Terra Galleria Photography

Gateway Arch National Park: First Impressions

On February 22, 2018, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial became Gateway Arch National Park, our 60th national park. Believing that the national park designation carries a special meaning, I greeted the news with perplexity. However, I traveled to St Louis, Missouri, that same week to try and extend my record of being the first to visit and photograph all the national parks. This post presents what I found at this most unusual national park.

On Feb 28, a light drizzle greeted me in St Louis, but the rain soon stopped. After a long day of travel, instead of looking for dinner, I donned all the layers of clothing I had brought with me and walked to the Arch. The low clouds that were swirling around it enhanced its power. At first, they obscured the top, but lifted through the evening to reveal the entire structure. Entranced by the Arch, I stayed until rangers chased me away past 11 pm, the official closing time of the Arch’s grounds. I photographed the Arch for four consecutive days, but images from this evening remain my favorites.

Family obligations and a speaking engagement had kept me in San Jose for a few days. Upon arrival in St Louis, I checked in at the City Place St. Louis – Downtown Hotel. It is a particularly convenient base for visiting Gateway Arch National Park because of the location two blocks away from the Arch and the Old Courthouse. The helpful and friendly staff exchanged my room for one for one with a view of the Arch (below) at no additional charge. Hotels guests can park with in-and-out privileges for $20/day at the adjacent Mansion House Garage, which is cavernous, but quite labyrinthine. However, if you are traveling lighter than I did – I packed my the 5×7 large format film camera kit and a full digital kit – you could easily do without a car since St Louis has an excellent transit system, including a light rail system that extends to the airport.

Expecting just another monument, I was awed by the Arch. The combination of size and purity of form was nothing like I’d seen before. One number sums the size: at 630 feet (192 m) high and wide, it is the world’s tallest arch and the tallest man-made monument in the entire Western Hemisphere. However, that’s one thing to know about the size of the Arch, only by standing at its base you realize how large it is.

Besides the size, the Arch exhibits a particularly pure kind of beauty. It was designed as an inverted catenary curve; a shape such as would be formed by a heavy chain hanging freely between two supports, and its section is an equilateral triangle 54 ft (16.46m) at the base, but only a slender 17 ft. (5.18m) at the top. With a stainless-steel skin, it reflects the light and the sky.

Maybe because its beauty draws from mathematics and the way it changes so much with light, as a former scientist turned photographer I found it particularly moving. I’ve visited the other iconic monuments in America, which are surprisingly few: the Statue of Liberty, Mt. Rushmore, the Washington Monument, and to me, the transcendent power of the Arch easily surpasses them all, like a modern version of the Pyramids.

The Arch is more than a shiny monument. Besides its size and beauty, it is a technological and engineering marvel. It used more stainless steel than any other one project in history. Looking at the slender curved pillars, it is hard to imagine that you can take a ride to the top. However, they are hollow and hide a remarkable transportation system, an ingenious combination of Ferris wheel, escalator, and tram, which each year takes a million visitors on the trip to the top. It is quite a squeeze, as you ride aboard something that could be described as a tiny spaceship pod.

Windows on the observation platform are tiny because they have to withstand an intense pressure, but their 45-degree angle let you look straight down vertically and also to the horizon. The view of St Louis was spectacular, and a ranger pointed me to a landmark 30 miles away. On a mid-week winter visit, there were no waiting lines to purchase the $13 ticket for the ride, and although you can stay as long as you want at the top, in between the arrivals of the trams, the observation platform was uncrowded. However, on a Saturday several dozens lined up, and I guess summer would be worse.

Jefferson National Expansion Memorial was established in 1935, to commemorate Thomas Jefferson (Presidents Washington and Lincoln were already memorialized on the National Mall), his Louisiana Purchase, and the resulting westward expansion of the U.S. The park is located along the Mississippi River, on founding site of St Louis, where the Louisiana purchase was completed in 1804, and near the starting point of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. In 1947 a competition took place to select designs for a monument. Although it was his first major project, the Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen won the competition, but he would not live to see the completion of the structure. Historically, the Arch is a masterpiece of modern architecture and marks one of the first uses of structural engineering, in collaboration with Hannskarl Bandel, to study the feasibility of a structure.

There is more to the park than the Arch. The grounds were designed by influential landscape architect Dan Kiley to complement and reflect the Arch. It could be said that they reflect each other, and cannot be separated, as together they represent a cohesive artistic endeavor, one of the most significant contemporary man-made landscapes in the country. The landscape around the Arch reflects the curves of the structure in many elements. It was interesting to identify them in the curved walkways, stairways, and even the shape of the railroad tunnel entrances, and the curvature of the overlook walls.

The design of the park created an axial relationship between the Arch and the Old Courthouse. The Arch is the tallest structure in Missouri, as the Old Courthouse had been once. While the Arch is an exemplar of mid-20th-century architecture, the Old Courthouse is an exemplar of mid-19th-century architecture. The dialog between those two structures adds depth to the park.

The Old Courthouse dome is in the Italian-Renaissance style similar to that of the National Capitol. Both were under construction at the same time, but the Old Courthouse was completed before, therefore becoming an inspiration for many civic buildings in America. Although the exterior is classic and stately, the interior is elaborately decored. Each floor features its own style, and they become more ornery as you go up.

In addition, the Old Courthouse is historically significant, as the place where the Dred Scott case began. One of the most important cases in American history started there in 1846, when the slave family of Dred and Harriet Scott successfully sued for their freedom. Several appeals resulted in a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1857 which reverted the St Louis court’s and precipitated the Civil War.

The room where the case took place no longer exists, but inside the building, most of which is open to the public, you can see two circuit courts restored to their historic appearances. When I visited, the Old Courthouse also served as a visitor center and museum for the park, as the main visitor center and museum located underground beneath the arch is being rebuilt, part of an extensive renovation of the site that will be completed this summer.

