Terra Galleria Photography

Our National Monuments Introduction

Here are the draft first two parts of the introduction I wrote for “Our National Monuments”. I would appreciate any feedback, either through the linked poll or via comments.

I

Ask a person on the street to name a national monument, and you will probably hear about the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, or memorials commemorating our presidents and war veterans. However, in the United States, the term has a more specific meaning and at the same time includes features more general than built landmarks as defined in the Antiquities Act:

the President of the United States is hereby authorized, in his discretion, to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments, and may reserve as part of thereof parcels of lands, the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.
In 1906, as the western frontier was closing, preservation of archeological sites in the Southwest gained national attention. As Congress was debating, looting of archeological sites escalated. Recognizing that the legislative process could be too slow to prevent permanent damage, Edgar Hewett and John Lacey created the Antiquities Act to enable a quicker executive response. Consistent with the Progressive Era’s vision of common long-term ideals served by a competent and forceful government, the Antiquities Act used broad language in a modest-looking bill to entrust vast powers to the President. The bill states that national monuments are federally protected areas containing objects of historic or scientific interest. The President can swiftly proclaim them with only a signature. The versatility of the law, used by 17 Presidents from both parties, would make it a cornerstone of preservation in America.

President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed as the first national monument Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, a natural feature of geologic interest. By the end of 1906, he had proclaimed Petrified Forest National Monument in Arizona over a large natural area of 60,000 acres. Congress had been debating over the Grand Canyon since 1882, but even as commercialism was running unchecked, by 1908, it had not yet acted to protect the quintessential American wonder. President Roosevelt did, by proclaiming Grand Canyon National Monument, an area over 800,000 acres. Many landscape-style national monuments would follow. In 1978, President Carter made the most substantial use of the Antiquities Act by proclaiming eleven national monuments in Alaska, the largest expansion of protected lands in history. Several dwarfed the Grand Canyon in size. In the 21st century, even larger marine areas received protections as national monuments.

What distinguishes a national monument from a national park, then? National Park Portfolio (1917), the National Park Service’s first publication, acknowledges that “the name monument is clumsy and misleading.” Indeed, small archeological and historical sites alluded to by the term “antiquities” constitute the minority of today’s approximately 130 national monuments. According to the current National Park Service (NPS) terminology, a national monument is “smaller than a national park and lacks its diversity of attractions.” However, some national parks are small, while many national monuments are large and equally diverse. The difference resides not in the lands themselves but rather in the way they are protected.

Congress designates national parks, but presidents can proclaim only national monuments. The NPS–justifiably one of the most recognized and beloved federal agencies–manages all the national parks. However, national monuments’ management spreads across the NPS, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), US Forest Service (USFS), and five other lower-profile agencies. National parks, established for preservation and the “enjoyment of the people” (per the NPS Organic Act of 1916), receive yearly funding from Congress. The money goes towards the maintenance and development of infrastructure to support visitation. National monuments are created for conservation. Their proclamation generally lacks funding, resulting in a scarcity of facilities, information, and publicity needed to “put them on the map” for the general public. When they became popular enough, Congress often redesignated them as national parks, reinforcing the perception that national monuments are less important. Like Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon, thirty national monuments would become national parks, attesting to their intrinsic value. However, the disjointed jurisdiction and lack of funding combined to make national monuments rather obscure destinations.

II

This all changed on April 26, 2017, when several national monuments made the headlines on major news outlets. That day, President Trump signed an unprecedented executive order to review all the national monuments created through the Antiquities Act since 1996 that were larger than 100,000 acres. The review’s objective was to determine if former presidents had abused their power and if the protections curtailed economic growth, eyeing removing protections towards industrial development.

The review targeted a total of 27 out of the 35 larger protected areas. They included all five marine national monuments and 22 of the land-based ones. Almost all of them are located in the West, just like our first 15 national parks, owing to the more arid climate and rugged topography that discourage settlement but bestow abundant natural beauty. The exception is Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument located in Maine. But as quipped by writer Stephen Trimble, “Maine is really part of the Western wilderness; it’s just misplaced.” Roxane Quimby had acquired and donated those lands to the federal government specifically to establish the national monument.

Together, the national monuments at risk represent a broad cross-section of natural environments, from deep canyons to high mountains, from cactus-covered plains to conifer forests, from deserts to lush river habitats. Those 22 land national monuments cover a significant portion of the American landscape, totaling about 11 million acres. For comparison, the 51 national parks in the contiguous United States total about 19 million acres. The marine national monuments are another order of magnitude, totaling 218 million acres.

Besides their vastness and diversity, those lands hold natural and historical treasures that rival those found in our beloved national parks. Vermilion Cliffs National Monument’s Paria Canyon is more than twice as long and every bit as impressive as Zion National Park’s Virgin River Narrows. The monument also houses unique rock formations like The Wave that has become world-famous. California’s densest population of Cholla cactus thrives in Bigelow Cholla Garden Wilderness of Mojave Trails National Monument rather than in the better known Cholla Cactus Garden of Joshua Tree National Park. Giant Sequoia National Monument protects more sequoia groves–almost half of the total number–than Sequoia and Kings National Parks. The Sonoran Desert portions included in Ironwood Forest National Monument and Sonoran Desert National Monument are as beautiful and representative as those in Saguaro National Park, if not more pristine. There is no national park where you could wander amid an array of petroglyphs as numerous as in Gold Butte National Monument or Basin and Range National Monument.

Chronologically, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, proclaimed in 1996 by President Clinton, was the first national monument under review. The last one was Bear Ears National Monument, proclaimed in 2016 in the waning days of President Obama’s administration. Both embody promising new ideas for conservation.

Per the Antiquities Act, Presidents can create national monuments only from federal lands, not from state nor private lands, so they are not “land grabs.” However, after the proclamation, management had generally been transferred from one federal agency, the BLM, to another, the NPS. The culture and mandate of those two agencies differ significantly. NPS lands are only for preservation and compatible recreational uses. The BLM administers more surface land than any other federal agency, one in every 10 acres of land in the United States. However, those lands were considered leftovers without clear guidelines for use. Not until the BLM received its Organic Act (mission statement) from the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 were those lands recognized to have a public value and actively managed with a multi-use framework. By default, all traditional activities are authorized: logging, drilling, mining, cattle grazing, hunting, off-road driving. Additional protection can be achieved by converting those lands into national monuments. As an agency aligned with rural land users, the BLM would emphasize collaboration with local communities and support a range of traditional activities as long as they were compatible with the proclamation’s conservation objectives. Secretary of the Interior Babbitt envisioned a new conservation role from the BLM that would later be formalized with the creation of the National Landscape Conservation System in 2000:

it can become the greatest modern American land management agency, the one that sets the standard for protecting landscapes, applying evolving knowledge and social standards, and bringing people together to live in harmony with the land.
Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument marked the first time a new national monument – the largest national monument in the continental United States! – was created under the BLM model of conservation. Subsequently, all the large national monuments would remain with the agency and follow that model. Despite the BLM’s more inclusive vision of conservation, the review targeted 18 of the monuments they managed. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS), another multiple-use agency, came second with 5 of them. Scientists back a new goal to conserve 30% of U.S. Lands and Oceans by 2030 to protect the earth’s climate and biodiversity. As empty lands are no longer available for the NPS model of conservation, the BLM model of conservation is our best hope to achieve it. Over the past half-century, the only new extensive parklands with federal protections have been national monuments.

