Terra Galleria Photography

Cloudless in the Yellow (Huangshan) Mountains

The scenery of steep peaks and ancient pine trees emerging out of mist and floating above a sea of clouds is an iconic subject in Chinese representations of the landscape. Since the Tang Dynasty around the 8th century, the inspiration for these paintings is the most famous of the Chinese mountains, Mount Huangshan, or Yellow Mountains, which has been called ‘the loveliest mountain of China’. Does the reality live up to those images?

Mount Huangshan is a granite massif consisting of 36 separate peaks, culminating above 1,800 meters. It is located about 450 km east of Shanghai and 250 km east of Hangzhou. In the past, long-distance bus travel was necessary, but a few years ago, high-speed train service and flights to the gateway town of Huangshan City have become available. No private vehicle is allowed into Mount Huangshan scenic area, instead, you board a bus that takes you to a trailhead or cable-car station.

Even though the cable cars save you about 2-3 hours of steep walking, once you get to the top, you’ll have to do a fair amount of walking to explore the complex of peaks, and most of the trails are up and down with steep stairs. From the cable-car station, it took an hour to walk to our hotel, so I was glad that I packed light. Most visitors stay at the base of the mountain, where hotels are affordable, and visit the mountain as a day trip. However, there are a few hotels located on the top of the mountain. Staying there let you to easily catch sunrise and sunset and enjoy some relatively quieter hours, but this comes at a cost. For a party of three, the least expensive room we were able to find at the Beihai Hotel cost over $400 (for comparison, a nicer double room within walking of the Bund in Shanghai cost $75) and meals were quite pricy.

From a photographic point of view, the key to great photographs on Mount Huangshan is the right amount of legendary low clouds. This is one place where weather is the subject. Inside and near the hotels, I saw many photographs displayed. Hardly any of them did not feature low clouds or mist. Without them, the mountain just doesn’t have the same allure and mystery, however, when the cloud cover is too dense, you don’t see anything at all. It usually takes more than a day to observe the right conditions. Low clouds form during or after rainy days. The area is very moist, and I saw a sign indicating that they were present on average 3 out of 4 days. The most favorable period is September to May, as summer tends to be drier. I visited at the beginning of May.

As the first day was mostly overcast and without low clouds, I focused mostly on the flora, especially the shurbs in bloom. The second day was more clear, but it was still lacking low clouds. With no precipitation in the forecast for the next few days, and given the high cost of the hotel, we decided to spend only one night at the top.

For sunrise, we went to the viewpoint named “A Monkey Gazing at the sea” after a characteristic rock, planning to arrive there half an hour prior to sunrise. This was a miscalculation. As the viewpoint is less than fifteen minutes from the Beihai Hotel, the limited number of spots with a view of the eastern sky were already all staked. I had to content myself with a photograph made in a different direction, isolating a few pinnacles with a telephoto lens. It looks like the other visitors were there to watch the sunrise, since merely a few minutes after the event, they began to leave, after which I was able to squeeze in and make a few photographs with some color in the eastern sky.

Half an hour after sunrise, the overlooks were mostly empty. I found that on this cloudless day, photographing backlit was the best way to create a bit of atmosphere thanks to the receding ridges. Backlight also helped emphasized characteristic shapes, both of the rock pinnacles and the uniquely local Pinus Huangshanensis which clings precariously clinging to cliffs.

As the day progressed, crowds grew steadily again. Guides used amplified speakers to herd large tour groups. Cell phone service was working in most places, with a strong signal. When I made a phone call to my wife, with all the voices in the background, she thought that I was in some kind of public market rather than on the top of a mountain! Yosemite’s Mist Trail sounded quaint in comparison. It is ironic that all the misty images from Mount Huanghuan evoke the peace and solitude of nature, whereas the place, as the most famous mountain in China, is a prime example of a location overran by Chinese mass tourism. And this was a weekday in May. I can only imagine what a weekend of summer would have been.

Besides the multiple cable cars and several large hotels at the top of the mountain complex, porters are available to carry luggage and even visitors on sedan chairs. They also shoulder all the food sold on the mountain, which may explain its high cost. Some tourists, instead of the hiking gear expected in such a place, wear chic clothing so they look good in photos. The trails are all paved with excellent craftmanship that includes guardrails, drainage system, and traction-maximizing texture. Compared to U.S. national parks, that level of development was striking and certainly contributes to the high visitation. On the other hand, erosion and litter were well-controlled, and it looks like the authorities have managed to achieve some level of protection for the place in spite of its popularity. The natural beauty remains extraordinary, even on a cloudless day.

Photographing the Bund in Shanghai

It could have been difficult to know where to start in largest city in the world, with a population of 24 million. However, Shanghai has a clear focal point, called the Bund, full of iconic photographic possibilities. The Bund refers to a roughly mile-long promenade along the west side of the Huangpu River, where you can glance China’s past on one side and China’s future on the other with plenty of life on the promenade itself.

From the mid 19th century to the second World War, the Bund was the site of a foreign concession to the British and American governments. Western interests built a row of magnificent European-style buildings that housed foreign banks and hotels. The Beaux-Arts style architecture is an incongruity in China, and the stately buildings are particularly striking at night when illuminated.

