Thursday, May 26, 2016

Canyonlands May Morning

Sunrise colors over the La Sal Mountains, May 22.
May 22: After two wonderful but too windy nights of camping in the Greater Canyonlands area, it was time to start heading toward home. With all day to do it and only a few hours away, I was rich on time.
Sunrise colors over the southern end of the La Sals.

So rich, in fact, that I found myself reluctant to leave. I was feeling relaxed, rejuvenated and serene. It was time to explore a few more nearby places. 

One stop was the Wine Glass, a fantastic study in sandstone erosion. Since the sun was not yet up, the light was soft and graceful.

The Wine Glass. Stone falling apart creates such beautiful sculptures.
But I continued to keep one eye to the east, toward the La Sal Mountains. Because the clouds over those still-snowy peaks looked to have high potential to reflect the rising sun's colors. 

The sunrise flare begins.
Just before the sun was going to clear the northern end of the La Sal range, it lit up the horizon with what I call a sun flare. In this case, a sunrise flare.

"Sunrise flare" closeup and La Sal Mountains.
The flare lasted so long that I had time to make a high resolution panoramic image from overlapping shots, to better portray the entire scene.

Sunrise flare panorama.
The glorious sunrise colors finally done, the clouds continued to tantalize me. Now absent the red-orange-yellow colors, the sunlight poured down in dazzling slanted sunbeams.

Post-sunrise sunbeams over the La Sal Mountains.
A bit further down the road the sunlight was pouring down almost directly from overtop the mountain peaks. Rather heavenly.

Post-sunrise, early morning sunlight shafts, and high desert trees.

Then it was on to the Needles Overlook. Given the past two days of high winds, there was a lot of dust in the air. Plus some moisture from a rain shower. Which meant quite a bit of haze. Which I minimized in post processing in Adobe Lightroom after the shoot.

Needles Overlook: looking south toward the Six Shooter Peaks and the Abajo Mountains.
Enamored with the scene despite the haze, and because the Indian Creek valley floor was so green in this cool and moist springtime weather, I made a really wide panoramic image.

Needles Overlook panorama, looking south.
I walked up around the bend to check out the view to the west, and the north. It was a different scene: little greenery below. But in the foreground, a wonderfully green, gnarled Utah Juniper tree, as if showing off amid the red and brown rockscape.

Needles Overlook, looking north.
Photo location: southeast Utah, near Canyonlands National Park.

© Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg

Sunday, May 22, 2016

May Moonrise, La Sal Mountains from Canyonlands

Moonrise and La Sal Mountains, southeast Utah.
For the May 2016 Full Moon I was in the Canyonlands Basin in southeast Utah. 

The particular spot I was exploring has an unobstructed view of the La Sal mountain range to the east. However, this late in the year the moon rises to the south of the mountains rather than over them like it does during the winter months. So it wouldn't make for killer moonrise over the mountain peaks shots.

The clouds -- the variable of prime importance -- had been questionable for most of the day. At first they were an awful high hazy mess, neither blue sky nor overcast. But as the day wore on the thin high clouds moved on east, and were replaced by a nice mix of cumulus clouds and blue sky. So maybe things would work out, at least as far as sunset colors.

Mount Tukunikivats in the La Sal Range, under hazy afternoon light.
Being in the Canyonlands region, there is always much more to see than just the sky. And since one can't control the weather, one takes what is offered. It's all good here.

The La Sal Mountain Range in afternoon shadow.

The Colorado River south of Moab, Utah under sunbeam overcast skies.

Looking down onto the Kane Creek Anticline at dusk.
As sunset approached, there was even a slight threat of rain to the north. I had been hoping for a last minute breakthrough in the clouds on the western horizon to create some shafts of golden sunlight streaking low across the northern landscape at the last minute. Maybe even an alpenglow event lighting up the snowy peaks of the La Sals in a nice rose hue. It didn't happen, though I was ready. You have to be out there. 

Pre-sunset golden sunbeams to the west.
Toward the east, though, it was partially clear. As the light faded to blue twilight, the Full Moon made its appearance over the gently sloping southern flanks of the La Sals. 

Moonrise over the southern flanks of the La Sals.

 It was a remarkable scene in person. However, any zoomed in shots of the rising moon would seem not at all representative of the total scenery. So I made overlapping shots horizontally to be merged into a high resolution panoramic image.

