Terra Galleria Photography

Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument in Winter

Many of the large national monuments I have written about during the last two years have one thing in common: they are quite undeveloped. By contrast, although it was proclaimed in 2013, Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument near Taos, New Mexico, already sports facilities close to those found at a national park: visitor centers, several campgrounds, scenic drives, overlooks, and trails. Yet the well-developed national monument is still under the radar of mass tourism. The place was particularly quiet when I visited in late December. Was it a good time to visit? Try to spot anything unusual before reading about the twist revealed at the end of this report.

Lower Rio Grande River Gorge

The main feature of Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument is the deep Rio Grande Gorge cut by the Rio Grande River. The south end of the monument provides the easiest access to the river, as shortly past the village of Pilar, NM 570 follows the Rio Grande inside the gorge, past several campgrounds and picnic areas forming the Orilla Verde Recreation Area, offering close roadside views of the river. The area must be pleasant and popular in summer, when whitewater enthusiasts flock to the river, but I was the only camper at the beginning of winter. The time would not have been my first choice, but I was already in New Mexico for White Sands National Park, and to minimize travel I always try to combine trips. I was expecting to find all the vegetation bare, and from a distance, everything appeared brown. A closer look at the riparian growth revealed a subtle, but varied palette of colors, with red willows the most striking hues. Although it lacked the appeal of lushness, the season revealed more textures.

Rio Grande Gorge Bridge

About 10 miles west of Taos, US 64 crosses the Rio Grande Gorge over the Rio Grande Bridge, the most well-known and accessible attraction in Rio Grande Del North National Monument, next to the Rio Grande Gorge Rest Area, a rest stop with a large parking lot. The arch bridge soars 650 feet above the river, with sidewalks on both sides of the bridge. They offer the most impressive views of the gorge, as you can stand directly above the river in a steep and narrow section of the gorge and look at both directions. I usually prefer to photograph deep gorges such as this one in the soft light occurring before sunrise or past sunset to avoid harsh shadows caused by direct sunlight. On that day, I had an additional reason for showing up at dawn. Like for the rest of my visit, the weather forecast had called for a mostly overcast day. A white sky would not complement a dark gorge well, whereas I was hoping for a bit of color in the sky at sunrise. New Mexico’s as a whole is high desert, and most of Rio Grande Del Norte National monument is about 7,000 ft. This resulted in temperatures barely rising above freezing even in the middle of the day. At dawn, with the wind that blew in the middle of the bridge, it was brutally cold, but my main concern was tripod vibration during the longish exposures required by the dim light of dawn.

John Dunn Bridge

The John Dunn Bridge is much smaller than the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge because it is a river level. Besides providing easy river access, the road, unpaved but well-graded, climbs sharply in switchbacks with views of the gorge on the west side. On the east side, it follows closely the Rio Hondo, and intimate nature scenes are just a few steps away. The smaller stream is bordered by vegetation and cascades over boulders, providing more possibilities than the banks of the Rio Grande River. The compositions I found would not have worked as well if the trees had been covered in thick foliage.

Wild Rivers Recreation Area

The Wild Rivers Recreation Area, at the end of NM 387, is the most developed area in Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument, with six campgrounds, a visitor center, and many trails. From the name, I expected easy river access. Instead, I found a plateau perched high on the rim of the gorge. Accessing the river from there is through short, but steep trails that descend more than 700 feet. Fortunately, a number of overlooks over excellent views over the gorge. La Junta Point, at the southern tip of the area, provides a view of the confluence of the Rio Grande and Red River. I found the most expansive view to be from the Chawalauna Overlook. At dawn, I set up to photograph the gorge from there, but when I noticed a bright sky in my back, I turned around and looked for a spot with open views of the eastern sky, catching clouds that were colorfully illuminated for just a few minutes. As the Wild Rivers Recreation Area is located at a slightly higher elevation than the Orilla Verde Recreation Area, snow was lingering there, especially on the north-facing slopes. I tried to incorporate those slopes in my compositions, as I liked the texture and the lightness it created in contrast with the volcanic rock of the gorge that otherwise would look dark.

Taos Plateau

Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument’s terrain has been shaped by volcanic activity. Within the Rio Grande Rift, tectonic plates moved apart, creating an opening where volcanoes formed and eventually filed the depression. This resulted in Taos Plateau, an expense of basalt flows capped by dormant volcanoes. Since the portion of the monument covering the Taos Plateau is much larger than the skinny portion along the Rio Grande River, I spent quite a bit of time there driving unmarked dirt roads to see what I could find. This doesn’t always yield interesting scenes, and I found that compared to the rest of the monument, there wasn’t much there, both in terms of sights and facilities. That is a place where a sky energized by clouds such as those found during the southwest summer monsoon would greatly help. Beyond the views over vast sage flats, the best I could do is to locate a small butte, not too far from the road, where the rocks, desert plants, and the slightly higher viewpoint helped with the sense of depth, leading to omnipresent Ute Mountain, a dormant volcano rising over 10,000ft to form the highest point in the monument.

More photos of Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument.

Postscript

The main challenge I faced during my visit was not the season. Why did I mention accessibility so repeatedly? On the first morning, shortly after making the obligatory photographs from the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, I made a reaching motion the wrong way and twisted my lower back. The pain was intense enough that I considered going home immediately but then considered that I would not be able to take a commercial flight with luggage in my condition. Just getting from standing next to the car (in sub-freezing weather) to sitting on the driver’s seat or vice-versa would sometimes take several careful minutes. If the terrain was not perfectly even, walking more than a few dozen yards proved difficult. It wasn’t just mobility, using photography gear was also problematic. Since I could not bend enough to retrieve gear in my camera backpack, I had to mostly forego lens changes in favor of my trusty 24-105. Using my tripod that extends to 52 inches, meaning that I had to bend slightly, so I photographed hand-held.

All of this made me understand better and sympathize with the plight of those who are limited by their medical conditions, something that is easy to forget when one is climbing mountains. On the flipside, despite of all my temporary limitations, I soldiered on, and was able to make the photographs (only those from the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge precede the injury) that illustrate this article. So it is possible to step out of one’s car and depict seemingly wild scenes – the seasonal lack of traffic certainly helped. To be frank, I initially hesitated to reveal that story because I thought it would not fit with my image of a wilderness photographer, but eventually thought the greater lesson could provide some encouragement. Did you find the images any different from my usual output, and would you have guessed their roadside status?

Two iconic ruins in Bears Ears National Monument

Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon have the most famous massive multi-room Ancestral Puebloan ruins in the Southwest. However, when it comes to smaller structures, in addition to harboring the highest concentration of them anywhere, Bears Ears National Monument’s Cedar Mesa area is home to possibly the two most iconic of them: House of Fire and Fallen Roof Ruin.

One of the main things that draw me to those ancient structures is how they harmonize with their natural environment. Although both structures are well-preserved, what makes each of them distinctive and iconic is the roof of the rock alcove in which they are built, rather than the building itself. The trailheads are a 45 minute drive from each other so that a half-day visit to both would be possible, however, I do not recommend it since the optimal time to photograph is about the same, and you cannot be at both places at the same time. The two structures face west. In the early morning or late afternoon, they are in the shade, without reflected light, which makes the light flat and dull. In the afternoon, the sun reaches them partly, creating extreme contrast at unwanted spots. It is only from the mid to late morning that sunlight reaches in the canyon close enough without shining directly on the structure, casting a soft and warm glow into the alcoves. Reflected light is the main ingredient for many of the great compositions on the Colorado Plateau. The similarities stop there, though, as otherwise my experience was quite different.