Across the Huangpu River lies the modern skyscrapers of the Pudong district, which form the particularly futuristic skyline, made iconic by the Oriental Pearl Tower. From approximately half an hour after sunset to 11PM (which gives you half an hour before the sky is dark), the Pudong district skyscrappers are illuminated, with the Oriental Pearl Tower and other skyscrapers enlivened by lights of changing light show – compare the colors in the two skyline photos of this post. The Huangpu River makes a sharp bend at that spot, which gives the impression that the skyline lies on a Manhattan-like island. At dawn, the buildings have only few lights, but their silhouette against the dawn sky is striking.

The skyline views from water level are excellent, but higher viewpoints are also available from rooftop bars. One of the best is the Vue Bar on the 32nd floor of the Hyatt hotel. It has an outdoor terrace with excellent views, accessible for a cover charge of 110 yuan, which includes a drink. The catch here is that tripods are strictly prohibited. I had to check mine at the entrance. With modern cameras, even night hand-held pictures are possible, but for better image quality, I used my camera bag as an improvised bean bag on the ledge. A clamp or table-top tripod would have been preferable.

Situated at the north end of the Bund, there are also two other structures of interest. The People’s Memorial is a communist-style structure symbolizing three riffles leaning against each other. The concrete structure is a bit bland by daytime, but is illuminated a striking red at night. The Garden Bridge, built with steel imported from England at the begining of the 20th century, was the first metal bridge in China.

The Bund is not just a great place to photograph buildings of various types, it is also a great location for people watching and street photography. Although at dawn the place is strangely quiet, shortly after sunrise older men show up with elaborately decorated kites. One of them flew three Chinese flags along the kite’s line, prompting salutes to the flag from passerbys. Individual and groups exercised via Tai-Chi, jogging, or gymnastics. In the evening, the place becomes an even more popular evening stroll for many, and you should make sure to join the crowd!

Photographer’s Guide to Havasu Canyon – Now and Then

The Havasupai Indian Reservation, home to the “people of the blue green water”, is located in a side canyon of the Grand Canyon out of the way from the South Rim. The oasis with waterfalls dropping over red rock into turquoise pools is a uniquely enchanting location in North America with a Shangri-La quality reinforced by the significant effort necessary to get to, as the main waterfall and campground is 10 miles from the trailhead. In this article, I provide current 2019 logistics updates and contrast them with my experience of 20 years ago.

What?

The highlight of the canyon is 100-feet Havasu Falls, located 2 miles downstream the village. The classic elevated side view cannot be missed as it is found along the trail, and from the base you can photograph the falls with beautiful travertine terraces in the foreground. From time to time, flash floods rearrange the configuration of the falls. A particularly big one occurred in 2008, after which Havasu falls lost its distinctive two separated parts, as well as many travertine terraces.

Mooney Falls, 0.5 miles farther down, is twice as high (200 feet) and a starker simple ribbon enclosed in a steep bowl. After the two tunnels, there is a high view from the trail with travertine stalactites as foreground. To photograph the fall from the bottom, you’d need to go down a nearly vertical section using ladders and chains, so good footwear and free hands are necessary. Keep in mind that Mooney Falls is named after a prospector who died while trying to find a way down to the bottom of that waterfall.

The waterfalls are in the shade in the early morning and in the late afternoon. As often with waterfalls, shade provide the most foolproof conditions. They are sunlit from late morning to mid-afternoon, with the most even light at midday. During the warm months, you are likely to see many people in the water at the base of Havasu Falls except early and late in the day.

There are a total of 5 waterfalls. Less than a mile downstream from Supai village, Upper and Lower Navajo falls are on your way to the two main waterfalls. 2.5 miles downstream from Mooney Falls, Beaver Falls is wide and drops in several tiers. With the 2019 mandated 4 days/3 nights campground stay, a good plan would be to hike in the first day and out the last day, and devote each of the full days to Havasu/Navajo Falls and Mooney/Beaver Falls.

When?

The creek’s flow doesn’t vary much during the year, but the deciduous vegetation of the canyon does. Trees turn green in April and May. Spring and summer have verdant vegetation, and the greens add to the visual appeal of the canyon. However, they are also the most popular times. In warm weather, people are likely to be found hanging out in the pools at the base of Havasu Falls for most of the day. Summer (June, July, August) temperatures can reach 100F-115F and there are risks of flash floods during the monsoon season, which extends to September.

Autumn is quieter and brings moderate temperatures and fall colors in October and November. Winter is the quietest season, but many trees are be bare, and overnight freezing temperatures are possible.

How?

Getting a permit

As detailed in the final section, back twenty years ago, I just showed up at the campground. Since then, regulations and fees have steadily increased. At one point, you were allowed to come to the campground without a reservation, but you’d pay a double fee. Since 2016, you must come with a reservation either at the lodge or the campground, and it doubles as a permit. You need to present a photo ID and reservation at the tourist check-in office to obtain a wristband, and nobody is permitted to proceed past the village without a wristband. Reservations are highly competitive and fill up quickly after the opening time, so be sure to keep current with the latest registration process and mark the relevant date in your calendar.

Sleeping

The lodge is located in Supai village, requiring a 4-mile roundtrip hike to the falls, but in addition to not having to carry camping gear, you can find food and restaurants in the village. In 2019, reservations opened on June 1, 2019 for the year 2020 with a price of $440 per room per night (for up to 4 people), plus a permit fee of $110/person. All reservations were processed by phone only. See the official site for details.

