Terra Galleria Photography

Starting Large Format Photography in Death Valley

By the fall of 1993, I still didn’t own a car. Back then, the same UC Berkeley student group that I joined for my first trip to Yosemite organized a yearly outing to Death Valley during the Thanksgiving school break. I didn’t know what the place was about, but I had known its name since my childhood through the Lucky Luke comics that take place in the Old West.

The drive was my first excursion east of the Sierra, and the vastness of the open spaces matched what I had imagined before of the American West. However, besides its vastness and aridity, the Panamint Valley appeared at first a barren and unremarkable valley. After that, my introduction to Death Valley was again atypical. We arrived in the late afternoon and set up camp at a higher elevation campsite, maybe Wildrose, where the night was quite cold. The second day, after checking out the Charcoal Kilns, we set out for the 14-mile round-trip hike with 3000 ft elevation gain to Telescope Peak. On the way, I noticed white patches on the floor of Death Valley proper, and at first naively wondered if those were snow. Rather late in the afternoon, we reached the top of Telescope Peak, the highest point in Death Valley at 11,049 feet, where a few snow patches were still lingering, and got back to our camp quite late.

On the third and final day, we drove down to the Valley itself for a bit of sightseeing and stopped at Badwater. The touristy spot impressed upon me more than Telescope Peak because the desert features were close at hand. I stood directly on the salt flat for the first time, an environment new to me. Six months before, I was standing on the top of Denali, the coldest mountain on earth and the top of North America, but here was the place with the hottest recorded temperature on earth and the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. I was able to appreciate the contrast because I saw both, and began to gain an appreciation for the diversity of nature in America. There were similarities too, better illustrated by the photograph below from Dante’s View made on a subsequent visit – only in this post not from Thanksgiving 1993. If you compare it to the Denali summit photo, the valley with the salt flats echoes the glaciers. Each park represents a unique environment, yet collectively they are all are interrelated.

Between my visits to Denali and Death Valley, I had begun to study the landscape photography tradition in America, which is much stronger than in France, where humanist photographers like Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau were prominent. Amongst the first books I bought in America was a copy of Eliot Porter‘s In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World that I kept at my bedside for weeks. I visited local museums and discovered the experience of viewing Ansel Adams‘s prints in person. They were by far the most beautiful I’d ever seen at that point. Compared to my experience, my photos of Denali disappointed me, so I was eager to try a new approach. I decided to try the same camera as the masters, the large format camera, which was not only a change of gear, but more importantly, a move towards a more deliberate approach to image making. The Death Valley trip was the maiden voyage for my new Tachihara 4×5 equipped with a 5×7 inch extension back.

Because Telescope Peak was a rather rigorous hike during which I needed to keep up with the group, I had not carried the large format camera the day before. Now was the chance to make the much-anticipated exposure. While the group strolled out to the middle of the salt pan, before rejoining them, I stayed behind and took a single picture of the Badwater pond, my second 5×7 exposure and only large-format photograph of Death Valley on that trip – an image that wouldn’t be possible today because of a new boardwalk. When a week later, I inspected that transparency on a light table, I was astonished to see more details than I noticed when I was standing at the scene. That photograph started me on a journey that continues to this day.

Book Review: William Neill Photographer – A Retrospective

In the 1990s, as I was discovering Yosemite, one local landscape photographer served as an inspiration. It wasn’t Ansel Adams, but a younger large format photographer, for he was working in color and had created a body of work that felt original and personal, no small feat given the shadow cast by the elephant in the room. This photographer was William Neill, and his Yosemite: The Promise of Wildness, published in 1994, the same year as I made my first large format exposures of Yosemite, remains one my favorite photography books about the park, above my own.

William Neill’s latest book William Neill Photographer – A Retrospective has a Yosemite cover and contains a portfolio of Yosemite work (chapter 5), but it goes well beyond, spanning 40 years of photography. Besides covering a vast geographic range, the book illustrates all that nature landscape photography can do more than any other monograph I’ve seen, demonstrating the many ways to abstract a scene.

Maybe the photographic foundation of Neill’s work is his sensitivity to patterns. In his grand views, special light conditions cause the skies to complement the elements found on the land. However, the vast majority of his images are intimate scenes where his eye for abstraction excels. Although this strand pervades all of his work, it is particularly in focus in the three San Francisco Exploratorium books, starting with By Nature’s Design (chapter 4).

Neill’s travels took him to several of the most beautiful nature locations in America, but his images go beyond the literal, united by a quiet sense of balance, peace, and connection in nature. Having visited and photographed most of those locations, I am admirative of the emotional clarity he was able to bring to his work. His 1994 image of Hawaii Volcanoes “Lava flow entering the Sea at Twilight” was the first I saw of the phenomenon, and remains for me the definitive interpretation of that subject. It appeared in the 1997 book Landscapes of the Spirit (chapter 1).

With all those books dating from the 1990s, a new publication had long been overdue. This is particularly the case because in the 21st century, while continuing his pure and consistent vision of nature as a source of solace and spirituality, Neill has expended its expression by fully embracing digital photography. Digital is the tool which has allowed him to photograph from a boat during a necessarily quick cruise to Antarctica (chapter 2), create an entirely new body of impressionistic work (chapter 6), and re-interpret images in black and white (chapter 3) – two more paths to abstraction.

William Neill Photographer – A Retrospective incorporates portfolios from those six areas of his work, each introduced by a thoughtful essay by the photographer. The book’s introductions by photographers Art Wolfe, John Weller, and Neill each contribute insight on the work from diverse perspectives, and as a measure of the attention to detail that went into the book, they are printed on a different matte paper.

