Terra Galleria Photography

Sonoran Desert National Monument Guide: Part 1

The Sonoran Desert is the most biologically diverse desert in North America – or maybe not, see discussion in the second part of this article. Thanks to the “national park” designation, the most well-known track of Sonoran Desert consists of Saguaro National Park whose two units straddle the city of Tucson. However, the largest unbroken tract of Sonoran Desert resides south of Interstate 8 and extends into Mexico. The U.S. part in southern Arizona includes the Barry Goldwater Range, Cabezza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. An attempt was made in the 2000s to establish a Sonoran Desert National Park there, but all we got instead as a departing gift from the Clinton Administration was the much smaller Sonoran Desert National Monument in 2001.

Still, at 776 square miles, it is a sizeable piece of untrammeled land, compared to the 143 square miles of Saguaro National Park. Sonoran Desert National Monument is large enough to include three wilderness areas and three distinct mountain ranges with a wide variety of terrain. In this article, we will successively visit a flat valley closely surrounded by mountains, a mountain top, a large plain covered with saguaro cactus, and foothills with rich vegetation.

For actual navigation, use instead this more detailed map which is GPS-referenced for use in apps such as Avenza maps.

Maricopa Mountains

Besides I-8, the Maricopa Road between Gila Bend and Mobile is the only paved road within Sonoran Desert National Monument. Along that road located between the North Maricopa Mountains Wilderness and the South Maricopa Mountains Wilderness, you will find only desert with no development.

The only facilities in the area are at Margie’s Cove, in the North Maricopa Mountains Wilderness. The Margie’s Cove West Trailhead has parking for a dozen vehicles, three campsites with picnic tables and fire rings, and a vault toilet. There is no water, so you must be sure to bring enough, including for an emergency. It is best reached via an unpaved road from Hwy 85, rutted but accessible to passenger cars. If you come from the north, stay on 85 when Google Maps suggests another more difficult road starting from a landfill and look for a paved spot to cross the divided highway.

The Margie Cove Trail is a 9-mile route and can be extended with the 6 miles of the Brittlebush Trail that connects two-thirds of the way – the Brittlebush Trailhead can no longer be accessed by road. The term “Cove” refers to a flat valley closely surrounded by mountains on all sides. I was struck by the lushness of the desert floor, which was covered with grasses and even tiny ferns unexpected in the desert. The trail is a easy and pleasant walk. I hiked only a section and from what I saw, it didn’t offer a great deal of diversity of terrain since it was all mostly flat. On the two days when I was there, the weather was rainy. Besides the inconvenience of having to struggle to keep the camera dry, rain in the desert is actually a treat, with a softened luminosity that is quite special. The soft light made it easy to photograph close-up of desert plants.

Table Top Mountains

The Table Top Wilderness is home to the only other facilities in the monument, actually predating it. The Table Top Trailhead is equipped in a way similar to the Margie’s Cove West Trailhead. Getting there requires a high clearance vehicle for the rough last 4.5 miles after the left turn – the first 7 miles in Vekol Valley are easy. You’ll first come across the South trailhead for the 7-mile Lava Flow Trail, which travels in a relatively level way at the base of hills, and a short distance afterwards, the Table Top Trail at the end of the road. It took me an hour to drive from Exit 144 (Vekol Valley Road) on I-8.

The Table Top Trail climbs to the top of Table Top Mountain, the high point in Sonoran Desert National Monument characterized by a flat top volcanic summit, gaining more than 2000 feet elevation in less than 4 miles. Near the base of the mountain, the trail traverses forests of saguaro enlivened by abundant brittlebush. Once the steep switchbacks begin, the views over the surrounding desert became as spectacular as I had hoped when I had rented a SUV so that I could get to the trailhead. They were better from the switchbacks than from the summit itself, and that’s where I planned to be at sunset time, before hiking back to camp at night.

The next morning, I got up by dark. The mountains around the Table Top Trailhead face the west and are well lighted at sunset. However, the light at sunrise is more challenging, as the sun rises behind the mountains. Since the campground is located in an area that is quite flat, I hiked cross-country to a nearby hill for a more elevated view that reveals more of the land and offers more compositional opportunities. After the sun rose, the hill was in the shade, whereas the plain was lit. In distant views, I included shadows to add visual interest. I took advantage of the shade on the hill for intimate views of the varied desert vegetation. I noticed a striking cluster of five saguaro trees, but they were still in the shade against a sunlit plain, so I waited for the sun to reach them. It was supposed to be a sunrise session, but by the time I went down down the hill, it was past 10 AM. However, looking back at the hill, I noticed that it was now grazed by the sun. I switched to a telephoto lens, using a polarizer to dark the lava rocks by suppressing their glare. The backlight made the yellow brittlebush glow while creating a halo of light around the cactus.