All of this makes the Arch and its grounds one of the standout places in America. However, it also stands apart from the other national parks. Was it a good idea to designate it as our 60th national park?

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Two Peaks in San Gabriel Mountains National Monument

San Gabriel Mountains National Monument is recent, been having designated by President Obama in October 2014. This, combined with its relatively large size (‎346,177 acres or 541 square miles), has made it a target for the Trump administration’s “review” of national monuments. However, the San Gabriel Mountains are long-established recreation grounds for the second largest metropolitan area in the United States. Compared to even Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, the longest-established (October 2000) of the national monuments described in this series, San Gabriel Mountains National Monument is very developed, with ubiquitous roadside pullouts, picnic areas, trailheads, campgrounds, and even a ski area.

(click on map for larger version)

Mount Baldy (aka Mount San Antonio)

Highway 2, the main artery into the monument, is a spectacular drive that lives up to its name Angeles Crest Highway, offering views both towards the desert to the north and towards Los Angeles to the south. It has many curves, so driving its entire length takes more time than one would expect at first. My favorite section of the highway was the area west of the ski resorts on the flanks of Mount Baldy, and in particular near the Pacific Crest Trail. That section can be closed by snow in winter, and Google Maps indicated a road closure, throwing a wrench in my plans. However, that information turned out to be incorrect, so always better to check with a local source!

In that section, you can find views of Mount Baldy, the highest peak in the range, rising above 10,000 feet. Although I generally try to avoid image compositing, I had to use focus stacking for this image, merging digitally three images each focused at a different depth in order to render the foreground and background equally sharp. I chose a focal length of 60 mm since a wider lens would have rendered Mount Baldy too small. Longer lenses have less depth of field than shorter lenses. With the foreground just a few feet away, I wouldn’t have been able to render sharply both the desert plants and the mountain even by stopping down to f/22.

Prior to making the previous photograph from the edge of a parking area, I had to clean out the foreground extensively, since it was marred by beer cans and all sorts of trash. I also chose a lower camera placement so that the shrubs on the right would hide a trail, which is still partially visible. The downside of the development is that for a landscape photographer, it is difficult to exclude man-made features such as roads or power lines from compositions. I framed those ridges with a telephoto lens (140 mm) not only to compress the receding ridges but also because with a wider field of view, a man-made feature would have intruded.

Mount Wilson

Mount Wilson has a relatively modest altitude of 5715 feet but is famous because located near its summit, Mount Wilson Observatory is a place where Edwin Hubble and Albert Einstein conducted research. The 100-inch (2.5 m) Hooker telescope was the world’s largest telescope from 1917, when it was constructed, to 1949. The observatory opens at 10 am, but by using a drone at sunrise, I was able to capture the position of the observatory above the Los Angeles basin, something which wouldn’t have been possible from the ground.

The summit of Mount Wilson is occupied by a large antenna farm. The road, located at the base of the antennas, is too close to them for a good perspective, a problem that was again solved by drone photography.

Since the mountains are at the edge of the Los Angeles Basin, the city is visible in many of the views looking towards the south, if only in a distant way. On the other hand, Mount Wilson is directly overlooking the city. A road circles the summit. It is open twenty four hours a day, and I found the most spectacular time to be at night, when the lights of the city shine brightly. To connect the city and the mountains, I used a lantern to illuminate the plants in the foreground, and its brightness control was very useful for matching the lights of the city.

Beyond the two peaks

In this post, I’ve just highlighted two contrasting peaks. However, the natural habitats in the San Gabriel Mountains extend from the Mediterranean ecosystem found in only 3 percent of the world to conifer forests.

Despite their proximity to the city, the San Gabriels are vast, tall, and rugged mountains with dramatic topography. They are the backyard of 13 million, some of which outdoors people who have spent their whole lives exploring there. The 10,000 feet elevation of Mt Baldy is all the more significant because the peak rises almost from sea level in the Los Angeles Basin, and the same is even more true of San Jacinto Peak and San Gorgonio. They are big mountains close to large urban areas.

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Part 5 of 5. 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Palms to Snow in Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument

Instead of its utilitarian name, Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument could also be have been called Sand to Snow National Monument because it spans a similar range of elevations, from the desert floor to the top of San Jacinto Peak, which culminates at 10,834 feet. Although San Jacinto Peak is lower than San Gorgonio, it is even more prominent (only 5 mountains in the continental U.S. exceed its topographic prominence) and dominates the landscape of Coachella Valley. Its steep north face rises abruptly 10,000 feet in 7 miles, one of the largest gains in elevation over such a small distance in the continental U.S. Not only the high-elevation areas of Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument are more visible than those of Sand to Snow National Monument, they are also more accessible as well, as they can be reached without hiking. The lower elevation areas comprise canyons enlivened by year-round streams that create rich oases.

Highway 74 and the Santa Rosa Mountains

The portion of Highway 74 crossing the Santa Rosa Mountains is appropriately called the Palms to Pines scenic highway since it takes you from clusters of desert palms up to conifer forests in less than ten miles of switchbacks. The national monument visitor center lies 3.5 miles from the start of the highway in Palm Desert and is the trailhead for the 2.7-mile Randall Henderson Loop Trail that gives a good glimpse of the low elevation desert environment. About mid-way, the Coachella Valley Vista Point offers a great view of the valley and mountains.

My favorite stop along the highway was the Cahuilla Tewanet Vista Point, located about 10 miles from the visitor center. A short trail leads you into the Santa Rosa Wilderness, above the aptly named Deep Canyon. A dense and varied collection of desert plants provide foregrounds to expansive views. During my early morning visit in January, the temperatures were near freezing, and the weather changed from sunny to hail by the minutes, making for an exciting outing in spite of its short length.

