Terra Galleria Photography

National Park Service Centennial and Treasured Lands Book Annoucement

The 100th anniversary of the National Park Service has finally arrived, and others have written more eloquently about the significance of the event than I could ever do. My contribution to the occasion is the photography book Treasured Lands. I view it as the 21st century version of National Parks Portfolio, the first photography book about the national parks, published exactly 100 years ago as part of the campaign that helped establish the National Park Service.

A complete presentation

If you are curious about National Parks Portfolio and its significance, please read my post the first national parks photography book. The publication aimed to be “the first really representative presentation of American scenery of grandeur ever published”. Each of its nine booklets strived to provide a complete picture of each park. For instance, for Yellowstone, we see not only Old Faithful as the cover image, but also a multitude of other thermal features, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and its waterfalls, Mount Washburn and Yellowstone Lake, and the park’s wildlife.

In the same spirit, Treasured Lands aims to be the most complete coffee-table book about the national parks published in the interleaving century. Having studied and collected many national parks photography books, I am pretty sure that the goal is met if you go by the numbers – 456 pages, 500+ photos, 130,000+ words, depicting 410 locations. However, what really matters is that not only the book includes all 59 national parks, but also the coverage of each park is deeper than any other coffee-table book. I tried to photograph each significant area of each national park, for example:

  • the five islands that make up Channel Islands National Park,
  • the three islands that make up National Park of American Samoa,
  • the three main keys of Dry Tortugas National Park,
  • the five districts in Canyonlands National Park,
  • the three units of Theodore Roosevelt NP, including Elkhorn Ranch.

It is often said that the National Parks are “loved to death” – the first such utterance may have been in Conrad Wirth’s Mission 66 introduction – a document still surpringly relevant today. However, one often confuses visitation and crowding. Large visitation is great. In my experience of more than 300 park visits, crowding is an issue only at the most popular locations in the most popular parks. It is my hope that by giving equal treatment to the 59 national parks, and by highlighting lesser known locations in the popular parks, Treasured Lands can inspire visitors to discover the diversity of the national parks, experience new locales, and spread out visitation.

An invitation and guide to visit

Back a century ago, Stephen Mather recognized that if the parks were to be preserved, they would have to acquire a constituency, and the publication of National Parks Portfolio was an effort towards this goal. Each of the nine booklets ending page started with the heading “HOW TO REACH THE NATIONAL PARKS”, a railroad map, and concluded with “REMEMBER THAT [name of park] BELONGS TO YOU. IT IS ONE OF THE GREAT NATIONAL PLAYGROUNDS OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE FOR WHOM IT IS ADMINISTERED BY THE DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR.”

More than twenty years ago, as a newcomer to America, deeply moved by the National Parks natural beauty, I decided to make my home here, and embarked on a self-supported project to photograph them out of love for the land. It is a testament to the greatness of America that as a private citizen, I have been able to honor the NPS Centennial with Treasured Lands. As stated in my introduction, from the start of the project, one of my goals has been to propel you on your personal journey to visit, appreciate, and help preserve this magnificent but fragile land.

Unlike other coffee table books about the national parks, which after inspiring readers via images, leave them wondering about the exact locations, Treasured Lands is designed to inspire outdoor adventurers to “Find Your Park” using a detailed guide keyed to the images. For each of the images in the book, you’ll find a description of the location, the best times to be there, and sometimes comments about my experiences and photography, with the hope that they will help you plan your own trip. Note that as an innovative feature which I hope you’ll find practical, the guide will be available for download as a PDF specially formatted for mobile devices.

My special pre-publication offer to you

It is a bit of a bummer to be late to the party because you are still stuck on a cargo ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Publication in time for the NPS Centennial was uncertain from the beginning, given how late the entire process started, and how complex it turned out to be, but that would be a story for another post. Treasured Lands will ship in October. To reward you for your patience and thank you for your support, I am offering the following bonuses from now until October 1st:
  • Set of 59 high-resolution digital images from the book, one for each park, that you can display as computer wallpaper on a screen up to 4K, and use in any personal way (as defined here).
  • Supplementary PDF “How To Photograph The National parks”, which details general tips I have learned in more than twenty years of photographing the parks. There is no overlap with Treasured Lands, which has only location-specific information.
  • Coupon code for 25% off an order of limited-edition prints
In addition, readers of this blog can take 15% off a signed copy or a limited edition book by using the coupon code “prelaunch”, which will also expire on October 1st.

