Holy Cacti & Succulents, Batman!

We spent the last day of our trip in the Phoenix area before heading back to home base in Colorado.  We weren’t sure what we’d do with the day, that is until my husband got on the interwebs as the trip got closer and found the Desert Botanical Gardens were not far from where we were staying.  Since he’s a desert/cactus/succulent/nature nerd (and I mean that in the best and most loving way!), it seemed like a good way to spend our day.

We arrived at the gardens not long after they opened, only expecting to spend a couple of hours there and then head off to do something else.  Boy, were we wrong!  The Gardens were so much bigger than we realized with tons to see, starting from the get-go with a gorgeous mix of cacti and succulents greeting you just after the entrance.

Cactus Wonderland Awaits

Admittedly, I screwed up a little by not checking out their camera & tripod policies prior to arriving.  Knowing that many botanical gardens have restrictions on cameras – especially with tripods – I played it safe and only brought my phone.  To say I started kicking myself for that mistake immediately is an understatement!  Not long after we arrived, I was seeing all kinds of macro shots I wanted to take.  Then I saw folks coming in with tripod setups!  Blerg!  I did what I could with the camera on my phone during the day.  Guess we’ll just have to go back!  (Oh darn.)

Putting my camera mis-planning aside, we dove in.  There were so many cool things to see.  There’s gobs of variety – a lot of the species of plants in the complex are native to Arizona and they have a lot of non-native species too.  The Gardens are setup as a central hub with desert plants, then 4 or 5 different loop trails shoot off of that main hub.  One loop takes you through wildflowers native to the area (though we were a few weeks too early for the bloom), another takes you on a nature trail, etc.  It was a really nice setup that lent itself to leisurely wandering and taking it all in at our own pace.

Along the way we ran into several awesome docents who filled us in on the different plants around us, how the plants function in the desert, and so on.  It also happened to be a bird watching day at the Gardens, so there were a lot of folks running around with binoculars trying to spot what types of birds were passing through.  A few of the birders chatted us up, adding to our knowledge of the creatures in this part of the southwestern desert.

The Gardens did have a few art pieces mixed in along the way.  My 2 favorites were representations of cacti.  The first piece was a sculpture made of the iron spikes that are part of a cactus transplant system developed back in the 30s (if I recall correctly) that’s still in use today to preserve native cacti when they need to be relocated due to construction.  The other piece was a Chihuly glass sculpture near the entrance that was sparkling brilliantly as we left.  My mother-in-law makes stained glass and fused glass pieces as a hobby, and generally loves anything related to glass.  Thanks to her, I knew those had to be Chihuly pieces because it fit both in style and placement when I think of his work.

We spent a considerable part of our day at the Desert Botanic Gardens, so there wasn’t much time to do anything else in Phoenix other than to grab a bite and try some more of the local beer before going home.  That’s when I happened upon a near-match of an all-time favorite beer of mine that’s been out of production for 2 years now, so the beer quest was a massive success in my book!  (Thank you McFate’s for ending our trip on that tasty note!!)

– JC

Everybody Wants to be Ansel Adams (Including Me)

I’m betting that just about everybody who’s seen a black & white landscape picture has silently and sarcastically thought to themselves, “Nice job, Ansel Adams-wanna be.”  I know I’m guilty of it, even with my own shots.  But there’s gobs of reasons his name is synonymous with black & white nature photography – he took a lot of damn good shots and did some groundbreaking work in the field in terms of technique!

Maybe it’s because Adams’ work was mainstream in the sense that it appeared in places other than just the fanciest museums so I was exposed to it a little more often, but I usually prefer black & white landscape shots to those in color.  Don’t get me wrong – color landscape photography can be really amazing.  But, I deal in reality and my reality/luck is that I’m rarely in the right spot at the right time with the utterly perfectly dramatic conditions to get a National Geographic-worthy color shot no matter how hard I try.  So instead, I work to find something interesting about the scene nature’s put in front of me, even if it’s not readily apparent the moment I take the picture.

It may sound silly, but that was definitely the case at the Grand Canyon.  That vast swath of land is so beautiful I still can’t find words to do it justice.  It’s also really hard to capture it in a way that conveys both its magnitude and its beauty.  So, instead of frustrating myself with not-quite-ideal conditions, I made the best of what I had.  Turns out, the best of what I got was on our way back to Phoenix at the end of our stay in the park.

