Terra Galleria Photography

The bowels of the earth: Zion’s Pine Creek Canyon

Each of Zion’s canyons have an individual character. While Mystery Canyon was long, diverse, lush, and open, Pine Creek offered a hauntingly beautiful subterranean experience in a surprisingly cold slot canyon, with an incredibly lucky find.

In Zion National Park, the soft sandstone rock has been eroded by flash floods into narrow crevices which can look like caverns from the inside. Pine Creek Canyon let you travel the bowels of the earth in claustrophobic passageways and huge chambers that allow only a glitter of glowing light into their depth.

The twisting slot canyons trap pot holes of water which remain frigid because the sun never reaches them. I was surprised to find out that even when the temperatures in the desert soar in the 100Fs, the water in the subterranean canyons remains cold enough that without protection such as wetsuits, it would be very easy to get hypothermic.

Last year, I had planned to descend Pine Creek Canyon with my brother-in-law, but because I got injured while rafting the Grand Canyon, he went alone. He had found Pine Creek Canyon mostly dry. It turned out that because of a mid-May storm, Pine Creek Canyon had ten times more water than last year. Sections that were totally dry last year were so deep that the women in our group had to swim. I love how those changes remind us that our planet is living and unpredictable.

My inspiration for descending Pine Creek Canyon was Floris Van Breugel’s photographs of the “Cathedral” chamber. However, when we got there, the light wasn’t quite right. With the water in the pool below so deep that even my full-size tripod didn’t keep the camera above the water, I gave up on trying to wait.

In the subsequent dim corridor, the high water created a mesmerizing setting. I walked with water up to my shoulders, holding the tripod extended above my head to keep the attached camera out of the water. A waist deep section allowed me to set up the camera for a long exposure.

The highlight of our visit was to find a pair of juvenile owls perched on a sculptured log – perfectly still during the 1s exposure. Who said that a 24mm lens isn’t appropriate for bird photography ? As we moved across the glowing chamber, their body remained totally motionless, but their eyes tracked us intently.

The easy approach and exit combine with the canyon’s beauty to make it the Zion canyoneering classic. Not to forget the fun of swims and rappels! On the last one, you hang from the rope for 100 feet without touching the rock.

In the depth of Pine Creek Canyon, you may feel in the wilderness, but the canyon parallels the Zion tunnel and the Canyon Overlook Trail. It is remarkable to be able to explore a place so close to civilization, yet so different, truly a hidden wonder.

More photos of Pine Creek Canyon
More photos of Zion Canyoneering

Part 2 of 4: 1 | 2 | to be continued

Zion’s Mystery Canyon

Zion is a land of deeply cut and narrow canyons. With a few exceptions, their beauty cannot be seen by hiking. On my last trip to Zion, by descending some of the “technical” canyons that require the use of ropes and harnesses, I sought to experience parts of the park seen only by few visitors, such as Mystery Canyon.

Exploring technical canyons combines hiking, climbing techniques, and swimming into the sport of canyoneering. The reference resource for canyoneering in Zion is Tom Jones’ Canyoneering USA. Tom named Mystery Canyon as his favorite Zion canyon, because it “has everything”.

We started the day on the East Mesa Trail, which travels isolated forests and meadows atop a flat plateau to the east of Zion Canyon. Mystery Canyon involves a lot of hiking in a surprisingly verdant canyon beneath sheer walls, alternating between open and narrow sections that provide a wonderful diversity of scenery.

Besides exploration, the fun of canyoneering consists in using various techniques to pass obstacles. Rappels are necessary when you encounter large drops. We did a dozen rappels in Mystery Canyon. The first series are encountered in the Rock Narrows, when the character of the canyon changes to sculptured narrows.

Unlike some canyoneering routes, Mystery Canyon is relatively dry. The most spectacular rappel of the day took place in a large alcove. Since I was one of the two most experienced climbers in our group, I went first. I made sure to put my camera away in a dry bag, since I knew that this rappel would land into a pool (called Mystery Springs). However, this wasn’t enough to prepare me for the experience of rappelling straight into a pool too deep to stand. My first reaction upon entering the cold water, still attached to the rope, was “Now what ?”. I figured out that with the large backpack I was carrying (containing my dry bag, tripod, and an extra rope), my best option was to swim out on my back.

Our journey which started on a gentle plateau, ended up in the Zion Narrows. Mystery Canyon has a perfect finale, the rappel along Mystery Falls – the first landmark that you see when you hike into the Narrows. I was elated to see this familiar sight from a new perspective.

Our group had beginners that did very well on this long day. Canyoneering is quite accessible, provided that you travel with experienced partners. Unlike climbing, the focus isn’t on difficulty, but rather on exploration.

More photos of Pine Creek Canyon

More photos of Zion Canyoneering

GPS Apps for photographers

GPS can be a very useful tool for a photographer to reach locations and keep track of them. After finding out about the value of having a GPS app on my iPhone during a close call in the desert, I researched carefully many GPS apps. In this post, I survey the 8 most useful apps I’ve come across.

Links point to the iPhone/iOS version, which is the one I tested, however besides Topo Maps and GPS Tracks, all the reviewed apps are also available for Android.

