Terra Galleria Photography

Road tripping off pavement with the Prius Prime

My car wrecked last September was a Impreza, the most fuel-efficient Subaru. I replaced it with a Toyota Prius Prime. Read about the reasoning behind my choice, and howit worked for an adventurous road trip in the West during which I camped in the car, spent much time driving backcountry unpaved roads and had to deal with a flat tire.

Environmental impacts

I had been driving Subarus for over twenty years. Since I appreciated their AWD handling combined with decent fuel economy, my first instinct was to buy another one. Compared to 4WD trucks such as the Toyota 4Runner (mpg city/hwy 16/19) they have a significantly better fuel economy (typically 26/33), yet still, get you to most places. However, just a few weeks before the crash, a post by photographer Stephen Bay made a strong impression on me. He pointed out to an eye-opening number: burning a gallon of gas results in 25 lbs of CO22 – a primary climate-change agent. To put that fully in perspective, it means that if you drive a car with a fuel economy of 25 mpg, each mile results in a volume of 8.5 square feet (64 gallons) CO22. Given Galen Rowell’s environmental advocacy, his choice of a Chevy Suburban had always vaguely perplexed me, but the numbers seem to make the concern more concrete.

Stephen’s prescription was to travel less. Indeed, after a lifetime of photographing around the globe, Paul Strand decided to concentrate on the beauty of his own garden, creating a body of work that was eventually curated by Joel Meyerowitz into the book The Garden at Orgeval. It opens with the quote “The artist’s world is limitless. I can be found anywhere, far from where he lives or a few feet away. It is always on his doorstep”. It is possible that I will end up following Strand’s footsteps, but frankly, I am not at that stage yet. The diversity of the natural world is what inspired me to embark on a journey that resulted in a full-time career in photography. I still have a few destination-based projects that I hope can make a positive contribution. Thinking only of impact, nobody would have children. Each of us deserves to go places, but we have to our reasonable best to limit our impact. I wondered if I even needed a Subaru or if I could make a few more compromises in convenience.

Prius Prime as the cleanest vehicle

My quest for the most fuel-efficient vehicle led me to the Toyota Prius Prime, which is the plug-in version of the venerable Prius. The Prius first went on sale in 1997, and I find it surprising that two decades later, it still has not been surpassed in terms of fuel economy and emissions. Wait a minute, emissions? Don’t modern EVs produce zero emissions, unlike the Prius in long-range use?

The catch is that in the U.S., only about 15% of electricity is generated from zero-emission sources (including nuclear), while 85% is generated by burning fossil fuels, so when driving an EV you end up using indirectly fossil fuels. And a lot of it, because burning fossil fuels to generate electricity has only an average efficiency of about 35%, the rest is lost as heat due to various thermal, mechanical, and electric limitations. Then there is an additional loss of 10% in transmission lines. This means that for each kWh of electricity delivered to the customer, you have to burn (1/.35) * (1/.90) * 0.85 = 2.7 kWh worth of fossil fuels. Tesla is the EV leader. Their most efficient car is the Model 3. It consumes 26 KWh for 100 miles. Therefore, it indirectly burns 0.26 * 2.7 = 0.702 kWh per mile in fossil fuels. The Prius Prime gets (at least) 54 miles per gallon in hybrid mode. If we assume that the energy content of gasoline is 36 kWh/gallon, then the fossil fuel energy burned by the Prius Prime is 36 / 54 = 0.666 kWh per mile, actually less than the Tesla. This seat of the pants calculation doesn’t attempt to evaluate the carbon footprint of driving either vehicle – a herculean task, but it does suggests that in terms of fossil fuels burned, a more efficient gas car can be better than a slightly less efficient EV. Of course, for practical purposes, there are still not that many charging stations outside of the country’s urban areas. Unlike a pure EV, the Prius Prime can run on gas for a range of 600+ miles just like the Prius.

The Prius Prime adds to the Prius the ability to charge the battery from an electric plug, with an autonomy of 27 miles, which is enough for most of our daily uses in town. In EV mode, the Prime consumes 21 kWh for 100 miles, and therefore burns 0.21* 2.7 = 0.567 kWh of gas per mile. Running it in EV mode is (0.666 – 0.567) / 0.666 = 15% cleaner than in hybrid mode. This makes the Prius Prime the cleanest mid-size vehicle. What about economics? If we use as a baseline a very high PGE residential electricity rate of $0.20/kWh (twice the national average – our actual rate isn’t easy to evaluate because of the complicated solar contract), the cost for a full charge is 0.2 * 6.7kwh = $1.34. Since a charge gets the same mileage as half a gallon, EV driving is cheaper than hybrid if gas costs more than $2.68/gallon. Those are not huge differences, but it adds up. I was also intrigued by EV driving, and I indeed found out the car to be smoother, quieter and more responsive in EV mode.

Sleeping in the Prius Prime

One of the first things that I do when considering a new car is to check if it offers enough room for sleeping. It is a great time saver not to have to find a suitable camping spot and not to have to pitch a tent, also an uncomfortable proposition in windy or rainy weather now that I am in my mid-fifties.

To the amusement of the dealer, I promptly folded the second row of seats and climbed inside the car. After pushing forward the passenger seat, there was enough space to lay flat (I am 6 feet), but there were two issues. First, the space behind the passenger seat had to be filled up to create a long enough surface. As explained in the last paragraph, a spare wheel did the job. Second, the Prime has a larger battery that adds about 5 inches of height to the cargo floor. When you fold the second row of seats, they are about 5 inches lower than the cargo space at the rear. My simple solution is to cut a piece of foam to make up for the difference. After laying a camping mattress on top, I got a cushy and almost perfectly flat surface.

However, on my first night in the field, I found out that in such a sedan-like low profile vehicle, those 5 inches of lost space are quite significant. It did not leave much headroom, and it took me a few days to get used to the contortions necessary to get into bed.

In retrospect, for road trips, I would have preferred the newly released Prius AWD that has also a bit more cargo space since it doesn’t have the large plug-in battery. However, even if the gains in economy and environmental impact of aren’t that significant, the Prius Prime is the (slightly) better vehicle at home, where I nowadays spend most of my time, and the compromises in comfort are still acceptable.

Off pavement driving

In most national parks, you can see all the major sights by driving on paved roads or dirt roads that are well-graded enough for a regular vehicle. I have found most roads marked as “high-clearance recommended” easily driven with a regular car, while most of those marked as “high clearance required” can be driven with such a car with care in good conditions.

In his excellent guidebooks, Laurent Martres rates road difficulty on a scale of 0 to 5. In the past, I had driven several roads rated 3 with a Subaru Legacy, for example, the backcountry roads of Capitol Reef National Park. While AWD provided better handling, it was not necessary. My 1995 Legacy came before Subaru started to steadily increase the ground clearance of their vehicles. Despite its low 4.7 inches ground clearance, I never got stuck, so I figured out that the Prius, with 4.9 inches clearance, would serve most of my needs. I could always fly and rent a more rugged vehicle when needed. Flying in economical ways burns about the equivalent of a 50 mpg car, so contrarily to some assertions, flying often results in fewer emissions per person than driving.

