Terra Galleria Photography

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

The Third Wave

In 2001, 18 years ago, even though it was a cold and rainy day in the middle of winter, there was already some competition to visit the Wave in then recently designed Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. And on such a day, my wife and I were surprised to be asked for our permits on site, near the rock formation which has since become world famous.

In April this year 2019, the next day was also forecast to be rainy, but having learned that there is much more than the Wave in the Coyote Buttes North permit area, I entered the lottery. Currently, 20 hikers are allowed into Coyote Buttes North each day. Half of the permits are awarded months in advance through an online lottery, and the other half are drawn for the next day via a daily 8:30am walk-in lottery taking place at the BLM visitor center in Kanab, Utah (details).

On that day, the odds of winning the lottery turned out to be slim: 144 applicants for 10 permits. But my main goal in coming to the building was not to seek a Coyote Buttes North permit, but instead a Coyote Buttes South permit, which is subject to an identical quota. I was assigned #1 for that second lottery, which takes place around 10am after then Coyote Buttes North lottery, and with only 14 applicants, the odds of winning were much better!

Besides not including the Wave, another reason for the lesser popularity of Coyote Buttes South is the remoteness and longer drive not accessible to all vehicles. Besides the rocky spots, there are spots of deep sand and the tracks are often deep with a high ridge in the middle, sometimes combined with inclines. Although there are quite a few roads where 4WD is recommended but actually not necessary, this is not the case here, and from what I’ve seen an AWD vehicle will not make it. Together with your permit, the BLM provides you with a map indicating mileage and road numbers, which I have found adequate to navigate the confusing maze of primitive ranching roads in the area provided you keep track of distances, since the road numbers are surprisingly well marked on metal posts.

Coyote Buttes South is a large, 1700-acre permit area. The two trailheads and main formations are about 3 miles apart on foot, and as the shortest road between them (5.5 miles) is not recommended because of deep sand, it took an hour and half to drive the 18-mile BLM-recommended route. Of the two trailheads, Paw Hole is the most accessible, and close to the teepee rock formations. It is only 2.5 miles from House Rock Valley Road, and without a 4WD vehicle, one could hike that distance. Evening light there would be best, but the day was overcast. That nevertheless brought out the incredible color saturation of the teepees.

The other official trailhead, Cottonwood Cove, requires more difficult driving, but there is a much larger variety of rock formations to explore. We encountered only one other party during our day. A user trail leads in a half mile to the first teepee rock formations next to a pond. From there, the trail vanishes and you need to scramble over rock and sand.

The light wasn’t great that day, to say the least, but I could nevertheless ascertain that Coyote Buttes South compares quite well to the Coyote Buttes North. Coyote Buttes South is one of the marvels of the Southwest, and a good example of an area which is under the radar not because of lack of merit, but rather because it is overshadowed by a better known area. With a bit of research, there is still much to find. I noticed quite a few whimsical rock towers, but since the day was overcast, I hoped I could have photographed them against a more attractive sky.

I hiked in the northwest direction for about a mile before turning back in steady rain. Half-way, a spot at the edge of a terrace offered a higher viewpoint over a lower terrace, mitigating the need to photograph against the cloudy sky. After scrambling down, we found the formation called the “Third Wave” – the “Second Wave” is located in the Coyote Butte North permit area, not far from the Wave.

The Third Wave is smaller than the Wave. When you first see it, the formation isn’t that impressive, but it would be have been a mistake to turn around without looker further. Like at the Wave, the striations are quite fragile, and it is important to leave them as you found it so that others may have a chance to enjoy them. This means avoiding trampling as much as possible. I walked across the formation only one time before going back.

That was enough to find an angle from which, thanks to the arrangement of swirls and striations, the Third Wave stood out. It has more rainbow colors than the Wave, and the rain intensified them, as can be seen by comparing the dry and wet portions of the rock. Like I did when I photographed the Wave, I excluded the blank sky from my compositions. The images below result from a very slight change in viewpoint, with four different focal lengths ranging from 17mm to 100mm. Which one do you prefer?