With hundreds of GPS apps available, there is no doubt that using your phone as a GPS offers you more versatility than a dedicated GPS unit. In addition, a phone offers a larger screen, and network connectivity, all in a lighter package. They can be housed in hard/waterproof cases if desired. I’ve used a flexible waterproof case to swim in Zion’s wet canyons. Carrying a small battery charger ensures that you do not run out of battery in the middle of nowhere. My favorite is this credit-card sized charger because it has integrated cables and its size makes it possible to charge a phone carried in a pocket.

Google Maps

Google Maps (free) works very well for everything but some backcountry travel, especially with a few tricks which aren’t well-documented.
  • Google provides the best search and directions of any apps for driving (turn-by-turn) and walking. Last January, amongst all my apps (including an automobile Garmin unit), it was the only who could find the recently relocated entrance of Olompani State Historic Park near Novato, CA.
  • Terrain and Satellite Views are available. Use terrain view for visualizing the topography. It even shows trails. Even if it is not a true topographic map suitable for backcountry travel, the app sometimes has data that it can use to guide you along a trail!
  • You can save maps for offline use via a hidden feature: enter “ok maps” into the search box when viewing the area you want to save. There is a relatively small limit on the size of the area that can be saved, so the app still works best with a network connection.
  • You can save locations (tap on location and hold until a pin is dropped on it, swipe up to save) with all information linked to your Google account. Refer to them at google.com/bookmarks
Google Maps has no importing capabilities and can handle only individual locations, not tracks.

Here

Depending on your preferences and skills, on the trail, you may or may not rely on a GPS app. The pace of hiking leaves plenty of time to deploy traditional navigation tools – which many believe to be more reliable. However, I’ve found GPS indispensable on the road, particularly in unfamiliar cities.

Here (free) is a recent navigation map from Nokia which is great for offline travel on roads and streets, with directions for both driving (turn-by-turn) and walking.

  • The main benefit of Here is that you can download map sets for offline use without a connection. Even if you have a connection, you can save precious data usage if you have an economical plan like me. Unlike with Google Maps, you can download maps for entire continents, countries, or states. The USA map takes 4.4 GB. Last May, I used the Vietnam map (176 MB), which was very precise and complete, even on the Con Dao Islands, some of the country’s most remote territories.
  • The display is the most elegant and flexible of any of the navigation apps I’ve seen, with adaptive labeling of streets, neighborhoods, and even 3D buildings.
Compared to Google Maps, the main limitations is the absence of terrain view and trails. Satellite views are available, but require an online connection. Locations can be saved, but not exported.

TomTom USA

TomTom USA ($25) is an offline app which brings to your iPhone the familiar solid but slow interface of an automobile GPS unit. I purchased it before becoming aware of the slicker and free Here. It does have one advantage: the well-curated database of points of interest by categories can be easily searched in the vicinity of any location.

Topo Maps

The vast majority of GPS apps are not designed for outdoor use such as hiking, which requires the ability to store topographic maps for offline use.

Topo Maps ($8) has only one map source (scans of old paper 1:24,000 USGS maps for the US and 1:50,000 NRcan for Canada) and only one navigation functionality (waypoints, no tracks). However within its limitations, it has the cleanest interface of any of the hiking GPS apps. The price includes access to any of those maps. It lets you easily download them for offline use and navigate with an excellent distance/bearing tool.

Maplets

Maplets ($3) is only a map viewer, with the ability to view your location on the maps which have been calibrated. It lets you easily download (no extra charge) for offline use a variety of official park maps created by US national, state, county, and city agencies. Those visitor maps often complement topo maps, featuring information not present on them.

GPS Tracks

Phone camera pictures are automatically geotagged with GPS coordinates. Several point and shoot cameras also offer this functionality. It is a shame manufacturers have omitted it from most DSLRs, requiring (if available) the use of a cumbersome external GPS receiver mounted on the hot shoe. If you wish to geotag images, the alternative is to record a track, and then write the GPS data in the RAW files via time-stamp synchronization. Adobe Lightroom has offered that feature for a while.

From Dec 2014 to April 2015, I’ve used GPS Tracks ($8) with satisfaction, recording 75 tracks.

  • GPS navigation precision option let you optimize either accuracy or battery life. With the lowest accuracy option, I’ve been able to track for 12 continuous hours on the iPhone 6, and the tracks have remained quite precise.
  • Tracks can be auto-synchronized on Dropbox.
  • The app presents plenty of data about tracks and has an excellent player for reviewing them in detail.
GPS Tracks can also be used to create and navigate to waypoints, but unlike for the tracks, which work cleanly, the waypoints functionality is quite confusing. There are a number of offline maps offered, but they require a subscription – an unfortunate feature of many apps, so I haven’t tried them, using the app exclusively for tracking.

When I was on Santa Rosa Island, the app froze. This doesn’t seem to be an exceptional occurrence, as instructions mentioned the issue (database corruption) and the fix. However, since it involves saving data and reinstalling the app, I was not able to use the app for the rest of my stay on the island. Brian Matiash, who introduced me to GPS Tracks, also experienced tracks not properly saved.

Runkeeper

As the name implies, Runkeeper (free) is designed to keep track of running workouts, producing a neat mile-by-mile split of your running pace. However, it also works well for recording tracks, as they are auto-synchronized to the cloud and can be downloaded from there. I’ve used Runkeeper to record more than 50 tracks, so far without any problem. If all you need is a tracker, the price of the app makes it well worth trying.

