Terra Galleria Photography

The Organ Mountains – Searching for a View

National parks often consist of mountains. This isn’t surprising since mountains are the most spectacular landforms and the elevation range that they span lends itself to biodiversity. New Mexico’s two national parks, however, do not comprise significant mountains. Carlsbad Caverns National Park is known for its underground wonders. While surrounded by mountains, White Sands National Park is located in a flat basin. Instead, the most spectacular mountains in New Mexico are the Organ Mountains, the crown jewel of the southern Rocky Mountains.

Consisting of four detached units around the city of Las Cruces, Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument protects no fewer than five mountain ranges, the Robledo Mountains, Sierra de las Uvas, and Doña Ana Mountains (which together form the Desert Peaks), the Potrillo Mountains, and of course the Organ Mountains. The later, although they form the second smallest unit, are by far the most impressive mountains in the monument, reaching almost 9,000 feet in elevation, with a rise in elevation of 4,000 feet over three miles, making them one of the steepest mountain ranges in the continental U.S.

The East Side

The only developed campground in the national monument is the Aguirre Spring Campground on the east side of the Organ Mountains. I arrived there by night. The next day, I set out at pre-dawn to hike the Pine Tree Loop Trail (4.2 miles, 1000 feet elevation gain), rated by hikingproject.com as the best trail in the monument. Shortly after the trailhead, I came to a fork. The left (E) branch seemed to be leading away from the mountains, whereas the right (W) branch headed towards them. I took the later, only to realize that it kept following the bottom of a ravine with heavy tree cover. The light of sunrise was striking the peaks above me, but by the time I reached open views of them, it was long gone. As I continued on the loop, I understood that the other branch would have placed me with open views right at about sunrise time. That was a mistake I could have avoided by studying detailed topographic maps of the trail beforehand! I was also expecting desert terrain, but the elevations, ranging from 5,700 feet to 6,700 feet, were high enough that I was hiking in a lush Ponderosa pine forest habitat, with also many deciduous trees. Early spring or late autumn would have been even beautiful.

Back to the trailhead, as I drove through the rest of the loop road, I realized that the Organ Mountains looked more towering from there than from the trail, because from the trail, you are too high and too close, which results in the peaks appearing foreshortened. They were better detached against the sparse desert vegetation than against the forests. But by then it was late morning, and the peaks were getting in the shade. In general, it is preferable to arrive at a new site by daylight and scout for sunset than to arrive at night, since the sunrise would have to be photographed without prior scouting. However, I was traveling close to the winter solstice for White Sands National Park. At that time, the sun sets before 5 pm, and being on a short trip, I was hoping to be more productive by driving at night rather than settling down for such long nights.

The West Side

The Organ Mountains are more often observed from the west side, because that is where Las Cruces is situated. From the I-10 freeway, they tower strikingly in the distance, the steep spires indeed resembling the pipes of an organ. The most popular destination on the west side is the Dripping Springs natural area where a visitor center is located at the base of the most dramatic section of the Organ Mountains. From there, many hike the Dripping Springs Trail (3.2 miles round-trip, 470 feet elevation gain) that leads to historic ruins and a waterfall. However, this trail is too close to the base of the mountains if one is to capture their grandeur. In the late afternoon, I drove down from the visitor center and made a few photographs near a picnic loop on the north side of the road. However, even from there, the mountains didn’t look as majestic as I remembered them from the freeway. I drove further down, and turned right (N) on Baylor Canyon Rd. That was about the most distant spot I could get from the mountains while staying on a road located within the national monument. Since the spires would look flat if I photographed with the sun directly in my back, I continued north of the main group of spires in order to benefit from a bit of cross-lighting at sunset.

Physical Book Details

As I prepare for the fifth printing of Treasured Lands, besides revising and adding contents such as White Sands National Park, I am also looking at possible physical changes. One of the things that I love about books is their materiality. In a world where so much has become virtual and mediated by the screen, it is satisfying to hold in your hands a well-made object.

The most important component of a book is the paper it is printed on. Even for books that are made only of words, the way various papers feel on the fingertips makes a difference in reading pleasure. For photography books, the choice of paper is critical. Everything else being equal, a thicker paper will support better printing. If you lay out a lot of ink on a thin paper, it will show through the back of the page. That is generally undesirable unless you have a particular conceptual goal in mind – a recent example that comes to mind is Andres Gonzales’s American Origami where the designer sought a certain level of transparency with the paper. In comparison with two other large illustrated books about the national parks, you will notice that Treasured Lands is quite a bit thicker than the page count would suggest.

