Terra Galleria Photography

Our National Monuments wins 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
41/250%
81/2.864%
161/475%
321/5.682%
641/888%
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?

National Park Service Visitor Guides through the Years: Looking In

On the 106th anniversary of the National Park Service, this article continues where my previous write-up about the official national park service visitor guides stopped. As an introduction to the history of those publications over the years, we examined their front cover. In this article, we are going to open them and take a quick look inside.

1917 to 1933

The first generation of national park visitor guides was in the format of a booklet, between 16 pages (Wind Cave National Park) and 100 pages (Yellowstone National Park, 1930). The contents consisted mostly of densely laid text that enumerated and described at length. The covers were glossy paper and most booklets took full advantage of those four pages (recto and verso of front and back cover) supporting the printing of photographs. With a few rare exceptions, the interior pages, printed on thinner uncoated paper, did not feature any photographs, although line-drawing illustrations appeared.

The booklet starts with a general description of the park. This is typically followed by practical sections, such as “How to reach the park” detailing, in that order, railroad routes and automobile roads, with often mention of other sights on the way, and information about park facilities such as post offices, camps, or transportation within the park. Detailed information about the park can be quite extensive. For instance, the 1922 Yosemite National Park booklet includes the following lists: all 122 lakes in the park with fishing notes, streams, trees, shrubs and herbs, mammals, and birds – in 4 pages of dense type for the birds alone. In later years, most of that information would be omitted. The Mesa Verde National Park booklet includes a 5-page description of Spruce Tree House and a 8-page description of Cliff Palace. Other lengthy lists may include trails or points of interest.

The booklet ends with a section “Rules and Regulations”, which true to its title, enumerates the totality of the public regulations in the park, followed by a bibliography and a section “Authorized rates for public utilities”. The latter meticulously lists the price for each and every service item in the park, from the usual hospitality expenses to feeding a horse (by grain or by hay) or a men’s shampoo (plain, tonic, or oil). Far from dry reading, it is fascinating to learn about the range of services provided back then in Yosemite besides the plentiful trip and transportation options: swim lessons, daycare, dancing, apparel and equipment rentals of all kinds, you name it. It was a different time in the Sierra:

A campfire program is held every evening during the summer season by the ranger-naturalists, assisted by talent from the campers. Following the camp fire, dancing may be enjoyed at the pavilion every evening except sunday. The social life at Giant Forest is one of the great attractions and holds many people beyond the time allotted for the visit. Many stay all summer, and the average population is about 3,000 people.

The 1917 booklets included no photographs at all. The 1920 booklets had no “Authorized rates for public utilities” sections, but by 1921, the format was all set. The year 1933 marked a transition with some reduction of the information, and a few brochures acting as precursors. For the first time, a few booklets included photographs within the inside of the brochure. For the Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier National Parks booklets, this was done by inserting in the middle of the brochures a few pages of glossy stock paper identical to the cover’s material, while the rest of the booklet was still printed on uncoated paper. The first brochure for Carslbad Caverns National Park used thicker paper stock throughout, on which photos were printed. That booklet, like the Yellowstone booklet, also featured cover pages made of a matte, thicker textured paper, almost like cardboard.

1934 to 1939

The next generation of booklets started in 1934. All interior pages used a thicker paper stock supporting the printing of photos, which are now running concurrently with the text. While all the first-generation brochures remained relatively similar in content from year to year, in 1934, the text content underwent major changes towards readability. Besides more airy typography, the extensive listings were gone and replaced with more succinct interpretive comments. The bureaucratic “Rules and Regulations” sections were omitted and replaced with a single page of “Rules and Regulations (briefed)”, while only the most important service costs such as rooms, meals, and tours, were kept. All those changes resulted in booklets that were still very detailed but became more visitor-oriented. With a page count varying between 24 and 52 (average 44), they provided considerably more information than today’s brochures, and I learned a lot about the parks by reading them. From 1934 to 1939, the number of pages in the booklets shrunk steadily as the information was streamlined further to the point that in 1939, the page count ranged from 16 and 32. The booklets from 1934 to 1938 featured cardboard-like, cover pages, but this changed in 1939 when for the first time the covers used the same paper stock as the interior pages. As an acknowledgment of the change, the pages were now numbered starting from the front cover.