Two shot panorama of the moonrise and southernmost peaks.
Three shot wide angle panorama: the moon appears smaller, but the overall scene is better represented.
After the last twilight was gone and the brightness of the Full Moon had taken over, it was time to walk back down to camp and enjoy the early night from there.

© Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg

A Perfect May Day at Natural Bridges

Visitors at Kachina Bridge overlook, Natural Bridges National Monument.
Mid May at Natural Bridges National Monument in southeast Utah. For the most part it's been a fairly cool, wet spring. Lovely. The serious canyon hikers have again been out in force, knowing that this is the best time of year (although October is probably even better, because of drier dirt roads into the backcountry). Though spring is the time for the widest variety of wildflowers. 

Cedar Mesa from the Natural Bridges entrance road (Highway 275), looking southwest toward Moss Back Butte and Navajo Mountain.

But the rather wet weather has made things a bit hit and miss for some visitors that come here counting on Utah's trademark deep blue skies.

Today, though, was perfect, I believe. Not hot, not cold. A likely threat of rain showers, but not that high. Spring wildflowers still loving the moisture. Something for everyone.

A visitor walking up the trail from Owachomo Bridge.

At a U.S. National Park unit Visitor Center, the staff get mostly the same questions over and over, depending on the park. At Natural Bridges, they can be boiled down to:

1. Where is the nearest gas station? (35 miles, if you're driving east).

2. Can we buy coffee here? (No.)

3. Is there cell phone service here? (No). 

4. Is there Wi-Fi service here? (No).

5. Where do you all live? (A two minute walk down there to the park's residential housing. Yes, we live here.). 

I'm purposely skipping over "Where are the restrooms?" because most figure it out on their way in. 

Colorado Bladderpod (Physaria rectipes, Mustard family) blooming at Natural Bridges.

So, being out in the middle of nowhere, a small park that was in fact the first national monument in Utah (1908, thank you President Teddy Roosevelt), there are basic visitor needs that need to be quickly sifted through. 

The second level of questions are the basic ones about the park itself. Most concern how much time will it take to see anything? We have answers for that. And much more, especially those that have done their homework and want to see some really cool things, especially those able and interested enough to hike down into the canyons. To those we give special treatment.

A visitor ponders Owachomo Bridge from below.

But not everybody is ready for that. My own first experience with each new national park or other special wild area is that it's in effect a scouting trip. You either never allow enough time to do it justice, even for a first visit, or you've underestimated it and say to yourself: Wow, I'm going to have to come back here. And if you're fortunate, you do. With a lot more time to appreciate it.

Which somehow brings me back to those visitors who don't have much time, or even the physical ability for hiking. It has been designed for both. 

I love hiking down into the park's canyons, beneath the three mighty bridges and the Ancestral Puebloan ruins. I've been here a year and a half, but still feel like I've only dipped my toe into the waters. 

Claretcup hedgehog cactus blooming at Natural Bridges National Monument.

This day I was free of the Visitor Center for a few hours, and the weather was exceptional. Threatening of rain, but that meant gorgeous cumulus clouds in the high desert Utah sky. Sun, shadow, clouds. A bit breezy, but that served to move most of the haze out. Sweet.

I decided to drive the loop road to the natural bridges overlooks, to get new springtime photos to show the visitors before they go out there. 

The first stop was the Sipapu Bridge overlook. Looking down onto the second largest natural bridge in the Americas (and sixth largest in the world). I admired the mid-afternoon light, the glowing bright greenery of the riparian (streamside) tree foliage far below in the rugged canyons of Cedar Mesa Sandstone.

Sipapu Natural Bridge, sixth largest in the world, 500 feet in elevation below the overlook in White Canyon.

Then it was on to Kachina Bridge, the youngest and most massive of the bridges, since it still has the most stone mass left to lose. At the overlook there were several visitors admiring the view. Because it's not just the natural bridge far below. In fact, some can't even pick it out without help. It's because of the stunning scenery of the canyons below. And the cliffs above them. So when we encourage them to "just" go to the overlooks, they will still have an incredible experience.

Kachina Natural Bridge from the overlook, where Armstrong Canyon enters White Canyon.

Finally, the third bridge: Owachomo. The easiest one to hike down to, by far. The longest name, the shortest hike. Probably the oldest one, geologically. Certainly the most photographed one, because of its ease of access, and its wide open southern exposure for midnight starry skies photography. 

