Terra Galleria Photography

Yucca House: the Worst National Monument?

This year, I’ve written about quite a few national monuments. Some of them are larger and, in my opinion, more interesting than some national parks. However, they form a disparate collection with a huge range of resources, and Yucca House National Monument is a case in point.

Yucca House was first described in F. V. Hayden’s Tenth Annual Report of the United States Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, Embracing Colorado and Parts of the Adjacent Territories, Being a Report of Progress of the Exploration for the Year 1876. In this volume reporting on the explorations of William Henry Holmes and William Henry Jackson in southwestern Colorado, including Mesa Verde and other Southwestern archaeological sites, Holmes described Yucca House as the most immense dwelling found during the survey.

Yucca House National Monument was established almost a century ago, in 1919, and is certainly worthy of that protection if you consider that one of the pueblos on the site had an estimated 600 rooms and 100 kivas, making it one of the most significant archeological sites in the country. For comparison, the famous Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde National Park, the largest cliff dwelling in North America, contained 150 rooms and 23 kivas. If comparing a valley pueblo to a cliff dwelling sounds too much like a apples to oranges comparison, the largest pueblo in Aztek Ruins National Monument, which extends in an area the size of a football field and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is estimated to once have 500 rooms.

All of this sounds promising, but when visiting the site, you’ll be in for a surprise. The first is in getting there. Directions by Google Maps and other GPS apps are correct and the site and is a dozen miles from Cortez, so it is not hard to locate. However, without GPS that would be another story, since there are no signs pointing to the site. The area is not wild but located amongst farmlands, and you need to drive on private farm roads, complete with “No Trespassing” signs – an inquiry with the NPS at Mesa Verde confirmed that despite of them, there is public access by special permission from the landowners. When I was there, the dirt roads were easy to drive, but I read in a trip report from someone who found them so muddy that they could not pass with their 4×4 Ford F-150.

Eventually, at a trailhead that appears located on someone’s yard, you can spot a “Yucca House National Monument” sign. Since the area appears to be prime rattlesnake habitat, fortunately at the beginning there is a boardwalk leading you through grasses. After passing two cattle doors, it gives way to a one foot strip of dirt, and following it for a short distance, you come in front of a mound of earth delimited by a short section of ruined wall on a side.

That’s all the artifacts you will see at Yucca House National Monument, because the pueblo has not been excavated. That wall is part of the Lower House, a small structure compared to the Western Complex, of which only a mound is visible. The National Park Service writes:

“The unexcavated nature of the site preserves its integrity and beauty for future generations of scientists and visitors. Experience a sense of discovery by visiting a site that has remained largely untouched for the past 800 years!”
Indeed, even if an excavation is done carefully enough not to damage the site, excavated areas become re-exposed to the weather, and therefore to erosion through rain, freeze-thaw, or wind, not to mention gravity. Walls such as the small section of the Lower House visible in the monument need to be stabilized. So for the sake of archeological conservation, sites are better left unexcavated.

However, for the sake of visitors, that’s another story. Some would say there is basically nothing to see at Yucca House National Monument. With its 33.87 acres (three times smaller than Gateway Arch National Park) it’s not like there is much natural terrain to explore either. Both the Colorado Welcome Center in Cortez and the Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores discouraged a visit. Maybe this, combined with the remote character of the site, explain why in two separate visits, I never saw anybody else there. The second time, the sky was overcast, but at least it did not rain like the first time, which allowed me to operate a drone – legal since I was not standing on NPS lands but rather outside the tiny monument. In the darkness past sunset, a glow barely perceptible to the eye appeared on the distant cliffs (below) and about five minutes later (opening photo) it was gone.

The title of this post suggests that Yucca House National Monument may be the least interesting of the 130 national monuments. But it is not even the case. Can you guess which one could be “worse”?

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument: an Interconnected Cultural Landscape

Of all America’s prehistoric civilizations, none left more visible traces than the Ancestral Puebloan culture, and nowhere else in the country can one find so many of their ancient sites, than at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.

The Anasazi or Ancestral Puebloan culture flourished between AD 300 and 1300 in the Four Corners area. Within this vast region, there are three large protected archeological areas: famous Mesa Verde National Park, Bears Ears National Monument which made recent news, and the lesser known Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. The monument is located outside Cortez, Colorado, on the side opposite to Mesa Verde.

The geology of Canyons of the Ancients, with the mesas and branched canyons, is quintessential of the American Southwest. Natural resources attracted its past inhabitants, and the rugged landscape has contributed to the protection of the historic sites. When Canyons of the Ancients National Monument was established, in 2000, it was the largest protected cultural landscape at 176,000 acres (275 square miles) – by comparison, Mesa Verde extends for 81 square miles. The landscape-level protection let us study the Ancestral Puebloans choices for the locations their communities, the way they structured their society and used natural resources, preserving the pattern of the way people lived on and made use of the land over 10,000 years.

Individual sites take on greater significance when considered in the context of a larger cultural landscape. Canyons of the Ancients National Monument features the highest known archaeological site density in the United States. There are more than 6,000 recorded sites, and many more are yet to be discovered, with their total number estimated to be up to 30,000. In some areas, more than 100 sites have been found per square mile, and according to estimates, that is the average density of archeological sites in the monument including sites yet to be discovered. Those sites include cliff dwellings and kivas, but also petroglyphs, shrines, agricultural fields, dams, and other components of human life.

