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Through the Grama

Monday, February 25th, 2013

For February at 6500′, it’s a warm day–about 40 degrees–and the sun makes it feel even warmer as we hike across the windswept grassland plateau.  Snow still blankets the north-facing slopes, but the rest of the ground is free of snow, soft, and slightly muddy in places.

Everywhere, almost literally, signs of elk abound; I have never seen so many turds and tracks in one place.  This small plateau must be great winter ground for them.  I haven’t seen (or felt) any invasive Drooping Brome (Cheat Grass) in my socks all day, only native Bouteloua (Grama Grass).  Here on the Colorado Plateau, where some areas have been grazed extensively, that must be one sign of a healthy ecosystem.

Through the Grama we hike, our heavy packs weighing us down more and more, until–finally–the east rim of the Grand Canyon reveals itself to us.

Last weekend, Jackson Frishman invited me to join him on a trip to visit the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers.  Jackson’s proposal was ambitious: nearly 40 miles of hiking in 2.5 days, with no water along the route (we had to carry our own water cache).  He introduced it to me as a hare-brained plan, and honestly that’s all he needed to say to get me on board.

Jackson told me he wanted to visit the confluence because the Grand Canyon Escalade–a proposed tourism development on the western edge of the Navajo Nation, which overlooks the confluence.  If the project passes, it would include a tram from the rim down to the Little Colorado River (read more about Escalade here, here, and here).  For me, it was a good time to familiarize myself with this area, learn a little more about the proposal, as well as to visit the Grand Canyon again; I began my backpacking life there, and the Grand Canyon evokes many special memories for me.

Reflected light in the Colorado River

On Friday night, we discussed the final plans over beers and enchiladas, and it was clear that the stress of planning the trip had turned into excitement for what lied ahead.  We started out on Saturday morning; our packs were weighed down with a couple of extra gallons of water for the return hike.  We dropped the water underneath a couple of stiff piñon boughs to keep it from freezing, as well as to keep it away from the ravens which were surely watching us.  As we got closer to the park service boundary with the Navajo Nation, we found an old hogan, with a missing west wall; the doorway of a Navajo hogan faces east to receive the morning sun and it’s good blessings, and when someone dies in a hogan they are carried out through a hole that has been knocked in the west wall, then the home is abandoned.

After several more miles, we crested a hill and scared a large herd of maybe 200 elk out of a drainage.  They must have known about a water source that we didn’t.  We watched the elk until they disappeared into the horizon and would see them several times over the next couple of days.   The final push to the east rim was tortuous; buttes on the north side of the Colorado River were visible, but they never seemed to get any closer.  However, finally, after what felt like hours we arrived at Cape Solitude.

little colorado river arizona

Solitude indeed.  We had not seen any other human footprints all day, and aside from a windbreak built from rocks, our campsite showed no sign of other humans at all.  In the second-most-visited national park, solitude can be tough to come by.  It’s a special feeling to have a piece of the Grand Canyon all to yourself.

We woke up to a windy but beautiful sunrise the next morning and hiked back to our water cache (thankfully untouched) from the day before.  After rehydrating, I was happy to hike to our second night’s camp, closer to our trailhead, but with another private view of the canyon’s rim.  Horned larks flitting through the sagebrush and elk were our only company.  The next morning Jackson and I returned to our cars, shared a couple of cold beers, and parted ways.

sunrise at the confluence of the colorado and little colorado rivers

We hiked through the Grama–through a healthy ecosystem–to a part of the Grand Canyon only a few people get to see.  Elk tracks went right up to the rim.  I wonder if they admire the view from time to time?  In my twentieth year of visiting the Grand Canyon, I still stand in awe of the vast landscape, and can’t help but wonder if some of that awe would be diminished if I could take a tram all the way to the bottom, or if–consequently–the elk tracks didn’t go all the way to the rim.

sunset on the little colorado river gorge

P.S. You can also read Jackson’s post and see his image of Cape Solitude at his blog here.  His blog is always worth a visit, with fantastic writing and wonderful imagery.

Two new ‘Wind’ images

Monday, June 25th, 2012

In January, I introduced my wind portfolio, a black and white set focusing on shape and form, and celebrating landscapes that have been created (in part) by wind.  I am happy to add two new images to that portfolio.

View from Yavapai Point, Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon, May 2012

The Grand Canyon is a place that has been shaped by the powerful erosional forces of wind and water for millions of years.  Attracting millions of visitors a year, it is truly one of the seven wonders of the world, and has always captivated me.  At sunrise and sunset, the receding hill layers create depth not only in the landscape, but in the imagination, and it is difficult for me not to imagine John Wesley Powell exploring this canyon for the first time, being completely awed.

