Nature, Landscape, and Night Sky Photography by Zach Schierl

Waterfalls

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!


An Ode to Waterfalls, or “Why I’m Never Moving to Delaware”

Nooksack Falls, Whatcom County, WA

Nooksack Falls, Whatcom County, Washington

Composite of three images, 18mm, 4 sec, ISO 200, f/20, two-stop neutral density filter

The last week and a half has been rather pleasant here in the northwest. Most noticeably, the Sun has been out. The trees are finishing the process of filling out their summer foliage. Snowpack in the Cascades is melting rapidly. So in other words, hillsides that are normally green have gotten a little brighter-green. Rivers that are normally filled with water now have more water. People that are normally pasty white are now a little less pasty white. And finally, waterfalls that are normally impressive have gotten more impressive, as is evident by the above photo which I took at Nooksack Falls, about an hour’s drive east of Bellingham, last weekend.  I’ve realized recently that I’m sort of a sucker for waterfalls. I won’t go into all the reasons but I tend to be a sucker for most things that are ruthlessly effective at converting potential energy into kinetic energy. It turns me on. If I’m driving and see a sign for a waterfall, I’m probably stopping, even if accessing it requires a 15-mile round-trip hike and my passenger has to be at the airport in an hour. You just have to admire water’s blatant disregard for personal safety as it routinely plunges tens, hundreds, or even thousands of feet before slamming into some poor boulder at its base that has sat absorbing a ruthless pounding for what must, at least to the boulder, seem like an eternity.

I love photographing waterfalls almost as much as I like the falls themselves. The day I discovered that, by simply stopping down the lens on my camera far enough, I could render almost any flowing mass of water smooth, silky, translucent, and white was probably one of the most crucial days in fueling my severe photography addiction. Waterfalls were my gateway drug you might say. I’ve accepted this addition and am no longer in denial but thankfully I don’t see a recovery in my immediate future, although my wallet may beg to differ.

Grand Falls in Northern Arizona

Grand Falls, Little Colorado River, Arizona

I love waterfalls in part because they exhibit so much diversity and character. Waterfalls in Arizona might only run a few days out of the year, their water looking more like molten chocolate straight out of Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory when they do, the result of enormous quantities of suspended silt, sand, and debris pried loose from stream channels that may go many months without tasting a drop of water.  Waterfalls in Washington are, for the most part, year-round affairs, impressive primarily in their persistence. (Except for on Mt. St. Helens where volcanic heat accelerates snowmelt leaving most streams, and backpackers who depend on them, high and dry. Ask me about that one sometime…). Even in the fall, the waterfalls seem to run as if they are tapping into some mysterious underground source of water (hint: they are) that keeps them replenished even after the rainy season has passed. The mighty waterfalls of  Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada are the bullies of the waterfall world, tall, stocky, aggressive, and so powerful in their flow that they dare you to approach them without eight layers of waterproof clothing, a rowboat, and a bilge pump. They hit you in the face (literally), knock you down, and leave you lying bloodied on the cold granite, that is until summer when they shrivel to merely a trickle or disappear altogether.

Geologically speaking (hopefully I didn’t lose anyone there…), waterfalls are generally indicative of youth. This is because any waterfall worth its salt and pepper will eventually destroy itself; the constant force of the water flowing over the abrupt edge will eat away at the rock forming the brink of the falls, no matter how resistant it might be, moving it farther and farther back until eventually only a flat reach of stream remains. Locations where geologic conditions are causing, or have recently caused uplift of the land are more conducive to waterfall generation. In fact, the states of North Dakota and Delaware, both in relatively quiescent portions of the continent, are the ONLY two states in the U.S. that lack a single USGS mapped waterfall. Now let’s remember that a lot of waterfalls don’t show up on official USGS quads, and naturally both North Dakota and Delaware CLAIM to have waterfalls, so as to not lose out on the lucrative waterfall tourism market. However I have to say that while North Dakota appears to have a solid case, Delaware’s evidence is unconvincing. It’s really sort of embarrassing if you think about it. Heck, even Florida has a few pretty nice looking waterfalls and we all know that Florida is about as flat as a pan-fried fritter.

