central and eastern Washington. One of the most spectacular features formed by these floods are the broad, steep-sided ravines known as coulees. Formed when floodwaters aggressively plucked large columns out of the basaltic lava flows that blanket much of the Pacific Northwest, most of the coulees are eerily dry today and not until the 1920s did geologists unravel their true origin. Two of the most impressive and easily accessible are Frenchmen Coulee and Echo Basin, just off of I-90 between Seattle and Spokane. Crammed with rock climbers in the good weather months, in mid-January when we visited we had the coulees almost entirely to ourselves:

A cliff of basalt with patches of snow

Large hexagonal columns of basalt along the rim of Echo Basin, a popular site for rock climbing…in the warmer months!

A vista looking out across cliffs and grasslands toward a mountain with wind turbines on top

Looking west from Frenchman Coulee and Echo Basin toward Whisky Dick Mountain and the Wild Horse Wind Project.

More photos to come from the 2019 archives! I’ve also been working on creating a more comprehensive “Galleries” page where you can view my photos sorted by location. Check it out here.


Glacier National Park: Grinnell Glacier Trail

Dark clouds loom over a range of mountains and an azure-blue alpine lake

With one job ending in June and the next not starting until September, we spent most of this past summer on the road. It’s now mid-October, and I’m finally getting the chance to seriously sort through the resulting pictures.

Our last big stop of the summer was Glacier National Park in Montana and neighboring Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada. Glacier was one of the few remaining national parks in the west I had yet to visit, so I was excited that we were able to squeeze this trip in. Despite uncharacteristically foul weather for mid-August, a harrowing experience on the park shuttle bus, campgrounds with problem bears (and problem campers), and an unscheduled detour to an auto parts store in Cardston, Alberta, we managed to get in 60+ miles of hiking among some truly first-class scenery. Our most memorable hike was the trek to Grinnell Glacier in the northeast corner of the park. Here are a few photos from that journey:

A series of sharp mountain peaks are reflected in a tranquil lake at sunrise.

Sunrise light on Mt. Grinnell, reflected in the tranquil waters of Swiftcurrent Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana.

A hiker climbs a steep trail surrounded by green vegetation and wildflowers with large mountains in the background.

Hiking through the redbeds of the Grinnell Formation on the way to Grinnell Glacier. The Grinnell Formation, part of the Belt Supergroup, is a ~1.5 billion year old unit of sedimentary rock that preserves ancient ripple marks, mud cracks, rain drop imprints and more in its maroon layers. 

Cliffs of rock surround several glaciers and an azure-blue lake containing numerous icebergs.

Panoramic view of Grinnell Glacier (left) and Upper Grinnell Lake. The lake has existed only since the 1930s. In the early 1900s, Grinnell Glacier filled the basin now occupied by the lake, at one point depositing the sediment in the moraine the photographer is standing on. Today, only a small piece of Grinnell Glacier remains. As temperatures have warmed, the glacier has retreated leaving Upper Grinnell Lake in its place. The milky blue-green color of the lake is due to finely powdered rock (“glacial flour”) suspended in the water.

Gray cliffs of igneous and sedimentary rock tower over a aquamarine lake filled with icebergs

Cliffs of dark gray limestone belonging to the Helena Formation tower above Upper Grinnell Lake. The thin band of darker rock cutting horizontally across the cliffs is an igneous sill, formed when magma intruded along a plane of weakness in the limestone and then solidified. The lighter rock immediately above and below the sill is marble, created when the hot magma “cooked” the limestone into which it had intruded.

Dark clouds loom over a range of mountains and an azure-blue alpine lake

A thunderstorm approaches over the Garden Wall on the descent from Grinnell Glacier. This was the final photo I took on the hike. We spent most of the next hour running the several remaining miles back to the trailhead as thunder and flashes of lightning exploded behind us.

A bighorn sheep stands amongst vegetation with a glacier in the background

A bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) alongside the trail, with Grinnell Glacier in the background.


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


2019 Joshua Tree Bloom and Responsible Nature Photography

Joshua trees in bloom with colorful cliffs in the background

Joshua trees in bloom during March 2019 in the Virgin River Gorge, Arizona.

Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) are some of the most iconic figures of the southwestern deserts. While most often associated with California and Joshua Tree National Park, a tiny portion of their range extends into our corner of southwestern Utah. Not actually a tree but rather a tall gangling species of yucca, Joshua trees are frequent companions on low-elevation hikes in the St. George area, where the Mojave Desert makes its last stand before disappearing into the higher altitude mountains and valleys of the Colorado Plateau and the Great Basin.

Like many species of yucca, Joshua trees don’t flower every year, but instead only when temperature and rainfall conditions are favorable. We had yet to see a flowering Joshua tree in our three years in Utah, only the dry brown stalks of blooms gone by. This winter has been abnormally wet however, and in early March we started to notice large flower buds forming on a handful of Joshua trees (in the median of Interstate 15) that we drive past regularly. By the end of March, the bloom was in full swing! We decided to head into the Virgin River Gorge of extreme northwestern Arizona for a closer look.

A desert scene with colorful cliffs and sparse vegetation.

The stark Mojave Desert landscape in the Virgin River Gorge, Arizona.

Joshua trees produce truly massive flower stalks: 1-2″ feet long and densely packed with large, rubbery, cream to nearly yellow-colored petals. Perhaps even more impressive are the flower buds, which resemble gigantic green and purple artichokes in the days and weeks before the flowers emerge:

A cluster of white and yellow flowers on the end of a Joshua Tree branchn

 

This year’s Joshua tree bloom wasn’t limited to Utah and Arizona. Throughout the Mojave Desert, Joshua trees have been flowering in large numbers, thanks to a series of wet and cold winter storms over the past few months. In fact, some Joshua trees in California were observed blooming as far back as last November. This fact may seem innocuous, but actually gives ecologists cause for concern given that Joshua trees are pollinated by just one insect: the yucca moth. Yucca moths are the sole species with the proper behavior and anatomy to pollinate the Joshua tree. Consequently, Joshua trees are 100% dependent on the yucca moth for reproduction and survival, while the larvae of the yucca moth are similarly dependent on the Joshua tree seeds for nutrition. For these symbiotic species to survive, the timing of the Joshua tree bloom must coincide with the life cycle of the moth. As climate change warms the southwestern deserts, there is concern that this could cease to be the case, as described in the linked article above. Joshua trees are a keystone species of the Mojave Desert, providing food and shelter for a host of other animals large and small. A decline in their populations would be devastating for the desert as a whole.