“The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resources of the graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail.”

–John Wesley Powell

The second image is an intimate landscape from Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.  If you have been in southern Utah in spring, you know the wind can blow, and you have have even felt sandblasted a time or two.  How do you think the sandstone walls feel?  The walls of this alcove have been shaped by grains of sand being blown against it for hundreds, probably even thousands or tens of thousands of years.  Beautiful cross-bedding patterns have been exposed, creating some very powerful lines.

A sandstone alcove

Sandstone Alcove, June 2012

My Wind Portfolio is special in that 25% of the sales of these prints is donated directly to the Wilderness Society and I offer special pricing when you purchase more than one image from the portfolio.  Please click here to view the entire collection.

2011 Favorite Images

Thursday, December 29th, 2011

This time of year always seems to dredge up a lot of nostalgia in me, mostly from the disbelief that the year can’t possibly be over.  It also seems to be the time of year when photographers reflect on their art and the direction its taken over the last twelve months.  For me, its been a very instructive and inspirational year, and I’ve made several images I quite like.

Ansel Adams said, “Twelve significant images in any one year is a good crop.”  I used to think this was ridiculous, but the more I photograph and refine my own style, the more I believe this to be true.  With Adams’ thoughts in mind, I chose what I believe to be my twelve most significant images of the year.  I hope you enjoy them!

Star trails over a hoodoo at the White Pocket

Star trails in northern Arizona, August


Dawn at Bisti Badlands, New Mexico

Dawn, northern New Mexico, July


Joshua Tree National Park Scene

Late-day light, Mojave Desert, California, May


Vishnu Temple, Grand Canyon National Park

Greeting the sun, Grand Canyon National Park, May


Waterholes Slot Canyon, Navajo Nation Arizona

Sandstone Seduction, northern Arizona, January


An intimate scene in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Intimate scene, Utah, July


Saguaro Skeleton, near Phoenix Arizona

Saguaro skeleton and moon, Arizona, January


Narrows of the Paria River, in southern Utah

Into the canyon, Utah, April


Factory Butte near Hanksville Utah

Dawn in the desert, Utah, August


Dried mud in the Paria River, Utah

Dried mud, Utah, April


Ibex Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California

Windstorm, California, December


Eureka Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California

Sensuous curves, California, December

Desert Sentinels

Friday, November 11th, 2011

In the deserts and canyons of the southwest, water can be tough to come by; as a result, charismatic megafauna that rely on that water are often elusive and secretive.  The desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) is a widespread, but uncommon resident of the southwest.

They truly are sentinels of the desert; on any given afternoon in Joshua Tree National Park,  you might see one surveying the landscape from atop a granite boulder.  In southwest Utah, they return to the canyons from the high country when the temperature starts to fall.  In the desert communities around Palm Springs, they illustrate the interaction between man and nature very well; bighorns have taken to eating ornamental cactus and other plants, so large fences have been erected to keep them out (which is ironic, because some people would pay to see a sheep!).

Desert Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) in Joshua Tree
Desert Sentinel
Desert Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni), Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

The interaction between humans and bighorns isn’t a recent thing, though.  In fact, humans have been interacting with them since the southwest was first settled, probably thousands of years ago.  If you take any interest in rock art at all, you’ll quickly find that bighorns were a ubiquitous subject of prehistoric artists.  Indeed, I wonder if the Ancestral Puebloan and Fremont peoples who lived with these animals found them just as captivating as we do today.

Fremont River petroglyphs, capitol reef national park, utah
Badly weather damaged petroglyphs depicting desert bighorn sheep
Wolfe Ranch Petroglyphs, Arches National Park, Utah

In some ways, the desert bighorn sheep embodies the spirit of the west: it is largely solitary, is resilient, and has shown a great ability to adapt to the desert environment.  Its a true steward of the ecosystems it thrives in.  The Desert Bighorn Council is a great resource to learn more about the biology and conservation of desert bighorn sheep (they list links to many local organizations as well).

The Grand

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

I remember my first trip to the Grand Canyon in 1992–it was not only my first backpacking trip ever, but also my first memorable trip to a national park.  We went over spring break, in late March, and it was snowing hard at the South Rim when we arrived.  I remember being cold and wet the night before our hike began, being completely terrified on the icy (and steep) South Kaibab trail the following morning, and sweating as we walked into Phantom Ranch later that afternoon.  The rest of the trip was rainy, often very cold, and wet.

Despite all of that, I had a great time.  A funny thing happens after outdoor experiences like this one: we seem to forget all of the “bad” parts of a trip, remembering the good things.   Do the bad experiences really go away?  Not completely:  We learn from them.  As a novice backpacker, I learned several things about hiking in poor weather; I learned them the hard way, but I survived.