House on Fire

House on Fire ruin is the most popular and easy to access of the two. Like many other classic compositions, it was popularized by the great photographer David Muench, and is now the most photographed in Cedar Mesa. The ruin, located in Mule Canyon, is included in the reduced boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument. The trailhead is just 0.3 miles off UT-95 (19.5 miles west from US-191, 9 miles east from UT-261), and after a straightforward 20 minutes hike in the shallow canyon, the structure is found about 25 feet above the canyon floor on your right (37.543900 109.74605). When I was there, there were many cars at the trailhead, and many hikers on the trail. Some did not seem to realize what makes House on Fire special until I suggested that they stand in the shade and look at the alcove’s roof.


A


B


C

Fallen Roof Ruin

Fallen Roof Ruin is as iconic but less popular, probably because access requires a bit more effort. For the entire duration of my visit, since leaving the pavement, I didn’t see any other person. The trailhead, which is much smaller, requires traveling 3.5 miles on the unpaved Cigarette Springs Road (13 miles south of the intersection of UT-261/UT-95). In November, I was able to drive my Prius, but I could imagine the road becoming difficult to pass in wet weather. The hike is not much longer, but more complicated. You first hike on the top of a forested mesa before dropping into a larger canyon. Laurent Martres described a route via a secondary canyon, but since his visit, the main trail appears to continue further on the mesa and drop directly into the main canyon, which is quite large and deep. It is not obvious to identify the landmarks referred to in the descriptions, and the structure is quite high, maybe 150 feet, above the canyon floor. It took me a while to spot it since it was in the shade (37.396335 109.872445).

The Fallen Roof Ruin is not included in the new proposed boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument. I have described in a previous post some of the lands stripped of protections in Bears Ears National Monument. From an archeological point of view, the crown jewel of Bears Ears was clearly Cedar Mesa, including Grand Gulch, which had the densest population in North America before the arrival of non-native settlers. Almost all of Cedar Mesa was excluded from the new boundaries. Although the most iconic of them is the Fallen Roof Ruin, it is a place where you can find cliff dwellings and other structures around each corner.


1


2


3


4


5

Both ruins allow for multiple compositions. Even from an almost identical viewpoint, like in those images of the Fallen Roof Ruin, how much of the alcove’s roof is included changes the image quite a bit. I’d appreciate it if you would let me know which ones you prefer, and maybe why. If you don’t see the window below, click here.

2019 in Review, Favorites, and Happy New Year

2019 was an eclectic year bookended by two new national parks. In between, I visited several national monuments and resumed international travel. Links below point to blog posts with more images and details.

in February, Indiana Dunes became the 61st national park. This was a challenging time for me, since not only it was the middle of winter in a cold place, but also I had to literally stop the printing presses for Treasured Lands as I assumed for the fist time the responsibilities of a publisher. However, I was glad to have seen the park in winter because of the amazing shelf ice that forms on the shore of Lake Michigan.

In April, I rented a Jeep for a tour in the Southwest to visit a number of locations requiring off-road driving not possible with my own vehicle. Those included the incredible White Pocket, and Little Finland, from which I could have easily have picked a favorite photo. However, Coyote Buttes South stood out because the image was so improbable: I went hiking in the rain, in a place I had not been to before full of nook and cranies, and it wasn’t until the last minute, before we would turn around, that I discovered that particular angle on the formation called the Third Wave.

Parashant National Monument ranked as one of the most remote and wild locations I have visited in the lower 48 states, with some tracks requiring a specialty vehicle. One of the rewards for driving 90 miles one way to Twin Point was to car-camp right at the rim of the Grand Canyon and have the place to ourselves.

In May, I returned to Asia, for the first time since 2013, on the occasion of an exhibit in Ningbo. While stays in the largest city in the world (Shanghai) and in ancient Chinese villages were memorable, the place that I had been eyeing for a long time were the mythical Huangshan (Yellow) Mountains.

In June, when I visited Cascade-Siskyou National Monument, although those mountains are by comparison entirely obscure, I was pleased to be back to the basics of narrow uncrowded trails and fun rock scrambles, amidst abundant greenery and wildflowers.

In July, we had our second long-haul family trip of the year. This was the first time my children had traveled to France, and the first time I had returned in a decade. In the meanwhile, the cities have stepped up their game for summer tourism, offering all kind of cultural shows. During the “Nuits Lumieres” of Bourges, blue light, like the Ariane’s thread, leads the visitor through scenes and music in the historic city.

My favorite season to travel is autumn, so after spending September at home because of an accident, it was a treat be in New England in October to photograph the eastern fall foliage colors, especially in such a quiet and relaxed environment as Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

I spent even less time than last year in the national parks, with only quick visits to Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon, Capitol Reef, and Zion. Besides the new parks, my most substantial national park visit was to Acadia. The timing was just right for this night photograph.

In November, I went back where I left off in April, but this time with my own vehicle. Two years ago, concluding an unprecedented review, President Trump ordered the size of two national monuments in Utah dramatically reduced. Grand Staircase Escalante was possibly the crown jewell of national monuments, whereas Bears Ears represented an unique healing opportunity as the first native-driven national monument. There are so many wonders stripped of protections, but this photograph was so improbable, not only because of the location, but also because I looked for it by night and had to use artificial lighting.

I was not planning to travel in December, but White Sands became the 62nd national park, and I found myself packing in a hurry again just before a holiday to go and photograph a place with sand dunes. And although the park is located quite close to Mexico, surprisingly it was quite cold – again. Nevertheless, I went backpacking in a bid to be the first to photograph the new national park.

If you’ve read so far, thanks again for looking. I wish you a Happy New Year 2020 full of happiness, health, creativity, and success. My sincere thanks for your continuing readership and interest in my photography.

The First Photographs of White Sands National Park?

On Friday, December 20, 2019, as White Sands National Monument was redesignated White Sands National Park, I was one of the few visitors inside the park. This ensured that I would be the first to photograph all 62 national parks, and possibly the first to make a photograph in White Sands National Park.

White Sands National Monument is the most visited National Park Service site in New Mexico, receiving around half a million visitors each year. This translates to 1370 per day, so you may wonder how it is possible that there were only a few visitors inside the park. The answer has to do with the fact that White Sands is an unusual park, surrounded by military lands including an active missile range. This results in tighter restrictions than in most other national park service sites. White Sands is essentially day use, opening around sunrise, and closing about an hour after sunset, with no campgrounds. Backcountry camping is allowed but limited to ten designated sites. Competition for those sites can be fierce, with aspiring campers lining up right at park opening time. However, when I inquired at the visitor on Wednesday, all the sites were still open. The possible reason? Although daytime temperatures were quite a pleasant sweatshirt weather, nighttime temperatures were forecasted to plunge into the 10s, a difference of 50 degrees F. When I returned to my car in the morning, I found an almost full one-gallon water jug frozen solid. I had something to drink in the morning only because I put my water bottle inside my sleeping bag.