All of this is reason to work toward protecting our remaining stands of Joshua Trees, and a reminder to always be mindful and respectful when photographing sensitive species and landscapes. The “superblooms” of poppies and other wildflowers in the southwest over the past few months have highlighted the ecological damage that occurs when swarms of folks looking for their next Instagram photo descend en masse on delicate landscapes without regard for the environment.

Fortunately, many photographers are aware of the threat photography can pose to these beautiful environments and are working to combat the problem. I’m pleased to share that I have joined Nature First: The Alliance for Responsible Nature Photography. The goal of Nature First is to promote responsible nature photography through adherence to seven core principles:

  1. Prioritize the well-being of nature over photography.

  2. Educate yourself about the places you photograph.

  3. Reflect on the possible impact of your actions.

  4. Use discretion if sharing locations.

  5. Know and follow rules and regulations.

  6. Always follow Leave No Trace principles and strive to leave places better than you found them.

  7. Actively promote and educate others about these principles

If you are a nature or landscape photographer, check them out and consider joining. Following these principles will ensure that spectacular events like Joshua tree blooms are still around for future generations of humans and yucca moths to enjoy!

 

Nature First Photography Logo

 


Wonderful Waters of the Escalante

A large waterfall dwarfs a hiker approaching for a photo.
A large waterfall dwarfs a hiker approaching for a photo.

Lower Calf Creek Falls sits on a tributary of the Escalante River. It’s not everyday you find a waterfall this large in the desert! 

The Escalante River in south central Utah was supposedly the last river in the continental United States to be “discovered” and mapped. You don’t have to spend too much time with it to see why. First of all, it’s not large. “River” is a bit of an overstatement for most of the year, when it is easily forded on foot. Only during torrential summer monsoon storms does it resemble anything that the rest of the world would call a river. Secondly, even the most easily accessible stretches of its ~90 mile course take some time to get to. The Escalante is crossed by a grand total of one paved highway, a remote stretch of Utah Highway 12 that is among the most scenic drives in the west.

The lower reaches of the Escalante’s sinuous canyon pose even more of a challenge, reached only by boat on Lake Powell, or via a combination of hellish dirt roads and long hikes, something we undertook on a backpacking trip a few years back when we entered the Escalante via one of its tributaries, Coyote Gulch.

Upper portions of the canyon are far more accessible, if not as imposing, requiring only an occasional wade across the river to see sights such as the Escalante Natural Bridge:

A natural bridge spans a canyon wall above green cottonwood trees.

Escalante Natural Bridge, more than 100 feet in length, blends in well with its surroundings. 

A small arch sits at the top of a colorful sandstone cliff.

Streaks of light mud and dark desert varnish coat towering cliffs of Navajo Sandstone in the upper Escalante River canyon. 

Streaks of mud and desert varnish coat a sandstone cliff

Cliff dwelling in a cliff alcove surrounded by pictographs.

A cliff dwelling and pictographs in a high alcove along the Escalante River. This alcove looked thoroughly inaccessible from below, but the relatively modern graffiti visible through the telephoto lens sadly indicated otherwise. 

One of the most significant tributaries of the upper Escalante River is Calf Creek, best known for a pair of waterfalls that are refreshingly out of place in a place not generally known for its aqueous wonders. Lower Calf Creek Falls, the larger of the two cascades, is reached via a ~3 mile hike along a broad canyon carved by the creek:

Sitting on a rock looking at a waterfalls tumbling from the sandstone cliffs.

Enjoying a peaceful and relatively uncrowded visit to Lower Calf Creek Falls.

Green moss clinging to a sandstone cliff beneath the waterfalls.

Various colors of brown, tan, and black desert varnish on the sandstone cliffs.

Desert varnish is a common sight throughout the southwest, but the palette of colors on the cliffs flanking Calf Creek seemed especially varied.

A bright red desert paintbrush flower in the sand

One of the few wildflowers left standing in late September: a single desert paintbrush (Castilleja chromosa)

A few miles north, reaching the smaller Upper Calf Creek falls requires a short but steep scramble down a slickrock slope into the depths of the canyon:

The moon sets over white and yellow rock formations.

The 3rd quarter moon sets over sandstone rock formations in the Upper Calf Creek drainage.

Upper Calf Creek Falls plunges into a verdant green pool

Enjoying the solitude at Upper Calf Creek Falls.

Multicolored mosses and other planets cling to the rock beneath a waterfall.

Clumps and mats of moss and other plants coat the cliffs beneath Upper Calf Creek Falls.

Surrounded by some of the least developed land in the continental United States, the night sky from the Escalante canyons is a prime attraction as well!

The Summer Milky Way sets over the southern horizon

The summer Milky Way sets over the southern horizon near Escalante, Utah. No light pollution in sight!


Caught Between the Seasons

Red and orange aspen leaves in the snow

Winter has arrived in the high country of Utah. Fortunately for photographers, autumn was still very much in progress when the snow started to fly. The contrast between the mid-winter wonderland and vestiges of fall color made for some great photo opportunities over the past few weeks:

Red and orange aspen leaves in the snow

Vibrant red and gold aspen leaves after a fresh snowfall, Webster Flat, Utah.

Aspens with golden leaves in fresh snow

Young aspens on a foggy, snowy fall day, Webster Flat, Utah.

Golden aspens in snow

Webster Flat, Utah

A single orange and brown aspen leaf lying in the snow

Webster Flat, Utah

Colorful aspens and snow covered conifers overlooking the Kolob Terrace

Colorful aspens among snow-covered firs on the south slopes of the Markagunt Plateau, looking south toward Kolob Terrace and Zion National Park.

Two yellow aspens trees surrounded by snow covered trees.

Two golden aspens surrounded by snowy conifers, Cedar Canyon, Utah.

Markagunt Plateau, Utah

Markagunt Plateau, Utah


Another Hidden Utah Gem: Pine Park

Pyramid-shaped white cliffs of tuff in golden sunset light
Intricately carved white rocks in a forest

Panorama overlooking Pine Park at sunset.