The night before, I stayed at the Pinyon Flat campground, which was cold and very quiet. When my alarm clock went off, I heard the sound of rain (or was it hail?) falling on the car’s roof, as it had been intermittently through the night. That is a sweet sound because it means that you can stay in bed! However, it did not last long, and upon opening an eye, I saw some bright spots in the sky. I hurried out and managed to find a spot near Highway 84 with cacti and open views of the Santa Rosa Mountains, just in time to catch the sunrise colors in the clouds.

On the south side of Highway 84, at a sign reading “Santa Rosa Mountain, Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument” the steep, rough and unpaved Santa Rosa Truck Trail, (which becomes Forest route 7S02) ascends amongst conifer forests into the Santa Rosa Mountains, leading to campgrounds and snow-capped peaks.

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and the San Jacinto Mountains

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway takes you in about twelve minutes from the upper reaches of the Coachella Valley at 2,643 feet to the Mountain Station at 8,516 feet above sea level. On the way, you pass five biomes, ending at an alpine forest.

The ride is made even more spectacular by the abrupt rise which occurs over only two and one-half miles, and the rotating design of the tram cars. The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is one of only three aerial trams in the world and the largest. The tram car floor rotates constantly, making two complete revolutions throughout the duration of the journey so that you have the chance to see in all directions without moving in the car, which is too packed for that. My kids, who would never have hiked up the mountain, loved the ride. From the Mountain Station, San Jacinto Peak is still a long way, but there are nearby nature trails to explore.

Tahquitz and Indian Canyons

A number of canyons lie at the base of San Jacinto Peak, in the Coachella Valley, a short distance from downtown Palm Springs. They are the ancestral home of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, and are nowadays part of the Cahuilla Indian reservation. They are under the care of staff wearing uniforms identifying them as “Tribal rangers”.

Tahquiz Canyon is known for its 60-foot waterfall, which you can see by hiking a two-mile loop with 350 feet elevation gain. The stream that creates the waterfall had a decent flow. It supports deciduous trees, and although it was January, I was pleased to notice some residual foliage color from the last autumn.

Indian Canyons is a larger tribal area than Tahquiz Canyon with trails up to 4 miles roundtrip and several flowing streams. It features three separate canyons, which together form the largest system of native fan palm oases in the country. Both are day-use areas only with entrance fees charged, and closing times are strictly enforced.

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Part 4 of 5. 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Nature Preserves at the Edge of Wilderness in Sand To Snow National Monument

Sand to Snow National Monument owes its name to the striking elevation difference between the Sonoran Desert floor (about 1,000 feet) and 11,500-foot San Gorgonio Mountain, Southern California’s highest peak. That gradient makes Sand to Snow possibly the most botanically diverse national monument in America. Unlike Mojave Trails and Castle Mountains, no roads penetrate its 240 square miles (154,000 acres) interior. The highest parts of Sand to Snow National Monument are designated wilderness, and reached via trailheads on the north and west along Hwy 38. However, the lower parts of Sand to Snow National Monument on the east are quite accessible thanks to a trio of developed nature preserves on its outskirts, which do not charge fees and serve as entry points into the national monument.

(click on map for larger version)

Whitewater Canyon Preserve

The main feature of the 4.3 square miles (2,800-acre) Whitewater Canyon Preserve is the Whitewater River, a rare desert stream that flows year-round, although when I visited it was a trickle. Naturally, this stream has created a rich riparian habitat, but there are also plenty of opportunities to hike onto higher ground, as the Pacific Crest Trail is less than a mile from the ranger station. The Whitewater Canyon Preserve is managed by the Wildlands Conservancy. They cleaned up the area and transformed an historic trout farm into visitor facilities, including a ranger station that is an excellent place to get information about the national monument. The preserve is at the end of a paved road, and its gates are open to cars from daily 8am to 5pm (except on some holidays), but after-hours hiking is possible, and there is a nice and quiet campground where you can stay for free with a permit obtained at the ranger station or by phone.

Mission Creek Preserve

The nearby 7.3 square miles (4,700-acre) Mission Creek Preserve, which is also managed by the Wildlands Conservancy, offers a clear view of Southern California’s two highest peaks, San Gorgonio and San Jacinto. Reached by a well-graded dirt road, Mission Creek Preserve is less developed than the Whitewater Canyon Preserve. Without prior arrangements, I had to park on the large lot outside the locked gate and hike in. If you obtain the key, you can drive 1.5 miles to the Mission Creek Stone House, where you’ll find a free campground which is small but has flush toilets and a shelter.

Big Morongo Canyon Preserve

The 48 square miles (31,000-acre) Big Morongo Canyon Preserve is located on the outskirts of the town of Morongo Valley, less than a mile from Hwy 62, and was protected as a wildlife reserve in 1982, making it the most popular and accessible area in the monument. With the exception of the 4-mile Canyon Trail, all the trails are short and include boardwalks over wetlands. Since this is the desert, I was surprised by the lushness of the area, even with mid-winter’s absence of greenery. It was one of the largest cottonwoods and willow habitats I’d seen in California, and a few palm trees grow there too. Big Morongo Canyon Preserve is managed by the BLM and is a day use area open daily from 7:30am to sunset. A host was present at the trailhead, and there is a nature center where I learned that the preserve’s oasis is considered a major birding area in California by the Audubon Society.


The Wildlands Conservancy manages the 40 square miles (25,500-acre) Pionneertown Mountains Preserve, the largest of their desert properties. A short unpaved road leads to a ranger station. Including riparian areas, volcanic mesas, and mountains, it is most diverse, but a huge fire in 2016 killed most of the preserve’s vegetation. The Pioneertown Mountains Preserve is not included in Sand to Snow National Monument. However, there is a 10 square miles (6,400-acre) detached unit of the monument called the Black Lava Butte addition that lies east of the Pioneertown Mountains Preserve. It protects two broad, volcanic mesas, Black Lava Butte to the west and Flat Top to the east, which I have found to be quite barren.

