Terra Galleria Photography

Visiting the National Park of American Samoa: Tuitula

Despite its small size, the National Park of American Samoa is one of the most beautiful parks of the system, graced with stunning white sand beaches, pristine coral reefs, towering sea cliffs, and lush, forested mountains. American Samoa, in the Southern Hemisphere, right in the center of Polynesia, is the southernmost US territory and the only one south of the equator. This makes the National Park of American Samoa the most faraway of the 63 National Parks, the reason why it is one of the least visited despite its great appeal. During the pandemic years, travel to American Samoa was almost impossible because of draconian restrictions. They eased up last summer, so you can again start planning to visit this unique park. The first (and for most, only) part of the park you will visit is located on the main island of Tuitula, and in this article, you’ll discover what I saw there.

The unusual name of “National Park of American Samoa,” rather than “American Samoa National Park,” reflects its status unique in the national park system: its lands are all leased from Samoan villages of Fitiuta, Faleasao, Ta’u, Olosega, Ofu, Afono, Vatia, PagoPago, and Fagasa that are the true landowners. The lease agreement was signed between the American Samoa Government and the National Park Service in 1993 and is valid for 50 years. It marked the intersection of two widely different land tenure systems—the South Seas matai communal land arrangement kept by oral tradition, and the Western record-based.

Samoa is thought to be one of the original homelands of the Polynesian people, according to oral traditions and archaeological findings. 90% of people in American Samoa are either Pacific Islanders or Samoans. The majority of islanders speak Samoan as their first language, and they practice the Fa’asamoa (Samoan way of life). Many Samoans still maintain a close connection to their natural surroundings and rely on the ocean, coral reefs, and tropical rainforests for food and traditional rituals. The park is home to numerous significant cultural artifacts that are closely related to both the past and present of the Samoan people. Besides the scenery and ecosystem, perpetuating Fa’asamoa was a reason why the park was established. The Samoan people are some of the most friendly and welcoming I have encountered. A visit is a great opportunity to discover the vibrant and welcoming Samoan culture. The National Park Service even facilitates a homestay program which I took advantage of during my visit to Tau Island.

The Basics

The Samoan Islands are 2,600 miles southwest of Hawaii and 1,800 miles northeast of New Zealand. They include the U.S. territory of American Samoa and the independent nation of Samoa. The only way to fly to American Samoa is with Hawaiian Airlines. The trip from Hawaii (Honolulu) to Pago Pago takes five hours and is offered on a biweekly schedule.

The park spreads over units on three islands, Tuitula (2,500 acres of land and 1,200 acres of waters) Ta‘ū (3,700 acres of land and 1,100 acres of waters), and Ofu (70 acres of land and 400 acres of waters). Ta’ū and Ofu are two of the Manu’a islands, that lie some 60 miles east of Tuitula and can at times be challenging to travel to, as the availability of commercial flights to the Manu‘a Islands has varied in the past years. All visitors arrive via Tuitula, which is the only developed island, even though it is not set up for tourism like the Pacific resort islands. Unlike the Manu’a islands, it had the usual travel amenities: car rentals (not from national brands), hotels, restaurants, and stores. The parkland on Tutuila Island makes up around one-sixth of the entire island and is situated in the northern center of the island.

The national park visitor center is located in the harbor area, in the direction opposite to the park from downtown Pago Pago. Besides its excellent exhibits and very friendly staff, it is not to be missed for those who try to visit each of the national parks. If one contents themselves of a visit to the Northwest Alaska national parks consisting of a stroll from a quick bush plane landing, then the National Park of American Samoa is the most difficult to visit of them all, which is why many save it for last. If so, the park rangers there will provide you with a certificate of completion! Don’t forget to ask for precise directions to help you find trees with clusters of fruit bats.

The Coast

If you are used to visiting national parks by driving in, you won’t find yourself in unfamiliar territory, as there is one scenic road inside the Tuitula Unit. That road, Route 006, enters the park past the village of Afono, and although doesn’t stretch in the park for more than a few miles along the coast, it is very scenic. Along it, you’ll find lush tropical vegetation, inviting sandy beaches, and higher views over water from the bluff.

Vatia is a quiet village with clear waters that offer good snorkeling, and homestays are possible. After driving past Vatia to the end of the rough road, which is marked as a hiking trail on the map, a short stroll leads to a beach with large round pebbles. From there, you’ll discover in both directions the most spectacular coastal views on the island. Since that side of Vatia Bay faces the east, I made sure to come at sunrise. On two mornings I witnessed very different conditions. On a stormy morning, I photographed the green hills to the south as silhouettes in a composition full of atmosphere and drama. A long exposure brightened the ocean water, linking it to the sky while creating a strong contrast with the dark rocks of the beach. On a clear morning, when the sun rose over the South Pacific, it illuminated the 400-foot cliffs of Pola Island to the north, covered with lush vegetation, as the waves filled the air with warm moisture. Recalling the Polynesian creation stories about the origins of the Samoan Islands, I imagined I was witnessing the morning of Creation itself. A shorter shutter speed preserved both the form and motion of a wave with an exposure timed so that it would form another line leading the eye toward the cliff.

The Mountain

The Mount Alava Trail is the longest and most well-marked hike on the entire island: 7 miles round-trip, with a 1,000-foot elevation gain from Fagasa Pass to the summit. The hike allows you to immerse yourself in the island’s lush mountaintop rainforest. Samoa’s palaeotropical (Old World) rainforests are unique within the national parks because they are closely related to those of Asia and Africa, as opposed to the neotropical (New World) forests of the Americas. The trail follows a four-wheel-drive track, climbing to the summit of Mount Alava (elevation 1,610 feet). The summit can also be reached by a shorter, but much steeper route (5.6 miles round-trip; 1,610-foot elevation gain) from the Vatia village, involving steps with ropes for balance.

When I arrived there, clouds blocked the views. Pago Pago receives the highest annual rainfall of any harbor in the world. As I learned from previous days that the island’s weather can change quickly, I stuck around, photographing close-ups of tropical flowers in the soft light. My patience was rewarded when the clouds began to break apart. After the strongest Specter of Broken display that I ever witnessed – centered around my own silhouette, gaps started to reveal distant ridges, creating atmosphere.

As the trail follows the ridge that marks the southern boundary of the park, the views are spectacular in both directions. When the clouds parted way, I was treated to views of Pago Pago Harbor on one side, and the Pacific Ocean on the other.

There used to be a cable-supported tramway that across the harbor up to the summit. This tramway, which was finished in 1965, was built to give television technicians a route to go to the TV transmitters installed atop Mount Alava for maintenance. Up until 1992, when a cyclone severely damaged it, it was also utilized by locals and schoolchildren, particularly the villagers from Vatia on the north Pacific coast. The tropical heat and humidity makes the Mount Alava hike tough, but that off-the-beaten path activity was hugely rewarding.

Happy New Lunar Year of the Cat/Rabbit

Today is our Lunar New Year, the Tết 2023 – a word infamous in American history for the 1968 offensive during the Vietnam War. From our family to yours, happy new year, and may your dreams come true.

As implied by its name, Lunar New Year is based on the lunar calendar, which is the oldest calendar owning to its simplicity: you just needed to glance at the clear night sky to figure out where you are in the month. It is based on the 29.5-day moon cycle: first day of moon is 1st of the month, full moon is 14th day of the month. The drawback is that twelve lunar months add only up to 354 days, less than one full solar year. To avoid getting out of step with the seasons, the Chinese had to add a 13th month approximately once every three years – kind of like a super leap year, making it a “lunisolar” calendar. This drawback led to the adoption of the Julian, and then Gregorian calendars.