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

San Juan Islands: Lopez Island

This post made possible by Secure Data Recovery, scroll to bottom to read how.

Although the closest from the mainland by ferry, Lopez Island, the third-largest of the San Juan Islands, is the most rural and laid back of the three major islands. In a place where coastal access is limited by property rights, Lopez Island has quite a few public easement hikes (directions).

Shark Reef Sanctuary

The rocky coastline at Shark Reef Sanctuary is west facing, making it an excellent place to watch the sunset. The trail through the thick forest carpeted in salal leads to the coast (0.25 mile) and ends (0.5 mile) at a rocky and grassy bluff framed by windblown shore pines.

Iceberg Point

Iceberg Point is the second largest of the many discontinuous tracks of land that make up San Juan Islands National Monument. The most direct route to Iceberg Point is 3 miles RT, but longer loops are possible, as there is a network of trails. Starting in the late afternoon, the first part of the trail, in a tunnel of trees, was in the shade. I crossed path with a group of hikers, and for the rest of the day didn’t see another person. Near Iceberg Point, the sun streamed into the forest, creating a different atmosphere.

Iceberg Point juts out on the west, offering a 270-degree panoramic view over water. From the same spot, within minutes, I photographed in two opposite directions. Towards the setting sun, I looked for silhouette elements in the high contrast image, and I found a rock rib in the water whose curve echoed the distant mountain. I augmented it by framing the image with a small portion of the foreground coastline that added another repetition of that motif. Pointing the camera in the opposite direction, I looked for texture in the softer image, which I found in the rocks catching the last rays of sun and the water with floating seaweed.

The night was near full moon. At the beginning of the evening, towards the east, I could include it in the landscape while there was still enough light for an exposure short enough not to overexpose it. As it rose up, the moon became bright enough to enjoy hiking by night. A long exposure made the scene look almost like daylight, with the twist that the western sky still displayed residual colors from the sunset.

Watmough Bay and Point Colville

Watmough Bay is a beautiful pebble beach in a cove next to a high cliff, only a third of a mile flat stroll from the parking lot. Low tide uncovers the beach, which is mostly submerged at high tide. Mt Baker is normally visible from there, and the Photopills app indicated that sunrise would be a good time, as the sun would rise above the bay in the gap between the two headlands. However, the morning was foggy and I looked for monochromatic compositions emphasizing shape.

Shortly before reaching the beach, there is a user trail on the right (south) that leads to a headland via a forest, eventually ending at a private property. 470-feet Chadwick Hill on the north side of the bay is said to offer a fantastic view, but on the morning I was there, the summit was engulfed in fog. I concentrated on smaller scenes, as they work well with soft light.

Not far from there, an easy 2-mile loop trail through a lush forest lead to Point Colville. In clear weather, the headland features a panoramic view extending from Mt Baker to the Olympics, but with the marine layer present, I used instead an islet called Castle Island as a focal point for the picture. Although the peak of the wildflower season occurs in May on the island, a few clumps of summer flowers added a color accent to an otherwise subdued color palette. The area including Watmough Bay, Chadwick Hill, and Point Colville forms the largest tract of land in San Juan Islands National Monument, and althought it was summer, for the entire morning I hardly saw anybody.

Thank you to Secure Data Recovery for making this series of posts possible. If you remember, I lost a week of photos from memory card failure. After that post appeared last fall, a representative from Secure Data Recovery contacted me to offer pro-bono recovery. I sent in my failed card and a new card for data transfer. My technologist friend was skeptical that they would succeed. However, they did, and this winter I got back all my files on the new card, with not a single one missing or corrupted. Well done and thanks!

San Juan Islands: Orcas Island

This post made possible by Secure Data Recovery, scroll to bottom to read how.

Much like California’s Channel Islands, the San Juan Islands are a mountain range that became submerged. As the largest of the San Juan Islands, and the only one with any significant elevation, Orcas Island offers the most varied opportunities for nature photography.