The military neighbors are also one of the factors that made it possible for the site to be redesignated so quickly. The redesignation bill included a land swap between the military and the National Park Service, and as such it was eligible to be included in the Defense Authorization Act for the fiscal year 2020. A frequent way for relatively inconsequential bills to pass in Congress is to attach themselves to bigger bills. The Defense Authorization Act sets next year’s military spending, which accounts for more than half of all federal government (discretionary) spending – too much? That’s pretty big, and also includes pet projects such as the Space Force. It was must-pass legislation, especially since failure to meet a midnight deadline on Friday, December 20, could have resulted in another government shutdown.

On Tuesday, December 17, as I flew into Albuquerque, Congress had passed the 2020 Defense Authorization Act and sent it to the President’s desk for signing. I would spend the next few days in White Sands National Monument, taking a break from hiking and photographing only for an interview with a reporter (see the news article in the Albuquerque Journal>: Photographer captures newest national park, or the original article with more photos), all the while waiting for the signature. Each time I stopped at the visitor center, I would ask “Did you become a national park yet?” only to be told by the ranger on duty that the president had not signed the bill into law and that it was unclear when he would do it, although time was running tight. At last, on Friday, December 20, the ranger informed me that the signature was expected by 5:30 PM (7:30 EST) that day. I obtained a backcountry camping permit so I could linger in the park. There were more campers than on Wednesday, probably because of the warmer weather and week-end, yet fewer than half of the sites were claimed. There were probably half a dozen people that evening in the park. I don’t know if and when they took photos, and I can only tell when I did.

Backcountry camping in White Sands is a strictly regulated affair. The NPS requires campers to set their tents before dark, and prohibits hiking at night, because it would be so easy to get disoriented. When I mentioned to the ranger that I carried two different GPS devices, she warned that GPS isn’t reliable in the park because the nearby air force base is experimenting with GPS scrambling.

To get to the campsite, I hiked on the Backcountry Trail, a 2-mile loop which is marked with poles sticking out of the sand, placed at intervals regular enough that one can go from one pole to the next.

I had picked the closest campsite, #9, barely more than half a mile from the trailhead. Camping is not on sand dunes, but rather on the interdunal depressions. On this sandy landscape, I expected to be able to easily drive stakes in, but the ground turned out to be surprisingly hard.

As my Stephenson tent isn’t free-standing, I ended up having to use my tripod as a mallet. Since the legs are not heavy enough, I had to hammer the stakes in by hitting them with the ball head. At $400, it makes for an expensive, yet delicate hammerhead, but at least it wasn’t my other $1,000+ head I was using. This was quite a test of how well the ballhead is built, and the over-engineered RRS didn’t seem to fare any worse save for additional scratches.

After setting up camp, I wandered around to photograph. I had to walk out quite a distance to find a high dune without any footprints. The sun set behind the mountains at 4:45 PM. But its disappearance is only the beginning at White Sands. After the sun goes down, the white sands started to reflect the delicate colors of the sky.

I set the large format camera and started to expose some film before 5:30 PM. Relying on the information from the ranger, I thought that I had maybe made the first photographs in White Sands National Park, and affirmed so:

Back to camp, while I had been waiting for water to boil on the stove, I had photographed my campsite at 6:17 PM.

I had taken my time eating dinner, since the sky wasn’t dark enough yet to photograph the stars. Afterwards, I went looking for night photographs. The ranger had told me it was OK to walk a bit as long as I kept my tent in sight. To be able to easily spot it, I had left a camping lantern inside. I walked out of the depression and up the dune at 7:54 PM.

At 8:20 PM, I had returned to two Yucca plants that I had spotted earlier in the afternoon. Browsing photographs of the park, you’d think Yuccas are everywhere, but in the area where the backcountry campsites are located, they are quite sparse.

It is only when I returned home that I was able to pinpoint the exact signing time, beyond “the evening of Friday”. Regardless, I had been there photographing. However, the first photograph made in White Sands National Park is maybe not an image one would have expected. And then there is the early morning (images in this post are not in sequence) when White Sands first opened as a national park…

See more photos of White Sands National Park

Lands Stripped of Protections in Bears Ears National Monument

If you thought the reduction in size of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument was bad, wait until you look at Bears Ears National Monument, which lost even more protections that same day of December 4, 2017. See some of the vast landscapes to be exclused from the monument.

The proclamation of Bears Ears National Monument by President Obama less than a year before, on December 28, 2016, was the last land conservation statement of his presidency and maybe his boldest and most significant. I learned from a conversation with NPS director Jarvis that this was not a coincidence. President Clinton’s proclamation of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument during his first term had caused multiple difficulties. Reaction to Bears Ears National Monument was swift. Originally stood at 2112 square miles, it was ordered shrunk to 315 square miles by the following president, a reduction of 85%. The disrespect towards indigenous people in gutting the monument against their objections was even more troubling than the scale of the reduction.

Bears Ears National Monument is above all a cultural landscape that had been populated millennia before there was a state of Utah. The numerous structures and artifacts hidden in the labyrinth of canyons and mesas are estimated to surpass in number and density those of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, and everything I wrote there applies here as well. The tribes hold the land sacred, not only because their ancestors are buried there, but also because they continue to find physical and spiritual healing in the land. Five tribes have connections to this area: the Hopi, Navajo, Mountain Ute, Zuni, and Ute. As you can imagine, they have generations-old differences, however, they agreed to set them apart to form the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and petition together President Obama for the establishment of Bears Ears National Monument. This was the first native-driven national monument, and for the first time, its proclamation assigned shared management responsibilities between the tribes and the federal government. As such Bears Ears National Monument was a significant step in righting and healing the wrongs stemming from the settlement of the American West.


Map by Stephanie Smith, Grand Canyon Trust, reproduced with permission. Despite their name, the Grand Canyon Trust has been very active in advocating for the national monuments under attack. Visit their Bears Ears page for information and frequent updates.

Bears Ears National Monument was four times larger than adjacent Canyonlands National Park. I have only begun to scratch its surface with respect to archeological sites. More about cliffs dwellings will follow. For now, I will focus on some sites tentatively removed from the original monument boundaries from where you can contemplate the region’s vast landscape.

Needles Overlook

Having just had a tire flat fixed in Moab, I was eager to stay on the pavement for at least the rest of the day. After miles of driving on the lonely flats of Hatch Point Plateau, I arrived at the Needles Overlook, located near the north end of the monument. Contrarily to what I expected from the name, it wasn’t a single overlook, but rather a rim trail on a peninsula connecting several viewpoints. It overlooked a wilderness of rock 1500 feet below, like Island in the Sky in Canyonlands National Park. The views encompassed more than 300 degrees, extending to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park and the Colorado River, and including among lands to lose protections Lockhart Basin and parts of Indian Creek. Unlike at Island in the Sky, save for a couple of other visitors, I had the place to myself at sunset. By default, the best time to photograph a place is when its main features are front-lit. Therefore, sunset is the preferred time for photography there, since the cliffs are facing the west. They would be in the shade of the plateau at sunrise. Nevertheless, since it was almost a full moon night, I thought it would be worth it to hang around a bit and see how the moonrise would illuminate the landscape. A near full-moon night isn’t good for photographing the stary sky, but it offers the opportunity to photograph the equivalent of a sunset and a sunrise in a short interval. As I expected, at moonrise, there were too many shadows of the rim projected on the plateau. A low sun (or moon) isn’t always the best. Despite the cold, I waited for the moon to rise in the sky so that those shadows would delineate rather than totally cover the terrain at the base of the cliff. There are two more overlooks further north, Canyonlands Overlook and Anticline Overlook, but since they require a long drive on unpaved roads, I passed them over that day.