Three of the portfolios correspond to the themes he explored extensively during the last quarter of the 20th century. They seamlessly combine classic images made with 4×5 film, which form less than half of the book, with new work along the same themes. A dozen of pages at the end of the book reproduce images at a thumbnail size, providing an overview of each portfolio as well as camera and lens details. While I have usually little use for such details, it was interesting to confirm guesses about the medium used for each photograph. The three other portfolios are about the new lines of work.

While each image is strong and delightful, the dialog produced by their careful juxtaposition and sequencing brings the work to another level. The work’s beauty is well served by an elegant design with plenty of white space, and two bleeds introduce an element of surprise. The printing on smooth satin paper is to the highest standards. This is a beautiful and inspiring book that exudes excellence in all of its aspects, the definitive opus of a master.

When books are sold via retail distribution channels, after the publisher, distributor, and retailer have taken their shares, only a tiny portion goes to the author/photographer. When they choose to offer copies directly (William Neill does at the links in the blog) consider supporting them and getting a signed copy. Also, a more elegant edition with a cloth cover and tipped in image was available as a pre-publication special offer and a few extra copies remain.

Gateway Arch National Park: Thoughts on a Name

Gateway Arch just became America’s 60th national park. Following my visit to photograph it, I elaborate on why it is an odd choice, try to understand why and how the name change happened, and voice my personal opinion about the new name.

Why was Jefferson National Expansion Memorial renamed Gateway Arch National Park?

In the 1930s, St. Louis attorney Luther Ely Smith spearheaded a local movement for a memorial site and convinced Franklin Roosevelt to establish it by presidential proclamation in 1935. Since then local politics and funding have guided the development of the memorial. The recent name-change proposal originated again with a community partnership, this time including the city of St. Louis, Bi-State Development, Gateway Arch Park Foundation, Jefferson National Parks Association and Great Rivers Greenway. It was embraced by the national politicians from Missouri in a bipartisan way. In the summer of 2017, they introduced legislation to change the name in Congress as Gateway Arch National Park Designation Act S. 1438 and H.R. 3058.

The timing is not coincidental. In 2010, a design contest took place to “re-envision the visitor experience” of the grounds. The winning firm brought back Saarinen’s original master plan, which included a continuous park linking Gateway Arch and the Old Courthouse. In addition, the museum below the Arch is expended and given a new western entrance, and other improvements take place along the river and north side. The renovation, which is the most significant alteration of the grounds since the Arch was built, will be completed in time for a July 2018, grand re-opening of the museum. The project cost $380 million, including $221 million raised from local business interests by the Gateway Arch Park Foundation. With that much money spent, the majority of it from private sources, it is not surprising that someone would want to mark the renovation in a lasting way:

this new name will best reflect the magnificent renovations and visitor experience we will unveil in a few months

The name change has two components: “Jefferson National Expansion” replaced by “Gateway Arch” and “National Memorial” replaced by “National Park”.

Why “Gateway Arch”?

The primary reason for the name change was that the memorial is effectively known as “Gateway Arch” to most visitors. The name Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, quite a mounthful, never stuck with the locals, nor did it connect with St Louis. It could be that “Jefferson” became less than important than when the memorial was established, because in 1943, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial was built in the Capitol Mall in Washington, DC. Rather than memorializing Jefferson, the Arch celebrated his main contribution to the westward expansion, the Louisiana Purchase.

While it sounds more recognizable and familiar, the new name of the park substitutes what is being memorialized (the National Expansion, Thomas Jefferson and St Louis’s role in it) for the physical symbol that represents it (the Arch), and now omits the function of the park (to memorialize). It looses the meaning of why the Arch was built and turns it into another structure, celebrating the Arch rather than its reason for being. Simplicity was traded for seriousness. Over the course of my visit to the park, I asked a number of rangers what they thought of the name change. The most supportive answer I heard was “I have no opinion”, and the most frequently voiced was that abandoning the old name diminished the park.

Why “National Park”?

Name change proponents made the case for “Gateway Arch” but not for “National Park”. The only justification for the “National Park” component of the name that I found is in the National Park Service press release, incidentally, a document that contains a curious (revelatory?) slip in its title: “Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Renamed Gateway Arch Park”:
better communicating to the public its status as a national park
However, making clear the connection of the site with the National Park Service (NPS) is not a reason specific to the Arch, and would call for renaming all the NPS units “National Park”. All the documents related to the name change are silent about the park’s merits.

By contrast, when other NPS units were promoted to “National Park”, that upgrade was a big deal, and often the result of a campaign just to do that based on the park’s merit. As an example H.R.3641 – Pinnacles National Park Act devotes 4 long paragraphs – findings (2) to (5) – to emphasize what makes Pinnacles unique, and H.R.1488 – Indiana Dunes National Park Act uses no less than 14 findings to establish the merits of the area.

Recently, the goal of the other name upgrades has been to bring more recognition and visitors, and an eye towards local economic benefits. As an example, Rep Sam Farr stated in his floor speech advocating for changing the name of Pinnacles National Monument to Pinnacles National Park:

the new national park designation would strengthen the region’s economic and tourism potential
The same arguments are found within the campaign to rename Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore to Indiana Dunes National Park. However, I could not find a written reference to economic benefits in the case of Gateway Arch. As the top attraction in St Louis, and an internationally recognized American icon visited by more than two million each year, it is not clear if a designation change makes a difference.

Could it be that this redesignation was just an accidental byproduct of the primary name change? Maybe the fact that Gateway Arch is not the entity being memorialized led to removing the “Memorial” designation. What were the possible replacements? The preference of the National Park Service, was for “National Monument”, which they thought was consistent with the size of the grounds and the example set by another American icon, the Statue of Liberty. “Monument” would have certainly described the park appropriately. Is it possible that the administration’s evisceration of national monuments had devalued the designation in the eyes of the decision makers, therefore leading to the change from National Memorial to National Park instead?

Should Gateway Arch have been named a national park?

