Terra Galleria Photography

Quick Tip: Change Aspect Ratio to Preserve Composition

Amongst the many new controls brought by digital processing, one of the simplest, and most often overlooked, is the possibility to change an image’s aspect ratio. One could do a lot of changes in the darkroom, but altering the aspect ratio by optical means was very difficult.

Why would someone want to do that? When images have a specific function, often they need to fit a given space. Since you don’t have any leeway in fitting the page, in printed publications there is an absolute need for a fixed image size. For instance, the magazine page is typically 8 3/8″ x 10 7/8″ because a lot of press equipment was designed to produce this size with minimum waste. That’s an aspect ratio close to 4:5, and one of the reasons why film sizes of 6×4.5 cm, 6×7 cm, and 4×5 inches were popular professional choices. However, most digital cameras, especially those with “full-frame” sensors derived from the 35mm format produce images with an aspect ratio of 2:3.

The obvious way to deal with that the discrepancy is to crop the photograph. But if the composition was carefully done in-camera, then it may not be possible to remove any area without degrading the composition – the hallmark of a perfect composition.

An alternative way is by altering the aspect ratio. At first, this may sound anathema, since it would introduce distortion. If the photograph has people at close range in it, the distortion would make them noticeably skinny or fat. In portraits, much of the interest is centered on the human face so that the image can easily be cropped anyways, making changing the aspect ratio unnecessary.

On the other hand, with images of natural subjects, altering the aspect ratio diminishes image integrity much less than one would expect. A reasonable amount of aspect ratio distortion turns out to be, surprisingly, hardly noticeable. See for example this page from the next revised edition of Treasured Lands (the fourth printing) to be published next year. Does anything look askew to you?

Here is the same spread with the original aspect ratio. The problem here is that the image doesn’t fill up the width of the text. Since in every other chapter of the book, images in the “notes” section do so, that be a design oddity. That is a big no-no in book design, where consistency is the key.

Now that you see both versions of the image you can see the distortion, but is it something you would have noticed without a side-by-side comparison? Did it affect the image? In my opinion, not as much as cropping it to the aspect ratio of the page space, as seen below.

How did the composition change? With the crop, the curve formed by the plants in the foreground would have been cut. That curve is a significant part of the composition, since it echoes the curves of the hills in the background, therefore enclosing the rectilinear space of the field between two curves. So by cropping the image, we altered the composition, whereas by stretching it, we didn’t. Aspect ratios are not written in stone, don’t be afraid to tinker with them if necessary!

By the way, speaking of Treasured Lands, it’s a great time to give the gift of the national parks with the book at 50% off for a limited time on Amazon (with coupons). The caveat is that they set price, not me, so this discount may not last!

Yucca House: the Worst National Monument?

This year, I’ve written about quite a few national monuments. Some of them are larger and, in my opinion, more interesting than some national parks. However, they form a disparate collection with a huge range of resources, and Yucca House National Monument is a case in point.

Yucca House was first described in F. V. Hayden’s Tenth Annual Report of the United States Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, Embracing Colorado and Parts of the Adjacent Territories, Being a Report of Progress of the Exploration for the Year 1876. In this volume reporting on the explorations of William Henry Holmes and William Henry Jackson in southwestern Colorado, including Mesa Verde and other Southwestern archaeological sites, Holmes described Yucca House as the most immense dwelling found during the survey.

Yucca House National Monument was established almost a century ago, in 1919, and is certainly worthy of that protection if you consider that one of the pueblos on the site had an estimated 600 rooms and 100 kivas, making it one of the most significant archeological sites in the country. For comparison, the famous Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde National Park, the largest cliff dwelling in North America, contained 150 rooms and 23 kivas. If comparing a valley pueblo to a cliff dwelling sounds too much like a apples to oranges comparison, the largest pueblo in Aztek Ruins National Monument, which extends in an area the size of a football field and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is estimated to once have 500 rooms.