The previous post is illustrated with more images of the Table Top Wilderness and provides context to this one.

Traveling to Public Lands in Times of COVID-19

Summary: An account of a road trip in the desert at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, and some thoughts on public lands and national parks as places for self-isolation. All images are from the Table Top Wilderness I visited during this trip.

The Plan

I had planned the Sonoran Desert trip for a year. In March 2019, I had just returned from the new Indiana Dunes National Park and was scrambling to try to update Treasured Lands. By the time I was ready to go, I had prioritized destinations further north, after which the temperatures in the desert had already risen too much. More importantly, the springtime desert bloom, which takes place in the Sonoran during the month of March, was over. Since the desert is such an arid place most of the year, the presence of those blooms enlivens the landscape considerably and I felt it essential to showcase the land at its most beautiful.

Before the event was postponed for a year, I was going to Washington, DC at the beginning of April to receive a conservation award, so a mid-March trip would have to be short to reduce my time away from the family. A direct flight to Phoenix from San Jose is a quick hour and half, as opposed to an eleven hour drive. In addition, renting a car at the destination made sense because this time I needed a vehicle with better off-road capabilities than my Prius. The BLM access map for the Table Top Mountains features a prominent box with “High Clearance Four-Wheel-Drive Vehicle Required”. I looked for independent confirmation of this fact, and sure enough, on alltrails.com, a user commented

When the sign says “high vehicle ground clearance required”, believe it! … Depending on the recent weather you will need a 4×4 and even a vehicle with a lift.
Flying raises eyebrows in some circles concerned with carbon footprint, but for the solo traveler, it is actually better than driving with anything but the highest efficiency vehicle. According to this calculator, a flight from San Jose to Phoenix results in 0.214 tons (428 lbs) of CO2, whereas driving a 25 MPG car (a reasonably efficient SUV) for the 700 road miles results in emissions of 700 lbs of CO2.

Less time and less impact seemed to make the choice easy, but by the start of my trip, March 10, COVID-19 (JHU global visualizer, USA numbers, advice from Wuhan CDC) was becoming a growing concern, with more than a thousand U.S. cases confirmed, although shelter-in-place imperatives were still not well understood at that point and any directives were still a week away. I opted to rent a compact SUV in San Jose. Concerned for the safety of a Uber ride, my wife dropped me at the car rental agency. I wiped all the contact surfaces and used generous amounts of spray alcohol. Besides the usual camping and photography gear, I loaded the car with ten gallon-size jugs of water and enough food for ten days, as I usually do so that I can devote all of my time to photography without the distraction of having to look for meals or refilling water bottles. For mutual protection, this would alleviate the need for any interactions with the local communities.

The Trip

I stopped only at interstate-side gas stations. I would pump gas normally, but took care not to touch my face nor clothing. I would then walk into the gas station. A few times at the beginning of my trip, I ordered a sandwich. It was not necessary, but I liked a bit of fresh food for a change. At the end of the trip, I contented myself with the food I had brought. My last stop would be the restroom. After washing my hands thoroughly, I’d get a paper towel, and use it to grab any handle I needed to pull on my way to the car, before disposing of it. Once seated in the car, as an added precaution, I’d wash my hands again with a Purell dispenser bottle. Along the Arizona highways, I did not notice any significant differences in travel. At the only “trail” of the obscure Agua Fria National Monument, a large group of adults and children were tightly clustered.

My main objective for the trip was to photograph Sonoran Desert National Monument and Ironwood Forest National Monument. Both are ran by the BLM and quite undeveloped, with dispersed camping the norm. Dispersed camping refers to camping on public lands away from developed recreation facilities. Unless an area is explicitly posted as “closed to camping”, it is open. In my case, camping consisted of just pulling out of the road and sleeping in the car, but for those who are setting up a tent, it is preferable to use an existing site in order to avoid creating new impact. The few campgrounds where I stayed were remote enough that I was surprised to even see other cars midweek, although there were never more than two of them. In one case, I went further on the road rather than parking close to someone else.

When I arrived at the Silverbell Group Camp, since there was not even a picnic table and nobody else was present, I wasn’t sure it was indeed a campsite until I saw a row of portable toilets. After dark, a truck pulled in and parked closer than I liked. Well before dawn, I was awakened and worried by loud noises, but managed to go back to sleep. After stumbling out of my car at dawn, still half-asleep, I made a beeline for the toilets. It took me a while to realize they were gone. I went back to the car and grabbed my shovel. For car camping, no need to use a backpacking-style trovel. A full-size shovel lets you dig a deep hole much quicker. I never liked the idea of burying toilet paper. In the distant past, I would burn it, but now I find it safer and quicker just to throw it in a garbage bag. During my entire time on public lands, I used a bathroom only once, after which I realized it was better for everybody not to do so. It’s the desert, there were no woods there, but after heading out toward the bushes, I didn’t have to worry about touching contaminated surfaces, nor any worker would have to clean a facility and eventually remove the waste that instead will help fertilize the ground.