Moki Dugway and Muley Point

At the southern end of Bears Ears National Monument, driving south on Hwy 261, you see ominous signs discouraging long vehicles and warning that the road is going to turn unpaved and steep. However, although that section, called the Moki Dugway, features 180 degrees turns cut into the cliff, I found it well-graded and easily passable by any vehicle. The vista from there is immense, extending from Valley of the Gods to Monument Valley, but the features were a bit too distant for photography. That’s why in the two following photographs, I’ve included the cliff.

At the top of the Moki Dugway, a smaller unpaved road leads to Muley Point, where you find closer terrain to photograph, including the cliffs that form the edge of Cedar Mesa, and the meandering canyons of the San Juan River. More than twenty years ago, after a beautiful sunset, I found a superb camping spot right at the edge of the cliffs. When Outdoor Photographer Magazine included my image from that spot in an 2013 article profiling me (PDF) I thought that they should have used an image from a national park instead. But in retrospect, it almost looks like an anticipation of the directions I would be taking, extending my work to other public lands.

Valley of the Gods

A sandy plain dotted with sandstone buttes and spires, Valley of the Gods offers landscapes reminiscent of iconic Monument Valley. While the rock formations are admittedly not as impressive, I didn’t find the commercialization, tour groups, and streams of cars often present at Monument Valley. In addition, while Monument Valley, being located on Navajo Nation lands, is heavily regulated with limitations on where or when you can visit, you can come and go as you please in Valley of the Gods, and even find plenty of places to camp for free although there is no official designated campground. Without established trails, you can roam freely cross-country. I did not have any trouble driving the 17-mile unpaved road that traverses Valley of the Gods in my Prius, and found the most spectacular section to be right in the mid-point of that road. Entering the valley in the late afternoon, I saw only a few other cars on the entire road. The quiet, solitude, and freedom to explore make a drive through Valley of the Goods a memorable experience.

Wonders Stripped of Protections in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument

Grand Staircase Escalante is arguably the crown jewel of national monuments, however, the Trump administration wants to reduce it to half its size. Follow me on a tour of six of the most remarkable areas of the monument to lose their protection.

When designated in 1996, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, stretching over 2938 square miles of Southern Utah from Bryce Canyon National Park to Capitol Reef National Park, was by far the largest national monument in the contiguous United States. Everything, including protected lands, is bigger in Alaska, but only Misty Fjords National Monument (3584 square miles), part of a quartet of national monuments established in Alaska in 1978, was larger. In the contiguous United States, the next largest national monuments had a size one order of magnitude smaller. They were Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (517 square miles), Dinosaur National Monument (328 square miles), and White Sands National Monument (224 square miles). Those are respectable sizes even for a national park. In fact, when White Sands National Monument becomes White Sands National Park, likely next week, it will be the 35th largest national park, between Zion National Park (229 square miles) and Redwood National Park (176 square miles).

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument had also the distinction of being the first national monument managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Unlike the National Park Service, whose mandate is preservation and compatible recreational uses, BLM properties are multi-use, which means that without additional protections, pretty much anything goes: logging, drilling, mining, cattle grazing, off-road driving, you name it. As a national monument, many of those activities were restricted, but someone wanted them authorized again. Concluding an unprecedented “review” in 2017, President Trump ordered the monument’s size to be reduced almost by half, to 1568 square miles. At first, it may look like Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument started a new trend of huge, BLM-managed, national monuments that justified that “review”, but the Antiquities Act had been used in the early 20th century to designate large areas such as the Grand Canyon (1,902 square miles) or Death Valley (5,269 square miles) that subsequently became national parks.

The lands excluded from the monument remain federal lands under BLM jurisdiction, but they lose the protections provided by the national monument designation. Although the president’s authority to shrink a national monument is unclear, and as a consequence several lawsuits are pending, the BLM has issued forth with a new management plan that prioritizes resource extraction over the protection of natural resources. As suggested by the monument’s size, those resources are tremendous. The monument provides a nearly complete snapshot of the Late Cretaceous Period, from about 95 million years ago to the extinction of the Dinosaurs. The Kaiparowits Plateau, at the center of the monument, has been the scene of many discoveries in paleontology with more than 20 new species of dinosaurs found there.

However, there is no need to be a scientist to appreciate the value of the land. First, its space and wildness. The area is the last region in the contiguous United States to have been mapped. Before the 1870s, maps of the area just indicated a blank space. The Escalante is the last river in the contiguious U.S. to receive a name, and the Henry Mountains are its mountain range last named. Then, there is the diversity of the terrain, forming some of the country’s best slickrock areas. Every possible type of geological wonder that you can think of is there: canyons large and small, badlands, hoodoos, caprocks, natural arches. Moreover, those count amongst the most remarkable of their kind that I have encountered, making them true natural wonders. It is no surprise that many name Grand Staircase Escalante as their favorite national monument. In the rest of this article, I illustrate that point by taking you on a quick tour of some of the areas to possibly lose the national monument protection.


Map by Stephanie Smith, Grand Canyon Trust, reproduced with permission. Despite their name, the Grand Canyon Trust has been very active in advocating for the national monuments under attack. Visit their Grand Staircase-Escalante page for information and frequent updates.

Paria Badlands

There are many areas of badlands in the southwest, but the Paria Badlands are the most colorful I have seen. They can be seen along the Old Paria Road off US 89. Although unpaved and rough in places, the road is passable by regular cars driven carefully. Fifteen minutes after sunset, the colors became surreally intense.

Paria Toadstools

Given its size and wildness, many of the attractions in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument are quite remote, however, the Paria Toadstools are very easy to access. No driving on unpaved roads is required, as the trailhead is just off US 89 between Kanab and Page, and it is only about half a mile along a wash to the impressive sandstone spires supporting massive boulders on their heads.

Wahweap Hoodoos

The formations first named by Michael Fatali “Towers of Silence”, display a particular elegance thanks to their slander white spires. However, the Wahweap Hoodoos offer more to explore, including pedestal rocks of diverse shapes and beautifully textured badlands. Although hiking in the dark to get there at sunrise felt a bit of a slog, the 9 miles round-trip off-trail hike is easier than it sounds, as it takes place entirely along a flat and wide dry wash. There was no light at sunrise, but that did not diminish the appeal of this special place.

Zebra Slot Canyon

With its pillars, encrusted moqui stones, and multicolored striations that inspired its name, Zebra is one of the most unique slot canyons I have seen. While the canyon itself would still be within the new Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument boundaries, its access trail (5 miles round-trip from a trailhead along the unpaved Hole-in-the-Rock road) would be completely outside. The canyon was so narrow that I could not squeeze in with my camera backpack. After awkward maneuvers such as holding my pack above my head or chimneying the slippery and steep walls, I eventually left the pack in a corner, heading out with only a camera and tripod. The later was necessary because focus-stacking (blending several frames focussed at a different distance) was the only way to get enough depth of field with the unforgiving 60MP sensor of my camera, even f22 was not enough.