1940 to 1942

Since the beginning, most of the booklets had included information about all the other national parks in the system, and sometimes also national monuments, using pages with titles such as “The National Parks at a Glance” (1917-1933), “Do you know all the national parks?” (1934), “Do you know your national parks” (1937), and finally “National Parks in Brief” (1938-1939). They even included a national map showing all the national parks. In the 1933 vintage, that map was a three-color foldout while the rest of the booklet was all black and white.

The year 1940 marked a departure as the number of pages in each booklet was standardized to 16, including covers. With that drastic reduction, all the materials about the other parks in the system were dropped. While still based on the previous contents, all the sections were also shortened, resulting in a more succinct and practical presentation. To further enhance legibility, for the first time, the text design switched from single column to two columns. The booklets of the years 1941 and 1942 followed the pattern established in 1940. While that year 1940 marked a culmination of standardization that would not be seen again until the late 1960s, it is also when the visitor guides began to evolve towards a new format – a fact readily evident only if one considers the entire set of brochures for those years.

1946 to mid-1950s

The postwar period saw looser design standards, with the coexistence of stapled booklets and single-page fold-out brochures. Unlike the booklets up to the early 1940s, the post-war booklets were not subject to uniform design standards. Most of them remained at 16 pages, but there were exceptions like Grand Canyon National Park which went to 24 pages so that more photos could be included.

Most of the brochures for national parks adopted a 4×9 inch format folded both horizontally and vertically, with 6 horizontal panels and 2 vertical panels, opening to a single sheet of 24×18 inch and providing the equivalent of 24 pages. However, national monuments and a few parks with less diverse resources such as Carlsbad Cavern and Wind Cave National Parks used a brochure with a 6×9 inch trim folded only horizontally, for a total number of pages ranging from 6 to 8. The foldout brochures format made it possible to reproduce the maps at a large size, whereas some of the maps in the booklets were barely usable without a magnifying glass. Apart from those changes, the text content often remained the same as in the early 1940s brochures, with only minor revisions, most often made to the introduction to make visitors feel more welcome.

Late 1950s to early 1960s

When closed, all the 4×9 brochures appear to share a similar design, but opening them reveals two distinct types. The first one was the previously mentioned single sheet 24×18 inch folded in two directions. The second one is a new design introduced in the late fifties that became more generalized by the mid-sixties. It was a stapled booklet of trim 8×9 inch, generally of 16 pages. Once folded in half along the long dimension through the middle of its pages, it also resulted in a folded size of 4×9 inches, but with the equivalent of 32 4×9 inch pages laid out in spreads of 16 inches wide. Compared to the previous brochures, there was twice as much content, and it was all mostly new. That increase in pages was a consequence of the Mission 66 investment, which had its own section in several brochures, for instance:
MISSION 66 is a program designed to be completed by 1966, which will assure the maximum protection of the scenic, scientific, wilderness, and historic resources of the National Park System. Under this program, parking facilities, campsites, restrooms, and wayside exhibits have been added in Crater Lake National Park, and more are to be constructed. Better trails will make more scenic spots easily available.
Besides bringing back some of the information omitted since the 1940s, the expended contents brought a new priority to the forefront: the visitor experience centered on nature. Right from the start, rather than using a neutral tone as in previous brochures, the text addresses directly the visitor as a “you” and urges them to read carefully the brochure and learn about the park, to have a great experience, and to care for the park, with sections bearing titles such as “Getting to know your park”, “Preparing for your visit”, “What do see and do on your own”, “You can protect your park”. Most of those brochures include a section “How to enjoy the park” that invariably urges visitors to explore the park on foot, for instance:
You will be missing so much of canyon if you confine your sightseeing and exploring to the rims. Even though you have only a day or two, plan to take one of the shorter mule trips or a brief hike into the canyon on the Bright Angel or Kaibab Trails.

Mid 1960s

Except for a few maps (a focus of a future installment of this series of articles), up until now, brochures had been monochromatic. As a departure from black and white brochures, starting from the late fifties, a few of them had been tinted, but it only meant that the black inks were replaced with one colored ink (for instance blue, green, or brown), sometimes in an otherwise identical design, but they remained monochromatic. The mid-sixties were the first time the National Park Service made use of more than one color in its brochures. That was an extremely conservative attitude, given that back in the 1920s, commercial brochures had been printed in color. Yet, the use of color was limited to one or sometimes two accent colors, rather than full four-color printing. Moreover, the photographs remained monochrome and would do so for at least one more decade and in some cases into the early 1980s – maybe paralleling the disdain for color photography as an artistic medium exhibited in critical circles of that time. Still, together with the new emphasis on graphic design, the infusion of color resulted in a dramatic change in the look of the brochures. In terms of contents, those brochures were fairly similar to those that immediately came before, although in some cases the increased design compelled an entire rewriting.