The NPS manages 417 park units, but there are only 60 national parks, which makes “National Park” an exclusive designation, one which has to be approved by Congress. Those are our most special places. Does the name appropriately recognize the merits of the park? In a previous post, we saw what makes the Gateway Arch and its grounds one of the standout places in America, but again, that was not argued by the proponents of the name change. On the other hand, it is quite evident that Gateway Arch stands apart from other national parks such as Yellowstone or Yosemite.

According to the NPS nomenclature:

Generally, a national park contains a variety of resources and encompasses large land or water areas.
First, while the size of the Arch makes it an impressive monument, the size of the grounds is diminutive for a national park. Gateway National Park’s area is 0.14 square miles (91 acres). For comparison, the next smallest national park, Hot Springs National Park, at 8.6 square miles is about 60 times larger, and the average area of the 59 other national parks is 1,375 square miles. Second, while a few of the existing national parks – Mesa Verde, Hot Springs, Dry Tortugas – are centered around a man-made resource, none is 100% man-made, unlike Gateway Arch National Park, which was built on forty razed city blocks acquired by the Federal Government by eminent domain.

Hot Springs National Park comes the closest to Gateway Arch National Park, in that both do not encompass large areas, are located in a city, and are centered around structures. Both feature some man-made landscapes, with Dan Kiley’s design being more noteworthy than the Grand Promenade. On the other hand, amongst their historic structures, Bathhouse Row is more unique than the Old Courthouse. Hot Springs has 26 miles of trails and a campground. The scenery includes southern hardwood forests, hills, rock formations, and a gorge with a stream, but it is undistinguished, and the main natural resource is the hot springs system. Gateway Arch has, well, the Arch. Hot Springs has an older history both as a site and a protected area, but no memorial or national historic site had been promoted to national park before Gateway Arch. I consider the two parks to be roughly on the same level, oddities amongst the other national parks. The word “generally” in the NPS definition was precisely there to allow for such exceptions, and I find that they spice up a bit the system, as long as they remain just that, quirky exceptions. Given the push to develop a NPS system that tells an inclusive story of America, it is conceivable to include one 20th-century landmark amongst the national parks, and if so, I cannot think of a better choice.

However, I can only hope that this exception doesn’t become the rule, and open the door for more national parks in the same vein. There are already quite a few questionable national park proposals at different stages of the legislative process, such as this and that. Approving them would water down the land conservation ideals that led to the creation of the national parks, dilute the “national park” brand, and eventually make the designation meaningless.

How did that happen?

The National Park Service does care about the distinction between national parks and other units. The acting NPS director stated in July 2017:

We believe that the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial is too small and limited in the range of resources the site protects and interprets to be called a national park.

Members of Congress and in particular the Missouri delegation thought it appropriate to overrule the NPS. As locally elected politicians, representatives and senators have to advance local interests, while by definition national parks are of national significance. In our case, maybe the decision was caused more by a limited understanding of the NPS system than a desire to benefit local communities, compounded by the absence of clear guidelines. The later problem was identified in this 2013 CRS report:

Today, there are more than 20 different designations (i.e., titles) for units of the National Park System, reflecting the diversity of the areas. There is no statute that sets out and defines all the designations, and Congress has discretion in choosing the type of designation for a unit being established.
The bill passed in the U.S. Senate on Dec. 21, 2017, and U.S. House of Representatives on Feb. 7. It was signed in law by President Trump on Feb 22. Such an approval did not have to be automatic. In 1929, Congress passed a bill to create a national park in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas, part of the oldest National Forest in the southern United States, but President Coolidge listened to recommendations from the NPS and vetoed it. The St Louis newsweekly Riverfront Times muses that this might go down as the “least controversial move of Donald Trump’s presidency”, but yet it manages to be the most controversial of the NPS names.

Gateway Arch National Park is such an odd sheep that the main reaction I’ve seen from my informed audience is perplexity. Among the general public, most people do not know or care about the meaning of the national park designation, however, I hope that this name change awakens them to the idea of merit for national parks. Then, maybe legislative changes, such as a statute defining the designations or vesting authority to the NPS could be possible. Do you agree?

See more images of Gateway Arch National Park

Part 3 of 3: 1 | 2 | 3

Photographing Gateway Arch National Park

Thanks to my early visit to Gateway Arch National Park, it looks like as was the case for 58 and 59, I was the first to photograph the 60 national parks. This time it was only by a few days, as some of the people who had photographed the previous 59 national parks showed up less than a week later. On the other hand, my margin for being the first to do so on large format film is much larger, since to the best of my knowledge, nobody else had done it for the 59 previous national parks yet. Thank you to St Louis Magazine for reporting on my visit.

Challenging conditions for photography

This February trip had a drawback: the park was under construction. A major renovation is scheduled to be completed only this summer. Although most of the work is now taking place at the underground museum, the surface is full of temporary structures, signs, and fenced areas. When standing close to the Arch, I had to frame it against the sky to exclude them. For the large format photos, I prefer more context.

When you go further from the Arch on the park’s grounds, the North and South reflecting ponds, with their graceful curves mirroring that of the Arch, are an essential landscape feature. Usually, they are filled year-round, but because of the construction, they were drained.

From outside the grounds, there are two axial distant views available, both showing the Arch aligned with the Old Courthouse. One is from Kiener Plaza, west of the Old Courthouse. It features a sculpture called “the runner” located in a fountain that normally makes for a nice reflection pool. However, that fountain turned out to be drained for the season. It is filled only from about mid-March to November. By photographing from a distance, I avoided showing the empty fountain, but yet, that was not good enough to commit large format film.