The area has a primitive character, with few facilities and visitors. It is the opposite of Mesa Verde National Park in a way, and rewards those looking for out of the beaten path locations. Although not situated in the monument, the Anasazi Heritage Center in the town of Dolores serves as its visitor center. It has the most extensive exhibits and artifact collection related to that ancient culture anywhere. You can get good maps and information about the monument there, but in my experience, the staff will not direct you to sites other than those listed below. With the exception of them, all archeological sites in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument are left in their original, unrestored state, and are not marked for their protection and to further self-discovery. Therefore, although the monument has a plethora of ancient sites, finding them is a different matter.

Lowry Pueblo

Lowry Pueblo is the least isolated area in the monument, as it is close to agricultural lands – but I was still the only visitor there. The fertility of those lands helps explain why that area was settled by the Ancients Puebloans and why the community prospered there. Lowry Pueblo is also the most developed of the sites in the monument, which means that you’ll find a restroom, picnic area, packed trails, interpretive signs, and stabilized structures. However, the tallest part of the main structure is now covered by a large metal roof.

Avoiding it, I photographed lower walls. Notice the slightly higher viewpoint showing more of the walls in the second image? It was from a drone. You don’t have to fly them high for the difference of perspective to be visible! In the first image, I photographed under the soft light of a cloud so that no shadows would break the shapes of the shrub and walls, but in the second image, the shadows created by the strong light of direct sunlight help outline the structure of the more distant subject.

Painted Hand Pueblo

Since few large structures in the monument have been excavated, those you can see are much smaller than the major dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park. Most of the ruins at Painted Hand Pueblo have been left unexcavated, but the site is remarkable for a single circular tower sitting on a large boulder on the rim of the canyon, overlooking a scenic landscape. Those types of compositions work better when the sun shines from the direction of the canyon, which in this case is the afternoon. Note that nearby Hovenweep National Monument, which is totally surrounded by Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, has several clusters of ruins with similar character which are easier to find and to access, but more restricted.

Sand Canyon

Sand Canyon Trail is the best place in the monument to easily see many structures thanks to signage pointing to spur trails that led to points of interest. Sand Canyon can be approached via two trailheads separated by 6.5 miles of trail. Sand Canyon Pueblo is located near the north trailhead. The ruins are as large as the Cliff House in Mesa Verde, but they have been reburied after excavation, so all you can see now is rubble outlining the structure. After less than 2 miles, steep switchbacks drop about 1,000 feet, so the other trailhead, along paved county road G is more popular. Starting from the south trailhead, 8 major structures can be seen on the first 4 miles, and most turn back at the switchbacks. Because you hike for quite a ways from one structure to the next, and you have to look for them in cliff alcoves away from the main trail, there is more of a sense of discovery than at a place like Hovenweep where most of the sites can be spotted at a glance or right next to the trail.

Holiday Print Sale

It is a great time of the year to add new wall art to your home for holiday enjoyment. Decorate your office and write up expenses for the tax year 2018. Limited-edition prints also make one-of-a-kind (or almost) gifts.

If you are still on the fence, how about a 25% discount off the normal price, with free shipping worldwide, for any print offered via this website?

The sale lasts until the end of the year, so there is still time to order, but consider ordering early to ensure delivery before the holidays. Enter coupon code xmas at checkout and click Apply Coupon.

Each print is signed and numbered, and my edition numbers are truly limited, with the largest one consisting of only 25 prints. For sizes and prices, click here.

Least-visited in Mesa Verde: a New Angle on Square Tower House

Wetherill Mesa is the quieter side of Mesa Verde National Park, but a few other cliff houses see even less visitation, even though they are some of the most visible structures in the park, like Square Tower House. Find out in this post about the most special tours in the park, which started only in the 2010s.

Square Tower House is an impressive three-storied structure located beneath a slightly overhanging cliff. Built in the mid-1200s, it is the tallest structure in Mesa Verde and retained its stature as the tallest man-made structure in America until the mid-1800s. The alcove above Square Tower House is not as deep as those that overhang over the other major cliff houses, and this may be why the builders had to expend the structure upwards.

Because of its height, Square Tower House is one of the most iconic cliff dwellings in the park, and is visible from an overlook reached by a short trail that starts past Navajo Canyon View at the beginning of Mesa Top Loop. Since it is south-facing, the structure is lighted most of the day, but the mid-morning to mid-afternoon light is flat, whereas late-afternoon light creates strong cross-shadows that help define the walls. In the summer, the cliff shades the structure at sunset, but in the winter, the last rays of the sun touch it.

In the entire park, to protect archeological sites and artifacts, hiking is allowed only on designated trails, and visitors may not enter cliff dwellings unless accompanied by a park ranger. Square Tower House was open to the public in the 1930s, but had been off-limits until 2011, when the NPS started a new “special backcountry tour” program.

Although mentioned on the park’s website, backcountry tours are not advertised at the visitor center, and tickets cannot be purchased there. Reservations must be made at least 24 hours in advance on recreation.gov, for a fee of $25/person. Tour groups are limited to 10 visitors, and for each structure included in the program, there are only a few tours offered each week from late May to mid-October, which explain why they can sell out months in advance. In 2018, besides Square Tower House, backcountry tours visited Oak Tree House (another structure visible from an overlook on Mesa Top Loop), Mug House (on Wetherill Mesa, photo below), and the remote Spring House (8 miles RT).