Gaia GPS

Apps reviewed so far perform only a set of tasks (map viewing, waypoint-based navigation, track recording). Gaia GPS ($20) is the best option for a all-in-one outdoor GPS app.
  • The swiss-army knife of outdoor GPS apps, it lets you create, import, and export waypoints as well as tracks, and supports navigation to them.
  • You have access to a fantastic selection of outdoor maps for download at no extra charge. Those include satellite images from 4 sources, road maps, street maps, bicycle trail maps, and high-resolution topographic maps, as well as a number of specialized maps, such as those produced by the NPS. I was impressed to see how accurately some maps depicted a network of unpublicized trails on private land near my house.
  • Gaia Cloud lets you synchronize, share, and discover maps and tracks.
  • The interface is clean, especially considering the rich functionalities.
  • There are several options to maximize battery life. The app is said to be able to track for a day.
So far the only problem I’ve experienced with Gaia GPS is that the tracking turned out to be quite poor in the canyons of Zion National Park. To be fair, the combination of switchbacks on steep terrain and narrow canyons is challenging for any GPS. However, when I tried GPS Tracks in Zion, it recorded a less erratic track than the Gaia tracks.

I hope that you’ll find some of the apps reviewed useful. Do you have any favorite GPS apps that I have not surveyed here ?

Close call at the Ibex Dunes

Before moving on to the marine environment of Channel Islands National Park for an awesome change from Death Valley and its 100F temperatures, I concluded my short stay in the desert with a visit to the remote Ibex Dunes. Read about this location, and how tech nearly got me lost.

Amongst the five sand dunes in Death Valley National Park, the Ibex Dunes are the second-easiest to access, after the world-famous Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Few visit them. What probably contributes to the low visitation is their position in the very south-east corner of the park, two hours away from the central attractions of the park. There are also no campgrounds nor facilities nearby – backcountry camping is allowed. From late afternoon to mid-morning the next day, I did not see another person around, which added to the sense of wilderness. That’s one time I wished there were a few fellow campers around, though.

To get to this wild area, you need to drive only about 10 miles of unpaved road. That road, called Saratoga Springs Road, starts on the west side of Highway 127, 26 miles south of Shoshone or 30 miles north from Baker. I missed it at first because the intersection is not signed. It is the only road leading west in the vicinity and is near a historic marker, south of Dumont Dunes. From there, after 5.8 miles, turn north onto a smaller road and follow it for 2.7 miles. At the next intersection, the main road turns left for Saratoga Springs. Continue right for about a mile to an area where you can pull out to your right. Further, the road crosses deep sands that require 4WD.

Unlike other dunes, the Ibex Dunes do not form a continuous dune field but instead consist of distinct patches that stretch for about two miles. The southern section has one large dune – the tallest in vertical rise of the Ibex dunes – and more scattered smaller ones further south. The tall dune is about 1.5 miles (one-way) from the road. There are no trails, but it is straightforward to hike cross-country towards the dunes.

The return trip is less straightforward, especially at night, because you need to to find your car! There are no natural landmarks, everything looks similar, and with rocks and shrubs on the way, you cannot see as far as you would in more open and flat terrain.

Because of the warm temperatures, I didn’t start to hike until an hour before sunset. At sunset, the dunes receive directly the warm light of the setting sun as the terrain is open on the west. Usually, I don’t rely on GPS for critical navigation, but given the nondescript terrain I thought it would be my best option. I marked the position of my car with a Garmin hand-held GPS and made sure that there were plenty of batteries left. Ten minutes into the hike, I thought that maybe I should have left a flashlight turned on at the car, but since I was already a bit late, I continued towards the dunes instead.

I initially planned to do some night photography at the dunes, but about an hour after sunset, strong winds kicked up out of nowhere. With the sand flying around, stinging me, reducing visibility, and threatening to get everywhere in the camera gear, there was no point in hanging out any longer. I promptly descended the dunes and hiked across the valley, turning the GPS on from time to time to check my bearings.

At about a quarter mile from the target, although it was pitch dark on that moonless night, the terrain looked more rugged than I remembered, requiring a bit of scrambling over ravines. When I arrived at the target position, I could not believe that no car was in sight! I tried to comb the area around the target position in a circular pattern. Even the dirt road was nowhere in sight. The night wasn’t cold, but it was windy, and I carried only a light jacket and had little water left. Tired of walking in circles, I sat down to evaluate my options. It had been almost two decades since my last forced bivy!

Then, I remembered that my iPhone was running an app called “GPS Tracks”. I had started the app to create a GPS track that I would later use to geo-reference the photos by synchronizing the time stamps in Lightroom. Although it is not a navigation app and I did not mark waypoints, I found that it did show my position, together with the track. By trail and error, I was able to walk towards the start of the track. I found my car, a stunning quarter mile from the target point marked on the hand-held Garmin.

Due to last night’s near miss, and late return, I did not feel like getting up by dark. Anyway, the Saddle Peak Hills, a cluster of desert mountains situated close to the dunes to the east, block the sunrise. I started after sunrise to hike towards the northern section of the dunes, which is longer and higher, but not as stark.

With careful positioning, the morning sun was still low enough to reveal textures. Returning in mid-morning, I had no problem to locate the car by sight. I then checked out Saratoga Springs, a surprisingly marshy environment in the desert.

The Saratoga Springs road is well-maintained. It should be passable by any car in normal conditions. However, like many desert roads, it is quite washboarded. My strategy on those roads has been to drive fast. Past a certain speed the washboard frequency doesn’t “resonate” anymore, so the drive feels smoother.