The thing that stuck in my memory more than anything else from that first trip to the Grand Canyon was the magnificence of the place.  The sheer drops, layers of sandstone, and of course the power of the Moenkopi-colored mud flowing in the Colorado River.  I’ve returned to the Grand Canyon more than almost any other national park.  During my first trip it was simply breathtaking; since then it has become breathgiving.

Vishnu's Temple at dawn, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Vishnu's Sun Salutation, May 2011

Since 1992, I’ve backpacked the Grand Canyon once more, and have camped on the rim multiple times.  Each time I say to myself, “Why don’t I visit more often?”  Yes, its packed with people, especially on the holiday weekends when I find time to visit, but there’s a magnificent peacefulness that surrounds it.    There are small pockets, places, you can go and hide, and despite the hordes, its almost as if you have this huge amphitheater to yourself.

Just like so many other geologic wonders on the Colorado Plateau, there really is nothing like the Grand Canyon on earth.  Although I’ve enjoyed it for 19 years, I just now have images of it.  Click the image or here to see the rest.


Photo of the Month–March

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

Despite some of you feeling like you’ve been stuck in a perpetual winter, and others wondering why winter never really seemed to arrive this year, spring is definitely on its way.  Here in southern California–earlier than other parts of the country–spring wildflowers are already beginning, and will be continuing for at least the next month.  However, as I’ve learned, those wildflowers are more complicated than one may think.

Rain is the most important, and most obvious, ingredient to making wildflowers.  However, the pattern in which that rain comes is very important.  For instance, last year, we had a lot of rain during late fall in southern California, but a very dry December and January didn’t leave us any flowers.  It seems that the good years have a significant fall/early winter rain, and a “primer” in the spring.  This year, that’s been the pattern, and there is hope of a great wildflower year.

This month’s image was made just a few days ago in Phoenix, on the tail end of a strong Pacific storm that swept through the area.  I love the way the light played on the distant clouds.  So, with the hope of a beautiful spring wildflower season, I hope you enjoy this month’s image.

Sunset at phoenix mountain preserve near phoenix arizona

Sonoran Sunset II, February 2011

If you are interested in learning more about where to find the bloom in your area of the southwest, there are several great resources available:

  • Desert USA has a hotsheet that’s updated regularly: click here.
  • Ron Niebrugge spends a few weeks each spring in the southwest; he posts occasional wildflower updates on his blog.
  • The Theodore Payne Foundation publishes a weekly wildflower hotline (mostly for areas in southern Arizona).

Living in southern California, I’ll be watching Anza Borrego Desert State Park, and Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks pretty closely over the next few weeks.  However, its noteworthy that Saharan Wild Mustard, an exotic invasive species, is taking over much of what used to be the finest wildflower habitat in the area.  I suspect many of the last strongholds will be taken over by this plant in the next few years.

Sonoran Sunset

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

This past weekend, we traveled to the Phoenix area to visit family.  Sunday night, the tail end of a strong Pacific storm was passing through the area and I hoped the sunset would be good because of several large clouds and storm cells still moving through the area.  I threw my camera bag in the car and drove to Phoenix Mountain Reserve, part of the municipal park system in metro Phoenix.

Once I arrived, I hiked a short distance to a good vantage point, where I could see to the east, and mostly to the west and waited for the light to change.  Because of the speed of the storm, conditions in the sky were changing extremely rapidly–usually not remaining static long enough for me to change lenses!  As I’d hoped, the sunset was a success.

I’ve written before about the importance of finding your own little wild places.  One thing I was grateful for in Phoenix was the ability to escape to an area to shoot beautiful landscape photographs in the middle of a large metropolitan area.  I know some cities are incorporating open space initiatives into their long-term planning; I’m not sure what the status of Phoenix’s goals is, but I am grateful for the spaces that are there!

sunset at phoenix mountain reserve, in metro phoenix arizona

Sonoran Sunset, February 2011

The Sandman’s Castle

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

Often, the best traveling companions have a lot to teach you.  My friend Brent is one of those guys.  I can’t remember a trip with him where there wasn’t some sort of field guide pulled out for most of the drive, and I was busy learning about the natural history or some other facet of the land.  On one road trip to Utah, we had the “Roadside Geology of Utah” out for 90% of the drive.  Although I got tired of the updates at every mile marker, I have to admit that I missed Utah (and the updates) when we crossed the state line into Arizona.  I definitely learned some geology on that trip, and I have a greater appreciation of it now.

Geology, as a science, studies the forces responsible for shaping and changing the earth.  Sometimes those shapes and changes can simply be otherworldly.  On my recent visit to the Vermillion Cliffs-Paria River Wilderness in northern Arizona, I was able to witness the magnificent results of some of these forces firsthand.