I’ve posted lots of waterfall pictures on this site in the past (like here, here, here, here, and here) but last week’s outing inspired me to reach back into my archives and pull out some of my favorite unpublished waterfall photos from the past few years:

 Havasu Falls in the Grand Canyon

Havasu Falls, Grand Canyon, Arizona

Upper Calf Creek Falls and pool in Utah

Upper Calf Creek Falls, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

Stirling Falls in New Zealand with tour boat for scale

Stirling Falls (tour boat for scale), Milford Sound, New Zealand


The Spectacular San Juans: A Trip to Yankee Boy Basin

Taking in the scenery

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

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

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

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

Trail headed up to Wright’s Lake

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

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

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

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

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

Yankee Boy Basin


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

Big Sur coast looking south from Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

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

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

Partington Cove, Big Sur

McWay Falls, Big Sur

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

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

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

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

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

Big Sur

Sedona

Color of rocks

Everything but red

Red

Vegetation

Coast Redwoods, Monterey Pine, Laurel, Oak

Pinyon pine, juniper, sagebrush, manzanita, cacti

Ocean

Yes

Yes, 300 million years ago

Annual precipitation

42 inches

19 inches

Commonly observed fauna

Seals, otters, whales, evil seagulls

Squirrels, javelina, rattlesnakes

Elevation

Duh…it’s the sea

4,300 feet

Geologic features

Sea cliffs, sea arches, mountains, waterfalls

Buttes, mesas, canyons, plateaus

Extremely pricy resorts and hotels

Yes

Yes

Highway frequented by excruciatingly slow RV’s

Yes

Yes

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

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

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

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


A Glacier, a Waterfall, and a Kayak walk into a bar…the Story of Palouse Falls

Growing up in northern Arizona, spring was always an exciting time to finally pack away the snow shovels and de-icer and get outside. If you want to see enough running water in the desert southwest to actually get your feet wet, spring snowmelt season and summer afternoon thunderstorms are pretty much your only hope.

Spring in the Pacific Northwest is similar…except that instead of going from no water to a little water, we go from a decent amount of water to A LOT of water. Nowhere is spring runoff more apparent than 187 foot high Palouse Falls, which is about 1-2 hours (depending on your driving speed) north of Walla Walla, on the Palouse River just upstream of its confluence with the Snake River.

Palouse Falls in May (left) and September (right).

Normal people think lots of different things when they see Palouse Falls, among them “How do I get down there?”, “Wow, that’s pretty!”, “Where’s the snack shop?”, and “I really need to go to the bathroom after driving down that really bumpy, windy road”. All perfectly legitimate. Other people however see a kayak jump.

Palouse Falls garnered some attention in recent years when it became the site of the worlds largest kayak waterfall descent. In case that didn’t sink in, let me reiterate: someone paddled over that thing in a KAYAK.

As someone who has expertly piloted a kayak over 6″ riffles on the Palouse River below the falls, I can tell you that this is an impressive feat. Palouse Falls is nearly 200 feet; ants may be capable of surviving a fall off the kitchen counter but we aren’t designed to do such things. Just look at this picture.

If that was me, the discharge of the falls would be spiking dramatically right then due to the amount of bodily fluids I would have been emitting our of sheer terror.

The falls were formed by an phenomenon that comes in at #1 on our list of “Geological Terms That Make You Sound Like An Idiot If You Pronounce Them Correctly”: a jökulhlaup. If you are Icelandic, you’ll need no pronunciation guide. For the rest of you, that’s “yo-cooool-HOIP”. Once again, that’s “yo” as in the famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma, “coooool” as in “coooool Razor scooter man!”, and “HOIP” as in “House of International Pancakes.”