All of this sounds promising, but when visiting the site, you’ll be in for a surprise. The first is in getting there. Directions by Google Maps and other GPS apps are correct and the site and is a dozen miles from Cortez, so it is not hard to locate. However, without GPS that would be another story, since there are no signs pointing to the site. The area is not wild but located amongst farmlands, and you need to drive on private farm roads, complete with “No Trespassing” signs – an inquiry with the NPS at Mesa Verde confirmed that despite of them, there is public access by special permission from the landowners. When I was there, the dirt roads were easy to drive, but I read in a trip report from someone who found them so muddy that they could not pass with their 4×4 Ford F-150.

Eventually, at a trailhead that appears located on someone’s yard, you can spot a “Yucca House National Monument” sign. Since the area appears to be prime rattlesnake habitat, fortunately at the beginning there is a boardwalk leading you through grasses. After passing two cattle doors, it gives way to a one foot strip of dirt, and following it for a short distance, you come in front of a mound of earth delimited by a short section of ruined wall on a side.

That’s all the artifacts you will see at Yucca House National Monument, because the pueblo has not been excavated. That wall is part of the Lower House, a small structure compared to the Western Complex, of which only a mound is visible. The National Park Service writes:

“The unexcavated nature of the site preserves its integrity and beauty for future generations of scientists and visitors. Experience a sense of discovery by visiting a site that has remained largely untouched for the past 800 years!”
Indeed, even if an excavation is done carefully enough not to damage the site, excavated areas become re-exposed to the weather, and therefore to erosion through rain, freeze-thaw, or wind, not to mention gravity. Walls such as the small section of the Lower House visible in the monument need to be stabilized. So for the sake of archeological conservation, sites are better left unexcavated.

However, for the sake of visitors, that’s another story. Some would say there is basically nothing to see at Yucca House National Monument. With its 33.87 acres (three times smaller than Gateway Arch National Park) it’s not like there is much natural terrain to explore either. Both the Colorado Welcome Center in Cortez and the Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores discouraged a visit. Maybe this, combined with the remote character of the site, explain why in two separate visits, I never saw anybody else there. The second time, the sky was overcast, but at least it did not rain like the first time, which allowed me to operate a drone – legal since I was not standing on NPS lands but rather outside the tiny monument. In the darkness past sunset, a glow barely perceptible to the eye appeared on the distant cliffs (below) and about five minutes later (opening photo) it was gone.

The title of this post suggests that Yucca House National Monument may be the least interesting of the 130 national monuments. But it is not even the case. Can you guess which one could be “worse”?

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument: an Interconnected Cultural Landscape

Of all America’s prehistoric civilizations, none left more visible traces than the Ancestral Puebloan culture, and nowhere else in the country can one find so many of their ancient sites, than at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.

The Anasazi or Ancestral Puebloan culture flourished between AD 300 and 1300 in the Four Corners area. Within this vast region, there are three large protected archeological areas: famous Mesa Verde National Park, Bears Ears National Monument which made recent news, and the lesser known Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. The monument is located outside Cortez, Colorado, on the side opposite to Mesa Verde.

The geology of Canyons of the Ancients, with the mesas and branched canyons, is quintessential of the American Southwest. Natural resources attracted its past inhabitants, and the rugged landscape has contributed to the protection of the historic sites. When Canyons of the Ancients National Monument was established, in 2000, it was the largest protected cultural landscape at 176,000 acres (275 square miles) – by comparison, Mesa Verde extends for 81 square miles. The landscape-level protection let us study the Ancestral Puebloans choices for the locations their communities, the way they structured their society and used natural resources, preserving the pattern of the way people lived on and made use of the land over 10,000 years.