There were no visitor centers or rangers around, no brochures nor guidebooks, so I had to do my research and figure out where to go. Sonoran Desert National Monument has only four established trails in its 776 square miles. On two different days, I did not see a single hiker on the Margie Cove Trail, whereas on the Table Top Trail, I crossed paths just with one middle-aged couple. Most of the time, I would hike off-trail. Ironwood Forest National Monument doesn’t even have officially designated trails anyways. I felt that I self-isolated effectively during my time in the Sonoran Desert, with several entire days when I didn’t even come within sight of another person. The outdoors can be a very safe area to avoid the spread of the virus. In hindsight, the timing of my trip was marginal, but after the peak of crisis is over, the mode of travel I described can help keep all of us safer in a new world. With a bit of preparation, it is not difficult for anyone to execute such a trip.

The Coronavirus

Yet, I cannot recommend travel to public lands as a way to self-isolate. Our public understanding of COVID-19 has evolved dramatically in a period of barely more than a week. Now stay at home, or at least local to one’s county, has been widely embraced, but the much-praised New York governor initially resisted it after California put in place a shelter-at-home order on March 19. When it happened, I headed home, pulling in my driveway that evening. Since then, I’ve been to the grocery store only once with much caution.

I travel in an unusually spartan and self-contained manner that some reasonable people could call lonely – or loony. But travelers who do not do the same will have contacts in the local communities where they will use the amenities. This puts those communities at unacceptable risk of contamination, and since those communities are small and remote, their resources are limited compared to urban areas. Even trail associations have recommended that long-distances hikes on the Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and Pacific Crest Trail be postponed because of the risk to communities during resupplies. It is not just about the obvious lack of doctors, hospital beds or ICU units, but also mere non-perishable groceries that even a self-prepared photographer had to shop for. If in San Jose I could not buy pasta (other than lasagna) at my usual large chain grocery store, how is a rural small store supposed to stay stocked?

Unlike the largely undeveloped BLM lands, the national parks are attractive to many because they are remarkably easy to access for such pristine areas. One could say that the NPS has made wildlands suitable for mass tourism. This tends to draw in different types of visitors, who in average do not have the capacity for self-sufficiency required in order not to increase risks to the local communities and park workers. The mayor of Estes Park, a city who exists as the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, has asked the Secretary of the Interior to close the park. In addition, the infrastructure in national parks is designed to funnel visitors to limited spaces such as visitor centers, overlooks, and trails. It is a challenge to stay 6 feet away from others on a crowded trail that is 3 feet wide, and some places do not allow off-trail hiking. One could argue that Death Valley National Park, as the largest national park in the lower 48, offers plenty of opportunity for distancing, and hiking cross-country there doesn’t result in adverse environmental impact. But for each person who parks their car at random along the road and heads out into the desert, how many will congregate at Zabriskie Point or use the facilities in Furnace Creek? Visiting Death Valley National Park safely means traveling as I did in the desert national monuments. Skilled wilderness travelers do not need national park infrastructure and can instead go to the national monuments and other public lands that offer plenty of underappreciated wonders.

On my way home, I made quick stops at three small NPS sites. Arriving at park opening in Tonto National Monument, I was disappointed to see all the trails closed, especially since during the hour I spent on the parking lot to photograph a distant cliff dwelling with a telephoto lens, I noticed only a single other car showing up. The rangers said that later in the day, I would not be alone, and indeed I understood their wisdom when I went to Montezuma Castle National Monument, which was fully open except for the visitor center. The trail was worryingly packed, and this observation confirmed my fears. On the other hand, Tuzigoot National Monument was fully closed at the gate. You would think that it means each park superintendent has full authority to act, but no. The superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park, NPS regional director, and NPS directors were all overruled by the Secretary of the Interior when requesting a closure. The first reaction of the Secretary to the outbreak has been to wave the entrance fees in the NPS system, as announced in person by the President, repeating – in worse – the mistake made when the administration kept the national parks open during the government shutdown. Although my work aims to encourage people to visit their national parks, it saddens me to have to join the call for a closure and postponement of trips.

The Road Trip

I initially came to the U.S. in 1993 for a postdoc of 2.5 years on a J-1 visa, with the understanding that I would return to France at the end of the period, where a post would be waiting for me at the research institute where I did my graduate work. However, when 1995 rolled, I changed my mind. I had begun to visit the national parks and photograph them with my 5×7 large format camera, and I wanted to continue doing that, even though those days a lot of my free time was spent trying to climb big walls in Yosemite, with a few occasional road trips in between.