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Part 3 of 5. 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Undeveloped in California: Castle Mountains National Monument

If I was to sum up my impressions of Castle Mountains National Monument in one word, it would be “primitive”. See what I managed to discover and photograph in one day of exploring this beautiful desert area that manages to make the Mojave National Preserve appear civilized, without the benefit of any detailed information nor any facilities.

Castle Mountains National Monument is part of a trio of national monuments in the California desert proclaimed by President Obama in February 2016, and at 32.69 square miles is quite small compared to the two others. While Mojave Trails National Monument surrounds Mojave National Preserve on three sides, Castle Mountains is surrounded by Mojave National Preserve on three sides. Unlike most of the recently created national monuments, Castle Mountains is managed by the National Park Service. Areas managed by the National Park Service in general, and national parks in particular, tend to be more developed than those managed by other government agencies such as the BLM. Therefore, I was surprised by the barebones nature of the national park website for Castle Mountains: no detailed map, nor any information on the park or activities – an harbinger of the situation on the ground. The most useful map of Castle Mountains is actually the NPS map of Mojave National Preserve, and since there is no ranger station nor visitor center in Castle Mountains, if you want to ask for conditions, the best number to call would be the Mojave Hole-in-thewall Visitor Center (760 252-6104 or 760 928-2572) or maybe the main Mojave visitor center in Barstow a call (760-252-6100).

The website did mention that the main approach to the monument is from Walking Box Ranch Road (unpaved) off of Nevada State Rd 164 or Nipton Road, and recommended a high clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle. Driving out of Searchlight in the dark, I looked in vain for a sign pointing to the national monument. Google Maps suggested a route via Walking Box Ranch Road, so in spite of the NPS warnings not to rely on GPS for navigation, I assumed the electronic directions to be correct. After a about ten miles of well-graded dirt road, I was pleased to spot a sign with the familiar brown color that said “Entering Castle Mountains National Monument”.

I was planning to stop at the first parking lot or trailhead ahead and sleep in the car – there are no campgrounds nor bathrooms in the monument. However, none appeared, and after driving for a while, I realized I’d gone too far from the Castle Peaks that I had initially planned to photograph at sunrise since they are east-facing. Despite the apparent isolation, I didn’t want just to park on the side of the road, since it had become quite narrow with not even a proper shoulder. It took me a while to locate a side road where I could pull out. This turned out a good idea because late at night, eighteen-wheeler trucks would barge by. When Castle Mountains National Monument was designated, its boundaries were drawn around a gold mine which is still active, and the industrial vehicles would be the only traffic I would see during my stay. I guess they are the reason the main road in such a good shape, and passable by most vehicles. Instead of driving back towards the Castle Peaks in the dark, I photographed the first light reaching mountains located in the Mojave National Preserve.

Besides the mountains, I found in the monument grasslands said to be particularly diverse, one of densest collection of Joshua Trees of the Mojave, superior to that found in Joshua Tree National Park, and generally a great array of desert vegetation ranging from all sort of cacti to juniper and pinyon pines.

Forming sharp pinnacles carved by erosion out of volcanic rocks, the Castle Peaks, which can be seen from as far as I-15 near the CA-NV state line, are the most striking mountains around. However, they are located in the Mojave National Preserve, not in the monument, and are often confused with the Castle Mountains. From the road, the Castle Peaks face east and make for a great sunrise shot, while the Castle Mountains face west.

The namesake Castle Mountains culminate at about 5,500 feet. I soon zeroed on their most distinctive summit, Hart Peak. Besides at the entrance, I didn’t find any trail, trailhead, pull-out, or a single sign in the entire monument, but I spotted quite a few side roads leading towards the direction of the peak. I tried driving one, but it quickly became very rough. Not confident that my Subaru Forester had enough clearance, I made what felt like a 10-point U-turn on the narrow road, parked near the main road and continued by foot. Overgrown jeep roads and a bit of cross country hiking lead in 1.5 miles (one-way) with 500 feet elevation gain to a saddle south of Hart Peak, where I found my favorite views of the monument, with interesting topography in all directions, and cross-light on the mountains in the early morning and late afternoon. From the saddle, I hiked the mountains opposite to Hart Peak for high vantage points. Since it was still early, I returned to the car, drove the main road to the southern boundary of the monument, and then hiked back to a spot below the saddle for sunset. Besides a few trucks on the main road, I didn’t see anybody for the entire day. Since the desert is full of thorny plants, after staying until the last light, I was grateful to mostly follow washes and old roads on my way down in the dark.

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Part 2 of 5. 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Mojave Trails National Monument Highlights

Protecting a huge 2,500 square kilometers (1.6 million acres), Mojave Trails National Monument is the largest of the three California desert national monuments established by President Barack Obama in February 2016. In the heart of the California desert, Mojave Trails National Monument forms a connective tissue linking Joshua Tree National Park in the south to Mojave National Preserve, that it surrounds and with which it shares many geological features: remnants of a volcanic past, isolated sand dunes, and rugged mountain ranges.

(click on map for larger version)

Amboy Crater

Amboy Crater is a cinder cone extinct volcano whose black color sharply contrasts with the earth tones of the surrounding desert. It is perhaps the most easily accessed and developed area in Mojave Trails National Monument. Amboy crater was a popular sight for travelers in the heydays of route 66 from the 1920s to the 1960s. On my recent visit, I encountered hikers both at sunrise and sunset. From the trailhead and the approach, Amboy Crater is front-lit in the morning.