The river view

The other distant view is across the Mississippi River. The official viewpoint there is the Mississippi River Overlook located in Malcolm W. Martin Memorial Park (85 W Trendley Ave, East St Louis, Illinois), open from 7AM to 10PM. The park, whose webpage is titled “BEST view of the Gateway Arch”, is also home to Gateway Geyser, the tallest water fountain in the U.S., capable of reaching a height of 630 feet, which matches precisely the height of Gateway Arch, with “eruptions” taking place daily at noon, May through September. The Mississippi River Overlook is a tiered accessible structure whose 40-ft height provide a view of the Mississippi River and St Louis Skyline, with the Arch and Old Courthouse in perfect alignment. The driving distance from the Arch to the Overlook via the Eads Bridge is about 2 miles one-way, but if you walk, you can save half a mile by taking the ramp and elevator from the bridge to the street via the East Riverfront Station.

Unfortunately, the photographs taken from the Mississippi River Overlook are marred by power lines, especially at daytime. Not a big problem in the digital age, but to stay faithful to my practice of not digitally removing elements from photographs, I found alternative views along the river. The city has a plan to transform the whole east shore area into a bird park with scenic views, doubling the surface area of the National Park, but this proposal had been floated for years and so far not much has happened.

Image A: River view, sunset

In the while, wandering the east shore of the Mississippi is problematic because of private property and the industrial activity centered around the large Cargill grain elevator. Trucks and freight trains on several railroad lines frequently ply the area, and a grain conveyor and dock used to load barges is located exactly opposite the Arch, intruding into views, such as this one with the Old Courthouse profiled against the sky rather than against a high-rise building.

Image B: River view, night

I went there four times, at midday, twice at sunset, and at dawn. I timed the later attempt for the full moon, the only day in the month when the moon can be photographed centered inside the arch at dawn. The day before, when the moon would reach the desired position, the landscape would be too dark compared to the moon, and the day after, the alignment would occur well past sunrise. Centering the moon in this photograph dictated yet a slightly different viewpoint.

Image C: River view, sunrise

The park view

I spent much time on the distant views because in them the construction is barely visible. To create a landscape photograph photographed from within the park that includes the Arch and its grounds, I had to avoid including the construction or the drained ponds, and find a viewpoint from which the Arch is not occluded by trees, and where the angle of view shows enough of its curved shape. I found only one spot that met all the criteria, just south of the Old Cathedral parking lot, where a small mound hid the Arch’s base.

Image D: Park view

I was hoping that because the park’s small size and limited natural resources, a single visit would be enough – unlike for the other national parks, which I have visited in average five times. However, a return to photograph the Arch with the filled reflecting ponds appears inevitable.

In the while, I need to choose an image to stand for Gateway Arch National Park in the updated Treasured Lands exhibit, which consists of one image for each national park. I’d be grateful if you could let me know which of the last four you prefer: A, B, C, or D and why. I will not be replying to comments so as not to influence your choices (I’ve already written too much!) but be sure that I read carefully and appreciate every one of them!

Click to answer poll if you don’t see window above

Part 2 of 3: 1 | 2 | 3

Gateway Arch National Park: First Impressions

On February 22, 2018, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial became Gateway Arch National Park, our 60th national park. Believing that the national park designation carries a special meaning, I greeted the news with perplexity. However, I traveled to St Louis, Missouri, that same week to try and extend my record of being the first to visit and photograph all the national parks. This post presents what I found at this most unusual national park.

On Feb 28, a light drizzle greeted me in St Louis, but the rain soon stopped. After a long day of travel, instead of looking for dinner, I donned all the layers of clothing I had brought with me and walked to the Arch. The low clouds that were swirling around it enhanced its power. At first, they obscured the top, but lifted through the evening to reveal the entire structure. Entranced by the Arch, I stayed until rangers chased me away past 11 pm, the official closing time of the Arch’s grounds. I photographed the Arch for four consecutive days, but images from this evening remain my favorites. In particular, the following image is the first I made of the Arch.

Family obligations and a speaking engagement had kept me in San Jose for a few days. Upon arrival in St Louis, I checked in at the City Place St. Louis – Downtown Hotel. It is a particularly convenient base for visiting Gateway Arch National Park because of the location two blocks away from the Arch and the Old Courthouse. The helpful and friendly staff exchanged my room for one for one with a view of the Arch (below) at no additional charge. Hotels guests can park with in-and-out privileges for $20/day at the adjacent Mansion House Garage, which is cavernous, but quite labyrinthine. However, if you are traveling lighter than I did – I packed my the 5×7 large format film camera kit and a full digital kit – you could easily do without a car since St Louis has an excellent transit system, including a light rail system that extends to the airport.

Expecting just another monument, I was awed by the Arch. The combination of size and purity of form was nothing like I’d seen before. One number sums the size: at 630 feet (192 m) high and wide, it is the world’s tallest arch and the tallest man-made monument in the entire Western Hemisphere. However, that’s one thing to know about the size of the Arch, only by standing at its base you realize how large it is.

Besides the size, the Arch exhibits a particularly pure kind of beauty. It was designed as an inverted catenary curve; a shape such as would be formed by a heavy chain hanging freely between two supports, and its section is an equilateral triangle 54 ft (16.46m) at the base, but only a slender 17 ft. (5.18m) at the top. With a stainless-steel skin, it reflects the light and the sky.

Maybe because its beauty draws from mathematics and the way it changes so much with light, as a former scientist turned photographer I found it particularly moving. I’ve visited the other iconic monuments in America, which are surprisingly few: the Statue of Liberty, Mt. Rushmore, the Washington Monument, and to me, the transcendent power of the Arch easily surpasses them all, like a modern version of the Pyramids.

The Arch is more than a shiny monument. Besides its size and beauty, it is a technological and engineering marvel. It used more stainless steel than any other one project in history. Looking at the slender curved pillars, it is hard to imagine that you can take a ride to the top. However, they are hollow and hide a remarkable transportation system, an ingenious combination of Ferris wheel, escalator, and tram, which each year takes a million visitors on the trip to the top. It is quite a squeeze, as you ride aboard something that could be described as a tiny spaceship pod.