Since at that point, no matter how interesting the science, I already valued my time spent in the outdoors more than that spent in the office, I chose a career in academia, over the more lucrative corporate paths that were plentiful in the Silicon Valley for a Computer Science graduate. I was hoping that academia would give me more flexibility for personal time. Since I had no family and had always lived frugally, even a less than full-time salary would be enough to fund my other endeavors. With that in mind, I took a job in the Artificial Intelligence Center of SRI International in Menlo Park. This tour of SRI by Robert Scoble gives an idea on how interesting the work there could be, and here is my SRI web page, unchanged from the day I would leave the Institute, a dozen years later.

My J-1 visa was expiring, and SRI had applied for a new H1-B visa on my behalf, but to collect the new visa, I had to go abroad as it could not be granted inside the country. My new employer mentioned that most people in my situation would travel to Canada for that purpose. It was mid-October, and my new job would not start until late in November, so that left me more than a free month. I planned a wide-ranging road trip, east into the desert, north to the Canadian Rockies, west to the Olympic Peninsula, and south down the Pacific Coast.

I had done road trips in the west before, but since I was always accompanied by friends or relatives they were often a motel-based affair with a schedule only partly conductive of photography. That trip was different because it was the first time I traveled by myself for such a relatively long period of time, living from my car and campgrounds as I went from one national park to the next. I discovered the freedom that the open road can offer, and the purpose that a trip focussed solely on photography can bring. On that most formative extended outing, I developed most of the routines that I still use to this day when I travel the American wilderness, and I visited more national parks new to me than I had done in the 2.5 years before combined.

In particular, Yellowstone National Park made a strong impression on me, as I experienced it at its wildest, short of a winter visit. I got there in early November, just a few days before the park would close for the season. The park was mostly deserted. Only a few cars were parked on the huge lot near Old Faithful – of all the people, my girlfriend’s ex came out of one of them. Although I had climbed Denali, I was not prepared for the temperatures in the park, and had to drive back to Jackson to buy a down jacket. The frigid temperatures enhanced the thermal steam, coated the trees near thermal sources with ice, and a dusting of snow differentiated both sides of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. A number of images of the park from this trip a quarter-century ago remain some of my favorites and those illustrating that post made their way into Treasured Lands.

Unfortunately, not all images remained. Among the possessions in my car, I considered the most valuable to be the small pouch containing my exposed film, both 5×7 sheets and 35mm rolls. When I eventually arrived in Calgary, my first city stop since leaving home, it felt natural to carry the pouch with me wherever I went instead of leaving it in the car. Take your valuables with you! As I walked into the US Consulate General to collect my new visa, I thought only briefly of the X-ray machines. In those days, it was understood that hand-inspection of film at airport security was not really necessary, but only a precaution taken against the cumulative slight fogging that might occur if your film is x-rayed many times over. Unlike with digital, with film, you never really knew what you got until you got your film back from the lab. Three weeks later, after driving back from the lab, I opened with tremendous anticipation the film boxes. Most of the photographs from before Calgary were ruined with heavy random patterns. Sometimes you lose, but nothing is really lost if you are willing to start again. I vowed to go back, and boy, have I done so.

Kilbourne Hole Volcanic Crater: Photographing a Hole in the Ground

From a photographic point of view, a shallow depression in the ground didn’t seem too promising, but since from a geological point of view, Kilbourne Hole is one of the most unique and little-known natural features of the Southwest, I nevertheless decided to spend half a day checking it out, part of my explorations of the “Desert” part of Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument which complements the “Organ Mountains” part.

Kilbourne Hole is not your usual volcano. Although the expense of desert that surrounds it is pancake flat, the crater isn’t visible from a distance, because unlike a classical cone volcano, it doesn’t rise in elevation at the rim. Kilbourne Hole is a prime example of an uncommon maar crater. Instead of a lava eruption, what took place there is a steam explosion caused by magma superheating groundwater to forceful pressures. Little material was emitted except volcanic gas. That explosion left only a mile-wide shallow depression in the ground that looks like the result of a meteorite impact. Due to its resemblance to craters on the moon, astronauts from the Apollo missions came here to train.

The BLM website gives directions that sound complicated, but surprisingly, Google Maps provided accurate navigation. It involved driving for an hour on nondescript dirt roads that were all unmarked. Fortunately, I didn’t see any other vehicles, since in places this would have required backing out until you could get out of the narrow roadbed to make room for another car to pass.