With the tour groups much smaller than regular tours that may include as many as 50 participants and tours and lasting longer, you really get to interact with the rangers if you wish. On our tour, there were two of them, plus a volunteer. One of the rangers was a Native American. I was wondering what he was carrying in a well-padded, thin and long case, until at the end of the tour he pulled out a beautiful wooden flute and played a melody to honor ancestors and thank them for allowing us to visit their home.

Besides taking you to see rarely visited structures, backcountry tours are more adventurous. On the regular tours, you often walk on a paved path. On the Square Tower House tour, we scaled two cliffs using ladders, and on the Mug House, there was a bit of scrambling over rocks.

The tour started at 8 AM, maybe because the tour time is fixed year-round and the early start avoids the heat of the day in summer, but on the last tour of the year, on Oct 13, it was quite chilly, and the structure remained in the shade all the time. That was actually favorable for photography, as reflected light created enough gradations of shade, particularly if one photographed towards the part of the canyon in the sun, using what is the equivalent of cross-lighting.

There was also plenty of time to examine smaller architectural details of the structure, such as an original kiva roof, and while it was a challenge to photograph, especially if excluding modern metal support, it was very cool to see that a construct made of mud laid over wooden beams had traversed so many centuries.

Besides making it possible to appreciate the height of the tower by looking at it from its base, the tour revealed a structure called the Crow’s Nest improbably perched high in a cliff crevice, that can not be seen from the overlook.

Everything adds up to make for a great experience, and I think those are the most special tours available in Mesa Verde National Park.

Wetherill Mesa: the Quieter Side of Mesa Verde National Park

Wetherill Mesa, located on the west side of Mesa Verde National Park, is a long and narrow peninsula of land rising above deep canyons. Its rock alcoves are home to structures as impressive as those found on Chapin Mesa, however the experience of visiting is quite different.

Many visitors rush through the landscape of the park towards the ruins, but the scenery is quite beautiful, especially in the autumn when the mountain shrub plant community brightens the slopes on both sides of the road.

Wetherill Mesa is more wide-open than Chapin Mesa, especially since most of the trees are burned. Mesa Verde, unlike other national parks, did not implement control burns due to the omnipresence of archeological resources, and this has resulted in large wildfires that burned two-thirds of the park’s area within the last 15 years.

What differentiates a visit there is that Wetherill Mesa forms the quieter side of the park, seen by less than a quarter of the visitors to Mesa Verde National Park. While Mesa Verde became a national park in 1906, it was not until 1961 that major sites at Wetherill Mesa were excavated and stabilized, during the three-year Wetherill Mesa Project, one of the most important archeological works in the country up to that time. One of the goals of the National Park Service in opening Wetherill Mesa to the public in 1973 was to relieve congestion at Chapin Mesa, but they were not quite successful, since only a fraction of visitors make the trip there.

It could be because the winding 12-mile road from the Far View Junction to Wetherill Mesa Information Kiosk takes 45 minutes to drive. Past that point, no motorized vehicles are allowed, so Wetherill Mesa is a good place to spend a slower-paced day on foot away from the congestion of Chapin Mesa. The 5-mile paved Long House Loop gives hikers and bikers access to three overlooks over cliff dwellings, and is also the trailhead for Long House. The loop used to be serviced by a free tram, which stopped operating in 2015 for administrative reasons.

The star attraction of Wetherill Mesa is Long House. It was a named so by the Wetherill brothers because the structure stretches for the full extent of the largest occupied cave in Mesa Verde. Although Cliff Palace is universally mentioned as the largest cliff dwelling in North America, Long House, set up in a longer 300-foot alcove, is essentially as large, with the same number of rooms (150) and kivas (21). Yet, it is the least visited of the park’s five major structures – the others are Cliff Palace, Spruce Tree House, Balcony House, and Step House.

I thought that the 2-hour ranger-led tour (2.25 miles RT), the only way to visit the site, was more special than Cliff Palace because you climb two ladders and go behind some of the ruins. Tour tickets are inexpensive but must be picked in person at the new Visitor and Research Center right at the entrance of the park or the Colorado Welcome Center in Cortez, up to 2 days in advance. I was surprised that tickets for the next day, a weekday in October, were sold out, but usually, there are last minute cancellations and the ranger let me join the tour with a ticket for the following day.

The light is challenging at Long House, since it faces southwest and is fully sunlit at midday. In mid-October with the 2 PM tour, although the structure was partly in the sun and partly in the shade, enough of it was in the sun and enough in the shade for images of diverse character.

The other structure on Wetherill Mesa open to the public is Step House, which can be visited freely during opening hours when a ranger is present. The site is accessed via a paved 1-mile loop trail that offers views of Long Canyon.

It is an unusual site in that two construction periods are found in the same alcove. Since visitors can walk through the structure, an image without people in it can require a bit of patience, but I was mostly interested in its details, such as the reconstructed pithouse of the Basketmaker period (A.D. 626) contrasting with the masonry dating to the classic Ancestral Pueblo period (A.D. 1226).