Bears Ears National Monument is a cultural landscape populated millennia before there was a state of Utah. The tribes hold the land sacred because it is their ancestors’ burial site and a continual source of physical and spiritual healing. Five tribes have connections to this area: the Hopi, Navajo, Mountain Ute, Zuni, and Ute. They agreed to set their generations-old differences apart to petition President Obama to establish Bears Ears National Monument. It was the first native-driven national monument. For the first time, its proclamation assigned shared management responsibilities between the tribes and the federal government, with guaranteed access for native traditional uses. As such, Bears Ears National Monument was a significant step in social and racial justice, righting and healing the wrongs stemming from the American West’s settlement. The native and environmental communities held hopes for a new conservation model converging the national parks ideals with the indigenous respect and worship for the land. Still, the review process barely gave them a voice.

The language of the Antiquities Act is so general that its limits are unclear. Both the courts and legislatures have repeatedly sustained the previous presidents’ actions, finding that the smallest area compatible with preservation can be quite large. Should local voices have priorities over the nation’s interests? Does an economy based on tourism and recreation work better than one based on resource extraction? Both sides of the argument have merits, but for a long time, the vast majority has been approving of protecting our natural and cultural heritage. Visitation numbers also show that recreation has become the dominant use of public lands. People from all walks of life and all political persuasions can relate to nature and find common ground in our public lands. Since President Theodore Roosevelt enthusiastic wielding of the Antiquities Act, a pattern has repeated itself time and time again: controversy and local outrage over new national monuments, eventually turning into near-universal approval. The public comment period of the summer of 2017 had generated overwhelming support for the national monuments under review.

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Mount Logan: The top of the Grand Canyon ecosystem

Day 13

Grand Canyon National Park sees crowds of 5 million visitors per year, but its unknown neighbor, Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, is a place of solitude. Protecting the entire Grand Canyon watershed, the monument extends from the rim of the Grand Canyon to forested mountains 8,000 feet high.

In the southeast section of the monument, its highest elevation lands form an island of juniper and pine trees above the desert that is 20F cooler than the lowlands. That area is dominated by two volcanic peaks, each the centerpiece of a designated wilderness area: Mt Trumbull (8028 ft) and Mt Logan (7866 ft). Having read that the later offers better views for a shorter hike, I had made it my destination.

Researching the trip

I asked readers what information should be available in my upcoming book about the national monuments. Unlike for national parks, information about the national monuments can be difficult to find and make sense of. This section will illustrate that point.

The information found on the internet was all over the place and it doesn’t help that the road to Mt Logan is not even marked on the NPS map. In 2000, Annette McGivney writes for Backpacker (emphasis added):

Here on Mt. Logan, in the southeastern section of the new monument, I have a spectacular view of the Grand Canyon all to myself, although it required driving 55 miles down a brain-rattling dirt road and hiking steadily uphill for several hours
Similarly, Andrea and Justin Lotak who visited 20 of the national monuments under review on a 3 month road trip in 2017 and wrote an excellent online guide to them state in Conservation Atlas (emphasis added):
we took a side forest road to set camp and hike up for a couple of hours to reach the Mt. Logan Overlook
The National Park Service provides precise directions to “Mt Logan Overlook”, but says only that it is a trailhead to the top of Mt. Logan without mentioning the hiking distance. Scott Surgent reports for The Mountains of Arizona:
we followed the road (called BLM-1064 after one subsequent junction) to its end just a half-mile east of the summit, from which a foot-path works through the ponderosa to the summit. We were looking at about a 5-mile round-trip hike with about 700 feet of gain.
On the other hand, HikeArizona.com has (emphasis added):
The trail to the summit is approximately half-mile and is marked with a trail sign and blazed trees.
Doing additional research and putting together the information, it appeared that the last source was correct, but what if Scott Surgent had to walk the last section of road instead of driving because it was too rough? On that trip, I was driving a regular SUV, not the more rugged Jeeps generally recommended to explore Grand Canyon-Parashant. When I call the St George BLM office to inquire about the road, the ranger was pretty vague, saying only “high clearance 4WD”. Looking at the Lotak’s sunset photos and then at the topo map, I had determined that the geologic feature called “Devils Hole” would be better lit at sunrise, so I was planning to get to the summit at dawn. Because of that, whether it is a 0.5-mile or a 2.5-mile hike did make a difference.

Driving to Mt Logan

Since I had gotten lost on the Arizona Strip plains, my immediate worry was to get to the trailhead at night. It turned out that the NPS directions were precise, and with the help of the BLM Arizona Strip Visitor Map, I had no difficulties getting there. I think a Subaru would easily make it in similar road conditions. When I got to the end of the road, I was surprised to see a semi-developed parking area and a primitive campsite. I was even more surprised that it was full. A large group of ATV riders was enjoying dinner. I asked if that was the Mt Logan Trailhead, but nobody knew. After a quick survey of the area, I found a sign indicating so, and then drove down the road half a mile to sleep in quiet and privacy.

The next day, I got up two hours before sunrise. I had missed photographing at sunset. However, the full moon would light up the landscape from the west in a similar way. You never know fully which lighting directions create the best opportunities. The moon offered me the chance to photograph a quasi-sunset and a sunrise in the span of two hours if I would start photography at night before the light of pre-dawn would overwhelm moonlight.

Photography at Mt Logan

The hike was indeed only half a mile (250 ft elevation gain). Although Mt Logan is forested, from the summit, rocky outcrops provide a superb overview at a glance of the Grand Canyon drainage basin, from pine forests to tablelands and in the distance the Grand Canyon itself, with an amphitheater of the colorful eroded spires called Devils Hole in the foreground.

I had packed two tripods, and upon arrival, I set up a timelapse for which I had high hopes. It would show the full moon setting right at sunrise, its brightness perfectly balanced at dawn as can happen only on the night of the full moon, night turning to dawn turning to sunlight, and then the shadow line moving down Devils Hole until the formation would be fully lit. To handle the transition from night to day, I periodically stopped the time-lapse and lowered the ISO.

Half-an-hour after the sunrise, I had photographed enough compositions with focal lengths from 16mm to 400mm in varying light that I was ready to move on, but I stuck around so that the timelapse would complete with Devils Hole fully lighted. When I reviewed the sequence, I discovered that half of the time, when I thought the timelapse shooting had restarted, in fact, it didn’t. It is not every day that you find yourself at a location as remote as Mt Logan, right on a full moon day, but I had to get over the disappointment and move on. The process of creating is essentially an adventure, and as such it is normal that it includes not only successes but also mistakes and disasters.