The National Parks: America’s Best Idea , National Geographic Atlas of the National Parks (both 432 pages), Treasured Lands 2nd Ed (480 pages)

A coated paper, although less environment-friendly, will result in darker blacks, which are key to providing depth in images. Paul Caponigro’s images look very different printed in The Wise Silence with a soft matte paper versus Masterworks from 40 years which uses glossy stock. The later is definitively closer to the original prints, but if one considers a book is an interpretation and its own medium, the choice of the former to convey the quiet nature of the work makes sense. However, if the viewer is to see the landscape through the photographs, coated papers are the preferred choice. A glossy finish isn’t the best choice for text nor for borders, so in Treasured Lands, the choice has been to use a heavy matte art paper with gloss varnish applied on the images. This way, images are glossy and the rest in matte. Besides the extra cost, this requires extra work from the publisher, since they need to provide an additional layer to indicate to the printer where to apply gloss varnish. On the other hand, it opens up interesting possibilities. If you have the second edition of Treasured Lands, notice how the pins on the maps jump out.

Once materials are picked up, the printer sends the publisher one or several of what is called a “dummy”, which is a blank book made of the selected materials, meant to evaluate the “feel” of the book. Besides the ink, all the physical components of the book are there.

I am reasonably confident that you don’t know what “head and tail bands” are. Before getting into this funny industry of publishing, I had not heard of the term. Although I had amassed close to a thousand photography books, I had not noticed that many of those with hardcovers had one. Head and tail bands are the small strips of cloth at the top and bottom of a hardcover book set against the spine and paper. In a distant past, they were there to hide the imperfect cut of pages. Since nowadays pages are machine-cut rather than hand-cut, they are not really needed anymore. Many trade hardcovers don’t have them. For instance, they are absent from The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. They are there in many photography books because of their decorative role, and the statement they make about the art of the book is important to boutique publishers. The colors of the head and tail bands in Treasured Lands were chosen to match the folds of the jacket, which is normally not apparent. That 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. By contrast, the two other books use a regular dust jacket.

Despite the 4 stars, one of my favorite of the 200 reviews of Treasured Lands on Amazon is this one:

It underscores that the book, which will exceed 8lbs in its fifth printing due to the choice of improved materials, is of unusual weight. For most people, it will be the biggest book they own, so a strong binding is required. I have avoided to cut images by the gutter, except for the nine panoramic spreads, however having the book open flat still matters since many images are full page. The more pages a book has, the more difficult this is to achieve, and Treasured Lands has close to 500 pages. My printer is offering me two choices:

Open spine: results in a book which opens flatter

Closed spine: results in a book with a stronger binding

Which would be your preference? If you don’t see the box below, please click here.

Topaz Labs Sharpen AI: Deep Learning Comes to the Rescue

How many times have you left a scene convinced that you got the photo “in the box”, only to find out upon looking at the file at 100% on the computer that it was unacceptably blurry? Some photographers advocate making generous use of the digital trash can when images are technically flawed. However, when images required travel to faraway locations or captured rare conditions, I was reluctant to do so. It turns out that with recent progress in AI-powered software, blurry images may be very usable after all. Find out in this article what a game changer Topaz Labs Sharpen AI is.

Focus blur correction

Almost 8 years ago, I spent two nights at the South Denali Viewpoint and was rewarded with the awesome sight of the northern lights dancing over Denali. Shortly prior to that trip, I had bought a second camera body, a Canon EOS 5Dmk2, to use as a backup and time-lapse camera. However, I failed to exactly duplicate all the custom settings of my main camera, and in particular to disable AF from the shutter button. I focused the camera at infinity using the back button and expected it to remain focussed that way. However, when I pressed the shutter button, the camera tried to re-focus, and in the process misfocused beyond infinity. One of the key lessons here is to review images in the field. It certainly took many instances of the issue before I got into the habit of checking out the file at 100% on camera for important images, and yet I still sometimes forget. Back home, I tried every existing software to try to fix the images without success. Although the focussing error may escape detection on a web-sized image or even in the time-lapse video, it certainly wouldn’t go unnoticed in print. Here is a 100% view of a portion of the original file, which was about 21 MP.

This failure haunted me for months, if not years. It’s hard enough to travel to the South Denali Viewpoint in winter. That far south you also need to have high solar activity to see the aurora. Yet getting a second chance at photo stayed in the back of my mind despite concerns with carbon footprint. Shortly after Topaz Labs Sharpen AI was released, the first thing I did (notice the trial mode) was to try to run it on this image. With the default settings, the results showed artifacts that made the sky appear reticulated.

Yet parts of the image were much improved. Before giving up on another seemingly useless piece of software, I tried to play with the sliders. Reducing “Suppress Noise” to 0 only made things worse.

On the other hand, increasing “Suppress Noise” from its 50 default value to 75 yielded a notable improvement. Indeed, back in 2012, I had communicated with the author of a deblurring app, and he explained that what tricked it was that the image was shot at ISO 1600, which at that time was about the upper limit of usability for a Canon camera. He asserted that the resulting noise would make it impossible to estimate accurately the blur function for any algorithm. That was probably true in 2012, but that same year also marked the arrival in force of “deep learning” – more on that later.

Although starting from Suppress Noise at 90, results were satisfying, I found the best to be obtained by pushing the slider all the way to 100, and then adding grain (0.25) to prevent the image from looking artificially smooth.

The defocusing has enlarged the stars, and although they now look better with their sharper outline, the processing is not able to fix them entirely. On the other hand, the mountain and treeline look excellent. The difference is almost magic. I promptly purchased a software license.