On that maiden road trip, I spent much of my time in little developed national monuments with mostly unpaved roads. The least capable vehicles I encountered were Subarus, and nobody drove sedans, let alone Priuses or Teslas. In Gold Butte National Monument, everybody else drove a full 4WD, the majority of them Jeeps. Last spring, when I got to the Glyphs area there with a rented Jeep, the road at first appeared iffy enough that I engaged 4WD. It turned out that the Prius made it to the trailhead (rated 3). I was more worried on portions of the Hole-in-the-Rock and branching roads in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (also rated 3). A nerve-wracking moment happened when as I was trying to keep momentum negotiating a sandy curve, an 18 wheeler semi barreled in the opposite direction, seemingly out of nowhere. In the end, although my margin of error was smaller than if I had driven a Subaru, I got to several trailheads where nobody else came, and I did not get stuck. However, it could be that I got too confident and drove a bit too fast to beat the vibrations from the washboard on the way back on Hole-in-the-Rock road.

The spare wheel

A not so recent trend has been to replace the full-size tire with a “donut” spare tire of reduced dimensions. They provide savings to car manufacturers, and also to drivers in terms of space and weight. As an illustration of those savings, unlike the 2018 Prius Two, the 2018 Prius Two Eco did not include a spare tire nor rear windshield wiper. The weight and aerodynamic savings alone resulted in fuel savings of 3 miles per gallon.

The downside is that a donut tire is designed only to get you to a repair facility. In remote areas, that it would do the job is not a given. Most of these tires are good only for about 70 miles, and their smaller size could be problematic off the ​pavement. The time when I came closest to getting suck with a Subaru came on Mount Washington, on the top of a mountain in a remote corner of Nevada’s Great Basin National Park where I did not see a single other person for three days. Back in 2003, the unpaved road to the summit was not even marked on the official national park map. When I went back to the car after a hike to the bristlecone pine groves, I found one of the tires was flat. Fortunately, the 2000 Subaru Forester had a full-size spare, and after exchanging the wheel, I was able to come back to civilization.

In many cars, the donut is even eliminated altogether and replaced by a “tire repair kit” consisting essentially of a can of tire goop – its use will ruin the tire sensor ​and require an expensive repair. On the Prius Prime, and most other plug-in hybrid cars, this is necessary to make space for a sizeable battery. The owners I talked to did not have any concern about that. However, a few days after buying the car, I shopped for a spare wheel, finding a new one on eBay​ for a third of the price asked by dealerships. It is heavy (45 lbs) and takes quite a bit of room, but fit perfectly and gets out of the way in the ​space at the back of the passenger seat, a solution that works as long as you do not need the entire second row of seats.

I drove mostly unpaved roads for a week without incidents. Half an hour after getting back to the pavement from the Hole-in-the-Rock, I parked at the Escalante River Trailhead. I went looking for the Hundred Handprints at dusk, and photographed them at night. On the road again on Utah Hwy 12, after less than a half-mile​ of driving, I recognized the disheartening sound of a flat tire. Since I was not familiar with the car, it took me almost an hour to locate the tools and change the wheel. I then drove to the Capitol Reef National Park campground. During the entire two hours and half since the tire flat, I didn’t see a single car on the road, nor at any point did I get cellular service. The next morning, when I asked the rangers at the visitor center for the best place to get my tire fixed and possibly replaced, they directed me to Moab, a two hours and half drive. All out of range for a donut tire. The irony is that I was better off with my Prius than I would have been with a current Subaru, as they now come with a donut tire. Even though the Colorado Plateau is a popular destination, one needs to come prepared!

A Crash and Thanksgiving

Today is a day to remember what we should be thankful for. While I have many people and things to be grateful for both in my personal and professional life, this autumn, I am simply happy to be alive and in good health.

On Sept 30, half an hour after dropping off nine large framed prints for the Blue Marble exhibit in Palo Alto, I headed to a meeting with my book distributor in Berkeley. As I was driving on the left lane, the freeway traffic was dense but fluid. The car in front of me slowed down suddenly, and I braked too. All I remember is a very loud noise in the back, a sharp pain, and the dreadful anticipation of another collision and feeling of helplessness as the car that was drifting out of control. After a few seconds that felt like an eternity, the car came to a stop on the emergency lane, against the wall on the right side of the freeway.

A couple helped me out of the car and I sat at the base of the wall in a daze, my vision blurred not only because I had lost my glasses but also from the shock. It wasn’t long before an ambulance came. It first stopped on the left side of the freeway to load the other driver who appeared to be more injured than me and then took both of us to the emergency room at the Highland Hospital in Oakland. After a few hours and x-rays, I was diagnosed with a sprained ankle (from being hit in the rear?), rib contusions, and released with just ibuprofen pills. Had the prints still be in the car, besides being destroyed, they would likely also have flown around dangerously in the car.

It wasn’t before we came to retrieve possessions from the wreck that I could see it from all angles and realize how severe the accident had been. A towing company had moved the car from the emergency lane to a storage lot. Our insurance agent recommended that I got it out promptly, since those outfits often charge outrageous storage fees, well over a hundred dollars per day. Upon learning the name of the towing company from the police, I was dismayed to see average review on Yelp lower than 2 stars, with most customers describing them as scammers. Fortunately, it turned out that a different company was storing the vehicle. They were professional enough to deal with, although we still had to make a trip to a shady part of Oakland and pay a bill of almost a thousand dollars. We took pictures to establish that the car was a total loss, and instructed the company to dispose of it. David Muench commented that looking at those photos “it seems a miracle” that my injuries were minor.

In the few weeks following the accident, while I was mostly all right sitting or standing, as soon as I laid down, I felt sleep-robbing discomfort, with the worst pain occurring getting in or out of bed. Who would have guessed that such a simple act could be so difficult? September was a key month for an on-going project, and by October, winter would come to northern Montana, but I was in no shape to even walk because of my sprained ankle. Eager to not entirely let the autumn, by far my favorite season, pass by, towards the end of September, I paid a visit to my physical therapist. She cautiously approved of a trip in October, using hiking poles. There were a couple of longer hikes that I wanted to do in Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument and Acadia National Park, but I restrained myself to no more than six miles, and within this limitation, my ankle seemed to hold, so I considered myself recovered.

From the police report, I learned that I had been part of a four-car pile-up. The car that hit me from behind sent me hitting the car in the front before bouncing to the right of the freeway. The impact caused that car to hit the one in front of it. Despite the report placing all the blame on the driver in the rear, and that driver being properly insured, three months after the accident, I had not received even a timeline for compensation, let alone a single cent (Thanks Allstate!). When staying at home, my family could mostly make do with just one car, but this would be out of the question if I was to go on a road trip, since the kids would need to be driven to school while I am gone. Fortunately, we were able to pay cash for a new car, not a given for a pair of artists living in the Silicon Valley – another thing to be thankful for. Its choice, the subject of the next post, may surprise you. In the while, I hope that you have many more reasons to be thankful!