To take advantage of the offer, visit http://treasuredlandsbook.com

Coastal Plain, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Muir Inlet, Glacier Bay National Park

Wonder Lake, Denali National Park

Second Beach, Olympic National Park

Grant Grove, Kings Canyon National Park

Cholla Cactus Garden, Joshua Tree National Park

Mesquite Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park

Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, November 1996

Sunset Point, Bryce Canyon National Park

Schwabacher Landing, Grand Teton National Park

Cedar Pass, Badlands National Park


Middle Prong of the Little River, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Field, Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas National Park

Book Production

Treasured Lands has, at least, finished printing last week at Artron, in Shenzhen, China. This post shares a few videos that should give you an idea of what’s happening in the book printing factory.

A press sheet comes out of the massive sheetfed offset printer. As detailed in The Printed Picture, offset printing remains the superior form of mass printing. This particular sheet holds four book pages on each side.

Different sheets have each been folded into pages to make sets called signatures, which are a group of sixteen pages similar to a booklet. Each signature is then sewn with threads going through each page several times, and the threads are tied off.

Signatures are assembled and stitched together to create the book’s inside. This construction technique called “Smyth Sewing”, is the highest quality, and often used for coffee table books because it allows the book to lay flat.

As a hardcover (or “casebound”), the book’s inside is glued (by hand!) via two special uncoated sheets called “endpapers” to the cover or “case”. This remains a surpringly labor-intensive process.

The dust jacket receives matte lamination and a glossy varnish on the type. The jacket is larger than the book trim to allow for a “French fold jacket”, where the top and bottom edges are folded underneath for greater strength.

In case you would think that the label “made in China” equals to cheap quality, note that according to their presentation video, Artron is a wide-ranging arts company whose presses have printed such works as Sebastião Salgado’s “Genesis”. Nathan Myhrvold, who entrusted them his very impressive “Modernist Cuisine”, calls them the best art book printers in the world.

For regular books, American printers are perfectly competitive. However, if you look at the copyright page of mass-produced, heavily illustrated books printed today – with Steidl being the notable exception, you will find that almost all of them were printed in Asia. The downside of printing in Asia is that transit to the U.S. takes a long time. Not only the books have to cross the Pacific Ocean on a cargo ship, but there is also the loading, unloading, and customs clearance.

This means that Treasured Lands won’t ship in time for the NPS Centenial like I had initially hoped. However, I will try and make up for that with a special offer, so stay tuned!

Lehman Cave, Then and Now

Twenty years ago, I photographed Lehman Cave on a private tour. Last month, I participated in a regular tour. A comparison of photos from both occasions shows how much camera technology has changed for the better.

Accessed by way of Hwy 50, “the loneliest road in America” in the middle of the American West (some would say in the middle of nowhere), Great Basin National Park is one of the least-visited national parks. Even when crowds fill the Southern Utah and California national parks, midway between them, Great Basin remains quiet. It’s not because of the lack of attractions. I cannot think of any other national park that offers a more intriguing mix of natural wonders: a peak with one of the most southerly glaciers, bristlecone pines and aspen growing nearby, a six-story limestone arch, and a cave with rare formations.

The Swamp, 1995. Fuji Velvia, exposure unrecorded

Lehman Cave is relatively small but is remarkable for the beauty of its intricate formations, which you can view from quite close. The most famous are the Parachute Shields, which Lehman Cave has in unusual abundance. Tours are conducted right from the visitor center, and I recommend the “Grand Palace Tour,” the longest one available, covering only 0.6 miles in 90 minutes. Tripods, backpacks, and even camera backs are not allowed because you walk in narrow and heavily decorated passageways.

Parachute Shields, 1995. Fuji Velvia, exposure unrecorded

Twenty years ago, on a low-season fall visit, I was able to arrange a private after-hours tour on short notice, paying the ranger for overtime. At that time, with slide film, it was just not possible to obtain any usable image without a tripod. My large-format exposures lasted several minutes. In the course of the month-long trip, I traveled across the Canada-US border, and most of those shots were ruined when an x-ray machine fogged the film. It was the first of several incidents I experienced with large format film, made more heartbreaking by the effort required to make the photographs. Fortunately, the 35mm frames I had made as backup survived.

