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Dry Dunes

We made our annual camping trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park near the end this past summer.  The trip was wonderful, as usual, though something was very different from trips past.  Things were oh, so very dry…

Southwestern and south central Colorado had extreme drought conditions through much of 2018.  (It’s only gotten marginally better this fall – they’re down to only severe drought conditions.) . It was so dry down at Dunes that Medano Creek was completely dried up by the time we got there in late August!  We’ve been there plenty of times during the late summer months and we know that the creek is usually barely a trickle and is really dependent on thunderstorms for flow at that time of year.  This year though?  Completely and utterly dry and gone!  Not a trace of the creek.

To give you an idea of what we found, here’s a shot I typically take looking northeast, upstream towards the mountains.  (This shot was taken during a trip in August 2010, a year or two after some wildfires in the hills whose ashes was still washing downstream.)

Medano Creek

Here’s what we found this year…

So Dry

Little different, huh?  Even in dry years, there’s usually at least a sign that the creek had been there recently.  Some wet sand, maybe a trickle of water.  This year?  Nada.  Even when you dug your toes down a few inches, the sand was bone dry.

I always say no matter how many times we go to Dunes, we always see something new.  The lack of Medano Creek was a certainly new one for us.  It also gave us a reason to hike as far as we could (or felt like it) upstream to see if we could find signs of water.  I wish I could say we found a trace, but we did not after trekking a few miles along the creek bed.

What we did see along the way were a few fun sights of high desert life continuing in spite of the drought.  Prairie sunflowers were still around, though not as bountiful as they’ve been the last few years.  Dune grasses persistent in their survival, still mainly green in color.

And of course, the overall scenery was splendid as it always is…

Meandering to a Vista

Although it was abnormally dry, we still had a great time camping and hiking and hanging out with friends.  Until next year Dunes…

– JC

Endlessly Catching Up

2018 continues to fly by faster and faster.  Here we are, just a few days after the US Thanksgiving holiday and I’m only just now getting my pictures from a short July trip to Wyoming posted!  Maybe 2019 will be the year that I keep on top of the blogging better?  (It’s good to have goals…)

Now let’s time travel back to July… We took a short weekend trip up to Laramie, Wyoming to check it out and hike up Medicine Bow peak just outside of town.  Laramie isn’t terribly far from our home, and only weeks after saying goodbye to our dog, a change of scenery for a few days was what we needed.

Laramie itself was OK – nothing spectacular to speak of.  Medicine Bow National Forest though?  That was awesome!

Since our hike was going to be above treeline most of the day, we got our usual early start.  We hit pay dirt right away, as we arrived at the trailhead just as the sun popped up and kissed the east-facing slopes of Medicine Bow peak.  An amazing start to what was a fantastic day of hiking.

Medicine Bow Peak Sunrise

The trail was fairly steep at the start, but not terribly difficult if you paced yourself.  I think it was this early part of the hike where my husband was stopping to take more pictures than I did because the light and the scenery was simply awesome.

Once we finished the steep part, we were above treeline and “just” had to wind our way around to the back of Medicine Bow for a few miles to find the trail to reach peak.  That roundabout way of reaching the top was longer, but much easier to tackle.  It also had amazing views, including a southward vista clear into north central Colorado’s high country!

Hello Colorado!
Western View Heading to Medicine Bow Peak

The climb to the peak got steep and a little rocky (as they usually do when you’re climbing mountains), but we made it!  The views were certainly worth the effort…

Medicine Bow Peak View from the Top
Dive In

With snowbanks still around in mid-July, we schlepped through some soggy mush to avoid some steep rocky slopes.  (We even took a moment to make a couple of snowballs and gave them a little toss in honor of our pup who loved few things more than chasing snowballs.)

As steep as the start of the trail was, the way back down was even more so!  Thankfully, we had read about now narrow & steep this part of the trail was, so we were ready.  If we had started our day coming up this end of the loop to reach the peak, I’m sure I’d be telling a much different story about exhaustion & frustration!

The rest of our day was simply beautiful.  The last couple of miles wound along the lakes sitting at the base of the mountain, with the weather cooperating, creating stunning scenery.

Picture Perfect Medicine Bow

While we weren’t impressed with our stay in Laramie itself, the Medicine Bows blew us away.  Definitely a trip we’ll do again – with a few tweaks to maximize our outdoor time a little bit better!

-JC

So Dreadfully Behind, It’s Still Winter!