Windows on the observation platform are tiny because they have to withstand an intense pressure, but their 45-degree angle let you look straight down vertically and also to the horizon. The view of St Louis was spectacular, and a ranger pointed me to a landmark 30 miles away. On a mid-week winter visit, there were no waiting lines to purchase the $13 ticket for the ride, and although you can stay as long as you want at the top, in between the arrivals of the trams, the observation platform was uncrowded. However, on a Saturday several dozens lined up, and I guess summer would be worse.

Jefferson National Expansion Memorial was established in 1935, to commemorate Thomas Jefferson (Presidents Washington and Lincoln were already memorialized on the National Mall), his Louisiana Purchase, and the resulting westward expansion of the U.S. The park is located along the Mississippi River, on founding site of St Louis, where the Louisiana purchase was completed in 1804, and near the starting point of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. In 1947 a competition took place to select designs for a monument. Although it was his first major project, the Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen won the competition, but he would not live to see the completion of the structure. Historically, the Arch is a masterpiece of modern architecture and marks one of the first uses of structural engineering, in collaboration with Hannskarl Bandel, to study the feasibility of a structure.

There is more to the park than the Arch. The grounds were designed by influential landscape architect Dan Kiley to complement and reflect the Arch. It could be said that they reflect each other, and cannot be separated, as together they represent a cohesive artistic endeavor, one of the most significant contemporary man-made landscapes in the country. The landscape around the Arch reflects the curves of the structure in many elements. It was interesting to identify them in the curved walkways, stairways, and even the shape of the railroad tunnel entrances, and the curvature of the overlook walls.

The design of the park created an axial relationship between the Arch and the Old Courthouse. The Arch is the tallest structure in Missouri, as the Old Courthouse had been once. While the Arch is an exemplar of mid-20th-century architecture, the Old Courthouse is an exemplar of mid-19th-century architecture. The dialog between those two structures adds depth to the park.

The Old Courthouse dome is in the Italian-Renaissance style similar to that of the National Capitol. Both were under construction at the same time, but the Old Courthouse was completed before, therefore becoming an inspiration for many civic buildings in America. Although the exterior is classic and stately, the interior is elaborately decored. Each floor features its own style, and they become more ornate as you go up.

In addition, the Old Courthouse is historically significant, as the place where the Dred Scott case began. One of the most important cases in American history started there in 1846, when the slave family of Dred and Harriet Scott successfully sued for their freedom. Several appeals resulted in a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1857 which reverted the St Louis court’s and precipitated the Civil War.

The room where the case took place no longer exists, but inside the building, most of which is open to the public, you can see two circuit courts restored to their historic appearances. When I visited, the Old Courthouse also served as a visitor center and museum for the park, as the main visitor center and museum located underground beneath the arch is being rebuilt, part of an extensive renovation of the site that will be completed this summer.

All of this makes the Arch and its grounds one of the standout places in America, with several areas and themes. However, it also stands apart from the other national parks, an idea that I will examine in a subsequent post.

See more images of Gateway Arch National Park

Part 1 of 3: 1 | 2 | 3

Two Peaks in San Gabriel Mountains National Monument

San Gabriel Mountains National Monument is recent, been having designated by President Obama in October 2014. This, combined with its relatively large size (‎346,177 acres or 541 square miles), has made it a target for the Trump administration’s “review” of national monuments. However, the San Gabriel Mountains are long-established recreation grounds for the second largest metropolitan area in the United States. Compared to even Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, the longest-established (October 2000) of the national monuments described in this series, San Gabriel Mountains National Monument is very developed, with ubiquitous roadside pullouts, picnic areas, trailheads, campgrounds, and even a ski area.

(click on map for larger version)

Mount Baldy (aka Mount San Antonio)

Highway 2, the main artery into the monument, is a spectacular drive that lives up to its name Angeles Crest Highway, offering views both towards the desert to the north and towards Los Angeles to the south. It has many curves, so driving its entire length takes more time than one would expect at first. My favorite section of the highway was the area west of the ski resorts on the flanks of Mount Baldy, and in particular near the Pacific Crest Trail. That section can be closed by snow in winter, and Google Maps indicated a road closure, throwing a wrench in my plans. However, that information turned out to be incorrect, so always better to check with a local source!

In that section, you can find views of Mount Baldy, the highest peak in the range, rising above 10,000 feet. Although I generally try to avoid image compositing, I had to use focus stacking for this image, merging digitally three images each focused at a different depth in order to render the foreground and background equally sharp. I chose a focal length of 60 mm since a wider lens would have rendered Mount Baldy too small. Longer lenses have less depth of field than shorter lenses. With the foreground just a few feet away, I wouldn’t have been able to render sharply both the desert plants and the mountain even by stopping down to f/22.

Prior to making the previous photograph from the edge of a parking area, I had to clean out the foreground extensively, since it was marred by beer cans and all sorts of trash. I also chose a lower camera placement so that the shrubs on the right would hide a trail, which is still partially visible. The downside of the development is that for a landscape photographer, it is difficult to exclude man-made features such as roads or power lines from compositions. I framed those ridges with a telephoto lens (140 mm) not only to compress the receding ridges but also because with a wider field of view, a man-made feature would have intruded.

Mount Wilson

Mount Wilson has a relatively modest altitude of 5715 feet but is famous because located near its summit, Mount Wilson Observatory is a place where Edwin Hubble and Albert Einstein conducted research. The 100-inch (2.5 m) Hooker telescope was the world’s largest telescope from 1917, when it was constructed, to 1949. The observatory opens at 10 am, but by using a drone at sunrise, I was able to capture the position of the observatory above the Los Angeles basin, something which wouldn’t have been possible from the ground.

The summit of Mount Wilson is occupied by a large antenna farm. The road, located at the base of the antennas, is too close to them for a good perspective, a problem that was again solved by drone photography.