The campground is located 2 miles downstream from Supai village, and is very conveniently situated between Havasu Falls and Mooney Falls. Campsites are not designated, but one should minimize impact by using existing sites. The cost has increased dramatically over the last few years. Back in 2017, there was a permit fee of $60 and a camping fee of $25 per night for each person. In 2018, the permit fee rose to $110. In 2019, this changed to $100 per night (+$25 for week-ends) inclusive of the permit fee, but with a new minimum stay of 3 nights. The price hike hasn’t lessened the demand. Reservations opened on February 1, 2019 at 8am for the entire calendar year, and I read that they sold out in just a couple of hours. All reservations are now processed online only at havasupaireservations.com. Creating an account is necessary to access the detailed and useful information available on the site and to make a reservation.

Getting there

Havasu Canyon is situated outside the limits of Grand Canyon National Park and far west out of the way from the South Rim. The trailhead, called Hualapai Hilltop is a 3.5 hours drive from Las Vegas or Flagstaff. Hualapai Hilltop is located at the end of Indian Road 18, 60 miles from the turnoff from Route 66, 7 miles east of Peach Springs, Arizona, which is the nearest town. Even lodging there fills up fast.

From Hualapai Hilltop, the trail descends about 1,000 feet in the first 1.5 miles, and then the other 1,400 feet in the remaining 8.5 miles to the campground and main falls. There is no water and little shade along the way. The well used trail is easy to follow and as scenic as classic Grand Canyon National Park trails. Hiking early in the morning is a must in warmer months, but note that per current regulations, night hiking is prohibited.

Unlike for most locations 10 miles from the trailhead, there are options to make the journey easier. Helicopters are used as a means of transportation for tribe members, and after they are done giving rides to them, they offer rides to visitors ($85 one-way) on a first come, first serve basis. Signing up early in the morning is enough to guarantee a ride later in the day.

The pack animals issue

Pack animals are also available, either in the form of horse rides or mule trains which can carry bags. Given the general poverty of the area, it is not entirely surprising that compared to the strict NPS standards under which the national park concessionaires must operate, the animals work in conditions which have been described as abusive by some witnesses. This appears to have been going on for a long time, but it is only recently that a group has documented and publicized the abuse, presenting a compelling case for not using pack animal services in Havasu Canyon. Hopefully, they may have effected some change, judging from the site havasupaireservations.com that now handles pack mule reservations. They mention “New in 2019: […] significantly higher standards for Pack Mule care and welfare”, as well as limitations on sizes, weight, and prohibitions of hard-sided items (such as coolers) that could help.

Although not exactly welcome, an attentive look at the village’s dwellings reveals third-world living conditions, unfortunately all too frequent on Indian reservations. Those seem to get less attention on social media than the animals. As the pack animal services provide much needed revenue to the tribe, havasupaireservations.com recommends to hire pack animals as a way to enhance one’s experience. There is a delicate balance to be struck between economic development and conservation there. Having seen the degradation of other places, I would have to disagree with the approach of trying to make the place accessible to many, especially given the social media fueled explosion in popularity of Havasu Canyon. People who have acquired the ability to visit unassisted a location 10 miles from the trailhead are simply more likely to have also learned to be more respectful of the environment and to be more aware of “leave no trace” principles.

My Experience then

Twenty year ago, packing camping gear and my large-format photography equipment, I was planning to buy food at the village, but by the time I got there at dusk in the short days of winter, I was disappointed to see all stores and restaurants closed. At the campground, I didn’t see anybody else, and as a result, became the prime target for one of the many stray dogs that wander around. It was so aggressive that to keep it quiet, I had to give it one my few energy bars, the only food that I had left.

I spent the next day photographing the falls on an empty stomach. After the morning session, I waited until afternoon for soft reflected light. By the time I got back to the village, stores were closed again. Out of food, I decided to hike out at night, but a few miles from the village, I encountered a man and an elderly woman who were having trouble on the trail because their flashlight had died. Since I had only one light, I couldn’t give it to them. I retraced my steps with the villagers to Supai before hiking out, arriving back at Hualapai Hilltop well after midnight. Although shorter than I wished, it was quite the memorable experience!

Vast and Ancient: Basin and Range National Monument

The Basin geographically defines the state of Nevada. That word may confuse you, since it is included in Great Basin, Great Basin Desert, Great Basin National Park, Basin and Range Province, Basin and Range National Monument. What are they, and how do they relate to each other?

The Great Basin is like a huge bowl. No water falling into this area reaches the oceans, which is remarkable considering its size, one-twentieth of the United States. The Great Basin Desert, the northernmost, highest, and coldest of the four North American deserts (the others are the Mojave, Sonoran, and Chihuahuan) occupies most, but not all of it – to the south the Mojave desert overlaps the Great Basin. Basin and Range refers to another geographic phenomenon. The stretching of the earth’s crust and block faulting has created hundreds of sharp and narrow mountain ranges generally running in a parallel way north to south, alternating with wide and flat desert basins, forming the Basin and Range Province. It just happens by coincidence that the Great Basin is part of the Basin and Range Province. Great Basin National Park protects one of the tallest of those ranges, the Snake Range, where thanks to the high elevation, one finds alpine lakes, forests, and bristlecone pines. However, those attractive scenery elements make up only a tiny portion of the Great Basin so that the terrain of Great Basin National Park is not typical of the Great Basin. Other conservation areas in the Great Basin encompass more mountain ranges. However, rather than the ranges, most of the region consists of the basins, their endless sage flats rimmed by pinon-juniper woodlands. Because of the ease of access, the basins are more developed than the mountain ranges, with extensive mining and secretive military activities taking place. Basin and Range National Monument is representative of the Great Basin, as it protects the two last undisturbed of those basins, Garden Valley and Coal Valley, as well as the connecting mountain ranges.

