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!

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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