Photographing Oak Flat and Warner Point Trails in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

A few weeks ago, when I drove out of Montrose, Colorado, on the way to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, a sign warned of winter conditions. I wondered what that meant, but quickly found out as the nighttime temperatures dropped to the upper tens. The next day turned out cold and mostly cloudy. See how I used that light as I hiked the two most interesting trails on the south rim, resulting in images of very different character.

Oak Flat and Fall Foliage

The two-mile Oak Flat Trail (350 feet elevation gain/loss) departing from the Visitor Center let you have a closer look at the canyon below the rim without hiking to the bottom. Unlike the other short overlook trails, the Oak Flat Trail spends most of its length in dense vegetation cover. That made it an excellent choice for those cloudy conditions since soft light is the best for photographing in the forest. There are also a few viewpoints along the trail where you can frame the canyon surrounded by the native forests. The trees are mostly Douglas fir and oak, but there are a few pockets of aspen along the trail. A small stand nested at the base of a tall cliff whose rocks added contrasting colors and textures.

The trail is an excellent place to look for fall foliage. It is named after thickets of Gambel oak that line up most of it, brightening the ground with orange colors in mid-October, in contrast with the darker red serviceberries.

Snow began to fall. In order to capture some of the snowflakes falling, I increased ISO to 400 so that I could get a faster shutter speed (1/320 sec @ f/13) while maintaining enough depth of field to render sharply the shrubs.

In most places, the snow melted almost instantly upon touching the ground, but I found a location where it lingered longer, and I photographed a few close-ups.

My favorite location on that morning was slightly off trail. I spotted an aspen grove in the distance, and bushwacked down a steep slope for a closer view that incorporated both the colors of the aspen and the Gambel oak. The soft light of the overcast sky was much preferable to a sunny day for this scene, but I had to exclude the sky since it was featureless and brighter than the land.

I got lucky that the clouds broke out for a few minutes, illuminating the opposite canyon walls. Because the sky wasn’t clear, the foreground wasn’t in deep shade. Seizing the moment when thanks to the direct sunlight the canyon stood out against the sky (aided in processing by darkening it a bit further), I changed my composition to a wider view that included the sky, giving a good sense of the beauty of the canyon in autumn.

Warner Point and the Canyon’s vastness

The trail to Warner Point (1.5 miles RT) begins at the High Point Overlook, at the west end of the road. When I started, the weather was cloudy, as it had been for most of the day, but having seen a local weather forecast, I was hopeful that the clouds would clear out in the late afternoon.

Along the trail, there are views south towards the San Juan Mountains and Uncompahgre Valley, and north towards the West Elk Mountains, however, the views at Warner Point itself are looking east towards the canyon, which calls for afternoon light. The clouds did break out, but it was fifteen minutes before sunset time, and by that time most of the canyon was in the shade, with only the very top of the rims illuminated.

I focussed in on details of the scene such as a lone tree:

and a portion of the rim and the distant mountains:

What distinguishes Warner Point from the other overlooks over the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is that the views there open up to a 180 degrees panorama, whereas most of the other overlooks offer only the glimpse of a narrow gorge. With the last rays of sun gone from the canyon, the clouds took on a beautiful color, and the more uniform light began to help convey the sense of vastness of the place:

As often for those canyon scenes, my favorite light occurred about half an hour after the actual sunset. Waiting in one place was tough because of the cold, but in the end well worth it. Photographers often leave after sunset, when direct sunlight has left the land, but some of the most beautiful light occurs between sunset and darkness. You should make sure to stay until it is dark – and make sure to bring a light for the hike back! The light at dusk is particularly beautiful because it is at the same time soft and directional, an infrequent and favorable combination. There are no harsh shadows nor excessive contrast to break up the shapes on the land. At the same time, the light comes mostly from a narrow band of sky in the western horizon, as opposed to the whole sky on a cloudy day, or earlier in the evening, so it creates areas of light and shade that help reveal the depth of the landscape. I heightened that sense of depth by adding another layer to the image with a foreground of rocks as the first stars appeared.

Treasured Lands 2019 Wall Calendar

The Treasured Lands 2019 Calendar was released just a month ago. For this edition of the namesake calendar, we chose to include in the calendar only images that have appeared in the book. Since I strive to visit the national parks in various seasons to capture their changing mood, it was easy to find seasonal images that match precisely each particular month. Like he did for the book, the designer avoided the monotony typical of calendars with a few surprises.

The calendar has a respectable size, actually slightly larger than the book. The printing is better than some of the calendars that have been produced with my images in the past. However, this time we have another printed reference, the Treasured Lands book, and it sets the bar high. The book’s printing is undoubtedly richer with more accurate and vibrant color, and what looks like deeper blacks and better highlight detail. However, the differences are clear only if you were to look at the book and calendar side by side – always an instructive comparison since the only controls are quantities of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks. The quality of the paper contributes significantly to the difference. The edge contrast is also better in the book (this is most noticeable in the Zion photograph) and this could be because I personally sharpened all the files – using Photokit Sharpener – whereas for the calendar this was left to the publisher and printer. Applying sharpening for print is not intuitive: with the proper amount for the printed page, the image on screen looks over-sharpened.

Regardless of its printing limitations, the calendar is an economical way to bring the national parks to the walls of your home or office, and they make for affordable gifts at a street price of about $10. Like in previous years, I do not sell the calendars, but copies may be ordered on Amazon.

