Into Little Wild Horse Canyon

I love slot canyons.  Their depth, their towering wall heights, how skinny things get, the way the light plays around and bounces off the walls.  There’s a ton to love as a photographer.  Unfortunately, those exact same characteristics make them really tricky to photograph to truly capture their beauty.

Little Wild Horse Canyon in Goblin Valley State Park in Utah fit that pattern precisely.  Maybe not quite at the start of our trek, but certainly as we got closer to the end.  It was a fabulous progression.

Our morning hike started off simply enough.  Meandering down a dry creek bed, with obvious signs of where the water runs when it does arrive since there were some big cottonwoods changing into their fall colors to greet us.  (I also got some magical morning sunlight on the bark of one of the trees.)

It rained in the area about 2 weeks prior to our arrival, but Utah being Utah, we didn’t think much of it since we were heading to the desert.  It’d certainly be dry by now, maybe an occasional tiny puddle to splash through.  As we got to the mouth of the canyon, we saw that wasn’t the case.  Thankfully my husband – hiking research guy that he is – had read there was another way around this “puddle” so we stayed dry (for now).

Entry Dip

Once we trekked our way around that “welcoming pool”, things started to look more like normal canyon hiking.  Interesting rock walls, plants growing in unusual spots, rock falls, etc.  A bit of a tricky start, but really pretty once we climbed around it all.

Not long after this point, things started getting narrow.  And sandy.  The canyon floor quickly and steadily became beach-like sand, making walking just a touch harder than normal.  Certainly not difficult enough to stop us though.

Twisting Narrows

As the canyon continued to narrow, we started running into a few more puddles.  Some were easy enough to splash through as they barely got over the toes of our boots.  Others got over our ankles, and a couple got up to our knees.  We kept chugging along because the scenery was so very worth it, and really – what’s a little more dampness when you’re already wet!?

I continued shooting whatever I could.  The light began dancing on the canyon walls as the sun got higher in the sky, creating fascinating highlights & shadow patterns.  There was just so much I wanted to capture, but I tempered that urge a little so I wasn’t slowing us down too much or putting myself in the way of other hikers.  Considering the shooting pace was a little more rushed than I would’ve liked, I came home with a lot of goodies!  (And yes, though the red walls were gorgeous in their natural color, I found during post processing that the black & whites let me play around more with the shadows & textures in the rocks.)

It was a pretty easy walk through the canyon, so long as we could twist ourselves and our packs through the narrowest parts.  We even ran into some stuff to climb over and through to keep it interesting.

Just as things were starting to get interesting though…

Illusion

…we ran into the puddle that shall not let us pass.  (I’ve been reading Michael Palin’s published diaries from the early days of Monty Python, thus the loosely quoted Holy Grail reference.)

We started through a series of puddles that were ankle-deep, then shin deep, then knee-deep, then mid-thigh deep, then… um, really deep.  By measure of my husband’s hiking stick, the next puddle was going to come up to at least above our waists, if not chest-high.  Considering we were surprised to see any lingering remnants of moisture at all on this hike, we weren’t prepared to get quite that wet.  Naturally, for me, I had the added bonus of visions of slipping & plunging to neck-deep with my camera attached to me flash before my eyes.  (When you have a clumsy gene, these visions flash in your mind all the time!)

When we made the call to turn around and head back, we estimated we were probably 2/3 of the way into the canyon.  We certainly saw a lot of gorgeous sights.  If only a fellow returning hiker hadn’t passed us and said that the most beautiful part of the canyon lied ahead of that massively deep puddle, we wouldn’t have known what we were missing!  Disappointing, yes.  But that’s ok – it just gives us one more reason to go back!

On our way back to the trailhead, I was quickly reminded of the benefits of out-and-back hiking in a canyon like this.  So long as you’re paying attention to how the light is moving on your way in, you can save yourself some time and skip the shot the first time you see it if it’s in a ton of shadows and plan to catch the sight in better light on the way out.  (My husband very much appreciates that I try to do that – one less thing slowing him down at the start of a hiking day!)

Even though our bottom halves were utterly soaked through, we still saw some grand sights on the way out.

An unexpectedly wet day in Little Wild Horse Canyon for us, but we really enjoyed it and can’t wait to go back to explore it some more!

 

– JC

Procrastination Didn’t Pay

This post has actually been a long time in the making only because it involved 2 separate hikes.  Desperate to get away from the already-record crowds in Rocky on 4th of July weekend, we made a little diversion to a lesser known area for a quiet hike.  No only did we hardly see any people, the views were amazing!!  Full kudos to my husband for scouting out and correctly guessing that St. Vrain Mountain was the place to be!!