Tucked away at the terminus of a winding gravel road in the Dixie National Forest near the Utah/Nevada border, Pine Park would probably be a beloved national monument or state park were it located literally anywhere other than Southern Utah. We’ve been fortunate to come across quite a few places that fit this profile: stunning, unique, reasonably accessible, and—here’s the big one—empty. Places like Zion National Park may be bursting at the seams, but vast swaths of Southern Utah remain deliciously deserted. On a warm and beautiful weekend in early May, we had Pine Park pretty much all to ourselves!

Pyramid-shaped white cliffs of tuff in golden sunset light

Large Ponderosa Pines complement the smooth knobs of white tuff. 

The main draw at Pine Park are the spectacular rock formations carved into the Tuff of Honeycomb Rock. Tuff is a deposit of consolidated volcanic ash combined with rock, mineral, and glass fragments that forms only in very explosive volcanic eruptions. Pine Park sits on the margin of some of the most voluminous and expansive deposits of tuff in the world. Collectively, the thousands of feet of tuff scattered across large swaths of Nevada and western Utah represent a time when, for lack of a better descriptor, all hell was breaking loose across what is now the Great Basin. The Tuff of Honeycomb Rock is just a hair under 12 million years old, and thus one of the youngest deposits from this intense and violent episode of volcanism.

While the backstory of the tuff is intriguing, the real allure is the wonderland of creamy white spires, domes, and hoodoos emerging from the otherwise nondescript juniper, ponderosa, and piñon pine forest. Weathering and erosion have sculpted a masterpiece at Pine Park. In many places, the architecture almost resembles Bryce Canyon, albeit whitewashed, and with no maintained trails (several Forest Service trails wind through this area, according to the official map, but we had difficulty following them for any more than a hundred yards past the trailhead) the many pockets of eroded tuff are truly a blast to explore.

A single green pine tree emerge from cliffs of white rock

The Ponderosa’s don’t require much soil to gain a foothold in small depressions between ridges of tuff.  

Purple flowers grow in a sandy wash with rock formations in the background

This species of lupine (Lupinus aridus?) seemed to love the gravelly, sandy soil produced by weathering of the tuff.

A small pine tree grows in sculpted white rock

Fantastic rock formations immediately adjacent to our campsite. 

The tall, stately Ponderosas and a small stream give Pine Park a high-altitude feel, but in reality it sits at just 5700 feet above sea level, plenty low and warm enough for a plethora of wildflowers to be in full bloom during our visit:

Two white flowers with many petals and pink stamens

Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva) are abundant on long-ago burned slopes above Pine Park, now home to open grasslands. 

Bright red cactus flowers

A claret cup cactus (Echinocereus triglochidiatus) in full bloom. I’m fully aware that the color appears somewhat enhanced on this photo, but it’s not; the claret cup flower really is that brilliant!

A cluster of purple flowers on a slope

The lupines were everywhere. 

Purple flowers growing from within a green plant and white rocks in the background

Everywhere!

Pink and brown boulders lie strewn in a chute of white tuff

Multicolored boulders litter a chute in the Tuff of Honeycomb Rock. 

 


Slots of Fun in Cottonwood Canyon

Multicolored sandstone ridges on Yellow Rock
Multicolored sandstone ridges on Yellow Rock

Multicolored Navajo Sandstone at Yellow Rock, Cottonwood Canyon, Utah

The 47 mile-long Cottonwood Canyon Road slices through some of the most otherworldly terrain in Southern Utah, connecting Highway 89 in the south with the Bryce Canyon region in the north. Mostly unpaved, some GPS devices have been known to lead travelers down this road in the name of a shortcut to Bryce Canyon National Park. When dry, Cottonwood Canyon makes for a wonderful scenic drive and is indeed a shortcut. But in the days following rain or snow, the layer of clay-rich shale the road follows for most of its length turns into a veritable morass, and renders the road impassible regardless of how many-wheel drive your vehicle might possess. Coming from the south, the road initially follows the broad valley of the Paria River drainage, before leaving the river behind and heading up the narrower valley of Cottonwood Creek. This portion of the road passes through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument; other sections used to as well before the monument experienced its recent “downsizing.”

We recently took a three-night camping trip to explore Cottonwood Canyon and some nearby areas. Our first stop was Yellow Rock, near the south end of the road about 13 miles from Hwy 89. Yellow Rock is a massive dome of Navajo Sandstone, easily visible from the road as is rises high above the jumble of rock layers alongside Cottonwood Creek. While the hike to its summit is not long, getting there requires a moderately-difficult scramble up a hidden rocky chute littered with loose boulders. Hiking poles/sticks highly recommended. After scrambling to the base of the rock, the real fun begins. After a few years living in Southern Utah, it is natural to assume that you’ve seen every color, pattern, and texture of sandstone that can possibly exist, but then Yellow Rock comes along and proves you wrong:

Yelow, red, orange, and pink swirls in the Navajo Sandstone

Walking up the east flank of Yellow Rock, enjoying the outdoor art gallery of beautiful colors, shapes, and patterns in the Navajo Sandstone. 

Multicolored sandstone and a view looking north along Cottonwood Canyon

Colorful sandstone near the summit of Yellow Rock, looking north towards Hackberry Canyon. 

Yelow, red, orange, and pink swirls in the Navajo Sandstone

Mesmerizing soft-serve patterns. 

While the abundant cottonwood trees lining the canyon bottom were still quite leafless, even in early April other signs of spring were beginning to show in this high desert. Traversing across Yellow Rock, we encountered many pockets of Desert Paintbrush, Anderson’s Buttercup, and Manzanita in sandy stream bottoms or in crevices in the sandstone, already in full bloom:

Bright red desert paintbrush plant.

Desert Paintbrush (Castilleja chromosa) growing in deep sand. The flower of this showy plant is actually the inconspicuous green spike at right; the bright red parts are the bracts and sepals. 

Orange and white spotted butterfly atop a yellow flower.

A orangetip butterfly enjoys the wild mustard buffet in the Cottonwood Canyon Narrows. 

Alternating bands of white and red rock.

For over a dozen miles, the Cottonwood Canyon road parallels the “Cockscomb”, a jagged ridge of resistant sandstone tilted to near-vertical. Here, varicolored rocks of the Carmel and Entrada Formations line the road near the Cottonwood Canyon Narrows trailhead. 

On our final night, we camped near the north end of the road, not far from Kodachrome Basin State Park, where we were treated to a spectacular sunset and even more stunning dark, moonless night skies:

Pink clouds and a band of pink rocky cliffs at sunset

Sunset from our campsite overlooking Kodachrome Basin.