A newly paved spur road on the south side of Highway 66, about 2 miles west of Amboy (population 4) leads to a nice picnic area which serves as a trailhead. The hike is about 3 miles RT. Although from a distance the area looks flat, the trail first crosses labyrinthine lava fields and sandy washes and required a bit of attention to follow. Returning in the dark after sunset, I was glad for the discrete, but frequent markers. Once you reach the cinder cone on its western side, it becomes rocky and steep as you walk on lava blocks to climb 250 feet to the crater rim. A 0.3 mile-mile trail circles the crater top, offering a great perspective of itself and of the desert extending to distant mountain ranges beyond. I waited for the soft and even light of dusk to photograph the textures within the crater, while delicate colors lingered in the sky, although there was hardly enough light to see.

Cadiz Dunes

By contrast, the Cadiz Dunes are one of the most remote highlights of Mojave Trails National Monument. If it wasn’t for a rendezvous with photographer Greg Russel, who wrote an excellent post about threats to the area’s water, I wouldn’t have seen a single other person since leaving the pavement in the afternoon. The dunes are surrounded by mountains, and light is good both at sunrise and sunset. I preferred to photograph slightly backlit to emphasize the play of light and shadows.

The dunes are located in the Cadiz Dunes Wilderness and were not heavily used by off-road vehicles prior to their protection by the California Desert Protection Act of 1994, so they are still pristine. Besides having them to ourselves, we did not see any human footprints, although animal tracks were plenty. Getting there requires driving the Cadiz Road, which is unpaved but passable by most vehicles. From Highway 66 in the north, the road is slightly rougher than from Highway 62 in the south, with a few washed-out sections, but that is more than made up for by the fact that the unpaved drive is only about twice as short. From Cadiz Road, a 2.5-mile access road situated on the northwest edge of the dunes leads to a small parking area right next to the dunes. The last mile of that access road is sandy, fortunately the sand was firm enough that my AWD Subaru Forester had no trouble. I made sure not to slow down until I reached the parking area – which is hard enough that it was safe to stop on.

Afton Canyon

Although water is present under the desert ground, there is only one place where the 140-mile long Mojave River continuously flows above the ground rather than under the sands. Besides the rich desert riparian habitat of willows, Afton Canyon has also steep rock walls that earned it the nickname of “Grand Canyon of the Mojave”.

While staying at the campground reached via a few miles of well-graded unpaved road from I-40, trains ran fairly close all night, but fortunately they slowed down through the canyon enough that closed car windows muffled much of the noise. I was hoping to travel the whole length of the canyon by car, but right after the campground, the Mojave River flows onto the road, requiring a long crossing. After measuring a depth of at least 18 inches, I decided not to risk it this time.

Route 66

Historic Route 66 is a quintessential American icon of a bygone period, and Mojave Trails National Monument includes 105 miles of it, from Needles to Ludlow. This represents the longest remaining undeveloped stretch of Route 66. During my visit, a long section of it was closed for bridge repairs, and the total absence of traffic made it possible for me to set up long exposure night shots.

Mojave Trails National Monument is so recent that facilities are still minimal, and in particular you won’t find a visitor center. Nevertheless, I am hoping those highlights can get you started. In such a huge desert area, you are sure to make plenty of discoveries out of the beaten path!

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Part 1 of 5. 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Treasured Lands Featured at Foto Modesto

I am honored that a part of Treasured Lands is the featured guest exhibit at Foto Modesto 2018, a month-long festival in Modesto CA celebrating the photographic arts, taking place in February 2018. Here is a write-up from the Modesto Bee. My thanks go to David Shroeder for the invitation.

The exhibit takes place at the Mistlin Gallery:
Regular Gallery Hours:
Tuesday – Friday, 11:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Saturday, 12:00 noon – 4:00 p.m.
Address: 1015 J Street, between 10th and 11th in Downtown Modesto
Phone: 209-529-3369

You can park in the city garage on the corner of 11th and K Streets, and the gallery will validate your parking.

I will also give a presentation Sunday, February 11 at Prospect Theater Project, 1214 K Street from 2:00 to 4:00 pm. Donation of $10 to support Foto Modesto requested.

There will be three more public opportunities to watch the presentation in the South SF Bay Area this winter, as listed on my speaking page:

February 12, 2018, 7 PM
13650 Saratoga Ave
Saratoga, CA

February 26, 2018, 7:30 PM
Temple Shir Hadash
20 Cherry Blossom Ln
Los Gatos, CA

March 7, 2018, 7:45 PM
Centennial Recreation Senior Center
171 West Edmundson Avenue
Morgan Hill, CA

Book review: A Photographer’s Life by Jack Dykinga

A quarter-century ago, when I started large format nature photography, Jack Dykinga’s work was a main source of inspiration. His wilderness advocacy books on the American Southwest, and in particular the Sonoran, Mojave, and Escalante Canyons, used fine art photography as a means to document the land in a way both accurate and stirring. I was intrigued by a tidbit in the short bio included in his books: he had won a Pulitzer Price. You don’t win Pulitzer Price for doing nature photography. What work had he also been doing, and how did he transition to nature photography?

Dykinga’s latest book, A Photographer’s Life: A Journey from Pulitzer Prize-Winning Photojournalist to Celebrated Nature Photographer (Rocky Nook, 2017), finally answers those questions. The book functions primarily as an autobiographical narrative that is started, sustained and structured by this most beautiful of qualities, gratitude. In 2014, Dykinga is lying in a hospital dying but still wants to see his great-children grow. A lung transplant saves his life and deepens his appreciation for the gift of life. As he reminisces on that full and meaningful life, he remembers all the people who have inspired and given him so much, and most chapters of the book highlight one such person: “It takes a village to make a photographer”. Back then, the world of photography was smaller and more close-knit, allowing Dykinga to develop friendships with several of the prominent landscape photographers and environmental writers.

