Desert Southwest

The Wildflowers of Capitol Reef National Park

When driving through southern Utah, one thing that is really striking is the desolation of that land.  There aren't many trees; not much green of any kind.  Every direction is mainly reddish-orange rock or soil of some type.  It's a place that receives very little rain.  A place that is hot in the summer and cold in the winter.  It is a harsh place, as evidenced by the sparse population of the area.  Although Utah has a population of nearly 3 million, the majority of those live in the northern part of the state in the area centered around Salt Lake City.  

With the abundance of sandstone and apparent lack of water, you might not expect to find much life.  And certainly not much color.  However, getting off the interstate and taking the time to explore reveals surprisingly abundant life.  A diversity of life...and plenty of colorful scenery.  

I've always enjoyed taking pictures of wildflowers.  Seems that on a hike, I'm always way behind everyone else as I stop along the trail to capture images of the flora along the way.  It's something about the intricate detail and the inherent beauty that catches the eye and begs to be recorded on the digital sensor.  I wrote an article a couple of years ago for the Improve Photography website about flower photography.  Go check it out for more information.  

Now, back to Utah.  You may have been following along with my previous posts about my trip to Capitol Reef National Park.  I'm still working through the images from that adventure and enjoying every minute of it.  I thought it would be interesting (well, interesting to me anyway) to show the wildflower images from the trip.  Just to prove that they are there.  Even in the desert. Take a look.

Tansyleaf Aster

Central Prickly Pear

Utah Daisy


Claret Cup

Utah Daisy

Cliff Rose

Basin Blanketflower

Tufted Evening Primrose

Golden Mariposa

Harriman's Yucca

Dwarf Lupine

Scapose Greenthread

Prince's Plume

Rough Mulesear

Life finds a way

Cathedral Valley

There are two main reasons why I share these blog posts and images from my photography adventures. First, I enjoy sharing with others, and hope that doing so will provide a brief glimpse of the incredible beauty of our natural world and maybe even provide some inspiration.  Another reason is more self-serving, in that I want to document and remember the places that I've been and the amazing things seen along the journey.  

On our first full day in Capitol Reef National Park, we ventured into Cathedral Valley to see what we could see.  Cathedral Valley is a great place to get lost, and perhaps a place to find yourself. After driving 15 or so miles to the southeast on Highway 24, we turned onto a dusty, gravel/dirt road that would eventually lead back into the park.  There are no traffic stops, or traffic for that matter, out here.  Just miles and miles of rocky terrain, sandy soil, and roads that change their personality with the seasons and the occasional torrential downpour.  This is no place to be without a high clearance vehicle, and no place to be if there is a threat of rain.  

After driving for about 26 miles, we arrived at our destination for the morning.  The Temple of the Moon and Temple of the Sun are sandstone monoliths towering above the valley floor, emphasizing our smallness in the grand scheme of things.  A variety of scrubby vegetation, some wildflowers, and an occasional juniper tree litter the valley floor.  Sand created from erosion of the native bedrock is pervasive.  Although we were there in late May, the sun was still powerful overhead.  One could only imagine the proverbial oven this place would become in July and August.  However, despite the harshness of climate and the desolation (or maybe because of it), life thrives here.  

In the couple of hours we were there, we each went our separate ways.  Soaking up the scenery and the carefree breezes was a delight.  This place is not just peaceful, but ever so quiet.  The stillness is immersive, and such a welcome attribute in the otherwise non-stop hustle and bustle of everyday life.  Walking in the shadows of the sandstone giants and up one of the numerous washes, as sporadic desert lizards flitter to the safety of the nearest brush at my approach, my mind is filled with imaginings of what it must have been like for those who first explored here. Pleasant thoughts abound and are not quickly forgotten.  

Eventually, we felt the need for a hasty exit due to threatening clouds moving into the area, but not before capturing a few memories on the image sensor.  A few of those memories are here and I hope you enjoy them....   

Temples of the Sun (left) and Moon (right) 

Somehow, life finds a way

Geology Layer Cake

A Trip Through Capitol Reef National Park

In a few short days (Thursday, June 9 to be exact), my fifth article will be published on the Improve Photography website. The article will be titled "A Photographer's Guide to Capitol Reef National Park". You may not have been to, or even heard of Capitol Reef National Park, but take a look at this article. If you are travelling through Utah, take the time to stop at this amazing place. The history, geology, and just sheer beauty is worth the trip. I'll be posting more about this trip on my blog over the coming days and weeks as I get around to processing all the images. Here are a few to whet your appetite.

Fallen Roof Ruin

Cedar Mesa Plateau is home to amazingly well-preserved and the largest concentration of Anasazi ruins in the Four Corners region of the Desert Southwest.  The last leg of our trip was spent in the small town of Bluff, Utah, with numerous easily-accessible sites nearby to visit.  We started our first full day there with a trip up Highway 261 through the Valley of the Gods, to the top of the mesa, and on to Cigarette Springs Road where we would eventually park at a trailhead for a short hike to Fallen Roof Ruin.  

