Down is Optional, Up is Mandatory

No truer words have ever been spoken when it comes to canyon hiking.  When you’re hiking up mountains, the harder part of the day is usually the climb, but at least that’s the first part of your day when your legs are fresher.  Coming down can still be tough, but at least you’re working with gravity instead of against it.

Canyon hiking is the exact opposite.  Your day starts with the “easy” downward trek, but then you have to climb up and out to finish the day when you’re at your most exhausted.  The canyons I’ve hiked have been in hot desert climates, so that makes the exhaustion all the worse on the way back up if you’re not careful.

Whether it’s mountain or canyon hiking, it’s still worth it even though there’s different physical and mental challenges involved.

On our 2nd full day in Grand Canyon National Park, it was finally time to dive into the Canyon a little.  Before we did, I had to get out to try for sunrise shots again though.  I’m happy to say the weather cooperated a bit better than the day before!

Second Sunrise

Our plan was to head down the Bright Angel trail as far as we could reasonably go on a winter day hike.  We fueled up with a good breakfast, grabbed our gear, and off we went.

Trail conditions weren’t too bad, though we found ourselves walking on snow and ice for the first 1.5 miles of the trail.  Thankfully, we brought our traction devices to shore up our footing, though that didn’t mean we could blaze down the trail.  It was slick and steep enough that one slip in the wrong place and – whoop! – you’d be off the trail and taking a really bad downward plunge.

The Descent Begins

A little ways down the trail, we came across what may be one of the most amusing – and useful – signs we’ve ever seen in our hiking travels.  Aside from providing important safety info to novice hikers thinking they could slay the Canyon on an easy long walk, we enjoyed the artwork.  My husband correctly pointed out that the National Park Service probably commissioned someone draw that puking hiker on the sign.  That thought gave us a good laugh.

It's a Sign

Our goal at the start of the day was modest – just make it down to the 1.5 Mile outpost that’s – you guessed it – about 1.5 miles from the trailhead.  Not knowing what the trail conditions would be or how steep the decent would be, it seemed like a reasonable goal.  I think we shocked ourselves when we made it that far in good time, even though I was snapping away during the hike as the lighting and shadows changed on our view of the Canyon.

Immense

Pleasantly surprised by how good we felt, the trail conditions, and the time we made, we decided to plunge onward and shoot for the 3 Mile outpost.  (Yes, about 3 miles from the trailhead.  Such creative naming conventions!)

We arrived just in time for a spot of lunch and for the lighting and shadows to go flat on the Canyon.  That didn’t mean I didn’t take a picture though because we came across another new trail sign favorite that inspired this post… down is optional, up is mandatory.  So succinct and so true!  I couldn’t leave without snagging a shot of that sign.

Hiking Truth

We were still feeling good after lunch and the weather was still pretty stellar.  As much as we were tempted to press on a little further down into the Canyon, we decided to be smart and head back up.  It was a looonnnngggg, steep, slick, mushy climb, but we made it back out with relative ease.   We even found a fossil in rock along the way!

Tiny Footprints

We weren’t sure how far we descended into the Canyon in terms of altitude on the way down, but when we reached the top my watch estimated we had climbed up over 2200 feet in elevation over those 3 miles of trail!  They say the Canyon is, on average, 1 mile deep, so we made it a little shy of halfway down to the Canyon floor.

Once we got back to the trailhead on the rim, we got some perspective on how far down we went because we could see the 3 Mile outpost.  Yeah, it’s a ways down there!  (The oval is an approximation of where the 3 Mile resthouse is along the trail.)

3 Mile Resthouse (Approximate)

Maybe next trip we’ll get a little more ambitious and climb further down this trail or a different path.  For my first journey into the Grand Canyon itself, it was a pretty awesome day!

– JC

PS – The Canyon treated us to a pretty spectacular sunset as the cherry on top of our day.  We even came across a little snowman family someone had made, complete with bits of carrot for the noses!

Improving Impressions

Waking up at the Grand Canyon to start our first full day in the park meant getting up early for some sunrise shots.  The forecast was iffy, so we weren’t sure if we’d see any sun that early, but I was willing to try in spite of the snow showers lingering from the night before.

The best part of shooting sunrises in winter is getting to sleep in a little later than you would for a summer sunrise.  Yay short days and long nights!  Sure, the cold isn’t fun, but that’s the trade-off.  I also find the cold scares a lot of people off, so I have a better chance of shooting what I want, from an angle I want, without crowds.