Since the mountains are at the edge of the Los Angeles Basin, the city is visible in many of the views looking towards the south, if only in a distant way. On the other hand, Mount Wilson is directly overlooking the city. A road circles the summit. It is open twenty four hours a day, and I found the most spectacular time to be at night, when the lights of the city shine brightly. To connect the city and the mountains, I used a lantern to illuminate the plants in the foreground, and its brightness control was very useful for matching the lights of the city.

Beyond the two peaks

In this post, I’ve just highlighted two contrasting peaks. However, the natural habitats in the San Gabriel Mountains extend from the Mediterranean ecosystem found in only 3 percent of the world to conifer forests.

Despite their proximity to the city, the San Gabriels are vast, tall, and rugged mountains with dramatic topography. They are the backyard of 13 million, some of which outdoors people who have spent their whole lives exploring there. The 10,000 feet elevation of Mt Baldy is all the more significant because the peak rises almost from sea level in the Los Angeles Basin, and the same is even more true of San Jacinto Peak and San Gorgonio. They are big mountains close to large urban areas.

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Palms to Snow in Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument

Instead of its utilitarian name, Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument could also be have been called Sand to Snow National Monument because it spans a similar range of elevations, from the desert floor to the top of San Jacinto Peak, which culminates at 10,834 feet. Although San Jacinto Peak is lower than San Gorgonio, it is even more prominent (only 5 mountains in the continental U.S. exceed its topographic prominence) and dominates the landscape of Coachella Valley. Its steep north face rises abruptly 10,000 feet in 7 miles, one of the largest gains in elevation over such a small distance in the continental U.S. Not only the high-elevation areas of Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument are more visible than those of Sand to Snow National Monument, they are also more accessible as well, as they can be reached without hiking. The lower elevation areas comprise canyons enlivened by year-round streams that create rich oases.

Highway 74 and the Santa Rosa Mountains

The portion of Highway 74 crossing the Santa Rosa Mountains is appropriately called the Palms to Pines scenic highway since it takes you from clusters of desert palms up to conifer forests in less than ten miles of switchbacks. The national monument visitor center lies 3.5 miles from the start of the highway in Palm Desert and is the trailhead for the 2.7-mile Randall Henderson Loop Trail that gives a good glimpse of the low elevation desert environment. About mid-way, the Coachella Valley Vista Point offers a great view of the valley and mountains.

My favorite stop along the highway was the Cahuilla Tewanet Vista Point, located about 10 miles from the visitor center. A short trail leads you into the Santa Rosa Wilderness, above the aptly named Deep Canyon. A dense and varied collection of desert plants provide foregrounds to expansive views. During my early morning visit in January, the temperatures were near freezing, and the weather changed from sunny to hail by the minutes, making for an exciting outing in spite of its short length.

The night before, I stayed at the Pinyon Flat campground, which was cold and very quiet. When my alarm clock went off, I heard the sound of rain (or was it hail?) falling on the car’s roof, as it had been intermittently through the night. That is a sweet sound because it means that you can stay in bed! However, it did not last long, and upon opening an eye, I saw some bright spots in the sky. I hurried out and managed to find a spot near Highway 84 with cacti and open views of the Santa Rosa Mountains, just in time to catch the sunrise colors in the clouds.

On the south side of Highway 84, at a sign reading “Santa Rosa Mountain, Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument” the steep, rough and unpaved Santa Rosa Truck Trail, (which becomes Forest route 7S02) ascends amongst conifer forests into the Santa Rosa Mountains, leading to campgrounds and snow-capped peaks.

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and the San Jacinto Mountains

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway takes you in about twelve minutes from the upper reaches of the Coachella Valley at 2,643 feet to the Mountain Station at 8,516 feet above sea level. On the way, you pass five biomes, ending at an alpine forest.

The ride is made even more spectacular by the abrupt rise which occurs over only two and one-half miles, and the rotating design of the tram cars. The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is one of only three aerial trams in the world and the largest. The tram car floor rotates constantly, making two complete revolutions throughout the duration of the journey so that you have the chance to see in all directions without moving in the car, which is too packed for that. My kids, who would never have hiked up the mountain, loved the ride. From the Mountain Station, San Jacinto Peak is still a long way, but there are nearby nature trails to explore.

Tahquitz and Indian Canyons

A number of canyons lie at the base of San Jacinto Peak, in the Coachella Valley, a short distance from downtown Palm Springs. They are the ancestral home of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, and are nowadays part of the Cahuilla Indian reservation. They are under the care of staff wearing uniforms identifying them as “Tribal rangers”.

Tahquiz Canyon is known for its 60-foot waterfall, which you can see by hiking a two-mile loop with 350 feet elevation gain. The stream that creates the waterfall had a decent flow. It supports deciduous trees, and although it was January, I was pleased to notice some residual foliage color from the last autumn.

Indian Canyons is a larger tribal area than Tahquiz Canyon with trails up to 4 miles roundtrip and several flowing streams. It features three separate canyons, which together form the largest system of native fan palm oases in the country. Both are day-use areas only with entrance fees charged, and closing times are strictly enforced.

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Nature Preserves at the Edge of Wilderness in Sand To Snow National Monument

Sand to Snow National Monument owes its name to the striking elevation difference between the Sonoran Desert floor (about 1,000 feet) and 11,500-foot San Gorgonio Mountain, Southern California’s highest peak. That gradient makes Sand to Snow possibly the most botanically diverse national monument in America. Unlike Mojave Trails and Castle Mountains, no roads penetrate its 240 square miles (154,000 acres) interior. The highest parts of Sand to Snow National Monument are designated wilderness, and reached via trailheads on the north and west along Hwy 38. However, the lower parts of Sand to Snow National Monument on the east are quite accessible thanks to a trio of developed nature preserves on its outskirts, which do not charge fees and serve as entry points into the national monument.