1970s

The trend to use color as accents culminated in the “pocket guides” of the 1970s. Each of them made use of a specific color, identical to the plain colored background of the cover. The pocket guides were the first attempt to re-impose a standard since the 1940s and resulted in the most radical designs in the history of the visitor guides. With each panel measuring only 3 1/4 x 5 5/8 inches, given that the brochures included photographs (in monochrome) and often a large map, the amount of text had to be drastically reduced. The contents were again all rewritten for brevity. The pocket guide brochures aimed to give a quick overview of the park rather than detail what is available to visitors. Within the strict design standards, there still were variations. For example, while most of them unfolded vertically first, then horizontally, the Mount Rainier National Park brochure offers an elegant sequence: it first reveals photographs of the park, then with next unfolds, information, and eventually maps.

The two national parks in Hawaii (Hawaii Volcanoes and Haleakala National Parks) never adopted the “pocket guide” standard, and instead kept using a 4×9 inch brochure. Those were the first brochures to at last make use of full color, even for the photographs. Most of the parks that reverted to a 4×9 inch brochure did the same, and if not for the unigrid standard design elements and the large amounts of white space, could easily be mistaken for contemporary brochures. Over the years, the amount of information in the brochures ebbs and flows, dictated by new design standards, but also National Park Service priorities.

1980s to present day

The “unigrid” brochures first introduced in 1978 are now familiar to all park visitors. Within the standards set by Massimo Vignelli, they have evolved and continue to be refined. For instance, even though current unigrids are all full-color, early examples sometimes shared some of the pocket guides design principles, with a single accent color and black and white photos.

Unigrids come in two basic types. Those that unfold only vertically, and those that unfold horizontally and then vertically. The smaller parks tend to use the former, while the larger parks use the latter as it provides twice the usable space. As brochures added more graphics and interpretive materials over the years, many parks have transitioned from one horizontal fold to two vertical folds.

In recent years, detail-laden illustrations have sometimes displaced photographs as a better way to introduce visitors to the biological diversity found in the parks. New materials have started acknowledging the ancestral use and ownership of park lands by Native Americans – the last Haleakala National Park brochure is even bi-lingual, with sections in the Hawaiian language. Looking at the way those people have been depicted through the history of the official visitor guides through the years is instructive. There is so much to learn about the history of the parks just by reading the vintage park brochures, from how attitudes over bears have evolved, to variations in park development. You witness the change of recreation practices, such as the retreat of winter sports and horseback riding in the parks. Stay tuned!

PS: I am still expending my collection and I have numerous duplicates, so if you’d be interesting in trading, selling, or buying vintage brochures for any NPS units that are currently national parks, please let me know.

Part 2 of an on-going series: 1 | 2 | to be continued

Capitol Reef National Park: the Rim Overlook Trail

Among the cornucopia of natural environments found on the American continent, maybe the most unusual are those of the Colorado Plateau, where a convergence of geology and climate has created landscapes without equal anywhere else. When asked about my favorite national parks, I’ve always felt the list would not be complete without one of the nine parks on the Colorado Plateau. Up until ten years ago, that choice was invariably Capitol Reef National Park. One of the reasons I liked the park so much was the opportunity to discover fantastic landscapes removed from the crowds in a relatively easy way, such as at the Strike Valley Overlook. You have be willing to leave the pavement, but you don’t need a particularly rugged vehicle: my Subarus of the 1990s – with less clearance than today’s models, were enough. In the last decade, I managed to travel more remote areas of Canyonlands, Grand Canyon, and Zion national park, so my fondness for them has grown, but Capitol Reef National Park retains its appeal. In this article, together with comments on photography, I will describe a favorite hike that shows that you don’t even have to venture away from the highway to appreciate what the park has to offer. Can a trail that is never more than a quarter-mile from a state highway as the bird flies offer a backcountry experience? Read on to find out.