On this particular morning, my impressions of the Grand Canyon started to improve and line up more with my expectations.  The weather wasn’t ideal, but with a hint of sunlight brightening the clouds of the snow squall moving through just before the sun broke the horizon, I had a funky blueish, moody light to start the day.  If nothing else, we could see a lot more of the Canyon than I could the previous afternoon when we arrived!

Knowing I’d have 2 more mornings to hope for better weather, we didn’t stay out long.  What started as snow showers turned into a wind-driven snow/sleet combo that stung as it hit your face.  It also meant a lot of lens cleaning, so that was it for the day’s sunrise shooting session.

We bugged out and warmed-up over breakfast, then set back out to check out trail conditions and ease our way into whatever we were going to make of the day.  All it took was a few hours after sunrise for the weather to start clearing and yes – the angels finally started singing and the Canyon looked like what I had imagined, and far surpassed any expectation I had of it!

Clearly Big

Our day found us keeping it simple by hanging out and taking a long walk around the trail along the South Rim.  It seemed like every few feet when I stopped to take a peek, my jaw dropped further and further in amazement of the geological feat in front of me.

Though I took a fair number of pictures that morning, when I got home and sorted through my shots, I realized that so many of them looked the same.  Then it dawned on me – even though we walked probably 3 miles or so along the rim, the Canyon is just so big that changing your viewpoint by a mile or two doesn’t drastically affect the perspective in a picture!  The only things really changing were the clouds in the sky and the shadows on the ridges in the Canyon.  Still, I couldn’t complain because it’s just stunning to see.

After our morning spent along the rim, we wandered into the woods and walked some of the greenways that cut through the park connecting different parts of Grand Canyon Village.  Under normal circumstances, when the government is operating (argh shutdown!), you can rent bikes to cruise all over the Village along these pathways through groves of ponderosa pines and junipers.  It made for a nice wintry walk to bookend our day.

As we wandered back to our lodge, we passed the Grand Canyon’s train station.  The Grand Canyon Railway has a long history – predating the establishment of the park itself!

We didn’t ride the train, but it was parked at the station, having recently arrived for the day’s trip up from Williams, AZ about 65 miles away.  Maybe next trip to the Grand Canyon we’ll go for a ride ourselves.

With our first full day at the park nearing an end, we called it a day.  Tomorrow was shaping up to be a long one since we planned to get down into the Canyon as long as weather and trail conditions cooperated.

 

– JC

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

This post was featured as a guest blog on Zach of the Jungle 24-May-2019.

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

Happy Surprises in Goblin Valley

For our trip to Utah, we used Goblin Valley State Park as our base camp for our adventures.  For “just” a state park, it’s pretty cool.  In fact, we loved this park and its surroundings so much we wished we had more time to spend in the state park itself!

This park is truly in the middle of nowhere (just how we like our campgrounds & hiking!) – about 2 hours from Moab.  The scenery in the park and all around was simply spectacular.  The landscape was certainly what we expect to see when we’re in eastern Utah, but in some ways it was even more interesting since it’s near the San Rafael Swell.  Tons of colors in the land and curves and shapes and shadows all around.  Really a delight.

A Swell Swell View

After our adventures in Little Wild Horse Canyon that same morning, we dried out enough to go exploring in the afternoon and see what this goblins thing was all about.  What better place to check things out than the aptly named Observation Point?

We pulled into the trailhead and, oh wow… there be goblins!

The Goblins

The little rock formations were all over the canyon floor as far as you could see in so many directions.  They were so funky and mesmerizing.  They reminded me a lot of the drip sand castles we would make as kids at the beach with really watery mud.  Hikers are allowed to wander through the goblins to their hearts’ content, so I was disappointed we didn’t have more days in our schedule to play around down there with the camera.  Maybe next time…

Our plan for the afternoon was an easy hike out to Goblin’s Lair.  Even though we were leaving the lil’ goblins behind, there was still plenty to see along the way.  Simply stunning country all around and a gorgeous day t’boot…

A Tower of Goblins

The terrain along the hike was pretty gentle.  A little steep getting into the valley, then it flattened out for most of the way making for an easy walk to Goblin’s Lair.  Good thing too because with my boots still soaked from the pools in Little Wild Horse Canyon, I was hiking in my barely-any-tread-left Teva sandals and socks!  (Super stylish, I know.)