However, this time, maybe I ran out of luck. Or did I? When I arrived in Baker, after photographing the tallest thermometer in the world, I stopped at a gas station. One of my tires was completely flat.

What I learned: test GPS viewpoints, do not rely on a single device, and if possible, use a low-tech navigation method. Anything else you would have done differently ?

Alternative Icons in Death Valley

Death Valley National Park is defined by its sand dunes, playas, salt flats, and badlands. Last April, I spent a few days in the park and photographed each of those iconic features, however not at the classic locations usually associated with them. I never saw another photographer. Read this post to learn about the alternative locations I visited.

Salt pan: the Cottonball Basin

Death Valley is the only National Park to feature extensive salt flats. They are formed there because, in this desert, the rate of water evaporation exceeds the rate of water precipitation. The salt pan around Badwater and Devil’s Golf Course is the largest and most well-known. However, last April, I found the whole Badwater area to be brown and dirty-looking. The salt pan along the West Side Road wasn’t much better. To produce beautiful polygons, the basins need to be flooded, but the last time this happened was 2010.

The Cottonball Basin, being close to Salt Creek (the wettest area in the park), fared a bit better. That’s the only place where I could find decent salt formations, although not polygons. I drove about 5 miles north from Furnace Creek on CA-190, parked on the side of the road. Starting about an hour before sunset, I hiked cross-country towards the west for approximately a mile, heading towards the glistening areas in the distance. I was careful to avoid wet areas in order to avoid leaving noticeable footprints, and I hope that if you visit, you’ll do the same!

Mud Playa: the Panamint Valley

Playas are dried lake beds. Many exist in Death Valley, while they are quite rare in other National Parks. The most famous is the Racetrack, because of its moving stones, but it is quite out of the way. Recent road conditions make tire punctures much more likely than in the past when I drove there four times with various passenger vehicles, including a Toyota minivan.

The Panamint Playa is quite extensive and much easier to access. It is bisected by CA-190 between miles 3.5 and 4.2 east of Panamint Springs Resort and extends for many miles in both the northern and southern directions. Late afternoon lights up the Panamint Range. I parked at mile 4 and wandered on the north side.

Badlands: Twenty Mule Team Canyon

Zabriskie Point being an icon (see my tip on finding a better viewpoint), the platform is crowded at sunrise.

Nearby Twenty Mule Team Canyon feature badlands that easily rival those found at Zabriskie Point. Unlike at Zabriskie Point, you are not limited to a platform and its surroundings, but instead drive a 2.8-mile one-way dirt road (passable by any car) which offers you a variety of viewpoints. I saw only a couple of other cars from dawn to well after sunrise. The entrance of the road is 3.6 miles south of CA-190 from Zabriskie Point.

Sand Dunes: Ibex Dunes

Dead in the center of the park, conveniently located near Stovepipe Wells, the Mesquite Flat Dunes are one of the prime attractions of Death Valley for photographers and non-photographers. The popularity makes it very difficult to escape footprints and to exclude people walking on ridges. By contrast, I didn’t see a single other car at the Ibex Dunes, nor did I notice any footprints other than mine. I still managed to ruin a good potential composition by trampling a ridge! However, this was the least of my worries, as I’ll elaborate on in the next post, which will also give more details about those dunes located in the south-east corner of the park.

Death Valley National Park is so large that it is easy to find the same subjects that people photograph at iconic locations at those, and other out-of-the-beaten path locations that let you make your discoveries.

Is there a little-known location in Death Valley that you’d like to share?

New Series: “The Sign”

As I became more aware that National Parks nature are also a human construct, in parallel with my nature work, I have been working on a few series that examine how the components of this construct direct the way we look at nature.

I’ve introduced before The Window, in which we turn our back to the landscape and look at a building. The Sign is a dual series in many ways, however it is more humorous.

In The Sign, we face and look directly at the landscape from a designated overlook. The man-made element consists of an interpretive sign which occupies a small portion of the picture, but frames and dominates the way we perceive its space. As the sign includes a pictorial depiction of the land, a dialogue takes place between the land and its representation or interpretation. That representation can be literal or stylized, in direct correspondence or shifted (either in space or time – look how hillsides in the Virgin Islands have become more desirable locations for homes), limited to more names, or making invisible information available.

I see the new series as an extension of my thorough celebration of nature in the National Parks. To emphasize the continuity, I have presented those images with the same color slide film palette. The common organizing principle is that within the series, each image is from a different national park.

See the whole series.

Santa Rosa Island, Channel Islands National Park

Of the five islands that make up Channel Islands National Park, Santa Rosa Island offers by far the largest area to explore. Backcountry logistics and the size of the island make it difficult to see it all. However, by staying two nights at the nice campground, I covered a good amount of territory on day hikes within 48 hours. Although the island looks barren from a distance, it harbors a great variety of rare plant species and beautiful sights that I’ll illustrate in this post.

Transportation

The park concessionaire, Island Packers, provides boat transportation to all the islands. A day trip doesn’t leave you much time on land compared to the sailing time, which is about 3 hours to Santa Rosa Island each way.

The crossing is scenic, with frequent marine life sightings for which the boat stops.

Camping

Except for beach backcountry camping (mid-August to December), and private research stations, the only place to stay on the island is the campground. It is located 1.5 miles away from the landing pier, in a canyon relatively sheltered from the wind. Motorized transportation is not available to visitors. I brought two backpacks. I packed the first one, with camping gear and food like for a backpacking trip. The second one, to be used as a day bag, was a camera backpack (F-stop Gear Satori). Lugging both to the campground was no worse than the coolers and surfboards carried by other campers.