Located about a hundred miles north of Las Vegas, Basin and Range National Monument was designated in 2015, on the same day as Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument, and is one of the most remote, least known, and empty areas of a state famous for its emptiness. It makes Great Basin National Park, the 10 least visited national park (the 4th least visited in the continental U.S.) sound outright popular and famous by comparison. During my entire visit, I saw only a few other cars, and nobody that I know had heard of it.

The monument protects a large array of resources, as expected from its sizable area of 704,000 acres (1,100 square miles), stretching 50 miles from north to south and 40 miles from east to west. It is almost ten times larger than Great Basin National Park (77,180 acres). The two basins in the monument connect eight mountain ranges, three of which are entirely contained within the national monument. The vast area is home to a diverse geology that includes remarkable rock formations. It would seem that many parts of Nevada look similar. However, besides being almost undisturbed, what makes Basin and Range National Monument remarkable is a number of remarkable cultural resources spanning the range of North American human history, all in harmony with the huge landscape. Three major archeological areas (White River Narrows, Mount Irish, Shooting Gallery) feature countless ancient petroglyphs as old as 4,000 years. There are also remains of 19th-century settlements and abandoned mines. Traditional ranching practices continue. Starting in 1972, the land artist Michael Heizer has been working on “City”, one of the largest sculptures ever created, more than a mile long, which, when completed next year (2020), will open to the public as part of the national monument – visitors are unwelcome while it is still a work in progress.

Currently, the national monument is entirely undeveloped. You will find no facilities like visitor centers, restrooms, campgrounds, and no paved roads. However, this does not mean that it is difficult to access. Surprisingly, unlike the locations described in the five other posts of this series, the unpaved roads are generally wide, well graded and easily passable by any vehicle. There are only a few road signs, so following the map requires some attention since all the roads look somewhat similar, but my navigation apps were able to identify them. In a few places information panels with a map of the monument offer precious information not found on the BLM website. Like in most monuments managed by the BLM, there are no entrance fees nor restrictions on dispersed camping. The opportunities for solitude are tremendous.

I initially had planned to spend the better part of a week there, but the call of the super-bloom further south was irresistible, and instead I went only on a quick exploratory trip. I started at the White River Narrows Archeological District, which is the most easily accessed part of the monument, with petroglyphs in the setting of a narrow gorge. I drove Seaman Wash Road to a natural arch highlighted on the national monument’s onsite map. There is no established trail, 38.1944757°, -115.2592076° is the closest point accessible by car via Coal Valley North Road and then a one-lane access road marked by a single wooden fence post on the left shortly before the turn NW. It was then back via Mail Summit Road before visiting the Mt Irish Archeological District, where the road climbed higher and was significantly more rough than the others. Petroglyphs there are carved on boulders rather than on cliffs. I hope that the following photos inspire you to explore for yourself this vast and ancient wilderness where there is much to discover. I am already planning a return trip after the opening of “City”. Take your time, as with most other Great Basin locations, this is not often love at first sight!

Part 6 of 6: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

Afton Canyon: the Unknown Grand Canyon of the Mojave

Only a few miles removed from Interstate 15, Afton Canyon remains hidden and unknown to the millions that speed across the desert. Last year, I abandoned my plans to explore Afton Canyon at a river crossing after estimating a depth of more than 18 inches. This year, I came equipped with a Jeep with which I embarked on a series of off-road trips, determined to see what had eluded me.

The Afton Canyon Road

The quickest access to Afton Canyon is from the west, by leaving Interstate 15 at the Afton Road exit (Exit 221) between Barstow and Baker, 36mi from Barstow and 26mi from Baker. A well-graded unpaved road leads to the canyon floor at the Afton Canyon Campground in 3.5 miles. Right past the campground, you come across the obstacle after that had stopped me, a section of more than a hundred yards of road flooded by the Mojave River, an unusual sight in the desert. Although the river itself is extremely shallow, that section was more than knee deep.

That crossing is the only serious obstacle, as other fords were much shorter. For the length of the Afton canyon, you could follow several different tracks. If you follow the best one, you could make it with any high clearance vehicle, however, as it is not always clear where to go, I was glad to have good off-road capabilities, for instance when I drove along the riverbed, which is often the most straightforward of several routes.

I had spotted on the map a road that lead back to I-5 from the eastern end of the canyon, but it looked quite rough. By chance, I encountered a caravan of off-roaders who were all driving vehicles with impressive lifts – my only human encounter in Afton Canyon. They discouraged me from continuing, so I backtracked via the Canyon to I-5. Maybe because this time, emboldened by the ease of the morning’s crossing, I went too fast, or maybe because water levels had changed at midday, water seeped into the car despite its high clearance. Lacking better tools, I spent fifteen minutes to scoop out most of it with an empty can, but the floor of the car remained damp for almost a week.

The Mojave River

For much of its course, the Mojave River runs underground, and Afton Canyon is one of the few places where it reliably runs on the surface, a rare sight in the desert. It is no more than a thin ribbon of water, at most a few inches deep, and flowing slowly, but its absolute clarity was mesmerizing, especially in that arid environement. The photographic challenge was to find a stretch without tire marks, as many had driven along the riverbed.