Individual sites take on greater significance when considered in the context of a larger cultural landscape. Canyons of the Ancients National Monument features the highest known archaeological site density in the United States. There are more than 6,000 recorded sites, and many more are yet to be discovered, with their total number estimated to be up to 30,000. In some areas, more than 100 sites have been found per square mile, and according to estimates, that is the average density of archeological sites in the monument including sites yet to be discovered. Those sites include cliff dwellings and kivas, but also petroglyphs, shrines, agricultural fields, dams, and other components of human life.

The area has a primitive character, with few facilities and visitors. It is the opposite of Mesa Verde National Park in a way, and rewards those looking for out of the beaten path locations. Although not situated in the monument, the Anasazi Heritage Center in the town of Dolores serves as its visitor center. It has the most extensive exhibits and artifact collection related to that ancient culture anywhere. You can get good maps and information about the monument there, but in my experience, the staff will not direct you to sites other than those listed below. With the exception of them, all archeological sites in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument are left in their original, unrestored state, and are not marked for their protection and to further self-discovery. Therefore, although the monument has a plethora of ancient sites, finding them is a different matter.

Lowry Pueblo

Lowry Pueblo is the least isolated area in the monument, as it is close to agricultural lands – but I was still the only visitor there. The fertility of those lands helps explain why that area was settled by the Ancients Puebloans and why the community prospered there. Lowry Pueblo is also the most developed of the sites in the monument, which means that you’ll find a restroom, picnic area, packed trails, interpretive signs, and stabilized structures. However, the tallest part of the main structure is now covered by a large metal roof.

Avoiding it, I photographed lower walls. Notice the slightly higher viewpoint showing more of the walls in the second image? It was from a drone. You don’t have to fly them high for the difference of perspective to be visible! In the first image, I photographed under the soft light of a cloud so that no shadows would break the shapes of the shrub and walls, but in the second image, the shadows created by the strong light of direct sunlight help outline the structure of the more distant subject.

Painted Hand Pueblo

Since few large structures in the monument have been excavated, those you can see are much smaller than the major dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park. Most of the ruins at Painted Hand Pueblo have been left unexcavated, but the site is remarkable for a single circular tower sitting on a large boulder on the rim of the canyon, overlooking a scenic landscape. Those types of compositions work better when the sun shines from the direction of the canyon, which in this case is the afternoon. Note that nearby Hovenweep National Monument, which is totally surrounded by Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, has several clusters of ruins with similar character which are easier to find and to access, but more restricted.

Sand Canyon

Sand Canyon Trail is the best place in the monument to easily see many structures thanks to signage pointing to spur trails that led to points of interest. Sand Canyon can be approached via two trailheads separated by 6.5 miles of trail. Sand Canyon Pueblo is located near the north trailhead. The ruins are as large as the Cliff House in Mesa Verde, but they have been reburied after excavation, so all you can see now is rubble outlining the structure. After less than 2 miles, steep switchbacks drop about 1,000 feet, so the other trailhead, along paved county road G is more popular. Starting from the south trailhead, 8 major structures can be seen on the first 4 miles, and most turn back at the switchbacks. Because you hike for quite a ways from one structure to the next, and you have to look for them in cliff alcoves away from the main trail, there is more of a sense of discovery than at a place like Hovenweep where most of the sites can be spotted at a glance or right next to the trail.

Holiday Print Sale

It is a great time of the year to add new wall art to your home for holiday enjoyment. Decorate your office and write up expenses for the tax year 2018. Limited-edition prints also make one-of-a-kind (or almost) gifts.

If you are still on the fence, how about a 25% discount off the normal price, with free shipping worldwide, for any print offered via this website?

The sale lasts until the end of the year, so there is still time to order, but consider ordering early to ensure delivery before the holidays. Enter coupon code xmas at checkout and click Apply Coupon.

Each print is signed and numbered, and my edition numbers are truly limited, with the largest one consisting of only 25 prints. For sizes and prices, click here.

Least-visited in Mesa Verde: a New Angle on Square Tower House

Wetherill Mesa is the quieter side of Mesa Verde National Park, but a few other cliff houses see even less visitation, even though they are some of the most visible structures in the park, like Square Tower House. Find out in this post about the most special tours in the park, which started only in the 2010s.