The app led to a spot that looked random rather than a trailhead or viewpoint, and since I was driving at night, I could not see much. However, a stroll confirmed that I had arrived near the crater’s rim, and I went to sleep wondering what I would see in the morning. I got up early to photograph in the light of pre-dawn since my experience is that depressions are often best photographed at twilight when there are no harsh shadows to break up or obscure the features of the land. Although the light works until sunrise, my favorite time was just before sunrise. There is a short moment when the earth casts its own shadow on the atmosphere, resulting in a dark blue band in the sky, low on the horizon, below a glowing pink band known as the “Belt of Venus.” I initially tried to contrast the dark volcanic rock with the crater’s lighter tones, and then got closer to the rim over slippery badlands for a view peering directly over the crater floor. As soon as the sun rose, the character of the scene changed dramatically, with the crater now in deep shade. I played with the contrast between the light and shade by looking for shrubs whose tops were grazed by sunlight. While the resulting photographs are interesting, they do not provide a clear depiction of the crater, unlike the twilight images.

High clearance wasn’t needed, although for the last miles close to the rim, it was reassuring to have. On the other hand, if one wanted to circumnavigate the crater by vehicle, it would be needed. Instead, I chose to hike along a portion of the crater, which is a better way to be attuned to the differences in terrain. At the spot where I photographed at dawn, I was standing on badlands, but I later happened upon basalt cliffs. Only a few dozen yards separate the two photographs above. For the second one, I took an inventory of the visual components: the flat crater floor, cliffs, slope, and tops of balsalt cliffs, and tried to fit them into a single composition.

I eventually made my way to the bottom of the crater by scrambling on steep slopes, which are only a few hundred feet high, trying to avoid the more slippery parts. The flat floor didn’t hold much visual interest, and I headed towards the eroded cliffs. Seen close, they looked more imposing than from the rim. The two photographs above were made within a quarter of an hour. The first one, from the crater floor, shows the delicate colors of the cliffs in contrast to the foreground vegetation. Because all the frame was in open shade, the original contrast was low and could be increased into a bright image. The second one, made from partway the slope, evokes the cliffs rather than depicting them, preserving some of their mystery. The brightness of a sunlit foreground would normally overwhelm a subject in the shade, but this was not the case because I photographed dark lava rocks and vegetation backlit. Not too bad for a hole in the ground!

When I drove out of Kilbourne Hole, I initially tried to use Google Maps, since the app had served me well on the way in. However, with little signal, directions did not load. I had other off-line navigation apps on my phone, but they kept leading me to gates that were closed with ominous “No Trespassing” signs. I record GPS tracks essentially for geo-tagging, but since the previous night I did not plan to photograph, I had not recorded my track through the maze of dirt roads. Eventually, I was able to remember my itinerary of the previous night. I made a mental note to keep the GPS on whenever I drive on dirt roads, so that I could easily find the way back.

Photographer’s Guide to White Sands National Park

As a thanks for your readership, here are the entire notes from the White Sands National Park section of the upcoming Treasured Lands reprint. I would appreciate it if you vote in the one-question poll for your favorite spread, and also report any errors.

Like Bryce Canyon National Park, White Sands National Park is moderately sized and centered around a single geological feature that is unique and visually stunning. Remarkable plants add to the interest. The white sand dunes draw photographers from around the world because they are so photogenic. They are a great place to exercise one’s creativity because there are so many elements to photograph but no iconic locations. I enjoy the possibilities to explore freely without the impacts caused by off-trail hiking, easily escape the crowds, and find solitude.

Orientation

Dune Drive leads from the visitor center to the heart of the dunes in 8 miles along which vegetation density decreases and dune size increases. The first 5 miles are paved and the last 3 miles are hard-packed sand, suitable for any vehicle. Out of the 5 official trails in the park, one is a boardwalk, and three are hiking routes in the dunes marked by metal posts at distant intervals. After parking at one of the designated pull outs or lots, you can wander anywhere on the dunes. Walking 15 to 30 minutes from the road and away from the trails is enough to find dunes devoid of footprints. As it is easy to become disoriented in the dune field, orient yourself to the surrounding mountains. GPS is very useful, but due to interference caused by the military, it can be unreliable. The White Sands Missile Range, site of the first nuclear explosion, surrounds the park, which occasionally closes for a few hours during missile testing. Half of the park is a cooperative use zone shared with the military. The park opens at 7 am and closes about an hour after sunset. To photograph at night or at sunrise, there are two options. You can obtain a highly-coveted first-come-first-serve permit to stay in one of the park’s 10 backcountry campsites – no car camping is allowed. Or you arrange in advance for a paid special entry permit. The city of Alamogordo, 16 miles away, forms a good base.