The campground has water (not all campgrounds on the Channel Islands do), and even flush toilets, a nice surprise in such a remote location. In normal years, there are even hot showers, but they were turned off due to the California drought. A wind shelter marks each of the campsites. It proved indispensable since, during the whole stay, winds were howling at solid 30 knots, with occasional stronger gusts. I visited in April even though springtime is the windiest because I was hoping for wildflowers and greenery. However, lack of rain meant that springtime had peaked one month earlier than usual.

Black Mountain

After carrying my backpack to the campground, to take in a measure of the island’s size, on the first afternoon, I hiked to Black Mountain. The straight round-trip hike from the campground is 8 miles RT. I made a loop through Cherry Canyon, Telephone Road, and Soledad Road. Although combining those trails in this order added quite a few miles, it added variety.

Most of the island is barren. However, the canyons are home to a varied native vegetation. Up until 1998, the island was owned by the Vail and Vickers ranching company, whose cattle grazed most of the island, except for the canyons.

At 1298 ft high, Black Mountain offers expansive views in all directions. To the north, Santa Cruz island appears close. San Miguel Island is visible to the west, and the Soledad Peak range to the south.

Santa Rosa Island is home to two unique forests. Island Oaks, a subspecies found nowhere else on earth, grow below the summit. They form what is called a “cloud forest” because it is sustained by the moisture collected by the island mountaintops.

The forest provided a relative welcome break from the wind, but it was time to leave. I had to keep a brisk pace to stay warm. Fortunately, my itinerary let me to go down by dark through the easiest route, the well-maintained Soledad Road, rather than Telephone Road, which has become a steep, sometimes overgrown trail.

Water Canyon Beach

If you don’t feel like taking a long hike, Water Canyon Beach is just 1.5 miles RT from the campground. Even though, it is most of the time deserted and has enough subjects to keep you occupied for a while.

The 2-mile long white sand beach is bordered by cliffs and adorned with dunes and a stream at the mouth of Water Canyon. The first light of sunrise normally illuminates the beach, but the weather was mostly cloudy, so I returned on the next day too.

Lobo Canyon

After I had got back to the campground for breakfast, the rain started. Since it was still early in the day, I took a nap. As the weather did not seem to improve, I resolved to start hiking towards Lobo Canyon (13 miles RT from campground) despite raindrops that were flying horizontally at me. Midway, the rain abated, but not the wind. I was happy to find some shelter from it in Lobo Canyon.

Lobo Canyon harbors a riparian environment along a year-round stream that makes it a surprisingly lush place, full of native plants.

In contrast with Water Canyon Beach, the coastline at the mouth of Lobo Canyon is rocky and precipitous. It was well lighted in the late afternoon.

Since I preferred soft light, I photographed the strikingly sculptured sandstone canyon walls on my return hike near sunset. I returned again to the campground at night, but this time with the wind at my back.

Torrey Pines

The other unique forest on Santa Rosa Island consists of Torrey Pines that natively grow only there, and near San Diego. I photographed them along a loop trail (5 miles RT from campground) which climbs on a hill for good views of the coast. Morning light was excellent for framing Becher Bay with the pines.

I wished I had another full day to explore the eastern tip of the island, however, with the boat pickup rescheduled to 1pm, it was time to pack and ferry the gear back to the pier. National Park visitation is about 330,000, but most make it only to the mainland visitor center. Only 10% set foot on the islands. Do you plan to be one of them ?

View more images of Channel Islands National Park

Amazon Cloud Drive for Photos: Review and Alternatives

Amazon recently made a splash in the cloud storage space by offering a plan that looks irresistible for photographers: unlimited photo storage including RAW files support for just $1 a month. In this post, I evaluate the service, expose its shortcomings, investigate possible workarounds, and suggest alternative ways to backup your photos.

Backups are not optional

The importance of backups cannot be overstated. Hard drives come only in two states: failed, and not yet failed. Think that a RAID system will protect you against hard drive failure? When I was working at SRI International, we had a RAID controller fail. All the drives in the array were fried.

So you are making multiple backups in your studio or house. Unless you house them in a fire-resistant, unmovable safe, your data is still at risk in case of a catastrophic event such as a burglary, your house burning down, or being flooded. To secure your data, you need an offsite backup solution.

Enters the Cloud. Your files are uploaded through the internet. They are stored in corporate-grade data centers, often with redundancy across multiple states. Amazon has been a pioneer with their Cloud services, which power many technology startups. Amazon Cloud Drive Photos looked such a good deal at $1/month. That’s what Apple charges for a paltry 20GB! Let see how it works in practice.

Terms of Service

Amazon states “You may use the Service only to store, retrieve, manage, and access Your Files for personal, non-commercial purposes using the features and functionality we make available. You may not use the Service to store, transfer or distribute content of or on behalf of third parties, to operate your own file storage application or service, to operate a photography business or other commercial service, or to resell any part of the Service.”

However, I could not imagine them looking at individual photos to determine whether they are of family and friends or instead constitute commercial photography. An inquiry with Amazon clarified that Amazon Cloud may be used for archiving purposes, regardless of the commercial nature of the photographs. Their concern is probably transmissions to third parties, which could potentially eat up bandwidth.