Grand Palace Room, 1995. Fuji Velvia, exposure unrecorded

Last month, I revisited Lehman Cave with our family of four. I was hoping to re-photograph the Swamp, an area of columns reflected in an underground pond, but it turned out to be totally dry due to low rains. Two decades ago, in such a situation, the National Park Service would artificially fill up the pond. But respect for natural processes grows stronger all the time, and this practice has now been discontinued. I was not able to improve the twenty year old shot, but found a few new ones.

The Swamp, 2016. Sony A7R2, 24mm, 1/20s at f/4, ISO 3200

I had stuffed a 20mm f/1.4 lens in a pocket (since no bags are allowed) but due to the close proximity of the foregrounds, shooting it wide open resulted in blurred areas due to the shallow depth of field. I ended up using two f/4 zooms, a 24-70 and 16-35.

Parachute Shields, 2016. Sony A7R2, 62mm, 1/80s at f/4, ISO 10000

In combination with image stabilization and high ISO capacities, although I was shooting hand-held, I got technically much better images than I was able to obtain twenty years ago with slide film on a tripod. Not only they were considerably sharper and with more dynamic range, but also by adjusting the color temperature of the RAW files, I was able to bring out colors and contrast that were lost to slide film under incandescent illumination, in particular in the photographs of the rare Parachute Shield formations. The RAW files shot at high ISO did exhibit a fair amount of noise, but the standard noise reduction built into Lightroom made short work of it.

Grand Palace Room, 2016. Sony A7R2, 17mm, 1/20s at f/4, ISO 3200, flash

Although one needs to be considerate of other visitors, flash photography is permitted, and most of the rooms have low ceilings favorable for bounce flash, which produces better results than direct, on-camera flash. In the Grand Palace Room, possibly the center piece of the cave, the central column wasn’t well-lit twenty years ago, and is still dark today compared to the rest of the room. This isn’t ideal, since the central column is the main subject. But in the intervening twenty years, I had added portable flash to my arsenal of techniques. With just a bit of bounce fill-flash from a tiny unit, I was at least able to bring that central column to light. The room was filled up while the ranger did a talk, but I simply waited for it to end, stayed behind for less than a minute to compose the shot, and quickly caught up with the tour group. It’s certainly a good time to take pictures!

Exhibits and Events Update Mid-2016

This is a mid-year update about the “Treasured Lands” exhibits for 2016, looking at past, present, future events, and a miss.

“Treasured Lands” moved at last to the Bay Area during the winter, hosted by the PhotoCentral Gallery. PhotoCentral is a community gallery ran by photographers and educators Geir and Kate Jordahl. Besides their excellent gallery programming, they also offer classes that take advantage of their nice facilities, both analog (they run a fully equipped darkroom) and digital. The room in which I gave my presentation was totally full, but they had anticipated it, and provided a streaming link to a second room with a large screen. I lent my camera to my brother-in-law to photograph the event, but he brushed the ISO dial, moving it from Auto-ISO (which would have been 6400 ISO) to 100, so here are just installation pictures. That’s my 5×7 camera in the glass case.

On the occasion of the exhibit, Geir and Kate put together a catalog, entitled America’s Fifty-nine National Parks. As small-run book, the production obviously cannot match the Treasured Lands book, which comes from the offset presses of one of the world’s best art printers. However, the catalog is an interesting publication that incorporates Geir’s curatorial perspective, as he carefully selected an image sequence that expands on the exhibit. Being printed in a limited edition of 100, it will become a collector item.

Next “Treasured Lands” traveled to the Museum of Science, Boston in April where it will show until Sept 18. I am particularly honored to exhibit there because the Museum’s founder, Brad Washburn has always been one of my inspirations, for his multi-faceted contributions to mountaineering, photography, cartography and science education. The Museum of Science is consistently ranked in the top 20 museums in the US, and their installation didn’t disappoint. Before the exhibit even started, I received this image from them, which is a computer-rendered view of the installation which looks quite real!

Here are photographs of the actual installation. Unfortunately, due to printing delays, the Treasured Lands book will begin shipping after the end of the exhibit, and therefore no event will be organized there. Here is a write-up about the exhibit in the Boston Globe: Museum of Science exhibit captures US National Parks on a large scale

The next stop for the exhibit is the city of Las Vegas. “Treasured Lands” will be on display at the Mayor’s Gallery in the Historic Fifth Street School from Oct 5 to Nov 22, and this time, there will be a lecture and book signing in conjunction with the Vegas Valley Book Festival, with details to be announced on that website.