The St. Vrain Mountain trail runs mostly in Indian Peaks Wilderness, but towards the end veers in and out of Rocky Mountain National Park.  The trail head is a bit off of the beaten path, so that helps keep crowds down.  Add to that the 4 or so miles of moderately difficult hiking just to get to the base of St. Vrain Mountain before going up a mile’s worth of boulders to the summit, and you’ve got the perfect mix of “crowd suppression” we so often seek when hiking.

Summer hiking, especially above treeline, means early mornings.  That’s probably the toughest part some days – just getting going.  For the first hike, I only toted my phone because we weren’t sure what we’d find or how hard the boulder field would be to traverse on the way to the summit, so I made it easy on myself.  The sun was just starting to come up as we set out on the trail through a forest of aspen trees, then along a stream where wildflowers were just opening to greet the day.  We even came across a tree felled by a beaver near the stream!

Good start to the day noted, we kept trudging up the hill.  The aspen forest seemed to go on forever, but eventually it gave way to pines.  The purple and yellow and red wildflowers combined with the early sun of the day and a crispness in the air was simply fantastic.  We even lucked out and found some picturesque columbines peeking out along the side of the trail.

Eventually – and what seemed like took forever – the pine trees disappeared and we were above treeline.  That’s when things got really spectacular!  Not long after leaving the forest, we were up on the saddle between hills just to the south of RMNP.  We looked to the north and our jaws just dropped.  We were staring at the south faces of Longs Peak, Mount Meeker, Mount Lady Washington, and the whole gaggle of peaks that make up that southern section of the park.  Add to that some fluffy clouds throwing dramatic shadows on the jagged mountains and the brilliant yellows of wildflowers in the meadows and it was something to behold (even if the camera on my phone couldn’t quite do it justice).

On the Border - Panorama

I think at this moment, we looked at each other and knew immediately that we’d be doing this hike again, and soon.  The “big gun” camera and its accoutrements must make it to at least the saddle to really capture what we were seeing before us.

Putting that thought aside, we still had time and the weather was cooperating, so we decided to go on and summit St. Vrain Mountain.  From the saddle, it didn’t look so bad… (St. Vrain Mountain is the hill on the right closer to the foreground.)  Looks are very deceiving in the mountains.

Some Context - St. Vrain Mountain

So we whip around the hill a little more and start to go up.  Then kept going up.  That last mile up the hill was a slog of boulder hopping and figuring out how best to navigate to the top sans trail.

Plotting the Course

The climb was tough, but the bonus was when you stopped to rest.  That’s when you could look to the north and see the peaks in RMNP and then to the south and see Indian Peaks.  Not bad scene to catch your breath.

Longs South Side

After what seemed like one of the slowest climbs ever – including stopping because we came upon 2 ptarmigans near the top!! – we made it to the summit.  The view was simply sublime and made it worth the extra effort to reach the top.

St. Vrain Mountain - Summit Panorama

Once we grabbed a bite to eat, we headed back down before those cute clouds potentially turned into storms that would be a bad thing to be caught in above treeline.  All the while we were already planning our trip back.

Park Hopping

Successful maiden hike over, we headed home and plotted to come back in a couple of weeks with my big camera and really get into shooting in the saddle.  (There’s no way I’d try to summit at this point with all of my gear.  My conditioning is much better than it was years ago, but climbing a boulder field that long with the extra 20 or so pounds of equipment isn’t happening any time soon.)

Cut to the end of July – time to go back!  I was super excited to go with the “big gun” and take some time shooting the streams, the wildflowers, and especially up in the saddle.  Unfortunately, in the few weeks between trips, things changed a lot up there.  Summer is a fickle and fleeting thing in the high country and by the time we returned, the wildflowers in the saddle were done.  On top of that, it was a cloudless sky that was flat and off-color because smoke and other particles from wildfires to the north in Colorado and even from way down south in New Mexico were blowing in creating a nasty haze that not even my polarizer could cut through.  Talk about disappointment!

Just Over the Hill

I was so bummed about the conditions that when I offloaded my images for post-processing, I just let them sit for a few weeks.  I felt a general malaise about what I captured that day.  I hoped some had potential to be “rescued” and turned into something good, but I didn’t have much luck with that.  I ended up keeping only 3 images from the entire day!  That’s the thing with shooting in nature – some days you get incredibly lucky, but other days are simply an icky washout.