Less than a quarter-mile from the trailhead, the trail forks. The left branch takes you to the Hickman Natural Bridge, which will add a mile and half to the hike. They are well worth it, since the close views of the bridge are much better than those you will get from the Hickman Bridge Overlook on the Rim Overlook Trail from which the bridge merges into the surrounding cliffs. By the way, hiking only to the bridge and back is about 2 miles round-trip with 400 feet of elevation gain. The Hickman Bridge was named that way because it was shaped by flowing water unlike natural arches. Its size is quite impressive, at 125 feet high and 133 feet long. The bridge is ensconced among ridges, therefore is not particularly well lit at sunrise nor sunset. Morning light illuminates the bridge best because a ridge blocks the sun in midafternoon. The cramped location necessitated a wide-angle lens.

Since the trail makes a loop passing below the bridge, I could easily photograph both of its sides. I preferred looking downhill as the bridge framed a larger landscape. On days of variable cloudiness, if you don’t like the light conditions, you need to wait for a short amount of time for them change. I made my exposure when a passing cloud partly dimmed the sun light on and around the bridge. Its darker tones conferred visual mass to the span that both contrasted with the distant rock domes and stood out against the mid-tones of the cliff and ground, while the white cloud highlighted the space within the bridge and its lower edge.

Besides the great views, I enjoyed the Rim Overlook Trail’s primitive atmosphere. It is narrow and unobtrusive, with several sections when you walk directly on slickrock, yet the hundreds of well-spaced cairns make it reasonably easy to follow. Hiking feels more adventurous than following a well-used path. The trail is steadily graded, so the 1,000-foot elevation difference from the trailhead felt easy to gain. That grade of about 15% corresponds to the monoclinal tilt of the Waterpocket Fold, which is plainly visible on the south rim across the Fremont River Canyon.

At 2.25 miles from the trailhead, I arrived at the Rim Overlook in the late afternoon. At that time of the day the cliffs of the Waterpocket fold are well lit. Located on the edge of the cliff with a vertiginous 1,000-foot drop, it offered a bird’s-eye view of the Fremont River Valley, the Fruita orchards, and the Gifford Homestead. One of the factors that differentiate Capitol Reef from other Southwest parks is the presence and accessibility of the fast-flowing Fremont River that gives rise to a delightful riparian habitat in the desert. During the month of October, the color accent created by the autumn foliage of the cottonwoods was striking. I photographed the wider view with the strongest possible light, when no clouds obscured the sun, so that the contrast and brightness of the landscape counterbalanced the sky. For a tighter view with the sky excluded, the softer light of a passing cloud brought some subtlety (see opening image).

When traveling through the Southwest, I always enjoy staying at the campground located in the historic orchard. Their mature fruit trees provide a welcome respite from the rocky and dry landscape common in the region. As customary at overlooks, after photographing wide views, I switched to a telephoto lens to look for details in the landscape. Using my longest focal length of 400mm, I focussed on the pattern of fruit trees that exhibited more varied colors than the cottonwoods, using a composition based on diagonals for a dynamic image.

The trail continues for another 2.4 miles and 500 feet of elevation to the Navajo Knobs, a summit that offers an expansive 360-degree panorama. On my way to the Rim Overlook, I had noticed a striking peak called Pectol’s Pyramid on the south rim. After determining that the striking structure is best lit in the late afternoon, I had kept hiking, planning to photograph there on my way back. Since the trail was not only primitive, and therefore potentially tricky to follow in the dark, but also full of interesting details, on that day, instead of pushing forward to reach the Navajo Knobs near sunset time, I turned around. Although it is an out-and-back trail, I felt no monotony, as the view facing each direction was quite different. Walking back in the late afternoon, the sun lit brightly the Waterpocket Fold and white sandstone domes, one of which gave its name to the national park. Front lighting can lead to flatness and lack of perceived dimensionality, but this was remedied with the contrast in light bestowed by the shadow of a cloud.

When framing Pectol’s Pyramid tightly, I timed the exposure for when the shadows from the setting sun were about to creep up the face. The maximal side-lighting and contrast from direct illumination emphasized the structure of the peak.