Square Tower House is an impressive three-storied structure located beneath a slightly overhanging cliff. Built in the mid-1200s, it is the tallest structure in Mesa Verde and retained its stature as the tallest man-made structure in America until the mid-1800s. The alcove above Square Tower House is not as deep as those that overhang over the other major cliff houses, and this may be why the builders had to expend the structure upwards.

Because of its height, Square Tower House is one of the most iconic cliff dwellings in the park, and is visible from an overlook reached by a short trail that starts past Navajo Canyon View at the beginning of Mesa Top Loop. Since it is south-facing, the structure is lighted most of the day, but the mid-morning to mid-afternoon light is flat, whereas late-afternoon light creates strong cross-shadows that help define the walls. In the summer, the cliff shades the structure at sunset, but in the winter, the last rays of the sun touch it.

In the entire park, to protect archeological sites and artifacts, hiking is allowed only on designated trails, and visitors may not enter cliff dwellings unless accompanied by a park ranger. Square Tower House was open to the public in the 1930s, but had been off-limits until 2011, when the NPS started a new “special backcountry tour” program.

Although mentioned on the park’s website, backcountry tours are not advertised at the visitor center, and tickets cannot be purchased there. Reservations must be made at least 24 hours in advance on recreation.gov, for a fee of $25/person. Tour groups are limited to 10 visitors, and for each structure included in the program, there are only a few tours offered each week from late May to mid-October, which explain why they can sell out months in advance. In 2018, besides Square Tower House, backcountry tours visited Oak Tree House (another structure visible from an overlook on Mesa Top Loop), Mug House (on Wetherill Mesa, photo below), and the remote Spring House (8 miles RT).

With the tour groups much smaller than regular tours that may include as many as 50 participants and tours and lasting longer, you really get to interact with the rangers if you wish. On our tour, there were two of them, plus a volunteer. One of the rangers was a Native American. I was wondering what he was carrying in a well-padded, thin and long case, until at the end of the tour he pulled out a beautiful wooden flute and played a melody to honor ancestors and thank them for allowing us to visit their home.

Besides taking you to see rarely visited structures, backcountry tours are more adventurous. On the regular tours, you often walk on a paved path. On the Square Tower House tour, we scaled two cliffs using ladders, and on the Mug House, there was a bit of scrambling over rocks.

The tour started at 8 AM, maybe because the tour time is fixed year-round and the early start avoids the heat of the day in summer, but on the last tour of the year, on Oct 13, it was quite chilly, and the structure remained in the shade all the time. That was actually favorable for photography, as reflected light created enough gradations of shade, particularly if one photographed towards the part of the canyon in the sun, using what is the equivalent of cross-lighting.

There was also plenty of time to examine smaller architectural details of the structure, such as an original kiva roof, and while it was a challenge to photograph, especially if excluding modern metal support, it was very cool to see that a construct made of mud laid over wooden beams had traversed so many centuries.

Besides making it possible to appreciate the height of the tower by looking at it from its base, the tour revealed a structure called the Crow’s Nest improbably perched high in a cliff crevice, that can not be seen from the overlook.

Everything adds up to make for a great experience, and I think those are the most special tours available in Mesa Verde National Park.

Wetherill Mesa: the Quieter Side of Mesa Verde National Park

Wetherill Mesa, located on the west side of Mesa Verde National Park, is a long and narrow peninsula of land rising above deep canyons. Its rock alcoves are home to structures as impressive as those found on Chapin Mesa, however the experience of visiting is quite different.

Many visitors rush through the landscape of the park towards the ruins, but the scenery is quite beautiful, especially in the autumn when the mountain shrub plant community brightens the slopes on both sides of the road.

