Arches NP

My first order of business after waking up was to find a campsite.  Staying in the hotel was a nice treat, but too expensive to do every night.  The campsites at Arches National Park were still full, so I drove a few miles north to a campsite run by the Bureau of Land Management in the Colorado River canyon.  The nice thing about my annual park pass is it grants me access to all National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Reclamation facilities.  I hoped the river would keep the area cooler than the top of the mesa.

Once my campsite was secure I drove back to Arches NP.  Since the park exists to protect the thousands of natural arches, I should explain their creation.  And yes, I did say thousands.  Geologically, the area is entrada sandstone on top of navajo sandstone on top of salt.  With the weight of the rock above it, the salt behaved like a fluid, causing the top rock layers to buckle and form narrow ridges or fins.  Slightly acidic rain soaked into the entrada sandstone working its way down until blocked by the navajo sandstone.  This blocked water dissolved the calcium in the entrada sandstone causing it to weaken and crumble, thus forming an arch.  Whereas natural bridges are formed by erosion, natural arches are formed by chemical reaction.  To be given a name, an arch must be at least three feet wide.  The first arches you will run into at the park are The Windows, large side by side arches.

I explored the park until the sun started setting and hiked the 1.5 mile path out to Delicate Arch, the most famous arch in the park.  I would become very familiar with this hike over the next few days.  I anticipated there may be a handful of people out there trying to photograph the arch and the sunset.  Imagine my surprise when I came around the final bend and found a natural amphitheater-like bowl crowded with over a hundred people.  Most famous natural arch of all time?  I found a spot to set up my camera to get the arch with the sunset and waited for the sun to move into position.  People, couples generally, were posing under the arch getting their touristy pictures taken.  Then a women walked over and stood under the arch taking abstract photos.  Close ups of the rocks, top of the arch against the sky, etc.  For several minutes.  You could hear the crowd grow restless.  Finally, the photographer sitting next to me stood up and yelled out "ARE YOU DONE YET?!?!!"  The women sheepishly walked away while the entire crowd applauded.  Or to use an SAT analogy, mother bear:cub::photographer:sunset photo.

I treated myself to an actual dinner in Moab, with pecan pie dessert, and then tried to get some sleep.  The key word being "tried".  Remember my idea about the river keeping the campsite cooler?  Well, I didn't take into account the sun hitting the canyon walls all day long.  Thermal mass for the win.  Or loss, in this case.  After sunset, the rocks gave off the heat they had absorbed during the day.  I was laying nude, on top of my sleeping bag, in an open tent with no air flow for three hours.  And then finally around two in the morning the temperature dropped and I was out like a light.  By far the most miserable and uncomfortable night of sleep during my trip.  In fact, it ranks up there in my life too.

The next day I decided to explore the area outside the park.  The first thing that caught my eye was the giant excavation project surrounded be fences marked with radiation warning signs.  I mean, how could you not be curious?  We don't have that type of stuff on the east coast.  From what I could observe, the entire operation was divided into a dirty side and a clean side.  The dirty trucks brought containers filled with contaminated soil from the excavation to a transfer station were the containers were lifted onto the clean trucks and hauled up to railroad tracks to be loaded onto a train.  And the process was reversed for empty containers.    I did a little research later and found out this is part of the Department of Energy's UMTRA Project.

Beyond UMTRA, the road follows the Colorado River downstream and dead ends at a large potash plant.  The salt beneath the sandstone is very rich in potassium, which is used in fertilizer.  After being brought to the surface the salt is processed and shipped out by rail.  Also along this road is the trail out to Corona Arch.  Someone mentioned Corona Arch to me earlier and it stuck in my mind for some reason, like I had heard it before.  As it turns out, I knew of the arch through a popular rope swing video.  The arch is the same color as the rock wall it is attached to, so it just seemingly appears out of nowhere, like one of those Magic Eye puzzles.  Those are people sitting beneath it to give it a sense of scale.  It's a pretty big arch.  Much bigger than Delicate Arch.

After exploring and dinner it was time to head back out to get more night sky photos.  Again, I made the hike out to Delicate Arch, but it was a different story this time.  Following trails marked with rock cairns is easy enough during the day, but is nearly impossible at night.  I used my GPS to follow the trail, but as you can see, I wasn't doing very well.  The red line is my track and the dashed line is the actual trail.  At one point I was over 500 feet off the trail.