Sometimes referred to as Three Room Ruin (for obvious reasons), this site has really withstood the test of time as well as the numerous visitors over the years.  One of the most striking features, and the origin of its namesake, is the large slabs of sandstone that have peeled off from the overhanging canyon and fallen to the ground below.  

Upon close inspection of the site (actually when Bob pointed it out), one can see handprints on the sandstone roof left behind by the former inhabitants.

It was a perfect day for the hike into Road Canyon for our visit to these ruins.  After paying the requisite day-use fee, the hike begins in a pinyon and juniper forest, and slowly descends to the canyon floor.  There was no shortage of beauty along this trail, and plenty of stops were made to grab some shots along the way.  

This cactus seemed to be growing right out of the rock

After spending a little time at Fallen Roof Ruin, we made our way further down canyon along the cliff face.  A number of ancient granaries and small rooms were visible in alcoves eroded into the Cedar Mesa Sandstone.  

The Road to Nowhere

"Stupid is as stupid does."  Many of you will remember this line, as well as many other particularly memorable quotes, uttered by Tom Hanks' character in Forrest Gump.  Believe it our not, that movie, based on the 1986 novel by Winston Groom, turned 20 years old this year.  Winner of several Academy Awards, as well as many other accolades, and also making a few bucks at the box office, I guess you could say that the movie was well-received.  Who could forget the memorable cast of characters, including Lieutenant Dan, Jenny, 'Bubba', and of course Forrest Gump.  

As you may recall, Forrest decided to go for a run one day.  And he ran a lot.  In fact, he ran for 3 years, 2 months, 14 days, and 16 hours.  That's a lot of running.  When he finally decided to stop, claiming, "I'm pretty tired...I think I'll go home now", he was on Route 163 just north of Monument Valley.  Courtesy of a Google image search, this familiar scene is shown in the image below.  

Route 163, more affectionately known as The Road to Nowhere, runs from Kayenta, Arizona, through Monument Valley, to Bluff, Utah.  After spending a couple days exploring the desert backcountry, we headed down this road toward Mexican Hat and our final destination in Bluff.  This epic scene is a popular stop along the way, so we decided to make a few images while we were passing through.  

The Road to Nowhere

I hadn't planned on going for a run that day, or any day of the trip for that matter, but thought why not recreate this scene from the movie.  Starting at the maroon Explorer on the right in the image below, I made a slow jog up the hill to where Phil and Bob were parked.  Phil was shooting the images for me as I trudged along.  Thanks Phil!  (Check out some of Phil's amazing photography at this link.)    

I didn't have a group of followers like Forrest did in the movie, but there were a few other photographers with the same idea.  The vehicles and other distractions were removed in Photoshop to make the final image below.

It was another fun day on our whirlwind tour of the Desert Southwest.  Check back for more as we travel to Mexican Hat and visit some ancient ruins around Bluff!


Face Rock & Honeymoon Arch

It seems that every rock formation in the Monument Valley area has a name.  Now, a few weeks later, it's difficult to remember them all.  Harry, our guide, for the tour, could rattle them off easily, having long ago committed each one to memory.  The passage of time, and the forces of wind, water, and ice, have left their mark on this grand landscape.  I felt it a privilege the opportunity to experience it first-hand, taking in these iconic views and making a few images, both in the synapses in my brain as well as the card in my camera.    

There's certainly no shortage of interesting shapes that have been carved into the Shinarump and Moenkopi Formations, the de Chelly Sandstone, and the underlying Organ Rock Shale.  Oh yeah, the rock formations have a unique nomenclature as well.  Those crazy geologists...!  Enjoy some images of a few here, and don't forget to click on the image to see it full size.  All of these were taken on our tour of Mystery Valley.  Glad to have you along for the ride...

Face Rock

As soon as you see Face Rock, there's no doubt why it is named as such.  Whether from a distance or up close, the unique shape of this rock is quite telling, having been carved by the hands of a great Sculptor.  The mid-afternoon sun was harsh, but a few nice puffy clouds in the deep blue sky made a nice backdrop for these images.  As I hiked up close to the base of the rock formation, I noticed a particularly wispy cloud taking shape right overhead.  From this angle, the cloud gives the appearance of smoke coming from the top of the rock.

Face Rock Smoking

Being a sucker for lots of vivid color, I don't do a lot of black and white conversions of my images.  However, I thought this one might be a good candidate.  The blues have been toned down in this one to provide a more dramatic scene and make the rock and 'smoke' seem to pop off the page.

From the images above, you can see that vegetation is sparse in this arid climate.  Believe it or not, the image of this colorful leaf was taken near the base of Face Rock.