Driving out

Back to the trailhead, I chatted with the ATV riders. They were part of an organized excursion with a support vehicle, a humongous lifted full-size truck with some of the beefiest tires I’d ever seen. I pointed out that each of the ATVs carried two spare tires. One rider explained that at the highway speed at which they were riding, the rough roads were hard on tires. When I heard that collectively, their group went through an average of 3 tires per day, it made me feel better that at least someone was having more tire flats than me. Upon departing, my new acquaintance wished for me not to have tire troubles.

On the endless flats of the Arizona Strip on my way to the next destination, with the directions this time not in doubt, I went back to listening to Sapiens. The audiobook was drowning out the road noise, and the clay road was quite smooth. I was driving effortlessly at 40 miles per hour. It looked like I hit a sharp bump, and I felt instantly apprehensive, but I didn’t stop. Later, I noticed something rattling, and when I stopped to inspect the car, I saw that a plastic trimming was dangling. I told myself I’d better reach the pavement sooner than later, and only then did I stop and put the trimming back in place before getting on the highway. I’d been driving on it for less than fifteen minutes when I began to notice the telltale sound of a flat tire. I pulled over on the side of the road, glad not be in the middle of nowhere, and resolved to slow down on dirt roads in the future.

Since I had the luxury of cell phone coverage, I called AAA, and as they promised an intervention time of only about half an hour, I thought it would be preferable to let a well-equipped mechanic change the tire instead of struggling with it myself. While waiting, I pulled out the spare tire and saw that it was the dreaded reduced size, donut tire. The closest tire shop was a Jiffy Lube located in Hurricane, UT. I was disappointed to find out that the machine they use to take out tires was broken. The mechanic told me that since it was past 5:30PM on a Saturday afternoon, nobody in town was open anymore, and I may have to wait until Monday.

Monday was the day I planned to be home. I wondered whether I’d be able to drive to Las Vegas on my donut tire, but another online search turned out a Walmart in town with a closing time of 6 PM. I arrived at the Wallmart Auto Center at 5:59 PM. The employees were in the process of closing, but after I told them I was from California, they agreed to fix the tire. Afterward, I pulled out a $20 bill, but the cashier immediately told me that per their policies, they could not accept any tips. I followed US-93 to Alamo NV where I stopped for gas. It was Halloween night, and seeing decorations and groups of youngsters in this remote town was surreal, but also oddly cheerful. As I left the pavement again, the lights vanished, and my surroundings turned into dark desert.

The Last Road Trip: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | to be continued

Around Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

Day 12

To rest my legs from hiking about 18 miles the day before, my plan was to spend a lot of time behind the wheel. I would circle Vermilion Cliffs National Monument (136 miles) and also reach two faraway Grand Canyon points, one at its very east at river level, the other at the seldom-visited west rim, on a peak at the top of the Grand Canyon ecosystem.


The Vermilion Cliffs

I got up an hour and half before sunrise, and drove from the White House Campground to Lees Ferry, crossing the Navajo Bridge over the Colorado River in pre-dawn. My goal was to photograph the Vermilion Cliffs, but as the light was ideal for capturing the deep gorge, I couldn’t resist stopping and taking a picture. Lees Ferry has a sizeable campground and is the starting point for all Grand Canyon boating trips. The Vermilion Cliffs face the southeast there, so it would work for sunrise, but the main reason I picked that location was that it marks the terminus of the Paria Canyon. I had hiked the day before its beginning, so it was tempting to see both ends. Driving from the Navajo Bridge to the campground, I realized that Lees Ferry wasn’t a good choice for photographing the cliffs at sunrise because the road dropped too low – I should have thought of that, since it reaches the river level. I turned back and hopped on US-89A.

Most people get a first glimpse of Vermilion Cliffs National Monument as they drive US-89A between Jackob Lake and Lees Ferry, as the Vermilion Cliffs tower 2,000 feet above the north side of the highway. The line of cliffs is one of the most impressive in the Southwest because of its length of more than 30 miles, its prominence above land mostly flat for 100 miles, and the bright colors of the Chinle Formation. Along the eastern side of this stretch of US-89A, the Vermilion Cliffs are quite close and there are several places where one could pull out and check out their foothills with remarkable boulders.

Just east of the settlement of Cliff Dwellers, you’ll find a stone house constructed around a large boulder. It was built not by the Navajo but instead by Blanche and Bill Russell, a couple from New York seeking dry climates because of Bill’s tuberculosis. They happened upon the site in 1927, when their car broke down and they camped overnight there. The house, together with balanced rocks are found at a flat area on the north side of the road. When I first visited the site more than twenty years ago, the place was deserted – that’s Velvia below for a bit of nostalgia. Nowadays, Navajo people set tables to sell crafts there.

As you drive US-89A towards the west, the cliffs become more distant. The gently undulating hills between the highway and the cliffs are traversed by unmarked and rough dirt roads where high clearance or 4WD can be necessary. Near one of the roads, I hiked up a rocky outcrop that provided excellent views of the line of cliffs. Although from a distance the Vermilion Cliffs look impassable, there are a few seldom-traveled routes from which one can scramble to the top.

Maze Rock Art Site

Vermilion Cliffs National Monument consists of a plateau ending to the south and east with the natural barrier of the namesake Vermilion Cliffs. Running at the base of those cliffs, US-89A marks the southern boundary of the monument. House Rock Valley Road runs along the western boundary, and is the road used to access the monument’s extraordinary rock formations such as Coyote Buttes or the White Pocket.

The Maze Rock Art site gets its name from a petroglyph depicting a maze-like feature on its spectacular main panel, located on a large west-facing boulder. Only a few years ago, one could have wondered if the site may have been named from the maze-like route through sagebrush and rocks leading to it, but nowadays you can get right next to the main panel via a developed trail (1.25 miles round-trip, 200 feet elevation gain) starting at a signed trailhead with an information kiosk. The parking is along House Rock Valley Road, less than one mile south of Stateline Campground. The panel is just 100 yards beyond the deprecated Notch Trail to the Wave, but it is just outside of Coyote Buttes North permit area, so there are no restrictions.

Towards Mt Logan

My destination for the evening was Mt Logan in Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, 140 miles away. Getting to those mountains from AZ-389/UT-59 involves traversing the vast and desolate Unikaret Plateau on unpaved roads for hours. There are two choices. Road 109 starting between Fredonia and Pipe Spring National Monument is surfaced with gravel, making it suitable for wet weather, but also more bumpy. Since the weather had been dry, I planned instead to drive Road 5, as it is shorter and its clay surface is softer – it becomes impassable when wet. When I approached Road 109 from the east, my GPS directed me to take it, and instead, I continued west on the highway, thinking that the next time the GPS would direct me to leave the highway would be for Road 5. Indeed, not too long afterward, the GPS directed me towards a dirt road that looked wide and well-graded enough. I followed it for quite a long distance, but then it narrowed unexpectedly, causing me to stop, pause my audiobook, and take a good look at the very detailed Arizona Strip Visitor Map.