Along the way, we witness not only professional triumphs, but also setbacks, as we are given a behind the scenes view of the world of editorial photography. Dykinga doesn’t shy from candidly revealing some of its less savory aspects: the politics of journalism and the necessity to please advertisers – which eventually drove him away from photojournalism, how standing up for a friend gets him blacklisted from hard-earned plum National Geographic assignments. Dykinga has long been a role model for integrity, standing for what’s important, and this book is the latest testimony to it.

Having undergone a similar evolution, I relate to his transition from large format photography to digital, and most photographers will take comfort with that too. However, the story that surprised me is how in 1975, as part of an assignment to photograph an ordinary man attempting to summit Mount Rainier, Dykinga undertook the climb with only summary preparation. As a result, a storm made it an harrowing experience, but one that nevertheless struck a chord with him, just like my experience of the wilderness of mountains had changed my life and would eventually lead me to nature photography. Dykinga’s path was quicker because that same year, Dykinga had become aware of the pioneering conservation photographer Philip Hyde’s work. He realized that he wanted “to be like Philip Hyde”. Realistic about how hard it is to eke out a living in nature photography, he acknowledges the generosity of a nature lover in making it possible for him to start a new career in that field.

The book also works as a retrospective portfolio. The clean design and reproduction quality do justice to Dykinga’s work. We get to at least see the photojournalistic work for which Dykinga won the Pulitzer, documenting the poor conditions of a state mental institution. The nature selection range from classic large-format images to his newest digital work, and despite owning six of his books I discovered many new images, in particular from Mexico. It includes his most iconic photographs such as the reflected petrified sand dunes in Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness that adorn the cover of Stone Canyons of the Colorado Plateau, or the Saguaro with an arm curving downwards to reveal a bloom.

For the later image, Dykinga writes about how much time and effort went into creating it, first selecting the particular cactus after a week of scouting, then visiting it for another week until the blooms appeared at the desired places. This leads us to the third aspect of the book, which are the comments on photography. Although this is not the primary focus of the book, I have found those comments as insightful as those in the more directly educational Capture the Magic: Train Your Eye, Improve Your Photographic Composition. Besides detailed explanation about how some specific pictures were made, the book is laced with advice for photographers at a “big picture” level: the thinking and decisions Dykinga made, the evaluation of what makes a great composition. I chucked when Dykinga admitted that on occasion he got so excited about a location that he photographed too quickly, then had to return for better compositions, an all too common occurence for me too.

Jack Dykinga is one of the great nature landscape photographers of our times and has produced a book which is at the same time informative, inspirational and moving. Functioning as a memoir, a beautiful retrospective of his work, and a collection of musings on photography, A Photographer’s Life: A Journey from Pulitzer Prize-Winning Photojournalist to Celebrated Nature Photographer offers an engaging combination of gratitude, personal stories, insights, and of course excellent photographs.

Three Unnamed Iconic Rocks, Jumbo Rocks, Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park is well-known for the namesake Joshua trees and rounded boulders. The Jumbo Rocks area, home to the largest campground in the park (124 campsites), contains some of Joshua Tree National Park’s most whimsical rock formations. The most interesting are unnamed, and their locations passed from photographer to photographer. You’ve seen the pictures before, and this post tells you how to find three of the those most popular rocks.

The rock formation most well known to the general public is Skull Rock, located east of the Jumbo Rocks campground along the main park road, on its south side. To see it, you can just drive and park on a turnout along the road about 1,000 meters north-east of the campground entrance near a pedestrian crossing, or you can follow the 1.7-mile Skull Rock Nature Trail beginning inside the campground. Skull Rock is well-known because it is named and signed, but there are plenty of other unnamed and unmarked rock formations more interesting to photograph.

The Skull Rock Nature Trail starts across from the amphitheater, located near campsite 93. At the start of this trail, you will find an unnamed boulder pile with spherical marble-like rocks balancing on triangular crisscrossing blocks. First photographed by Ansel Adams in the 1930s, it makes for a far more interesting subject than Skull Rock, with many compositions possible. That wall of rocks faces west and catches the last light of sunset. Below the formation, there is a striking wedged spherical boulder. Repeating the marble shape, it forms an excellent foreground, but the location is tight for multiple photographers.

Standing on the turnout for Skull Road, if you look towards the West, on the other side of the road, you might be able to spot two large twins rounded boulders about 250 meters away. These were the subject of Michael Fatali’s “Sunkissed” and “Fruit of Temptation” and were also photographed by Jack Dykinga in 1989. The relative appearance of those boulders varies with angle, they can be framed with various foregrounds, and the east side presents a Sphynx-like figure, so there are a lot of possibilities. The front of the formation catches the first light of sunrise.

Within the campground, you can also find another photographer’s favorite, the weathered bonsai-like juniper tree framing a pointy balanced monolith, which is close to campsite 19 on Loop C. The light there is best from late afternoon to sunset. Reserving this campsite would be ideal for night photography. I timed my photograph for the moment when the last light from the moon lit the rock. Although the colors are not visible to the human eye, a moonset creates the same warm tones as a sunset, with the bonus of stars sprinkled in the sky.

Besides those three icons, there are many discoveries to be made by wandering around the boulders and following the light.

Best Photobooks 2017: the Meta-List

How do you separate wheat from chaff within the several thousand photobooks published last year? Photographers, critics, curators, and journalists have been writing year-end lists of best (favorite, interesting, notable…) photobooks. However, each list is subjective and limited by the number of photobooks to which the writer had access. The meta-list is a methodology to aggregate them together into a more consensual and inclusive list.

In my meta-list of best photobooks, titles are ranked by how many lists they have appeared in, each listing counting as one “vote”, and only titles that have appeared at least in two lists are considered. The 2017 meta-list (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016) is derived from 41 sources, totaling 92 individual lists. Unlike in previous years, I couldn’t rely on an existing compilation of lists, so I made my own, using Google searches and browsing of sites that posted lists on previous years. The list compilation is posted below the meta-list and each entry makes for good reading. Also, new this year, I’ve added a link to a video flip-through for the top titles, as well as links to Amazon, or in the case of self-published books, to the author’s page – a good way to support them and get a signed copy.