Camera motion correction

I mentioned in the previous post that when I stood on the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, the winds were gusting, and I thought about camera shake. But it was also one of those fast-paced situations where you have other things to worry about. Landscape photography may at first appear as an endeavor where you have all the time in the world since your subjects do not move much, but even without taking into changes such as cloud motion, the light can change quickly, especially at both days ends. The sunrise colors that energize an overcast sky sometimes last only minutes. I was not only trying to check out views from both sides of the bridge but also walking along its length to find the best position relative to the river. In the heat of the moment, if that term is appropriate since I was also battling frozen fingers, I did not check the photos for 100% pixel sharpness before moving to the next spot. When I examined the images at home, as luck would have it, the composition with my preferred curve of the river was less than perfectly sharp. Here is a 100% view of a section of the original file, which is from a 60MP camera.

Sharpen AI controls are sparse. The most important is the choice of processing mode. A pull-down menu gives you the choice between Sharpen, Stabilize, and Focus. Sharpen is meant to apply ordinary sharpening, Stabilize to compensate for blur by camera motion, and Focus to compensate for blur caused by focussing errors. In addition, there are three additional sliders. Unlike with Focus, changing them over the default values generally does not result in any significant improvements with Stablize. Here is the result of applying Stabilize with the default parameters. I think you’ll agree that it is impressive.

I have found that Sharpen doesn’t do much more than ordinary sharpening tools. While Focus sometimes goes “over the top”, creating details that look like artifacts, Stabilize consistently produce great results. You could run it on every one of your images, except for the fact that Topaz Labs Sharpen AI is very resource-intensive. On my Mac Pro, it takes up to a quarer of an hour to process an image, and during that time, it is one of the only rare apps that brings the machine to its knees, slowing down considerably any other apps running concurrently.

How does it work?

Debluring had been available for while in Photoshop (currently Filter > Sharpen > Shake Reduction) as well as standalone software. Both used a technique that seeks to calculate from the blurred image the transformation mapping the ideal image to the blurred image using pre-programmed sophisticated models and equations. Once that transformation is determined, then they apply its inverse to undo the blur. With real-world images the technique did not work well. The alternative approach is machine learning with multi-layered artificial neural networks, called “deep learning”. Instead of pre-programmed models, neural networks that use a structure inspired by the human brain are fed huge amounts of data and corresponding desired outcomes. By performing the task with massive numbers of repetitions they are able to “learn” by tweaking themselves a little to improve the outcome each time. The concept has been around for half a century, however starting from the early 2010s, practical advances facilitated by GPU-based computation and learning data availability became impressive enough that deep learning is now synonymous with Artificial Intelligence (a much larger field) in the eye of the public. It quickly made its way into consumer products, the most ubiquitous being the speech recognition and face recognition capabilities of smartphones. Recently, the technology tricked into image processing software, and Topaz Labs appears to be at the forefront of those developments.

The way Sharpen AI works is basically to look at every element of the image, such as a tree or skyline, and try to replace it pixel-by-pixel with a sharper version. Based on CPU usage, I estimate that for each pixel, more than 50,000 operations are performed. The app is not applying a transformation to the image, but rather re-creating an entirely new image based on the input image. In some sense, the output is a graphically rendered image, rather than a photograph, and there is something uncomfortable about that. There are already plenty of great photographs around, that letting go of a mistake should be easy, but it’s not always the case because a particular photograph could achieve a particular useful purpose. Given unlimited resources, I would prefer to go back and re-create such a photograph and gain a new experience. However, my, and more importantly this planet’s resources are not unlimited, so I will settle for a compromise. Topaz Labs Sharpen AI made me glad I didn’t delete all of my blurred photos.

Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument in Winter

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

Lower Rio Grande River Gorge

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

Rio Grande Gorge Bridge

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

John Dunn Bridge

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

Wild Rivers Recreation Area

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

Taos Plateau

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

More photos of Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument.


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

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

Two iconic ruins in Bears Ears National Monument

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

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

House on Fire

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




Fallen Roof Ruin

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

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






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

2019 in Review, Favorites, and Happy New Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The First Photographs of White Sands National Park?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See more photos of White Sands National Park

Lands Stripped of Protections in Bears Ears National Monument

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

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

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

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

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

Needles Overlook

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

Moki Dugway and Muley Point

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

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

Valley of the Gods

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

That’s some vast and beautiful natural landscapes, but on top of that, remember that Bears Ears was intended to protect a cultural landscape. I touch on this aspect in the next article about Bears Ears.

Wonders Stripped of Protections in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paria Badlands

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

Paria Toadstools

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

Wahweap Hoodoos

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

Zebra Slot Canyon

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

Dry Fork Coyote Gulch

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

Forty-mile Ridge

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

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

More images from Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument

Road tripping off pavement with the Prius Prime

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

Environmental impacts

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

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

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

Prius Prime as the cleanest vehicle

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

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

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

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

Sleeping in the Prius Prime

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

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

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

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

Off pavement driving

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

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

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

The spare wheel

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

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

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

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