Wetherill Mesa is more wide-open than Chapin Mesa, especially since most of the trees are burned. Mesa Verde, unlike other national parks, did not implement control burns due to the omnipresence of archeological resources, and this has resulted in large wildfires that burned two-thirds of the park’s area within the last 15 years.

What differentiates a visit there is that Wetherill Mesa forms the quieter side of the park, seen by less than a quarter of the visitors to Mesa Verde National Park. While Mesa Verde became a national park in 1906, it was not until 1961 that major sites at Wetherill Mesa were excavated and stabilized, during the three-year Wetherill Mesa Project, one of the most important archeological works in the country up to that time. One of the goals of the National Park Service in opening Wetherill Mesa to the public in 1973 was to relieve congestion at Chapin Mesa, but they were not quite successful, since only a fraction of visitors make the trip there.

It could be because the winding 12-mile road from the Far View Junction to Wetherill Mesa Information Kiosk takes 45 minutes to drive. Past that point, no motorized vehicles are allowed, so Wetherill Mesa is a good place to spend a slower-paced day on foot away from the congestion of Chapin Mesa. The 5-mile paved Long House Loop gives hikers and bikers access to three overlooks over cliff dwellings, and is also the trailhead for Long House. The loop used to be serviced by a free tram, which stopped operating in 2015 for administrative reasons.

The star attraction of Wetherill Mesa is Long House. It was a named so by the Wetherill brothers because the structure stretches for the full extent of the largest occupied cave in Mesa Verde. Although Cliff Palace is universally mentioned as the largest cliff dwelling in North America, Long House, set up in a longer 300-foot alcove, is essentially as large, with the same number of rooms (150) and kivas (21). Yet, it is the least visited of the park’s five major structures – the others are Cliff Palace, Spruce Tree House, Balcony House, and Step House.

I thought that the 2-hour ranger-led tour (2.25 miles RT), the only way to visit the site, was more special than Cliff Palace because you climb two ladders and go behind some of the ruins. Tour tickets are inexpensive but must be picked in person at the new Visitor and Research Center right at the entrance of the park or the Colorado Welcome Center in Cortez, up to 2 days in advance. I was surprised that tickets for the next day, a weekday in October, were sold out, but usually, there are last minute cancellations and the ranger let me join the tour with a ticket for the following day.

The light is challenging at Long House, since it faces southwest and is fully sunlit at midday. In mid-October with the 2 PM tour, although the structure was partly in the sun and partly in the shade, enough of it was in the sun and enough in the shade for images of diverse character.

The other structure on Wetherill Mesa open to the public is Step House, which can be visited freely during opening hours when a ranger is present. The site is accessed via a paved 1-mile loop trail that offers views of Long Canyon.

It is an unusual site in that two construction periods are found in the same alcove. Since visitors can walk through the structure, an image without people in it can require a bit of patience, but I was mostly interested in its details, such as the reconstructed pithouse of the Basketmaker period (A.D. 626) contrasting with the masonry dating to the classic Ancestral Pueblo period (A.D. 1226).

Photographing Oak Flat and Warner Point Trails in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

A few weeks ago, when I drove out of Montrose, Colorado, on the way to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, a sign warned of winter conditions. I wondered what that meant, but quickly found out as the nighttime temperatures dropped to the upper tens. The next day turned out cold and mostly cloudy. See how I used that light as I hiked the two most interesting trails on the south rim, resulting in images of very different character.

Oak Flat and Fall Foliage

The two-mile Oak Flat Trail (350 feet elevation gain/loss) departing from the Visitor Center let you have a closer look at the canyon below the rim without hiking to the bottom. Unlike the other short overlook trails, the Oak Flat Trail spends most of its length in dense vegetation cover. That made it an excellent choice for those cloudy conditions since soft light is the best for photographing in the forest. There are also a few viewpoints along the trail where you can frame the canyon surrounded by the native forests. The trees are mostly Douglas fir and oak, but there are a few pockets of aspen along the trail. A small stand nested at the base of a tall cliff whose rocks added contrasting colors and textures.