I have no idea where 2018 has gotten to.  As I write, it’s mid-August and I just came across pictures from back in February that I hadn’t processed!  Clearly life got a little busy and – quite honestly – saying goodbye to our little girl Sydney back in June threw me for quite a loop.  Pictures were definitely the last thing on my mind as we went through that.  (I’m sure at some point I’ll write a post about that – I’ll be sure to hydrate myself before I write since it’s bound to be a teary one.)

So here we are late-summer, looking back at snowshoe pictures I took in February during the one and only time we got out on the trails this winter.  We trekked up the winter trail to one of our favorite places – Loch Vale (a.k.a. The Loch).  The winter trail is pretty easy until the last quarter-mile or so when it gets pretty steep.  It’s worth the trip though!

As usual, it was really blustery when we reached The Loch itself.  We had to find some shelter out of the wind just to eat our lunch.  Luckily for me, we plopped ourselves down for a nosh right near a really interesting curl of snow on a rock.  I think that’s the one thing that I took the most pictures of during our hike!  Though it was tricky to avoid over-exposing the picture using my phone, I did snag a few shots that I was fond of…

The Loch is a good hike any time of year, though winter is probably our favorite because it’s not nearly as crowded as it is other times of year.  Naturally, that comes with trade-offs that you have to prepare for… like bundling up and leaning into powerful winds to get up there in the first place!  Totally worth it though…

 

– JC

Mac & Cheese Challenge

Last summer, Ravensburger, Inc. contacted me out of the blue asking if I’d be interested in working with them to create a new puzzle for their challenge series they’d be starting releasing 2018.  Would I?!  Absolutely!

The image they were interested in was a mac & cheese photo I randomly took one day in my kitchen nearly 10 years ago.  They thought it would make for a perfect jigsaw puzzle for their new challenge series since it offers difficulty for puzzle assembly, yet it’s such a familiar (and delicious!) subject.  I was pretty good at puzzles when I was growing up, so I could easily see why this picture appealed to them.

Because the original picture was so old, I offered to do a reshoot to get an image quality more in-line with today’s technology.  Good thing we always have a box of mac & cheese on-hand in our pantry in case we need a dinner in a pinch!  One afternoon, I whipped up that mac & cheese and started shooting, being careful to replicate the approximate angles & composition of the original image.

Mac & Cheese Reshoot

The reshoot was successful and Ravensburger went off to prep their catalog, produce the puzzle, etc.  Needless to say, as autumn and half of winter flew by, it slipped my mind that the puzzle would be coming out when the calendar turned to 2018.  That’s when a big box arrived in late January and – ta da!!  My puzzle was here!!

Mac & Cheese Arrived!

The feeling of opening that box and seeing my picture of something as simple as a pot of mac & cheese turned into a puzzle was so exciting – and a little surreal.  Certainly a moment I’ll never forget!

About a week or two later, I had some free time and decided to dig in and see how challenging it was.  It’s no joke… this sucker is tricky!  I don’t think it’s impossible, but it’s certainly something that will take some time – probably exactly the difficulty level Ravensburger was shooting for.  Since I’m chipping away at it here and there, I haven’t gotten too far in terms of progress:

Mac & Cheese... in Progress

I’ll keep plugging away at this puzzle because I’m definitely the kind of person who – once I start something – I finish it!  (I’m also finding the puzzle is challenging my will power because constantly looking at that picture makes me hungry for mac & cheese!!)

If you’re interested in taking this “mac & cheese challenge” you can purchase the puzzle from Ravensburger directly or other retailers around the web.  If you choose to accept the challenge, good luck!!

– JC

Pursuit of Petroglyphs

Before we left Mesa Verde National Park for the last stop on our trip in Durango, we had time for one quick morning spin to Petroglyph Point.  We hadn’t done that hike since the first time my husband took me to Mesa Verde back in 2007.  (In fact, this may be the very first hike I ever went on in Mesa Verde!)  Ten years later seemed like a good time to check it out, and the length of the hike certainly fit our itinerary for the day.

We decided to hit the trail as soon as it opened.  Since the trail starts near the popular Spruce Tree House site and the museum, access to the trail is controlled by a locked gate that’s only open during daylight hours.  We thought the gate opened at 8am.  Surprise!  It wasn’t going to open until 8:30.  What to do with time to kill and good morning light?  Take pictures of yucca, of course!