Guide to the Schoodic Peninsula, Acadia National Park’s Quieter Side

Acadia National Park is made of three units, plus a few smaller islands. Most equate the main unit on Mount Desert Island with Acadia National Park. That is an excellent reason to spend time in the two other units: Schoodic Peninsula and Isle au Haut. Being lesser-known, they will offer you quiet, as well as less photographed views. Although technically an island, Mount Desert Island is connected to the mainland by a bridge. Travel to Isle au Haut presents the logistical challenges of a boat crossing. By contrast, the Schoodic Peninsula is the only part of the Park on the mainland, which makes access effortless. Read on to find out about my favorite spots on Acadia National Park’s quieter side.


The Schoodic Peninsula is quite compact. To loop entirely around the peninsula is a drive of about 11 miles, of which half are located outside the park, and half are a one-way scenic drive. In addition, there are two short spur roads of interest, to Schoodic Head and Schoodic Point. At the beginning of the loop, and before the one-way section, you will find the recent Schoodic Woods Campground, and a ranger station that serves as a visitor center. It takes about an hour to drive the 44 miles from Bar Harbor to the Schoodic Peninsula. Although the Schoodic Peninsula is readily accessible, as it takes about the same time to drive there from Ellsworth as to Bar Harbor, fewer than 10% of visitors to Acadia National Park make that trip. One afternoon, I wasn’t able to find parking at Jordan Pond, and another evening, the road to Cadillac Mountain was outright closed for “traffic congestion”. But from one hour before sunset, to one hour after sunrise, I saw no more than a couple of other cars on the Schoodic Peninsula. That relaxed and uncrowded atmosphere is a welcome change from the main Park Loop on Mount Desert Island.

Schoodic Loop Road

The main road around the peninsula includes a one-way loop section of about 5.5 miles. It follows closely the shoreline. If you see something of interest, just find a pull-out, park your car, and walk to the shore to make your own discoveries. The loop features a range of orientations, giving you options for sunsets as well as sunrises. The terrain is generally flat, but off-shore, tree-covered islets provide focal points to compositions that can include great slabs of pink granite, boulders, as well as tide pools and beaches. In the following paragraphs, I’ll mention a few highlights along the road.

Ravens Nest

Overall, I find the Schoodic Peninsula reminiscent of the eastern coastal section of Mount Desert Island from Grand Head to Otter Point. Otter Point is a landmark headland that would be difficult to miss, but that is not the case of the most significant headland on the Schoodic Peninsula, despite it being quite impressive. Ravens Nest is not indicated on the official park map, nor is it signed or visible from the road. You don’t happen by chance on that hidden gem, but you have to know of it in advance. Then, finding it is a matter of driving 3.1 mile from the park entrance, and looking for an unpaved and unmarked pullout on the left side of the road with room for just a few cars. The location is marked on Google Maps. Cross the road, and you’ll find a faint, semi-official trail, cordoned in places for resource protection, that leads you in about a hundred yards to the shore. Soon, I arrived at the top of the cliffs and had a choice of several vertiginous viewpoints where one have to exercise the utmost care. The cliffs face the west, so that is an afternoon location. However, my first visit there was at night, timed for moonset. In the dark, the sheer drops were even more intimidating!

Schoodic Head

Unlike Mount Desert Island, the Schoodic Peninsula does not have what are called “mountains” there, and in particular “desert mountains”, meaning peaks with no tree cover at the top. Instead, the highest point on the Schoodic Peninsula, Schoodic Head, is a modest 450 feet above sea level, and covered in dense woods. Three different trails lead there from the main park road, but for quicker access, you can drive to within a few hundred yards to the top via the unpaved Schoodic Head Road. It starts 3.8 miles from the park’s entrance and is unmarked (look for the back of a stop sign on your left) although indicated on the official map. The trail starts on the east side of the parking lot. Views from the summit are blocked by trees, but by continuing further for less than 10 minutes, for maybe a total distance of a half mile from the parking lot, I arrived at a more open spot where I found distant views that I carefully framed with the trees.

West Pond

Besides Ravens Nest, my favorite views on the west side of the Schoodic Peninsula are found shortly after the Schoodic Head turn off. There, trees frame the distant profile of Cadillac Mountain on Mount Desert Island, while the calm surface of the semi-enclosed bay often gives rise to reflections. I’ve photographed at that spot early in the morning and late in the afternoon. The Schoodic Peninsula doesn’t have large lakes like Mount Desert Island, but there are a few ponds in that area.

Schoodic Point

Schoodic Point, reached via a well-marked spur road, is the southern tip of the Schoodic Peninsula. The windy spot, fully exposed to ocean swells, is often a great spot to observe dynamic wave action. If there is none, the extensive rock ledges offer a wealth of textures to check out. Although it would appear that the light is favorable all day, I prefer the late afternoon light there. Besides the Frazer Point picnic area which is considerably less wild-looking, that is about the only spot in the park where I saw other visitors with regularity.

Little Moose Island

If the Schoodic Peninsula is the quieter side of Acadia National Park, then Little Moose Island is the quieter side of the Schoodic Peninsula. On my first trip, I noticed the interesting cobble barrier beach and spent much time exploring the surrounding tide pools, but as the tide was rising, the island itself was not accessible on foot and I did not even think of hiking there. Returning several years later, I had embarked on the popular low tide walk to Bar Harbor Island from Bar Harbor. Signs there warned visitors not to be stranded by the tide, and provided a phone number for a water taxi whose fare was in the hundreds of dollars.

Armed with that experience and a tide app on my phone, I monitored the conditions and determined that it would be possible to walk to the island via a narrow land bridge from about two hours before low tide. I would be able to walk back up to two hours after low tide for a total of four hours on the island. I parked at the Blueberry Hill parking lot, about half a mile after the Schoodic Point junction, and walked west about a third of a mile to the land bridge. There was a small pullout with space for two cars just where it starts. There was a warning sign upon reaching the island, but no cell service was available there, unlike at Bar Harbor Island, so I was on my own. Although the island is only half a mile long, the limited time window of four hours went fast. The absence of an official trail only heightened the sense of adventure, but to protect that delicate environment, I made sure to stay on the existing network of user trails. I discovered on Little Moose Island a bit of a microcosm of the park, with beaches, rock ledges, conifers, and shurbs that turned crimson during the autumn. Just a few hours after walking back to the mainland, I returned to the pullout. Where I was walking, a deep water channel flowed with a swift current. The timing of the tide meant that I had to visit during midday. Looking at the now-inaccessible island I felt privileged to have be able to set foot there.

Night Landscape Capture and Processing Example

Despite being one of the most spectacular spots on the entire coastline of Acadia National Park, Ravens Nest on the Schoodic Peninsula is a little known and unmarked location. I will elaborate in the next article, which will be a location guide. In this article I discuss how I photographed and processed the image using specific techniques for night landscapes.