(click on map for larger version)

Whitewater Canyon Preserve

The main feature of the 4.3 square miles (2,800-acre) Whitewater Canyon Preserve is the Whitewater River, a rare desert stream that flows year-round, although when I visited it was a trickle. Naturally, this stream has created a rich riparian habitat, but there are also plenty of opportunities to hike onto higher ground, as the Pacific Crest Trail is less than a mile from the ranger station. The Whitewater Canyon Preserve is managed by the Wildlands Conservancy. They cleaned up the area and transformed an historic trout farm into visitor facilities, including a ranger station that is an excellent place to get information about the national monument. The preserve is at the end of a paved road, and its gates are open to cars from daily 8am to 5pm (except on some holidays), but after-hours hiking is possible, and there is a nice and quiet campground where you can stay for free with a permit obtained at the ranger station or by phone.

Mission Creek Preserve

The nearby 7.3 square miles (4,700-acre) Mission Creek Preserve, which is also managed by the Wildlands Conservancy, offers a clear view of Southern California’s two highest peaks, San Gorgonio and San Jacinto. Reached by a well-graded dirt road, Mission Creek Preserve is less developed than the Whitewater Canyon Preserve. Without prior arrangements, I had to park on the large lot outside the locked gate and hike in. If you obtain the key, you can drive 1.5 miles to the Mission Creek Stone House, where you’ll find a free campground which is small but has flush toilets and a shelter.

Big Morongo Canyon Preserve

The 48 square miles (31,000-acre) Big Morongo Canyon Preserve is located on the outskirts of the town of Morongo Valley, less than a mile from Hwy 62, and was protected as a wildlife reserve in 1982, making it the most popular and accessible area in the monument. With the exception of the 4-mile Canyon Trail, all the trails are short and include boardwalks over wetlands. Since this is the desert, I was surprised by the lushness of the area, even with mid-winter’s absence of greenery. It was one of the largest cottonwoods and willow habitats I’d seen in California, and a few palm trees grow there too. Big Morongo Canyon Preserve is managed by the BLM and is a day use area open daily from 7:30am to sunset. A host was present at the trailhead, and there is a nature center where I learned that the preserve’s oasis is considered a major birding area in California by the Audubon Society.

Pioneertown

The Wildlands Conservancy manages the 40 square miles (25,500-acre) Pionneertown Mountains Preserve, the largest of their desert properties. A short unpaved road leads to a ranger station. Including riparian areas, volcanic mesas, and mountains, it is most diverse, but a huge fire in 2016 killed most of the preserve’s vegetation. The Pioneertown Mountains Preserve is not included in Sand to Snow National Monument. However, there is a 10 square miles (6,400-acre) detached unit of the monument called the Black Lava Butte addition that lies east of the Pioneertown Mountains Preserve. It protects two broad, volcanic mesas, Black Lava Butte to the west and Flat Top to the east, which I have found to be quite barren.

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Undeveloped in California: Castle Mountains National Monument

If I was to sum up my impressions of Castle Mountains National Monument in one word, it would be “primitive”. See what I managed to discover and photograph in one day of exploring this beautiful desert area that manages to make the Mojave National Preserve appear civilized, without the benefit of any detailed information nor any facilities.

Castle Mountains National Monument is part of a trio of national monuments in the California desert proclaimed by President Obama in February 2016, and at 32.69 square miles is quite small compared to the two others. While Mojave Trails National Monument surrounds Mojave National Preserve on three sides, Castle Mountains is surrounded by Mojave National Preserve on three sides. Unlike most of the recently created national monuments, Castle Mountains is managed by the National Park Service. Areas managed by the National Park Service in general, and national parks in particular, tend to be more developed than those managed by other government agencies such as the BLM. Therefore, I was surprised by the barebones nature of the national park website for Castle Mountains: no detailed map, nor any information on the park or activities – an harbinger of the situation on the ground. The most useful map of Castle Mountains is actually the NPS map of Mojave National Preserve, and since there is no ranger station nor visitor center in Castle Mountains, if you want to ask for conditions, the best number to call would be the Mojave Hole-in-thewall Visitor Center (760 252-6104 or 760 928-2572) or maybe the main Mojave visitor center in Barstow a call (760-252-6100).

The website did mention that the main approach to the monument is from Walking Box Ranch Road (unpaved) off of Nevada State Rd 164 or Nipton Road, and recommended a high clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle. Driving out of Searchlight in the dark, I looked in vain for a sign pointing to the national monument. Google Maps suggested a route via Walking Box Ranch Road, so in spite of the NPS warnings not to rely on GPS for navigation, I assumed the electronic directions to be correct. After a about ten miles of well-graded dirt road, I was pleased to spot a sign with the familiar brown color that said “Entering Castle Mountains National Monument”.

I was planning to stop at the first parking lot or trailhead ahead and sleep in the car – there are no campgrounds nor bathrooms in the monument. However, none appeared, and after driving for a while, I realized I’d gone too far from the Castle Peaks that I had initially planned to photograph at sunrise since they are east-facing. Despite the apparent isolation, I didn’t want just to park on the side of the road, since it had become quite narrow with not even a proper shoulder. It took me a while to locate a side road where I could pull out. This turned out a good idea because late at night, eighteen-wheeler trucks would barge by. When Castle Mountains National Monument was designated, its boundaries were drawn around a gold mine which is still active, and the industrial vehicles would be the only traffic I would see during my stay. I guess they are the reason the main road in such a good shape, and passable by most vehicles. Instead of driving back towards the Castle Peaks in the dark, I photographed the first light reaching mountains located in the Mojave National Preserve.