Dry Fork Coyote Gulch

Many consider Coyote Gulch to be one of the finest desert hikes in the world. The lower part of Coyote Gulch is located in the NPS-managed Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, however the upper part of the Gulch is part of the areas of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument to lose protections. The Dry Fork of Dry Fork Coyote Gulch includes 4 beautiful slot canyons: Dry Fork Narrows, Peek-A-Boo, Spooky, and Brimstone. Peek-A-Boo is distinguished by a number of arches. The largest are close to the entrance. When I arrived in the late morning, the sunlight was already reaching the top of an arch, creating a bright spot there. However, the reflected light created a beautiful glow at the bottom of the arches, which is what I framed in my composition looking upstream. Moving further up the canyon, I found a tiny arch that added interest to a beautifully sculptured section. Returning in the mid-afternoon, sunlight didn’t reach any more into the canyon. Looking upstream, there was not enough reflected light to separate the arches, but looking downstream the contrast created by reflected light, shade, and sky worked well to that effect. While other canyons are narrow at the bottom but open up at the top, many sections of Spooky had tall narrow walls, and as a result, even at midday, it was very dark. That, combined with the knoby texture of its walls made it truly deserving of its name!

Forty-mile Ridge

I got up two hours before sunrise, planning to visit Sunset Arch for moonset, which on that day happened less than one hour before sunrise. I was hoping for the arch to be illuminated by the setting moon, which projects a soft, warm light like a sunset (although the eye cannot see its color well), as the eastern horizon would be colored by the pre-dawn light. However, hiking in the dark, I began questioning my directions when after half an hour of cross-country hiking, I did not see anything other than featureless sandy terrain. How could such a distinctive arch rise out of this featureless and unremarkable landscape? Eventually, the sand gave way to sandstone slabs, but the arch itself did not come into view until I turned a corner and reached its span. By then, I was late by maybe ten minutes, and the sky was already too bright compared to the moonlight. Instead, I pulled out a bright LCD light panel that I used to add a bit of glow to the western side of the arch, as a substitute for moonlight. After photographing the moonset and sunrise through the arch, it is only when I looked back at the arch from a distance that I realized that even finding it in the dark was not a given.

The day before, after 40 miles of dirt road driving on Hole-in-the-Rock road, I had parked at the Forty Mile water tank for the night. With the reduction in size of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument leaving the entire road of out it, there are plans to pave it to promote large vehicle travel. That I was able to make it there with my Prius demonstrates that keeping the remote and wild character of this place intact by not paving the road would not prevent determined fellows to visit, even with the flimsiest of vehicles.

More images from Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument

Road tripping off pavement with the Prius Prime

My car wrecked last September was a Impreza, the most fuel-efficient Subaru. I replaced it with a Toyota Prius Prime. Read about the reasoning behind my choice, and how it worked for an adventurous road trip in the West during which I camped in the car, spent much time driving backcountry unpaved roads and had to deal with a flat tire.

Environmental impacts

I had been driving Subarus for over twenty years. Since I appreciated their AWD handling combined with decent fuel economy, my first instinct was to buy another one. Compared to 4WD trucks such as the Toyota 4Runner (mpg city/hwy 16/19) they have a significantly better fuel economy (typically 26/33), yet get you to most places. However, just a few weeks before the crash, a post by photographer Stephen Bay made a strong impression on me. He pointed out to an eye-opening number: burning a gallon of gas results in 25 lbs of CO22 – a primary climate-change agent. To put that fully in perspective, it means that if you drive a car with a fuel economy of 25 mpg, each mile results in a volume of 8.5 square feet (64 gallons) CO22. Given Galen Rowell’s environmental advocacy, his choice of a Chevy Suburban had always vaguely perplexed me, but the numbers seem to make the concern more concrete.

Stephen’s prescription was to travel less. Indeed, after a lifetime of photographing around the globe, Paul Strand decided to concentrate on the beauty of his own garden, creating a body of work that was eventually curated by Joel Meyerowitz into the book The Garden at Orgeval. It opens with the quote

The artist’s world is limitless. I can be found anywhere, far from where he lives or a few feet away. It is always on his doorstep.
It is possible that I will end up following Strand’s footsteps, but frankly, I am not at that stage yet. The diversity of the natural world is what inspired me to embark on a journey that resulted in a full-time career in photography. I still have a few destination-based projects that I hope can make a positive contribution. Thinking only of impact, nobody would have children. Each of us deserves to seek our happiness, including going places, but we have to do our reasonable best considering our circumstances to limit our impact. Given the high impact of SUVs, I wondered if I even needed a Subaru or if I could make a few more compromises in convenience.

Prius Prime as the cleanest vehicle

My quest for the most fuel-efficient vehicle in the U.S. (*) led me to the Toyota Prius Prime, which is the plug-in version of the venerable Prius. The Prius first went on sale in 1997, and I find it surprising that two decades later, it still has not been surpassed in terms of fuel economy and emissions. Wait a minute, emissions? Don’t modern EVs produce zero emissions, unlike the Prius in long-range use?

The catch is that in the U.S., only about 15% of electricity is generated from zero-emission sources (including nuclear), while 85% is generated by burning fossil fuels, so when driving an EV you end up using indirectly fossil fuels. And a lot of it, because burning fossil fuels to generate electricity has only an average efficiency of about 35%, the rest is lost as heat due to various thermal, mechanical, and electric limitations. Then there is an additional loss of 10% in transmission lines. This means that for each kWh of electricity delivered to the customer, you have to burn (1/.35) * (1/.90) * 0.85 = 2.7 kWh worth of fossil fuels. Tesla is the EV leader. Their most efficient car is the Model 3. It consumes 26 KWh for 100 miles. Therefore, it indirectly burns 0.26 * 2.7 = 0.702 kWh per mile in fossil fuels. The Prius Prime gets (at least) 54 miles per gallon in hybrid mode. If we assume that the energy content of gasoline is 36 kWh/gallon, then the fossil fuel energy burned by the Prius Prime is 36 / 54 = 0.666 kWh per mile, actually less than the Tesla. This seat of the pants calculation doesn’t attempt to evaluate the carbon footprint of driving either vehicle – a herculean task, but it does suggests that in terms of fossil fuels burned, a more efficient gas car can be better than a slightly less efficient EV. Of course, for practical purposes, there are still not that many charging stations outside of the country’s urban areas. Unlike a pure EV, the Prius Prime can run on gas for a range of 600+ miles just like the Prius.

The Prius Prime adds to the Prius the ability to charge the battery from an electric plug, with an autonomy of 27 miles, which is enough for most of our daily uses in town. In EV mode, the Prime consumes 21 kWh for 100 miles, and therefore burns 0.21* 2.7 = 0.567 kWh of gas per mile. Running it in EV mode is (0.666 – 0.567) / 0.666 = 15% cleaner than in hybrid mode. This makes the Prius Prime the cleanest mid-size vehicle. What about economics? If we use as a baseline a very high PGE residential electricity rate of $0.20/kWh (twice the national average – our actual rate isn’t easy to evaluate because of the complicated solar contract), the cost for a full charge is 0.2 * 6.7kwh = $1.34. Since a charge gets the same mileage as half a gallon, EV driving is cheaper than hybrid if gas costs more than $2.68/gallon. Those are not huge differences, but it adds up. I was also intrigued by EV driving, and I indeed found out the car to be smoother, quieter and more responsive in EV mode.