Photo of the spring night sky with zodiacal light and Orion

Three landmarks of the winter night sky, Sirius (left), Orion (center, in flashlight beam), and the Pleiades (right) make their way towards the western horizon, where the bright band of the zodiacal light juts into the sky. 

No Southern Utah camping trip would be complete without a saunter through a slot canyon, so on the way home in the morning, we made a quick detour to Willis Creek Canyon. At the beginning of our trip, we had briefly probed the famous Buckskin Gulch, just south of Cottonwood Canyon in Arizona, but were quickly turned back by waist-deep mud & debris pools that were emanating quite possibly the most foul stench to ever besmirch this Earth. In contrast, Willis Creek Canyon is a rare bird in Southern Utah; a beautifully sculpted slot with no technical obstacles to rappel over, and no putrid cesspools to wade through. Instead, a small babbling brook winds through the sandstone narrows, seemingly oblivious to its own high-quality handiwork:

white and black streaked sandstone canyon walls

Narrows section of Willis Creek Canyon

A small stream flows between narrow sandstone canyon walls

Approaching a wide portion of the canyon. 

Narrow sandstone canyon walls

Back in the narrows!


Pyroclastic Pixels Goes to Italy!

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

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

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

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

The train station in Manarola, Cinque Terre

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

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

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

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

Colorful clouds and sea at sunset in Manarola.

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

Colorful buildings of Manarola line the waterfront at dusk.

The Manarola waterfront at dusk.

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

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

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

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

Agave and other plants cling to a rocky sea cliff

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

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

Coloful buildings line the harbor in the village of Vernazza

A view of colorful Vernazza from high above its harbor.

Steep cliffs rise out of the sea in the Cinque Terre

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

The city of Levanto and surrounding hills

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

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

Panorama of the Cinque Terre Coastline

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

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


Gold Butte National Monument in Pictures

Swirls of color on slickrock sandstone.
Sunset light on rock formations, Joshua Trees, and desert mountains.

A beautiful view from our camp in Gold Butte National Monument just after sunset, looking north towards the Virgin Mountains.

Gold Butte is one of our nation’s newest National Monuments, tucked away into a small corner of Southern Nevada, northeast of Lake Mead and snuggled up along the Arizona border. Unfortunately, Gold Butte was recently recommended for a “boundary reduction.” After spending a few days exploring the areas, I can confidently say that this is a truly stunning Mojave Desert landscape, home to amazing views, endangered wildlife, unique geology, and priceless relics of the past. If nothing else, I hope these photos demonstrate that this area is worthy of more protection, not less.

Joshua Trees and red sandstone rock formations

With abundant Joshua Trees, Creosote Bush, and stark rock formations, much of the landscape is vaguely reminiscent of Joshua Tree National Park, but with the colorful Aztec Sandstone providing a wonderful ruddy backdrop to the bright green Joshua Trees.

Late afternoon sunlight on sandstone rock formations and desert mountains

Late-afternoon view from a ridge overlooking Whitney Pocket, Gold Butte National Monument. You can just barely see our car next to the rocks at center right. 

Sunrise light illuminates Joshua Trees and colorful sandstone boulders. A notch in a sandstone boulder frames a view of a desert landscape.

Swirls of color on slickrock sandstone.

The Aztec Sandstone in this area is without a doubt the most colorful rock formation I’ve ever seen. Much like at nearby Valley of Fire State Park, around every corner are stunning swirls of color that would look more at home in a modern art gallery than in the desert. 

Red, pink, and yellow swirls in sandstone.

We found the most intense colors on un-weathered boulders associated with recent rockfalls. 

Fossil brachiopods in a limestone boulder with sunlit Joshua Trees in the background.

Many of the ridges and mountains in the Gold Butte area consist of Paleozoic limestones. Fossils, such as the brachiopods seen here, are a dime a dozen.

Petroglyph of a man that appears to be falling through space.

One of the primary justifications for the creation of Gold Butte National Monument was the abundance of rock art throughout the region. We saw petroglyphs pretty much wherever we went. The “Falling Man” seen here is perhaps the most well-known.

A large sandstone boulder containing numerous petroglyphs.

Petroglyphs, Gold Butte National Monument, Nevada.

Petroglyphs in the shape of Desert Tortoises.

More petroglyphs…Desert Tortoises perhaps?

Bright pink and yellow cactus spines

Lest we neglect the living, we also saw roadrunners, kangaroo rats (one inspected our dinner one night but successfully eluded being photographed) as well as burrows made by endangered Desert Tortoises and other creatures. Somewhat more stationary and easier to capture were the bright pink and yellow spines of the California Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus)

A small fishhook cactus growing in rocks.

A tiny fishhook cactus (Mammillaria tetrancistra) growing in rock rubble.

Several yuccas grow in sandy soil surrounded by sandstone rock formations.

Utah Yuccas (Yucca Utahensis) thrive in the thin sandy soils formed in alcoves within the Aztec Sandstone.

Large Joshua Tree with person for scale.

A large Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia) specimen.  

A raptor perches atop a Joshua Tree

I’m ornithologically-challenged; this appears to be some sort of hawk waiting patiently for it’s next meal from atop this Joshua Tree. If you know what it is, let me know!


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. 


Desert in Bloom

Bright pink beehive cactus flowers

Southern Utah isn’t typically known for its wildflowers, but one particular family of plants puts on an annual show that rivals the rocks in brilliance and diversity of hues. While snow still lingers in the mountains, the lower elevations are bursting with color as a plethora of cacti are currently in bloom. For most of the year, the abundant low-growing prickly pear and hedgehog cacti hardly stand out in a landscape chock-full of sharp, spiny plants that collectively make cross-country hiking miserable.  Right now though, it is hard not to take notice of these hardy plants. So electric are the colors that simply keeping ones eyes on the road is difficult given the rainbow peeking out from the desert scrub:

Bright pink beehive cactus flowers

Florescent pink Beehive Cactus (Escobaria vivipara) flowers, San Francisco Mountains, Utah

Bright red claret cup cactus flower

Claret Cup Cactus (Echinocereus triglochidiatus) flowers, San Francisco Mountains, Utah

Bright orange desert prickly pear flowers

Beautiful orange, almost salmon-y, flowers of the Desert Prickly Pear (Opuntia phaeacantha), Pipe Spring National Monument, Arizona. This is the first time I’ve seen flowers this color on a prickly pear…perhaps some sort of hybrid?