Seasons

In the desert, temperatures can vary as much as 50 degrees during a day. Late autumn to early spring offers the most pleasant temperatures for hiking with mild daytime temperatures, although nighttime temperatures can dip well below freezing. In the spring, wildflowers and vegetation come alive, but that is also the season with the strongest winds. Summer, from early July through September, brings average daytime temperatures above 95 degrees and monsoon rains accompanied by dramatic skies and another round of wildflower blooms. Fall offers clear skies, and the cottonwoods foliage turns in early November.

Playa Trail

The Playa Trail (0.5-mile round-trip, green markers), doesn’t lead to dunes. Instead, it is the only freely accessible trail in the park from which you can see a playa, which is a shallow depression that fills temporarily with rainwater from storms, mostly during the monsoon season. The ever-changing nature of the playa, which can be white, brown, filled with crystals or water, make it a worthwhile quick stop. If the water is abundant, you may observe wildlife early in the morning there. Stay on this trail to protect the cryptobiotic soil crust. The much larger Lake Lucero playa may be visited on monthly, seasonal ranger-led tours.

Dune Life Trail Area

Dunes Drive can be divided into three sections. The first section, from the entrance to Interdune Boardwalk, is characterized by lots of vegetation, but small dunes. The Dune Life Nature Trail (1-mile loop, blue markers) travels along the edge of the dunes where the desert scrub meets the gypsum sand. Although animal life is elusive, I saw plenty of tracks on the sand. On the other hand, plant life is abundant, interesting, and often overlooked. It includes isolated cottonwoods that surprisingly adapted to the sands. More of those trees can be found west of Dunes Drive near the end of the pavement.

Transition Area

The second section of Dunes Drive, from Interdune Boardwalk to the Backcountry Loop Trail, is characterized by an attractive combination of sizeable dunes and vegetation, most notably soap yucca plants. Of all the plants in the park, the soap yucca is the most iconic because its distinctive shape and color provide a stark contrast with the white sands. In late spring, it displays large cream-colored blooms on stalks, and later in the season, the dried blooms are strikingly dark. Although the dune field appears full of them, finding a nicely isolated and healthy-looking yucca standing in a patch of sand with intact dune ripples required a lengthy search. It is useful to scout the area at midday and use a GPS to mark spots where you’d want to return at sunrise or sunset because due to park regulations, those windows of time are short. By heading straight from the entrance to a pre-scouted spot, I was able to catch a scene at first light. Hiking away from established trails makes it easier to find pristine dunes without footprints. To do so, you could park at the pullout on the west side of the road past the Sunset Stroll meeting area. However, if you are worried about getting lost and prefer to follow a trail marked with poles sticking out of the sand, placed at intervals regular enough that one can go from one pole to the next, you can walk the Backcountry Camping Trail (2.2-mile loop, orange markers).

That trail is typically used by backpackers to access their campsite. The closest one, #9, is barely more than half a mile from the trailhead. Backcountry camping lets you experience a sunset without the need to hurry to get out of the park, and an early set up for sunrise the next morning. The sky above the park is quite dark, so it is excellent for photographing stars. Camping is a strictly regulated affair. Because of the possibility of closure due to missile testing, there are no advance reservations. Competition for the ten sites, which are assigned, can be fierce, with aspiring campers lining up right at park opening time. The park service requires campers to set up their tents before dark and prohibits hiking at night because it would be so easy to get disoriented.

Heart of the Sands

The third section of Dunes Drive, past the Backcountry Loop Trail, is characterized by the largest sand dunes, and almost no soap yucca plants nor other vegetation on the dunes. With no plants to balance the dune compositions, what I look for there are high viewpoints to illustrate the immensity of the dune field. Unlike in Death Valley or Great Sand Dunes, the gypsum dunes are not that high, topping around 60 feet. The tallest dune is about 15 minutes west from the Alkali Flat trailhead.

During the day, you could hike the whole 4.5-mile Alkali Flat Trail loop signed with red markers. Skirting the edge of the largest playa in the area, it goes up and down numerous steep dunes, making it the longest and most difficult trail in the park. However, spots more than 30 minutes from the parking lot are not practical for photographing the sunset and twilight, since you need to give yourself time to get out of the park before it closes. After the sun goes down in White Sands, there is a magical time during which you’ll want to photograph rather than hike, and this means setting up relatively close to your car if you are not camping. The soft light emphasizes the sculptural qualities of the dunes. When photographed backlit, the dunes take a surreal blue color, whereas in other directions, the delicate colors of the sky reflect off the white sands. It is easy to overlook the flats between the dunes, but besides their shrubby vegetation, they are laced with curiously curved ridges that from a distance could be mistaken for tire tracks, but are entirely natural: they are the remnants of migrated dunes.

Poll

Please have a say in the choice of the images for the White Sands National Park section in the next printing of Treasured Lands. The section consists of three spreads. The first spread is settled as follows.