I realized that I was not on Road 5. Since I didn’t want to backtrack all the way back to the freeway, I took heart that it looked possible to follow secondary roads to get back on track from my position. I followed such a road, until it reached terrain with ravines shockingly steep for what was supposed to be a plateau. The road became rough enough that I had to drive at almost walking speed for a while, before deciding to turn around to the previous fork. There, I took another road that initially looked promising as it traversed flat terrain. Fifteen minutes later, it just vanished, with no tracks to be seen despite the map’s indications. I backtracked even further. Finally, a third attempt led me to to Road 5, which was definitively wider than the road I had turned into from the highway.

Federal land agencies often mention that you shouldn’t rely GPS in remote areas, and I got a clear lesson why that afternoon, even if my mistake was not as gross as the one warned against above. GPS units simply cannot differentiate between a main dirt road and a secondary dirt road, and in those remote areas, secondary dirt roads may just be too rough for most vehicles. I had found a way to make those long drives enjoyable by listening to audiobooks. Podcasts were fine for shorter drives, but they just didn’t provide enough substance and depth for continuous hours of listening. That afternoon, I was so engrossed with Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens that instead of following the itinerary on the map, I made the mistake to rely on GPS directions.

I had initially hoped to photograph the Mt Logan area in the late afternoon, but by the time I reached the boundaries of Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, darkness had already fallen. I wondered if I was going to be able to get to the Mt Logan Trailhead that evening, since the information that I had was so contradictory.

The Last Road Trip: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | to be continued

Day Hiking Paria Canyon

Day 11

Zion National Park’s Virgin River Narrows is arguably the most famous canyon hike in the world. Being that Zion National Park is the 7th most crowded national park (per this way of evaluating the “crowd factor”), the Virgin Narrows can feel downright crowded (Five ways to photograph the Zion Narrows without people). The Paria Canyon in Vermilion Cliffs National Monument is twice as long as the Zion Narrows, and every bit as impressive. During an entire day of hiking, I was mostly alone, meeting only about a dozen of backpackers.

The Paria Canyon, extending for 38 miles from the White House Trailhead in the north to Lee’s Ferry in the south traverses the entirety of Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. It is a premier destination for canyon backpacking in the Southwest as it combines great beauty with relatively easy terrain. The winding corridors of stone soaring hundreds of feet above the Paria River explode with colors as they cut through seven geologic formations: Moenkopi, Chinle, Moenave, Kayenta, Navajo Sandstone, Temple Cap Sandstone, and Carmel. Although there are impressive narrows, the canyon has a relatively open feel and its flat and sandy floor has few obstacles with the Paria River a narrow ribbon most of the time ankle-deep and rarely knee-deep. It makes for a fun wet hike easier than the Zion Narrows, during which you cross the river hundreds of times and wade in the river when it spans the whole width of the canyon. When getting ready, I wondered whether to bring hiking poles, and I was glad that I did. Paria means “muddy water” in the Paiute Indian language. Since you cannot see the bottom of the riverbed and there are spots of quicksand, they proved very useful. I expected only shallow water, so I didn’t bring chest waders, as I thought hiking a long distance with them wouldn’t be comfortable.

Permits subject to a 20 person per day quota that can be reserved up to 4 months in advance are required for overnight trips, but not for day trips for which you just pay a fee at the trailhead. Due to the risk of flash floods, it is best to avoid the heaviest part of the monsoon season, late June to mid-September. December through February is very cold, and fires are not allowed in Paria Canyon. In late October, the weather was pleasant during the day, although a little chilly at night. This makes that time popular, and without an advance permit, I planned a day trip. It is a 15-mile round-trip hike from the White House Trailhead to the confluence of the Paria River and Buckskin Gulch, a narrower and more difficult canyon considered to be the longest slot canyon in the world. Although in late October, the dozen other people I saw were all backpackers, I did not feel that the hike was particularly difficult to complete in a day.

I started to hike at 6:30 AM, more than an hour before sunrise, as my plan was to arrive at pre-dawn at the Paria Windows, a series of holes carved in the cliff, about 2 miles from the trailhead. This part of the Paria Canyon is another part that has been removed from Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. The best compositions required standing in the water for the long exposure time. It was hard to do. I regretted not having my neoprene socks for this trip. My feet were hurting so much from the cold water that I considered turning around and grab my waders, but at that point it would have meant adding more than 4 miles to an already long hike. Fortunately, the canyon was still wide and open past the Paria Windows and there were long sections of dry trail in between river crossings. When crossing, I tried to go as fast as possible, a shorter immersion in water made a difference. Later in the day, by mid-morning, the air and water temperatures had warmed up enough that stepping in the water became bearable.

As I hiked further, the canyon grew more narrow. At around mile 4, the river spanned most of the canyon, save for a narrow band of muddy ground. Due to the relative popularity of the hike, and the fact that there hadn’t been any flash flood for months at that point, instead of beautiful virgin mud patterns, most of that ground was churned out with footprints. I looked hard for pristine spots of mud, but couldn’t find any along the main pathway. Only at a few spots where the banks were wider on one side and very narrow on the other side, therefore making the wide side an obvious path, by crossing the river I could find such spots. For that reason, I made few wide-angle compositions, and instead minimized the foreground by including more of the canyon walls.

At around mile 6.7, the river flowed through a massive natural arch called Siderock Arch. When I got there, the sun was reaching the bottom of the canyon, creating distracting bright spots. However, those canyons are so narrow and deep that the light changes much faster than it does on open terrain. I didn’t have to wait that long before the sun left the base of the arch.

Half an hour past noon, I reached the confluence at around mile 7.5. The narrows were the most impressive around that area, as the walls were highest and close to each other. I continued in Paria Canyon, looking for reflected light that creates a warm glow on the canyon walls. Later, upon arriving at a sunny spot, I stopped for lunch, enjoying for a brief moment the warmth of the sun rays before turning back.

On my way out, I ventured shortly into Buckskin Gulch. That canyon was darker than the Paria Canyon, and unlike the fast-flowing, chocolate-colored Paria, the Buckskin was clear, flowing lazily, and often only about an inch deep. Unless one plans to hike the entire 15 miles of the Buckskin Gulch, it is much quicker to approach it from its other end near the Wire Pass Trailhead than from the Paria.

I came back to the confluence at around 3:30 PM. I was hoping to reach the Paria Windows at dusk where I expected the light to be better than at dawn, but by the time I got there, it was already nighttime with any residual light from dusk gone. However, noticing that the almost full moon was about the rise over the canyon, I got in position to photograph. Fortunately, the water had warmed up during the day. Even with sun gone, it was not painfully freezing like in the morning. I stepped into river to align the moon with the edge of the cliff, creating a star effect. The shaded area would normally be too dark to reveal the details in the hole, so I lighted it with a flashlight during the long exposure. Since the low moon was moving fast, I wouldn’t get a second chance at the same composition, so I was overjoyed when I saw in the LCD that I had given added just the right amount of light to create a glow comparable to what brighter reflected light would have done. Afterward, I walked straight without stopping any more for photos and arrived at the trailhead at 8:30 PM.