Lunar New Year is often referred to as Chinese New Year, but the terms are not exactly equivalent. Chinese New Year incorporates specific elements from ancient Chinese culture and, on the other hand, some countries celebrate Lunar New Year on a different date and with different customs. Because of the historic influence of China over Vietnam’s history, Chinese New Year was passed on to the Vietnamese and has stayed quite intact. The main difference is in the animal zodiac, which runs on a twelve-year cycle. The Vietnamese have replaced the Rabbit with the Cat (much to my chagrin) – and also the Ox with the Buffalo, seemingly indicating a common motivation to honor agriculturally useful animals.

Other traditions are similar, such as dragon and lion dances, setting off firecrackers, and giving red envelopes holding money to children. We also dress up in the Vietnamese traditional national garment, the áo dài, a long (“dài”) split tunic worn over silk trousers, in modern times by girls and women. Our extended family sets up two lineups ordered by age, one for the adult women, the other for the children. Each child then offers a greeting to each adult before receiving their red envelope. In the pandemic years, we had refrained from indoor gatherings, so it was great to resume the tradition. I have traveled around the world to witness traditions like that in various cultures, but they are also taking place in suburban homes in America.

Naturally, I also try to photograph my family, although in retrospect I wished I would have devoted much more effort than I did to this project, despite the subjects recalcitrance. Sally Mann set the bar so high that it felt unreachable, but I later realized that just showing the passage of time in a consistent way could have artistic value. I have not shared images beyond a circle of friends and family, but since I have published so few images last year, today, I am making an exception. At some point, I might release this work in black and white, but due to the eye-catching hues in play here, I have kept the colors to convey the festive occasion.

Chúc mừng năm mới 2023!

2022 in Review and Happy New Year

This year, I took a break.

Please bear with me for a little digression. Many photographers limit their websites to a few hundred images. They believe that they must show only photographs that meet their standards of perfection, and that quantity is inversely correlated with quality. This has never been my approach, and not only because I based my business on the Internet from the start. A larger collection of images tells a more complete story and is more representative of my experience. In any longer art form, be it a novel, a movie, or a symphony, not all moments can be of transcendent beauty. It is the presence of more mundane and imperfect passages that makes those moments feel that way, and the whole piece true to life. In David Bayles and Ted Orland’s classic Art and Fear, an art teacher divides a class into two groups, one graded solely on the quantity of work produced, the other on its quality. At grading time, a curious fact emerges: the works of the highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity.

For over a quarter-century, I had been producing and posting photographs at a prolific rate. Since I launched this website, I had been posting an average of 2,000 new images each year, mostly on a monthly basis with no interruption until 2021, as attested by the terragalleria.com timeline. In 2022, I posted a single image release with less than two hundred photos. What happened?

I work best on long-term, multi-year projects. In 2021, I completed Our National Monuments. There is always a period of release and floating that follows months of intense focus. I didn’t feel like producing much output. When such a situation happens, there is no need to force it, as creativity is cyclic. After fifteen years in business, I finally felt I didn’t have to take new pictures nor post any. Following a commitment to family made last year, I had no photo trips planned – besides a quixotic quest in northwest Alaska that didn’t pan out again. In the past, I needed to be in a particular mindset to look for photographs in earnest, which was generally linked to traveling to a faraway place.

Dubai is, if anything, far away from California. The time difference is exactly 12 hours, meaning that it is the opposite northern hemisphere location on the globe – the 16-hour direct flight from San Francisco was straight north over the pole. Although, because of the pandemic, my stay was limited to a short four days, it was exciting to try to photograph the futuristic and diverse city on a whirlwind tour. The impetus for that trip in February was an invitation from the U.S. State Department to talk about my work, as the USA Pavilion at Expo 2020 featured nine of my national park photographs as one of the exhibits. I was also grateful for the opportunity to photograph the pavilion for the firm that had designed and produced it. In a year light on productivity but heavy on honors, Our National Monuments won six awards including a National Outdoor Book Award and I was immensely gratified to receive the Sierra Club’s Ansel Adams Award for Photography which “honors superlative photography that has been used to further conservation causes.”

In April, Dr. Fauci declared the “pandemic phase” over, but that’s when our family caught the virus. Although the symptoms were mild, I felt general fatigue for months. By July, we felt comfortable resuming family travel. For our first destination, we chose the island of Maui. Not intending the trip to be about photography (at last), I did not plan to make landscape pictures. Although we did visit the two Haleakala National Park locations at the Haleakala Crater and Kipalahu, we missed the waterfall hike. One thing we did not miss was Ululani’s, which my daughter’s research determined to be the best Hawaiian shave ice – so finely shaved that you’d think it is sorbet.

My wife had found the Haleakala Crater hike tough. She decided to join me in walking several times per week. San Jose is surprisingly decent for hiking, with a wide choice of trails less than half an hour away from home. You’d think that mid-summer in hot and cloudless California is not a good time, but if you start early in the morning, hiking remains enjoyable, especially with a good hiking umbrella for shade. On those hikes, I initially refrained from even bringing a camera. I wanted them to be a family activity. I didn’t want to break the pace or go at an hour that normal people wouldn’t pick to hike. But I kept seeing photographs – a curse or a blessing? Eventually, I found a way to work within the self-imposed constraints.

The lack of mental focus from the lingering effects of the virus contributed to making most of this year a succession of eclectic pursuits to explore ideas outside of what had become my comfort zone. Those related to photography included reading about photography theory, studying and even teaching portrait photography, and thinking of ways to move forward. With the South Bay Area hikes, maybe I had the beginning of a more sustained project, which delighted me because of its local character. In the past, I released a collection of images after each trip. Because of their duration, they felt like a self-contained unit. That’s not the case with a hike of a couple of hours, so I will wait for this body of work to take shape. In the while, here are a few photographs from the last day of 2022 without rain (Dec. 28). The location, Henry Coe State Park, 15 miles away as the crow flies but more than double that distance by road, also happens to the furthest from our home to which we have gone for our local hikes.

If you’ve read so far, my sincere thanks for your interest in my work. I wish you and your family a slightly belated – everything I did was a bit slow – happy new year 2023 full of happiness, health, joy, peace, and beauty.

Lower Courthouse Wash: Out of the Beaten Path in Arches National Park

Arches National Park is, of course, renowned for its more than 2,000 documented arches, as well as other sandstone rock formations. However, as always, there is more to discover than the main attractions. Follow me along the less-traveled Courthouse Wash route where besides experiencing an unexpected desert river environment, you are sure to get away from the crowds that often overwhelm the park.

Arches National Park combines high visitation of more than 1.5 million annually and a relatively small area, making it one of the most crowded parks in the Colorado Plateau area. Think that you may beat the wait times and crowds by traveling off-season and getting up early? Look at this notice from last fall:

No wonder that in 2022, Arches National Park felt compelled to issue an advance reservation system with mandatory timed entry tickets. Getting inside the park is only half the battle, as you are likely to find parking lots at popular trailheads totally filled and heavy foot traffic on the trails. By contrast, for most of the entire October day when I explored the Lower Courthouse Wash, an easily accessible hike, I did not meet another hiker. How is it possible?