The morning we left, we decided to head further east towards Desert View Tower to get a different vantage point on the Grand Canyon.  The 25-mile drive out to Desert View Tower had quite a few places were you could stop and look out over the rim.  What was cool for us was that, after spending 3 days in the Village looking north out into the Canyon and across to the North Rim, this drive put us more towards the eastern side so we were looking up the Canyon to the west, more in line with how the Colorado River flows through it.  Because it was mid-morning, the light was just about right to keep things bright, yet still have some dramatic shadows in play, so I activated my inner Ansel Adams and got to work.

I normally shoot my black & white shots in color first, then convert them to black & white later during post-processing.  Even in cases when the color is a bit blah due to flat light, I find I can manipulate the monochrome version more easily to get make things come out the way I want it.  Using this approach over the years, I’ve built up a sense for what I think would make a good black & white shot based on the Technicolor version in front of me when I initially take the picture.  That helps me think through the shooting process to get interesting or dramatic shots.  When I get home to review and process the images, sometimes I surprise even myself in terms of what I can come up with in black & white.

Here’s 3 examples from this trip alone where I was really surprised with how much better I thought things looked in black & white instead of color.  Each is presented in a slide show so you can see what I saw when I took the picture versus how it changed when I converted to black & white.

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Ansel Adams was definitely onto something all those years ago, so I’ll keep channeling him on occasion when it comes to my own landscape & nature photography.

– JC

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

Delayed First Impressions

They say that first impressions mean a lot.  Whether it’s a person or a place or an experience, it sticks with you.  For my first-ever trip to the Grand Canyon, I was expecting a big “AAAAAHHHHH…” moment with the sound of angels singing as I laid my eyes on that majesty for the first time.  Alas, that moment would have to wait – just my luck!

Our trip to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim was a little semi-last-minute journey we decided to take since my husband’s birthday fell on a weekend – an excellent excuse to get away with what little vacation time we had available from our “regular” jobs.  We were both unlucky and lucky in the timing and location we chose because we booked the trip before the US government shutdown happened (unlucky), but the state of Arizona bailed us out (lucky)!!  (The state provided funding for basic services at Grand Canyon National Park because they recognize it’s so vital to their economy – even in winter.)

We weren’t sure what to expect because of all of the uncertainty caused by the political garbage going on.  There was also weather to consider.  Heading into the trip, there was a good chance we’d get caught in a storm on the 3-4 hour drive up from Phoenix.  That’s where luck struck again and the storm hit 2 days before we got there, meaning the roads were clear, even if the skies continued to look threatening.  We tried to stay positive, even though we were a little leery of how all of this was going to go.

Thankfully, travel went as planned and we got to the park about mid-afternoon… just as rain started to come down.  The park rangers were working at the entrances to hand out maps & info.  (They weren’t allowed to collect the entrance fees that help support the park.)  As the ranger handed us our map, she said we should hustle if we wanted to see the Canyon because it was quickly filling in with fog and might not be visible within the next 15-20 minutes at the rate the weather was rolling in.  Gah!

We took her advice and got our hustle on and bolted straight to the rim.  While impressive and – photographically speaking – kinda cool with the mist & fog in the air, it certainly wasn’t what I pictured in my mind as a first impression.

First Impressions

Don’t get me wrong – I was thrilled to finally be there and recognized I had a few days’ stay for the weather to improve.  But, that first impression of the Grand Canyon wasn’t exactly what I thought it’d be.
The weather was steadily getting worse as the cold rain picked up in intensity, but we were able to walk around a bit along the rim to see if anything else was visible.  Unfortunately, the ranger was right – it didn’t take long for the Canyon to fill in with fog and ick to become a sea of soupy white blah.

Without the Canyon to distract us with its beauty, I kept my eye out for any little quick shots I could grab with my phone in the wintry rain.  That’s when we came across this scenic locator.  It looked old, and from the inscription on it, it was.

Old School Sight Seeing

We couldn’t quite figure out how it worked until the next day when we ran into some simple devices on the trail that were metal tubes that locked into a notch to direct your eye towards a point of interest.  It didn’t magnify it at all.  It just got your eye pointed in the right direction when the tube rested on a preset notch.  We suspect this locator once had one of those tubes and you’d rest it on those notches to see the sights each slot pointed you too.  What a magnificently simple, clever solution!

So that was my lackluster first impression of the Grand Canyon.  I wasn’t going to let it get me down as we would be in the park for a few days.  It was bound to get better – I just had to wait a little bit longer and hang onto that optimism bubbling away in my mind.

– 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.

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