Before setting out a model for post-presidency humanitarian work, President Jimmy Carter presided over the largest expansion of protected lands in the history of the world, when he signed into law the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in December 2, 1980. This more than doubled in size of the National Park System with 47 million acres added, and created no less than seven national parks – more than under any other presidency. Although he signed the law one month before living office, what made it possible was that President Carter had previously single-single-handely set aside the lands as National Monuments by executive order in December 1, 1978, using the Antiquities Act.

I was hoping to pay homage to President Carter’s contributions to the national parks by exhibiting “Treasured Lands” at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum during the year of the National Park Service Centennial. I had contacted the staff years ago, on more than one occasion, but at those times, the lack of an exhibit designer on staff prevented the institution from making a firm commitment. After this radio silence, during the spring of 2016, I was surprised to receive a call advising me of an interest for the fall of 2016, and only then. The agreement with Las Vegas had not been signed yet because city lawyers were busy reviewing the language of my exhibit contract. However, I had informally agreed to exhibit in Las Vegas, so as appropriate and prestigious as it is, I had to decline the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum’s late offer. “Your word is your bond…”

Next, “Treasured Lands” returns to the East Coast (New Jersey). Besides Las Vegas, I am making arrangements for lectures/book signing events this fall and winter. One which has been finalized is on November 2, part of University of California Santa Barbara Arts & Lectures. More are to come, so stay tuned, and I hope to see you at one of them!

New Series: “The Theater”

In the context of my project America’s Best Idea, I’ve started a new series called The Theater, which is still in its early phase compared to the other series in the project such as The Visitor and the series linked within.

The National Park Service Organic Act of 1916 states two goals: to conserve the natural scenery and to provide for its enjoyment by the public. Although they appear untouched, most of the national parks have been made easy to access. The promising “national park” designation lured me to places that I might have ignored. I wondered how parklands influence our understanding and appreciation of the natural world around us.

Collaborating with Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan on their film, I gained awareness of the significance of the national parks as an idea. Paintings and photographs played an instrumental role in their development. The interaction between real and image continues to frame our perception of nature in the parks. Many iconic photographs, depicting them as wilderness without man-made intrusions, celebrate the landscapes protected by the National Park Service. I rarely came to a park without some of those images in mind.

Although they are the most material embodiment of the National Park Service’s work, far fewer photographs depict structures such as visitor centers, designated overlooks, campground amphitheaters with educational programs, and roads engineered to create a scenic experience accessible to everyone. But the parks are more than wilderness protected, they are a construct. Although visitors remember the scenery, it is the interplay between the man-made and the natural that defines their park experience. The reassuringly familiar structures carry an educational and interpretive purpose that direct the way we look at nature.

National Park Mobile Apps Review

This year has seen promising new apps for visiting the national parks. In this survey, I review all top national park apps, new and old, with an emphasis on the features that set each of them apart, so that you can find the app best suited for your style of visit.

Chimani

Since 2010, Chimani focuses only on mobile apps for the outdoors, and in particular national park locations. Their entry-level app (free) is “National Parks”, a survey of each of the 400+ national park service units, organized by NPS designation such as National Park, National Monument, National Historical Site, etc.. Each of the 400+ units is introduced by a picture (I provided those for the 59 national parks), and a brief general description. The interactive features include:

  • A “trip planner” offers suggestions for point of interests depending on length of stay, your interests, and outdoor proficiency.
  • A mechanism to bookmark locations you want to go to, keep track of those you’ve visited, and earn badges and share on social media if you’re into this sort of thing.
  • A zoomable map which can be used offline, with each parks keyed to an icon which you can tap to obtain the relevant information.

In addition, for some units, a the app provides a link to install a detailed guide. That’s where things get meaty if you plan to visit a park. Chimani has developed for a while individual apps for popular national parks and other NPS units. Those apps were initially for purchase ($2 each), but apparently a partnership with Subaru has made them free, and Chimani have upped their game this year by releasing one app for each of the 59 national parks, making them so far the only company to have done so. I have checked the information for the most remote and seldom visited parks, and can report that it is very accurate and quite complete. All the apps use the same format, so once you are familiar with one app, using the others is easy.

The informational content of the app encompasses (and occasionally follows closely) what you’d find on the NPS website. A big difference is that the information is organized by categories (such as point of interest, camping, hiking, bathrooms) in a format easy to browse on a mobile device. Each of the locations are illustrated with a photo, so the app gives a good idea of the terrain of the park.