Pink prickly pear flowers

Dense spines and bright pink flowers of the Mojave Prickly Pear (Opuntia erinacea), Beaver County, Utah

Pink flowers of the Desert Prickly Pear

A stately row of pink Desert Prickly Pear (Opuntia phaeacantha) flowers, Washington County, Utah

Multi-colored flowers of the Desert Prickly Pear

Red and yellow flowers of the Desert Prickly Pear (Opuntia phaeacantha), Washington County, Utah

Bright pink flower of the Engelmann Hedgehog cactus

Engelmann’s Hedgehog (Echinocereus engelmannii) flower, Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, Utah

Vibrant pink Golden Prickly Peak flowers

Electric pink flowers of the Golden Prickly Pear (Opuntia aurea), Washington County, Utah. I realize it looks like I just jacked up the saturation on this photo, but the vibrancy of these flowers is truly that stunning, almost tropical in nature.

While the cacti may be the main event, a supporting cast of other wildflowers contribute as well:

Butterfly on bright yellow Desert Marigold flower

Mylitta Crescent (Phyciodes mylitta) butterfly on Desert Marigold (Baileya multiradiata), Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, Utah

Pink and yellow Straggling Mariposa Lily flower

Straggling Mariposa Lily (Calochortus flexuosus), Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, Utah

Bright purple Desert Four-O'Clock flower

Desert Four-O’Clock (Mirabilis multiflora), Pipe Spring National Monument, Arizona


The Heart of Utah: Capitol Reef National Park

Hickman Bridge, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Hickman Natural Bridge, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

The least visited and most isolated of Utah’s five national parks, Capitol Reef hosts what is perhaps the quintessential Utah landscape. It is as if someone took small portions of the other four parks and mashed them into one; here you can find a plethora of arches and natural bridges, deep snake-like canyons, soaring Navajo and Wingate Sandstone cliffs, and even a few hoodoos thrown in for good measure.

Looking east across the Waterpocket Fold toward the Henry Mountains

Looking east across the Waterpocket Fold toward the Henry Mountains, the last mountain range in the lower 48 to be mapped and named, and their high point: 11,522′ Mt. Ellen.

The skinny sixty mile long park was originally established as a national monument in 1937, but became a national park in 1971. The odd shape stems from the inherent nature of the feature it protects: the Waterpocket Fold, a 100+ mile-long kink in the Earth’s crust known as a monocline. Creeks and rivers have dissected the fold over millions of years to reveal what is quite possibly the most colorful and diverse array of rock layers in Utah.

Capitol Reef is far from just about everywhere (which made the flat tire we experienced on the way that much more annoying). To the east and south lie the last major mountain range and river, respectively, to be mapped and added to the map of the lower 48 states. Not until the 1960s did a paved highway cross the Waterpocket Fold through Capitol Reef. In the northern part of the park, the Fremont River slices a narrow canyon through the Waterpocket Fold, its water creating one of the few habitable areas in the entire region. Petrogylphs attest to the importance of this year-round water source to ancient inhabitants. In 1880, Mormon settlers established the settlement of Fruita along the banks of the Fremont. The remains of this historic farming community and the abundant, lush green orchards and fields seem out of place in the otherwise stark central Utah canyonlands but add to the allure of the park.

Early morning in the Fruita orchards and pastures

Early morning in the Fruita orchards and pastures

Bighorn sheep petrogylphs along the Fremont River, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Bighorn sheep petrogylphs along the Fremont River, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Here are some of the sights from our quick trip to Capitol Reef this past weekend:

Patterns in colorful sandstone, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

On a hike through Capitol Gorge, we encountered a bed within the Navajo Sandstone with some unbelievably complex and colorful patterns:

For the most part, the landscape at Capitol Reef is quite open, allowing vast views and superb light at sunset:

Chimney rock at sunset, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Chimney Rock, a tower of soft Moenkopi Formation mudstone capped by harder sandstone belonging to the Shinarump Member of the Chinle Formation

Sunlight on cliffs, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Late afternoon scene along the Chimney Rock Trail, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Sunlit cliffs at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

More sunset scenes

Crumbling cliffs of Wingate Sandstone, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Hiking among crumbling cliffs of Wingate Sandstone, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Moon rising above cliffs, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

A nearly full moon made it hard to do much stargazing at Capitol Reef, which is world-renowned for dark night skies.

Not far from the park campground and visitor center are the remnants of an old trail leading up a sandy wash, then up a short but steep talus slope before arriving at a hidden basin containing hoodoos and other strange rock formations. Unfortunately it was just about noon and the light was about as direct and harsh as possible, but it was cool to explore an area off-the-beaten path yet still in sight of the tour buses below:

Climbing up a talus slope, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Ascending the talus…

Balanced rock hoodoo, Capitol Reef National Park

Gravity-defying hoodoos were the reward!

Hoodoos at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Hoodoos in the Chinle Formation at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah


Coyote Gulch in Pictures

ALcove and Jacob Hamblin Arch, Coyote Gulch, Utah

Jacob Hamblin Arch and a series of deep alcoves cut into the Navajo Sandstone are the highlights of a trip through Coyote Gulch.

This past weekend we made our first foray into the interior of the Colorado Plateau since moving to Utah. Our destination was Coyote Gulch, a well-known tributary of the Escalante River that straddles the boundary of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Glen Canyon National Recereation Area. Below are some photos from the trip:

Trail through Hurricane Wash, Utah

The hike begins with a nearly six mile slog through the desert along, and often in, Hurricane Wash. Toward the end it gets interesting, but mostly it looks like this. Nice, but nothing to write home about.

Sign along Hurricane Wash, Utah

After about three miles of walking along Hurricane Wash, the trail leaves Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and enters Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. It is here that things start to get more interesting.

Cliffs in Hurricane Wash, Utah

Soon, cliffs of Navajo Sandstone begin to rise up along the wash and become progressively higher as you head downstream. Eventually a small stream appears in the canyon bottom, after passing through several short sections of dry narrows like this one.

Alcove along Coyote Gulch, Utah

Eventually, Hurricane Wash meets Coyote Gulch, which is perhaps best known for a series of enormous undercuts carved into the smooth and sheer walls of pink Navajo Sandstone.

Alcove along Coyote Gulch, Utah

This was the largest alcove we encountered and we were fortunate enough to be able to camp in its shadow. For most of the trip, the air was incredibly calm and still and standing inside these alcoves felt like being inside a great rotunda or cathedral.