The terrain changed swiftly when we reached the lair.  We had to climb some really steep rocks & boulders.  Tricky enough when you’re wearing boots with good tread while carrying a big camera, even more so when you’re in your reserve campsite-only sandals.

I did trek up to the mouth of the lair – slowly – and I made it with both myself and the camera in one piece.  We took a peek inside the Lair itself and found that you could climb down into this big, dark cavern that only had a small shaft of light coming in from a hole in the rock above.  It looked awesome, but I didn’t want to chance it with my iffy footing and equipment.  My husband though?  He climbed down in there.

He said it was awesome & a little spooky.  It was easy to see why the lore of this site revolves around it being the origin of the goblins in the valley.  Not too much see in the way of pictures though since it was so dark in the cave, but he said it was really cool to experience.  (Dammit!  Next time I’ll keep my boots dry!)

So what did I do while I was waiting for my husband to finish exploring in the dark other than worry about him getting in and out of there safely?  Take pictures, of course!  With the time of day and the angle of the sun, the lighting was fairly extreme and tough to balance, but I did like one shot I came away with there from just outside of the Lair.  It seemed fitting for the entrance to a “lair”…

Into the Lair

Heading out to Goblin’s Lair was a nice end to a fantastic day in the valley.  Even though I missed the main attraction on this particular hike, we still got treated to some more stupendous views on the way back to the trailhead.

Out to Molly's Castle

Based on this first full day in the park alone, it’s safe to say Goblin Valley is somewhere we’ll wind up again in the future.  Lots of good stuff yet to be explored & photographed, and our stay here is only halfway over!  Horseshoe Canyon is yet to come…

– JC

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

Marmot Peek-a-Boo

A few weeks ago we headed up to Rocky Mountain National Park for a hike up to Lawn Lake.  It’s a trail we haven’t done in a few years, even though we really enjoyed the trip the one and only time we’d gone up there.  The hike isn’t steep, but it is very long – we clocked nearly 14 miles by the time our day was done!

This time around, I was crazy enough to take the big camera with me for the entire trek, only adding weight to the pack I had to carry.  No worries though because it meant more calories burned (which translates into less guilt over celebratory food & beverages afterward!) and I was rewarded with some fun with a marmot.

The hike up was uneventful.  Gorgeous, but uneventful.  Not a ton of wildlife, but plenty of scenery and wildflowers in bloom…

…some shadows out to play along the Rolling River…

Shadows & Rocks

…and some downed trees that made for an abstract that I can’t help but think looks like a rhino or a triceratops tilting its angry head.

Creatures in Wood

Lawn Lake is spectacular on an average day.  Add the fabulous weather we had and it was simply scrumptious!

Approaching Lawn Lake

While we were plopped down on the lake shore for a spot of lunch, I got inspired.  The rocks on the opposite side of the lake – for some reason – every time I looked at them, I kept thinking they looked painted.  That gave me a post-processing idea… once I got home, I tossed the Photoshop oil paint filter on it and voila!  Not quite what I pictured in my mind, but it still came out funky, especially with what it did to the grasses and pines along the shore:

Oil Painted Rocks

If it seems like I’m glossing over the hike, I sorta am, but for good reason.  Not only can I say “it’s so gorgeous up there” so many times and bore even myself, but also we had more fun on the way down the trail after lunch thanks to a new marmot friend we made during a lengthy game of peek-a-boo!

I saw the little guy scoot across the trail about 25 yards ahead of us and park himself in a set of boulders on the side of the trail.  Knowing that marmots tend to graze in and around rocks scrounging for little bits of lichen and mosses, I knew he’d be back out, so I started to get into position for when he did.

Bingo!  Oh, hello there…

Why, Hello...

Clearly I’d been spotted, but he didn’t run away.  Knowing that they can be skittish and don’t move nearly as fast as say, a chipmunk, I bided my time.  Each time he popped back into his little hiding spot, I slowly crept up another step or two to get closer to him.  (I always keep a healthy and respectable distance away from critters, balancing not spooking them with where I need to be for grabbing a shot.)

Every time after I’d step forward, I’d see a little nose pop out and check out the situation:

Still There?

After about 15 minutes of this dance, I think he decided to “smile” (unlikely) or was simply annoyed with my presence and my taking so many shots of him:

Smiling

And with that, we bid each other adieu and everyone went about their day:

Bye Now

Another successful day on the trails in the books!

– JC