Being designed for outdoor use, all the information is accessible offline, without the need for a data connection. However, be aware that after you download the app, you still need to open it with a data connection one time to load the maps and photos before you can use it entirely offline. Maps can be downloaded at two resolutions. The highest one represents a lot of data to transfer and store! As an integrated app, they offer the same interactive features as the global app: trip planner, tracking, map integration.

The maps, which are based on the crowdsourced and excellent openstreetmap.org and custom-rendered by Chimani, have a good amount of information (including trails), topographic-level detail, and park locations. They are GPS-enabled, meaning that when you are in the park, you can see your own location as a marker on the map, which alone makes it worth the download.

Verdict: Only apps with detailed information for all the 59 national parks. Offline, easy to use, enhanced version of the NPS websites, with a solid and useful map.

REI

REI’s National Parks free app is the latest offering, released this year to celebrate the NPS centennial. REI’s app traces its roots to the acquisition of Adventure Projects, a small company who created specialized apps and websites gathering crowdsourced information for multiple outdoor activities including hiking, trail running, mountain biking, climbing, and skiing.

Unlike the Chimani apps, REI’s is a single app that includes all the parklands, which are not limited to national parks. As of this writing, 36 of them are covered, with an odd mix including locations such as Rock Creek DC, or New River Gorge, WV, but not Great Smoky Mountains, the most visited of the national parks!

With that much data, like for the Chimani apps, you need to download the maps and photos before you can access them offline, which is simply done by opening them – much easier than with the Google Maps app on which the maps are based. Once you’ve done this, the maps are GPS-enabled and work without a signal. They are based on the excellent “terrain” maps of Google, which provide greatly rendered topographic-level detail, and in addition there are icons for park locations. The main draw on the maps are clearly outlined hiking trails with overlaid icons of geotagged photos which open to larger, captioned versions when you tap them.

Although the app has the all the basic general park information you’d expect, its main strength is its great collection of hiking trails (the database lists 4,823), thanks to the inclusion of crowdsourced information from the Hiking Project – one of the Adventure Projects creations. For each trail, there is a detailed map, elevation profile, detailed description, photos (of varying quality since user-supplied), and even user ratings. As a crowdsourced project, everybody can contribute to the database by sharing their itineraries, so this has the potential to become an extremely extensive database.

In order to broaden its appeal to non-hikers, the app also includes a developing category called “gems” (currently 235), which are roadside attractions requiring only a short stroll, for which information is provided in a format similar to hiking trails. Last, a “family friendly” category attempts to identify those gems and trails that offer maximum rewards for least effort.

Verdict: Extensive digital trail guide and maps for offline use, particularly good for hiking thanks to great crowdsourced information.

National Geographic

Since National Geographic publishes the best selling guidebook to the national parks as well as an excellent collection of national parks maps, it is no surprise that National Parks by National Geographic was one of the first mobile apps dedicated to the national parks. It currently covers the 27 amongst the most popular parks.

The base version of the excellently designed app is free, and includes a brief guide with general park information, current weather, a map, and a photo gallery. The map consists of pins overlaid over a satellite background (data link required), but except for campgrounds, the pins do not link to more information, only place names, limiting the practical usefulness. The photos have the curated quality expected from National Geographic, however there are only 3 per park in the free version.

Detailed guides to the parks are available as in-app purchases of $2 for individual parks or $14 for the whole set. This buys you:

  • A dozen more photos, some of them under the category “photo tips” including detailed location and information on how to get the shot, others under the category “what to see”, which come with extended captions.
  • A list of interesting facts (called “park secrets”).
  • A list of recommended activities, each with a well-written detailed description (“what to do”).

Verdict: High quality editorial content, including expert recommendations and excellent photography.

Passport to your National Parks

Eastern National issued in 1986 the “Passport”, a booklet to help visitors collect cancellation stamps in each of the 400+ NPS units. The companion free app main function is likewise to help visitors find parks, plan and record visits. Parks can be searched by name, region, state, or nearby location. For each of them there is a picture, very brief description, and links to the nps.gov website for additional information.

Verdict: electronic version of the popular “Passport” booklet for NPS Units

Oh, Ranger ParkFinder

American Park Network has for decades made available free printed park guides with a familiar green cover. The main purpose of the free Oh Ranger Parkfinder app is to help visitors find parks. Unlike other apps surveyed here, those are not limited to NPS units. Instead, they include not only other federal public lands such as national forests, national wildlife refuges, BLM sites, but also parks at the state, county, and city level. Within 100 miles of San Jose, CA, no less than 3001 parks were found!