The Last Road Trip: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | to be continued

Sharing Photography Locations & National Monuments Book

Whether to share locations of photographs has been debated for a while, but the question has taken a new urgency in the age of mass travel and social media. In view of that, I’d like to ask you about your opinion on that subject, and what information you’d like included in my next book about the national monuments.

There is no doubt that locations have changed, and always for the worst. Back in the 1990s, when I photographed Mesa Arch at sunrise, I had the place to myself. Fast-forward a quarter-century, you need to arrive well in advance to secure a shooting spot where you will be standing literally shoulder to shoulder with others, tripod legs interlocked. But folks, including professional photographers keep coming.

At Horseshoe Bend, back then there was an unmarked pullout, a dirt user path, no guardrails, and I also had the place to myself at dawn. The city of Page has now built a large parking lot and in 2019 started charging visitors $10 per car, but even though it often fills up, passenger drop-off and pick-up at the entrance are not allowed, and cars parked on the side of the highway are ticketed. Despite those regulations, in 2019, more than two million visited Horseshoe Bend.

I have not been to Mesa Arch nor Horseshoe Bend recently, but I would guess that nobody goes there without a camera of some sort. So at first, photography appears to be the primary driver of visitation. Look a bit deeper, though, and you realize the problem is rather with social media. The reason Horseshoe Bend has become so popular is that it is “Instagramable”. What is driving people to Horseshoe Bend is the sheer number of images online. The more people see those images, and see that they are liked, the more they want to get the exact same shots for themselves and to post them. That’s the way snowballs become avalanches.

I’ve recently heard several photographers advocate never sharing any photographic location at all. There are compelling reasons for not wanting to be the one who throws out the first snowball. The two locations previously mentioned are not particularly ecologically sensitive, but others are and would be permanently damaged by an influx of visitors. Sometimes one or a few careless individuals are all it would take. Even if they are not, the wilderness quality of the experience, the solitude, peace, quiet, and remoteness may be lost forever. And there is a lot that is objectionable with the copycat approach to photography that some types of location sharing encourages.

Addressing those concerns would require a longer and more carefully considered discussion that may be the subject of another post. For now, I’ll only ask of those who advocate this absolutist, black and white approach: did you discover yourself the locations you photographed?

In my case, although I’ve been around the block, the answer is a resounding no. Over the years, I have made abundant use of photography location newsletters, guidebooks, and online resources. In this blog, and in Treasured Lands, I’ve been simply trying to pay those forward. Since I’ve learned about each of the locations somewhere else, there is no location that is disclosed for the first time, and for which you couldn’t find the information elsewhere. That said, I believe I can still write usefully because I add my curation and perspective.

Many of you have a copy of Treasured Lands. For my new book, Our National Monuments, I was thinking about using a similar format, since Treasured Lands was so well-received. However, the locations in the new book are much less known, so maybe some adjustments would be in order? For example, would it be useful to provide more precise descriptions or directions, and fewer stories about my experience? Would that be too dry to read? I would appreciate any comments or if you would take the poll below to give me some feedback.

If you do not see the survey below or if you’d prefer a larger window, click here

Grand Staircase Escalante Ends

Days 9,10

Just like in Treasured Lands, for my new national monuments book one of my goals was to cover each of the monument’s corners, providing photographs and information about each of its significant areas. I had visited Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument multiple times before, but the monument is so vast that there were still two areas demanding my attention. Located respectively at the Northeast end and Southwest end of the monument, they include canyons of diverse sizes.

The Burr Trail – with a UT-12 intermission

Although my 180-mile route from Bears Ears National Monument to Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument via UT-95, UT-24, and UT-12 traversed some of the most stunning terrain in the Southwest, I contented myself with enjoying the scenery from behind the windshield, as I was planning to arrive early enough in Long Canyon to photograph.

The Burr Trail is a backcountry road starting from the town of Boulder and featuring remarkable domes and cliffs on its way to the wild southern section of Capitol Reef National Park. Its first 31 miles, up to the national park boundary, were paved in the 1990s, significantly increasing the area’s visitation. I had driven the Burr Trail before on my way to Capitol Reef National Park but as I prioritized destinations like Strike Valley Overlook and Halls Creek Overlook, I did not make much effort to photograph along the Burr Trail. Midway between Boulder and Capitol Reef National Park, the Burr Trail follows the bottom of aptly named Long Canyon for 7 miles. When I got there, the sun already quite low on the horizon did not create any reflected light in the canyon. After driving back and forth, I settled for a view of the canyon from the road at the point before it drops. The soft light occurring after sunset worked well for such a view from above. Afterward, it was too dark in the canyon.

I drove back to the Deer Creek Campground. The small campground (7 sites), tucked into a delightful riparian area would be cozy place to relax, enjoying the luxury of the picnic table, but the next day I woke up again an hour before sunrise. I thought that it would be more productive to spend sunrise time on UT-12 at overlooks over open terrain, rather than in Long Canyon. Although Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument is vast, most of it is roadless. UT-12, or Scenic Byway 12 is one of the most spectacular roads in America. My favorite section is between Escalante and Boulder, where it stays almost entirely inside the monument and traverses colorful slickrock terrain, giving an excellent introduction to the monument. I photographed from the Head of the Rocks Overlook, about half an hour drive from the campground, in pre-dawn light. On the way, I had noticed a pullout from the Hogback Ridge, a stretch of UT-12 with precipitous drops on both sides, but it was pretty dark and I was engrossed in an audiobook, so I did not stop. It was a mistake to let myself be distracted. I realized that it would have been preferable to switch those two locations, or even better to head there last evening instead of Long Canyon. The canyons would have benefited from the pre-dawn light, similar to the Long Canyon image above, while direct light would have worked at Head of the Rocks right after sunrise. However, right after sunrise, the canyons were shaded by the Hogback Ridge, with the light actually improving as the sun rose.

Back to Long Canyon, I strolled into a small side canyon on the north side of the road, slightly more than a mile from the southwestern end of the canyon. Called Singing Canyon because of its acoustics, this slot canyon is enlivened by photogenic trees and a beautiful glow from reflected light in mid-morning. As the sun reached the canyon, although I had expected the contrast to become problematic, I was able to use the play of light and shadow for images of different character. Don’t assume that a certain type of light will be “better”!

The sheer red walls of Long Canyon are graced with desert varnish and unusual erosion patterns, best photographed in the shade with reflected light. As I exited the canyon to the east, the red cliffs turn multicolored like those of the distant Waterpocket Fold, with a saddle at the rim of the Circle Cliffs providing an excellent viewpoint over badlands, plains, and cliffs.

Skutumpah Road

Near the west edge of the monument, Skutumpah Road, continuing south as Johnson Canyon Road for a total of 46-miles provides an alternative to Cottonwood Canyon Road for crossing the monument from north to south. The clay road is generally well maintained, but a few short rough sections are best navigated with a high clearance vehicle. Although it traverses unspectacular wooded hills and valleys, Skutumpah Road provides access to interesting canyons. The most accessible of them is Willis Creek, 6.3 miles from the north end of the road. Its narrows starting just a quarter-mile from the trailhead are distinguished by a year-round stream and curving walls. It was also interesting to look out of the narrows and see pine trees. Although I had explored several slot canyons in the monument, I had not seen those characteristics before.