(*) The circumstances are vastly different in other countries. For instance France gets 90% of their electric power from nuclear and renewable sources, diesel is less expensive than gasoline and available in small cars.

Sleeping in the Prius Prime

One of the first things that I do when considering a new car is to check if it offers enough room for sleeping. It is a great time saver not to have to find a suitable camping spot and not to have to pitch a tent, also an uncomfortable proposition in windy or rainy weather now that I am in my mid-fifties.

To the amusement of the salesman, I promptly folded the second row of seats and climbed inside the car. After pushing forward the passenger seat, there was enough space to lay flat (I am 6 feet), but there were two issues. First, the space behind the passenger seat had to be filled up to create a long enough surface. As explained in the last paragraph, a spare wheel did the job. Second, the Prime has a larger battery that adds about 5 inches of height to the cargo floor. When you fold the second row of seats, they are about 5 inches lower than the cargo space at the rear. My simple solution is to cut a piece of foam to make up for the difference. After laying a camping mattress on top, I got a cushy and almost perfectly flat surface.

However, on my first night in the field, I found out that in such a sedan-like low profile vehicle, those 5 inches of lost space are quite significant. It did not leave much headroom, and it took me a few days to get used to the contortions necessary to get into bed.

In retrospect, for road trips, I would have preferred the newly released Prius AWD that has also a bit more cargo space since it doesn’t have the large plug-in battery. However, even if the gains in economy and environmental impact of aren’t that significant, the Prius Prime is the (slightly) better vehicle at home, where I nowadays spend most of my time, and the compromises in comfort are still acceptable.

Off pavement driving

In most national parks, you can see all the major sights by driving on paved roads or dirt roads that are well-graded enough for a regular vehicle. I have found most roads marked as “high-clearance recommended” easily driven with a regular car, while most of those marked as “high clearance required” can be driven with such a car with care in good conditions.

In his excellent guidebooks, Laurent Martres rates road difficulty on a scale of 0 to 5, the later reserved for dangerous technical roads. In the past, I had driven several roads rated 3 with a Subaru Legacy, for example, the backcountry roads of Capitol Reef National Park. While AWD provided better handling, it was not necessary. My 1995 Legacy came before Subaru started to steadily increase the ground clearance of their vehicles. Despite its low 4.7 inches ground clearance, I never got stuck, so I figured out that the Prius, with 4.9 inches clearance, would serve most of my needs. I could always fly and rent a more rugged vehicle when needed. Flying in economical ways burns about the equivalent of a 50 mpg car, so contrarily to some assertions, flying often results in fewer emissions per person than driving.

On that maiden road trip, I spent much of my time in little developed national monuments with mostly unpaved roads. The least capable vehicles I encountered were Subarus, and nobody drove sedans, let alone Priuses or Teslas common in my neighborhood in San Jose. In Gold Butte National Monument, everybody else drove a full 4WD, the majority of them Jeeps. Last spring, when I got to the Glyphs area there with a rented Jeep, the road at first appeared iffy enough that I engaged 4WD. It turned out that the Prius made it to the trailhead (rated 3). I was more worried on portions of the Hole-in-the-Rock and branching roads in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (also rated 3). A nerve-wracking moment happened when as I was trying to keep momentum negotiating a sandy curve, an 18 wheeler semi barreled in the opposite direction, seemingly out of nowhere. In the end, although my margin of error was smaller than if I had driven a Subaru, I got to several trailheads where nobody else came, and I did not get stuck. However, it could be that I got too confident and drove a bit too fast to beat the vibrations from the washboard on the way back on Hole-in-the-Rock road.

The spare wheel

A not so recent trend has been to replace the full-size tire with a “donut” spare tire of reduced dimensions. They provide savings to car manufacturers, and also to drivers in terms of space and weight. As an illustration of those savings, unlike the 2018 Prius Two, the 2018 Prius Two Eco did not include a spare tire nor rear windshield wiper. The weight and aerodynamic savings alone resulted in fuel savings of 3 miles per gallon.

The downside is that a donut tire is designed only to get you to a repair facility. In remote areas, that it would do the job is not a given. Most of these tires are good only for about 70 miles, and their smaller size could be problematic off the ​pavement. The time when I came closest to getting suck with a Subaru came on Mount Washington, on the top of a mountain in a remote corner of Nevada’s Great Basin National Park where I did not see a single other person for three days. Back in 2003, the unpaved road to the summit was not even marked on the official national park map. When I went back to the car after a hike to the bristlecone pine groves, I found one of the tires was flat. Fortunately, the 2000 Subaru Forester had a full-size spare, and after exchanging the wheel, I was able to come back to civilization. I doubt a donut would have been enough.

In many cars, the donut is even eliminated altogether and replaced by a “tire repair kit” consisting essentially of a can of tire goop – its use will ruin the tire sensor ​and require an expensive repair. On the Prius Prime, and most other plug-in hybrid cars, this is necessary to make space for a sizeable battery. The owners I talked to did not have any concern about that. However, a few days after buying the car, I shopped for a spare wheel, finding a new one on eBay​ for a third of the price asked by dealerships. It is heavy (45 lbs) and takes quite a bit of room, but fit perfectly and gets out of the way in the ​space at the back of the passenger seat, a solution that works as long as you do not need the entire second row of seats.

I drove mostly unpaved roads for a week without incidents. Half an hour after getting back to the pavement from the Hole-in-the-Rock road, I parked at the Escalante River Trailhead. I went looking for the Hundred Handprints at dusk, and photographed them at night. On the road again on Utah Hwy 12, after less than a half-mile​ of driving, I recognized the disheartening sound of a flat tire. Since I was not familiar with the car, it took me almost an hour to locate the tools and change the wheel. I then drove to the Capitol Reef National Park campground. During the entire two hours and half since the tire flat, I didn’t see a single car on the road, nor at any point did I get cellular service. The next morning, when I asked the rangers at the visitor center for the best place to get my tire fixed and possibly replaced, they directed me to Moab, a two hours and half drive. All out of range for a donut tire. The irony is that I was better off with my Prius than I likely would have been with a current Subaru, as they now come with a donut tire in the U.S. – a questionable choice for vehicles marketed as rugged, but one that I might have contented myself with. Even though the Colorado Plateau is a popular destination, one needs to come prepared, and proper preparation overcomes equipment limitations.

A Crash and Thanksgiving

Today is a day to remember what we should be thankful for. While I have many people and things to be grateful for both in my personal and professional life, this autumn, I am simply happy to be alive and in good health.

On Sept 30, half an hour after dropping off nine large framed prints for the Blue Marble exhibit in Palo Alto, I headed to a meeting with my book distributor in Berkeley. As I was driving on the left lane, the freeway traffic was dense but fluid. The car in front of me slowed down suddenly, and I braked too. All I remember is a very loud noise in the back, a sharp pain, and the dreadful anticipation of another collision and feeling of helplessness as the car that was drifting out of control. After a few seconds that felt like an eternity, the car came to a stop on the emergency lane, against the wall on the right side of the freeway.