Eventually 8:30 came, so we schlepped down to the gate to start our day and it was still locked.  Huh?  We waited a few minutes, figuring maybe the rangers were running late, yet still no signs of it opening.  I hiked back up to the museum at the top of the trail to ask the rangers was up and it turned out there was some sort of coverage miscommunication, so one of the rangers came back down with me and opened it for us.  Sweet!  That guaranteed we were the first ones on the trail for the day so we could set our own pace and have some peace and quiet along the way.

I took some pictures along the way out to Petroglyph Point, but much of the trail was in shade since the sun wasn’t very high in the sky yet.  I tried not to slow our pace too much with picture-taking, but there was one exception…

We came upon a rock along the trail that had some huge holes eroded in it.  The way the light was coming through the holes, it looked like mini caverns or slot canyons.  The lighting was so delicate that it took some time to get the exposure dialed in, and then a little more time in post processing to bring out the light the way my eyes saw it.  I think it was time well spent based on the results.

A couple of miles down the trail, we reached Petroglyph Point and still hadn’t seen or heard another soul on the trail.  It was wonderful!  We took quite a bit of time at the petroglyph panel itself because it’s really interesting to study in detail when you have the opportunity to do so.

Petroglyph Point

Only mere yards after you reach the petroglyphs, you start your ascent up some ladders back to the mesa top to walk back around to the trailhead through some pinyon and juniper forest.  Before we climbed out, we turned around and found that the canyon was lit up beautifully in the morning sun.  Picture time!

Around the Bends

Turns out that wasn’t the only cool view.  There was a tiny one right next to us as we were looking out across the canyons – a cluster of cacti thriving in a crack on one of the big boulders next to us.

Prickly Rock

Once we returned to the car, it was time to leave the park.  Always a bittersweet feeling, but we still had an afternoon and a night in Durango to look forward to before the long drive home.

Since we couldn’t check into our hotel quite that early, we went directly to Ska Brewing in Durango.  We’ve enjoyed their beer many times, but had never managed to make it to the brewery itself to check it out.  I was sold the second I saw what might be one of the best traffic control signs ever in their parking lot (complete with aspens changing color in the background)…

Best Brewery Parking Lot Sign (Ska Brewing)

Wonderful brews and a tasty lunch were had by all.

The melancholy of our trip coming rapidly to a close was starting to set in, but we enjoyed our short stay in Durango.  It was a whirlwind week in Utah and southwest Colorado, but a really fun one.  Can’t wait to do it again!!

– JC

Back to Mesa Verde

When we spend time in eastern Utah, that usually means the loop back home runs through southwest Colorado somehow.  It’s a convenient excuse for my husband to stop by Mesa Verde National Park and see what’s going on.  Though it makes for a much longer trip home, we get to see some parts of the state we don’t visit on a regular basis.  It certainly makes for a beautiful change of scenery.

This trip followed that same pattern.  We left Goblin Valley State Park in Utah and started the roundabout way home via Mesa Verde.  With only a day and a half to spend in the park itself, we kept the schedule fairly light and open, though we did squeeze in one of the limited-access ranger-led hikes to a cliff dwelling that’s not typically open to the public.

Every year, Mesa Verde offers 2 different ranger-led hikes that are limited to about 10 people each day for a small cost.  These trips take you to sites very much off the beaten path and typically not visible from any of the overlooks, nor are they regularly toured by the masses.  It’s a nice balance for the park in terms of management – they can keep the sites somewhat accessible to the public by rotating the offerings each year while ensuring these sites are protected from the wear and tear of tour bus-fulls of tourists trampling around them daily.

We’ve been on a few of these ranger-led hikes during previous trips to the park.  This year we lucked out and got to go to a new site – Oak Tree House.  It was billed as a 2 mile roundtrip hike that involved using ropes and ladders.  Ok by us!

The hike to Oak Tree House started fairly early in the morning – certainly fine by me from a photography perspective since that meant good light to shoot in.

As we descended down the trail, we were curious when the ropes and ladders would come into play.  We didn’t have to wait long.  We quickly came upon a spot where you used a rope to steady yourself as you went backwards down a steep-ish rock to a ladder to climb down to the next level of the hike.  Certainly a nice twist on “normal” hiking (a.k.a. walking).  Luckily, with my camera strap setup attached to my backpack, I was able to traverse the course without any problems or accidentally banging my camera at all.  Very helpful when you’re trying really hard not to be the photography jerk slowing down the whole group!