Shortly after the junction with Skutumpah Road, Johnson Canyon Road enters a 4-mile section of white slickrock walls where the scenery improved considerably. After photographing them at the edge of the light, I almost hit a deer in the dark. As I applied brakes, the snack bags on the passenger seat spilled. Since it was still early in the evening, I made a detour into Kanab. I bought fresh fruit, bread, juice, and chips at the supermarket. Since I was in town, I ordered a pizza to go, and while I was waiting, I cleaned up the spilled food in the car. The pizza would save me cooking time, since I could eat it while driving to the White House Campground. The campground – one of only three developed campgrounds in a parkland of nearly 1.9 million acres – was part of lands removed from Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. On that day, I had driven almost 250 miles, while circling around half of Grand Staircase Escalante, a good indication of the size of the monument. I was looking forward to leaving my car parked for the next day.

The Last Road Trip: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 to be continued

Freezing in Bears Ears National Monument

Days 7,8,9

Since 2018, each autumn found myself in Bears Ears National Monument. 2020 was no exception. This time, I had planned to start at Valley of the Gods, where I ended my previous visit. On that evening of November 2019, after a promising afternoon, clouds had blocked the western horizon at sunset time. About a year later, I was hoping for a different outcome but as I drove from New Mexico, the day was growing increasingly cloudy. After a detour to refuel in Bluff, as I passed again the enormous cut made in the Comb Ridge on UT-95, I thought that while not favorable for landscape photos from the ground, the light conditions resulting from the cloud cover may work well for aerial photos. The drone handled the high winds surprisingly well.

Back to Valley of the Gods

In retrospect, it would have been smarter to continue that line of work at the Goosenecks of the San Juan River, but afterward, I stuck to my plan and headed for Valley of the Gods, where due to a combination of unfavorable light, wind, and light rain, I ended up making no photographs. When I cooked dinner, I had to take refuge in the car. Outside the door, due to the wind, my stove was taking much longer than usual to boil water. It didn’t help that the cartridge was nearly empty and I insisted on finishing it up before opening a new one. I went to bed quite late despite the unproductive evening. The next day, more than an hour before sunrise, although still blowing, the wind had abated enough that I was able to make a few long exposure photographs with a few stars in the sky, although most of them were hidden by the cloud cover. It was so cold that after a few photographs, I had to get inside the car to warm up my numb hands before trying again. Although a band of clouds on the eastern horizon blocked the sunrise, the day grew sunnier, but the temperatures remained frigid. Two days before, in New Mexico, the temperatures remained quite a bit above freezing at night, but the weather forecast had called for them to drop to single digits there. What I was experiencing in Utah was the edge of the cold snap.

Bullet Canyon

Grand Gulch, a mostly dry 50-mile canyon draining the western half of Cedar Mesa, is the archeological crown jewel of Bears Ears National Monument. The canyon had the densest population in North America before the arrival of non-native settlers, resulting in a high concentration of well-preserved rock art and dwellings. In addition, with only unmaintained and unsigned rugged user trails in a pleasant and beautiful sandstone canyon, the wilderness experience in Grand Gulch rivals any other in the southwest. That combination attracts many backpackers (permits required in advance), however, a dozen tributary canyons join Grand Gulch, making it possible to explore parts of it on shorter loops and day trips (permits available at trailheads). The most popular are those located close to UT-261: Kane Gulch, Todie Canyon, Sheiks Canyon, and Bullet Canyon. The latter is the largest of those side canyons, joining Grand Gulch in 7 miles. The trailhead is accessed by an easy 1-mile unpaved road from UT-261, about 11 miles from UT-95. After spending the morning at Valley of the Gods, I didn’t start hiking until 1 PM, quite late given the short length of the days at the end of October. Although that was the warmest time of the day, the temperatures were freezing. I wore four layers, including a thick fleece jacket and a shell, and packed a down jacket, but when not moving could barely keep warm enough.

From the trailhead, it took about 5 miles of easy hiking in a beautiful canyon to two significant ruins located high on the north side of the canyon. Located beneath a large alcove, Perfect Kiva includes among other structures a kiva that has been partly restored and has a replacement ladder so that one can climb down into it. As I made long exposures necessitated by the dim light inside the kiva, I enjoyed surprisingly warm temperatures thanks to the subterranean setting, a welcome change from the freezing temperatures outside. I admired the wisdom of the ancient builders who had designed structures with such efficient insulation out of such simple materials. I had originally planned to hike to the junction with Grand Gulch, but I was too late because it took me a while to find and then photograph Perfect Kiva. Instead, after checking out the nearby two-level Jailhouse ruin named so because of an unusual lattice window, I returned to Perfect Kiva for night photographs. To evoke the time when the Ancestral Puebloans lived there, I placed a light inside the kiva and adjusted it to be just slightly brighter than the moonlight. Although I was aided by a nearly full moon, the return trip took twice as much time as the hike in. Vegetated canyons that are relatively straightforward to navigate by daylight can become tricky and disorienting at night. At one point, I had a feeling of deja vu before realizing that I had hiked on a full circle through a jumble of rocks. After that, as I made sure to check my GPS app frequently, the battery charger I had packed proved useful! When I reached the trailhead around 2:30 am, my car was covered in rim ice, and the thermometer read 16F. I felt hungry enough to cook some noodles.

Elk Ridge and Bears Ears

I woke up just before sunrise. My plan was to try to photograph the Bears Ears while driving towards them along UT-261. These twin namesake buttes standing at 8,700 feet are visible from all over the monument and so distinctive that in each of the native languages of the region, their name is the same. I could not find a satisfying composition due to the dense forested cover of the plateau. The monument protects an entire watershed from the top of 11,000-feet Abajo Mountains all the way down to the Colorado and San Juan Rivers. The 48-mile Elk Ridge Road, following the Elk Ridge spine between UT-211 in the north and UT-95 in the south seems to be on top of the world at nearly 9,000 feet, with views up to 200 miles away. The dirt/gravel road is well maintained, but a high clearance vehicle is recommended in dry weather and 4WD necessary if there has been recent precipitation. The southern end until the saddle between the two Bears Ears buttes offered great views over Cedar Mesa and is accessible to a passenger car. Since the Bears Ears buttes are a sacred space for tribes and a source of medicinal gathering, I showed respect by staying off them and instead made an aerial photograph with the drone. After driving Elk Ridge Road for a while, I turned around, since following it to the northeast would have resulted in too long of a detour to my next destination in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, located to the southwest. Instead, I exited Bears Ears National Monument via UT-95.

The Last Road Trip: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | to be continued

Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument on Foot

Days 5,6,7

Although I could always look for more, I needed just one image of Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument with autumn foliage, and being reasonably confident with the one I made, I could now turn to locations that had eluded me during my previous trip. Instead of roadside photography, they would require short hikes.

