Terra Galleria Photography

Big Wall Climbing in Yosemite

Back to the beginning of the year 1993, I knew almost nothing about the U.S. national parks. However, I knew that Yosemite was home to a 3,000 feet high cliff called El Capitan, the tallest in North America.

Although El Capitan was my reason for moving to California, finding a partner for the climb proved to be challenging because as a newcomer, I hadn’t yet inserted myself into the local climbing community. Besides, the type of climbing involved was also new to me, and nobody would trust an outsider, and especially a European, without “big wall” experience. Just like America has many more wilderness areas than Europe, America’s cliffs are in general wilder too. In places such as Yosemite, climbers need to be more self-reliant, putting in place and removing their own protection, a practice called “trad (traditional) climbing”, as opposed to “sport climbing” prevalent in France, where permanent safety equipment such as bolts are already in place.

The normal sequence is to prove yourself on several shorter big walls and then Half-Dome, before attempting El Capitan, the big one. However, I learned the tricks from a book, was able to recruit my partner Frank from France, and in April 1994, after a one-day warm-up on Washington Column, we tackled the Nose of El Capitan in four days. I discovered there a vertical wilderness a new scale, just like during my Denali climb, I had discovered mountains at a scale new to me.

Yosemite is the birthplace of this big wall climbing. Two characteristics distinguish this form of rock climbing from others. First, the verticality and difficulty of the route requires the use of “aid climbing” for all but most elite climbers. This means that instead of using gear only for protection against the consequences of a fall (as in “free climbing” where you grab only the rock), you use that gear as a means of progression – in other words, you pull and step on gear because the natural holds in the rock are not enough for you. Since you carry so much gear and have to place it too, it entails a slow progression. Second, the route difficulty, combined with its length normally requires more than a single day to complete the climb. This, in turn, means that you need to be hauling everything you need to live on the wall. Supplies, hardware, and shelter can add up to hundreds of pounds. Most notably, you use folding platforms called “portaledges” for sleeping. They are pretty comfortable, but better not roll in your sleep.

In aid climbing, it is not unusual to spend one or even several hours on a single pitch (the vertical extent of a length of rope). Time flies for the lead climber, but not so for the belayer, who is sitting at the same spot all that time. Besides daydreaming, I had plenty of time to watch how shadows changed as the sun moved across the landscape in the course of the day, and how the light changed the appearance of the rocks and meadows below. As much as I loved the exposure and the position big wall climbing got me too, I was beginning to yearn to move more freely into the land.

It is quite difficult to photograph climbing well if you are not a climber yourself. One of the keys is to be at the same level as the climber or above, not below, where non-climbers are usually stationed. But it is also quite difficult to photograph your own climb, as you lack the mobility to find different angles, and often are actually too close to the action. And so, in 1999, my last outing to El Capitan was at the request of a sponsored climber from Italy who needed a record of his ascent of the Reticent route, which then the most difficult big-wall route on El Capitan. I backpacked to the top of El Capitan from the Tioga Pass Road, set up several ropes and rappeled down to complete the task. I was there as a photographer rather than as a climber.

Credit: Robert Nicod

One of the questions I am asked most frequently at my lectures and gallery openings is “What is your favorite National Park ?”. Based on their merits alone, it would be difficult to say, because they are so different. However, for sentimental reasons, I reply “Yosemite” without hesitation. What makes it special to me is that it was the first National Park I had heard of and visited, and the time I have spent there on repeated visits, many of them spent on big walls.

Visiting National Parks Responsibly During the Government Shutdown

What have we learned from the fate of the national parks during the government shutdown, should you visit them, and how do you prepare yourself for an enjoyable visit that doesn’t have negative impacts on the parks?

The government shutdown

A U.S. government shutdown first affects unpaid federal workers, but beyond them, the most visible effect is on our national parks, which should say something to their importance to us as a nation. The national parks remain semi-functional without staffing, so what to do? During the previous extended shutdown of 2013, the National Park Service (NPS) closed all units to the public. This caused a major public backlash, with images of closed gates flooding social media, and complaints of lost revenue from gateway communities making headlines.