In night landscape photographs, the main challenge is often that the land is too dark compared to the sky. Conditions have to be right for a single capture to work well at depicting the land and the stars well, and this generally means just the right amount of moonlight. They did align on the day of my visit, Oct 5, 2019. The moon was in its first quarter, the maximum before its light overwhelms the sky. It set at 11:15 PM, well past sunset at 6:09 PM, and astronomical twilight at 7:45 PM. I timed the photograph for about half an hour before moonset. This would allow me to capture the setting moon illuminating the cliffs and the moonset glow on the horizon. Although the eye does not see that color because the light is too dim, moonset projects a warm and soft light just like sunset. Well past astronomical twilight, with that setting quarter moon, although the sky would be brighter than after moonset, the stars would still be very visible.

I would have preferred to photograph at a 14mm focal length, but after coming home from a previous trip, I noticed that all the images I made with my 14-24mm were slightly unsharp, an issue that had eluded me while on the field – ruining many images. It is likely that after being dropped, that lens had gone out of alignment. I had not gotten around to replacing it yet, so I had to content myself with the wide end of the excellent Sony 16-35/2.8 GM that I shot wide-open at f/2.8.

I made two captures with a similar exposure but different settings. In the first one, I kept the shutter speed at 15s, which is the maximum length before star trails become too visible at 16mm. With the standard night sky exposure, this dictated a ISO value of 12,800, about the maximum I like to use on the Sony A7R3. Here is the raw image with standard Lightroom (LR) settings:

Vignetting is almost always pronounced when using a superwide angle lens wide open. I correct it by applying a lens profile, walking back the correction from 100% since a little vignetting helps keep the eye in the picture.

After correcting for vignetting, the sky is quite bright because it was exposed for the stars while the moon is still there. After brightening a bit the image, (+0.5) I tone down the highlights to the max (-100) to darken the sky.

To darken it further and make the stars stand out, I will use one of the relatively new slides, Dehaze. Although not initially meant for that use, I have found that Dehaze works wonders in enhancing the stars and the Milky Way, especially on a clear moonless night. Give it a try on such an image! As an example, here is an image made at the same location after moonset (at 1 AM) shown with Dehaze at 0 and then at 100%.

By the way, it appears from the 1 AM photo that starlight is enough to light up the land, with no moonlight needed, but with the radical adjustments made for that high ISO image (Exposure +2, Shadows 100%), although the image looks OK as a low-res web image, it has too much noise for any high-res use. Back to the image shot at moonset, I have to be careful because I do not want the horizon glow to become too bright, so I use a conservative value of +20 for Dehaze, applied on a brush selection covering the upper part of the sky.

The rock on the left of the image is a bit too bright, with its visual mass it draws the eye outside of the image. I darken it selectively with another brush set at Exposure -1, and I am done with adjustments.

Here is the second exposure I made. Using a 4 minute exposure made it possible to reduce ISO to 800. Ideally, I would have used an even longer exposure to obtain a lower ISO. However, that 4-minute exposure tied up my camera for 8 minutes using long exposure noise reduction that captures a dark frame of equivalent exposure time. Since the light was changing fast, I did not want to tie up the camera for 15 minutes. With such a long exposure, the stars are trailing, not an effect I am after.

If we compare a cliff detail, we can see that the ISO 12500 image (left) is less detailed and noisier than the 800 ISO image by quite a bit.

The difference in noise is more apparent in the sky.

Here are the noise reduction settings that tame the sky noise.

However, we can see that this noise reduction obliterates the fine texture and detail on the cliff.

A quick solution in LR would be to apply noise reduction selectively to the sky. The sky requires more noise reduction than the land, because its smoothness makes noise more visible. It can take more noise reduction than the land because it has no texture to be worried about. You’d apply a mild noise reduction to the whole image, and then a stronger one to the sky on a brush selection similar to what we did before.

A more elaborate solution is to use Photoshop to combine the two exposures to get a sky with point stars, captured at higher ISO, over the land captured at a lower ISO. That is the very reason why I made the two exposures. Personally, I do not use the so-called blue hour blend, where you make an image of the land while there is still a bit of residual light (during the “blue hour”), and then combine it with an image of the sky made when it is totally dark. This technique results in striking (and popular) images. However, I feel that blending components captured at radically different times compromises the truthfulness of the photograph, since you are not representing a moment in time, while giving the impression that you are doing so. On the other hand, I feel that blending two images taken (almost) at the same time simply gets around a technical limitation of the camera – its inability to produce the cleanest image at high ISO. That limitation is relative, we are looking at 100% views of a 42MP image. The single-capture ISO 12,800 image is just fine for most uses, and this illustrates the importance of being there at the right moment.

Reader Survey Results and Comments

Last month, I invited readers to provide input to influence the direction of this blog for the next ten years. I am thankful to the 133 of you who provided responses. I am sharing those results since you may be interested in your fellow readers’ reactions. For instance, seeing that a large percentage share the same priorities or challenges as you may be comforting. I have mostly suspended my educational activities to concentrate on photography projects, but I hope that the information could also be useful to other photographers who make education part of their income stream. Taking stock of the results, I comment on how the blog will be going forward, and welcome additonal feedback.


Although initially, I was writing for a general audience, I suspected that many readers had a serious interest in the practice of photography, and for the past couple of years, I had been writing with that in mind. I started to try to distinguish those articles by starting their title with “Photographing…” but then dropped the word because it was becoming repetitive. For example, although the titles of the articles do not necessarily reflect that focus, when reporting on my visits to Cascade Siskiyou National Monument (part 1, part 2), I have commented quite a bit on the process of photographing there. However, I was still surprised by the percentage of photographers in the audience. At least I know that my comments on photography won’t bore you!


Here are the topics listed by order of popularity, with the aggregated percentages for 1-3 stars, 4-5 stars:

  • composition 8,89
  • field techniques, 14,84
  • photo locations 18,80
  • travel locations 20,79
  • travel stories 22,75
  • portfolios 28,71
  • processing 30,69
  • resources 34,62
  • books 53,46
  • gear 64,33
  • business 75,22
I am pleased to see that readers have priorities right. I think that composition is the most critical skill in photography, one that can make or break an image. However, it is not easy for me to write about it because I work my compositions mostly intuitively. I’ve tried to break down the thought process in a few “steps behind the image” posts this year, which is a format I have not often seen elsewhere that seems more instructive than just discussing an image after the fact. What do you think of the latest entry? Any other suggested formats?

At the other end, the poor interest in business topics also sounds right. Photography is one of the most rewarding ways to spend time, but it is one of the most difficult ways to make a living, so unless you absolutely have to, keeping it an amateur activity would seem the way to go – one day I would have to write about my struggles as a full-time photographer.

In the big scheme of things, gear is relatively unimportant, but it is a fun topic, relatively easy to write about, especially since as a former scientist, I have a good understanding of technical matters. There are a number of websites that are dedicated to nothing but gear, and I still remember an early influencer telling me that if I wanted to become more popular, I needed to write more about gear. I, therefore, did not expect to see so little interest in it. Is it the case that precisely there is so much of that material out there that you prefer me to write about my more unique interests?

However, speaking of unique interests, I thought that my combination of interests in book collecting, book making, and nature photography leads to a unique perspective, so I was disappointed by the unpopularity of my book reviews and surveys, and left wondering about its reasons.