Taos Valley Overlook

Despite its name, Taos Valley Overlook is not a single overlook, but rather an entire area on the east side of the gorge where a network of almost level trails popular with mountain bikers crisscrosses the sagebrush plateau, leading to the rim of the Gorge. A woman at the visitor center in Pilar had told me that since it wasn’t particularly photogenic nor remarkable, I should spend my time along MN-570 in the gorge instead. However, since I had missed Taos Valley Overlook during my last visit, despite the warming, I was still curious to see what I could discover there. Because of the late hour, I took the most direct route to the rim, the Traders Trail (3.4 miles roundtrip, 250 elevation gain) accessed from a trailhead along NM-68. There was indeed nothing but flats until the rim of the gorge, and the view from that rim was not as spectacular as other rim views in the monument. While the mesa was just a bit breezy, that particular spot on the rim was extremely windy as the lower gorge acted like a funnel. When I tried to photograph with a telephoto lens, it took multiple tries to get a sharp image. Fortunately, I could review on the spot at 100% pixel view to check sharpness and try again. I timed an image for sunset to add a bit of interest to the view, then stayed on the rim until dusk for the soft directional light that I like for canyons. In contrast with southern New Mexico, after sunset the temperatures got chilly. After hiking back in the dark, I drove to La Junta Campground, eating snacks along the way, and arrived at 9:30 pm.

Wild Rivers

Waking up at 6:30 am, about an hour before sunrise, I headed towards what I thought would be La Junta Point, at the southern tip of the plateau, where a viewpoint overlooks the confluence of the Rio Grande River and Red River. After walking for ten minutes, I remembered that the overlook wasn’t that far, and checked my map app to find I had been headed in the wrong direction. This meant I’d be missing the most favorable pre-dawn light for both this view, and also the next one, at Sheep Crossing, about 20 minutes away. After waiting until after sunrise there, when I made images of the plateau, morning was well under way.

In the Wild Rivers area, six short and steep trails descend 700 feet to the river into the gorge, half-a-mile wide at this point. During my previous visit, the trails were closed because of icy conditions, and I was in no condition to hike anyway. I stopped at the BLM visitor center to ask for recommendations on which trail to take. While there, I noticed a publication whose cover featured a striking faraway view of the plateau incised by the gorge that I’d seen before, but when I inquired with the volunteers, they could not identify positively the location, suggesting the surroundings of the John Dunn Bridge. The Big Arsenic Trail (2.4 miles round-trip, 680 feet elevation change) is well-graded thanks to its switchbacks built by the Civilian Conservation Corps and an excellent introduction to the area’s diversity. It hugs the cliffs at the top and at the bottom reaches a clear spring (with no arsenic!) and an outcrop of boulders adorned with petroglyphs. The riverside ponderosa pine and Douglas fir forest grows surprisingly below the pinon and junipers trees at the rim.

Looking for a view

After completing the hike, I drove to the John Dunn Bridge looking for that faraway view. The last time, I hardly saw anybody there, but this time the place was packed. This wasn’t too surprising, since it is the only roadside river access beyond Orilla Verde, the weather was moderate, and the day sunny. As visitors had parked cars and put out chairs all over the riverbanks, I struggled to find an unpopulated view. Driving on the rim, I didn’t find any of the topography I was looking for, but after studying the map further, it occurred to me that I should look back south where I was the day before. The sun was already disappearing from the gorge floor, where I photographed at the edge of the light on the way.

Driving along NM-68 between Pillar and the Taos Valley Overlook Trailhead with my eyes now trained on the plateau below, I soon noticed the cut of the gorge in the distance, indicating that my guess was correct. As the vantage point from the highway was not high enough for a clear view, I followed a dirt road heading up the slope, turning around when it became private. I could not find a composition with a foreground as distant as I’d liked, but the position was was nevertheless an improvement over roadside views. I waited for clouds to pass so that sunlight would illuminate the gorge. Since the gorge was so distant, I launched the drone to try for a closer perspective, but when it was in the position to take the picture, clouds obscured the sun again. The drone was more than a mile out, so there was not much battery power left for hovering while waiting. My next destination was the landmark High Bridge. I had previously photographed it at dawn, but I thought that dusk might be an improvement. On the way, as I approached a rest stop along NM-68, a better view of the faraway gorge presented itself. I could not resist setting up for another photograph, complicated again by the passing clouds and the wind that was shaking my telephoto lens. When I reached the High Bridge, it was 15 minutes late and too dark, an indirect consequence of failing to scout the faraway gorge view the previous day. I drove back towards Taos to find a gas station, then stopped again at the parking lot of the High Bridge to take advantage of the parking lights to cook dinner before driving into the darkness of the monument’s wildest corner.

San Antonio

The corner of the monument west of US-285 consists of rolling grasslands dominated by San Antonio Mountain (10,908 feet), a dormant volcano barely outside the monument’s boundaries. It is a remote area without facilities and far from settlements. I had spotted on the map an unpaved Forest Service road just south of San Antonio Mountain. I followed it until I found a wide pullout where I parked for the night. I didn’t expect anybody to drive by before sunrise, but well before the pre-dawn time I had set my alarm for, several passing trucks woke me up. The morning was cloudy, with no color at sunrise, but dark storm clouds complemented the silhouette of Ute Mountain. Just north of San Antonio Mountain, the plains are incised by the Rio San Antonio, which the information booklet said was entirely hidden from a distance. As I tried to navigate a deeply rutted 4WD road, all I could see was grassy tablelands stretching to the horizon. The booklet at one point said to follow a “trail”, so I assumed I’d arrived at a trailhead reasonably close to the gorge, but all I could see where flats. I drove further until I reached what looked like the monument’s boundary and backtracked. I was about to give up trying to locate the gorge when it occurred to me that I could launch my drone for a higher viewpoint in the air. While I was piloting, out of nowhere a water truck came by to replenish cattle troughs, forcing me to leave the drone hovering as I moved the car entirely out of the way. Even after figuring out the route, a ranching dirt road (that the booklet had called a trail) heading north about 3.5 miles west of US-285 on Forest Road 118 and then branching west after 1.25 miles, the gorge remained hidden by the flats right until I got almost to its rim. It was filled up with mature trees, contrasting with the barren and mostly treeless lands above. The 200 feet deep gorge of dark basalt looked like a miniature version of the Rio Grande Gorge.

On the way back, the tracks on the flats were disorienting enough that I had to check my GPS app to stay on route. Once I reached the pavement, I settled for the 300-mile drive to Valley of the Gods that would take me through four states. After passing mountains in Colorado, for a break from driving, I bought a Subway sandwich. Shiprock under storm clouds was mesmerizing as always. I had to pull out for a photograph, after which I declined to stop in town to refil gas, thinking that I could do so later in Arizona or Utah. By the time I reached UT-163, no gas station had presented itself, so I had to detour to Bluff to make sure I would enter Bears Ears National Monument with a full tank.