You can locate parks by proximity to a city or zip code, and filter them by any of 20 type of activities. For each of them, there is a brief description and activity list, phone number(s), a link to the park’s website, map link, and sometimes user reviews and a photo gallery.

Verdict: extensive database of public lands for finding your park

Maplets

Maplets ($3) is a universal map viewer rather than a national park app, but I mention it on this list because it is one of my favorite apps to use when visiting a national park. I recommend it to people who do not want to bother with a complex GPS app (Survey here) because it is so easy to use and is based on what I consider to be the best general-purpose maps of the national parks, the NPS official maps. Those maps are not topographic, but instead are graphical representations that offer the exact right amount of information for most visitors, enough for driving around and hiking on maintained trails.

After you download maps for the parks you intend to visit the app simply indicates your location on the zoomable map with a dot without the need for a cellular connection. When the park includes detail maps for some areas, you download all of them at once and can switch between them with a pull down menu. In addition to the official NPS maps, Maplets can show your location on any calibrated map, and those will appear when you search for the location. For instance, when hiking the Subway in Zion National Park one-way, one of the difficulties is not to miss the exit trail. In searching for “Zion”, I found a calibrated topo map of the entire route, which made navigating it a child’s play, even in the dark.

Verdict: Usefull offline viewer for the official NPS maps and others.

Zion National Park’s High: Observation Point

Zion National Park doesn’t have the equivalent of Yosemite’s Glacier Point. Because of the sheer walls surrounding Zion Canyon, there are only two trails leading from the valley floor to the rim. Although lesser known than Angels Landing, the Observation Point Trail is the higher of the two.

Angels Landing Trail is is famous for having exposed sections, protected by chains and guardrails. The steep 5-mile round-trip hike with a 1,500-foot elevation gain ends on a narrow spine that climbs a finlike mountain jutting out to the center of Zion Canyon from the West Rim.

The Observation Point Trail is a bit longer (8 miles round-trip; 2,100-foot elevation gain) leading to an even higher view of the canyon than Angels Landing, which appears as a small ridge (backlit in image above) from there. On the way, I took in a good variety of scenery, including the dark Echo Canyon, with beautiful slick rock formations and a glimpse into a slot canyon at mile 2.

Past that section, views open up over a secondary canyon not visible from the Zion Canyon floor. Then the last section of the trail is a long, level traverse along the rim, which offer a variety of angles that enable you adjust the viewpoint over Zion Canyon depending on the angle of light. I liked the views along the initial section of the traverse in the morning. In the afternoon, the light was more favorable at Observation Point itself.

For the iconic shot looking down Zion Canyon, light is difficult on a clear day. Too early or late in the day, the canyon is in the shade, whereas at midday, the view is backlit. With normal hiking hours, the best is early morning or late afternoon, when one wall is in the shade, but the valley is still illuminated. The more northerly angle of the sun in the summer months helps, as will clouds.

On a cloudless day, the soft and directional light of dawn or dusk would be ideal. However, during the mandatory shuttle season (March to early November, plus November week-ends) you cannot park at the trailhead and either the first shuttle would be too late or you’d miss the last shuttle. Alternatively, you could hike from the Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort via the East Mesa Trail (which is used to access Mystery Canyon). The trail is about 7 miles RT, with little elevation gain, but much less varied than hiking from the canyon since you’ll be most of the time on a forested plateau.

On that June day, the initial plan was to descend the Subway from the top. However, the weather was threatening, and we changed our plans. I thought that changing weather may be promising for Observation Point, even at midday. Although I started the hike from the canyon on a warm summer day, at midday temperatures suddenly plummeted. I barely had time to put my camera gear away when a thunderstorm brought hail to the rim. Half an hour earlier, I was sweating profusely despite using my umbrella for shade. During the storm, despite wearing a rain jacket, I felt chilled. I was glad to have something else than a T-shirt, a lesson learned from previous outings! I waited out the storm, huddled under the umbrella that proved again its versatility, keeping me perfectly dry. Afterwards, breaking clouds put out the quickly changing display of light that I had hoped for, with dark clouds creating a brooding atmosphere.