Besides the mountains, I found in the monument grasslands said to be particularly diverse, one of densest collection of Joshua Trees of the Mojave, superior to that found in Joshua Tree National Park, and generally a great array of desert vegetation ranging from all sort of cacti to juniper and pinyon pines.

Forming sharp pinnacles carved by erosion out of volcanic rocks, the Castle Peaks, which can be seen from as far as I-15 near the CA-NV state line, are the most striking mountains around. However, they are located in the Mojave National Preserve, not in the monument, and are often confused with the Castle Mountains. From the road, the Castle Peaks face east and make for a great sunrise shot, while the Castle Mountains face west.

The namesake Castle Mountains culminate at about 5,500 feet. I soon zeroed on their most distinctive summit, Hart Peak. Besides at the entrance, I didn’t find any trail, trailhead, pull-out, or a single sign in the entire monument, but I spotted quite a few side roads leading towards the direction of the peak. I tried driving one, but it quickly became very rough. Not confident that my Subaru Forester had enough clearance, I made what felt like a 10-point U-turn on the narrow road, parked near the main road and continued by foot. Overgrown jeep roads and a bit of cross country hiking lead in 1.5 miles (one-way) with 500 feet elevation gain to a saddle south of Hart Peak, where I found my favorite views of the monument, with interesting topography in all directions, and cross-light on the mountains in the early morning and late afternoon. From the saddle, I hiked the mountains opposite to Hart Peak for high vantage points. Since it was still early, I returned to the car, drove the main road to the southern boundary of the monument, and then hiked back to a spot below the saddle for sunset. Besides a few trucks on the main road, I didn’t see anybody for the entire day. Since the desert is full of thorny plants, after staying until the last light, I was grateful to mostly follow washes and old roads on my way down in the dark.

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Mojave Trails National Monument Highlights

Protecting a huge 2,500 square kilometers (1.6 million acres), Mojave Trails National Monument is the largest of the three California desert national monuments established by President Barack Obama in February 2016. In the heart of the California desert, Mojave Trails National Monument forms a connective tissue linking Joshua Tree National Park in the south to Mojave National Preserve, that it surrounds and with which it shares many geological features: remnants of a volcanic past, isolated sand dunes, and rugged mountain ranges.

(click on map for larger version)

Amboy Crater

Amboy Crater is a cinder cone extinct volcano whose black color sharply contrasts with the earth tones of the surrounding desert. It is perhaps the most easily accessed and developed area in Mojave Trails National Monument. Amboy crater was a popular sight for travelers in the heydays of route 66 from the 1920s to the 1960s. On my recent visit, I encountered hikers both at sunrise and sunset. From the trailhead and the approach, Amboy Crater is front-lit in the morning.

A newly paved spur road on the south side of Highway 66, about 2 miles west of Amboy (population 4) leads to a nice picnic area which serves as a trailhead. The hike is about 3 miles RT. Although from a distance the area looks flat, the trail first crosses labyrinthine lava fields and sandy washes and required a bit of attention to follow. Returning in the dark after sunset, I was glad for the discrete, but frequent markers. Once you reach the cinder cone on its western side, it becomes rocky and steep as you walk on lava blocks to climb 250 feet to the crater rim. A 0.3 mile-mile trail circles the crater top, offering a great perspective of itself and of the desert extending to distant mountain ranges beyond. I waited for the soft and even light of dusk to photograph the textures within the crater, while delicate colors lingered in the sky, although there was hardly enough light to see.

Cadiz Dunes

By contrast, the Cadiz Dunes are one of the most remote highlights of Mojave Trails National Monument. If it wasn’t for a rendezvous with photographer Greg Russel, who wrote an excellent post about threats to the area’s water, I wouldn’t have seen a single other person since leaving the pavement in the afternoon. The dunes are surrounded by mountains, and light is good both at sunrise and sunset. I preferred to photograph slightly backlit to emphasize the play of light and shadows.

The dunes are located in the Cadiz Dunes Wilderness and were not heavily used by off-road vehicles prior to their protection by the California Desert Protection Act of 1994, so they are still pristine. Besides having them to ourselves, we did not see any human footprints, although animal tracks were plenty. Getting there requires driving the Cadiz Road, which is unpaved but passable by most vehicles. From Highway 66 in the north, the road is slightly rougher than from Highway 62 in the south, with a few washed-out sections, but that is more than made up for by the fact that the unpaved drive is only about twice as short. From Cadiz Road, a 2.5-mile access road situated on the northwest edge of the dunes leads to a small parking area right next to the dunes. The last mile of that access road is sandy, fortunately the sand was firm enough that my AWD Subaru Forester had no trouble. I made sure not to slow down until I reached the parking area – which is hard enough that it was safe to stop on.

Afton Canyon

Although water is present under the desert ground, there is only one place where the 140-mile long Mojave River continuously flows above the ground rather than under the sands. Besides the rich desert riparian habitat of willows, Afton Canyon has also steep rock walls that earned it the nickname of “Grand Canyon of the Mojave”.

While staying at the campground reached via a few miles of well-graded unpaved road from I-40, trains ran fairly close all night, but fortunately they slowed down through the canyon enough that closed car windows muffled much of the noise. I was hoping to travel the whole length of the canyon by car, but right after the campground, the Mojave River flows onto the road, requiring a long crossing. After measuring a depth of at least 18 inches, I decided not to risk it this time.

Route 66

Historic Route 66 is a quintessential American icon of a bygone period, and Mojave Trails National Monument includes 105 miles of it, from Needles to Ludlow. This represents the longest remaining undeveloped stretch of Route 66. During my visit, a long section of it was closed for bridge repairs, and the total absence of traffic made it possible for me to set up long exposure night shots.

Mojave Trails National Monument is so recent that facilities are still minimal, and in particular you won’t find a visitor center. Nevertheless, I am hoping those highlights can get you started. In such a huge desert area, you are sure to make plenty of discoveries out of the beaten path!

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