Photographing an oasis in the desert

It could be that Courthouse Wash is not marked on the National Park Service official map as a trail, which is why I refer to it as a route instead, nor is it mentioned in guidebooks – even in Laurent Martres’ remarkably comprehensive Photographing the Southwest series. It could also be that along Lower Courthouse Wash, there are no arches to see – although Upper Courthouse Wash, which boats arches, is not much more popular. Instead of arches, the attraction is to experience a refreshing desert oasis hidden in the middle of a arid desert park with no other sources of water and little vegetation.

As part of a long-term project approach, I like to try to seek in each national park for a number of common subjects. Besides providing me with something to look for, this typological approach helps illustrate the key idea that each park is an individual environment, yet they are all interrelated. One such subject is autumn foliage, which manifests itself in a variety of ways across the different national parks. Like in any other desert, most of the plants in Arches National Park do not change colors in the autumn. The exception is the deciduous, water-loving plants found in riparian environments, of which Courthouse Wash is one of the most significant in the park.

Toward the end of October, willows and cottonwood trees turned bright yellow. A photograph of a cottonwood could be anywhere, so I sought to provide a sense of place by including an iconic rock formation in the image. From the bottom of the wash, none of them was visible. Near the beginning of the wash, I scrambled up slickrock for a higher viewpoint that showed the Courthouse Towers, after which Courthouse Wash is named. The backlight made the leaves glow and concentrated the attention on the shape of the rock towers, towards which the receding perspective of the trees led. Later in the day, I used low side-light to create a layered composition contrasting the foliage and the surrounding red rock, with a rock wall in the shade forming a clear delineation for the tree tops.

When walking inside the wash, the larger landmarks of the landscape are no longer visible, especially as I continued downstream, the canyon grew deeper and its walls taller. I reveled in the lushness surrounding me and in the stories of the place told by smaller details. Photographed backlit against a shaded canyon wall, the trunks of cottonwoods were rendered as a darker, unbroken shape contrasting with a continuous field of brilliant vegetation that filled up the picture. A closer look at the ground revealed an unexpected richness of plant life with fascinating textures and colors. Wildflowers that you’d expect in spring were still blooming in October, alongside fallen leaves. Adding to the juxtaposition of seasons, grasses were laid down horizontally along the ground. A testament to the power of powerful flash floods that sweep the canyon during the summer monsoons, they infused the photograph with movement. Those ground details are best photographed in soft light, so I sought them in the shade of the canyon walls.


To immerse myself in the wilderness in primeval nature, and also enjoy the fun of finding my own path, I always love hiking away from the trails. However, in many environments, off-trail hiking is to be strictly avoided because of its impact on the vegetation. One such environment is the alpine tundra where owing to the growing season being limited to a month and half, the tiny plants have to work so hard for their survival that just a dozen footsteps will bring them to their demise. Another extremely fragile environment is the desert biological soil crust (also called cryptobiotic soil), which looks like patches of dark, knobby dirt, but is actually a living community of small organisms. Consisting of soil cyanobacteria, lichens and mosses, the delicate crust plays an important ecological role in the desert for soil stability, moisture retention, and plant nutrition. It can take anything from decades to centuries to recover from a single trampling. Arches National Park is generally full of biological soil crust. Although the National Park Service does not prohibit off-trail hiking in the park, the likelihood to encounter cryptobiotic soil is reason enough for refraining from wandering in many places. A desert wash like Courthouse Wash is not one of those places because the periodical flash floods hardly allow the formation of cryptobiotic soils. You are walking most of the time on sands.

When hiking cross-country, route finding can be a challenge, but hiking Courthouse Wash, I effortlessly followed the main canyon downstream. There are user trails on both banks, and by sticking to them, it is probably possible to hike the entire route with about only a dozen river crossings. However, with frequent patches of deep sand and occasional patches of quicksand, the sandy riverbanks didn’t offer consistent footing for a quick progression. Often I found wading straight in the creek easier, as the bed is formed by firmer sand. I wore shoes that work well when wet, just like I would do for a water hike like the Zion narrows, so getting my feet wet was the least of my worries. I suppose if you came during the summer, you’d even enjoy refreshing yourself in the swimming holes.


Lower Courthouse Wash stretches for 5.5 miles and is mostly flat. Ideally, you’d arrange a shuttle to hike one-way. Conversely, if you want to extend hiking, there are a number of side canyons to explore. The upper trailhead is located just north of the Tower of Babel and the only bridge on the park road, which is 4.5 miles north of the park entrance. Park at the large pull-out on the north (left) side of the road and walk across the road and into the wash at the bridge. If you seek a short walk, walking just a quarter of a mile will lead you to the first water hole and allow you to see this different environment.

The lower trailhead is located next to Moab along US-191. There is a parking lot just half-a-mile west of the highway bridge above the Colorado River from which you’d walk back towards the wash along the Moab Canyon Pathway. Since that trailhead is just outside the park, there is no fee and you can get in even if the park entrance has been closed to vehicles because it is full! East of the wash, the sizable Courthouse Rock Art panel includes both pictographs and petroglyphs and is located at the base of the cliffs overlooking the highway.

Our National Monuments wins a National Outdoor Book Award

I am honored that Our National Monuments is the winner of the 2022 National Outdoor Book Awards for “Design and Artistic Merit”. It is the sixth award received by the book, after the previously announced wins at Foreword INDIES Book of the Year, National Indie Excellence Awards, International Book Awards and silver medals at Benjamin Franklin Awards and Nautilus Book Awards.

The National Outdoor Book Awards (NOBA) is the outdoor world’s largest and most prestigious book award program. It is a non-profit, educational program, sponsored by the National Outdoor Book Awards Foundation, Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education, and Idaho State University. The program, in its 26th year, has very high standards of fairness and objectivity. It relies on an independent panel of educators, academics, trade representatives, book reviewers, authors, editors and outdoors columnists from around the country.

Awards are presented in ten categories. Encompassing coffee-table books, the “Design and Artistic Merit” category is for books that are “graphically and visually appealing and use artistic design, photographs and/or other art forms”. Our National Monuments joins the ranks of exceptional books that I have admired (and greatly recommend) such as Bradford Washburn: Mountain Photography, The Living Wild and Edge of the Earth, Corner of the Sky by Art Wolfe, The Last Great Wild Places: Forty Years of Wildlife Photography by Thomas Mangelsen, and The Grand Canyon: Between River and Rim by Pete McBride awarded in the same category. The official NOBA review based on comments from the judging panels states:

The artistry of renowned photographer QT Luong is on full display in this stunning large format work… What a sumptuous treat this book is – but it is also a reminder that these areas need protectors.

The win is particularly gratifying to me because it was my first entry in this contest. I hesitated to submit Treasured Lands because of the requirement for nine copies (that’s 65 lbs of books!), a consequence of the rigor of the judging process. As the window for entry opens only for about two months, it was gone before I could give it a second though. Having subsequently learned about the prestige of the award, I regretted not having entered, however the program does not generally consider reprints, only first editions of books published within a year. Having missed that chance, I wondered if I would be able to produce another book of the same caliber. It was encouraging that upon receiving a pre-publication copy of Our National Monuments Jack Dykinga wrote “QT Luong has done it again”. Do not doubt that your best work is yet to come!