Less than a mile from the trailhead, the ground was littered with the curious black volcanic boulders found in many places in the park. In a wide-angle photograph, their dark and rounded shapes at the bottom contrasted with the sharp and light triangles of the Pectol’s Pyramid and other distant rock formation at the top. In the middle, the V-shape of the lighter rocks formed a light line linking both components. Immediately after sunset, the light was a bit flat, but fifteen minutes later, it regained some directionality. Yet, it was now even enough to reveal all elements of the picture, while before sunset the foreground would have lost in deep shadows.

The trailhead for the hike is located just off UT-24 between Torrey and Hankville, 2 miles east of the visitor center, on the north side just before a bridge over the Fremont River. While it is in the national park, you don’t even have to pay an entrance fee. Despite its ease of access and moderate length, the Rim Overlook Trail remains my favorite in the park. Last time I visited, at the height of the fall colors, I hardly saw any others hikers on the trail. Despite its frontcountry position, I found the trail has retained a marked backcountry character.

Yellowstone: the other Grand Canyon

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Yellowstone National Park. When President Grant signed the Act of Dedication (you can read its brief text here) on March 1, 1872, setting aside Yellowstone “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people”, the first national park in the world was established. Yellowstone National Park is internationally renowned for its geothermal features, and also its wild animal population. They are not by any means the only wonders in the park. As early National Park Service visitor guides put it:
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone affords a spectacle worthy of a national park were there no geysers.

Since this was a land that almost nobody on the East Coast had seen with their own eyes, artist representations were instrumental in the establishment of the park. Ferdinand Hayden, director of the United States Geological Survey had brought along his 1871 survey of the region a photographer and a painter. While the photographs by William Henry Jackson helped convince that the geothermal wonders were real, the colorful sketches of Thomas Moran captured the imagination. As romantic as they appear, their colors are highly accurate, and so are their depiction of geological elements. Released at about the same time as the establishment of the park, The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1872), Moran’s first large-scale painting was immediately bought by Congress for display in the U.S. Capitol and became popular with the public (discussion by Smithsonian American Art Museum curators). As wonderful as they are, the geysers and other hot water phenomena do not inspire the kind of sublime awe described by Nathanial Langford, a member of General Washburn’s expedition in 1870:

The place where I obtained the best and most terrible view of the canyon was a narrow projecting point situated two to three miles below the lower fall. Standing there or rather lying there for greater safety, I thought how utterly impossible it would be to describe to another the sensations inspired by such a presence. As I took in the scene, I realized my own littleness, my helplessness, my dread exposure to destruction, my inability to cope with or even comprehend the mighty architecture of nature.

Thomas Moran would go on to paint many of the landmark western landscapes, including several national parks, but recognizing the significance of his particular connection with Yellowstone, he adopted the new signature of T-Y-M – with “Yellowstone” his new middle name! As can be seen in this selection of Moran’s Yellowstone work from the NPS, the artist who sought to associate with Yellowstone the most had a favorite subject in the park, to which he returned time and time again: the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.

The modern “Unigrid” national park visitor guides have all featured geothermal features on the cover, with the picture of Old Faithful Geyser gracing the current one. However, a look at older visitor guide brochures from the years 1935 to 1974 reveals that out of 20 different illustrated cover designs, 14 featured the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, invariably pictured with Lower Falls.

The Grand Canyon of the Colorado River in Arizona is simply referred to as “The” Grand Canyon, being by far the largest and most impressive of all the canyons in the country. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone’s claim to fame is different. While it has a respectable size, 20 miles long, 800 to 1,200 feet deep, and 1,500 to 4,000 feet wide, making it the most impressive geological feature in the park, what causes it to stand out among all canyons are the colors. The primary rock in the canyon is volcanic Rhyolite, which erodes into fantastically jagged formations. Hydrothermal activity, still visible in the form of steam, was responsible for altering the rock into a rainbow of hues. Adding to the interest are the two waterfalls of the Yellowstone River after which the park was named, Upper Falls (100 feet high) and Lower Falls (300 feet high).

Inspiration Point

Overlooks along the north and south rim drives offer sweeping views and different perspectives. When Nathanial Langford experienced the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone as quoted above, he was standing at a spot that no longer exists, Promontory Point. In 1975, about a century after his visit, an earthquake of Richter scale 6 caused the promontory jutting into the center of the canyon to collapse and its remaining tip to become unstable. Still, the closest you can get to the old Promontory Point, Inspiration Point, offers an impressive view of the canyon from where you look almost straight down to the Yellowstone River a thousand feet below. The steep slopes are deeply carved, at places forming jagged rocky spires. When viewed on a sunny midday, yellows and whites dominate, however, softer light makes more visible a profusion of hues spanning the entire spectrum from reds and oranges to yellows. Since the days were sunny, I photographed from the late afternoon when the lower angle of the sun highlighted textures, to the early evening, when the even light reveals the colors.