Touch of Color

There are several natural arches in this area and we got to visit a couple of them.  I'm sure there is a story behind the names for these, but I'm not sure how that story goes.  Both of these are known as pothole arches, formed by chemical weathering from water that accumulates in depressions on top of the formation and gradually eats through the underlying layers of sandstone.  

Stout Arch

Honeymoon Arch

As the day drew to a close, we were sure to set up on a bluff overlooking Mystery Valley to capture a sunset scene of this vast open space.  From the petrified dunes capped with saucer-shaped rocks in the foreground to the buttes and mesas in the distance, there is little doubt that we were in the backcountry.  

Mystery Valley Sunset

And another black and white of this great landscape...

The sun had long settled down for the night, but the high clouds were still showing some nice color that just begged to be captured in this image.  

More to come...

Mystery Valley

Our second day in Monument Valley was spent on an all day tour of the area.  The first part of the day, we visited some of the well-known areas in Monument Valley by way of our excellent guide (Harry).  In the afternoon, we left Monument Valley and entered into Mystery Valley to continue our tour.  There is no public access to Mystery Valley, so a guide is a must, and Harry was up to the task as he expertly navigated the deep sand and rough roads to take us deep into the backcountry.  Mystery Valley is known as a former dwelling place for the Anasazi, or "Ancient Ones", as there are some remains of their homes as well as centuries-old rock art.  As with Monument Valley, the desert landscape is a vast and harsh, but beautiful place.  Sandstone rock formations abound, and we got the chance to explore a few of them.

Our first stop was at this skull along the 'road', which makes one wonder what is in store for the day...  

Harry referred to this tree as the 'broccoli tree', indicating that vegetables do grow in the desert...

Vegetation in this region is sparse, and what little there is has to adapt to extreme conditions and have a deep root system to reach moisture.  Notice in the image below that the grass has formed concentric circles as it blows in the wind.  

I like looking for opportunities to capture a starburst in my images, and the broccoli tree was the perfect subject.  Just place the sun so that it just peaks around the edge of something, stop down the aperture to f/22, and give it a try sometime.  Of course, care should be taken to not look directly at the sun through the viewfinder. 

Another skull!

Hope you enjoy the images.  Don't forget to click on them to see them full size.  Come back later as I continue on the journey...

Desert Oasis (and Fall Color?)

Monument Valley sits at an elevation of around 5,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level.  Summers are generally pretty hot; however, being in the high desert, temperatures cool down rapidly when the sun goes down.  On the flip side, winters here are cold, with temperatures well below freezing and even dropping below zero at times.  It is a harsh place.  Precipitation is rare.  The valley averages just over 4.5 inches of rain annually.  The driest months are lucky to get any rain at all.  As you might suspect, vegetation is sparse.  Other than an occasional juniper, there are few trees to provide habitat for wildlife.  

One of our stops on our tour of Monument Valley was in an area with a wet creek bed.  There wasn't much water flowing, but there was enough moisture to provide for the explosion of vegetation along the banks.  I think this was the most green that we saw in the valley that day.  There was even a large cottonwood tree along the creek with yellowing leaves, showing the tell-tale signs of autumn.  The color contrast in this area was amazing, with the deep blue sky overhead, the red rock formations and sand all around, and this oasis of green and yellow in the middle of it all.  See for yourself in the images below.  Don't forget to click the images to see them full size.

This bit of color was a welcome site for us on this day.  Hope you enjoy it as much as we did.  

More to come...

The Totem Pole

Monument Valley is part of the Colorado Plateau, formed in the distant geologic past by uplifting of the sedimentary rock.  The mountain building, or orogenic, events that formed the mountains that we see today were caused by the subduction of oceanic plates beneath the less dense continental plate.  The collision of these plates resulted in the crumpling and uplifting of the earth's surface, forming our mountains and plateaus.  Over time, the Colorado Plateau and has undergone many changes, with the forces of earth altering the complexion of this vast landscape.  

The many buttes and other rock formations seen in Monument Valley are remnants left from eons of erosion of the relatively soft sedimentary rock surrounding them.  The Totem Pole is one such formation.  The Totem Pole is the eroded remains of a butte, becoming a much more slender rock spire as a result of wind and water that have gradually peeled away its shell as the rock cycle marches on.  This formation is off the beaten path, and only accessible on guided tours.  But it's a stop not to be missed.  

In 1975, the opening sequence of the lesser-known, and perhaps under appreciated, film The Eiger Sanction was shot at the Totem Pole.  The movie shows a young Clint Eastwood climbing this formation, meeting George Kennedy at the summit.  The Totem Pole is sacred to the Navajo people, but an agreement was made to allow filming in exchange for removing pitons that had accumulated by climbers over the years.  Eastwood, who reportedly performed his own stunts and trained for months, was the last person allowed to climb this spire (at least legally).

The Totem Pole

Totem Pole Landscape

I really like the color version of this image, but thought why not try it in black and white.  Now I'm not so sure which I like best...

Totem Pole Landscape in Black & White

More to come….