(15 votes)
Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation MATHIEU ASSELIN Verlag Kettler video amazon

(14 votes)
Deep Springs SAM CONTIS Mack video amazon

(13 votes)
Welcome to Camp America, Inside Guantanamo Bay DEBI CORNWALL Radius Books video amazon

(12 votes)
Reading Raymond Carver MARY FREY Peperoni Books video amazon

(10 votes)
Island of the Colorblind SANNE DE WILDE Kehrer Verlag video amazon
Ville de Calais HENK WILDSCHUT Self-published video author

(9 votes)
Buzzing at the Sill PETER VAN AGTMAEL Kehrer Verlag video amazon
Selected Works, 1973-1981 STEPHEN SHORE Aperture video amazon
The Last Testament JONAS BENDIKSEN Aperture video amazon

(8 votes)
The First March of Gentlemen RAFAL MILACH Muzeum Dzieci Wrzesinskich (1st), GOST (2nd) video amazon

(7 votes)
Museum Bhavan DAYANITA SINGH Steidl video amazon
Prince Street Girls SUSAN MEISELAS TBW Books Series video amazon
Slant Rhymes ALEX WEBB & REBECCA NORRIS WEBB La Fabrica video amazon
War Sand DONALD WEBER Self-published video author
White Night FENG LI Jiazazhi video amazon

(6 votes)
Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals MANDY BARKER Overlapse video amazon
Blind Spot TEJU COLE Penguin Random House video amazon
California JOHN CHIARA Aperture video amazon
Halo RINKO KAWAUCHI Aperture/Thames & Hudson video amazon
In Most Tides An Island NICHOLAS MUELLNER SPBH video amazon
Local Objects TIM CARPENTER The Ice Plant video amazon
Night Procession STEPHEN GILL Nobody/Self-published video author

(5 votes)
Boardwalk Minus Forty MIKE MANDEL TBW Books Series video amazon
Endangered TIM FLACH Abrams video amazon
Human Nature LUCAS FOGLIA Nazraeli video amazon
Nausea RON JUDE Mack video amazon
On Abortion LAIA ABRIL Dewi Lewis video amazon
On The Frontline SUSAN MEISELAS Aperture video amazon
Pictures from Home LARRY SULTAN Mack (reprint) video amazon
Ravens MASAHISA FUKASE Mack (reprint) video amazon
The Last Son JIM GOLDBERG Super Labo video amazon

(4 votes)
A Beautiful Ghetto DEVIN ALLEN Haymarket Books
Borne Back VICTORIA WILL Peanut Press
Dublin KRASS CLEMENT RRB Publishing video
Election Eve WILLIAM EGGLESTON Steidl (reprint)
General View THOMAS ALBDORF Skinnerboox video
Good Goddamn BRYAN SCHUTMAAT Trespasser video
Hidden Mother LAURA LARSON Saint Lucy Books
I Love You, I’m Leaving MATT EICH Ceiba Editions video
If You Have A Secret IRINA POPOVA Self-published (reprint) video
Man Next Door ROB HORNSTRA Self-published video
Manhattan Transit The Subway Photographs of Helen Levitt HELEN LEVITT Walter Konig
Obama: An Intimate Portrait PETE SOUZA Little, Brown and Co video.
Only the Lonely, 1955-1984 WILLIAM GEDNEY University of Texas Press video
People In Cars MIKE MANDEL Stanley/Barkervideo
The Ending LEIF SANDBERG Bœcker Books video
The Mechanism MÅRTEN LANGE Mack video
The Restoration Will MAYUMI SUZUKI Self-published video
The Transverse Path (or Nature’s Little Secret) MIKE SLACK The Ice Plant video

(3 votes)
30/Exposure KAZUMA OBARA Self-published
36 Views FYODOR TELKOV Ediciones Anomalas
An autobiography of miss Wish NINA BERMAN Kehrer Verlag
And from the Coaltips a Tree Will Rise LATOYA RUBY FRAZIER MAC’S Grand Hornu
Beyond Here Is Nothing LAURA EL TANTAWY Self-published
Centennial IRVING PENN Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University
Corbeau Anne Golaz MACK
Dandy Lion: The Black Dandy and Street Style SHANTRELLE P. LEWIS Aperture
Fancy Pictures MARK NEVILLE Steidl
Fink on Warhol: New York Photographs of the 1960s LARRY FINK Damiani
Firecrackers: Female Photographers Now FIONA ROGERS & MAX HOUGHTON Thames & Hudson
I Fought the Law OLIVIA LOCHER Chronicle Books
In that Land of Perfect Day BRANDON THIBODEAUX Red Hook Editions
Iowa NANCY REXROTH University of Texas Press
La Grieta (The Crack) CARLOS SPOTTORNO Astiberri Ediciones
Mean Streets: NYC 1970-1985 by Edward Grazda powerHouse Books
Merrie Albion: Landscape Studies From A Small Island SIMON ROBERTS Dewi Lewis Publishing
Mfon: Women Photographers of the African Diaspora LAYLAH AMATULLAH BARRAYN, ADAMA DELPHINE FAWUNDU, & CRYSTAL WHALEY Eye + Inc.
Portraits DUANE MICHALS Thames & Hudson
Red Flower: The Women of Okinawa MAO ISHIKAWA Session Press
Ren Hang REN HANG Taschen
Sleeping by the Mississippi ALEC SOTH Mack (reprint)
The Disappearance of Joseph Plummer AMANI WILLETT Overlapse Photobooks
The Family Imprint: A Daughter’s Portrait of Love and Loss NANCY BOROWICK Hatje Cantz
The Iceberg GIORGIO DI NOTO Edition Patrick Frey
They Shall Take Up Serpents BILL BURKE TBW Books Series
Think of Scotland MARTIN PARR Damiani
This Is Not My Book ERIK VAN DER WEIJDE Spector Books
Witness: Kashmir 1986-2016 SANJAY KAK (Ed,9 Photographers)