Given the trickle of water, it would be quite surprising that the Mojave River had carved such a large and deep canyon, sometimes nicknamed the “Grand Canyon of the Mojave”, with sheer walls more than 300 feet high. Back 15,000 years ago, the huge Lake Mannix drained, creating the unlikely canyon.

Side Canyons

Although from a distance those canyon walls look monolithic, they are full of nook and cranies that reward off-trail hiking. The run-off from the surrounding mountains has cut fascinating narrow secondary canyons.

The road runs on the north side of the Mojave River, but noticing tracks on south side, I forded the river and followed them to reached what looked like an unmarked trailhead. I followed a desert wash and was soon surrounded by steep badlands eroded from conglomerate rock.

On the side, what looked like detached rock flakes were the entrances of a few narrow slots. They were just a few feet wide, and several stories tall, and littered with boulders that made the progression strenuous. Unlike the Navajo sandstone slots of the Colorado plateau, the walls were not smooth, but instead knoby.

I looked for an area where the sun had reached the opposite upper wall, creating with its reflected light a warm glow. Even though it was midday, I was glad I had brought the tripod with me, since with the lens stopped down for depth of field, the exposure was several seconds.

I have seen more spectacular canyons, but that I discovered this one by roaming around without guidebooks – inexistent for the area anyway – and directions made it more special.

Part 5 of 6: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Nevada’s Little Finland

Since Bear Ears National Monument was controversially reduced by 85%, Gold Butte National Monument, which happened to be designated on the same day of Dec 28 2016, is the most recent large national monument. Gold Butte National Monument protects almost 300,000 acres of Nevada, northeast of Las Vegas, bordering Lake Mead National Recreation Area on the west and Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument on the east. The vast national monument preserves a large portion of the Mojave Desert, petroglyph sites, and a small but truly special area called Little Finland.

Whitney Pocket

A rough paved road leads to Whitney Pocket in 21 miles from NV 170 south of Mesquite. The area reminded me of the Mojave part of Joshua Tree National Park, since many Joshua trees grow there among interesting rock formations. However, while the rocks in Joshua Tree National Park are metamorphic, those in Gold Butte National Monument are red sandstone striped with rainbow colors like at Valley of Fire State Park. Some of those rocks shelter primitive campsites with no water where you can stay for free and without a permit.

Past Whitney Pocket, the pavement ends. If you are not interested in our off-roading mis-adventures and just want to read about the fantastic Little Finland destination, skip the next section.

Fun With Tires

Robert Hitchman, in his Photograph America newsletter ominously recommends “a friend or two along with a second high-clearance vehicle. Four-wheel-drive, all-terrain tires, full gas tanks, and radios for communication”. However, Little Finland is only about 40 miles (one-way) from the I-15 freeway, and although the area remains very remote, there are now a few signs to help you navigate. During the drive, I remarked to my friend that the route wasn’t really difficult, and that in a pinch I could have driven it with a regular passenger car. It was therefore a strange turn of events that fifteen minutes after arriving to our destination, we noticed that one of our tires was deflating.

The situation had a deja vu feeling. Just the day before, as we were driving back from Whitmore Canyon Overlook, at the Bar 10 ranch, I congratulated my friend on negotiating the bumpy road without punctures despite of our less-than-adequate tires, and took over the driving. The rest of the drive back to St George through the Arizona Strip is a tedious and well-graded road that offers no obstacles, and I was fairly certain that I did not hit any rock, so I was incredulous when the dashboard of the Jeep warned of low air pressure in the left rear tire. However, when the air pressure reached half of the normal value, a visual inspection quickly confirmed that a tire change was called for. Back in town, we barely made it to a tire shop before closing time. They determined that the tire couldn’t be repaired because it had suffered structural damage rather than a puncture. They didn’t have a replacement because of its odd size, but suggested we try the Jeep concessionaire in town. The next day, we found out that the concessionaire did not have the tire, and that it would need to be shipped from Los Angeles, stranding us for a few days because of the week-end. Although we had noticed quite a few Jeeps driving the streets, a replacement tire was elusive. We had tried to contact the car rental company, but each call resulted in a wait of 15 to 30 minutes, after which we were told that the tire would be our responsibility because the tire thread left was above their threshold, and that we’d have to come back to Las Vegas. After much arguing, we resolved to the 120-mile drive, but when we emerged from the Virgin River Canyon area which does not have cell phone service, we got a message consisting of a tire shop address in St George. We drove back to town again, and were able to at least buy the replacement tire.

Nobody had been in sight since we left the pavement at Whitney Pocket, but since it was already late afternoon, we decided to go and photograph. We would worry about the tire later. Sure enough, when we came back to the car at night, that right rear tire was totally flat, and when we would go back to the tire shop the next day, the diagnosis would be the same as for the other one: structural damage. The mechanic mentioned that the most frequent cause was a factory defect, but it seems improbable that this caused two tires to fail on consecutive days. Since both were rear tires, my friend hypothesized that they might have been damaged on the Whitmore Canyon Overlook road, since it is easier to control the angle of contact with rocks on the front tires than on the rear tires. The mystery remains, but the lesson seems to be that tires not specifically designed for all terrain driving, as provided by rental companies, can easily get damaged.

I normally travel solo, but on that trip, I was glad to have come with a friend. Those tires are quite heavy, and it would have been quite the struggle to have to handle them by myself. As you can see in the video, replacing a tire on uneven, soft terrain isn’t straighforward. The jack did not extend high enough, so we had to lower the car and get some rocks underneath. But since we had removed the flat tire, there was nothing to support the car, so we had to replace it temporarily. Some trial and error!