Now that we’ve got that squared away, lets set the scene: imagine you are an ice sheet, specifically the vast Cordilleran Ice sheet that covered the northern half of the North American continent during the last ice age. The climate is starting to warm; the mammoths are starting to die and those pesky humans are starting to increase in number. As the temperatures slowly increase, you start to feel a little sweaty and you begin to melt and retreat northwards to more suitable weather.  All that glacial meltwater is getting funneled into river canyons that were cut tens of thousands of years earlier and are just now being uncovered by the retreating ice sheets. Even as a retreating ice sheet though, you will likely have a few appendages (called lobes) that reach several hundred kilometers south of the main ice front. These lobes block some of the river channels, forming a barrier that impedes the river’s progress. Massive quantities of water back up behind the ice dam, creating lakes larger than several of the Great Lakes. Remember though, you are a big piece of ice, and what does ice do in water? It floats. Once the lake becomes large enough, your appendages are no longer strong enough to maintain contact with the bottom of the canyon. The entire ice dam begins to rise slightly in the water, opening a seam at the base of the dam through which water begins to rush, eating away at the dam from underneath.  Eventually, undermined by the water, the entire ice dam catastrophically collapses, draining the entire lake in a matter of hours and sending thousands of square kilometers of water rushing across the landscape. That’s a jökulhlaup. After the ice dam is blasted away, you, the glacier, slowly flow back down into the canyon over the next few years, creating a new dam and lake and starting the process all over again.

Palouse Falls cascades over basalt flows from the Columbia River Basalt Group

Rock formations near the brink of the falls

Anthropomorphized geologic features notwithstanding, this actually happened…at least 40 separate times at the end of the last ice age, from about 15,000 to 13,000 years ago. The river was the Clark Fork of the Columbia River, the ice dam was located near Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho, and the lake was glacial Lake Missoula, which stretched from northern Idaho almost all the way to Yellowstone National Park. The ice dam collapsed every few hundred years, sending a Lake Erie’s worth of water rushing down the Columbia River, across what is now Eastern Washington, all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Look at what happens to your yard after a big storm and you know it doesn’t take that much water to carry out some significant erosion. Palouse Falls is located in one of thousands of scour marks, known as “coulees,” that were gouged out of the basalt bedrock of Eastern Washington by the force of these floods.

The Palouse River just upstream of the falls


Fleeting waterfalls

While Zion National Park may not normally be known for its waterfalls, spring snow runoff and the occasional summer monsoon thunderstorm can turn the park and its stunning red and white sandstone cliffs into a veritable Yosemite of incredible waterfall action.

I made a brief stop in Zion as part of a 1200 mile drive from Washington to Arizona for the holidays.  I had visited Zion in the past during the spring when runoff from the high country surrounding the canyon was at its peak but despite the fact that the entire western United States had been getting hammered by a massive cold front for the past 2 days, I never expected to see the number of waterfalls that I did.  Not only were they more numerous then ever before, even the relatively reliable ephemeral waterfalls, such as the one near the parking area at Temple of Sinwava, flowed with significantly greater gusto that I had ever seen before.

Waterfall at Temple of Sinawava

Dry Waterfall at Temple of Sinawava

For an interesting comparison, here’s a shot taken from almost exactly the same spot (notice the bare tree on the left is the same as the tree on the right in the previous photo) in the summer of 2009.

Perhaps the most spectacular waterfalls were those found in the small alcove that is home to Weeping Rock.  A short but wet hike up the Hidden Canyon Trail provided a vantage point of these falls.  Getting decent photographs was a challenge.  With heavy rain, wind, and nearly 100% humidity, it was next to impossible to keep rain off the camera and keep my lenses from fogging up.

Waterfalls near Weeping Rock

Runoff along the Hidden Canyon Trail

Hazy view out into Zion Canyon from Weeping Rock

The day after these photos were taken, the entire Park was shut down and evacuated due to severe flash flooding, road washouts, and the threat of a dam failure upstream on the Virgin River.