The Last Road Trip: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | To be continued

2020 In Review and Happy New Year

While 2020 has been a challenging year, I am grateful to have been able to find a bit of comfort, hope, and escape in our public lands. For the first time in decades, I spent almost no time in the national parks. Instead, I traveled for several weeks in national monuments, working on my forthcoming book. Thankfully, it turned out that those BLM lands are much better places for social distancing than the national parks, due to the considerably lighter visitation and absence of facilities that concentrate people. Traveling to them also fosters self-reliance, which in turn helps minimize contact with surrounding communities. Links below point to blog posts with more images and details.

In mid-March, I traveled to the Sonoran Desert during the annual bloom, visiting both Sonoran Desert National Monument and Ironwood Forest National Monument. I found both as beautiful as the better known Saguaro National Park. During that trip, I first started the socially-distanced autonomous travel practices that I would keep all year.

In Santa Clara County, we had the earliest shutdown in the country, starting in mid-March, just while I was returning from Arizona, and lasting into early June. This was a period of stringent and (maybe unwarranted?) closures. You couldn’t even go to the beach. In local city parks, bathrooms and playgrounds were all closed. Save for grocery shopping every other week and jogging every other day – that I did on suburban streets rather than trails as the latter are less amenable to social distancing, I stayed home until the early summer.

The spring had totally gone by, and even though summer is my least favorite season to travel, with the (too premature?) re-opening of California and the realization that one must take responsibility for their own safety, I started to catch up with my project backlog. In late June, as a test trip, I headed to Southern California, visiting the southern part of Giant Sequoia National Monument and hiking Mount Baldy in San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. Despite the Southern California heat, it felt good to get out of the city.

In early July, for my only visit to a national park this year, I drove to Roads End in Kings Canyon National Park to pick up family members hiking the John Muir Trail. On the way, I explored the northern part of Giant Sequoia National Monument. With the number of cases rising again, a new shutdown order was imposed. In San Jose, our summer went from bad to worse when the SCU fire became the second-largest in California’s history. It burned less than 5 miles away from our home, and a mandatory evacuation zone was declared less than a mile away.

In September, with the fire contained, I started to plan interstate travel again. Although a minor concern compared to family safety, the fire season was also causing problems for photography. Not only did I have to optimize travel time and take weather into consideration, I also needed to monitor rapidly changing air quality as smoky air can be unhealthy and doesn’t lend itself to great landscape photographs. Normally, I would have flown, as this saves both time and carbon emissions, but in the new normal, I embarked instead on a two week, 3300-mile road trip to public lands in the Northwest, revisiting Craters of the Moon National Monument and Hanford Reach National Monument.

The main objective of the trip was to visit Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, the last park missing for my new book project. I had planned to go there in September 2019, but a car crash injury had sidelined me that entire month. By the time I had recovered, the ground was already covered by snow in central Montana. This time I caught autumn colors in perfect weather as I floated the river for four days.

In mid-October, barely after finishing processing images from the September Northwest tour, I hit the road again for the final major trip of the national monuments project. It was a culmination of sorts, as my most packed two-week trip to date: 4,000+ miles driven with each day including some off-pavement. With the objective to tighten up loose ends, it was a series of quick stops in many national monuments to locations that I had missed before, starting with the deserts: Mojave Trails, Ironwood Forest in the Sonoran Desert, and the Desert Peaks in the Chihuahuan Desert.

In the Sonoran, I had encountered temperatures up to 95F on short but steep hikes to obscure peaks. The return leg of the trip in Utah and Northern Arizona was marked by temperatures dropping as low as 16F during a day trip into the Grand Gulch, and day hikes up to 17 miles such as the Paria Canyon, but that did little to temper my enjoyment of all the beauty I was privileged to experience. In keeping with my chronicle of that last road trip, I will be writing about those adventures in the next few weeks.

I returned home on Election Eve. Slightly past noon that day, just before leaving Basin and Range National Monument, I made my last landscape photograph of the year a few yards from the park’s boundary.

If you’ve read so far, my sincere thanks for your interest in my work. I wish you and your loved one a safe and healthy 2021.

Steps behind the image: Orilla Verde Autumn

To those who celebrate the occasion, Merry Christmas!

Day 5

After driving 350 miles straight from Las Cruces save for a gas stop, I breathed a sigh of relief upon seeing bright yellow spots dotting the Rio Grande River gorge. Shortly past the village of Pilar, NM-570 follows the river banks inside the gorge as forms a riparian corridor where the foliage of cottonwood trees contrasts with the barren plateaus above. Over the past days, I had been more hurried than I liked because I wanted to get to Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument while the leaves would still be on the trees.

Northern New Mexico as a whole is high desert, and most of Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument is about 7,000 ft. In December and January, temperatures barely rise above freezing even in the middle of the day. Snowfall occurs from November to April. During my first visit to Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument, at the end of December, when from a distance everything appeared bare and brown, a closer look at the shrubs revealed a varied palette of colors. However, as they were quite subtle, I still wanted to capture the lushness of the canyon with foliage. After coming back from a two-week trip to the Northwest at the beginning of October, I was planning to stay home for a month before hitting the road again. When in mid-October I inquired with a photographer living near the monument about fall foliage, he told me that it was turning quickly and would likely be gone by the beginning of November. Thus, I resolved to leave after barely two weeks at home. As I didn’t want to drive more total miles than absolutely necessary, I had to visit my target destinations in the specific order that would minimize the distance driven instead of heading to Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument first. As I was hiking in the desert, my mind was preoccupied by wondering if during those extra days the foliage would hold.

NM-570 stays inside the gorge for six miles past several riverside campgrounds, picnic areas, boat launches, and trailheads in the Orilla Verde (“green banks”) Recreation Area. Past the Taos Junction Bridge, the road turns briefly to dirt and climbs out of the gorge on the west side. As it was already late afternoon, with just two hours of daylight left, I turned around to head to my next destination. On my way up the gorge, I was mostly trying to evaluate possibilities as I was driving, with the idea of photographing on the drive back. On the way down the gorge, I made a single stop at the location that looked the most promising. I started with a wide-angle composition from the pullout, but the roadway intruded in the picture.

Framing more tightly eliminated the part of the roadway on the left of the image. However, a distant segment of it became more visible.

I tried a vertical composition that excluded the roadway, basically the right half of the previous image. While it is balanced enough, the flow wasn’t as good, and besides, I still wanted a horizontal composition.

Since I had exhausted the possibilities from the pullout, it was time to try a new viewpoint. I scrambled down the slope, so I would stand below the road level. From there, the trees hide the roadway.

Compared to the original wide-angle composition, improvements are possible. The river is partly obscured, therefore interrupting the flow, an issue similar to the modern photos of the Snake River Overlook picture where trees have grown since Ansel Adams created his celebrated photograph. The shape of the central riverbank also becomes too prominent.

Framing more tightly fixes those issues, with the arm of the river to the right now leading the eye from the right bottom corner and more prominence given to the trees.

Afterward, I drove to the Taos Valley Overlook. On the way, although a quick glimpse of a faraway view of the gorge looked intriguing, I didn’t stop. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this turned out to be maybe the first miss on the trip.

The Last Road Trip: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | to be continued