Little Finland

Needless to say, with no spare tire left, we made a beeline towards the paved road and the tire shop in St George. Fortunately, we had reached our main off-road objective, which was the area called Little Finland. New York City (Italian population 1.8M) has Little Italy, San Jose (Vietnamese population 100K) has controversial Little Saigon, but why would one find a concentration of Finnish people in Nevada? Also known as Hobgoblins’ Playground, or Devil’s Fire, the area has nothing to do with the country Finland, and “Land of Fins” would be more descriptive. It is a small area, of maybe a square mile, but it contains rock formations that are unique even in a region – the American Southwest – known for its geology.

Erosion in the sandstone layers has created countless twisted detached thin fins of stone with intricate shapes unlike anywhere else I’ve seen before. Most are quite small and when photographed at eye-level, they merge with the background, whereas a low camera angle detaches them against the sky, and a wide-angle lens allows you to get closer for a more dynamic perspective.

The fins are located on a small mesa that slopes towards the west, and are bordered by a tall hill blocking the sunrise on the east, two reasons to photograph the area in the late afternoon. Driving out at night could be tricky, and I recommend instead to spend the night at the base of the mesa. I took advantage of the oblique Milky Way that occurs in the springtime to match the diagonal line of the receding fins. To illuminate the rocks, I placed a Goal Zero Lighthouse Mini Lantern on the roof of the car. Even though the car was parked some distance to the mesa, my initial setting for the light’s brightness was too high, and I had to walk down to dim it to match the Milky Way’s brightness.

Part 4 of 6: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Treasured Lands in China

Before being a book, Treasured Lands was the name of my traveling exhibit of large format photographs of American’s national parks, which has now shown in museums and galleries across the US. Last month, I traveled to China on the occasion of the first international exhibition of Treasured Lands.

The venue was the Li Yuan Photographic Art Museum in Ningbo. You probably have not heard of that city before, and neither did I. However, Ningbo has an urban population of 3.4 million, more than any US city besides New York and Los Angeles. Ningbo is one of China’s oldest cities and is located 140 miles south of Shanghai. The Li Yuan Photographic Art Museum, together with the Ningo Museum, is located in a large city park. Both buildings were designed by Wang Shu, the first Chinese citizen to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize – considered to be the equivalent of the Nobel prize for architecture.

Comprised of now 61 framed 24×36 prints, one for each national park, Treasured Lands requires quite a bit of wall space. The museum features a beautiful space large enough to fit Treasured Lands without any print stacking. When Treasured Lands debuted at our (since closed) Terra Galleria Artworks gallery within the Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, more than a decade ago, in order to enliven the sequence and break the monotony caused by the uniformity of the print sizes, I included a few larger prints. In a work with a fixed format, be it an exhibit or a book, introducing a few outliers can do wonders.

Back then, the largest inkjet printers could output at a maximum of 44 inch wide. I included a 40×60 inch Yosemite print and other large prints. However, in order to make it easier to ship the traveling exhibit, I dropped those larger prints from subsequent installations, leaving it to the host venues to produce larger prints if desired. Only two of them, the National Heritage Museum and the Museum of Science in Boston, did so as exhibit openers. I was therefore delighted to see that Mr Lai, the curator of the Li Yuan Photographic Art Museum had selected four prints to be printed larger, and the current availability of 64-inch inkjet printers meant that they could now be reproduced at an impressive 60×90 size which does justice to the detail contained in a 5×7 transparency.

Following the opening reception, I delivered a lecture at the Ningo Museum. Since copies of the second edition of the Treasured Lands book had just been printed in Shenzhen, I thought it would be an easy matter to get some shipped to Ningo for that occasion, but it turned out to be unpractical due to Chinese export regulations. Many attendees nevertheless lined up after the lecture to have the invitation postcard autographed.

I am very grateful to Li Yuan Photographic Art Museum, the curator Mr Lai, the staff, the leaders from the cultural community, and the organizer and interpreter Mr Lam for their hard work. I am very honored to have received this invitation from the city of Ningbo and the People’s Republic of China. Thank you to Yon Zhan Daily, and also Singto Daily, for reporting.

The National Parks are one of the greatest ideas that originated in America: that the nation’s most beautiful places should be preserved for everyone, and in perpetuity. America’s national parks would be a model for the world. China has one of the oldest civilizations on earth, however, America’s development is much more recent, because of that we had more opportunities there to preserve lands in a wild state. The difference between the two countries is instructive. There are about 200 national parks in China, but it was not until the later part of the 20th century that they were designated, whereas Yellowstone, was established in 1872. On this year which marks the 40th anniversary of the restoration of diplomatic relations between China and the US (the title of this post is a reference to John Adams’s first opera) I felt humbled to be given this opportunity to promote international friendship by representing and helping spread “America’s Best Idea”.

Steps Behind the Image: Whitmore Canyon Overlook

This is the first of a possible series of posts where I explain the multiple steps and thought process that led me from initial impression to final image.

At Whitmore Canyon Overlook, you face huge cliffs rising in front of you, rather than below you, like at most other Grand Canyon overlooks. My visit was timed for springtime, and although the profusion of wildflowers that I saw earlier in the Mojave Desert wasn’t there, clumps of yellow brittlebush still added a striking color accent to a rich diversity of desert plants. The arrival of sunlight brought a sharp and dramatic light that contrasted with the subdued shade that preceded it. My intent was to create a composition that would combine all those elements, which together formed the identity of the place I was standing at.