Photographing landscapes with stars as points of light: a primer and survey of state-of-the-art tools

In terms of facilitating the creation of landscape photographs not possible before, high-sensitivity digital sensors rank high among other technological advances, as they have facilitated a new field sometimes called “astro-landscape photography”: photographs of landscapes with stars captured as points of light as the eye sees it. This article details all the technical knowledge that you need to pull out such images with general-purpose equipment consisting of no more than a tripod and a wide-angle lens. In the process, it brings you up to date with the current best practices and software tools developed in the past half-decade.

Petrified Forest National Park closes at sunset, but having obtained a backcountry permit, I was able to roam in the South Wilderness at night to make photographs of the petrified logs under the stars. Read the story behind this image. Sony A7R3, Nikon 14-24 lens. 10s at f/2.8, ISO 12800.

Exposure time for photographing stars as points

The technical challenge in capturing the stars as points is that they are dim and in relatively fast (relative) motion in the sky. How dim? My usual base exposure is f/2.8 – 30 sec – ISO 6400. Too long of an exposure time records stars as streaks rather than circles. With lower ISO, too short of an exposure misses faint stars, whereas higher ISO reduces resolution and increases noise.

The main factor in determining an exposure time that maintains stars as points is the focal length. The wider the lens, the smaller the magnification, and therefore the apparent motion of the stars. A long-established way to determine the length of the exposure in seconds is the “500 rule”: 500 divided by the focal length. For example, with a 16mm lens, the widest that many own, you’d use 31s = 500/16 (rounded to 30s in practice). Since that rule was designed in the film area when high-ISO film had sizable grains, it doesn’t hold up well with current digital cameras which are capable of resolving much finer details at high ISO. I found star streaking quite prominent even in medium-sized prints. Instead, I used a “300 rule” based on the same idea, which would give with the same lens an exposure time of 19s = 300/16.

Yet, such a rule does not take explicitly into account the imaging system’s ability to resolve details, and therefore distinguish a point from a streak. It depends on the pixel pitch and aperture, which determines the diffraction limits. Another consideration is that stars in the night sky are moving at different speeds. Stars closer to the celestial equator move faster, whereas a start near the celestial pole (Polaris in the Northern Hemisphere) hardly moves. This is accounted for by declination, which is the distance of a star measured from the celestial equator: it is zero at the celestial equator, and 90 degrees at the celestial pole.

In 2010, Frédéric Michaud developed a set of formulas called the NPF rule based on rigorous consideration of all those parameters (links in French – French education in mathematics is strong!). In 2017, Aaron Priest provided a write-up in English with a spreadsheet that brought more attention to this approach, and caused it to be implemented in several apps, including the popular PhotoPills, which is now the easiest way to use the NPF rule. As can be seen in the table below, NPF prescribes a shorter exposure time than even the “300 rule”. Photopill’s Default mode produces “Barely noticeable trails”, whereas the Accurate mode is “Useful for large prints” by roughly dividing the exposure time by two.

Lens 500 Rule 300 Rule NPF Default NPF Accurate
12mm f/2.842s25s18s9s
12mm f/442s25s22s11s
14mm f/1.836s22s13s7s
14mm f/2.836s22s16s8s
14mm f/436s22s19s9s
16mm f/2.831s19s14s7s
16mm f/431s19s16s8s
20mm f/1.425s15s9s4s
20mm f/2.825s15s11s6s
20mm f/425s15s13s7s
24mm f/1.421s13s7s4s
24mm f/2.821s13s9s5s
24mm f/421s13s11s6s
Maximum exposure time for point stars with Sony A7R3 (42 MP full-frame) and commonly used wide-angle lenses

Those values assume a declination of zero, which is safe as it accounts for the fastest possible star motion. Photopills provides an elegant way to account for the actual declination. Tap on the button “AR” in the lower corner, point your phone in the same direction as your camera, and the NPF values will be updated accordingly in the AR display. Notice how the exposure time increases as you point your phone toward the celestial pole.

Photopills “Spot Stars” screen

Even though those explanations may appear overly technical, in practice there are just a few values to remember, or you can use an app. If you didn’t get enough exposure, you can also brighten in processing at the expense of a bit of additional noise. It’s not an exact science! Once you have determined an appropriate exposure time, then you use the lowest ISO that provides enough exposure for the stars, again something within 1 f-stop of f/2.8 – 30 sec – ISO 6400, or its equivalents such as f/2.8 – 15 sec – ISO 12800, f/1.4 – 30s – ISO 1600, etc..

Noise reduction

To be able to reach those shorter exposure times, there are only two possibilities in a single capture. You can use a faster lens. However, there are not many wide-angle lenses faster than f/2.8 and even with the fastest of them (f/1.4), you’d gain only two f-stops. Alternatively, you can increase the ISO, but this results in an image with less detail and more noise.

With earlier digital cameras, even ISO 1600 was a stretch, but recent cameras such as the Sony A7R3 make ISO 12800 quite usable once noise reduction is applied – even when the unprocessed image looks very noisy. One could think of luminance noise reduction and color noise reduction as two separate processes. In this example, processed in Lightroom, applying 25% of color noise reduction was enough to suppress most of the color noise. It could be cranked up to 100% without adverse effects on detail, but you’d lose some of the subtle color differentiation in the stars. On the other hand, increasing luminance noise reduction results in the loss of fine details. Besides an overall smoothness, notice how the faint stars disappear and how shadows turn to pure black as luminance noise reduction is increased. The result is still quite good, considering that we are looking at a 1,000-pixel-wide section of a 8,000-pixel-wide image.

Noise reduction with Lightroom. From left to right (1) original image; (2) Luminance NR 0, Color NR 25%; (3) Luminance NR 25%, Color NR 25%; (4) Luminance NR 50%, Color NR 25%; (5) Image stack. Click on image for full-resolution.

In recent years, Topaz Labs has introduced AI-based image-processing apps, sometimes with impressive results in sharpening and upsizing. Let see how Topaz Labs DeNoise AI compares to the noise reduction algorithms in Lightroom, which are quite good. DeNoise AI offers quite a few controls, including sharpening and color noise reduction, but for the sake of the comparison, they have been set to zero. There are also three different modes, and in this example “Low light” seems the most appropriate.

Noise reduction: Lightroom vs. Topaz DeNoise AI. From left to right (1) original image; (2) Lightroom Luminance NR 25%; (3) Denoise NR 25%; (4) Lightroom Luminance NR 50%; (5) Denoise NR 50%; (6) Image stack. Click on image for full-resolution.

Topaz DeNoise AI is an improvement over Lightroom, however there are still loss of stars. Wouldn’t it be nice to able to keep the level of detail of the original image, with the noise level of the image processed with noise reduction? Image stacking makes this possible.

Image stacking

There are few technical image quality issues that cannot be solved by combining multiple images. The idea behind image stacking is to average a set of multiple images of the same scene taken without moving the camera. When you do so with a large enough number of images, the difference between images, which is due to noise, is cancelled out. Trying out this technique with Photoshop is simple: first load the images with “File > Scripts > Load Files into Stack” with both the options “Auto-Align” and “Convert to Smart Object” checked. Then select the resulting Smart Object layer, and activate “Layer > Smart Objects > Stack Mode > Median”. “Mean” also works but is less robust, meaning that it can be thrown off by outliers, for instance airplane light trails.

More frames result in more noise reduction at the expense of your time and storage. How many frames should you stack? A stack of n averaged frames has the inverse square root of the noise of the original frames, resulting in the following table:

Number of frames Noise compared to original Noise reduction
Noise reduction as a function of the number of stacked frames

I like 16 frames as a reasonable compromise, but if I have time, 64 frames are useful as they could also be used for a time-lapse clip of a few seconds.