Climb Down

The rangers that guide these hikes do a really nice job with the interpretation & education.  They also keep the pace pretty tame, so that did allow me the opportunity to stop and snag some shots.  What I immediately noticed was, when the ranger would stop and tell the group that there was, say, a good shot of Cliff Palace across the canyon, everybody focused over there where the site was in complete & utter shade.  Where was I pointing?  The exact opposite way making use of the morning sunlight still shimmering off of the canyon walls.

Further Down

Following the light and always looking around as we stopped to listen to the ranger continued to pay off for me and my pictures because there was a very cooperative bluebird warming himself in the morning sun on a branch not far from where we were standing on the trail.  That’s why I always keep my eyes peeled when hiking or simply walking around town with my camera!

Bluebird Visitor

It didn’t take long to reach Oak Tree House itself.  The site wasn’t as in-tact as some of the more famous houses like Cliff Palace, Balcony House, or Spruce Tree house that are swarmed with visitors each year and very, very well maintained & preserved.  Still, it had some interesting coloring and characteristics that you don’t see on other houses in the park.  (It also had some t-shaped doors similar to those found on the houses built at Chaco Canyon… makes you wonder if the civilizations were linked in some way even though the timelines are just a tad off.)

For the first time back at Mesa Verde in 7 years, it was a nice way to start to the day.

The hike was so short that we were easily done by lunchtime.  After a bite to eat, we had some time to kill on the mesa before catching the Balcony House tour later that afternoon.  We drove out to the Far View Sites to walk around a bit and wound up chatting some more with the park volunteer who had joined us on our Oak Tree House hike earlier in the day.

I was feeling lazy and didn’t want to carry my pack or my camera around, so I just shot with my phone.  That gave me the opportunity to try some new shots at the site that I may not have been able to maneuver myself into position to get with my big camera and my pack on.

Come On In

Finally it was time to head over for our Balcony House tour with 50 other visitors.  Since it was late in the season, only Balcony House was open for public tours meaning every single tour was packed to the gills.  Once again, considering the pace of the ranger-led tour and the amount of people on it, I opted for no pack and no camera again.  It also helped that my husband reminded me of the tiny, narrow passageways you have to scoot and crawl through on the tour.  It was just easier to use my phone and leave the big stuff behind.

Balcony House hadn’t changed much in the 10 years since we last toured it.  I’d say that’s a good sign for how it’s being managed by the Park Service considering how many people trek through there daily.

As with our other tours, I once again found myself looking around for the less-than-obvious things to shoot.  It paid off again as I came home with a really wild shot of the canyon wall leading into the Balcony House site.  There’s just something about this shot that mesmerized me more I looked at it after we got home.  There’s something about the colors and textures that just draw my eye in.

Mesmerizing Rock

Believe it or not, that was just our first day at the park!  There’s still another half day to come.  There’s bound to be something good to do the next morning before we leave… right?  Just what?  Something to ponder…

– JC

Hiking for Art

The main attraction for the Utah portion of our trip was Horseshoe Canyon to check off a “bucket list” item for my husband – seeing the art galleries on the canyon walls.  You’re probably asking yourself, “Art in a canyon?  What?”  Yes, art in a canyon.  But first, we had to get there – and that posed potentially the greatest challenge of all.

Horseshoe Canyon is located in eastern Utah and is a satellite part of Canyonlands National Park.  That doesn’t mean it’s close to anything – it’s just in the middle of nowhere.  (Sensing a pattern here with our trips yet?)  To reach the trailhead, you have to traverse 32 miles of dirt road that’s only sometimes passable by a 2-wheel drive vehicle with enough ground clearance.  4-wheel drive is recommended, but even then it can be a crapshoot with the road conditions if winds suddenly pick up and bury the road in fine red sand.  So, it’s a tricky trek to the trailhead that also requires a touch of luck to make it all the way.

Away We Go

We had more than a little luck on our side the day we attempted our hike.  The vicious winds from the day before had died down and didn’t blow too much loose sand on the road.  Considering the conditions this road sometimes sees, it was in really good shape.  That didn’t make it any less nerve-wracking for my husband doing the driving though.  Thankfully we didn’t encounter any iffy areas along those 32 miles on the way in – win!  (Getting back to camp we’d deal with later in the day, then breathe easy once we were done.)

As soon as we reached the trailhead, the canyon was a sight to behold.

Horseshoe Canyon Panorama

The hike starts with a quick trip down to the canyon floor about 750 feet below.  That first mile was full of treats too.  We saw some fabulously interesting rock formations, some sort of old watering or irrigation trough, and a dinosaur print!  Not too shabby for the first mile.