The scene

While the eye and mind can take integrate it all, capturing those elements in a photograph was a challenge. To start with, those cliffs above the Colorado River face the west, and the sun roses directly behind them. Here is the scene as it presented itself to me in the early morning. Nothing to photograph there, right?

Sky

As is often the case when the sky is too bright relative to the rest of the scene, framing without it immediately transforms the image. Without the need to preserve details in the sky, the exposure is brighter and reveals some potential. But first, I have to take care of some technical details.

Flare

By shading the lens with my hand, so that the sun doesn’t hit the front element, I eliminate lens flare. To do so, most of the time you can stand in behind the camera with your eye in the viewfinder, and then move around your free hand (usually the left one) until you see that flare is eliminated and your hand doesn’t intrude in the picture. Sometimes, when your arm is not long enough, you stand in front of the camera and move your hand until you see that its shade covers the lens, using a remote or self-timer, before checking afterward that your hand didn’t intrude into the picture.

Surface reflections

The rocks appeared washed out, distractingly bright. That was because their surface was reflecting the sunlight. By using a polarizing filter, I remove the surface reflection, and now they are dark as lava rocks should be. Note that this was done while photographing straight towards the sun. The polarizing filter range of applications goes beyond shooting at a 90 degrees angle from the sun, and darkening the sky!

Clutter

Now that the light is OK, I take a second look at the composition. It is too busy in the foreground. The most remarkable part is the backlit desert plants that are highlighted against the starkness of the shaded cliffs. To convey what I found interesting in the scene I do not need that many instances of lava rocks, brittlebush, and desert plants. I move a bit and zoom in from 40mm to 65mm.

Overlap

That is much cleaner, but the ocotillo (the shurb with long cane-like unbranched spiny stems) is partly hidden by a creosote bush shrub on its left, reducing the legibility of the desert plants. I move the camera just a few feet to the right, just so that the ocotillo appears in the gap between the creosote bushes. This eliminates the overlap.

The final image

To reveal a bit more detail in the cliffs and balance the light better, I finish the image in Lightroom by adding a touch of exposure (+ 0.6) and shadows (+10) that I compensate by reducing the brightness of highlights (-100) and lowering the black point (-20).

By choice, most of my images look pretty straightforward, but I wanted to show that there is nevertheless quite a bit of thought and craft even behind them. While this sequence of steps is fairly typical of my thought process, most of the time I intuitively skip some of them, and do not record the intermediate images. That morning, I wasn’t in hurry, so I did that with the intention to share with you some of my process later. If you find this useful, please let me know, and I’ll try to build more “Steps Behind the Image” posts in the future.

The Forgotten Rim of the Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon’s North Rim receives nine times fewer visitors than its South Rim. To the west, the awesome Toropweap overlook (described here) is seen by considerably fewer. However, no matter how little traffic Toroweeps gets, it still dwarfs that of the rim points further west, the subject of this post.

The northwestern rim Grand Canyon overlooks located in Parashant National Monument include some of the most remote locations in the continental United States. How remote? They require a round-trip drive of 180 miles on unpaved roads, some of which beyond the reach of standard SUVs. As an indication of how wild Parashant National Monument is, it has about the same area as Grand Canyon National Park, but does not include a single paved road, established campground, or toilet, not to mention any commercial facilities. Needless to say, the utmost preparation and self-sufficiency are required to visit.

Before starting any trip into Parashant National Monument, I recommend a stop at the BLM Interagency Visitor Center in St. George to get maps and information about road conditions. All the roads look the same on the map, but some are significantly more difficult than others, and the knowledgeable staff can give you advice. The free NPS map is easy to read and sufficient for travel on the main roads. The BLM Arizona Strip map is very detailed, but it is more difficult to read, and its paper version is quite bulky, as it also covers Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. My preference is to use the free geo-referenced electronic version on the Avenza Maps mobile app. During winter, snow above 5,000 feet can make the roads very muddy and impassable, while summers are subject to monsoons and hot temperatures.

Whitmore Canyon Overlook

When dry, the drive from St George up to the Bar 10 Ranch is straightforward and can be made by most vehicles. At the Bar 10 Ranch, a private enclave within Parashant National Monument, I encountered a gate with a menacing “No Trespassing” sign, but that was the correct road to the Whitmore Canyon Overlook, with public access. Past the Bar 10 Ranch, a steppe surprisingly verdant contrasted with black volcanic rocks.

The road became steep and covered with sharp lava rocks, a tough combination. We had to be over cautious because rather than the rugged all-terrain tires normally used on a Jeep, which are key on this type of road, our rented vehicle had tires that were quite beaten up. As it took us almost an hour to drive the last 7 miles, we arrived in view of the river quite late, as the opposite rim caught the last light. At least it looked like we had escaped tire damage.

Whitmore Canyon Overlook differs from the other overlooks over the Grand Canyon in that it is located on a lower rim. The view over the river from the overlook is excellent both upstream and downstream, as it is not too high above the river.

To get to a lower rim elsewhere in the Grand Canyon requires a hike, but here you can drive to the overlook and also car-camp there. Being on a lower rim means that you are surrounded by higher rims rather than flat terrain. They caught the early morning light.