Eastsound

Eastsound is the only sizeable town on Orcas Island. While on San Juan Island, you ferry lands right in Friday Harbor, on Orcas, it lands at one end of the island, and Eastsound is located in the middle. Unlike in California or Oregon, and like on the East Coast, there is no public access to beaches in Washington. North Beach Road in Eastsound leads to one of the few spots on the island with public coastal access.

However, the most interesting spot I found for nature photography nearby was a mere two hundred yards from Main Street. Indian Island is an islet located in East Sound, the fjord-like body of water adjacent to Eastsound. In general, it is a quick paddle, but there are 40 days per year when during a minus low tide, it is possible to cross on foot from Eastsound to Indian Island in knee-deep water. Since I was carrying my camera bag, I made sure not become trapped by the incoming tide. I circled the islet shore in fifteen minutes and found a range of orientations, and in spite of its diminutive size there was more to see than rocks.

Indian Island is part of San Juan Islands National Monument. When looking at the map of this curious national monument, with the legend “National Monument Boundary: Designation applies to BLM lands within this boundary”, at first I wondered where the national monument is. It is easy to miss because its surface area is diminutive, only about 1,000 acres (1.5 square miles), and that surface area is distributed among approximately 75 separate sites, most of them islets like Indian Island.

Moran State Park

Moran State Park, established in 1921 and Washington’s fourth-largest state park, is the gem of the San Juan Islands. Culminating at 2,409 feet, the park offers varied terrain that includes old growth forest, lakes, and waterfalls. The 5,000-acre park includes 30 miles of hiking trails and five lakeside campgrounds with 151 campsites that must be reserved in advance in the summer.

The most popular attraction in the park is the summit of Mount Constitution, where a stone observation tower provides an extra fifty feet of elevation for a panoramic view that includes Mount Baker and the Olympic Mountains. The top of the tower is open, but it is a rather small space that I made sure not to hog by not spreading the legs of my tripod, and folding it when I was not taking pictures.

A trail circles Mountain Lake. Starting from the South End Campground, a steep trail (0.7 miles, 300 feet elevation gain) leads to Sunrise Rock that overlooks Cascade Lake. Despite its name, this isn’t a great sunrise spot, as the sun is blocked by the mountains, but around an hour after sunrise, the scene is beautifully lit. Mount Constitution would be a great sunrise spot, except that the Mount Constitution Road is locked at night (with a ranger chasing you down at dusk) and doesn’t open early enough.

Near the beginning of the Mount Constitution road, another short trail hugs Cascade Creek, leading to four waterfalls set in an old growth forest. I found the most photogenic to be the first one, Rustic Falls, as it was enhanced by a huge toppled tree. The second one, Cascade Falls, at 75 feet tall, is a much taller drop, but during my visit, it was cluttered with a jumble of fallen logs.

Thank you to Secure Data Recovery for making this series of posts possible. If you remember, I lost a week of photos from memory card failure. After that post appeared last fall, a representative from Secure Data Recovery contacted me to offer pro-bono recovery. I sent in my failed card and a new card for data transfer. My technologist friend was skeptical that they would succeed. However, they did, and this winter I got back all my files on the new card, with not a single one missing or corrupted. Well done and thanks!

The San Juan Islands: San Juan Island

This post made possible by Secure Data Recovery, scroll to bottom to read how.

The San Juan Islands, located in the northern reaches of Washington State’s Puget Sound, eighty miles north of Seattle, are a delightful destination. Comprising beautiful scenery of woodlands and shoreline, their atmosphere has remained pastoral and relaxed. This series of posts will describe highlights from the three largest of those islands, starting with the most populous, the namesake San Juan Island. It takes only about 15 minutes to cross the island from east to west, and 30 minutes from south to north.

Getting there

The San Juan Islands form a vast archipelago located in the Salish Sea, with over 450 islands, but only the four largest – San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw, are accessible by public transportation. Getting there is part of the fun. When I rode the ferry, it immediately made me feel like I was on a vacation. The ferries are part of the Washington State Ferry system (website).