Maybe wanting to avoid those unpopular consequences, a different approach was taken this time, although it is unclear who was responsible for the decision. All NPS units are kept open, but with almost no services provided by the NPS and only a bare minimum of rangers on duty. In general, discontinued services include ranger-led activities, entrance booths, visitor centers, and most (not all) flush restrooms – but not vault toilets, go figure. Here are the most salient points from the excruciatingly detailed NPS shutdown policy:

Park roads, lookouts, trails, and open-air memorials will generally remain accessible to visitors, but there will be no NPS-provided visitor services, including restrooms, trash collection, facilities and roads maintenance (including plowing), and public information.

As a general rule, if a facility or area is locked or secured during non-business hours (buildings, gated parking lots, etc.) it should be locked or secured for the duration of the shutdown.

However, the situation varies park-by-park as some units, including the Old Post Office Tower in the same building as Trump International Hotel, get help from local governments or citizen organizations to keep more services in operation. Private operations within parks such as lodges may still continue their business. Since NPS websites are not updated during the shutdown, social media and gateway communities may be the best place to learn about the exact situation for a particular park.

The national parks

The decision in 2013 and prior shutdowns to close the parks was made to protect the parks and the visitors. It was predictable that without law enforcement and maintenance, the parks would suffer to some extent. For example, it is estimated by the NPS that visitors leave 2,200 tons of garbage each year in Yosemite, or 6 tons per day. Since garbage collection is not deemed an “essential service”, a large portion of that garbage is bound to overflow the trash cans. Yosemite is bear habitat, and the Yosemite bears are probably the most habituated in the world, which means that many are conditioned to scavenge near humans, making bear/human encounters potentially dangerous. The park has the most strict regulations of any to prevent bears from accessing human food, including the prohibition of overnight storage of food in cars. To that effect, bearproof boxes are provided not only at campgrounds, but also at trailheads, and even the base of El Capitan, since it takes mere mortal climbers several days to scale. With that much garbage floating around, you can imagine how easily those years of bear management efforts could be undone in Yosemite.

The NPS shutdown plan previous quoted mentions:

If visitor access becomes a safety, health or resource protection issue (weather, road conditions, resource damage, garbage build-up to the extent that it endangers human health or wildlife, etc.), the area must be closed. Parks may not bring on additional staff to accommodate visitor access.
After three weeks of shutdown, the extent of the damage was high enough that some parks had to be closed entirely. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks closed on Jan 2, 2019 due unsanitary conditions, overflowing trash, and lack of adequate parking. Joshua Tree National Park closed a week later due to vandalism that included graffiti, cut down Joshua trees, and even illegal new roads, along with the need to clean up garbage.

Given that absent park staff, it is now apparent that the general public cannot visit responsibly, it saddens me to conclude that the best solution is to close the parks. Does anybody disagree?

The visitors

Those impacts to the parks are clear and undeniable, but it would seem that they were not enough to convince the general public that there is a problem. Several otherwise admirable organizations have implied in social media posts that a number of fatalities in the parks have resulted from the shutdown. Here’s one example: The above doesn’t mention that four of those deaths were suicides and that on average, six people die in the national park system each week, so it’s probably not correct to blame the deaths on the shutdown. With no ranger patrols, there is no denying that the risks to the visitors have increased, but so far the main issue for them has been the degradation of their experience in the parks, partly at the hands of other visitors. It is symptomatic that with that evidence present, it would be necessary to say that someone is dying to get their attention. That the parks are filling up with trash apparently isn’t enough.

Most reporting on the government shutdown has a political slant, from either end of the political spectrum, and it is quite possible that some of the problems have been exaggerated and amplified by social media. For instance, why is this longtime Yosemite resident putting forward a third-hand report? The current administration gets much blame for what is happening in the national parks, and given the way they have treated public lands in general, it is clear that conservation is not their highest priority. However, the politicians are not the ones trashing our parks.