Zion National Park’s Orderville Canyon: The Narrows Adventurous Sister

Most hikers into the famous Virgin River Narrows of Zion National Park turn around at the junction with Orderville Canyon, sometimes after taking a quick peak inside. Zion National Park’s most accessible canyon after the Narrows, Orderville is spectacular and distinctive, making it a worthwhile destination in itself for the adventurous hiker.

Exploring the entirety of Orderville canyon is a 11-mile (one-way) hike that offers a striking change of environment as the canyon gets deeper and darker as you progress. If you have only one car, a Springdale outfitter can shuttle you. From Zion National Park’s east entrance, turn north on North Fork Road after 1.7 miles, then continue for 11.5 miles to the trailhead. A 4WD shaves 2 additional miles. You start on a verdant plateau, and walk on a dirt road and a trail, before descending into the canyon via a steep landslide (mile 3). For the next 2 miles, you hike a dry and open canyon where wide washes alternate with narrows and tall walls.

At Zion National Park’s boundary (mile 5), the canyon becomes more narrow, and you encounter the first major obstacle, a boulder that creates a 15 feet drop, which can be rappelled or downclimbed. With just two tall obstacles and several smaller ones, Orderville Canyon is the easiest of the technical canyons, or one of the most difficult of the hikes.

The canyon, which so far has been dry, becomes more wet as you progress. Starting at Bulloch Gulch (mile 6.7 approximately) a stream flows permanently on the canyon’s floor, adding much character, diversity, and lushness to the place.

The second major obstacle (mile 7.3 approximately) is a boulder that creates a 10 feet drop, with a second boulder suspended above it called the “Guillotine”, on which a small tree grows.

The last part of Orderville has the most character. It is as tall as the Virgin River Narrows, more narrow, steeper. The watercourse is also much more narrow than the Virgin River, and adorned with cascades and short waterfalls. To me, those waterfalls are what distinguishes Orderville from other canyons. The fun progression consists of sliding, down climbing, scrambling, wading, and occasionally swimming. It is all pleasantly refreshing on a warm summer day, but in colder seasons, a wetsuit is required. For photography, protecting your camera with a dry bag is almost a necessity, and a tripod will allow you to smooth the water in long exposures.

The last obstacle (mile 8 approximately) is six-foot tall Veiled Falls – best descended on the south side using moki steps carved in the rock, as jumps have resulted in many twisted ankles. This is the official turn-around point for hikers coming up the canyon from the Virgin River Narrows, as trips upstream of that point require a canyoneering permit.

Orderville Canyon joins the Narrows at mile 8.5. The Riverside Walk trail is at mile 10, and the end of the road at mile 11. Given that the most interesting section of Orderville Canyon is by far the last mile and half, for a plan with easy logistics, you could explore that section from the bottom, as the obstacles are easily climbed. For something different, you could even travel the whole canyon up one way, resulting in an elevation gain of about 2,000 feet.

The Whole Enchilada: Zion National Park’s Subway from the top

The Subway is a superlative backcountry area in Zion National Park which has become world-famous. The common way to visit the formation is via a hike from the bottom of the canyon. However, this approach misses some of the most beautiful sections of the canyon. In this post, I’ll take you through the entire length of the Left Fork: there is much more to it than the famous curving section reminiscent of a underground train tunnel.

I had my sights on the route for a while, but my wife objected to me going canyoneering solo. Last year, a small group of family and friends gathered, and we descended a few canyons. Due to the popularity of the Subway, by far the most sought-after backcountry outing in Zion, permits are difficult to obtain. They are distributed by a complicated lottery system which opens several months in advance. We had secured spots, but threatening weather compelled us to abandon our plans. Instead, I hiked to Observation Point, and on the way was caught in a hailstorm. You do not want to be in a canyon when there are risks of flash floods!

This year, instead of the regular start of the Subway, we opted to reach the Left Fork about half-a-mile upstream, adding to the itinerary the section of canyon known as “Das Boot” (story of how it got its name). The last of the four miles of approach was entirely cross-country, with only a few very faint and short sections of user trails. I marveled at the fact that we were able to get exactly to the start of the route based on a topo map, and a few paragraphs of textual description amongst terrain which essentially all looks the same.

Das Boot turned out to be an impressive canyon, dark, narrow, with tall sculpted walls which make you feel you are moving deep in the earth, in serious and committed-looking canyoneering territory. There was quite a bit of water, and it was cold, so cold that my hands hurt, although a 4/3 wetsuit kept my body warm enough. I swam on my back so that I could keep them out of the water. The subterranean conditions favored growth that colored the walls with an exquisite green. The canyon is full of obstacles such as chilly pools and logjams. By keeping eyes fixed on them, it would have been easy to miss looking upwards to see an amazingly lighted wall near the end of the narrows.