Visiting the Hanford Site: Inside the World’s First Nuclear Reactor

The dual side of Hanford Reach, and reason for the accidental existence of Hanford Reach National Monument, is the Hanford Site (Hanford Nuclear Reservation) the former top secret Manhattan Project plutonium production facility established in 1943, which is almost entirely surrounded by the national monument.

Visiting the mysterious site used to require a security clearance, but since it became part of the Manhattan Project National Historic Site in 2015, any U.S. citizen can sign up for a free tour – and proof of citizenship was not even required.

After the government chose the Hanford Site for its remoteness and supply of water/electricity via the Columbia River, two communities were condemned and evacuated. One of the tours visits the remains of those communities. The other, probably the most interesting one, takes you inside the historic B reactor.

The B Reactor was the first large-scale nuclear reactor ever built. It supplied the plutonium used in the first atomic explosion (at the test Trinity site in New Mexico, July 1945) and in the bomb dropped over Nagasaki on Aug 9, 1945. Remarkably, although the Manhattan Project started only in August 1942 and construction at Hanford started in March 1943, by November 1944, B Reactor produced its first batch of plutonium. During the Cold War, the site expanded to nine nuclear reactors that produced most of the plutonium for more than 60,000 nuclear weapons. After the end of the Cold War caused the Hanford Site to be decommissioned, those reactors have been entombed (“cocooned”) in concrete, except for reactor B which has been designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service (NPS) and partly converted into a museum.

Except for the tours, the Hanford Site is not open to the public. Research facilities and commercial nuclear production are still active. More notably, the largest environmental Superfund cleanup effort in the country takes place there. The site is considered to be the most toxic place in America and has been dubbed “America’s Chernobyl”. The tours are conducted by the Department of Energy in partnership with the NPS (information and advance reservations here), daily or twice a day except on Sundays from the end of May to mid-November.

You meet at a temporary visitor center located in an anonymous business park in the city of Richland. There, you confirm your online sign-up and watch an introductory video before boarding a comfortable bus for a 45 minutes ride straight to the B reactor, during which a volunteer details more facts about the project. The reactor visit starts with another presentation in front of the impressive reactor’s core, after which visitors split into guided groups to view different parts of the facility such as the cooling system and control room before being left on their own.

I found the tour to be professionally conducted, explanations to be interesting and in-depth, and appreciated that there are no restrictions on photography, video, or use of tripods. Overall, the tour lasts 4 hours, is well worth the time, and a great way to spend those mid-day hours indoors. Given how historically significant the once secret site was, I think it is a unique opportunity to access something you’ll certainly not see anywhere else and gain a direct understanding of a technology that has changed the course of our world.

Hanford Reach National Monument: From the Bomb to Nature Refuge

Hanford Reach could the national monument with the most unusual history of all. Its lands, located in Eastern Washington, were initially set apart from development not for conservation, but as a security buffer zone for the top-secret Hanford Nuclear Reservation where the plutonium for the Nagasaki bomb – and many others during the Cold War – was manufactured, and which became the most polluted site in the Western Hemisphere.

After the end of the Cold War, the decommissioning of the Hanford Site’s nuclear reactors was followed by a cleanup that continues to this day, and to the establishment, in the year 2000, of a vast nature preserve in the buffer zone that surrounds it. The Hanford Site once provided most of the jobs in the area, but agriculture has quickly taken over. Without the nuclear activity, the former buffer zone, which now stands between industrial agriculture and a Superfund site, would have certainly been developed, especially since the unassuming lands are not home to any significant landform. The mighty Columbia River is heavily dammed, and its last remaining free-flowing section, which stretches 51 miles, is called the Hanford Reach, hence the national monument’s name.

The river in the Reach is lined up with islets, ponds and sloughs that have all but disappeared in the other sections of the Columbia, supporting one of the most productive salmon spawning areas in the Northwest. By contrast, most of the terrain of the monument is desert covered by the largest remnant of the shrub-steppe ecosystem that once blanketed the Columbia River Basin. The area receives between 5 and 10 inches of rain per year.

Approaching the monument, I was struck by the vastness of the area, but also by how dry and flat it appeared at first. More power lines than I’d seen elsewhere criss-crossed the land. It was not helping that I visited in mid-summer – as a family man, I was trying to put to good use a week that was freed because my children were at a camp. Under the scorching sun, with temperatures reaching 100 degrees, the air was constantly filled with haze. Along Hwy 24, the main highway inside the monument, a few signs point to the history of the area, but as far as facilities are concerned, that’s pretty much it. The monument has no visitor center, no campground nor commercial facilities, no established trails, and within its 304 square miles, I saw a single portable toilet.

As often, areas that from a distance and a zipping car look barren reveal their beauty if you know where to go and take a closer look. Although the monument appears large, the areas with public access are relatively limited, so it was not as difficult to find places to hike and photograph as it appeared at first.

Wahluke Unit

The most remarkable part of the monument is located in the eastern part of the Wahluke Unit, which is accessed via a well-graded dirt road starting south of Milepost 63.2 on Hwy 24. After a few miles, you arrive at an intersection. Heading east, you reach a riparian area called the Wahluke Ponds, which are dominated by tall verdant reeds contrasting contrast with the area’s arid grasslands. Continuing south leads to the White Bluffs Overlook, which offers an excellent roadside view of the Columbia River from the top of the bluffs. The west branch of the road ends at the White Bluffs Boat Launch. The river-level view there isn’t great, but approximately a half-mile mile before the end of the road, there is a large pullout that serves as an informal trailhead. From there, a user trail leads in half a mile to impressive close views of the White Bluffs that tower 400-feet above the river. The White Bluffs face West, so the hike is best undertaken in the late afternoon. The trail then climbs and follows the edge of the cliffs, and about three miles later, ends at extensive sand dunes that you will not find criss-crossed with footprints.