The trail is an excellent place to look for fall foliage. It is named after thickets of Gambel oak that line up most of it, brightening the ground with orange colors in mid-October, in contrast with the darker red serviceberries.

Snow began to fall. In order to capture some of the snowflakes falling, I increased ISO to 400 so that I could get a faster shutter speed (1/320 sec @ f/13) while maintaining enough depth of field to render sharply the shrubs.

In most places, the snow melted almost instantly upon touching the ground, but I found a location where it lingered longer, and I photographed a few close-ups.

My favorite location on that morning was slightly off trail. I spotted an aspen grove in the distance, and bushwacked down a steep slope for a closer view that incorporated both the colors of the aspen and the Gambel oak. The soft light of the overcast sky was much preferable to a sunny day for this scene, but I had to exclude the sky since it was featureless and brighter than the land.

I got lucky that the clouds broke out for a few minutes, illuminating the opposite canyon walls. Because the sky wasn’t clear, the foreground wasn’t in deep shade. Seizing the moment when thanks to the direct sunlight the canyon stood out against the sky (aided in processing by darkening it a bit further), I changed my composition to a wider view that included the sky, giving a good sense of the beauty of the canyon in autumn.

Warner Point and the Canyon’s vastness

The trail to Warner Point (1.5 miles RT) begins at the High Point Overlook, at the west end of the road. When I started, the weather was cloudy, as it had been for most of the day, but having seen a local weather forecast, I was hopeful that the clouds would clear out in the late afternoon.

Along the trail, there are views south towards the San Juan Mountains and Uncompahgre Valley, and north towards the West Elk Mountains, however, the views at Warner Point itself are looking east towards the canyon, which calls for afternoon light. The clouds did break out, but it was fifteen minutes before sunset time, and by that time most of the canyon was in the shade, with only the very top of the rims illuminated.

I focussed in on details of the scene such as a lone tree:

and a portion of the rim and the distant mountains:

What distinguishes Warner Point from the other overlooks over the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is that the views there open up to a 180 degrees panorama, whereas most of the other overlooks offer only the glimpse of a narrow gorge. With the last rays of sun gone from the canyon, the clouds took on a beautiful color, and the more uniform light began to help convey the sense of vastness of the place:

As often for those canyon scenes, my favorite light occurred about half an hour after the actual sunset. Waiting in one place was tough because of the cold, but in the end well worth it. Photographers often leave after sunset, when direct sunlight has left the land, but some of the most beautiful light occurs between sunset and darkness. You should make sure to stay until it is dark – and make sure to bring a light for the hike back! The light at dusk is particularly beautiful because it is at the same time soft and directional, an infrequent and favorable combination. There are no harsh shadows nor excessive contrast to break up the shapes on the land. At the same time, the light comes mostly from a narrow band of sky in the western horizon, as opposed to the whole sky on a cloudy day, or earlier in the evening, so it creates areas of light and shade that help reveal the depth of the landscape. I heightened that sense of depth by adding another layer to the image with a foreground of rocks as the first stars appeared.

Treasured Lands 2019 Wall Calendar

The Treasured Lands 2019 Calendar was released just a month ago. For this edition of the namesake calendar, we chose to include in the calendar only images that have appeared in the book. Since I strive to visit the national parks in various seasons to capture their changing mood, it was easy to find seasonal images that match precisely each particular month. Like he did for the book, the designer avoided the monotony typical of calendars with a few surprises.

The calendar has a respectable size, actually slightly larger than the book. The printing is better than some of the calendars that have been produced with my images in the past. However, this time we have another printed reference, the Treasured Lands book, and it sets the bar high. The book’s printing is undoubtedly richer with more accurate and vibrant color, and what looks like deeper blacks and better highlight detail. However, the differences are clear only if you were to look at the book and calendar side by side – always an instructive comparison since the only controls are quantities of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks. The quality of the paper contributes significantly to the difference. The edge contrast is also better in the book (this is most noticeable in the Zion photograph) and this could be because I personally sharpened all the files – using Photokit Sharpener – whereas for the calendar this was left to the publisher and printer. Applying sharpening for print is not intuitive: with the proper amount for the printed page, the image on screen looks over-sharpened.