Large alcove with hiker for scale, Coyote Gulch, Utah

The scale of the alcoves is truly incredible and difficult to grasp without being there. Note Michelle for scale in the lower left.

Star Trails as seen from an Alcove along Coyote Gulch, Utah

A group camped directly beneath the alcove on our first night spent several hours messing around with some extremely bright flashlights and spotlights. It was rather annoying when we were trying to fall asleep, but it actually made the star-trail sequence I was shooting come out rather nice.

Jacob Hamblin Arch in Coyote Gulch, Utah

Just a few hundred yards downstream from the large alcove where we camped was Jacob Hamblin Arch (also see photo at top of page). The creek makes a tight meander around the fin of rock containing the arch, allowing it to be seen from both sides.

Coyote Natural Bridge, Coyote Gulch, Utah

On day two, we day-hiked from our campsite near Jacob Hamblin Arch down to the confluence of Coyote Gulch and the Escalante River, a distance of about 13 miles round trip. One of the many attractions en route was Coyote Natural Bridge.

Green grass and trees in spring, Coyote Gulch, Utah

It was mid-April and the canyon was incredibly lush and green. Many of the stream terraces alongside the creek were resplendent with green grasses and wildflowers.

Spring and rock formations, Coyote Gulch, Utah

Numerous springs emerge from the canyon walls along Coyote Gulch. Do you see the “T-Rex” in the upper left?

Lower Coyote Gulch, Utah

Moving downstream, Coyote Gulch leaves the Navajo Sandstone behind and carves into deeper and older layers of rock. Near the confluence with the Escalante River, the canyon walls are in the bright orange Wingate Sandstone.

Confluence of Escalante River with Coyote Gulch, Utah

Looking downstream along the Escalante River at its confluence with Coyote Gulch.

Stevens Arch, Escalante River Canyon, Utah

A ford of the waist-deep Escalante and a short walk upstream from the confluence reveals the impressive Stevens Arch high on the canyon wall.

Stevens Arch

Another view of Stevens Arch.

The surface elevation of Lake Powell when full is about 3,700 feet, almost exactly the elevation at the confluence of Coyote Gulch and the Escalante River, as shown by this Bureau of Reclamation benchmark.

At various times in Lake Powell’s history, most recently in the 1980s, the lake surface rose just high enough to flood the lowest reaches of Coyote Gulch and inundate the confluence under shallow water. The remnant water level lines are still faintly visible in lower Coyote Gulch.

Rocks, trees, and desert varnish, Coyote Gulch, Utah

The hike to the Escalante and back was a long one, but views like this around pretty much every bend made it seem shorter!

As a final note, Coyote Gulch has, for good reason, become an extremely popular destination over the years. We actually had some second thoughts about going after reading guidebooks that implored us not to visit on a holiday weekend in the spring (it was Easter) and after the BLM employee who issued our permit told us we would be “joining a party.” In the end, we found the over-crowding hype to be somewhat overblown. While there were more folks down there than you might expect to find in such a remote location, it could hardly be called a party. We camped in the most popular half-mile section of the gulch and couldn’t see anyone else from our site along the banks of the creek. We met just a handful of other groups on our hikes in and out of the gulch, and only occasionally encountered other people on our all-day hike down to the Escalante River and back. If you are seeking complete and total solitude or isolation, this is probably not the place for you. But we didn’t feel like the crowds detracted from the experience much if at all.

The increase in visitation to Coyote Gulch certainly creates challenges for the future. Hikers are now required to carry out all human waste, which seems to be a step in the right direction. However challenging keeping the gulch in pristine condition might be, I tend to believe that this situation is better, in the long-term at least, than the alternative. Coyote Gulch has been described as one of the last remaining echos of Glen Canyon, a small remnant of the scenic wonders that were submerged after the construction of Glen Canyon Dam and the filling of Lake Powell in the 1960s. Glen Canyon was lost ultimately because it was “the place no one knew.” The same cannot be said of Coyote Gulch. It is one of those places where the term “loved to death” gets thrown around, but ultimately we only fight to protect places that we love and value and it is hard to truly appreciate a place like Coyote Gulch solely through pictures. Hopefully the more people that go to Coyote Gulch and experience its majesty first-hand, the more people there will be to stand-up for it against future threats that are assuredly to come.


Colorful Geology at Valley of Fire State Park

Compaction bands and sandstone, Valley of Fire, Nevada

Compaction bands in multi-colored Aztec Sandstone, just one of many geologic wonders in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

One of the great things about living in Southern Utah is the abundance of different climates within a small geographic area. When temperatures rise into the 90s and 100s in the low-elevation valleys, we can be in cool alpine meadows at 10,500′ in less than an hour. When snow, slush, and mud cover the trails in winter, vast portions of the Mojave and Great Basin Deserts are within a day’s drive. One of these desert areas is Valley of Fire State Park in southern Nevada, not far from I-15 between St. George and Las Vegas.

Perhaps not surprisingly, upon arrival at Valley of Fire one is greeted with an array of whimsically sculpted red rock formations. Now red rocks are hardly unique in this part of the country, and the crimson cliffs here are no more notable than those found anywhere else in Utah or Arizona. But head into the interior of the park and you soon realize the allure of the Valley of Fire. After cresting the red cliffs, the hues begin to multiply exponentially and before long you are surrounded by just about every color of sandstone imaginable.

Colorful rocks at Valley of Fire State Park, Nevasa

A layer-cake of spectacular colors in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

To put it bluntly, the colors at Valley of Fire are simply ridiculous…and attributable to its unique geologic location. The rocks here are mostly equivalent to those found throughout southwestern Utah and the Colorado Plateau. The Aztec Sandstone, the dominant rock unit exposed in the park, is the equivalent of the Navajo Sandstone that makes up the cliffs of Zion National Park. Geologists just assign it a different name when it appears in Nevada and the Great Basin. Perhaps the distinct name is appropriate though, given that the sandstone seems to take on a life of its own here.

Valley of Fire State Park lies within the Basin and Range province, a vast region covering Nevada and portions of half a dozen other western states where the Earth’s crust is being slowly but violently stretched apart. As the writer John McPhee once noted, so much stretching has occurred here that 20 million years ago, Salt Lake City and Reno would have been more than 60 miles closer together. Faults are abundant in this land, and fluids associated with some of these faults have at various times leached iron compounds from the originally all-red sandstone, causing some layers to become bright white, and re-deposited them in other layers, leading to the wide variety of colors.