On a hike early one morning, we found ourselves on a small sandstone plateau.  The sandstone was beautifully colored, but what really grabbed my attention were the bizarre rock formations.  They reminded me of some petrified prehistoric gargoyle or ruins of an ancient civilization.

Sandstone formation in the coyote buttes north, arizona

Gargoyle, January 2011

What’s happening in this image (and the one below) is called boxwork.  The idea is that the sandstone was fractured at some point, and then some sort of fluid intruded and precipitated out, but it was more completely lithified so the surrounding rock eroded before the boxwork.  I’m not entirely sure what intruded (calcite?), but it does make for very cool formations.  I hope you enjoy the images.

Sandstone boxwork in the coyote buttes north of northern Arizona

Broken Cathedral, January 2011

Photo of the Month–March

Monday, March 1st, 2010

March’s Photo of the Month comes from Lost Dutchman State Park near Phoenix, Arizona.  I visited the park in January while my wife was helping her sister plan for the upcoming arrival of our niece.  In addition to the proximity to the greater Phoenix area and huge selection of hiking trails, the main draw of Lost Dutchman has got to be the rugged and beautiful Superstition Mountains rising out of the desert floor abruptly and confidently.

This month’s photograph shows the western flank of the Superstitions bathed in warm late afternoon light.  I chose to use this cholla skeleton as a FG element because it seemed to be pointing me to a fantastic composition!

Superstition Mountains in Lost Dutchman State Park

Western Flank of the Superstitions, January 2010

If you clicked on the link to Lost Dutchman State Park above, you couldn’t miss the red box informing us that the park will be closing indefinitely on June 3, 2010.  Apparently, that part of Arizona’s budget has lost a significant amount of money during restructuring, causing the closure.  I think the restriction of access to any open space is a great loss to us as a community.  It prevents us from enjoying our parks, but more importantly it robs us of a chance to connect with the land, and wild places.  I hope the Arizona government finds a way to keep their state parks open, or at the very least, to reopen them as soon as possible.

You can see all of my photos from the Superstition Mountains here.

More from the Superstitions

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

Sometimes the best-laid plans just don’t come to fruition.  On our recent visit to Phoenix, I planned to get up very early (i.e. ~4am) drive to the Peralta Canyon trailhead and hike ~3 miles to the Weaver’s Needle Overlook to watch the sun come up, and to get that really sweet crepuscular light that happens in the desert.  Easy enough, right?  I ended up having a couple of roadblocks on my journey to ‘the Supes’.

  • Roadblock #1.  Two days before I intended to hike, I came down with the worst head cold I’ve had in several years.  I’ll spare you the mucus-y details, but use of my nostrils was completely nonexistent, and my head felt like it was completely detached from my body.  As a result, a 4am departure time didn’t seem feasible.  I settled on getting up at 4:50am, figuring that if everything went smoothly, I’d still make it up to the overlook by 7:15am sunrise.
  • Roadblock #2.  Of course everything didn’t go smoothly.  I really like Phoenix–its a great town, and its super easy to navigate as the streets are laid out in a logical grid pattern.  That said, there are exceptions, and a poorly marked detour can throw an out-of-towner like me out of whack.  Driving from my sister-in-law’s house, I wanted to connect from I-10 to US Hwy 60 to drive to the Superstitions.  The connector ramp was closed, and the flashing sign said to take I-10 to McClintock instead.  OK.  After driving nearly 15 miles south (I wanted to go east), I finally stopped and asked for directions.  I got on my way then.  OK, well, that cost me about 15 minutes.  But if I really hoof it, I can make it, right?
  • Roadblock #3.  I finally made it to the Peralta Road east of Apache Junction, and as I began driving the 7 miles toward the trailhead I was met by school buses.  Lots of them.  School buses…on a Forest Service road on a Sunday.  What doesn’t compute here?  After I met the school buses, I was met by runners.  Lots of them.  It turns out it was the annual running of the Lost Dutchman Marathon, and I was driving up their course!  After slowly navigating several hundred finish-line-bound runners, I finally made it to the trailhead about 6:50am–25 minutes before sunrise.

I like to say that I’m a pretty fast hiker, but I’m not that fast.  I didn’t make it to my destination by sunrise, but the hike was nice, and in hindsight the chain of events I encountered getting to the trailhead were almost comical.  I even ended up with a nice photo or two out of the deal.  It was definitely a good lesson not to take things so seriously.  Things won’t always come together as you planned, but if you fail to see the forest for the few negative trees, you’ll miss out on some great experiences.

Weaver's Needle from Weaver's Outlook Ridge, February 2010

Weaver's Needle from Weaver's Outlook Ridge, February 2010