In the end, delaying our return trip and postponing my post-processing led to a massive delay in finally getting this post done.  Procrastination didn’t pay off in terms of pictures in this instance, but I think I learned a lot of good things about timing and the weather in this location just on these 2 trips alone so come next summer I can really try to nail the beauty of this area when things are at their peak.

 

– JC

My Birthday with My Dad & Rocky

The last full day of my parents’ visit with us just happened to be my birthday, so I ended up spending my birthday with my dad back up at Rocky Mountain National Park playing with our cameras.  My dad already had thousands of shots at this point of their trip – both from Rocky and from their “side trip” to Yellowstone.  While his shots of the wildlife were phenomenal, the legwork was starting to catch up to him and he wanted something different to shoot, so I suggested we do some easy hiking around Glacier Gorge and Bear Lake so he could get some stream and waterfall shots.  He loved that idea because then he could play with a new graduated density filter he got before the trip but hadn’t been able to use yet.  So off we went (and at the usual, absurdly early hour too)…

Before I get to the shooting day, there is a bit of a back story to share from about 9 years ago.  That’s when I got my first DSLR setup – the swank new Nikon D300.  Around that time, my dad was also ready to upgrade his gear, and he ended up with the same camera!  So now, not only had photography become a new language that my dad and I could share, but now we could talk camera-specific tech details (and I could serve as tech support from time to time).  After most of my life not knowing what the hell he was talking about or understanding what he was shooting (on film too!), this was a really cool development.

In the years since the D300 came out, my dad (who’s retired and primarily does bird photography) had continually asked me every few months if I had heard any new rumors of a D300 replacement.  Just like all D300 owners, we were frustrated with Nikon as the years went by and no DX-format, “pro-sumer” body replacement for the D300 was announced.

Then lo and behold this year – finally! – the D500!  My dad ordered his as soon as they started accepting pre-orders, but I had to wait a while before pulling the trigger on mine.  I have to admit – I was a little jealous when he got his, but about a month later mine finally showed up.  Fun thing is that I didn’t tell him I had ordered it, let alone it had arrived, and he still didn’t know I had it until they arrived and I pulled it out!  Needless to say, he was surprised and then came the litany of “have you found this?” or “how did you set this?” questions more or less immediately.  That’s ok though because I think both of us were still figuring it out together.

Now – back to our day at Rocky… It was very much a learning day for both of us.  We trekked up the trail from the Glacier Gorge trailhead with Alberta Falls being the goal.  I chose that hike because it wasn’t too steep, it was pretty short, and I knew there were a bunch of good shaded mountain streams along the way that would be running like crazy at the end of spring run-off as the snow finished melting.  I didn’t take a ton of shots that day since I didn’t take my full setup (and I’m still waiting for some tripod connection pieces to become available for the D500), but I got some good shots.  My dad hasn’t processed his shots from the trip yet, but I think it’s a safe bet he got the better shots that day since he had his full setup with him!

The first thing we shot was one of the streams I knew off of the side of the trail.  My dad had gotten creative with a grinder and one of his old tripod plates, so he was good to go in terms of a steady setup to do long exposures on the running stream.  My shots were “meh” since I was doing the best I could with a monopod, but I also have the advantage of living near Rocky and can go back pretty much whenever I want.  I did get one shot of the stream that I liked, and it’s from a goofy angle that I just tried for effect.

Sideways Flow

I think this was the only stream shot I had turn out all day.  No matter though, because as my dad was focusing on steams, I was going after ambiance and other little things catching my eye – like the aspen grove a little way up the trail from the trailhead.

When we did finally get to Alberta Falls, it was still early enough that it wasn’t crowded yet, so my dad could really fiddle with shots.  The snow was so bountiful again last winter (yay!) that the falls were really raging – to the point that there was a steady mist blowing at the camera and a long exposure shot wasn’t all that interesting from the main viewpoint.  That’s when I shifted into “location scout” mode, scampering up the trail and the rocks along the falls to see what shots might be available before having my dad trek up with his gear.

Just from looking in the display on his camera, my dad was pretty excited about the shots he bagged up at the highest point of the falls.  Me – on the other hand – I was content with taking some more ambient shots – including one of a little beggar face that kept circling as I ate a snack.

Once we finished up and got back to the trailhead, my dad was game for grabbing a couple of scenic shots at Bear Lake.  Since it’s summer in the park and the volume of visitors is already through the roof in June (Rocky saw a record 4 million visitors in 2015!), we hopped an already-packed shuttle bus to get to Bear Lake.

As usual for summer, Bear Lake was teeming with people.  We didn’t stay long, but my dad did get a couple of scenic shots of Hallett Peak from the lakeside, and I got some shadowy figures for my collection.