The Interface

Currently, the only advertised desktop access to Amazon Cloud is via a web browser. The Terms of Service explicitly prohibit to create a better solution. The “Photos & Video” view is unusable. It lets you view only the entire archive, sorted by date. Generating the preview thumbnails is glacially slow if the files are RAWs or TIFFs.

The “All Files” view is usable: you can view and manage folders and files in a way similar to a computer filesystem. After clicking on “+”, you can choose the destination folder and upload multiple files or even a hierarchy of folders by dragging them into the browser.

Upload Speeds

I enjoy a fast cable-based connection (Comcast) with 12.Mbps uploads, as measured by speedtest.net. In theory, I could upload 5.4BGB per hour, 130GB per 24 hours, or 1TB in less than 8 days. In practice, the upload speed to Amazon Cloud Drive turned out a respectable 4.8GB per hour. However, it took 12 days to upload the first 1TB!

This is because you cannot just drag the folders and walk away. At seemingly random times, the service interrupts the upload and asks you to login again. At that point, you have to figure out manually which was the last uploaded file, and then restart the upload.

Upload Errors

Of more concern, some files will not upload correctly. In that case, the browser informs you, and you can re-upload them – if you can catch the warming.

The problem is that if your upload was interrupted, as described before, instead of seeing the warming, you will be looking at a login window. In that case, you will not see the warning, as there is no log of upload errors.

No Folder Synchronization

If the counts for the number of files match, all is well, but otherwise finding the missing files is a purely manual task. Compounding the lack of a log, Amazon provides no utility to compare a list of files on Amazon Cloud with a list of files on your computer. If I could copy and paste a list of filenames from an Amazon Cloud folder, it would be easy to write a script to perform the task. However, while you can select multiple files from the browser, you cannot paste them. A quick examination of the app code even suggests that Amazon has designed it to disable that functionality.

No File Synchronization

Unlike a desktop app, the browser has no way of knowing if a file on your computer has changed, and therefore that its backup needs a refresh. When you re-upload a whole folder which has already been backed-up, the app will detect the presence of an identical file only after the corresponding file upload is completed. There is no time saved compared to uploading the folder from scratch. This makes the service only suitable for backing up archives, not work in progress.

The deprecated Amazon Cloud Drive Desktop App

Amazon used to provide a desktop app named “Amazon Cloud Drive” which offers synchronization. It is no longer linked, but you can download it using the Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine.

When launched, this app creates a folder named “Cloud Drive” in your home directory, then tries to synchronize this folder with your Amazon Cloud Drive. For most people, this will be unpractical since the contents to be synchronized have to reside on the “Cloud Drive” folder. If you uploaded the contents of several external drives to Amazon Cloud Drive, then the app will attempt to download all those files into the “Cloud Drive” folder, which is probably not what you want! There appears to be no easy way to control what the Amazon app is doing since after initial set-up, it just runs in the background. It doesn’t even have a menu or a way to stop (other than using system tools).

The odrive App

odrive promises to be an app bringing together a variety of Cloud services. Amazon Cloud Drive is included amongst them. Initial testing showed that the app works indeed with Amazon Cloud Drive. Unlike the Amazon Cloud Drive App, you can control what drive is doing: when and what to synchronize.

The big limitation is that it also creates a folder (named “odrive”) in your home directory, then all synchronizations appear to be limited to that folder. Links will not work, so you cannot use it to synchronize data that resides elsewhere.

Alternative Cloud services

Amazon Cloud Drive got me curious about other Cloud backup services. There are quite a few around (quick overview). I am trying Backblaze. It offers a combination of low cost ($5/month per computer), unlimited backups, and synchronization through a nicely featured app which let you select external drives. I am currently evaluating the service on their 15-day free trial, but this doesn’t sound too good: “Backblaze should be able to complete your initial backup in 30 days. If your initial backup is estimated to take longer, then Backblaze may not be the best solution for you”. Crashplan has similar features with better recovery options, plus the option to send a hard drive to speed up the initial backup. However, it is limited to 1TB, less than 1/10th of my data.

Update: in 15 days Backblaze managed to backup only 1.2GB. Besides that, they require you to keep external drives plugged in, otherwise will delete the corresponding data. Fail. Trying Crashplan next.

My offsite backup method

Before Amazon got my attention with their seemingly aggressive offer, I hadn’t seriously considered Cloud backup. Not only I had calculated that the initial backup would take between three months and six months, but I have had for years in place a system that seems reliable enough.

I mirror periodically each of the main data drives that are not yet full on a minimum of two external drives. One of them is kept attached to the computer so that I can easily keep it synchronized to the corresponding main data drive. The other one is kept offsite, at a relative’s house that I visit at least once a month. On each visit, I bring the backup drives that I had at home, and swap them against those at the relative’s house. At any time, the data resides on three drives, with one of them being offsite. Restore is just a matter of driving to my relative’s and retrieving the drive. Once a drive is full and considered an archive, I store the two backup copies at two different offsite locations.

Conclusion

Amazon Cloud Drive Photos lacks proper software for automating uploads and synchronizations, leaving possible holes in your backup. However, the cost is low, especially considering that the service is not tied to a particular computer. It is also included in Amazon Prime, so if you are a subscriber, it is worth using as an additional backup. You can never have too many! For not much more, other services offer a more reliable solution – within the limitations of Cloud backup: reliance on an external provider and network connections.

