Until Next Time

During our entire stay at Great Sand Dunes National Park we had late-day clouds & sprinkles move in each day.  The bad part about that was that the clouds rolled in right around the prime-time for afternoon shadow madness on the dune field.  The good part about that was that if the skies cleared just enough to let some sun through, it setup things up for some pretty sunsets.

The first two nights the most spectacular parts of the sunsets were sudden and fleeting, so I simply sat back and enjoyed.  On our last night though, things moved more slowly and I was able to capture a quick glimpse of the sunset – complete with a wisp of the rising moon – using the camera on my cell phone.

Wisp of a Moon

Come the next morning, a few clouds were still hanging around out to the west, potentially setting things up for an interesting sunrise.  Because the park is nestled into the base of the southern end of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, you don’t get a ton of light on the dunes themselves as the sun comes up.  It takes about an hour for the sun to get over the peaks to the east and hit the sand, so by that time “golden hour” is over and the light is already getting flat.  Maybe these tufts of clouds could help make things more interesting than usual?  Hmmmm….

As we were having a quick breakfast and preparing to break camp to return to everyday life, the sun started glinting off of those tufts of clouds creating a little pink in the sky.  I used my cell phone camera again for the sake of quickness and commemorated the rosy sky farewell Dunes made for us.

Red Virga Morning

So, until next year (or sooner) Dunes…

– 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.


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!

Surprise Sharp-Beaked Visitor

Yet again, I’ve gotten a touch behind in my blogging and picture-taking, but for good reason – I was rebuilding my home office and giving it a serious upgrade!  With Alpha Pup central under construction, there was a lot to do just to get things to the point where I can setup the computer again.

Now that the office is under control, I’m back and catching up a tad.  Thankfully, I’m not months behind like I sometimes get with processing pictures.  I really only had 1 big batch to get through and that was a of a surprise visitor we had across the street from our house weeks ago – a gorgeous red tail hawk!

Red tail hawks are pretty common in our neck of the woods in Colorado, but it doesn’t make it any less special when you see them swooping around.  On this particular day, I arrived home from work to find one sitting square atop a spruce tree directly across the street from our house!  Better yet, he was crazy-patient and stayed in that small area for the next hour+, giving me time to run back and forth and get different lenses and shots of him as the great light of the setting sun was coming in.

Hawk Visitor
Hawk Visitor

I think the only reason I noticed him there when I arrived home from my “day job” was because a flock of school kids and their parents were crowded around a fence pointing and taking pictures with their phones.  When I realized what they were looking at, I took care of our dog’s needs as quickly as I could, scooped up the camera, and raced back out the door.

Once the school kids got on their way, it was just me and my camera there to get shots of him.  I got a ton of him perched in different ways because he really wasn’t interested in going anywhere.  Fine by me.  Eventually though, he did finally take off and swoop towards me.  Bird photography is not my specialty (I leave that to my dad), so I wasn’t able to react quickly enough to get an in-focus in-flight shot, but I was able to get a few of him scratching around in the dry grasses checking me out.

Stretch & Scratch
Stretch & Scratch

Eventually, my battery started to die, so I had to duck back inside.  I figured I had gotten my fill of shots and he’d be gone by the time I switched batteries.  No worries though, because I was already excited at this shooting opportunity that more or less dropped in my lap on a random weekday afternoon.

After a workout, I looked outside and sure enough – he was still out there!!  I tossed on some warmer clothes, grabbed a different lens, a fresh battery, and scooted back outside for a few more shots.  Probably the best of those shots is this one of him just hanging out on the fence in the schoolyard deciding if he should stick around, bug out, or simply just bake himself in the warmth of the setting sun.

Stay, Go, or Bake in the Sun
Stay, Go, or Bake in the Sun

For the next 2 weeks, the hawk kept coming back and hanging out in the same spot around the same time of day.  It was pretty cool seeing him stick to this pattern.  (And my dad was so jealous since he normally has to drive somewhere and wait for hours for this kind of shooting opportunity!)  I haven’t seen him there in the last 3-4 weeks, but I’m hopeful he’ll be back soon.  Even better if he shows up when my folks are visiting in June so my dad can go out there with his crazy-big lens and get some killer shots!



Up, Down, & Turn Around

One of the things I love about photography is trying to make my shots look different from the typical shot.  Over the years, I’ve probably received the most compliments on my shots that were a little a little bit different from what somebody might quickly snag with a phone while walking through.  I think those are the shots I’m usually proudest of because I know I took an extra couple of seconds to move around and see if I can get something distinctive in a shot (at least it’s seconds in my mind – those traveling with me may disagree!).

I’ll use our recent trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park as an example.  I’ve been to this park probably 10 times now and it never gets old – there’s always tons to photograph and each time I challenge myself to come home with shots a little bit different from what I’ve taken in the past.  Sometimes that works out, other times it doesn’t – there’s just so many different variables in play, with where we decide to hike and the weather conditions being 2 of the biggest.