By contrast, in the first part of the Subway, the canyon is open and enlivened by lush vegetation. The progression consists mostly of hiking, with a mix of short swims (doable without a wetsuit in summer), three very short rappels, and even a jump into water that make for a fun outing. That section would be accessible to any adventurous hikers in good physical condition and with proper equipment, provided that someone in the group is knowledgeable with rappelling – note that it would have to be friends, since guiding is not allowed by the NPS in Zion. The water in the canyon, fed by springs, is amazingly clear and not tool cold, as opposed to the potholes usually found in deep canyons, which can be murky and frigid.

Soon, the canyon becomes a narrow corridor of otherworldly beauty, full of alcoves and pools. After a sharp turn, you come to view of the “North Pole”, a log curiously propped against the canyon walls. It was carried by a flash flood a long time ago, which should give you an idea of their power. That section is only a few hundred yards long, but it is several times the length of the “Subway” proper! Regardless of the way one travels the Subway, there is much more approach than canyon hiking, but the narrow parts of the canyon makes it well worth it.

A final rappel down a cliff brings you into the “Subway”, and after crossing a deep pool, you join the site that is reached by the popular (8 miles RT) hike from the Left Fork trailhead. That cliff is what makes the upper part of the Subway unreachable from the bottom. The “Subway” may indeed be the most beautiful section of the Left Fork, but having now traveled the canyon both ways, I feel that the traverse from the top is much more varied and satisfying than the hike from the bottom. If you want to experience it yourself, I highly recommend the book by Tom Jones.

Metro Silicon Valley Cover Story features QT Luong

On the occasion of the release of the USPS stamps celebrating the NPS Centennial, Metro Silicon Valley ran a cover story about my photographs of the national parks.

There is an adage: “all news is local”. The other press coverage for that stamp of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is from North Dakota papers, for example the Dickinson Press which has as a bonus my appearance in the Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan film.

Metro Silicon Valley is a 30-year old, widely circulated, alternative free weekly newspaper with a particularly strong coverage of the local art scene. I was honored because the paper covers photography more sparsely than other arts. From what I saw, the last story about a photographer was a May 2014 review of Carleton Watkins exhibit at Stanford – see also my notes on that exhibit.

Here are my recollections about the cover image, as excerpted from Treasured Lands.

Because of persistent drizzle, the daybreak felt dark and gloomy. After loading our double kayak onto the tour boat, we gathered our gear into large clear plastic bags to protect it from the rain. Upon drop-off, we stuffed the gear back into the double kayak. It is surprising how much you can fit onboard: two weeks worth of food in bear canisters, a tent each, and three camera systems. Starting to paddle in the late morning, we took our first stop only at dinnertime, cooking there so that our final camp would not have bear-attracting smells. We initially expected to stop when it would get dark, but at those latitudes, it doesn’t get dark. We kept paddling, taking advantage of the advancing tide, and of a break in the rain until we reached our destination, a grassy flat north of the mouth of McBride Inlet, at 2 AM. I had spotted that area on the map as a place with great photographic potential because of its location next to a narrow inlet in which the McBride Glacier calves. Besides the direct view of the front of the glacier, I thought that the icebergs originating from the McBride Glacier would likely be stranded in great numbers on the nearby flats. By the time we had finished setting up camp, it was 3 AM, but I couldn’t go to sleep despite the long day of effort. I felt excited by possibilities and energized by the clear sky and the lingering half-light of the Alaskan summer that I could see growing brighter. The world felt so beautiful and just invited exploration. After being awake for almost 24 hours in this intensely wild and pristine place, I felt myself in a curious state of heightened awareness. I wandered around the tidal flats until I saw a translucent iceberg lying more than a hundred feet away in water. The water was very shallow, and I understood that with the fast rate at which the tide was receding, if I waited, it would be totally out of the water. I left my camera bag on the mud and waded into the water with just the camera mounted on a tripod, the focusing loupe and dark cloth around my neck and a film holder in my pocket. The iceberg was kind of small, around 3 feet tall, but by getting very close to it, using a wide-angle lens, I made it a prominent feature in the photograph, since it was the element drew me in.