Image stacking with SLS. From left to right (1) original image with luminance NR 0 and color NR 25%; (2) 4 frames; (3) 8 frames; (4) 16 frames; (5) 32 frames. (6) 64 frames. Click on image for full-resolution.

Stacking can be used to reduce noise in multiple situations when only shorter exposures are possible: windy conditions, hand-held cameras (use a rapid burst mode to minimize the difference between images), drone photography. Even when a longer exposure would be possible, stacking provides more flexibility as you can exclude some frames, for instance those containing a car shining its headlights towards the camera – an occurrence that would have ruined a longer exposure.

Apps for star stacking

When you try to stack landscapes with stars, the problem is that as the stars move, the scene is different with each image. Therefore, before proceeding with stacking, it is necessary to realign the stars to a reference image while leaving the landscape untouched. That would be very time-consuming to do manually, but fortunately, there are several apps to automate this task.

Starry Landscape Stacker screen for selecting the sky

The most proven app is Starry Landscape Stacker (MacOs only, $40). Although not as good at that task as the latest Adobe apps, SLS does a decent job at guessing where the sky is. All you have to do is complete that task using a brush – with the usual Adobe keyboard shortcuts! I have found that SLS is more effective at suppressing luminance noise than color noise, so when preparing images for stacking, I leave luminance NR at 0, but apply color NR at 25%. After the compositing is done, SLS offers a choice of six different combining methods, of which the first four all produce good results. I normally use “Mini Horizon Noise” or “Mean Min Horizon Noise” (which often results in a slightly brighter image).

On Windows, the closest app is Sequator (free). The main difference is that you have to select the sky without assistance. The more recent Kandao Raw+ app (MacOS & Windows, free) is also worth trying. On my new 2022 Mac Studio, it always crashes while processing the stack, but it worked fine on my 2013 Mac Pro. The app is a general-purpose stacker offered as a bonus to users of Kanda imaging devices, but if you feed it a stack of starry landscapes, it magically works just like a starry landscape stacker. The app’s computational sophistication is belied by the basic user interface. Using it couldn’t be simpler: all you have to do is load up to 16 images and optionally designate a reference image, and the rest is entirely automatic. On images I have tried, including the Petrified Forest image, it compares well to Starry Landscape Stacker, except that some of the large stars have noise amplified around, and it doesn’t eliminate plane light trails, so I still favor Starry Landscape Stacker.

SLS (left) v. Kandao Rao+ (right). Click on image for full-resolution.

Stephen Bay, from whom I learned about Kandao Raw+, reports that it does a better job than Starry Landscape Stacker when there are foreground objects such as tree branches that both move and occlude the sky, so that is a use scenario to keep in mind, especially since the app is free and easy to use.

Standing under the night sky and seeing an uncountable number of stars has always brought a sense of awe. Modern cameras and software have now given us the tools to finally convey a bit of this impression in photographs.

P.S. The alternative to Image Stacking is tracking, where you mount the camera on a star tracker, which is a device that rotates the camera to counteract the Earth’s rotation so that an arbitrarily long exposure can be used to photograph stars. Tracking can produce even higher-quality results than stacking. However, the process is considerably more fiddly both in the field and in processing. The setup is more complicated, time-consuming, and prone to errors. If the goal is an astro-landscape (as opposed to an astronomical photograph of celestial objects only), since the landscape is blurred by camera rotation, sophisticated compositing is required.

Great Basin’s Mount Washington: A Remote Corner of a Remote Park

Great Basin National Park was established on this day 36 years ago. Despite its intriguing mix of natural wonders that include a cave with rare formations, a peak with one of the most southerly glaciers, bristlecone pines and aspen growing nearby, and a six-story limestone arch, Great Basin National Park is one of the least-visited national parks in the continental U.S. On the occasion of the anniversary, I will do my best to stir up 20-year-old memories and notes in order to bring you a location that few visitors have seen in person, although it remains my favorite place in the park. A hidden gem within this hidden gem of a national park, the Snake Range’s Mount Washington offers maybe the most remarkable long-range views in the park as well as its most beautiful bristlecone pine grove, and it is even accessible by road, the highest in Nevada, and quite an adventurous one.

I first learned about the location in the 1990s through a photograph in a book by David Muench – is there a natural place in America that the man has not photographed? I was attracted by the grove’s seemingly more open character, compared to the bristlecone pine grove of Wheeler Cirque that I had visited multiple times. At the visitor center, a ranger guessed that the location may be near Mount Washington. This is what the map of the area looks like in an official NPS visitor guide from the late 2000s:

That map indicated that no roads nor even trails lead anywhere close to Mount Washington. However, on another visit, a ranger mentioned that a dirt road reaches the summit starting from outside of the park on the west side of the Snake Range, and recommended a 4×4 high-clearance vehicle with a short wheelbase. At that time, I was driving an older Subaru Legacy, so in October of 2003, with this visit specifically in mind, I borrowed for the first time my wife’s Subaru Forester, a more rugged and compact vehicle.

The unmarked gravel road (NF-453) branches east from NV-894 past the Kirkeby Ranch Airport about 11.7 miles southeast of US-93. It starts easy enough as it climbs an alluvial fan up Pole Canyon, transitioning from the sagebrush plain to a pinyon and juniper forest. After some switchbacks unremarkable enough that I wondered if the Forester was even needed, I reached a fork at about 7850 feet. As the left (north) branch, looked in better condition, I followed it, passing old mining buildings a short distance away, only to find out about an hour later that it dead-ended in a canyon way below the cliffs that form the north face of Mount Washington. Given that it was already late in the afternoon, here went my planned sunset shot on Mount Washington!

As I backtracked, I photographed towards Spring Valley in beautiful light. Past the mine, I continued on the other (south) fork. Soon the switchbacks became so tight that I sometimes had to make three-point turns. They were also some of the steepest I had ever experienced and I marveled that my vehicle was able to tackle them as it sometimes felt that the turns were more vertical than horizontal. I wondered what the rest of the road had in store, but fortunately, after a sign marking the limit of Great Basin National Park, the road eased most of the way as it winded through burned forests, until a short distance before the summit, where it became more rocky, climbing straight north at a high incline to the top. By that time, it was too dark to photograph on film. Since the barren summit was cold and windy, I drove down a few hundred vertical feet to under the tree line where I found a pullout with a flat spot to camp.

My plan for the next day was to explore the bristlecone pine grove north of Mount Washington from sunrise to sunset. I drove back to the top in the dark, and as soon as there was enough light to see in the distance, I identified a route to the bristlecone pine grove. It was less than a mile away toward the northeast, but as there was no trail, I had to scramble down a steep ridge with a sheer drop on one side and plenty of loose scree. Parts of the grove are located on a gently sloping ridge called the Snake Divide that descends towards the east, catching the first light of sunrise.

In the Wheeler Cirque grove, the trees are on steep terrain enclosed on three sides by peaks, closely clustered, and often mixed with other species of pine trees such as limber pines, making it difficult to isolate them unless one frames a close-up of a single tree looking up towards the sky. Here, the trees are situated on a low-angle, barren ridge called the Snake Divide and are well-spaced from each other. It was possible to make clean compositions where they detach themselves from their surroundings. Since the grove is located on a ridge, the backdrop is spectacular. The view towards the east (opening photograph) is dominated by the white limestone ridge of Eagle Peak, which is home of the third major grove of bristlecone pines in Great Basin National Park – the first two being in Wheeler Cirque and Mount Washington.