The visitors are ultimately responsible. To me, the biggest disappointment in this shutdown has been to realize that the majority of the general public, if left to themselves, are just not caring enough for the parks to respect them. The national parks are some of our nation’s most treasured places, yet some visitors behave in them in a way they wouldn’t dream of doing at home. The parks belong to the citizens, but some are more focused on their rights to visit them than on their duty to care for them. We still have a long way to go in terms of educating the public. In that spirit, although I will assume that nothing of it is new to you, I will provide a few tips that I hope will be widely shared for the benefit of those who need them and our parks.

Should you visit the parks during the shutdown?

Visitation was high during the shutdown partly because there are no entrance fees since the entrance booths are not staffed. But to squeeze a visit just for that reason is a bad idea. If someone doesn’t have an annual park pass, which makes the enticement of free entrance irrelevant, they are probably not invested enough in the national parks nor experienced enough to plan a visit both enjoyable and harmless to the parks. The effort they’d have to make to prepare themselves for such a visit largely overshadows that entrance fee. A theme park costs $100 per person for one day, while Yosemite is $35 for the entire family and a week.

The national parks have a problem, and those not well prepared will be part of that problem. So for most people, the best is to wait until the parks are totally staffed again before going. Those who still want to go, for instance, because of long term plans, should prepare themselves to be self-sufficient and leave no trace as if visiting a remote wilderness park. This isn’t that hard: if a backpacker can keep themselves safe in the wilderness while keeping the wild lands wild, someone driving a car should have no problem leaving the place no worse than they found it. Guests with existing lodging reservations should be just fine. Unlike others, they can also contact someone in the park to get current information.

Tips for visiting the parks during the shutdown

Plan your visit with maps and other essentials. With visitor centers and entrance booths closed, no park maps are handed out, and no ranger can help you plan your day. Cell phones often don’t work in the parks, so if you are coming without adequate information, you are your own. The better guidebooks include detailed maps, and there are national parks mobile apps that can be used offline (reviewed here). Rangers are not on patrol, so you need to be able to handle emergencies by yourself, and again no phone means no 911 call. Besides fending for yourself, you will also need supplies to clean up after yourself.

Learn how to poop in the woods like a backpacker. Step 1: Find a spot far enough (about 50 steps) from the road, trail and water. Step 2: Dig a hole. Ideally, you would want it to be at least 6 inch deep, and you’d be prepared for that by bringing a small trowel. But even if you forgot to bring one, and I confess that I sometimes do, if you dig a hole in the ground with your shoes and then cover your mess, it will still be a big improvement over leaving it uncovered. Step 3: Carry out your toilet paper. You can easily store it in a ziplock bag. Alternatively, you could burn it (if the fire hazard is minimal), or bury it in the hole, but only if it is deep enough, as animals tend to dig them out. As disgusting as human waste sounds, bears poop in the woods too. But they don’t use toilet paper, which is even more offensive. Maybe all of that is too much of a burden or too risky – a hiker once veered out of the Appalachian Trail to go to the bathroom and was never seen alive again. Fortunately, there is an even cleaner and more versatile, but more expensive, alternative, which is to bring a human waste disposal bag. They are mandatory for backpackers in several areas of the NPS system. When you get your permit for climbing the Grand Teton, the Jenny Lake ranger station even provides you with a few. On the other hand, pee is no problem. In fact, as soil contains micro-organisms that break up organic matter, it is better for the environment to pee in soil than in a restroom. Just make sure you go far enough!

Pack it out. If you know beforehand that there is limited garbage collection in the park, just pack your garbage out, and dispose of it outside the park. This should be easy since the volume of garbage is less than the volume of food brought in, but it always helps to bring some extra trash bags. And generally, even in periods of normal operation, it is always helpful to pack out your trash as a way to give back to your park. The worst you can do is leaving garbage outside an overflowing bin. Not only it gets dispersed by weather and wildlife, but it also encourages other visitors to do the same. When someone who would not have thought about leaving their plastic bag of garbage outside a bin sees that others have done so, they could reasonably conclude that it is normal practice. On the other hand carrying away other people’s garbage would set a good example, wouldn’t it?