Some of the most impressive colors are found just to the west of the “Fire Wave” feature near the northern terminus of the park’s scenic drive:

Vibrant colors in the Aztec Sandstone in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Vibrant colors in the Aztec Sandstone in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Fire Wave in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

A feature known as the “Fire Wave,” Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

While there are numerous hiking trails, there is also lots of off-trail terrain to explore. Some of the most spectacular scenery can be found by parking at one of the numerous pull offs and just wandering out into the rock wonderland. One particular geologic feature of note is what are known as “shear-enhanced compaction bands,” thin brittle fins of rock that rise almost vertically out of the ground and often run continuously for dozens to hundreds of yards. At first glance, these features look like mineral veins, but upon closer examination they are composed of the same material as the surrounding sandstone, but are obviously slightly harder than the host rock. In many places there are two perpendicular sets of the bands, forming a checkerboard like pattern superimposed on the sandstone.

Compaction bands in the Aztec Sandstone, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Compaction bands in the Aztec Sandstone, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

The bands are the result not of stretching, but of compressional forces that predate the formation of the Basin and Range. Stresses associated with an earlier mountain building episode (known as the Sevier orogeny) created these funky bands by essentially “squeezing” together (and even breaking) the sand grains that make up the rock, eliminating much of the empty space between the grains and forming a miniature layer of tougher, harder, and more compact sandstone that is slightly more resistant to weathering and erosion. As a result, the bands tend to just out from the surrounding slickrock by several inches, and even several feet in some locations. For such a seemingly obscure feature, many papers have been written about these compaction bands (and similar ones in a few other locations in the region). However my understanding of the structural processes behind their formation is limited and the most recent articles about them appear to be behind a paywall. If anyone reading this has more insight into these things, I would love to hear from you.

As mentioned before, these bands are quite thin, in most less than a centimeter thick and thus, sadly, quite brittle. They are easily broken by an errant boot step so if you find yourself among them, tread carefully so that future visitors will be able to experience this unique and colorful landscape.

Colorful sunset on red rocks, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Sunset from the Old Arrowhead Road in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

 

 


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 “Caves” of Cathedral Gorge State Park

cathedral_gorge_badlands

The badlands of Cathedral Gorge State Park, Nevada

Next time you find yourself in extreme eastern Nevada with time to spare, I highly recommend checking out Cathedral Gorge State Park. This gem lies tucked away on the floor of Meadow Valley, about halfway between Las Vegas and Great Basin National Park, not far from the bustling hub of Panaca, Nevada. In other words, for a place fully accessible by paved roads, Cathedral Gorge is about as off-the-beaten path as you’re going to get.

Despite its under-the-radar status, Cathedral Gorge was established all the way back in 1935, and was one of Nevada’s four original state parks (along with the more well-known Valley of Fire north of Las Vegas). The highlight here is a shallow valley excavated out of a layer of soft lake sediments by Meadow Valley Wash and numerous small tributary streams. The sediment was originally deposited in a freshwater lake that called Meadow Valley home during wetter times in the Pliocene epoch (~2.5-5 million years ago). This area has been the epicenter for some pretty extensive volcanic activity over the past few dozen million years, so the sediment that accumulated in the lake was rich in volcanic ash.

Today, with the lake gone, the exposed sediment is so soft that it erodes extremely rapidly. Few plants can gain a foothold in earth that is crumbling so rapidly, so the water (and to a lesser extent, wind) have created a intricate landscape of badlands along the margin of the valley. The scenery is bizarre and not all that unlike what you might find in the famous badlands of South Dakota and the Great Plains. It definitely feels out of place in the sagebrush expanses of the Great Basin. While Cathedral Gorge bakes in the summertime, during our visit it was cold, windy, and virtually empty. We saw not another soul on a four mile loop hike around the perimeter of the valley.

cathedral_gorge_miller_overlook

Miller Point Overlook, Cathedral Gorge State Park, Nevada

cathedral_gorge_cave_3

The terminus of one of the narrow “mud slot canyons” in Cathedral Gorge State Park, Nevada

While the loop hike around the valley was enjoyable (if a bit windy), we didn’t stumble upon the highlight of our visit until we started poking around the rock formations adjacent to the trailhead parking lot. In a matter of minutes, we found ourselves exploring a landform that I still don’t have the right words to describe.

At the edge of the valley, runoff has carved a series of deep, extremely narrow, and almost perfectly vertical crevices into the soft sediments. The park calls them “caves” but the words cave, crevice, gully, crevasse, gorge, and ravine all fail to accurately capture their bizarre and truly unique nature. Perhaps the best way to describe them is as “slot canyons of mud.”

They evoke the sandstone slot canyons of Utah in the sense that they were so narrow that in many spots only a tiny sliver of blue sky could be seen overhead. Unlike most slot canyons though, whose delicate curves are clearly the result of flowing water, the walls here were angular and almost perfectly vertical. It was as if someone had carved huge blocks out of the mud with a chainsaw and then splattered the walks with mud to cover their tracks. Each little mud slot terminated abruptly in a roughly circular chamber whose walls were lined with linear grooves etched into the mud, extending all the way up to the rim. These chambers were clearly the work of waterfalls that spill into the canyons with each heavy rain.

As fragile and precarious as the mud walls looked, there were surprisingly few signs of catastrophic collapse. We explored about a half dozen of these little canyons, all of which were located right along the main road into the park. There were surely more that we missed, good enough reason to make the drive back to Meadow Valley another day.

cathedral_gorge_cave_1

Water flowing into the gullies erodes and redeposits mud, creating intricate shapes and patterns that line the walls.

cathedral_gorge_cave_2

Light streaming into a deep “mud slot canyon” in Cathedral Gorge State Park, Nevada


A Hidden Geologic Gem: Ashdown Gorge

alcove along ashdown gorge
alcove along ashdown gorge

Inside a spectacular alcove along Ashdown Creek. Alcoves such as these are numerous along Ashdown Gorge where the stream has eroded laterally into soft rocks near the canyon bottom. The perspective here makes the alcove appear a little deeper than it actually is, but the entire creek bed lies beneath the overhanging cliffs.