Weather was certainly a big factor in this year’s trip.  While the conditions were gorgeous for hiking and camping, they were a tad less than ideal for photography because there were quite a few clouds hanging around at the prime lighting times of day.  (Figures!)  I tried to make the best of it by simply moving around to frame my shots differently to try to get something interesting in my bucket of pictures.

On the morning of our first full day in the park, we hiked out to the south on the dunes to avoid the holiday crowds.  Looking to the north, nothing but a low-lying shelf cloud hanging over the high mountains and making things just look blah.  I know the view well and have taken many a shot standing up, but on this morning, I decided to get down and dirty… flat on my belly on the sand to focus on some grasses making them the focal point rather than the “typical” scenery:

Down & Dirty
Down & Dirty

The stubborn cloud hanging around made for boring backgrounds and flat lighting all morning, but by going low, I was able to change it up a bit and make something else other than a cloudy sky the focus.  While I would’ve preferred a gorgeous cloud-dotted blue sky in the background, I was able to make a little something out of a “meh” scene otherwise.

Pushing and stretching myself wasn’t limited just to my pictures this trip.  Whenever we go to Dunes, we try to do at least one hike we’ve never done before.  This trip, that meant making our way up the 4.5 mile trail to South Zapata Lake just outside of the park.  We’d heard over the years that the lake is gorgeous and well worth the trip, but in looking at the trail details before we left, we saw it was pretty steep (over 2800 ft. of elevation gain over those 4.5 miles!).  Not the easiest of hikes, but we felt confident enough to give it a go.

Turns out, it’s one of the hardest hikes my husband or I have ever done because the entire way is a steep grade.  (I did the math – it averages 11.5% incline over the course of the trail, with most of it much steeper than that.)  As we slowly made our way up towards the lake, we were starting to wonder if we’d ever find the dang thing.  Based on our pace and distance, we had covered the miles, but still no lake.  Getting hungry and seeing weather possibly coming in over the high mountains, we kept pushing because we had to be close.

We hiked our way through a little meadow area between mountains.  By all accounts, it looked like a lake should be there!  Still, no dice and more hills ahead.  We crested one hill thinking we’d find South Zapata Lake, but all we found was another hill.  We debated stopping for the day and calling it quits, but decided to go over just one more hill and see.  Luckily we went up that hill because – lo and behold – there was the lake!

South Zapata Lake Black & WhiteThough tired and hungry, we were happy to see the lake.  After a spot of lunch, I got around to picture-taking – which is precisely when the storm clouds started rolling in and blocking out the sunlight in waves, making photo conditions tricky.  I pushed on and did get some shots in the small amount of time I had, though it wasn’t nearly the bounty I had hoped to bring home.

On our last night in camp, I got another good reminder of why I should always look behind me while shooting because there can be good stuff to shoot everywhere.  We were treated to a mule deer roaming through the campground around dinnertime.  Since the holiday was over, the campgrounds were less crowded, and he hung around for a bit.  I wasn’t able to get a shot of him during his first meandering through the campsites because a dog barked and spooked it, but I kept my camera out at the ready just in case he came back.

An hour or so later, sure enough – he was back… just as daylight was fading quickly!  I got a single shot before he toddled off, but it was blurry and not worth keeping.  Just then, my husband calls me and tells me to turn around.  My jaw dropped.  It was one of the most gorgeous sunsets I’ve ever seen at Dunes:

Summer Sunsest
Summer Sunset

I started clicking away framing up whatever I could in the waning light, but still trying to think my way through the shots before taking them.  I was moving all around the campground as quickly as I could, even climbing a split-rail fence momentarily in lieu of a ladder to get myself up just enough to see a little more of the dunes and the valley to the west.  It’s that bit of climbing that led me to get the shot above.

So, my takeaway from this trip – turning around, climbing things (safely and within reason!), and getting down low to get shots really does pay off!



The Building Pictures Project

(Originally posted May 6, 2013)

(Yes, it’s been forever and a day since I was last able to post – more on that at the end of this entry.  Consider yourself teased!)

The next project on the A to Z list was for Building Pictures.  This technique is as simple or as difficult as you want to make it.  It’s all about taking a picture (or two) and using bits and pieces to get the result you saw in your mind, but maybe couldn’t quite achieve straight out of the camera because you couldn’t get the angle you wanted, people were in the way, you didn’t have access to a viewpoint… You know, those “little” things that can sometimes get in the way of snagging the perfect shot.

I think the hardest part about this project for me was simply finding a picture to build off of.  A lot of my shots are of nature or everyday mundane things, and nothing was really jumping out at me as the “cornerstone” for this project.  That was until I walked into my home office and looked at my black & white print of the rocks of Park Avenue at Arches National Park in Utah.  I adore that picture as it is, but then I thought to myself, “Why not double the goodness?”  Working with the original color version of the shot would also mix things up a little.