Ringold Unit

The Ringold Unit offers the opportunity to see the Columbia River and the surrounding habitats at river level along its well-graded, unpaved 8 miles, with bluffs and golden hills on the other side. The Ringold Unit is adjacent to the Wahluke Unit, but the 2-mile section of road linking to the White Bluffs Overlook, although open to foot traffic, is closed to vehicles. Driving from one to the other requires quite a big detour.

Saddle Mountain Unit

The area is part of the Columbia River Plateau, formed by basalt lava flows and water erosion. That geography is best observed from Saddle Moutain. A road, starting north of milepost 60.1 on Hwy 24 mostly, paved although indicated “high clearance vehicles”, gains about 1,500 feet elevation for excellent views of the Reach. At an intersection, make a right following a sign, the left branch continues for a long distance and eventually descends into the opposite valley. At first, it looks like all rolling hills, but a hike down the saddle from the end of the road reveals large basalt cliffs. I didn’t see a single person on the road or on the off-trail hike to the Saddle Mountain summit, and in the quiet of the place where only the sound of the wind was heard, the nuclear reactors and patches of agricultural lands looked far and insignificant.

Unfortunately, my selection of images is quite limited due to a big data loss, but I still hope that they have offered a glimpse of the beauty found there. I am looking forward to return in the springtime.

Lessons From Losing a Week of Photos to Memory Card Failure

Summary: One of the photographer’s greatest fears is to lose a significant chunk of images from a big trip or event. In this long-form article, find out how a memory card failure caused a week of photographs to disappear, what I did to try to recover them via software, then physical data services, and the valuable lessons, counter to common knowledge, to be learned about memory cards, dual card slots, and backups to prevent such a nightmare scenario from happening to you.

Landscape expeditions can be taxing in the long days of summer, even more so if you are also doing night photography. After flying to Seattle, I arrived at the coast of Olympic National Park around 11 PM – many view Treasured Lands as a culmination of my work in the national parks, but I am far from being done with them! Seeking stars, I woke up before 2 AM for the short window between moonset and astronomical twilight. However, the marine layer had rolled in while I was hiking to the beach, and I shivered until past sunrise time without even seeing a sliver of sky. The next day, since I had to drive from Heart of the Hills Campground and hike 45 minutes to Hurricane Hill, I rose before 1 AM.

On the last day, temperatures in the inland plains of Hanford Reach rose above 100F. When I came home from the week-long trip, I went straight to bed. The next morning, I reached for my cameras, took the memory card out, and inserted into the card reader. This resulted in the dreaded:

Attempting to read the card with software

I reacted with mere annoyance at the computer, and tried to read the card from the built-in memory card slot of a laptop. The same message appeared. Growing worried, I inserted the card into a standalone backup device, and it said “Memory card not found”. Surely I would be able to see the files in the camera, since the last time it had been turned on, less than a day before, everything was normal and I was able to scroll through some images? Nope, like the computer, the camera said “Unable to use memory card. Format?”

The PhotoRescue software installed on my computer had been successful at rescuing files from a corrupted card in the past, however, it did not uncover a single file this time. Hoping for better luck with Lexar’s own Image Rescue software that came with the card, without the activation code handy, I contacted Lexar’s customer support. They were quick in providing me a download, but it did not help:

Note that the computer sees 8.2 GB, but it was a 64 GB card. Lexar support suggested several other apps, including Ontrack® EasyRecovery which has a “technician” version with a $500/year licensing cost. As those apps include a trial mode that allow you to attempt to discover files, and require you to pay the fee only to actually recover them, I took each of them for a spin without success. There are a lot of recovery programs around, but if the error is hardware rather than software, you can try all the programs in the world, and they won’t do you any good.

Dealing with physical data recoveries services

It was time to contact a physical data recovery company. All those companies have a similar mode of operation. You send them your media with pre-paid overnight shipping at their cost, they diagnose it and provide an estimate. If you approve the estimate, they attempt to recover files and charge you if the recovery is successful. Seems fair, right? The problem was that the quote from the Lexar-recommended company was quite a bit higher than I expected:

After a bit of shopping, I found another company which provided me a lower quote. I sent them the card via Fedex overnight and got the following diagnosis:

Despite numerous attempts to identify the source of the problem, we were unsuccessful in reaching a solution. At this stage it is clear that this is an extremely complex case that will require extensive research, time & use of in-house donor parts. Your media will be passed to our Research and Development department; They will be able to research & execute techniques such as safe removal, reballing and replacement of the core processor and other components containing device specific information and repairs to fractures in the tracks of the logic board.