When I visited in the 1990s, as I was primarily photographing with the 5×7 large-format camera, my main focus was on capturing “big picture” expensive views that give you the sense of being there. However, there also are endless opportunities to create more abstract images by focusing on the details of the landscape from any overlook. Inspiration Point is located on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. From Canyon Junction, follow Grand Loop Rd south for 1.2 miles and turn west (left) on the one-way N Rim Dr and then after 1.3 miles west (right) onto a 0.8-mile spur road. It’s a short 0.1-mile stroll to the overlook.

Artist Point

From Inspiration Point, you can barely see a waterfall in the distance, as it is partly hidden by the canyon wall. That waterfall is the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River, by far the most spectacular of the two waterfalls in the canyon. Plunging 300 feet, twice the height of Niagara Falls, it is the largest waterfall in the park, and one of the most impressive features of the canyon. There are several excellent views of the Lower Falls.

Artist Point is the most iconic viewpoint in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. From there the steep canyon walls perfectly frame the waterfall located about a mile away from you, making it possible to depict the canyon with its most notable feature. The waterfall flows year-round and even at its lowest flow there is still plenty of water. From my several visits, I made my favorite image on the very first one, on an October overcast day after a recent snowfall. The freezing temperatures amplified the thermal steam from the canyon, whereas a dusting of snow critically differentiated both sides of the canyon. Placing the river two-thirds on the right created an asymmetrical balance between the lighter left side and the heavier right side. Not only the softer light reveals more of the colors, but also the flatter light resulted in a painterly quality in which all the textures stood out. Naturally, I excluded the bright overcast sky from the composition.

The waterfalls are facing east, so on sunny days, morning generally provides better light on them. On a clear summer morning, the blue sky was perfectly exposed, but it did not add much interest besides rather disharmonious color contrast. Its presence lends a different feel to the image, but I preferred the composition with the sky excluded. This caused Lower Falls to attract the eye as one the brightest area. As the early morning sun was grazing the right side of the canyon, it created an alternation of diagonal sunlit ridges and shadows more remarkable with its contrast than the uniformly lit left side, so I filled most of the frame with it, its large visual mass counterbalancing the waterfall. Artist Point is located on the south rim at the end of Artist Point Road that starts 2.2 miles south of Canyon Junction just past the Chittenden Memorial Bridge over the Yellowstone River, and it is a short stroll to the overlook.

Closer Lower Falls Views

For a closer view of Lower Falls, you can try Lookout Point, on the north rim – on your way to Inspiration Point, also a short stroll. If you’d like to explore more viewpoints, you can hike the 3.3-mile section of the North Rim Trail between Upper Falls and Inspiration Point. Little of the canyon is visible from the roads besides the overlooks. I made the photograph in pre-dawn light. At that time, there were no shadows or excessive contrast in the canyon, yet the light was directional enough to provide some shading and differentiate the two sides of the canyon, lending depth to the scene.

The Brink of the Falls Trail, as it names implies, takes you to the brink of Lower Falls from the north rim, but while you will come closest to Lower Falls, you will be above its back and therefore without a view of the waterfall. The closest view is from Uncle Tom’s Trail, named after the nickname of H.F. Richardson, a Bozeman, MT resident who built a primitive version of the trail on which he guided visitors for a fee from 1898 to 1906. They had to be ferried across the Yellowstone River (the bridge over the Yellowstone was built in 1903) and then grab ropes to negotiate the steep terrain. Nowadays, the trail is much safer but remains quite unique and strenuous, with 500 feet elevation loss in just 0.7 miles. Paved switchbacks lead to a vertiginous steel staircase of 328 steps built down the south wall of the canyon and descending 3/4 of the way down its height. That is the lowest you can descend into the canyon, where off-trail hiking is prohibited. You cannot longer get to the vantage point pictured on the cover of the historic visitor guide with a white cover (on the second row). The trailhead is on the south rim along Artist Point Drive.