So here’s what the “cornerstone” building block image looked like:

Arches National Park - Park Avenue (Original Shot)

(Not bad, if I do say so myself!)

Building a picture can be as simple as duplicating the image, flipping it around, lining things up and voila!  You end up with a result like this one, where (to me) I feel like I’m being drawn into the picture as my eyes and mind try to play tricks on me:

Arches National Park - Park Avenue (Built Image)

As one friend put it, it looks like a landscape Rorschach!  (And I have to say I agree with him!)

Building a picture – if you have a good foundation shot to start with – doesn’t take long at all to change things up and create some new art!


– JC


PS – So the reasons/excuses for the delay in blog posts is simple – we’re moving!  Our house sold lightening-fast (thankfully!) and it’s been a whirlwind for the last few weeks.  We’re settling into packing mode now for the move in July, so I’ll try to post every now and then in spite of what’s bound to be a hectic summer!  Once we’ve landed, unpacked, and I get setup, you can bet I’ll be playing catch-up… and sharing new images of our new surroundings (which promise to be a big change from where we’ve called home the last 10+ years!).

It Gets Dark After Sunset, Ya Know

(Originally posted November 20, 2012)

Sunset Ripples - Great Sand Dunes National Park - Colorado
Sunset Ripples – Great Sand Dunes National Park – Colorado

You’d think it doesn’t take much to remember that it gets dark after sunset, right?  Not the case when you’re so focused on getting your sunset shots as the light and weather start cooperating at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado!

This day’s sunset shooting session wasn’t shaping up to be much of anything as we set out on the dunes.  That’s when the light started to change and the clouds started coming in to make the scene potentially more dramatic, if not fleeting.  Time to hustle a little to get a great spot for shooting…

Sure enough, in the swirl of my mind that was taking in all of the fantastic shooting options and rushing to get to my position to set up before the conditions vanished, I forgot to bring our headlamps so we could find our way back to the parking lot and our campground.  No problem though because my husband – ever the Boy Scout – would surely have them.  Turns out he forgot too… whoops!

So the sunset session went on as planned, and I pushed it as long as I possibly could while mentally balancing how the scenery was changing, the photographic potential, the rate at which it was getting dark, and how quickly we could get back to the car before the skies were completely black (and the animals – big and small – started to come out for their nightly fun).  I got some really fantastic shots on this particular evening, this image being one of them.

After the sun went behind the dunes, the clouds filled in too much for dramatic sunset colors, so we started back towards the car and our camp.  Much to our surprise, we walked a lot further from the parking lot than we had originally thought!  Double whoops!!  No worries though, because we did make it back with a hint of dusk to spare and went about our night.  (Stargazing at this park is fantastic – so much to see in the night skies!!)

This picture always reminds me of the new addition I made to my routine for sunset shooting sessions – putting a headlamp in my camera bag just in case I need it.  Something so simple, full of common sense, that I simply forgot that day that I won’t let happen again.  Definitely a “duh” moment for me, even though I got some amazing shots!  🙂

– JC

PS – Yours truly is still on the mend after foot surgery.  Things are healing well, just a little slower than little ol’ impatient me would like them to.  Unfortunately, that also means I’m still hobbling and am limited in what I can do.  Hopefully that doesn’t last much longer and our work on the Alpha Pup site (and life in general) can get back to normal!

Sunset Ninja

(Originally posted September 18, 2012)

Bryce Canyon Sunset Walls
Bryce Canyon Sunset Walls

How my husband puts up with some of my silliness while I take pictures, I’ll never know… but I’m so grateful that he does!!

One of the more recent moments where I think he was slightly embarrassed to be seen with me while I was taking pictures was when I was capturing the phenomenal site that is Bryce Amphitheater at sunset.  He probably felt that way because I was dressed like some sort of photographic ninja.  Let me explain…

We were camping during our entire stay at Bryce Canyon National Park and as the sun was getting lower in the sky, we made sure that we were ready for bedtime before trekking to Sunset Point for my photo session with the Amphitheater.  We had an early dinner, washed up as best as we could, and hopped into our woolies for the cold night to come.

It’s those pajamas that gave me my ninja look – black thermal pants, a long sleeve black t-shirt, my fleece jacket liner – black, and my navy blue baseball cap.  Even all of my camera equipment was black!

As we rolled to Sunset Point and walked to the canyon rim, I got quite a few looks from the tourists walking back to their buses.  Even my husband sat a small distance from me chuckling at the spectacle I had become.  (Though he was laughing, he was still acting as my one-man security team, always watchful of my safety because of the attention my camera setup often unintentionally brings.)

The look I cared about was what was in front of the lens – not what I was wearing behind the camera.  I’d have to say that for my first Bryce sunset, the results speak for themselves!  Not bad for a “camera ninja”…