I found enough magnificent trees, each with a distinct character, to spend the whole day there. Among them, I was pleased to recognize the tree photographed by David Muench that had enticed me to come here: it has dual trunks appearing to embrace above exposed roots and below a crown of needles. Since Muench had photographed it well, I didn’t even make a photograph with my large-format camera and instead looked for other remarkable specimens, of which there were plenty. I suppose that seeing the photograph of Muench before prevented me from paying more attention to that tree. On the other hand, without it, I may not have found out about the grove and I may not have experienced this wonderful place. For igniting my curiosity, I am so grateful for his photograph. I subsequently learned that the grove is nicknamed the “Magic Grove”, a name amply deserved.

At sunset, the grove gets in the shadow of the summit ridge, so I made sure to utilize the light of the late afternoon well. A telephoto lens compressed the space between the trees, conveying the impression of a grove densely populated with ancient trees. At the Magic Grove, I seldom used a wide-angle lens as those increase the apparent spacing of features, be it trees or mountains, whereas my feeling was that it was a place where so much came together in a remarkable juxtaposition. Since the location was so lonely, as a safety precaution, I left the grove early enough so that I wouldn’t have to scramble up the precarious ridge back in total darkness. By contrast with the trails of the Wheeler Cirque where I saw dozens of hikers, nobody else was around.

In the crystal-clear air of the high desert, Mount Washington, cumulating at 11,658 feet, and sitting on the summit crest of the Snake Range, offers excellent views over all directions. For the following day, I planned to spend the early morning photographing those larger landscapes. The views are more interesting than from the high point of the range and park, Wheeler Peak (13,063 feet) because when you are on the top, everything looks smaller, whereas the presence of a chain of peaks leading to a higher peak confers a sense of scale. Although the warm light at sunrise was the most dramatic, it was the pre-dawn light and then the early morning light that revealed the colors of the various rocks better. Looking towards the north, Distant Wheeler Peak, Jeff Davis Peak, and Baker Peak are formed of Prospect Mountain Quartzite, a metamorphic rock. Peaks in the middle distance are formed of granite, whereas closer peaks, including Mount Washington, are limestone.

The side of Mount Washington opposite the road consisted of sheer limestone cliffs. Partial cloud cover softened the light, and I excluded the brighter sky to emphasize the silvery quality of the limestone. Looking down towards the east takes in the south fork of Big Wash above which other limestone cliffs tower, whereas looking down towards the northeast showed the pattern of trees in the bristlecone pine grove from a distance. From there, you can see that the Magic Grove is quite extensive, stretching downslope on the southern side of the Snake Divide. A closer look shows that the trees growing lower on the slope are more orderly looking and lack the spectacular twisted limbs of those that grow on the top of the ridge. It is probably because they grow in a milder climate. Harsh growing conditions causes slowness of growth, density of wood, and longevity, but also the trees’ tortured shapes.

With plenty of supplies, I was thinking of staying there another day, but when I got back to my car, I noticed that one tire was flat, maybe as the result of driving on sharp rocks of the rough section of road a few hundred feet below the summit. Since I didn’t check carefully the borrowed vehicle beforehand, I wondered if I’d be able to find the tools and spare tire, but fortunately there were all there, including a full spare. Changing the tire was a bit of a struggle, but I had no choice. Now without a spare tire in such a remote corner of a remote park, I felt like returning to civilization without further delay. By the time I reached the pavement in the afternoon, I still had not seen another soul.

Afterword. In recent years, I noticed more interest for the tree photographed by David Muench and even sold a large print of it. I wondered how much of an influence he could have had on young photographers, until I found out that the tree had been featured on the Great Basin National Park quarter (part of a series of national park quarters), therefore acquiring an instant iconic status.

While researching for Treasured Lands in 2015, and again for this article, I noticed new developments, which is typical of a relatively recent park’s evolution. The trail system now reaches Mount Washington, with the shortest hike about 12 miles round-trip and 3,000 feet elevation gain from a new trailhead at Snake Creek via the new Shoshone Trail in the Snake Creek drainage and the Snake Divide Trail which follows the ridge of the same name – the later is indicated on the map available at the park (above), but not on the map on the NPS website as of this writing. Snake Creek is at the end of an unpaved road out of the beaten path, but accessible to all vehicles. The road that I took is now marked. It ends with a loop before the steep section south of the peak, close to where I camped, so you’d have to walk that short distance. There also appears to be a road extension towards the southeast that I didn’t see back then. I haven’t returned to Mount Washington since my visit of 2003, so I don’t know about the current road or trail conditions, but my guess is that it’s still an adventure to get there!

QT Luong receives the Ansel Adams Award for Photography

I am humbled and grateful to have received the 2022 Ansel Adams Award for Photography from the Sierra Club. Named Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography until a few years ago, the annual award “honors superlative photography that has been used to further conservation causes.”

Given its provenance and past recipients, I couldn’t be more honored. Founded in 1892 by John Muir, the Sierra Club is the most enduring and influential environmental organization in the United States with close to four million members. Without the national parks, for the establishment and protection of which the organization made such strong contributions, my life may have been quite different.

Back in 1993, as a fresh newcomer to America, I discovered the work of Ansel Adams and viewed his original prints in Northern California galleries and museums. Their beauty made such a great impression on me and I learned that the landscape is not a fixed subject, but something as transient as the light that makes it visible. This set me on my course to embrace large format photography and photograph the national parks and other public lands.

I studied the work of Galen Rowell, Robert Glenn Ketchum, William Neill, Frans Lanting, Tom Mangelsen, and James Balog among other past Ansel Adams Award honorees. Several dozens books from this distinguished group are part of my photography book collection and have served as a continued source of inspiration to explore and cherish the natural world. I hope that my photographs can do the same for younger generations.

When I read the texts in the books of Ansel Adams, I understood the significance of his contributions to the environmental movement, and how important it was to continue those efforts. Almost three decades later, I am proud that my own work has been called “photographic environmental activism” and that during the presentation, which this year was virtual, Ramón Cruz, the president of the Sierra Club, stated “Our National Monuments is the most beautiful and persuasive statement ever for the protection of our national monuments”.

The Ansel Adams Award for Photography, maybe one of the highest lifetime awards in photography of the natural world, recognizes a body of work. It takes a village to create that. I want to thank you everyone for your help along this journey. I am appreciative of the opportunity for collaboration from environmental organizations through my photography career. May we work together and do our best for this amazing planet that is our shared home.

Renewed Threats on National Monuments

Last week, I marked the 26th anniversary of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by highlighting two sites along the Cottonwood Canyon Road. One of them, Yellow Rock, was part of the lands that lost protections when the former president reduced the size of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by half in 2017. On October 8, 2021, President Biden reversed those size reductions and the more drastic size reductions of Bears Ears National Monument. It appeared as if with that action, the attack on the national monuments was no longer a newsworthy story, partly explaining the lack of interest from the mainstream press for Our National Monuments. The afterword of the book includes those words:
the battle for conservation will go on endlessly. We can no longer take designations for granted.

Protecting the land and its native people?