A couple helped me out of the car and I sat at the base of the wall in a daze, my vision blurred not only because I had lost my glasses but also from the shock. It wasn’t long before an ambulance came. It first stopped on the left side of the freeway to load the other driver who appeared to be more injured than me and then took both of us to the emergency room at the Highland Hospital in Oakland. After a few hours and x-rays, I was diagnosed with a sprained ankle (from being hit in the rear?), rib contusions, and released with just ibuprofen pills. Had the prints still be in the car, besides being destroyed, they would likely also have flown around dangerously in the car.

It wasn’t before we came to retrieve possessions from the wreck that I could see it from all angles and realize how severe the accident had been. A towing company had moved the car from the emergency lane to a storage lot. Our insurance agent recommended that I got it out promptly, since those outfits often charge outrageous storage fees, well over a hundred dollars per day. Upon learning the name of the towing company from the police, I was dismayed to see average review on Yelp lower than 2 stars, with most customers describing them as scammers. Fortunately, it turned out that a different company was storing the vehicle. They were professional enough to deal with, although we still had to make a trip to a shady part of Oakland and pay a bill of almost a thousand dollars. We took pictures to establish that the car was a total loss, and instructed the company to dispose of it. David Muench commented that looking at those photos “it seems a miracle” that my injuries were minor.

In the few weeks following the accident, while I was mostly all right sitting or standing, as soon as I laid down, I felt sleep-robbing discomfort, with the worst pain occurring getting in or out of bed. Who would have guessed that such a simple act could be so difficult? September was a key month for an on-going project, and by October, winter would come to northern Montana, but I was in no shape to even walk because of my sprained ankle. Eager to not entirely let the autumn, by far my favorite season, pass by, towards the end of September, I paid a visit to my physical therapist. She cautiously approved of a trip in October, using hiking poles. There were a couple of longer hikes that I wanted to do in Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument and Acadia National Park, but I restrained myself to no more than six miles, and within this limitation, my ankle seemed to hold, so I considered myself recovered.

From the police report, I learned that I had been part of a four-car pile-up. The car that hit me from behind sent me hitting the car in the front before bouncing to the right of the freeway. The impact caused that car to hit the one in front of it. Despite the report placing all the blame on the driver in the rear, and that driver being properly insured, three months after the accident, I had not received even a timeline for compensation, let alone a single cent (Thanks Allstate!). When staying at home, my family could mostly make do with just one car, but this would be out of the question if I was to go on a road trip, since the kids would need to be driven to school while I am gone. Fortunately, we were able to pay cash for a new car, not a given for a pair of artists living in the Silicon Valley – another thing to be thankful for. Its choice, the subject of the next post, may surprise you. In the while, I hope that you have many more reasons to be thankful!

Guide to the Schoodic Peninsula, Acadia National Park’s Quieter Side

Acadia National Park is made of three units, plus a few smaller islands. Most equate the main unit on Mount Desert Island with Acadia National Park. That is an excellent reason to spend time in the two other units: Schoodic Peninsula and Isle au Haut. Being lesser-known, they will offer you quiet, as well as less photographed views. Although technically an island, Mount Desert Island is connected to the mainland by a bridge. Travel to Isle au Haut presents the logistical challenges of a boat crossing. By contrast, the Schoodic Peninsula is the only part of the Park on the mainland, which makes access effortless. Read on to find out about my favorite spots on Acadia National Park’s quieter side.

Orientation

The Schoodic Peninsula is quite compact. To loop entirely around the peninsula is a drive of about 11 miles, of which half are located outside the park, and half are a one-way scenic drive. In addition, there are two short spur roads of interest, to Schoodic Head and Schoodic Point. At the beginning of the loop, and before the one-way section, you will find the recent Schoodic Woods Campground, and a ranger station that serves as a visitor center. It takes about an hour to drive the 44 miles from Bar Harbor to the Schoodic Peninsula. Although the Schoodic Peninsula is readily accessible, as it takes about the same time to drive there from Ellsworth as to Bar Harbor, fewer than 10% of visitors to Acadia National Park make that trip. One afternoon, I wasn’t able to find parking at Jordan Pond, and another evening, the road to Cadillac Mountain was outright closed for “traffic congestion”. But from one hour before sunset, to one hour after sunrise, I saw no more than a couple of other cars on the Schoodic Peninsula. That relaxed and uncrowded atmosphere is a welcome change from the main Park Loop on Mount Desert Island.

Schoodic Loop Road

The main road around the peninsula includes a one-way loop section of about 5.5 miles. It follows closely the shoreline. If you see something of interest, just find a pull-out, park your car, and walk to the shore to make your own discoveries. The loop features a range of orientations, giving you options for sunsets as well as sunrises. The terrain is generally flat, but off-shore, tree-covered islets provide focal points to compositions that can include great slabs of pink granite, boulders, as well as tide pools and beaches. In the following paragraphs, I’ll mention a few highlights along the road.

Ravens Nest

Overall, I find the Schoodic Peninsula reminiscent of the eastern coastal section of Mount Desert Island from Grand Head to Otter Point. Otter Point is a landmark headland that would be difficult to miss, but that is not the case of the most significant headland on the Schoodic Peninsula, despite it being quite impressive. Ravens Nest is not indicated on the official park map, nor is it signed or visible from the road. You don’t happen by chance on that hidden gem, but you have to know of it in advance. Then, finding it is a matter of driving 3.1 mile from the park entrance, and looking for an unpaved and unmarked pullout on the left side of the road with room for just a few cars. The location is marked on Google Maps. Cross the road, and you’ll find a faint, semi-official trail, cordoned in places for resource protection, that leads you in about a hundred yards to the shore. Soon, I arrived at the top of the cliffs and had a choice of several vertiginous viewpoints where one have to exercise the utmost care. The cliffs face the west, so that is an afternoon location. However, my first visit there was at night, timed for moonset. In the dark, the sheer drops were even more intimidating!

Schoodic Head

Unlike Mount Desert Island, the Schoodic Peninsula does not have what are called “mountains” there, and in particular “desert mountains”, meaning peaks with no tree cover at the top. Instead, the highest point on the Schoodic Peninsula, Schoodic Head, is a modest 450 feet above sea level, and covered in dense woods. Three different trails lead there from the main park road, but for quicker access, you can drive to within a few hundred yards to the top via the unpaved Schoodic Head Road. It starts 3.8 miles from the park’s entrance and is unmarked (look for the back of a stop sign on your left) although indicated on the official map. The trail starts on the east side of the parking lot. Views from the summit are blocked by trees, but by continuing further for less than 10 minutes, for maybe a total distance of a half mile from the parking lot, I arrived at a more open spot where I found distant views that I carefully framed with the trees.

West Pond

Besides Ravens Nest, my favorite views on the west side of the Schoodic Peninsula are found shortly after the Schoodic Head turn off. There, trees frame the distant profile of Cadillac Mountain on Mount Desert Island, while the calm surface of the semi-enclosed bay often gives rise to reflections. I’ve photographed at that spot early in the morning and late in the afternoon. The Schoodic Peninsula doesn’t have large lakes like Mount Desert Island, but there are a few ponds in that area.