Locations are at the core of this blog, and they are what make me excited about heading out. Based on the previous section, they also rank high on reader interest. More than three-quarters of the articles mentioned as your favorites are specifically about locations. Within the quarter not linked to a location, articles mentioned several times are Processing Tip: Highlights and Shadows in High Contrast Scenes (however, readers correctly sense that I am light in processing, ranking that topic below location skills) and the series on book production (although books and business are both at the bottom of the interest list, go figure). Here are the locations listed by order of popularity, with the aggregated percentages for 1-3 stars, 4-5 stars:

  • other public lands 14,84
  • national parks (remote) 19, 77
  • national parks (easy access) 24, 73
  • international 52,46
  • urban 70,27

Having been at it for a quarter-century, I am of course known for my work in the national parks, and those account for half of the favorite articles. Although the national parks are full of iconic locations, I have tried to point out to lesser-known places within them for a while. One of the comments asked to “highlight more accessible locations”, but although there is some obvious intersection, my emphasis is on lesser-known locations, rather than difficult to access locations. Some of the lesser-known location shooting spots are roadside. Several of you still remember my 2012 Yosemite Unseen series as a favorite, while the fireflies series from last year was also mentioned several times. Interestingly, the count above reveals slightly more interest in remote national park locations than for easily accessible ones.

Having wrapped up Treasured Lands for the NPS Centennial (well, kind of, I just released a second edition that includes materials from the past three years travels), my intent is now to shift my focus on other areas. For family and environmental reasons, I have decided to limit my international travels in the next few years. I do enjoy visiting and photographing urban areas very much, but more so abroad, and I do not have specific long term projects in them. So this means that my focus will on public lands other than national parks. There will be a publication hopefully in the year 2020. When I said that to my wife, her first reaction is that there would not be enough interest. This survey indicates a great match between my interest and yours, but whether this will translate to a more extended audience isn’t clear. Although I have started to post about the national monuments only two years ago, in 2017, prompted by Zinke’s “review”, they already account for one quarter of the favorite articles, with the article about the obscure Basin and Range National Monument was mentioned several times as a favorite. Most of those national monuments make even the remote sections of national parks seem popular by comparison, so it would appear that the more remote, the greater the reader interest?


The survey asked for an open answer to “your biggest challenge with photography”. I sifted through all the answers and categorized them as follows:
  • 26% Time
  • 21% Planning and logistics
  • 13% Motivation
  • 11% Processing
  • 10% Equipment and technical issues in the field
  • 10% Composition
  • 6% Subjective/Esthetic
I will address some of those in future postings. For now, all I will say is that despite (or because?) being a full-time photographer, time is a challenge for me as well. And so are those that I had lumped into the last category:
  • Capturing what I feel
  • Creating emotion in outdoor subjects
  • Taking pictures that stand out from the crowd
  • Exceeding my own expectations independent of having satisfied those of others
  • Trying not to sidetrack myself by worrying that the photography I want to do doesn’t sync up with social media fads and trends

About the blog

The survey asked for an open answer to “How can I make the blog more useful for you?”. The vast majority of answers amounted to “keep doing what you are doing”, with some suggesting topics to focus on, and a few technical ideas. Since topics were already discussed in this post, I will not elaborate further, and I will definitively see how I can implement the technical improvements, but otherwise it looks like I am on track. The last question asked was about the length of the posts.

In the blogging world, 500-word posts are not that short, but you are apparently looking for more in-depth articles. I am happy to oblige, but this might force me to slightly reduce the posting frequency from the current weekly. Once I start writing, it is not easy to stop. I will do so now since WordPress indicates that I’ve passed 1,300 words 🙂 Thanks again for participating in the survey.

Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument: Maine’s Newly Preserved Backwoods

A decade ago, I inspected the Maine North Woods as it became the focus of Roxane Quimby’s quest for a new national park. As anticipated in my Maine North Woods travel report, opposition to this grand vision was widespread enough that Quimby changed her goals to a national monument instead, which does not require congressional approval. On August 23, 2016, just two days before the centennial of the National Park Service, Quimby’s foundation donated 87,563 acres of land to the federal government, and the very next day, on the eve of the centennial, President Obama proclaimed that land as Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, making it a unit of the National Park System unlike the other recent large western national monuments that are managed by the BLM. In this article, I provide lots of practical information to help you visit one of the most recent large NPS units, while chronicling the four days I spent there.


Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, located in Maine, borders the august Baxter State Park to the east. I flew to the convenient airport – only “international” by name – of the closest city, Bangor. Since no roads in the monument are paved, I rented a compact SUV. It occurred later that with careful driving, those former logging roads would have been passable with a regular passenger car. There are no services in the monument, and the closest town with amenities being Patten, 45 minutes away from it, I took advantage of the midnight closing time of Bangor’s Walmart to stock up on groceries, a butane canister for my stove, and plenty of water. Driving to the Lunksoos Campground took 1h30, and I arrived at 2 am after a full day of travel that started in San Jose at 5:30 am. With hardly any signage until the monument’s border, and little cellular service within the monument, good directions are essential. I used an assortment of maps from NPS and Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters and set my navigation app for the intersection of Seboies Rd and Swift Brook Rd in Patten.

(click on map for more details)

Besides the omnipresent woods, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument main features are its rivers (most notably the East Branch of the Penobscot River) and a chain of 1,500–2,000-foot peaks in the eastern Katahdin foothills. There are a few small detached units, but since they are open to hunting, I thought October was not the best time to hike there. The way the main bulk of the monument (not open to hunting west of the East Branch of the Penobscot River, as made clear by this map) is accessed practically divides it into two areas. To the south the Katahdin Loop Road (accessed via Hwy 11 and Swift Brook Road from Stacyville) offers a 17-mile scenic drive with a few overlooks and trailheads for hikes of various lengths. To the north, the Matagamon Entrance (accessed via Route 159, the Grand Lake Road) gives access to more hikes and to the East Branch of the Penobscot River for paddling.

Monument roads are usually open to vehicles from Memorial day to the first week-end of November. Although a bit rainy, autumn is the most beautiful time to visit, Although on the chilly side, temperatures are pleasant, and bugs rare. In that part of Maine, the peak color usually occurs on the last week of September of the first week of October, since Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is located in zones 4 and 7 of the following maps: historical peak foliage, current foliage conditions.

Short hikes and Katahdin Loop Road

On the first day, after a late start, I started exploring the Katahdin Loop Road (map). In the rainy conditions, views of mountains were obscured by clouds, so I went for hikes in the forest close to the monument’s entrance. That area has marshes, one of which is visible from the road right at the start of the loop, eskers – ridges of sediments deposited by meltwater from a retreating glacier, and a mature forest, so there is quite a bit of biodiversity along the short Esker Trail and Deasey Pond Trail. However, the forest there is mature, so autumn foliage comes in pockets rather than vast swathes.