The work we would attempt is a highly skilled process that is not infallible. The chance of a successful recovery once these processes are completed is approximately 74%. At this point most Data Recovery services would send the media back to you as they don’t have the ability to do such complex work, let alone any sort of R&D department. Our R&D department is one of the best in the world, and they are responsible for creating new techniques and ways of recovering data that allow us to sustain an overall 92% recovery rate. Currently, we have two options for you:

Option 1. You allow our R&D department to use the lab time, parts & cleanroom facilities needed to gain access to your data. This is a standard process that will be completed within 15-20 business days. To go ahead with Option 1 an upfront payment of $800.00 is required, and this covers everything the R&D department will need to provide you with feedback: all lab time, parts required from our library, and cleanroom usage. If we are unable to gain access to any of your data that initial fee is not refundable.

Option 2. We return your media to you via either our courier or standard option, and you incur no recovery costs as we were unable to recover your data.

Although the fee wasn’t too bad, I wasn’t going to pay upfront without a recovery guarantee, especially after my friend Tommy, a technology entrepreneur and all-around geek opined “These are extremely difficult and risky techniques. I’m skeptical that they have such capability and even if they do, I doubt that the success rate is 74%. I guess more like 25% or less”. I declined, received my media back a few weeks later via regular mail, and sent it to yet another data recovery company:

Would you have proceeded with the recovery at this price?

Although you don’t often read that in reviews, my main complaint with the Sony A7R2 cameras is sensor dust resulting from the mirrorless design and an ineffective sensor dust cleaning system – it mechanically shakes the sensor using the image stabilization actuators. To cope, I work with two camera bodies in order to minimize lens changes. The excellent 24-105 FE (review) stays on the primary camera which is used for most of the photographs, while I reach for the secondary camera when I need more specialized lenses. On that trip, I had failed to do drive backups and the damaged memory card was in the primary camera, which meant that it contained the majority of a week’s worth of work, and probably the best photographs. However, I retained usable images from the second camera, a few of which illustrate this post.

I decided against proceeding with the attempted recovery, saving me the potential disappointment of failure or costs. It is not that the pictures aren’t worth the amount asked. Rather, including all expenses, the trip cost me only a fraction of that amount. This math didn’t account for my time, but no matter how tiring the effort felt, that time was spent on a process that I largely enjoy. Losing the pictures did not rob me of the experiences I had nor of the scouting I did, and rather than looking back by investing in the recovery, I chose to look forward by saving the money for a repeat trip – and a new camera.

The larger conclusion here is that attempts to read a card with recovery software may not always work, physical recovery services are expensive, and also not guaranteed to work. Even after three decades in photography, the incident reinforced several lessons for me.

Memory cards can fail

The disaster drew home the point that memory cards do fail catastrophically. Both data companies found serious physical damage, but that was a card that had been moderately used for a year without any single glitch, so neither “dead on arrival” nor past any reasonable life expectancy – which by the way nowadays is longer than technological obsolescence. It had never been subjected to any form of abuse before as it spent most of its life in a single camera, was formatted after each download, and prior to failure went straight from the camera to a card reader. There were certainly no warnings nor reasonable explanations.

I have been using digital cameras since the first days of full-frame in the early 2000s (remember the $8,000 Canon 1Ds series?) without any card failure, while during that time, I have had to replace a half-dozen failed hard drives. This made me overconfident in flash technology.

If you browse the internet, you will see that I was far from being alone. Quite a few other professional photographers (some with scores of workshop clients) state that they have never experienced any card failure and that when it happened, they were always able to rescue images with recovery software. Clearly, my experience has been different. The fact that you’ve been lucky doesn’t mean that your luck won’t run out at some point, as it did for me – and others. As we will see next, a quick perusal of customer reviews shows that memory card failure is not that rare.

Cards are not equally reliable

The card that failed is a Lexar Professional 1000x 64GB SDXC UHS-II/U3, which is amongst Lexar’s top line of cards, and deemed “professional” by the manufacturer. I used to believe that any memory card from a reputable brand would be reliable. If in addition, you bought it from a reputable vendor, chances that you’d get a counterfeit of questionable reliability would also be low. The preferred vendors are specialist stores such as B&H, but Amazon is fine, as long as you don’t buy from their third-party merchants. Sandisk and Lexar are two of the most well-known brands, and I’ve used exclusively their cards, depending on the best deal I could find at the moment.

Because of that belief, I didn’t pay much attention to customer reviews, adopting the attitude that nothing is 100% foolproof and unlucky folks can have a bad experience with any product. Besides, a quick glance at the ratings show that almost all cards are rated between 4-stars and 4.5-stars, so they must be good products, right?

It would have done me more good to read the Amazon customer reviews before buying the card, but after the card failure, I looked them up. One of the first 1-star reviews I read described the exact same experience I had:

I literally had just reviewed the pics on my Nikon D610 camera and inserted the card into my card reader and got a message that it was not formatted (which it was – I format every card when it’s new). I put the card back into my camera – and same Format error.
Although I didn’t read all the 300 1-star reviews, the ones that I sampled overwhelmingly bemoaned card failure. Since this was becoming quite relevant, I looked at the 1-star review tally: 15%. That’s almost 1 out of 6 reviews, odds similar to the Russian Roulette. If someone killed themselves playing the game, I don’t think you’d attribute his death to “just bad luck”. Of course, this is not a scientific observation because several factors affect review-writing, but you get the idea. On the other hand, it is instructive to compare the percentage of 1-star reviews for a few other UHS-II cards: If we assume that 1-star reviews are exactly the type you’d leave if the card totally failed, from that small sample, we can see that some cards are four times more likely to fail than others. This data also sugggests that there is a problem with those UHS-II Lexar cards. On the other hand, the Lexar UHS-I card that I have used for several years gets a convincingly low 3% of 1-star reviews. The lesson here is that not all cards are equal, even amongst those from a top brand. And if they can have such a high failure rate, think about cards from less reputable or conterfeit brands! By the way, looking at those numbers also indicate that failure rate with SD cards is far higher than CF cards.