There are four choices for the two last spreads:

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2


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4


Which spreads do you prefer? If you do not see window below, click here.

Part 1: The First Photographs of White Sands National Park?

Photo Gear for Sale

Trying to clean up my closet, I have assorted gear for sale: Canon, Nikon, Sony, and others, you name it. Even if you are not looking to add to your kit, some of the information may be of interest. email me for photos, more details, or to make an offer.

Canon EF teleconverter 1.4x. $175. Good condition. Works with L tele lenses and TSE lenses.

Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 IS L. $600. This was my bread-and-butter lens when I used the Canon EF system – I’ve since switched to Sony and use an equivalent lens. This particular lens has been handpicked out of 4 samples after rigorous automated optical testing. It is in perfect mechanical condition, but the front element has a few pin-size scratches. They do not affect the image in any way, and I never felt it necessary to replace the lens, especially since it takes quite a while to do the testing and locate a good sample.

Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 IS. $250. The first lens to introduce image stabilization – we’ve come a long way. With its good optical quality, reach, and light weight, it was my preferred telephoto choice for hiking. The 100-400 is more than twice its weight, while the 70-200/4 has a reduced reach. This particular lens has been handpicked out of 3 samples after rigorous automated optical testing. It is in perfect mechanical condition, but the front element has a hair-size scratch, again something that was not an issue.

Ikelite Underwater housing kit for Canon 5D mk2 $1,600. Includes everything you need to shoot with a wide-angle lens: housing, Modular 8″ Dome Assembly and Extended Port Body, Strobe DS160, Charger, SA-100 Ball Socket Arm & Digital TTL Sync Cord, and Pelican Case suitable to shipping as check-in luggage. Ikelite is the least expensive reputable brand of housings, and they provide great service. Their housings are as reliable as any other major brand. The reason they are relatively inexpensive is that they are made of polycarbonate. Aluminum housings are smaller and the controls (knobs, shafts, etc) seem to work more precisely, but the price difference is substantial and probably not worth it unless you dive frequently. I’ve used this housing to make all the underwater photographs in Treasured Lands, and I am selling it only because it’s been a few years since I used my Canon gear.

Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 $400. Damaged, sold as is. When mounted on a Nikon body, aperture and AF appear to work OK. This lens was dropped, and as a result, the optics went out of alignment, resulting in images that are partly unsharp. Here are two full-resolution examples shot wide-open: example 1, example 2. Unfortunately, when I checked those images on the LCD, at normal magnification, they looked just fine. It wasn’t until I went home that I noticed the sharpness defect. The location was the Whitmore Overlook in Grand Canyon, and it takes so much effort to get there that I don’t see myself returning soon. So the lesson is to check images at 100% before you leave! The Nikon is a great lens, especially for night photography, but it is quite heavy especially for mirorless, so instead of getting it fixed, I am now using for that purpose the lighter and slightly faster Venus Optics Laowa 15mm f/2 in combination with the versatile 16-35mm f/2.8.

Novoflex Nikon G to Canon EF adapter. $75. Good condition. This is a “16:9 edition” adapter (description here) named after the technical lens site 16-9 . Back then, Canon made the only good full frame cameras, but all their wide-angle lenses were mediocre. 16-9 found the Nikon 14-24 f/2.8 to be the best wide-angle zoom made at that time – it is still one of the best. They developed the adapter specifically to use that lens on a Canon EF body. Being a “G” lens that controls electronically the aperture, the 14-24 f/2.8 doesn’t have an aperture ring, so this required a special adapter with the capability to stop down the lens via a specially designed lever.

Bower 24mm f/1.4. $300. Nikon Mount. Good condition. Manual focus, manual aperture. A good night sky photography lens. I once owned the Canon 24 f/1.4 L II, which was considerably more expensive, but sold it because the Bower (also marketed as Rokinon or Samyang) turned to have much less coma. Coma is the bane of star field photography because it is almost impossible to correct in processing. Unlike for the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8, I could have gotten the Bower in Canon mount, but I chose the Nikon version since with the adapter below, there is no loss in functionality. Nikon lenses can be mounted on Canon EF bodies because they have a larger mount, but not vice-versa.

Vello Nikon to Canon EF adapter. $20. Good condition. Allows mounting of a manual focus, manual aperture Nikon lens (such as the above Bower) to Canon EF. The adapter is so small and thin that you just forget that it’s there.

Case Remote with cable for 5D mk2/mk3 $100. Provides remote control via smartphone (YouTube review). Unlike with other remotes, you can crucially see the image live on your phone’s screen. That capability is built-in with the Sony cameras.