Like most of the roads in the Maine North Woods, the Loop Road wanders in a dense forest and seldom offers open views. However, the fall foliage is as beautiful as in any of the national parks, and unlike in them, the absence of traffic meant that I could drive at a slow speed and instead of keeping an eye on the road, look for small compositions of trees, kind of like what I did in a remote corner of Cascade Siskiyou National Monument, and stop whenever something caught my eye. It is surprising how many miles of trees you can walk or drive past before finding a satisfying arrangement of shapes and colors. A mile after the start of the loop, I came across the first view of Katahdin at a small pullout.

The most expansive roadside view in the monument is located at the Loop Road Overlook (Mile 6.4) from where you can see Millinocket Lake and Katahdin. The second day featured cloudy weather with rain showers. After filmmaker Brendan Hall had joined me for a day and half, we had come shortly after sunrise to the Loop Road Overlook, hoping for some luck, but the light did not show up. However, the sky was dark and textured enough, and the overcast conditions revealed the foliage colors. Late in the day, the sky had cleared quite a bit, so we returned to the Loop Road Overlook for a late afternoon photography session where I found the landscape transformed by the light compared to the morning.

Orin Falls

We drove the spur Orin Falls Rd (Mile 15.5) to a trailhead. Like many others in Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, the trail to Orin Falls was an old road, forming the International Appalachian Trail (IAT), an extension into Canada of the famed Appalachian Trail that ends at Katahdin. It feels different from the recently built trails such as Esker Trail and Deasey Pond Trail that are narrow and snake in the forest. It would be more fun to ride a mountain bike (allowed on most monument trails) than to walk on that section of the IAT, however, the pace of riding may have been too fast to appreciate the beautiful autumn foliage along the way. The early forest along the trail was luminous and featured more aspen and birch trees than the trails I hiked the first day, and also more colorful foliage.

The trail narrowed, and led in 3.3 miles (one-way) to Orin Falls. Despite the name, don’t expect to see a waterfall there. On Maine rivers, a falls, counter-intuitively, designates whitewater that is navigable. What makes the setting there remarkable is that the Wassataquoik Stream flows between massive boulders, with the riverbanks adorned with fall foliage. Since it is quite open, I waited for a long time for a bit of clear sky, but since that did not materialize, I contented myself with intimate landscapes excluding the sky.

Lunksoos Camp

The Lunksoos Campground turned out to be the nicest of the three road-accessible campgrounds in Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, with a patch of grass by the river to pitch your tent, a boat launch, picnic tables, and a toilet, which is about as developed as the monument gets. It is the only place in the monument where water is available, at the nearby park headquarters, which consists of a few humble cabins where a pair of rangers live. The previous night, I had stayed at the Sandbank Stream Campground, but I thought that the setting of the Lunksoos Campground was more scenic, so with a clear night in the forecast, I returned there. Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument has some of the darkest skies east of the Mississippi River, and in the windless night, stars reflected clearly on the East Branch of the Penobscot River. The morning was also still, and fall foliage made for beautiful reflections.

Barnard Mountain

On the third day, taking advantage of a sunny morning, we made a beeline for Barnard Mountain. The 1621-feet mountain is reached via a 4.5 mile RT hike (900 feet elevation gain). From the trailhead (Mile 11.8), it first follows an old road along the IAT, and then switches back steeply for the last 0.8 miles on a narrow footpath. Like other peaks in the monument, Barnard Mountain is dwarfed by Katahdin, but it still rewards with a view, open only towards the west, said by Cathy Johnson from the Natural Resources Council of Maine to be one of the best in Maine, and the “not to be missed” spot in Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. Given that opinion, it struck me that the footpath was built only in 2014, five years ago. We are still in the early days of a bright recreational future.

On the way, I had noticed Katahdin Brook, the outflow of Katahdin Lake which is visible from Barnard Mountain, but the sunlight was creating contrasty conditions in the forest. After driving around on the loop road, in the late afternoon, I returned to photograph Katahdin Brook in more even light.

Haskell Rock Pitch

Rain returned on the fourth day. In the morning, I made the 1h30 drive from the south entrance to the north entrance, stopping in Patten for breakfast – my only non-camping food of the trip. Just before the monument’s north entrance, and before a river bridge, a lodge offers amenities. Once on Grand Lake road, if you miss the left turn off for the monument, shortly thereafter the highway turns into an unpaved road. After turning and driving 4 miles on another unpaved road, I parked at the road’s end and hiked another old road section of the IAT (4 miles RT) to Haskell Rock Pitch. The magnificent rapids over the East Branch of the Penobscot River are the most impressive in the monument. In Maine parlance, a pitch is a whitewater that’s too rough to navigate in a canoe, so higher than a “falls”. Although I paddle only occasionally, I could see how much variety the river would offer. Sam Deeran, the Deputy Director of Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters, to whom I am most grateful for his help in planning my trip, considers the three rivers: East Branch of the Penobscot River, Seboeis River, and Wassataquoik Stream, to be the heart of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

I lingered at the Haskell Rock Pitch, taking in the sound of water, looking for ways to frame Bald Mountain and for angles over the Haskell Rock (a 400 million year old puddingstone rock), but mostly waiting for the weather to change, since I had learned in the previous days that it can go from cloudy to clear and vice-versa in the blink of an eye there. It did change, and I was gifted with images that I didn’t expect at all while I was hiking under intermittent showers and a grey sky. After making it back to my car right at nightfall, I drove to Acadia National Park, where my experience couldn’t have been more different.

It’s not that I saw moose on two occasions in Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, whereas there is no permanent breeding moose population on Mount Desert Island. It didn’t bother me that the Blackwoods Campground in Acadia charged $30 per night, whereas the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument campgrounds were free. What disappointed me was that as I attempted to drive to Cadillac Mountain an hour before sunset on a weekend, the road to the mountain was outright closed by rangers for “congestion”. On the other hand, although on weekdays, except for the last day, I always saw at least another hiking party on each of the trails I undertook, I could count on the fingers of my hands the total number of other cars I saw during the four days in Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. Even compared to nearby Baxter State Park, which has been kept a low profile and undeveloped, exploring Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is, for now, a backcountry affair. I liked it that way. You can still beat the future crowds in Maine’s rough gem.

More pictures of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument

Steps behind the image: Keno Road Fir

Although paved, the Keno Access Road, in the northeast corner extension of Cascade Siskiyou National Monument was so remote that I hardly saw any other car on it. This made it possible to drive slowly enough to look for photographs, a normally hazardous proposition for the solo driver. One of the advantages of going on a trip with one or companions is that you can have a designated driver, while others are free to look around.

Cascade Siskiyou National Monument doesn’t have too many roadside views, and the Keno Access road is no exception, as there are only a few spots where the horizon is not blocked by trees. I looked for smaller scenes, and since the monument carries one of the three most rich conifer forests in the world, I envisioned a portrait of a conifer tree. Those trees are often quite dark, but what struck me was how the greens of some of the firs had a bright, almost electric hue. Here is the wider scene, as almost seen from the windshield.

Is there a photograph here? To find out, you have to try, and after reading this post, you’ll know what I mean by trying. I made no fewer than eight adjustments. The first was obvious. After getting out of the car, I moved closer and cropped out the road:

Out of the trees present in the picture, the one that caught my eye was at the left, because its greens were so brilliant and it had such a regular and steep shape. In the previous composition, it is dominated by the other dark trees, so I moved to the right and pointed the camera left to remove them from the composition.