While hiking I was slightly concerned that I would be alone at the arch.  Having the run of the place would be nice, but let's face it, being out in the middle of a desert, alone, at night, is a bit scary.  I guess I really didn't have anything to worry about; it wasn't going to be cold and it was extremely unlikely I would run into a mountain lion.  But there was still that uneasy feeling in the back of my mind.  Well, once again I underestimated the popularity of the arch because there were two other photographers out there.  I know it doesn't sound like a lot, but I was still surprised.  One photographer soon left and the final photographer started doing light painting photos of the arch.  For those unfamiliar with the technique, you shine a light on a key subject during a long exposure at night.  In this case he was using a flashlight with a red filter to illuminate the arch.  I "stole" some of his light painting for my photos and thought they turned out great.  Until I saw them hours later on my larger laptop screen and realized I had accidentally bumped my tilt-shift lens, adding a few degrees of tilt.  With the lens tilted, the image quickly goes out of focus on the left and right sides, ruining the stars.  Ugh, so close to another great photograph.

It turns out my bad luck for the night wasn't over.  I was walking back to the other photographer when the lens, my brand new tilt-shift lens, bumped into a rock outcropping and the lens cap popped off.  I immediately lost sight of the cap in the pitch black as I heard it slide down the bowl-like rock formation.  The sliding got fainter and stopped, just long enough for me to think "Man, it's a good thing it didn't go over the edge" and then I heard a hard bounce, and more hard bounces and finally silence.  I figured there was a way to the bottom of the bowl, but the other photographer discouraged me from making a rescue attempt in the dark.  I reluctantly gave up and walked back to the parking lot with the photographer.  Which was just as much fun as the hike out to the arch.

The next day I immediately went to the visitor center and had a ranger confirm there was indeed a way to the bottom of the bowl.  Before attempting a rescue I wanted to take advantage of the late morning light and see Landscape Arch, the park's most impressive arch in my opinion.  Given it's proportions, I understand why it was given the name, but I think this arch should really be called Delicate Arch.  It's span is 290 feet, nearly a football field, and at one point is only six feet thick.  Pieces have also fallen or collapsed within the past twenty years, which sounds pretty delicate to me.

It was finally the moment to attempt my lens cap rescue and hike out to Delicate Arch, for the third time.  Of course it was almost noon, the hottest, and least photogenic, part of the day.  The hike was sweaty and the bowl was already crowded with people, which I expected given my earlier experiences.  In the daylight I quickly found a way down to the bottom and began looking.  The black lens cap was clearly not on any of the exposed rocks, so the only place it could be was the sandy clump of brush in the center.  After a few minutes of searching I saw a round black plastic object.  I started getting excited.  Could it be?  My missing lens cap?  Nope.  It was just an old, dirty, 52mm Canon lens cap.  Not.  Even.  Close.  Unfortunately, there was no happy ending to this story.  The lens cap was lost for good and I had to buy a new one when I got home.

Dejected, I returned to my campsite to pack my things.  The relentless sun had caused the tent to get so hot that insects refused to crawl or land on it.  The first for this entire trip.  Then it was a relatively short drive to Canyonlands National Park, my next destination.

Scenic Utah and Mother Nature

This was another long driving day, so I apologize in advance if this post is picture heavy and drags on.  After leaving Natural Bridges National Monument, I finally got a chance to see the scenic beauty I missed by driving in at night.  And also how vast and desolate it was.  Perhaps one car every ten or fifteen minutes drove by.  But the road was very well maintained; a strip of black through a colorful landscape.

I crossed the Colorado River for the first time this trip at Lake Powell.  Or, I should say what is normally Lake Powell.  At full capacity the reservoir continues under the bridge and into the canyon to the left, but recent droughts have taken their toll.