Not far from the increasingly overrun splendors of Bryce and Zion is a canyon frequently overlooked when discussing the many attractions of Southern Utah. The stunning Ashdown Gorge lies just a few miles from Cedar City off of Highway 14, yet I’ve seen a grand total of three other people on a pair of weekend hikes up the gorge this summer & fall. The solitude likely stems from the fact that there is no marked trail or trailhead for this hike; Ashdown Creek is the trail for a spectacular jaunt up the canyon. One must also scramble down the steep toe of an active landslide strewn with old vehicles, guardrail fragments, and asphalt chunks just to reach the creek bed from the highway. Once this has been accomplished though, it is fairly easily walking for many miles up the gorge as the water in the creek is typically only ankle deep except during spring snow melt and after heavy rains.

colorful scene along ashdown gorge

Beautiful colors in a narrow section of Ashdown Gorge.

Ashdown Gorge has a very different character than many canyons in Southern Utah, starting with the color of its walls. Not red or pink – the famous layers of Zion and Moab are well below the surface here – but rather varied shades of grey, tan, and yellow. The majority of the gorge is carved into the Cretaceous Straight Cliffs Formation, an impressive unit formed when southwestern Utah was a swampy coastal plain trapped between a disintegrating mountain range to the west and the shallow Cretaceous Interior Seaway to the east. Periodic but short lived rises in sea level are marked by occasional beds that contain almost nothing but fossilized oysters and other marine organisms.

Ripple marks on boulder, Ashdown Gorge

Not far from the junction of the gorge and Highway 14 is a gigantic boulder of the Straight Cliffs Formation displaying some of the best preserved ripple marks I’ve ever seen!

Ashdown Gorge is not quite a slot canyon, although it tries in places. Despite this, the walls for much of its length are several hundred feet high and there are many locations where you would NOT want to find yourself during a flash flood, so take a close look at the weather forecast before attempting to explore the gorge! Unlike the relatively hard sandstone that forms most of Utah’s famous slot canyons, the Straight Cliffs Formation is rather soft and crumbly. The creek has taken advantage of this by eroding laterally in many places. The result of this erosion is perhaps most spectacular around the outside edges of the many tight meanders of Ashdown Creek. Here the creek has carved into soft layers near the canyon bottom, undercutting harder layers of sandstone near the rim, creating vast alcoves that completely cover the creek bed.

Another alcove along ashdown gorge

Inside another alcove further downstream. Beneath this one were a plethora of large, partially pulverized blocks of grey rock that had clearly fallen quite recently (they had not yet been covered in the orange mud like most of the rocks in the creek bed) from the overhang above. We chose not to stick around in this one for long…

While walking along the creek, one thing that is striking is the color of the boulders upon which you walk. Not grey and tan like the canyon walls, but rather varying shades of orange, pink, and red. This is because Ashdown Creek drains the vast amphitheater of Cedar Breaks National Monument upstream to the east. The soft limestones and siltstones of Cedar Breaks are easily eroded, and Ashdown Creek can turn bright orange during even minor rains.

Flanigan Arch from Ashdown Gorge

Flanigan Arch from Ashdown Gorge

Another highlight of a hike up Ashdown Gorge is a good view of Flanigan Arch, an impressive span (reputable estimates of its length are hard to find, but most seem to say ~60 feet) that is difficult to access or even see from any other location.

In addition to the lack of crowds, the high elevation of Ashdown Gorge (7000-8000′) makes it a wonderful day hike (or potential overnight trip) for escaping the heat in summer (just watch for flash floods…) Ponderosa Pine, spruce, and fir are the most commonly seen large trees in the gorge which has a very “mountainous” feel to it. When we hiked it in late October, the temperatures were actually getting a little too cool to fully enjoy the numerous required stream crossings. In June when it was 80 degrees, the creek crossings were heaven!

Ripples in the creek in Ashdown Gorge

Some small riffles along Ashdown Creek.

small waterfall along ashdown gorge

Hiking up the gorge is fairly easy, a few small riffles and waterfalls can be easily scrambled around.


Fall Color in Southern Utah

Colorful aspens in lava flow, Markagunt Plateau, UT
Ridge of golden aspens near Brian Head, UT

A ridge coated in aspens near Brian Head, UT begins to turn color in the early fall. The view from the Markagunt Plateau is truly expansive; in the background are ranges and valleys in the Great Basin of western Utah, and on a clear day one can clearly see Wheeler Peak in eastern Nevada

Another autumn is upon us, and once again we find ourselves becoming familiar with the surroundings of a new home, this time in Southern Utah. Why this neck of the woods, with its famous expanses of colorful slickrock, isn’t more well known for fall color, I do not understand. Near Fish Lake is the largest single aspen colony in the world, which also happens to be the worlds heaviest known organism period.

A bit closer to home for us is the Markagunt Plateau, which reaches elevations of over 11,000 feet and contains expansive reaches of aspen that rival, and to be honest probably beat, any we experienced in Colorado. The weather has been fairly mild for the last month or so, with few storms and little wind, allowing the leaves to put on an extended show:

Colorful aspens in lava flow, Markagunt Plateau, UT

One of the unique features of the Markagunt Plateau are a number of expansive and recent (<10,000 years) lava flows that coat much of the landscape above 9000 feet. The stark lava flows provide a stunning backdrop for the brilliant fall colors that occupy pockets of soil within their midst.

Colorful aspens dot lava flows on the Markagunt Plateau, UT

Aspens and lava flows, Markagunt Plateau, UT

Golden aspens on the Rattlesnake Creek Trail, Utah

A beautiful grove of aspens on the Rattlesnake Creek Trail near Brian Head, UT. This trail has clearly been a popular route for quite some time; we found inscriptions on some of these aspens dating back to 1903! (Along with many more recent ones sadly…)

Red aspen leaves near Duck Creek, Utah

This pocket of trees near the Duck Creek Campground possessed the most vividly red leaves I’ve ever seen on aspen trees.

Golden aspens on the Markagunt Plateay

Golden aspens coat the flanks of Hancock Peak, a small cinder cone on the Markagunt Plateau. This view was obtained from the summit of Brian Head Peak, 11, 312 feet above sea level. In the distance is the western escarpment of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, home to Bryce Canyon National Park.

Aspens in fog, Markaguny Plateau, Utah

I pass this grove of aspens several times per week on my way to work. I had been keeping an eye on this particular tree for weeks, and on this foggy day I finally pulled the car over to snap a photo.

Colorful Aspens in the Fog, Markagunt Plateau, UT

More aspens in the fog, Markagunt Plateau, Utah