The water volume varies between 5,000 gallons of water per second in the fall and 60,000 gallons of water per second in the spring. In 2016, to celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service, we went on a family road trip to Yellowstone. On that early summer visit, I timed my visit for late morning, hoping that the sun in my back would produce a rainbow in the mist of the fall. Sure enough, the rainbow was there. However, the lower part of the trail was drenched unlike during my fall visit. Having left the spinning rain deflector at home, it was too wet for photography, and I had to content myself with a dryer viewpoint further up. Clouds were moving quickly across the sky, and I waited for a moment when their projected shadows on the canyon walls made the waterfall and mist stand out in light.

Our National Monuments wins five national book awards

Spring is the time for several of the major book awards to be announced, and I am honored that Our National Monuments has won five national book awards.

IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards – Arts and Photography Silver Medal Administered by the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA), for more than 30 years, the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards is the most established and widely recognized national award program for independent publishers. The program has a number of unique features. Over 170 librarians, booksellers, and design and editorial experts – most of whom have decades of book industry experience – judge the books submitted. The judging process takes close to six months, beginning in September and continuing into March each year. It is ran by a non-profit organization, and each entrant receives judging feedback. IBPA received nearly 1,900 entries for the 34th annual program, a record number that surpassed the previous record of 1,750 set just a year earlier.

Foreword INDIES Book of the Year – Coffee Table Books Gold Winner Founded in 1998, Foreword Reviews is the only independent media company completely devoted to independent publishing. They define the term more broadly than others as it includes all but the “Big 5” – Rizzoli won the award several times. Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards recognize the best books published from independent presses and self-published. This year was one of the most competitive years ever. Over 2,700 entries were submitted in 55 categories, with Foreword’s editors choosing approximately 10 finalists per genre. Those finalist books were then mailed to individual librarians and booksellers tasked with picking the Gold, Silver, Bronze, and Honorable Mention winners.

National Indie Excellence Awards – Photography Winner The National Indie Excellence Awards (NIEA) is a national award contest open to recent English language books in print from small, medium, university, self and independent publishers. Established in 2005, NIEA’s entrants are meticulously judged by experts from various facets of the book industry profession including publishers, editors, authors and designers.



International Book Awards – Winner in the category Photography The 2022 International Book Awards received thousands entries from all over the world from all areas of the publishing industry: mainstream, indie and self-published. Placing in this year’s awards means that one has surpassed 80% of entrants. From the number of books with a placement in the category Photography (five), only the top 4% are winners.

Nautilus Book Awards – Photography and Arts Silver Winner With the motto “Better books for a better world”, Nautilus Book Awards recognize books that promote conscious living & green values, spiritual growth, wellness, and positive social change. Nautilus is one of the few major book award programs that welcomes entries from the full range of the publishing spectrum from author self-published to large publishers. The program celebrates books that inspire and connect our lives as individuals, communities and global citizens. Past award recipients include Thich Nhat Hanh, Desmond Tutu, Deepak Chopra, and the Dalai Lama.

Those contests operate by submission rather than nomination. I had previously identified the most established and prestigious book awards relevant for a photography book and submitted Treasured Lands, eventually winning a total of 12 awards (10 book awards in 8 contests and 2 photography awards). Naturally, I submitted Our National Monuments for the same book awards, skipping the photography awards this time. The book did not place at the PubWest Design Awards and Independent Publisher IPPYs, however, it was featured in Independent Publisher Magazine with an article by former Book Awards Director Jim Barnes. It was also a finalist at the Next Generation Indie Book Awards. At the one program for for which it was nominated rather than submitted, the OWL Awards, Our National Monuments was shortlisted – OWL is difficult because there are only a dozen winners in total.

Given that it took me less than four years from start to publication for Our National Monuments, its awards haul is more than honorable. It is the first book published from scratch by my own publishing imprint, Terra Galleria Press, but that does not mean that I worked by myself. Gary Crabbe, Geir Jordahl, and Kate Jordahl helped narrow down more than 2,500 images to my 300 in the book, paving the way for the work of art director Iain Morris, without whom this book would not be as beautiful. Stephen Trimble and Dayton Duncan made valuable comments on earlier drafts of the introduction. Editor Nicole Croft brought her deep knowledge of the subject matter to clarify my writing. Thank you to all of you.