One of the nice things about driving in the middle of nowhere is you can go fast, very fast.  So it didn't take me long to reach Hanksville.  From there I initially planned to head north to Goblin State Park and onward to Arches National Park.  Instead I followed the advice of a fellow traveller and headed west to Capitol Reef National Park.  The park protects a long and narrow ridge of mountains formed by tectonic plate collision.  I thought it was named reef because of the colorful rocks, but it actually refers to it being a barrier to travel.  Even though the park received sporadic thunderstorms the rocks were still lit with warm light.

Getting into the valley required yet another long drive.  At several points the road crossed through washes, temporary rivers that form after storms.  Of course, as I left a thunderstorm rolled through.  I came to the last wash crossing, one that was dry less then ten minutes before, and found myself blocked by a small flash flood.  I played it safe and waited with several other cars.

The water was only a foot deep, but moving very fast.  A fording car would most likely be washed away.  Just like in Oregon Trail.  As quickly as the water rose, it receded.  No more than thirty minutes start to finish.  A park ranger was the first to cross, welcoming us to "flash flood season at Capitol Reef" with a smile.

I backtracked to Hanksville and drove north to Goblin State Park, like I initially planned.  My former roommate recommended Goblin as a smaller and closer version of Bryce Canyon National Park.  Bryce is famous for its hoodoos, tall spires balancing larger rocks.  Just imagine elongated mushrooms or, something else.  Goblin is the miniature version.

The hoodoos are more human in scale, short enough to be climbed.  Which I saw a bunch of kids doing.  About a month after my visit some fools knocked over one of the hoodoos.  While the act was most certainly stupid and ignorant, given the number of visitors, it was only a matter of time.

As if to reinforce the playground idea, a group of teenagers went into the hoodoos for a game of manhunt.  Best idea ever!!!  The distant hillsides were lit up by the headlights of people leaving.  The lights in the hoodoos are the group playing manhunt.

I went back down into the hoodoos to try Milky Way photos and was immediately grateful that I brought GPS.  Once the sun goes down it gets dark.  Like, really dark.  I timed this trip to take advantage of the new moon for night sky photography.  The only way to orient myself were the car headlights in the parking lot.  Once they left, I was on my own.  I could still hear the teenagers' voices in the distance and sometimes I got lucky with a glimpse of cigarettes on the hillside.  No doubt about it, GPS got me back to my rental car that night.  As it would do again at Arches NP.

After Goblin I drove two hours to Arches NP.  But, just to crush my spirit at the end of a long day, all campsites were full.  I gave up and got a hotel room in Moab.  My first real bed in five days.

Natural Bridges NM

After my horrible night of sleep in the rental car, I wanted to get an early start.  I prepared a quick healthy breakfast, also known as ramen noodles.  Then onward along the nine mile loop road on top of the mesa that encompasses Natural Bridges National Monument and connects the three bridges.

First an explanation about natural bridges.  I'm sure most people have seen aerial images of the Mississippi River where it has eroded a shortcut through a gooseneck bend.  Natural bridges are formed by the same process, except instead of just eroding the river bank, it erodes the rock wall.  This obviously takes an extremely long time, especially since the area gets maybe eight or nine inches of rain per year.  Natural arches, while similar looking are formed by a different method.  If it was formed by erosion from a river, it's considered a natural bridge.

The first stop along the loop road is Sipapu Bridge, the second largest natural bridge in the world.  There is a trail that follows the canyon connecting all three bridges within the park.  I was tempted to hike it, but the end of the trail is on the opposite side of the loop and I had no desire to retrace my steps just to return to my car.  As it turns out, that was probably a good decision.

Next along the loop road was the trail to Horsecollar Ruins overlook.  While walking out to the overlook along the cliff, I could hear voices in the canyon hiking the trail I decided not to take.  Horsecollar Ruins are a well preserved ancient Puebloan granary and kiva.  I set up with an equivalent 630mm lens and took a few photos from across the canyon.  The voices caught up with me and I got to observe the elusive outdoor enthusiast in their natural habitat.

Beyond the ruins a small side canyon joins the main canyon.  Here I found some interesting eroded features, but the side canyon blocked further exploration.  Next along the loop was Kachina Bridge, the second bridge.  I took the hiking trail nearly a mile down into the canyon.  I saw evidence of previous flash floods as I walked through the dry riverbed.  Grass was clumped together leaning downstream and debris was stuck in the trees.  Once in the canyon, it was a quick walk to the bridge.  The bridges continuously erode; the opening gets larger and the span becomes thinner until it collapses.  Kachina is the youngest bridge in the park as you can tell by the thickness of the span.