They are large (accommodating as many as 150 vehicles), affordable, and easy to use. While loading and unloading you only need to drive forward into lanes wide enough for semi-trucks. They run through the day with eight departures, and during my trip in July arriving half an hour before departure time was sufficient during mid-week to get into the ferry from the islands. However, for the departure from Anacortes, I took advantage of the new reservation system which allows you to secure a slot for your car for a specific ride. If your visit coincides with a weekend, you definitively will want to do so if leaving Anacortes on Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings and returning on Sunday afternoons. When visiting multiple islands, the easiest is to start with the furthest (San Juan), because all tickets are round-trip even though you are charged only for the westbound fare. On your way back to Anacortes, you can stop at any of the other islands and re-board when you want, and you won’t even need to show your ticket.

Towns

Friday Harbor, a ninety-minute ride from Anacortes, is the largest town in the San Juan Islands, with lodgings, restaurants, and other services such as the only movie theater on the islands. During summer, it is recommended to make advance lodging reservations. I did not stay there, but I checked out the scenic harbor while waiting for my ferry, after parking my car in the nearby ferry lane. As the town is settled on a hillside, by wandering around the streets, I was able to find a high viewpoint. The second largest town on San Juan Island is the resort of Roche Harbor, where you will find the San Juan Islands Museum of Art Sculpture Park with more than a hundred sculptures in a nature preserve setting.

Most of San Juan Island is rural and consists of farmlands, and there is one farm that stands out, Pelindaba, thanks to its several acres of lavender fields, which bloom from mid to late summer. Using a telephoto for a tight composition resulted in depth of field too shallow to encompass both foreground and background even at the smallest aperture, so I used focus stacking, combining photos focused at different distances.

San Juan Island National Historical Park

In 1859 the United States and Great Britain nearly went to war over possession of San Juan Island after a pig was shot. That pig belonged to the Hudson Bay Company and was rooting in the garden of an American. The dispute was eventually resolved without resorting to violence. Today you can visit the historical British and American camps at two separate sites on the island. Besides the building, the American camp park also offers a 3-mile hike (longest on the island) to Mount Finlayson.

Cattle Point

South from American Camp, Cattle Point offers sweeping vistas of grass-covered dunes, with the backdrop of nearby islands, the Olympic Mountains, and the Salish Sea. The area has been included into the recent San Juan Islands National Monument to protect one of the last native prairie ecosystems in the Salish Sea. At sunrise, the low light helps define the prairie that you can walk via a network of trails, and in the summer, wildflowers including California poppies are present between the grasses. East of the lighthouse, you can go down to the shore on a slippery user trail.

Having arrived there in pitch dark night, I wondered at first how to reach the lighthouse. You have to walk south from the Cattle Point Interpretive Area parking lot a hundred and fifty yards along the road to a trailhead, and then half-mile on trail. The Cattle Point Lighthouse isn’t particularly photogenic when seen close, and there was a rope fence around the hill on which it sits, but from a distance, it provided a nice focal point. I photographed it from as far as one mile away. It was visible from a roadside pullout with interpretive signs, but from there the lighthouse merged with the island in the background, a problem that I solved by hiking up the hillside opposite the road.

Lime Kiln Point State Park

Lime Kiln Point State Park features a rocky coastline lined with colorful madrone trees. The San Juan Islands are one of the best places in the world to observe whales from the shore, and Lime Kiln Point State Park is said to be a particularly good spot for watching orcas – sighting records are posted at the lighthouse.

The photogenic lighthouse offers a range of compositions from both sides. Its west-facing orientation makes it one of the best choices on the island for a sunset. Twenty minutes after sunset time, the colors to the west intensified. The light became dim enough that the lightouse’ light stood out, as I made sure to time my photograph with the rotation of the beam. One of the three campgrounds on San Juan Island is located three miles north of Lime Kiln Point at San Juan County Park.

Thank you to Secure Data Recovery for making this series of posts possible. If you remember, I lost a week of photos from memory card failure. After that post appeared last fall, a representative from Secure Data Recovery contacted me to offer pro-bono recovery. I sent in my failed card and a new card for data transfer. My technologist friend was skeptical that they would succeed. However, they did, and this winter I got back all my files on the new card, with not a single one missing or corrupted. Well done and thanks!