Follow regulations. Some regulations are indicated with clearly posted signs, but others may not, and you won’t find them in handouts since nobody is there at the entrance stations to provide them. Therefore, the first step is to learn about them as part of your planning, possibly on the park’s website. Regulations are there to protect the parks, and with no rangers watching, it is more important than ever to abide by them because other visitors will follow you. This is true not only for littering as outlined above, but also of all sorts of actions like bringing dogs, illegal camping, off-road driving, or venturing into closed areas. Show that you care for the parks, so that others will as well!

Happy New Year 2019

In a forest of thousand trees, no two trees are alike. In a year of eight thousand hours, no two of them alike. Even on a dark and cold day, the sun may still shine on you. I hope you enjoy many moments of shining light in the upcoming year.

On a December day more than twenty years ago, after a night spent in a sleeping bag on the side of a road, when I arrived at the main gate of Great Smoky Mountains National Park outside of Gatlinburg, a snow storm had closed most of the roads including the Little River Road and Newfound Gap Road. I could wander only along a few miles, far from any of the areas for which the park is well-known. The forest at first looked non-descript, yet that day resulted in several enduring photographs, two of which found their way into Treasured Lands, including the opening endpaper. There is always something to be found if you look carefully enough. When I noticed how the light was falling on those trees, I positioned myself to photograph them in backlight against a background in the shade, and framed them with a longer lens to crop out the bright ground. Light can transform the most mundane subject!

I wish everyone a year 2019 full of happiness, health, creativity, and success. My sincere thanks for your continuing readership and interest in my photography.

2018 in Review, Favorites, and Seasons Greetings

In 2018, I spent less time in the national parks, the sole focus of my efforts for many years, and more time in other public lands. Those include the national monuments, some of which have been under the most serious threats in our history, as illustrated by the evisceration of two of the largest and most beautiful of them. I am hoping that my photography can do its humble part to bring more awareness to those lesser known lands, so that they can be adequately protected for future generations, and I pledge to concentrate my efforts on them for the next few years. Although the bulk of the Treasured Lands project is behind me, it is far from finished. I also made a number of new national park photographs, some of which will find their way into the second edition of the Treasured Lands book. Links below point to blog posts with more images and details.

Although it may sound like a long time ago, it is less than three years since President Obama proclaimed three national monuments in the California desert. In January, I explored those new protected lands, for which there is much less information, let alone photographic information, and way fewer facilities than for their more well-known and long-established counterparts: Mojave Trails National Monument, Castle Mountains National Monument, Sand to Snow National Monument.

I also visited the two slightly older national monuments located in the area. In both Santa Rosa & San Jacinto Mountains National Monument and San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, surprisingly big mountains rise near the city, with easy to access high-elevation areas that don’t require hiking.

On February 22, 2018, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial became Gateway Arch National Park, our 60th national park. I traveled to St Louis, Missouri, that same week to try and extend my record of being the first to visit and photograph all the national parks, and even dusted out my large format film camera for the occasion. In those posts, I reflect on what I found at this most unusual national park: First Impressions, Photographing Gateway Arch, Thoughts on a Name.

Although its southern tip is located only one hour from the San Francisco Bay Area, for most people, Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument is more strange and remote than the Sierra Nevada, Lassen, or Shasta. In this nearby but undiscovered landscape, it is still easy to experience solitude and find little-photographed views: South of Highway 120, Snow Mountain. Where is it? Is there snow?.

One of nature’s most wondrous light shows occurs during the synchronous fireflies mating season, when the bugs flash at once in a silent symphony of sparks. Synchronous fireflies exist only in a handful of places in the world, with Great Smoky Mountains National Park being the most well known. Armed with high-performance digital cameras unlike during my previous visit there, I returned in June to photograph the awesome event: Photographing the Great Smoky Mountains Synchronous Fireflies, Synchronous Fireflies Beyond the Smokies, Firefly Variations.

Besides the fireflies, I checked out a few out-of-the-way and often understated corners of eastern national parks that I had not visited in previous trips. Those write-ups have also a few photography tips: Waterfalls in Whiteoak Canyon, the scenic gem of Shenandoah National Park, Cataloochee, the Quieter Side of the Great Smoky Mountains, Wet Places in a Dry Land, Mammoth Cave National Park, Twice the Same River: Tinkers Creek Gorge, Cuyahoga Valley National Park. However, I owe some of my favorite images of the trip to weather rather than scenery.