Today is National Public Lands Day when we have an opportunity to show appreciation for our public lands. I thought it an appropriate day to comment on the way that Utah Republicans cherish our public lands. Exactly a month ago, on August 24, the state of Utah and two of its counties, Kane and Garfield Counties, which contain Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Utah (complete text of the complaint). They expressed concerns for the land:
87. Presidents now deploy the [Antiquities] act to shut down harmless local activity … by appearing to protect things that they are actually making more vulnerable. 99. Although a proclamation of a national monument does little to serve conservationist goals, it has enormous adverse effects for the antiquities themselves. 100. [A national monument] obstructs the very people who had long preserved and protected and loved that land from doing the things that are compatible with and beneficial to it—and that have kept and preserved the land and its resident archaeological and cultural features as they are today.

They expressed concerns not only about the harmful effect of the national monuments on the land, but also that “proclamations harm Native American interests”. Here is an example of their logic:

Many of the Navajos who live in the area … rely on collected deadwood, as they have for centuries, to stay warm through the Utah winter. They use existing roads and drive motorized or mechanized vehicles on reservation [meaning national monuments] land to access and transport this firewood. The proclamations also prohibit the creation of additional roads or trails designated for motorized vehicle use unless for public safety purposes or for protecting monument objects, and prohibit the use of motorized and mechanized vehicle use except on designated trails. Therefore, the reservations limit and perhaps altogether ban the Native Americans’ traditional use of these resources.
They mention that “Support for the reservations among Native Americans is mixed” (as any reasonable person would expect) but do not elaborate on the composition of the mix.

The vision for the monuments from native people

It is well-known that Bears Ears was the first national monument initiated and co-managed by a coalition of native tribal nations. It is less known that up until 2018, Utah Republicans constantly quoted the San Juan County Commission, but abruptly stopped doing so after 2018. What had happened? In 2017, a judge recognized that the district boundaries amounted to racial gerrymandering and ordered San Juan County to redraw them. For the first time, Native Americans, who comprise about two-thirds of the county’s population, held the majority on the San Juan County Commission. Although it contains Bears Ears National Monument, San Juan County didn’t join the lawsuit. By the way, the sitting county commissioners had tried to get Willie Grayeyes removed from the ballot. Here is an excerpt from the essay by Utah Diné Bikéyah leaders introducing Bears Ears National Monument in Our National Monuments:
At the outset, UDB’s founding Board Chairman, Willie Grayeyes, established the purpose of Bears Ears National Monument as a place of healing, where we are each invited “to heal the land and its people.” Willie advises each of us to look deeper into ourselves. “Healing,” he says, is first rooted in our spirituality, and it has essential “psychological, physiological, and social components.”
The vision of the native tribal nations for Bears Ears National Monument is developed in the informative Collaborative Land Management Plan for the Bears Ears National Monument from the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition (BEITC), which is an excellent read for anybody trying to learn more about this part of Utah. Their approach is holistic:
Any disruption to the natural world would negatively affect the viewshed, and by extension Native people whose spiritual power resides in that natural world. Any changes to that landscape that are done in a disrespectful manner negatively affect all people, the ecosystem, and all life forms. Such changes include mining, clear-cutting of timber, and creating roads in formerly roadless areas.

Tribal Nations of the BEITC consider BENM to be a spiritual place and thus value the need for peace and quiet. Hopi people believe that the spirits of their ancestors still reside at BENM, and any disruption of peace will disturb them.

Air quality is considered to be a key component of health by the BEITC. Clean air is important because it is part of an overarching earth stewardship that is part of all Native traditions. Air pollution from mining and milling, machinery, vehicles, and construction are considered to damage or corrupt the natural environment.

There is consensus that the night sky in open spaces should be protected in order to preserve these ancestral connections. Light and dust pollution are factors that affect the quality of the night sky.

A landform may be part of an archaeological site, a shrine or an offering place, but it is a distinct geological or topographical feature that is imbued with cultural significance.

The vision for the monuments from Utah Republicans

The immediate goal of the Utah lawsuit is to seek the nullification of President Biden’s proclamation/restoration of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, returning both to the reduced boundaries in effect from Dec 2017 to October 2021.

However, the authors go further in laying out their radical vision of what would be an appropriate application of the Antiquities Act. They see only a handful of sites within Grand Staircase Escalante as worthy of the act’s protections and estimate that less than 1% of the current monument area would be enough to protect those sites, as illustrated by the map below where

representations of lawful reservations are slightly larger than scale because accurate representations of lawful reservations would be practically invisible when compared to the current reservations.

Such small areas are justified because:

280. For the sorts of qualifying items that might be found within the reservations, the primary threat comes from direct human contact, which cannot be accomplished from more than a few feet away. 281. Activities that occur more than a few hundred yards away from any qualifying item are extremely unlikely to harm that item.
In their view, Grosvenor Arch qualifies, and “a reservation of 40 acres would be more than sufficient”. They explicitly mention Yellow Rock in a list of sites that would not qualify because it is “nondescript” or “inconspicuous”. You can see for yourself photos and descriptions of Dry Fork of Coyote Gulch, Peek-a-boo Canyon, Zebra and Tunnel Slot Canyons, Wahweap Hoodoos, Toadstool Hoodoos, Upper Paria River complex, and Sunset Arch, which are on that list of non-qualified sites. The list also includes Devils Garden and Metate Arch whose photos illustrate this page.

At the heart of the issue

The Utah complaint makes several points deserving of consideration, such as the impact resulting from increased visitation linked to designation without appropriate appropriations or the ecological consequences of stricter land management regulations. Others are bizarre, for instance, the notion that cattle grazing has “ecological benefits”. Having seen the difference between grazed lands and ungrazed lands in the Sand Tank Mountains of Sonoran Desert National Monument, I tend to agree with the observations made by Jonathan Thompson in southern Utah that excluding cattle is beneficial to the land.

However, the main arguments are that the Antiquities Act does not allow the president to declare entire landscapes or generic items as qualifying “objects of historic or scientific interest” and that the establishment of the monuments violates the “smallest area compatible” provision of the Antiquities Act.

If this sounds like a deja vu, it is because we have already heard those arguments a long time ago. Arizona politicians tried to block President Theodore Roosevelt’s proclamation of the Grand Canyon as a national monument on account of its size, with Ralph H. Cameron arguing, in addition to mining claims, that it did not meet the “confined to the smallest area” standard, but in 1920, the Supreme Court rejected this argument and upheld the president’s decision. Wyoming politicians objected to the proclamation of Jackson Hole National Monument by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (with an eye towards an expansion of Grand Teton National Park) on account of its lack of qualifying objects, but in 1945, a district court in Sheridan, Wyoming also upheld it after hearing opposing expert witnesses testify on whether there were historic or scientific objects in the region. The state of Wyoming didn’t appeal, but instead, a compromise agreement was crafted between the state and the federal government.

Beyond the Utah monuments

It looks like Dobbs has paved the way for reconsidering precedents at the Supreme Court. The complaint specifically targets President Biden’s proclamations, but notes that he has ignored the limits of the Antiquities Act “like too many of his predecessors over the past hundred years”.

It frequently quotes the views of Chief Justice Roberts back in 2021, including in their last argumentative paragraph. Commercial fishermen had contested the size of the 5,000-square-mile Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument proclaimed by President Obama. After losing their bid in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in 2019, they tried to take their case to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear it. However, according to the complaint:

95. Chief Justice Roberts wrote that expansive presidential reservations would not strike “a speaker of ordinary English” as lawful under the statutory text.