What offsite backup method is working well for you ?

Saguaro National Park: five days and $314

This March, I visited Saguaro National Park in less than five days, inclusive of travel from home. A fairly extensive National Park photography trip doesn’t need to be lengthy nor expensive! To illustrate this point, in this post, rather than describing the locations visited, I will detail my itinerary, logistics, and costs, which totalled $314 all-inclusive of transportation, food, and lodging costs.

During the week before the trip, a front was creating overcast conditions that I tried to avoid. On March 17, satisfied with the forecast that I monitored closely, I booked a flight into Tucson using 25K American Airlines miles. You can earn 50K miles just by signing up for an AA Advantage credit card and spending $3,000 in the first three months. Miles often let you book a flight at the late minute, so you are in control of conditions.

Day 1: travel & Mica View

Mid-day on March 19, I flew from SFO to Tucson. Total airfare cost: $136 (award processing, 1 checked bag RT @ $25 each way). Traveling “light”, I packed my gear in two bags. Two cameras, six lenses, and electronics fit into an F-stop Gear Satori backpack. I hauled the rest in a wheeled Eagle Creek duffel bag that I kept under 50lbs. It included camping gear, two tripods, and the Phantom 2 quadcopter in a Think Tank bag. The Satori fits into the overhead bins of regular planes but is too large for regional planes. I slipped out the ICU (“internal carrying unit”) and its fragile contents, which easily fit into the overhead bin before gate-checking the shell.

As I did not anticipate difficult weather nor rough roads, I rented a compact car (Hotwire) for $110. I would end up using only one tank of gas: $22. I had a bit of extra time before my planned evening shot in the park. I spent it buying snacks at a gas station ($9) and taking aerial pictures of the striking military airplane graveyards south of Tucson.

In the late afternoon, I hiked the Mica View Trail (2 miles RT) in the Rincon Mountain (East) Unit of Saguaro National Park. Since it was cloudy, I did not hang out for night photography.

Instead, I went to a grocery store to stocked up on food for the rest of the trip. I spent $30 on a loaf of garlic bread, a loaf of orange bread, bananas, cans of vegetables, chips, Gatorade bottles (they double as excellent water bottles), and energy/snack bars, all foods that do not require a cooler. The weather was warm enough not to warrant bringing a stove, which makes locating suitable cartridges time-consuming. However, feeling a bit chilly, I bought pizza and breadsticks ($8) that I ate while driving. Recent rains had created flooded sections on the unpaved road to the trailhead, which was quite unsettling in the darkness of night. However, I made it to the Miller Creek Trailhead where I slept under the stars next to the car ($0) on National Forest lands, which are not restricted like NPS lands.

Day 2: Rincon Peak day hike

The NPS site says “for those with a taste for adventure, as well as a couple of extra days, we recommend a trip into the Rincon Mountains Saguaro Wilderness Area”. A single day gave me a good taste of that area.

Rincon Peak (8482′ elevation) is the second-highest peak in the range, about 200 feet lower than the tallest peak, Mica Mountain, but the view from the top was said to be much better. Along the trail, I discovered an aspect of the park that most visitors miss. On average, less than one person/day visits Rincon Peak. The window for this hike is limited by snow in winter and heat in summer.

The varied environments included chaparral, riparian areas with flowing streams and both deciduous and coniferous trees, sub-alpine forests, culminating at a peak with 360 degrees views. Starting the 16-mile RT hike (4500+ feet elevation gain) trail at 9:30 am, I took a nice nap mid-day at the Happy Valley Campsite under the shade of pine trees, and finished around 11pm. Given the late hour and the convenience, I slept again at the trailhead.

Day 3: Cactus Forest Loop Drive

The Rincon Mountain (East) Unit opens at 7am, which is too late for sunrise. I rested and arrived in the morning for a day of driving and short hikes. My favorite was the 1st mile of the Tanque Verde Trail where I photographed at sunset.

The East Unit’s main gate closes at sunset. Afterward, I drove to an unsigned, foot-only entrance along Broadway Boulevard, from which I was able to re-enter the park along Mica View trail for the night photographs I missed two days before. I then drove to the Tucson Mountain (West) Unit, grabbing a veggie burger ($7) along the way before sleeping on public lands ($0).

Day 4: Tucson Mountains hike and Signal Hill

To be positioned high on the Tucson Mountain slopes at first light, I started hiking the King Canyon Trail in the dark at 5:30. I caught the pre-dawn light mid-way the Sendero Esperanza Trail. The Sonoran desert can be incredibly lush and beautiful under the right conditions!

Arriving at Wasson Peak through the Hugh Norris Trail, I hung out until the afternoon to wait for the light to improve. Killing some time was needed since total hiking distance was just 9 miles, 2000 feet elevation gain.

By the time I reached the section of the King Canyon Trail I had crossed at night, the late afternoon light was nice. After a brief stop at the Visitor Center to check out the light for the series The Window (not optimal), I proceeded to Signal Hill. I arrived early enough to capture the sunset light there, before setting up an all-night time-lapse.

Day 5: Scenic Bajada Loop Drive

I hiked the Valley View Overlook trail (1 mile RT) at sunrise and continued to explore the Scenic Bajada Loop Drive by car.

I wrapped the trip at the Visitor Center. For the first time in the series, I was able to superimpose almost exactly the reflexion of a natural feature (the Saguaro cactus) and its depiction inside the visitor center.