I hiked past the bridge to try a different view and ran into my first mishap.  The normally dry riverbed had a few feet of standing water which I went around on a small ledge.  I found what I thought was a three foot drop to the riverbed with footholds, short enough to drop down and climb back out.  Well, my judgement of vertical distances was way off.  It was closer to five feet.  Those extra two feet meant I couldn't get my foot anywhere close to the first hold.  I always had the option of sloshing through the standing water, but who wants soggy boots?  The ledge continued along the river so I went further into the canyon until a found a steeply sloped patch of slick rock back up to the ledge.  It took me a few minutes, but I was able to find holds and scramble up.  Mishap averted!!

I returned to camp for lunch and to get out of the sun.  This was the worst part of the day, too hot to do anything.  I ended up sitting in the shade of the car catching up with my travel journal.  The storm that had been approaching for the past few hours finally arrived.  I added a few extra stakes to the tent, just in case, and retreated back to the car.  Cars are still the best place to be in a lightning storm.  The lightning strikes got very close, much less than a mile, but the storm passed quickly.  And did nothing about the heat.

I went back to Kachina Bridge because the storm was bound to cause flooding in the canyon.  Going back to that good decision from earlier; the hiking trail that connects the bridges was now dangerously close to the flood as you can see in the before and after picture.  I may have been able to hike the entire path and get out of the canyon before the storm, but I couldn't have made it back to the car.  I chose wisely.

The next day before I left the park I drove out to Owachomo, the third and final bridge.  Owachomo is generally considered to be the oldest bridge in the park because its span is only nine feet thick.  It's a bit unnerving to walk beneath it since chunks occasionally do fall off, but I think it's the most impressive of the three.

I left the park for another long day of driving.  And an unexpected run in with Mother Nature.  Dun dun dun.

Milky Way Lightning

Continuing from my last entry, I'm driving across Utah at night trying to reach Natural Bridges National Monument.  Up and down hills with my high beams barely hinting at the terrain, vastly different from Colorado.  A note to others, don't drive through pretty landscapes at night, it negates the entire point.  But, I was exhausted and just wanted to get there and sleep.

I reached the entrance to Natural Bridges around 9pm, and once again, it's a long drive to the visitor's center.  I pulled to the side of the road and took a few pictures off the mesa towards the thunderstorms in the distance.  The Milky Way was just starting to be revealed by the clouds.

I drove up to the visitor's center, long past operating hours.  As I looked for a map to show me the campground, someone exited the front door with a large cylindrical object on wheels.  I initially thought it was the janitor taking out the trash for the day, but it was actually a park ranger taking out a telescope.  Because Natural Bridges has one of the darkest skies in the United States, they have their own portable telescope to use during ranger presentations.  I asked the ranger if he minded me hanging around.  Not only did he not mind, he let me help him set up the telescope and test it!

The telescope was the reflecting variety, so I got to assist aligning and focusing the mirror.  The telescope had a go to feature: once the telescope knew it's location it could automatically aim at objects in the sky.  We used the constellation Cassiopeia and the star Antares to locate the telescope, so now I know where to find Cassiopeia, which can be used to find Polaris.

Once the telescope was set up we took the next half hour looking at various Messier objects.  Charles Messier observed comets in the 18th century and created a list of objects to avoid because they weren't comets.  Ironically these objects turned out to be galaxies, nebulae and clusters, the most popular objects to observe.  I saw Andromeda, a bunch of globular clusters and a nebula.

After my astronomy lesson I drove to the campground.  The distant storm had approached and an interesting composition of the Milky Way over a lightning storm was forming.  I walked away from the campgrounds to set up the camera, using an aperture of f/3.5 and an ISO of 3200-6400 to capture the stars.  Ideally my ISO would be lower, but f/3.5 was the lowest aperture I could use on this lens so I needed to compensate.

I don't have a lightning trigger for the camera, so I was forced to use a full 30 second exposure and hope to catch lightning bolts.  They were frequent enough that it wasn't an issues, I even caught the glows from distant strikes.