(2 votes)
50 Years of Rolling Stone JANN S WENNER Rolling Stone
A Rock is a River MAYA ROCHAT
Arbus Friedlander Winogrand: New Documents, 1967 JOHN SZARKOWSKI Museum of Modern Art
Archiving Eden DORNITH DOHERTY Schilt Publications
As it may be BIEKE DEPOORTER Aperture
Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill JERRY DANTZIC Thames + Hudson
Bluewater Shore DOUGLAS STOCKDALE self-published
Bord de Mer GABRIELE BASILICO Contrasto
Bystander: A History of Street Photography JOEL MEYEROWITZ & COLIN WESTERBECK Laurence King Publishing
Christian Borchert – Schattentanz / Shadow dance HANSGERT LAMBERS & JENS BOVE (editors)
Clear of People MICHAL IWANOWSKI Brave Books
Continental Drift TAIYO ONORATO & NICO KREBS Edition Patrick Frey
Daily, In A Nimble Sea BARRY STONE Silas Finch
Days of Smelling Like Grass YOSHIO MIZOGUCHI
Diary of a Leap Year RABIH MROUE
East/West HARRY GRUYAERT Thames & Hudson
Ed Forbis LOLA PAPROCKA & PANI PAUL Palm* Studios
Eternal Friendship ANOUCK DURAND Siglio
Expired Paper ALISON ROSSITER Radius Books
Extra! WEEGEE Hirmer/University of Chicago
Feast for the Eyes SUSAN BRIGHT Aperture
Flow TYMON MARKOWSKI Self-published
Front Line Towards Enemy LOUIE PALU Yoffy Press
Generation Wealth LAUREN GREENFIELD Phaidon
Here For The Ride ANDRE D. WAGNER Creative Future
I loved my wife (Killing children is good for the economy) DIETER DE LATHAUWER
Kensington Blues JEFFREY STOCKBRIDGE Self-published
Magnum Manifesto CLEMENT CHEROUX & CLARA BOUVERESSE Thames & Hudson
Mother MATTHEW FINN Dewi Lewis
Nokturno ANDREJ LAMUT The Angry Bat
Order of Appearance JIM JOCOY TBW Books
Out of the Blue VIRGINIE REBETEZ Meta/Books
Past Perfect Continuous IGOR POSNER
Pictures From the Next Day ROBERT LYONS Zatara Press
Prison Photographs NICOLO DEGIORGIS
Real Nazis PIOTR UKLANSKI Edition Patrick Frey
Really Good Dog Photography LUCY DAVIES (Ed) Hoxton Mini Press & Penguin Books
Recent Histories: Contemporary African Photography and Video Art from the Walther Collection DANIELA BAUMANN, JOSHUA CHUANG, OLUREMI C. ONABANJO Steidl
Rex ZACKARY CANEPARI Contrasto Books
Roadside Lights EIJI OHASHI Zen Foto Gallery
Shot: 101 Survivors of Gun Violence in America KATHY SHORR
Siloquies and Soliloquies on Death, Life and Other Interludes EDGAR MARTINS The Moth House
Small Town Inertia JIM MORTRAM
State of Nature CLAUDIUS SCHULZE Hartmann
Tales Of Lipstick And Virtue ANNA EHRENSTEIN Editions Bessard
The Flying Carpet CESARE FABBRI Mack
The Gravity of Place ISRAEL ARINO Ediciones Anomalas
The Japanese Photobook: 1912-1980 MANFRED HEITING Steidl
The Kids The Children of LGBTQ Parents in the USA GABRIELA HERMAN The New Press
The Pigeon Photographer NICOLO DEGIORGIS Rorhof
The Run-On of Time EUGENE RICHARDS Yale University Press
The Topography of Tears ROSE-LYNN FISHER Bellevue Literary Press
The World is not Beautiful; Photographs 1973-1981 JOHN MYERS
There’s A White Horse In My Garden ANNE SCHWALBE
Veterans: Faces of World War II SASHA MASLOV Princeton Architectural Press
Walden S.B. WALKER Kehrer Verlag
We Are Still Here DEVYN GALINDO DG-Print

Source lists

Antiquated Modern
A Photographic Mind
Mother Jones
NY Times Mag
Liberation Fr
The Heavy Collective (3 lists)
Internazionale It
Women Photograph
The Camera Store
LensCulture Curators
LensCulture Personal Favorites
LensCulture (multiple votes counted)
The Photobook Blog
1000 Words Mag
NY Times
Humble Arts Foundation
Elizabeth Avedon Part 1
Elizabeth Avedon Part 2
Shooter Files
Calvert Journal
Amateur Photographer UK
Elin Spring Photography
Atlas Obscura
Times UK
The Guardian UK
Photobookstore UK (23 lists) + meta-list
PhotoEye (28 mini-lists)
The 2017 PhotoBook Awards Shortlist

The following lists have some photobooks in them but have not been used either because they are too general (also feature non-photobook titles), or more rarely, too specialized:
CL Tampa
Culture Type
Elle UK
Independent UK
Inside Hook
Jackson Art
LA Times
Magnum Photos
Sleek Mag
Daily Beast
Guardian UK
The What
Bouilla Blaise

Regardless of what one may think about the practice of listing best photobooks of the year, I think that the Meta-list provides a good snapshot of what the “photobook world” thought about the year past standouts, and more importantly is an invitation to discover work that wouldn’t have come to your attention otherwise.

By the way, the photo includes two personal favorites that could be considered “outliers” that I will review on this blog. Can you spot them?