During the summer, I traveled to Hanford Reach, maybe the national monument with the most unusual history of all. Its lands 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 was manufactured, and which became the most polluted site in the Western Hemisphere.

Autumn is my favorite season, but I spent so much time in the deserts that I almost entirely missed the foliage. Fortunately, I made a quick stop at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, at just the right time to hike two favorite moderate trails there.

Mesa Verde National Park can be congested. Fortunately, there is a quieter side to the park and recent new oppourtunities. Although home to a cliff dwelling that matches Cliff Palace, Wetherill Mesa sees only a fraction of the visitation of the main area. And there are a few other cliff dwellings that are even less visited, although quite famous.

This year, I ended up traveling to 11 national parks and 24 other federally protected areas. Amongst the later, there were quite a few Ancestral Puebloan sites, and I’ve detailed my visits to Yucca House (the worse national monument?) and the interconnected cultural landscape of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. The later totally surrounds another older national monument where this last favorite photograph was made. I’d appreciate it if you would let me know which of the ten are your favorites!

If you’ve read so far, thanks again for looking. Wishing you Happy Holidays, or Merry Christmas, and a great time with family and friends, full of peace, love and joy!

Quick Tip: Change Aspect Ratio to Preserve Composition

Amongst the many new controls brought by digital processing, one of the simplest, and most often overlooked, is the possibility to change an image’s aspect ratio. One could do a lot of changes in the darkroom, but altering the aspect ratio by optical means was very difficult.

Why would someone want to do that? When images have a specific function, often they need to fit a given space. Since you don’t have any leeway in fitting the page, in printed publications there is an absolute need for a fixed image size. For instance, the magazine page is typically 8 3/8″ x 10 7/8″ because a lot of press equipment was designed to produce this size with minimum waste. That’s an aspect ratio close to 4:5, and one of the reasons why film sizes of 6×4.5 cm, 6×7 cm, and 4×5 inches were popular professional choices. However, most digital cameras, especially those with “full-frame” sensors derived from the 35mm format produce images with an aspect ratio of 2:3.

The obvious way to deal with that the discrepancy is to crop the photograph. But if the composition was carefully done in-camera, then it may not be possible to remove any area without degrading the composition – the hallmark of a perfect composition.

An alternative way is by altering the aspect ratio. At first, this may sound anathema, since it would introduce distortion. If the photograph has people at close range in it, the distortion would make them noticeably skinny or fat. In portraits, much of the interest is centered on the human face so that the image can easily be cropped anyways, making changing the aspect ratio unnecessary.

On the other hand, with images of natural subjects, altering the aspect ratio diminishes image integrity much less than one would expect. A reasonable amount of aspect ratio distortion turns out to be, surprisingly, hardly noticeable. See for example this page from the next revised edition of Treasured Lands (the fourth printing) to be published next year. Does anything look askew to you?

Here is the same spread with the original aspect ratio. The problem here is that the image doesn’t fill up the width of the text. Since in every other chapter of the book, images in the “notes” section do so, that be a design oddity. That is a big no-no in book design, where consistency is the key.

Now that you see both versions of the image you can see the distortion, but is it something you would have noticed without a side-by-side comparison? Did it affect the image? In my opinion, not as much as cropping it to the aspect ratio of the page space, as seen below.

How did the composition change? With the crop, the curve formed by the plants in the foreground would have been cut. That curve is a significant part of the composition, since it echoes the curves of the hills in the background, therefore enclosing the rectilinear space of the field between two curves. A quick note in passing about the foreground: while it often used to add depth to a photograph, it has to complement the rest of the photograph in some way, and often having it visually relate to the background is a good way to go about it. So by cropping the image, we altered the composition, whereas by stretching it, we didn’t. Aspect ratios are not written in stone, don’t be afraid to tinker with them if necessary!

By the way, speaking of Treasured Lands, it’s a great time to give the gift of the national parks with the book at 50% off for a limited time on Amazon (with coupons). The caveat is that they set price, not me, so this discount may not last!

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 masonery 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).