Regardless of its printing limitations, the calendar is an economical way to bring the national parks to the walls of your home or office, and they make for affordable gifts at a street price of about $10. Like in previous years, I do not sell the calendars, but copies may be ordered on Amazon.

Visiting the Hanford Site: Inside the World’s First Nuclear Reactor

The dual side of Hanford Reach, and reason for the accidental existence of Hanford Reach National Monument, is the Hanford Site (Hanford Nuclear Reservation) the former top secret Manhattan Project plutonium production facility established in 1943, which is almost entirely surrounded by the national monument.

Visiting the mysterious site used to require a security clearance, but since it became part of the Manhattan Project National Historic Site in 2015, any U.S. citizen can sign up for a free tour – and proof of citizenship was not even required.

After the government chose the Hanford Site for its remoteness and supply of water/electricity via the Columbia River, two communities were condemned and evacuated. One of the tours visits the remains of those communities. The other, probably the most interesting one, takes you inside the historic B reactor.

The B Reactor was the first large-scale nuclear reactor ever built. It supplied the plutonium used in the first atomic explosion (at the test Trinity site in New Mexico, July 1945) and in the bomb dropped over Nagasaki on Aug 9, 1945. Remarkably, although the Manhattan Project started only in August 1942 and construction at Hanford started in March 1943, by November 1944, B Reactor produced its first batch of plutonium. During the Cold War, the site expanded to nine nuclear reactors that produced most of the plutonium for more than 60,000 nuclear weapons. After the end of the Cold War caused the Hanford Site to be decommissioned, those reactors have been entombed (“cocooned”) in concrete, except for reactor B which has been designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service (NPS) and partly converted into a museum.

Except for the tours, the Hanford Site is not open to the public. Research facilities and commercial nuclear production are still active. More notably, the largest environmental Superfund cleanup effort in the country takes place there. The site is considered to be the most toxic place in America and has been dubbed “America’s Chernobyl”. The tours are conducted by the Department of Energy in partnership with the NPS (information and advance reservations here), daily or twice a day except on Sundays from the end of May to mid-November.

You meet at a temporary visitor center located in an anonymous business park in the city of Richland. There, you confirm your online sign-up and watch an introductory video before boarding a comfortable bus for a 45 minutes ride straight to the B reactor, during which a volunteer details more facts about the project. The reactor visit starts with another presentation in front of the impressive reactor’s core, after which visitors split into guided groups to view different parts of the facility such as the cooling system and control room before being left on their own.

I found the tour to be professionally conducted, explanations to be interesting and in-depth, and appreciated that there are no restrictions on photography, video, or use of tripods. Overall, the tour lasts 4 hours, is well worth the time, and a great way to spend those mid-day hours indoors. Given how historically significant the once secret site was, I think it is a unique opportunity to access something you’ll certainly not see anywhere else and gain a direct understanding of a technology that has changed the course of our world.

Hanford Reach National Monument: From the Bomb to Nature Refuge

Hanford Reach could the national monument with the most unusual history of all. Its lands, located in Eastern Washington, were initially set apart from development not for conservation, but as a security buffer zone for the top-secret Hanford Nuclear Reservation where the plutonium for the Nagasaki bomb – and many others during the Cold War – was manufactured, and which became the most polluted site in the Western Hemisphere.