Lakeside Mood

Bear Lake was our last stop of the day in the park before we headed back down the hill and then grabbed some lunch at my favorite pizza place in our town.  When we got back to the house, I think both of us crashed for much-needed naps before heading out to dinner with the whole family that night.  What a fabulous way to spend my birthday!!

-JC

Macro Mania – Cactus Edition

With the new camera, I’m finding a rekindled interest in shots I used to mess with all the time.  In this particular case, it’s macros.  I haven’t done a lot of them in recent years, but I’ve been hunkered down with the tripod in the backyard each of the last two weekends grabbing shots.  What’s caught my eye lately?  Cactus.

My husband started a little cactus garden a couple of years ago not long after we moved into our new house.  We had a nook over the TV area that we didn’t know what to do with, so he started filling it with potted succulents a little at a time.  The first year or two they did great, but this winter they didn’t like it so much.  (I blame my black thumb presence simply being near them.)

Come spring, outside they went for “rehab”.  Luckily for us, they’re coming back like champs and growing like gangbusters!  Better for me that their growth spurt is creating all kinds of funky-ness for macro photography.

Below are a few shots I captured – some spines from a barrel cactus, and some sprouting additions on a paddle cactus.  I may be adding to the photographic collection as these guys continue to (hopefully) flourish during the summer!

– JC

A Day Among the Bristlecone Pines

A few weeks ago, my husband and I celebrated our 10th (!?) wedding anniversary.  Because it fell on a Friday, we made a long weekend out of it and went hiking.  The only real issue we had was where to hike.  It’s still too snowy up high, and lower down the snow is melting and making things a muddy mess.  Add to that the high temperature forecast for the day was 100+, we definitely needed to find cool!  That’s when it hit me – let’s go to the Mt. Goliath Nature Area outside of Idaho Springs!

The Mt. Goliath Nature Area fit the bill because it sits at 11,500′ of elevation meaning it’d be cooler than down here on the plains, the road to the Nature Area is right along the road up to Mt. Evans that opened up for the season a few weeks ago, and the hiking trails shouldn’t be too snow-packed or muddy.  Add to that that we haven’t been there in years and the drive from our house isn’t too long and we were on our way!

Getting up there in the morning worked out perfectly because we had the entire place to ourselves for the first few hours of the day.  Just us and the bristlecone pine trees.  These trees are some of our favorites – for my husband, it’s b/c he loves any and all trees; for me, it’s because they can be insanely photogenic.  Bristlecones can live to be almost 2,000 years old.  The trees in the Mt. Goliath Nature Area range in age from 700-1,600 years old!!  They’re weathered, they’re twisted, and that makes them immensely interesting.

Straight out of the gate, my eye was going bonkers looking at the different grains and shapes the trees make.  For a tree that’s so weathered and bleached on the outside, the grain on the inside that is exposed at points is so bright and vibrant that it’s a clear reminder that they’re very much alive and thriving.

The trail we hiked takes you through some mundane mountain forest, and then turns into groves of bristlecones the higher you get.  I found myself crouching down and bending into awkward positions quite a few times, trying to get shots of the spooky shapes they were making against the crystal-clear blue skies we had that day.

Reaching Higher

We were even lucky enough to get some wildflowers along the way.  Couldn’t believe they were already out in June!  A welcome pop of color along the way, especially as we got up real high and saw my husband’s favorite – Alpine Forget-Me-Nots (on the left, below).

Even though it had been 5 years since we were last at Mt. Goliath, I recognized some of the trees along the trail from the pictures I took back then.  I think part of that was simply having worked on the pictures and I loved so many of them that they stuck in my brain after all that time.  Another part was that some of those shots became desktop wallpaper at my “day job” to help remind me of days not spent whiled away at a desk.

All that aside, there was one tree that was memorable simply because it was that amazing.  I call it my “tree arch” and I couldn’t wait to see it again to see how (or if) it had changed.  As it turned out, it was there waiting for me without having changed a bit!

Tree Arch & Purple Flowers (HDR)

I took a ton of shots of this tree 5 years ago, and this day it was very much the same.  Better yet, on this particular day, we had the trail to ourselves and all the time in the world for me to play with my camera because we weren’t having to race weather even though we were above treeline (~12,000′).  Simply seeing Tree Arch had me giddy and I think the volume of pictures I brought home reflected that a bit.