96. He criticized the “trend of ever-expanding antiquities.” As he read the statutory text, the Reservation Provision’s smallest-area-compatible limit imposed a “unique constraint” that, due to unnaturally broad constructions of the Act, “has been transformed into a power without any discernible limit to set aside vast and amorphous expanses of terrain above and below the sea.”

97. He invited attention to the question of “how a monument of these proportions … can be justified under the Antiquities Act.”

98. Chief Justice Roberts was particularly concerned with two issues: (1) “[t]he scope of the objects that can be designated under the Act” and (2) “how to measure the area necessary for their proper care and management.”

Chief Justice Roberts had mentioned in 2021 that the Supreme court might get another chance to rule on that question as there are “five other cases pending in federal courts concerning the boundaries of other national monuments.” The Utah Republicans seem to be hoping that the Supreme Court will take this case.

Rising the stakes beyond the Utah monuments, the complaint argues that the Antiquities Act itself is outdated and made unnecessary by more recent and specific laws. Will the shifting political winds at the Supreme Court undermine the venerable law itself? If we go by the surface area of protected lands, the Antiquities Act could be seen as the most important conservation law in America, responsible for its boldest conservation advances. If its language proves too narrow in an age that is more ecologically minded and subject to unprecedented environmental threats, will Congress enact an update?

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument: Cottonwood Canyon Road

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the largest national monument in the continental United States, was established on this day in 1996. Such a large, and mostly undeveloped area can be intimidating to explore. In this article, I take you along the easiest of the monument roads that explore its vast interior, the Cottonwood Canyon Road, along which you can see colorful badlands, an outstanding extended rock formation, narrow canyons, and a towering natural arch.

The main access to the monument is through two east-west highways, US-89 to the south and UT-12 to the north, but those roads only border the monument lands. To explore the monument’s interior, you have to drive one of the south-north roads that are all unpaved. From west to east, they are: Johnson Canyon – Skutumpah Road, Cottonwood Canyon Road, Smoky Mountain Road, and Hole-in-the-Rock Road. Of the four, the Smoky Mountain Road that crosses the Kaiparowitz Plateau is by far the most difficult, least maintained, and also the least scenic. The Hole-in-the-Rock Road and Johnson Canyon Skutumpah Road give access to remarkable sites: see Dry Fork Coyote Gulch and Forty-Mile Ridge and Skutumpah Road in previous posts. Yet, the most scenic and easiest to drive of the four is the 40-mile Cottonwood Canyon Road that links US-89 to UT-12. The last time I traversed the road in the autumn, the only slightly problematic section was a sandy stretch at the southern end near US-89. By making sure to keep momentum, my low-clearance, 2WD, Prius had no trouble negotiating it. However, make sure to check the weather forecast and inquire about the road conditions at one of the numerous visitor centers surrounding the monument, since rain can transform the road into a muddy mess impassable even for 4WD vehicles.

Yellow Rock

The southern section of Cottonwood Canyon Road traverses colorful badlands and follows a river valley lined up with cottonwood trees. In early November, the fall foliage was beautiful.

The highlight of that section was Yellow Rock, about 14 miles from US-89. I parked near the junction with the steep Brigham Plains Road. From there, at the bottom of the valley, the huge formation is not visible. I walked towards the west across a dry wash, looking for a gully cutting the plateau wall, where I followed an extremely steep trail for about fifteen minutes. Upon setting foot on the plateau, I was astonished by the sudden sight of the massive dome of swirling and cross-bedded Navajo sandstone, multicolored but mostly yellow as implied by the name. The formation loomed impressively and looked absolutely massive from the base. If the formation had been located anywhere else in the country, it would by itself justify federal protection. There is of course a lot of slickrock in southern Utah, but still, compared to other formations, this one is quite remarkable in its size and pure form. The light on Yellow Rock is best in the late afternoon, but the main face goes in the shade about forty minutes before sunset. At that time, the light just grazes it delicately. By framing a distant foreground with uniform texture and that relatively even grazing light as opposed to a closer foreground with lines and more contrasted light, I made images conveying different impressions of the rock. One of the images was photographed with a superwide 21mm, whereas the other used a modest wide angle of 28mm. Can you guess which lens was used for each picture? (answer at the end).

Hiking is generally on trails, but walking to the top offered the exhilarating experience of scrambling on a sea of bare rock for an extended time. Yet, despite its intimidating slope and smooth aspect, the friction was adequate and the angle was low enough that the walk up was straightforward, not requiring the use of hands. It was only one mile and 800 feet elevation gain from the Cottonwood Canyon Road. Yet, as the dome is higher than its surroundings and denuded of vegetation, the 360-degree panorama at sunset revealed so much of the area’s exceptional geologic diversity. I lingered in awe on the top until half an hour after sunset. On the way down, the full moon was so bright that I could make my way on the rock without a light. I wished I had come earlier in the day, as the rock and surrounding area are full of photogenic patterns, textures, and way more colors than reds. The area would reward repeated visits, since it is so large that one cannot photograph all of its features with the best light on a single trip. Since I was hiking by myself, I took care not to slip going down the steep gully. By the time I got back to my car, I hadn’t seen a single person.

Grosvenor Arch

About a quarter-mile from the Brigham Plains Road junction, a trailhead leads into the narrows of Lower Hackberry Canyon, the best part of it ending about a mile and a half into the canyon. About 11 miles further north, lies the entrance to another canyon, the Cottonwood Wash Narrows, which is shorter. However, the attraction that caught my eye the most was along the road: an area of pinnacles and badlands so vividly colorful it has been called Candyland line up the road’s east side.

About 30 miles from US-89, a turn-off from Cottonwood Canyon Road leads to Grosvenor Arch. It is the most accessible feature along Cottonwood Canyon Road, as a short, paved trail leads to its base and there are amenities such as toilets and picnic tables. Spanning an impressive 90 feet and rising 150 feet, the west-facing double arch is one of the monument’s landmarks. Grosvenor Arch is best lit in the late afternoon, as in the morning its frontside is in the shade. Usually, you don’t want your main subject to be darker than the surrounding objects – such as the pinnacle on the left. If you don’t like what natural light does, just bring your own! I started to photograph at pre-dawn time, when the ambient light was so dim that I could illuminate the arch with a lantern, bringing a warm glow, subtle enough that most viewers wouldn’t realize that it is artificial. You can notice the difference with the photograph I made 40 minutes later when it used only natural light as at that point the ambient light was too bright for the lantern to have any effect. The arch is now a bit dark, yet because of the softness of the pre-sunrise light, it is not dominated by brighter areas of the pinnacle to its left the way it would be after sunrise. Although backlit, the light tone of the Dakota Sandstone still stood out against the blue sky with the aid of a polarizing filter.

After the sun rose, to try a different perspective, and photograph the lit side of the arch, I scrambled up the back of the arch through a steep user path to photograph the two openings from behind. Nowadays, Mesa Arch in nearby Canyonlands National Parks has become so popular with photographers that showing up at sunrise time usually won’t be enough to secure a spot in the shoulder-to-shoulder line. Its popularity is due to the setting, the landscape framed by the arch and the wall below creating the reflected light at sunrise, rather than the intrinsic features of the arch. In a land full of natural arches (nearby Arches National Park has more than 2,000), Grosvenor Arch still stands out because of its size and unusual color. Most other arches are reddish Estrada Sandstone, but Grosvenor Arch is light yellow. Despite its ease of access, from dawn until I left the area, I had the entire place to myself.

The horizontal photograph of Yellow Rock was made with 21mm. Surprising?