The base of the tree merges with the background forest in a mass of green. To detach it, I move in closer. This makes the foreground tree larger relative to the background, and also let the point the lens up. Notice that although the composition appears more tight compared to the previous image, I did not zoom in. In the previous image, the lens was set up at 70mm, whereas it is now set up at 55mm. Zooming in preserves the relative perspective, whereas changing the viewpoint changes the relative perspective.

Can the foreground tree be better separated from the background? Yes, by moving just a bit to the left, I introduce a bit of sky between the main tree and the one located behind and left of it. I liked that the inverse slope of the branches paralleled the slope of the background tree.

With that image, I achieved the goal of making a clear portrait of the tree that attracted me to the scene, but the image feels a bit too simple for my taste. From a visual point of view, it lacks a counterpoint to the main tree, one that would hint to the idea biological diversity. One of the components of my “style”, for a lack of better word, is my predilection for information-rich images.

I go back to the drawing board, and include again the dark conifer on the right. This time, compared with the initial composition, my closer position gives the main tree a prominent position in the image, and I like the contrast created by the darker greens.

However, the rocks at the bottom left corner are a distraction in a scene which is all about shades of green. Making it worse, they are brighter than the vegetation. Bright objects draw the eye, and those rocks are certainly not something I want to draw attention to. To hide them, I adopt a lower viewpoint sitting down on the pavement – thanks for the lack of traffic! Most of the rocks are now hidden by bushes.

Like in a previous step, there is overlap between the main tree and the one on the right. I moving a bit to the right, but I cannot totally eliminate it without introducing overlap between the main tree and the one on the left. At least I partially limit it by aligning one of the gaps between foreground branches with a background branch. At this point, I found the optimal camera position.

I finish by refining the framing. Moving to the right introduced some stray branches at the left edge of the frame. Often, elements like that along the edge detract from the composition by pulling your eye towards the edge and then outside the frame as the eye follows them, rather than keeping it in the picture. I zoom in a bit to clean up that edge.

Here you are, nothing “epic” or even particularly remarkable, but instead a mundate scene where composition choices, which are essentially limited to camera position, changed no less than eight times, made something (hopefully) out of a few trees and a cloudless sky.

Cascade Siskiyou Beyond Pilot Rock

Most travelers identify Cascade Siskiyou National Monument with Pilot Rock, whose distinctive profile can be seen from both directions of I-5 between Oregon and California. In this article, I describe four other favorite locations in the monument and discuss some of the photographs I made there. Except for the last one, all of them require a bit of hiking. Because Cascade Siskiyou National Monument is heavily forested and all below treeline, there are not too many roadside views in the monument. Pilot Rock is not forgotten, though, as it is seen from all over the monument, and it will serve to link those locations, kind of like in Hokusai’s 36 views.

(this is the best available map, click to enlarge)

Boccard Point

Boccard Point, in the Soda Mountain Wilderness at the south of the monument, is a bluff located in juniper scablands that offered the best views that I found within the monument. I thought they were spectacular than Pilot Rock because at Pilot Rock, when you are at the base, views are limited by the rock, while the top of the rock is quite narrow, therefore not offering a range of viewpoints. On the other hand, the last quarter-mile of the trail to Boccard Point follows a ridge with open views. This lets you choose from a range of different foregrounds to the expansive views that include the three mountain ranges converging in Cascade Siskiyou National Monument.

The main trail from the Hobart Bluff Trailhead, is 10-mile (RT) with 1,500 feet elevation gain. In 2014, the Siskiyou Mountain Club cut a new trail into an old road from the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) to Boccard Point. It remains quite primitive with faint and rough sections, but reduces the hike to 4 miles RT. That trail was recent enough that Ashland-based noted photographer and educator Sean Bagshaw, with whom I had the pleasure to hike, had not been there yet. To get to the trailhead from Hwy 66, take Buckhorn Springs Road (unpaved from there, but easily passable like most roads in the monument), Tyler Creek Road, then Baldy Creek Rood until you see a small parking area on the left crossed by the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), and look for a faint path heading east. Boccard Point is marked on the official map, but is a quiet destination. I saw a party on the PCT, but we had the rest of the trail to ourselves.

Hobbart Bluff

Hobart Bluff Trailhead gives access to two moderate trails. The Soda Mountain Lookout (4 miles RT) offers views that extend to Pilot Rock and Mount Shasta, but the last mile is a bit of a trudge on an old road and the summit itself is uninspiring because it is full of structures and communications equipment. My favorite part of that hike was the first mile on the PCT where in late June wildflowers abound in the meadows. After making the wide view in sunny conditions, I waited for a passing cloud to photograph a more intimate view of the meadow excluding the sky without the distractions created by shadows and high contrast.

Hobart Bluff is a 3-mile RT hike with 240 feet elevation gain passing old-growth forest and rolling meadows along the way. The views to the north open far. I did not want a highly magnified foreground to compete for attention and scale with the sunrays, so I composed with the wildflowers at some distance, and similarly I felt that a distant foreground balanced the hills better.

To the south, the views are limited by a ridge and the presence of a power line. Photographing in that direction, I made my composition about the contrast between the chaotic foreground and the regular pattern of conifers.

Grizzly Peak

Cascade Siskiyou National Monument, as proclaimed by President Clinton in 2000, initially covered 65,000 acres. At the urging of scientists, in 2017 President Obama extended the monument by 48,000 acres. Grizzly Peak and the surrounding Rogue Valley foothills in the northwest corner of the expansion area are home to rare populations of plant species such as rock buckwheat, Baker’s globemallow, and tall bugbane. I wouldn’t be able to identify those, but I delighted in some of the more than 275 species of flowering plants found there. The Grizzly Park Loop Trail is a favorite hike for locals. The lollipop loop (5 miles, 840 feet elevation gain) leads to to big views, all the more open because the forest near the top burned. By hiking counter-clockwise, you save the best views for last.

Before passing some of the most beautiful meadows I’ve seen in the monument, the trail starts in the forest. Right at the start of the trail, in the afternoon, a backlit tree on a hillside caught my eye. It appears small in the high-contrast composition but that is precisely why it brings more depth to it. The next morning, before sunrise, the exact same scene looked entirely different as the soft, but directional light revealed the deep palette of greens, the forest’s texture, and the lush forest floor.

Hyatt Lake

Unlike several of the primitive national monuments I wrote about recently, Cascade Siskiyou is quite close to a city (Ashland), and has reasonable amenities that include restrooms, well-signed trails and trailheads. At the hamlet of Green Springs, near the intersection of Hwy 66 and East Hyatt Lake Rd, there is an information station where you can pick up a useful free map, and a lodge with a restaurant. You could also stay at a fully developed campground on the shore of Hyatt Lake. Other free primitive campgrounds are available, and like in most BLM-managed national monuments, dispersed camping is also allowed.