Sony A7R3 Sold. This camera has been in use for less than 15 months. It was purchased from B&H on Aug 2018. In Oct 2019 I sent it to Sony Imaging Pro Support. They checked all the functions and cleaned the sensor and body. I have not used the camera since then, having upgraded to the A7R4. You will not find a used camera with a cleaner sensor! It has less than 10,000 clicks. Everything is working perfectly. I placed a screen protector on the back LCD and a L-bracket on the camera prior to use, so the wear is minimal. The camera comes with the original box and all accessories, plus Gabale L-bracket specific for this camera.

Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di USD Lens for Sony A. $650. Until last year, this was the best choice for a super-tele zoom for Sony, as explained by Brian Smith. Although it is not a native FE lens but rather a Sony A lens, it is still a native Sony lens so it works better than other third-party lenses, provided you use the following adapter. If you have $2,000, the new Sony 200-600mm is a better choice, however, this Tamron is a decent alternative for a fraction of the cost and not a bad choice if you don’t use a super-tele often enough to justify the price of the Sony. Optically, in the 200-400 range, it is comparable to the much more expensive original Canon 100-400, which was my workhorse tele lens for a long time, but (obviously) it can go to 600mm without a teleconverter, making it a very versatile lens for wildlife – I used in Katmai for the bears. That copy was hand-picked out of 3 samples.

Sony LA-EA3 adpter. $175. Mount a Sony A lens on Sony FE body with fast and accurate PDAF AF-C and AF-S with Wide, Center and Flexible Spot Focus Areas.

Ricoh GR. $400. If you are OK with a fixed lens (equivalent to 28mm), the Ricoh GR is still one of the finest pocket cameras. The ergonomics are outstanding with easy access to all important controls, and the image quality phenomenal for a 16MP camera. In fact, thanks to the exceptionally sharp lens, images are better than those made with a Canon 5D mk3 and 24-104 f/4, and I have made and sold a 30×45 print out of one of them. This camera shows minimal wear and works perfectly. Sold with original packaging and all accessories, except that I am providing a third party battery charger instead of the original charging cable that required you to plug in the camera to charge the battery.

Sanho Hyperdrive COLORSPACE UDMA 2 480GB. $225. This is a standalone, battery-operated device with a color screen that allows you to back up memory cards without the need of a computer. I prefer this device to a computer because it is lighter, smaller, faster to operate, and requires less power. I easily carried two of them for total redundancy, whereas it would be a drag to carry two computers. If you carry one computer and several drives, the computer’s failure would make it impossible to do further backups. Read about my hard-learned lesson on backups. The only limitation with this particular device is that it doesn’t support SDXC. I had to upgrade to the UDMA 3 for that, but if you are using CF cards or older SD cards, the UDMA 2 will work just fine.

Gitzo 1325 mk2 tripod. $300. Series 3 carbon-fiber, with 3 legs section and a large apex. Folded Length 26.4 in, Height Range 4.33 – 58.27 in, weight 4.5 lbs. Rock solid. Good condition, but note that the joints (which were not anti-twist, so require you to operate them in the right order), have become a bit sticky, something that can probably be fixed by a thorough cleaning.

Arca-Swiss Monoball B1 Ballhead. $250. Many scratches, but solid operation. For many years, the Arca-Swiss Monoball B1 Ball Head has been the standard by which all other ball heads are judged. I find that lighter ball heads are sufficient for my needs, but if you are looking for a heavy-duty one, that one is silky smooth and super solid.

Dynamic Perception Stage Zero Dolly Complete Kit. $600. Just a few years into the time-lapse trend (that I joined for a while), standards raised dramatically with camera motion. What made it possible was the Stage Zero, the first commercially available dolly with integrated time-lapse controller. Dollies have since become more slick and refined, but the Stage Zero remains a workhorse which is almost impossible to break even shipped as checked-in luggage (in a ski bag, included). The original kit has a single 6 foot rail, but I include a second identical rail and hardware to join them for a total of 12 feet travel. Mine came with a connector cable for Canon, but with the appropriate cable, the controller works with other systems as well. Using this has given me a new appreciation for those with the dedication to lug this thing over long distances. It works fine close to the car, though, and if you’d like a proven dolly to try to take your time-lapses to the next level, that’s a fun piece of gear!

The Organ Mountains – Searching for a View

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

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

The East Side

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

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

The West Side

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

Physical Book Details

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open spine: results in a book which opens flatter

Closed spine: results in a book with a stronger binding

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

Topaz Labs Sharpen AI: Deep Learning Comes to the Rescue

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

Focus blur correction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Camera motion correction

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

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

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

How does it work?

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

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

Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument in Winter

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

Lower Rio Grande River Gorge

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

Rio Grande Gorge Bridge

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

John Dunn Bridge

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

Wild Rivers Recreation Area

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

Taos Plateau

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

More photos of Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument.

Postscript

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

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