A little further into our descent, we came across a horse gate that is used to limit access via horseback into the canyon.  (Access via horseback is by permit only.) . I thought the sign was absolutely fabulous – even if the letters may have been a little too small to drive the point home to some visitors, in my opinion.

Serious Reminder

Just past the gate, we were greeted by some of the native burros that live in the canyon.  These burros were left in the canyon by the Spanish ages ago and have thrived in the environment since then.  They were on the opposite side of the canyon from us, so not close enough to be bothered by our presence (or for me to get a really good picture of them – look for the white & brown creatures near the middle of the picture below).

Burros

The canyon floor itself became a real treat for my photography eye as we trekked… much to my husband’s chagrin because he came to see the art in the canyon, not be slowed down by me making art.  The mud had cracked and curled all over the canyon floor.  To me, it looked like a vast expanse of chocolate curls.  (Yes, my brain always goes back to food someway, somehow.)

Clay Cigars

The near-frenetic pace of sights and things I wanted to take pictures of pleasantly surprised us a little.  And we hadn’t even reached the first art gallery!  Finally, I did put the camera away long enough so we could pick up the pace and we arrived to see what we came for – ancient pictographs & petroglyphs!

There’s 4 galleries in the canyon with panels that are considered to be the finest examples of Native American rock art in North America.  The first gallery we arrived at was the High Gallery.  When you see how high up it is, you realize how that panel got its name and then you start to wonder, “How in the world did they get up there to make those images?!”

Not too far after the High Gallery, you reach the Horseshoe Gallery.  This one was also fairly high up on the canyon wall, but not as much as the previous display.  It was also in the sun on light-colored rock, making for a completely different photography challenge for me.

Horseshoe Gallery

After that one-two punch of the High and Horseshoe Galleries, we meandered through the canyon bottom following the dry stream bed and trail.  Thankfully it wasn’t too terribly hot that day since it was autumn, after all.  I couldn’t imagine doing that hike in the middle of summer where temperatures would be well over 100.  Ugh – too dang hot!

About halfway down to the next gallery, we heard a loud squawking noise in the canyon.  We couldn’t believe how loud it was and started looking up for birds.  We didn’t see anything in the sky or tucked into the rock walls, so we had a little mystery on our hands.  Something to ask the ranger about if we ran into one back at the trailhead at the end of the day.

Eventually, we saw a huge alcove that almost looked like the shell of an outdoor amphitheater.  That’s precisely when we realized we were nearing the 3rd gallery – the Alcove Gallery.

The Alcove

Where the first 2 galleries were high off the ground, the rock art in the Alcove Gallery was smack at ground level (behind a thin chain fence to deter visitors from touching it, naturally).  Being able to get up close to the art was really cool.  I was able to get some lovely detail shots of the images.  We even noticed places where cowboys coming through the canyon in the 1920s had etched their names in the rock – with pretty decent penmanship no less!

The grand finale was still about a mile ahead of us.  So… trudge, trudge, trudge… walk, walk, walk.  That brought us to the Great Gallery.  It’s the oldest and most elaborate panel in the entire canyon.  This panel is what my husband came to see, and boy did he ever enjoy it!  (Click on the pictures to enlarge them & check out the detail of the rock art.)

After a spot of lunch, it was time to head back to the trailhead.  Since the sun was more or less straight above the canyon, that lit up some of the features that were in deep shadow when we set out on our hike that morning.  Yay for me!

Heading Out & UpAlmost Up & Out

Not long after I snagged that 2nd shot above, we heard that squawking again.  Only this time it was really, really loud.  We had just seen some of the burros on the other side of the canyon and that’s when it clicked – the squawking we heard in the morning at least a 1/2 mile from where we first saw the burros was the burros!  Holy hell they’re loud in that canyon!!

Once we got back to the rim and the trailhead, it was time to pack-up and go after a fabulous outing.  Before we left, I did snag a quick shot across the canyon up to the northeast since the La Sal Mountains were shining out on the horizon with a fresh coat of snow on their peaks from the storm that passed through the day before.

La Sals Far Away

With the gear stowed, we were off to conquer the 32 miles of dirt road once more.  Some sand blew across the road while we were hiking, but thankfully it remained passable.  Back at camp we cracked open some beer and celebrated a really good day of hiking and an item successfully checked off of my husband’s “bucket list”.

– JC