In the previous shot you can see that the bolt is blown out and not defined.  This is due to the very high ISO capturing too much light, so I tried a composite shot.  The first photo settings would be the same and would be strictly for the Milky Way.  The second shot, taken immediately after the first still uses an aperture of f/3.5, but I lowered the ISO to around 1600 to capture the bolt clearly.  After post processing, they are combined in Photoshop to take the best of both worlds.  Ta-da.

The storm moved on and I walked back to camp to sleep in the passenger seat of the rental car.  Which was the second most uncomfortable night of sleep on my trip.

Million Dollar Highway

From Great Sand Dunes NP, my trek continued to Durango.  I briefly considered waking up early and attempting the hike out to Star Dune, but I came to my senses and packed up camp.  I drove across the Continental Divide for the first time this trip at Wolf Creek Pass.  The landscape on the west side of the pass reminded me a bit of Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald in Switzerland.  In hindsight, it's not really the same, but that was my initial reaction.

I visited Chimney Rock National Monument to break up the long drive.  In addition to the gigantic rock it's named after, the monument is also home to several Anasazi ruins. These ancient Indians lived on top of the mesas and their civilization stretched for many hundreds of miles.  The tour guide explained a story of how a high school student validated a theory of their long distance communication by using signal mirrors to reflect sun from Chaco Canyon to Chimney Rock, 60 miles away!!

My main reason for stopping in Durango was to stop by Folding Kayaks, one of the few dealers in the US who carry Feathercraft kayaks.  I don't know about you, but the first place I think of when I hear the words sea kayak is Durango, in the mountains of Colorado.  I asked the owner about this and he explained that he started renting and selling Feathercraft in Seattle and eventually moved to Durango.  He had the model I was interested in ready for me try out, although not on water.  Do you know the feeling when you see something for the first time and in your head, you know you will eventually buy one?  One day, the boat will be mine.

The next day I figured I should try and photograph the narrow gauge railroad.  After all, I'm a huge train buff and it is probably the most famous thing about Durango.  Thanks to Google Maps and free McDonald's WiFi I was able to scout a few locations ahead of time.  I had a short, snake free, hike to the first location, a curve at the top of an uphill section of track.  The first train of the morning passed before I had a chance to set up, but I caught the second train in great light, and the engineer waved at me.

I hurried to my next scouted location to catch the third and final train for the morning.  The tracks stop following the road (or the road stops following the tracks) and enter the Animas River Canyon.  I hiked along the tracks a short distance into the canyon, set up the camera and waited.  And waited.  And waited some more.

After 45 minutes I figured the third train wasn't going to happen.  But, my hike into the canyon required me walk along a narrow 1/4 mile section of track where there was no place to safely shelter if a train came along, a la Stand By Me.  I waited another 30 minutes to truly convince myself another train wasn't coming before I hiked out of the canyon.  By the time I reached Silverton, the trains had been there for hours and were ready to take their passengers back to Durango.  Once the trains leave with the tourists, the town really quiets down, but I did see a few interesting vehicles.  I bet the half-track comes in handy during the winter.

I left Silverton with the intention of camping in the town of Telluride.  Although it is only 6 miles away from US-550 as the crow flies, there is no direct route so it is more like 60 miles.  The stretch of US-550 between Silverton and Ouray through Uncompahgre Gorge is nicknamed the "Million Dollar Highway".  Just imagine a twisting two lane road on the side of a cliff hundreds of feet above the bottom.  With semi-trucks and RVs.  And no guardrails.  Unfortunately I was driving alone, so I couldn't take any pictures, safely.

Telluride turned out to be a bust because of the the annual Film Festival, which I completely forgot about.  Since camping in town was impossible and I didn't feel like staying at the free campgrounds in the National Forest outside of town, I decided to bite the bullet and drive onward to my next destination, Natural Bridges National Monument.  I chased the setting sun through Western Colorado, crossing into Utah, through thunderstorms into the night, avoiding suicidal deer to arrive at my destination, weary and tired.  But, as is usually the case, magnificent follows the tedious and I was rewarded with the most gorgeous night skies I've ever seen.

Which I will write about in my next entry…