Schoodic Point

Schoodic Point, reached via a well-marked spur road, is the southern tip of the Schoodic Peninsula. The windy spot, fully exposed to ocean swells, is often a great spot to observe dynamic wave action. If there is none, the extensive rock ledges offer a wealth of textures to check out. Although it would appear that the light is favorable all day, I prefer the late afternoon light there. Besides the Frazer Point picnic area which is considerably less wild-looking, that is about the only spot in the park where I saw other visitors with regularity.

Little Moose Island

If the Schoodic Peninsula is the quieter side of Acadia National Park, then Little Moose Island is the quieter side of the Schoodic Peninsula. On my first trip, I noticed the interesting cobble barrier beach and spent much time exploring the surrounding tide pools, but as the tide was rising, the island itself was not accessible on foot and I did not even think of hiking there. Returning several years later, I had embarked on the popular low tide walk to Bar Harbor Island from Bar Harbor. Signs there warned visitors not to be stranded by the tide, and provided a phone number for a water taxi whose fare was in the hundreds of dollars.

Armed with that experience and a tide app on my phone, I monitored the conditions and determined that it would be possible to walk to the island via a narrow land bridge from about two hours before low tide. I would be able to walk back up to two hours after low tide for a total of four hours on the island. I parked at the Blueberry Hill parking lot, about half a mile after the Schoodic Point junction, and walked west about a third of a mile to the land bridge. There was a small pullout with space for two cars just where it starts. There was a warning sign upon reaching the island, but no cell service was available there, unlike at Bar Harbor Island, so I was on my own. Although the island is only half a mile long, the limited time window of four hours went fast. The absence of an official trail only heightened the sense of adventure, but to protect that delicate environment, I made sure to stay on the existing network of user trails. I discovered on Little Moose Island a bit of a microcosm of the park, with beaches, rock ledges, conifers, and shurbs that turned crimson during the autumn. Just a few hours after walking back to the mainland, I returned to the pullout. Where I was walking, a deep water channel flowed with a swift current. The timing of the tide meant that I had to visit during midday. Looking at the now-inaccessible island I felt privileged to have be able to set foot there.

Night Landscape Capture and Processing Example

Despite being one of the most spectacular spots on the entire coastline of Acadia National Park, Ravens Nest on the Schoodic Peninsula is a little known and unmarked location. I will elaborate in the next article, which will be a location guide. In this article I discuss how I photographed and processed the image using specific techniques for night landscapes.

In night landscape photographs, the main challenge is often that the land is too dark compared to the sky. Conditions have to be right for a single capture to work well at depicting the land and the stars well, and this generally means just the right amount of moonlight. They did align on the day of my visit, Oct 5, 2019. The moon was in its first quarter, the maximum before its light overwhelms the sky. It set at 11:15 PM, well past sunset at 6:09 PM, and astronomical twilight at 7:45 PM. I timed the photograph for about half an hour before moonset. This would allow me to capture the setting moon illuminating the cliffs and the moonset glow on the horizon. Although the eye does not see that color because the light is too dim, moonset projects a warm and soft light just like sunset. Well past astronomical twilight, with that setting quarter moon, although the sky would be brighter than after moonset, the stars would still be very visible.

I would have preferred to photograph at a 14mm focal length, but after coming home from a previous trip, I noticed that all the images I made with my 14-24mm were slightly unsharp, an issue that had eluded me while on the field – ruining many images. It is likely that after being dropped, that lens had gone out of alignment. I had not gotten around to replacing it yet, so I had to content myself with the wide end of the excellent Sony 16-35/2.8 GM that I shot wide-open at f/2.8.

I made two captures with a similar exposure but different settings. In the first one, I kept the shutter speed at 15s, which is the maximum length before star trails become too visible at 16mm. With the standard night sky exposure, this dictated a ISO value of 12,800, about the maximum I like to use on the Sony A7R3. Here is the raw image with standard Lightroom (LR) settings:

Vignetting is almost always pronounced when using a superwide angle lens wide open. I correct it by applying a lens profile, walking back the correction from 100% since a little vignetting helps keep the eye in the picture.

After correcting for vignetting, the sky is quite bright because it was exposed for the stars while the moon is still there. After brightening a bit the image, (+0.5) I tone down the highlights to the max (-100) to darken the sky.

To darken it further and make the stars stand out, I will use one of the relatively new slides, Dehaze. Although not initially meant for that use, I have found that Dehaze works wonders in enhancing the stars and the Milky Way, especially on a clear moonless night. Give it a try on such an image! As an example, here is an image made at the same location after moonset (at 1 AM) shown with Dehaze at 0 and then at 100%.

By the way, it appears from the 1 AM photo that starlight is enough to light up the land, with no moonlight needed, but with the radical adjustments made for that high ISO image (Exposure +2, Shadows 100%), although the image looks OK as a low-res web image, it has too much noise for any high-res use. Back to the image shot at moonset, I have to be careful because I do not want the horizon glow to become too bright, so I use a conservative value of +20 for Dehaze, applied on a brush selection covering the upper part of the sky.

The rock on the left of the image is a bit too bright, with its visual mass it draws the eye outside of the image. I darken it selectively with another brush set at Exposure -1, and I am done with adjustments.

Here is the second exposure I made. Using a 4 minute exposure made it possible to reduce ISO to 800. Ideally, I would have used an even longer exposure to obtain a lower ISO. However, that 4-minute exposure tied up my camera for 8 minutes using long exposure noise reduction that captures a dark frame of equivalent exposure time. Since the light was changing fast, I did not want to tie up the camera for 15 minutes. With such a long exposure, the stars are trailing, not an effect I am after.

If we compare a cliff detail, we can see that the ISO 12500 image (left) is less detailed and noisier than the 800 ISO image by quite a bit.

The difference in noise is more apparent in the sky.

Here are the noise reduction settings that tame the sky noise.

However, we can see that this noise reduction obliterates the fine texture and detail on the cliff.

A quick solution in LR would be to apply noise reduction selectively to the sky. The sky requires more noise reduction than the land, because its smoothness makes noise more visible. It can take more noise reduction than the land because it has no texture to be worried about. You’d apply a mild noise reduction to the whole image, and then a stronger one to the sky on a brush selection similar to what we did before.

A more elaborate solution is to use Photoshop to combine the two exposures to get a sky with point stars, captured at higher ISO, over the land captured at a lower ISO. That is the very reason why I made the two exposures. Personally, I do not use the so-called blue hour blend, where you make an image of the land while there is still a bit of residual light (during the “blue hour”), and then combine it with an image of the sky made when it is totally dark. This technique results in striking (and popular) images. However, I feel that blending components captured at radically different times compromises the truthfulness of the photograph, since you are not representing a moment in time, while giving the impression that you are doing so. On the other hand, I feel that blending two images taken (almost) at the same time simply gets around a technical limitation of the camera – its inability to produce the cleanest image at high ISO. That limitation is relative, we are looking at 100% views of a 42MP image. The single-capture ISO 12,800 image is just fine for most uses, and this illustrates the importance of being there at the right moment.