When I came to the Hyatt Lake lakeshore in the afternoon, the wind churned the water. This eliminates any reflections, and makes the water look darker. Returning the next day in the early early morning, I found the water glassy as I hoped, and as a bonus a thin layer of fog rose at one spot in the lake. I promptly made my way around the lake to head closer to it.

My first instinct was to exclude the sky to keep the focus on the band of light formed by the fog, with the dark band of trees keeping the eye in the picture. However, I also liked that the sun and the rock seemed to be in dialog with each other. I stopped down the lens to f/22 to make a sun star and tried a wide view from the same viewpoint, framing the image so that the line formed by the shore would originate in the right bottom corner of the image and remain clear from the image frame. Since what attracted me to the wider composition was the balance between the sun and the rock, I made it stronger by moving the camera to align them vertically. The shallow arm of water was now vertical rather than oblique, so we have also the bright vertical line of the sun reflection balance the horizontal bright line formed by the fog. Do you think the small change of viewpoint made a difference?

Pilot Rock, Cascade Siskiyou National Monument

Our planet is experiencing a mass extinction at a scale unprecedented since the demise of dinosaurs 65 million years ago (UN Report, Center for Biological Diversity). Public lands can act as sanctuaries for biodiversity. In 1947, Everglades National Park was the first large tract of land protected not for its scenic value, but for the benefit of the unique diversity of life it sustained. However, it wasn’t until 2000 that a national monument was established solely for the protection of biodiversity: Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Southern Oregon.

(click to enlarge)

More than 3,500 species of plants and animals live in the Klamath Mountains ecoregion, making it one of the three most biodiverse conifer forests in the world – the other two are in the American Southeast and the Primorye region of the Russian far east. Why is such a relatively small place (114,000 acres) so biodiverse? The monument is situated at the convergence of the Klamath (to the southwest), Cascade (to the north), and Siskiyou (to the west) mountain ranges, and is also an interface of the Sierra Nevada (to the south) and Great Basin Desert (to the east) ecoregions. The Cascade Range is relatively young, where the Siskiyous are the oldest mountains in Oregon, and the complex geology contributes to a variety of soil types. The Siskiyous are unusually oriented east-west, facilitating migrations with the coastal ranges, and they became a refuge during the last ice age, as they were not heavily glaciated.

Pilot Rock

Unlike national parks, large national monuments usually lack an iconic landmark. That’s not the case of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, which has Pilot Rock, known by that name since pioneer days, when it served as a landmark to travelers crossing the Siskiyou Pass between Oregon and California. The rock is a volcanic plug, a remnant of a vent left after a volcano eroded away, leaving a trace of the inside of a volcano. Pilot Rock has vertical basalt faces 400 feet high, with columnar jointing similar to the Devil’s Tower.

To get to Pilot Rock’s trailhead, take Exit 6 (Mt Ashland) on I-5, and follow Old Hwy 99 and then an unpaved access road. The trailhead is close enough to the freeway that if you are traveling it, you should consider making a stop. The hike to the base of the rock is about 3 miles (RT) with 625 feet elevation gain, mostly in the 0.75 mile after you leave the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Hiking in the late Friday afternoon, I did not see anybody else at the site, and the rock loomed impressively above with steep walls. Intending to climb to the top, I began to scramble up a wide chimney, but faced with a steep chockstone, I elected to follow a ledge towards the right (west) at the base of the cliff. It let me only to the prow of the formation, and from there no more progress was possible. I understood why the BLM recommends to come with someone who has done the climb before. Since it was very windy, late, and I was carrying a full camera backpack, I chose to photograph the sunset from that spot. On my way down, I spotted what appeared to be a possible route to the top, a dihedral in the middle of the north face.

The next day, I started to hike in the dark, and after a mile joined the PCT. The Pilot Rock trail was too close to the formation for a view of it within the landscape, so instead, I aimed for a more distant viewpoint. I took the left fork, continuing on the PCT for slightly less than a mile. From its name and aspect on the map, a point marked as Babbit’s Saddle looked promising, and I had timed my arrival there for pre-dawn. Babbit’s Saddle turned out indeed to be the first spot on the trail with open views and was adorned with multicolored wildflowers. However, since the spot is regularly used for backcountry camping, it was looking far from pristine, with a multitude of places on the ground rendered bare from the foot traffic. While making sure to stay on the trail to avoid adding to the impact, by walking away from the saddle, I found a spot where the ground vegetation was more intact, and from there, I made a wide-angle photograph of Pilot Rock bathed by the light of sunrise, with Mt Shasta in the distance.

I hiked a few more miles on the PCT, finding only a few open views, before backtracking to the junction with the Pilot Rock Trail. Since it was a Saturday morning, there were already quite a few hikers ahead of me, and looking at them confirmed that the route to the top was via the diedral. I had hidden my backpack and tripod at the junction, carrying only a belt pack (A 20 year old Lowepro Off Trail) with the Sony A7R3, 24-105, 16-35, and a water bottle. With that lightweight equipment, climbing over the chockstone (class 3) was no problem. The rest of the ascent was an easy and fun scramble. The top offered 360-degrees views as expected, but the landscape below lacked defining features, and in midday light what interested me the most was the close look at the columnar formations. Partly cloudy days are my favorite conditions because if I wait long enough, I can photograph either in hard direct sunlight or the soft light of cloud cover. While waiting for the light, I relax and enjoy the landscape with my eyes. For the wide view, sunlight was preferable. The shadows helped define the shapes, the brightness and contrast kept the emphasis on the land. On the other hand, for the detail view, I preferred soft light, for its even character didn’t distract from the colors and textures. Often strong light is better for large subjects and soft light for small subjects.

Beyond Pilot Rock

There is, of course, much more to the monument than Pilot Rock. The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) traverses the monument, and is its main hiking trail. It can be accessed at several points, and a short hike will reveal how much diversity is found in those green woods.

In the next post, although Pilot Rock will remain in our sights, I write about other favorite locations I stumbled upon during my visit. In the while, here are a few vignettes from the deep green tapestry that is Cascade Siskiyou National Monument.

(To be continued)

Reader Survey

This blog started in August 2009. During the first 10 years, I published 485 articles, close to one article per week on average. Much changed during that time. Social media had no “algorithmic” timelines, nor “like” buttons. 500px, Instagram and Google+ did not exist yet. The blog outlasted the later. Could it be that blogging is still relevant?

Thank you for reading and putting up with me. At the start, I didn’t know much about the basics of blogging. For instance, in the beginning, I seldom replied to comments. But as the years went by, I’ve tried to become more responsive and write posts that would create some value and be more useful. To help me on this path, I’d be grateful if you would take a few minutes and answer a quick, anonymous, reader survey. If you do not see the questions below, click here to access the survey.

P.S.: The image illustrating this short post represents “the reader”. If you have Treasured Lands, you can notice that the last image in the opening section before the national parks, is a “selfie”, it represents me about to embark on the journey. The book is an invitation to explore, so after going through it, now it is the reader’s turn to go on the journey, and he is represented in that image, the last one of the book. By the way, my friend Tom who was the subject is a seasoned mountaineer, and I generally do not recommend standing close to the edge.