Pay attention to negative customer reviews

Some negative customer reviews are frivolous because they are rooted in user error, or because they concern themselves with delivery rather than the product’s quality or performance. However, negative reviews are generally more significant than positive reviews.

If you think that one shouldn’t focus on the negative while the vast majority of reviews are positive, consider that on Amazon, the average rating for a product is 4.4 (out of 5) as found here by analyzing 7 million reviews. Even a product with an average 4.0 rating (4-star) is below average. The large majority of products are rated above 4.0, so the difference between a great product and a subpar product is less than 1 (star) on average. On the other hand, we’ve just seen that the number of 1-star reviews for different cards varies by a factor of four.

Consider dual card slot for backup

If your camera has dual memory slots, the most obvious and foolproof way to prevent data loss from memory card failure is to set the camera to write to two cards simultaneously so that it creates a back up in real time. Now that memory card have become very affordable, you can buy two sets of cards with enough capacity to last you for your whole trip so you don’t have to reuse any card, and you always keep two datasets.

Dual memory card slots are standard in high-end DSLRs cameras, and after omitting them in their first two generations of mirrorless cameras, Sony has started providing them in the A9 and A7 mk3 series (a good example of listening to customers, since there were complaints about the single-slots in previous cameras, many of them from Canon and Nikon users), with the caveat that the second slot is UHS-I, so using simultaneous writing will negate the benefits of the faster UHS-II main slot. I was thinking of skipping the A7R3 generation and wait for the inevitable A7R4, but the incident prompted me to upgrade.

Recently announced full-frame mirrorless cameras from Canon and Nikon have been greeted with an inordinate number of Internet comments about their single memory card slot. We saw many claims that no professional would use cameras with a single memory slot.

But the fact is that some professional photographers refuse to use the second slot for back up even when their camera has one, and for specific reasons. To start with, when I was shooting the Canon 1Ds series, I did not set up the cameras to simultaneous write, possibly because the size of the memory cards available back then made it mandatory to perform daily backups. More recently, Lloyd Chambers uses his dual-slot Nikon as single slot SD cameras because he is annoyed by the camera defaulting to the wrong card – this reminds me of Ted Orland’s aphorism “Owning more than one lens assures that you will always have the wrong lens on the camera for any given picture” – while Thom Hogan uses his dual slot Nikon as a single slot XQD camera because the SD slot slows down the camera. Colby Brown thinks that “there is no point in making two copies of your SD cards” and accordingly sets his Sony A7R3 to auto switch as he estimates he has a higher chance of missing a shot because of a full card than a SD card failure – what I used to do with the 1Ds.

I wonder if those statements about the rarity of card failures do a disservice to less experienced folks, because what isn’t clearly disclosed is that, although those photographers apparently don’t fear card failure, they also have extensive backup strategies using hard drives.

Have a solid backup strategy

If there is one thing that I wish others learn from my misfortune, it is that a solid backup plan is necessary. You want multiple copies of your data in multiple places. There are quite a few ways to go about it.

Several brands now offer ruggedized portable drives. SSDs, which have fallen in price, are much less prone to damage than HDDs. Using drives for backups, you can do a daily (or even more frequent) backup, and have more than two copies of your data.

On the other hand, compared to the in-camera dual slots backups, drive backups are not in real-time, so you could possibly lose a day of data. More importantly, you need to remember and take the time to perform the backups – when maybe you’d just rather go to sleep. During that ill-fated trip, I carried a portable drive, yet due to a combination of fatigue, loaded schedule and complacency, I did not use it. Another reason was that my portable drive had experienced a glitch during the previous trip, forcing me to skip backups, which in turn broke my habit of making them regularly. This brings up the point that with drive-based backups, you have to carry more gear, which could also fail. Even if you carry several USB external drives, you still depend on your laptop for your ability to make drive backups.

With in-camera dual-slot backups, given the availability of huge capacity cards, you could shoot most trips on a single pair of cards, but if something catastrophic happened to your camera, you’d lose everything. Alternatively, you could use smaller cards, and once a pair of card is filled-up (or another threshold in capacity or time is reached), each of them can be stored at an independent location to minimize the risk of loss due to theft. While the second approach increases the chances of a problem because you have more cards to manage, it minimizes the adverse effects of problems.

For now, I have settled on an approach which I think provides me the most redundancy with the least effort: use the second slot of the A7R3 for real-time backup with a medium-sized card, plus do a daily backup on a single self-contained portable hard drive. My choice is the e HyperDrive ColorSpace UDMA3 that I fit with a SSD drive. I generally prefer such a device to a laptop because they are considerably smaller and much faster to deploy for backup.

Eventually, my data loss was caused by my own neglect. I let my guard down and did only a few trips without backing up, and see what happened. This is just my experience and one data point, but I hope it’s been useful to you to read about it. What is your backup strategy? Did you experience a catastrophic memory card failure that you’d like to share?