The cliffs opposite the overlook face west. In the morning, they are in the shade. I timed the picture for when the penumbra hit the flowers, adding a subtle glow.

Whitmore Canyon Overlook offers the easiest access to the Colorado River inside Grand Canyon National Park, along its Whitmore Trail, with only 900 feet elevation loss to reach the river, as opposed to 3,000 feet from the South Rim or 4,000 feet from the North Rim. Shortly after the start of the trail various plants provided foreground elements.

Twin Point

Like for Whitmore Canyon Overlook, the road to Twin Point starts quite tamely and then degrades at the end, especially after the BLM/NPS boundary, making a high-clearance 4WD a necessity. Since a large part of the road is common, it may be tempting to combine trips to both destinations, but that would be stretching a full tank of gas to its limit. Driving a mile of steep and bumpy road uses more gas than a mile of highway. Since there is no gas between St George and the Colorado River, it is more prudent to come back to St George to refuel between the two trips. You don’t want to get stuck in this very remote area that sees very little traffic!

Unlike Whitmore Canyon Overlook, which is on a lower rim, Twin Point is located on the upper rim of the Grand Canyon, at 6,000 feet. The last part of the drive takes place on a narrow rib, so there are views both towards the east and the west. The road skirts the western edge of the rib several times.

At the end of the road, Twin Point faces east and provides an unusual perspective over the Grand Canyon. The view is mostly over a wide plateau, at sunrise, I used the triangular shape of a shadow to add another element to the composition.

At Twin Point, a large number of agaves and succulents grew right at the rim. In the late afternoon, shadows were disrupting their shape and texture, which was better captured after the sun had set.

Although co-managed by the NPS and the BLM, Parashant National Monument is much less regulated than Grand Canyon National Park. Dispersed camping is authorized everywhere without permit, which means that at Twin Point, you can not only drive within a few yards of the Grand Canyon Rim, but also set up your tent in such a unique setting. Like at Whitmore Overlook, we stayed overnight, and not a single person was in sight from our arrival in the late afternoon to our departure the next morning.

P.S. I have chosen the title of this post “The Forgotten Rim” carefully. While in modern times almost nobody goes there, compared to the other rims, that was not always so. The area abunds in archeological artifacts, and the nearby Nampaweap site feature some of the most impressive petroglyph collections I have seen. However, the mountain and desert part of Parashant would have to be the subject of another post…

Part 3 of 6: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

The White Pocket

The Coyote Buttes are the most sought after area of Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, and as such are subject to quotas and permits. If you didn’t win one, a great alternative is to visit the White Pocket, which for now does not require a permit despite being in my opinion equally impressive and otherworldly.

Previously known only to photographers and local ranchers, the White Pocket came to prominence after photos were published in National Geographic Magazine in 2012. As an indication of its growing popularity, in April I had been traveling in various areas of the Arizona Strip for about a week, and never saw any other people near each of the very scenic spots where we camped, but there were more than half a dozen cars parked overnight at the White Pocket trailhead.

As with Coyote Buttes South, the catch is that to get to the White Pocket you need a high-clearance 4WD. I don’t own one. Since I can access maybe 95% of the destinations of interest to me with a Subaru, to minimize my environmental impact, I have refrained from buying a less fuel-efficient vehicle. But the 5% kept intriguing me, and on that trip, to tackle some of those challenging roads, instead of driving from home, I flew to Las Vegas and rented a 4WD. Since the goal was some serious off-roading, I didn’t rent a random 4WD, but made sure to reserve a Jeep Wrangler, which is by far the most capable off-the-shelf vehicle you can find, with its high clearance, geometry, a combination of power and lightweight, undercarriage protection, among other features. Specialized car rental companies will provide you a well-equipped one, but at a high cost. Mainstream car rental companies will not guarantee a Wrangler nor any specific car, only a SUV. Fox Rent A Car in Las Vegas is located off the regular car rental terminal and doesn’t provide the greatest service (more on that in subsequent posts), but they do have Jeep Wranglers for cheap.


(click to enlarge)

My friend had tried to visit earlier in the year with a Jeep Grand Cherokee but he did not stop at the BLM office to get road advice and ended up having to turn around because of difficult road conditions, compounded by mud. The BLM visitor center in Kanab provided an extremely useful map, which I have reproduced above. By comparison with the direct road he attempted, the longer BLM-recommended road (in yellow on the map) turned out quite easy, and the Wrangler cruised with no difficulties. At the White Pocket trailhead, I noticed that drivers had made it there with a variety of 4WD SUVs. The next day, however, we followed the direct route from White Pocket to Cottonwood Cove that includes a segment marked as “most difficult” on the map, and while we made it without having to deflate tires, the Wrangler struggled quite a bit on the uphill sections of deep sand and would almost certainly have gotten stuck had I lost momentum during some of the turns.

What is the reward for the challenging drive? The White Pocket, a short walk from the trailhead, is only about half a square mile and you can walk across in fifteen minutes, but within that small area, it easily compares square foot for square foot to the most interesting areas in the Southwest, including the Coyote Buttes and its “Waves”. It is a landscape photographer’s dream.

Not only rocks are incredibly twisted, but also the red sandstone is capped by an unusual white layer, after which the entire area was named, creating great contrasts. That layer is also more resistant to foot traffic than the striations and ribs of the Wave, so I was less hesitant to wander freely around. This may also explain why the BLM has so far not restricted the area. However, this may not last, so my advice is to visit it while you still can!

Part 2 of 6: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5