After the end of the Cold War, the decommissioning of the Hanford Site’s nuclear reactors was followed by a cleanup that continues to this day, and to the establishment, in the year 2000, of a vast nature preserve in the buffer zone that surrounds it. The Hanford Site once provided most of the jobs in the area, but agriculture has quickly taken over. Without the nuclear activity, the former buffer zone, which now stands between industrial agriculture and a Superfund site, would have certainly been developed, especially since the unassuming lands are not home to any significant landform. The mighty Columbia River is heavily dammed, and its last remaining free-flowing section, which stretches 51 miles, is called the Hanford Reach, hence the national monument’s name.

The river in the Reach is lined up with islets, ponds and sloughs that have all but disappeared in the other sections of the Columbia, supporting one of the most productive salmon spawning areas in the Northwest. By contrast, most of the terrain of the monument is desert covered by the largest remnant of the shrub-steppe ecosystem that once blanketed the Columbia River Basin. The area receives between 5 and 10 inches of rain per year.

Approaching the monument, I was struck by the vastness of the area, but also by how dry and flat it appeared at first. More power lines than I’d seen elsewhere criss-crossed the land. It was not helping that I visited in mid-summer – as a family man, I was trying to put to good use a week that was freed because my children were at a camp. Under the scorching sun, with temperatures reaching 100 degrees, the air was constantly filled with haze. Along Hwy 24, the main highway inside the monument, a few signs point to the history of the area, but as far as facilities are concerned, that’s pretty much it. The monument has no visitor center, no campground nor commercial facilities, no established trails, and within its 304 square miles, I saw a single portable toilet.

As often, areas that from a distance and a zipping car look barren reveal their beauty if you know where to go and take a closer look. Although the monument appears large, the areas with public access are relatively limited, so it was not as difficult to find places to hike and photograph as it appeared at first.

Wahluke Unit

The most remarkable part of the monument is located in the eastern part of the Wahluke Unit, which is accessed via a well-graded dirt road starting south of Milepost 63.2 on Hwy 24. After a few miles, you arrive at an intersection. Heading east, you reach a riparian area called the Wahluke Ponds, which are dominated by tall verdant reeds contrasting contrast with the area’s arid grasslands. Continuing south leads to the White Bluffs Overlook, which offers an excellent roadside view of the Columbia River from the top of the bluffs. The west branch of the road ends at the White Bluffs Boat Launch. The river-level view there isn’t great, but approximately a half-mile mile before the end of the road, there is a large pullout that serves as an informal trailhead. From there, a user trail leads in half a mile to impressive close views of the White Bluffs that tower 400-feet above the river. The White Bluffs face West, so the hike is best undertaken in the late afternoon. The trail then climbs and follows the edge of the cliffs, and about three miles later, ends at extensive sand dunes that you will not find criss-crossed with footprints.

Ringold Unit

The Ringold Unit offers the opportunity to see the Columbia River and the surrounding habitats at river level along its well-graded, unpaved 8 miles, with bluffs and golden hills on the other side. The Ringold Unit is adjacent to the Wahluke Unit, but the 2-mile section of road linking to the White Bluffs Overlook, although open to foot traffic, is closed to vehicles. Driving from one to the other requires quite a big detour.

Saddle Mountain Unit

The area is part of the Columbia River Plateau, formed by basalt lava flows and water erosion. That geography is best observed from Saddle Moutain. A road, starting north of milepost 60.1 on Hwy 24 mostly, paved although indicated “high clearance vehicles”, gains about 1,500 feet elevation for excellent views of the Reach. At an intersection, make a right following a sign, the left branch continues for a long distance and eventually descends into the opposite valley. At first, it looks like all rolling hills, but a hike down the saddle from the end of the road reveals large basalt cliffs. I didn’t see a single person on the road or on the off-trail hike to the Saddle Mountain summit, and in the quiet of the place where only the sound of the wind was heard, the nuclear reactors and patches of agricultural lands looked far and insignificant.

Unfortunately, my selection of images is quite limited due to a big data loss, but I still hope that they have offered a glimpse of the beauty found there. I am looking forward to return in the springtime.