At the Tucson airport, I re-packed my bags in the shade of the rental car terminal and caught a mid-afternoon flight, arriving at home in San Jose past dinner time.

My trips to the national parks are not vacations! In less than five days, I had explored the two units of Saguaro National Park in more depth than most visitors would ever do, not only driving the scenic roads, doing several short hikes but also reaching two of the main summits in the park, all at minimal expense. Do you also find that National Parks trips can be done with little time and money resources ?

See images of Saguaro National Park

Quick guide to roadside photography in North Cascades

A reader wrote to me: “I’m 81 years young and my mobility is some what limited . I’m asking for your help finding photo op shots along route 20 in the North Cascades that are on or close to the road. Again I hope I’m not being nervy and I thank you for any help you can provide.”

I’ve chosen to reply here to this email for a few reasons. National Parks Week is beginning this week-end, so I’d like to inspire anyone to get out and explore our parks. Many entries in this blog give may give the impression that the most inspiring places in the parks are hard to reach, and far from the road. The fact is that they are just the places I write about because they interest me most at this moment. Besides my appetite for unusual experiences, wildness, solitude, and discovery, I’ve already driven almost every park road in the past. One of the characteristics of the US National Park road system is that it was, for the most part, engineered to make many great natural signs accessible to motorists. If you must limit your photography to roadside sights, there are awesome subjects to be found along National Park roads.

North Cascades is an excellent case in point. North Cascades National Park proper is managed as a wilderness without facilities and almost no road access, accessible only to hikers, backpackers and mountaineers. However, there is plenty to see roadside around the park proper, in the larger North Cascades National Park Service Complex. The main thoroughfare through the area is the North Cascades Highway (Washington State Hwy 20), which runs in Ross Lake National Recreation Area. The Cascade River Road branching of highway 20 reaches into North Cascades National Park for only 5 miles, but should not be missed. A worthwhile detour to the north west, the most iconic view of the North Cascades is found at roadside Picture Lake, located in the Mt Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

The North Cascades Highway (Washington State Hwy 20)

Due to the low snow year, in 2015 the Washington State Department of Transportation re-opened State Route 20 to all traffic on Friday, April 3, the earliest opening in a decade.

Just before the company town of Newhalem a side road leads to the park visitor center. On the way, you cross a one-way bridge over the Skagit River. In the autumn, fall foliage brightens the shore, and salmon swim upriver.

A short stroll right behind the visitor center leads to a distant view of the Picket Range. You can explore the moss-covered rain forest along a few easy trails there.

Observed from a vertiginous grated bridge along Hwy 20, Gorge Creek Falls cascades 242 feet down a narrow lush gorge. It is best photographed in open shade rather than direct sunlight, which means early morning or late afternoon, since the gorge is south-facing.

Along the highway, watch for reflections in the striking green-turquoise waters of Gorge Lake.

Less than a mile east, after a small tunnel, a unmarked multi-tiered waterfall cascades in a gully which is bordered with trees that turn yellow in autumn. You can park at a pull-out slightly east, on the lake side, and walk back a short distance.

Near a bridge a quarter-mile past the Colonial Creek Campground, you will find a lake-level view. From there, you can photograph either towards the north looking at Diablo Lake or towards the south looking at Thunder Creek. That scene works well with fog and low clouds.

From the roadside Diablo Lake Overlook along Hwy 20, you stand high above Diablo Lake, surrounded by steep forested peaks. My favorite view looks towards the west. At sunrise, a thin layer of fog floated above the lake.

Mid-day light brought best the milky blue color of the lake caused by glacial runoff. In the late afternoon, the view is backlit.

A few miles further east, the Ross Lake Overlook provides a distant view of this long lake. The unusual Ross Lake Resort consists of cabins and bunkhouses built on log floats. You can get to its remote location, you can get there by boat and resort truck.

Outside the national park, my favorite stop is at Washington Pass. A quarter-mile east of Washington Pass Overlook, look also for a tiny lake on the south side of the road. The closest parking spot is on the north side of the road.

Cascade River Road

The first third of Cascade River Road road is paved. Beyond that, a well-graded section, passable by any car, leads past two campgrounds to the Cascade Pass Trailhead, 23 miles from Marblemount. The road typically opens by the end of June, except in heavy snow years. It closes after the first winter snows in October.

On the way, you will several opportunities to photograph the North Fork of the Cascade River flowing through lush old-growth forest. Bigleaf maple adds color accents in the fall.

At the road terminus, the view opens up. The trailhead to Cascade Pass is one of the most beautiful trailheads you’ll see. Look for a hanging glacier, and tall waterfalls descending like ribbons from ridges below jagged peaks.

Picture Lake

Near the end of Mt Baker Highway (Washington state Hwy 542), on the west side of the park, a one-way loop circles a pond aptly known as Picture Lake. Because of the nearby ski area, the road is open year-round. The mountain reflected in the pond is Mount Shuksan, sometimes said to be the most photographed mountain in North America. The boundary of North Cascades National Park was specifically drawn to include Mount Shuksan, which lies four miles away. This most iconic scene can be successfully photographed at any time of the day and in a range of conditions, however, mid-afternoon to sunset provides the most balanced light.

In one of the most rugged and wild parks in the continental US, even if you are not ready to climb over steep passes, you can find excellent views from the more developed and accessible areas of North Cascades National Park Service Complex!

See more images of North Cascades.