I had to temper my giddiness a tad because I was <slap my wrist> going slightly off the trail above treeline </end wrist slap>.  I know I shouldn’t stray off the trail, especially above treeline because the grasses and flowers are so fragile since you’re in an alpine tundra climate where the greenery fights so hard to survive harsh conditions and short growing seasons.  I kept my footsteps to just rocks and sand to be safe, so no plants or other delicate greenery were harmed in the taking of these pictures.

Peek Through the Arch
Peek Through the Arch
Ages
Ages
Drinking Arch
Drinking Arch

Turns out I got all up in Tree Arch’s “business”, taking shots from inside the arch, different angles, just going wild.  I had a blast (and I already want to go back and take more pictures of it!!).

Random aside:  When we got home and I showed the shots to my folks who were visiting, they immediately said how they could see faces in the grains – especially in Drinking Arch (above)… they said it looked like a horse drinking.  Since then, I can’t help but see creatures’ faces in the wood!

Eventually I did pull myself away long enough so we could get up to the loop trail at the top of the mountain that gives a spectacular view of the Continental Divide.  Not a bad place to stop for a light lunch before heading back to the trailhead and civilization.

Continental Divide Pano from Mt. Goliath

Shockingly, we had the entire trail to ourselves the entire day until just yards from the parking lot.  We were totally spoiled, and that made for a superb way to start our anniversary celebration that ended with a wonderful dinner at one of our favorite local restaurants.  Simply a perfect day to celebrate 10 years together!

– JC

Wildflowers for a Monday

It’s the start of another workweek, but it’s a workweek where I’m off from my “real job” for 2 days.  Why not share some happiness with folks who do have to be at work today?

Here’s some wildflowers from another run of test shots the other week – this time at Rabbit Mountain outside of Longmont, Colorado where the flowers were abundant, colorful, and downright cheery.

Enjoy!

– JC

Art Around Town

First, a quick bit of background:  Longmont is growing as a destination for artists to hone their crafts.  It’s become so big in creative circles and known for the variety of art around that Longmont’s downtown area was recently certified as a Colorado Creative District!  Getting that designation was a long time coming and it was a big deal when they finally landed it since it made Longmont the 12th official certified Creative District in Colorado!

Back in the day, I thought having the art around town was just a nice touch.  Something to make things pretty or cute as you’re walking around town.  Over the years, as pieces on public display have changed, it’s been fun to see some really cool works go on display – especially when they’re works I know I could never conceive myself.  It’s taught me a new appreciation for different forms of art I may not have noticed or been interested in before.

While shooting the “Play the Plaza” installation the other week, I did catch what I think is a new piece on display in the area around the St. Vrain Historical Society headquarters.  It was a tall and fairly slender white stone sculpture called “Protection” by Jade Windell.  The structure and curves in it reminded me a lot of the First Nation totem poles we saw during our trip to Vancouver last year.

Luckily for me, the light was hitting it in such a way I thought I could make a couple of dramatic black & white shots of sections of the sculpture:

I think I need to go back and really fiddle with some shots with this sculpture on a bright & shiny day to get sharper shadow lines that could create some extra drama.  Considering my goal was merely testing out my camera on whatever was around town that afternoon, not bad for a quick snag of a few shots.

My test shots weren’t done just yet though.  As we were almost back at the car and ready to head home, we walked through one of the cute alley ways and passed benches covered with mosaic tile that we’ve probably passed hundreds of times before.  But on this day, my eyes were a little more attuned to what was around me.

I noticed that the one of the benches was sponsored by the computer hardware & storage company Seagate.  (Seagate is one of the larger employers in town.)  Being that my schooling was focused on computer engineering back in the day, the first thing I noticed was the binary numbers incorporated along the edge of the mosaic.  Very cool!

Binary Bench Mosaic
Binary Bench Mosaic

My binary-to-decimal conversion skills aren’t nearly as sharp as they were – gasp! – 20 years ago when I started college, but I did take a shot at converting the numbers to decimal.  Best I can tell, the numbers on the left (from top to bottom) are 4, 6, 1, 5, 1.  The numbers on the right (top to bottom) are 6 and 5.

Not sure what – if any – significance there is to those numbers.  Of course, I’m assuming the breaks in the tile are also breaks in the binary strings and that I should read the numbers top-to-bottom.  Maybe they’re really huge numbers (9897 on the left, 53 on the right)?  Maybe I’m reading them backwards and should be reading bottom-up?  See what kind of questions art can provoke even in the most techno-centric minds?!

Maybe one of these days I’ll get an answer to my binary inquires.  For now, I’ll just continue to enjoy the different art pieces as they pop-up throughout the town we’re fortunate enough to call home.

 

– JC