Owachomo Natural Bridge (left center) from the overlook, with Moss Back Butte and the Red House Cliffs in the distance.
Owachomo Bridge, from below in Armstrong Canyon.

The final pullout on the park's loop drive road is a panoramic wide toward Elk Ridge, with the Bears Ears Buttes and Maverick Point.

The Bears Ears Buttes, Maverick Point and Elk Ridge from the Bridge View Drive loop road.

So there you go, a brief nine mile driving loop road through Natural Bridges National Monument. Even a brief tour is so rewarding. But don't be surprised if you'll want more.

Even if you live here.

Photo location: Natural Bridges National Monument, southeast Utah.

© Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Up Armstrong Canyon at Natural Bridges

Owachomo Bridge, in Armstrong Canyon, Natural Bridges National Monument
A fine May afternoon, and I decided to hike down to Owachomo Bridge in Armstrong Canyon at Natural Bridges. A slight chance of rain, but the clouds would accent the blue sky. Nicely, I hoped.

Down the easy trail to Owachomo Bridge.
I hiked underneath the stone bridge, oldest of the the three in the park, talking with visitors along the way. But most of them only go down to the bridge for pictures, then return to the parking lot, since it's only 0.2 miles away. A nice experience for those that don't want more.

The mouth of Tuwa Canyon, at Armstrong Canyon.
I hung a right and kept on going, over to the mouth of Tuwa Canyon where it enters Armstrong, a short distance upstream of the bridge. From there you can get some nice alternate shots of the area. 

Looking up Armstrong Canyon from a bench above.
I climbed up onto a bench above the stream, looking for ancient ruins and artwork. Suffice it to say that they are all over this area -- Cedar Mesa -- and half of the fun is looking without the aid of guidebooks or Internet secrets that have been given away, even pinpointed with GPS coordinates. 

Cattail pool, upper Armstrong Canyon.
Then I descended from the bench and continued upstream, with pretty easy walking most of the way, following the stream course. One pool even had cattails growing along the bank. Cattails are one of my favorite marsh plants. I was surprised to see them there, since this is an intermittent high desert canyon stream, prone to flash floods. The cottonwood and willow trees are much better adapted to rip roaring floods. But cattails? Hmm. There must not have been a really bad rip roaring flash flood here for quite some time.

The springtime bright green flush of deciduous trees and shrubs in the high desert.
There was plenty of other streamside greenery: Fremont Cottonwood, Coyote Willow, rabbitbrush. Grasses and forbs.

Let's not forget the wildflowers. It's still springtime here at 6,000 feet, and the season has been nicely cool and wet. The hot weather will come soon enough, after all. Let the spring flowers feel comfortable taking their time.

Whipple's Fishhook Cactus blossoms.
First on the wildflower agenda, photographically, as far as this hike went: Whipple's Fishhook Cactus. Several had their first yellow-green blossoms out atop their needle-spine protected barrels of green. 

The Colorado Bladderpod have been blooming in the park for several weeks now. But they continue to eye-catch with their little bright yellow blossoms at the top of their flower stalks, each spreading out from the basal leaves in different directions, as if to cover various points of the compass. 

Colorado Bladderpod in bloom.
Meanwhile, up on the stream bank, it was impossible to miss another colony of Claretcup cactus in achingly red bloom. Like I don't have enough photos of this species, but it's hard to resist. 

Just another Claretcup cactus in bloom photo.
Finally I decided it was time to turn around and go home. But as I headed back downstream, I found some pure white Evening Primrose, wide open for business for the coming night (they are pollinated by nocturnal insects). 

Evening Primrose blossoms by the water's edge.
I climbed up a ledge on the north side of the stream bank, again looking for Ancestral Puebloan ruins. Didn't find any. But more red flowers caught my eye on the slope just above. I wondered: more Claretcups, or Paintbrush?

A clump of Paintbrush complemented by a green clump of something else.
It turned out to be both. One of the best clumps of Common Paintbrush (the much taller Wyoming Paintbrush appear later in the season) I've seen. I'm sure they hate being called "common". But they have no say in the matter, so I'm voicing it for them.

The so-called "Common" Paintbrush, closeup. Uncommonly eye-catching.
And just a few feet downslope, another small but photogenic colony of Claretcup cactus blossoms. I got close and personal this time, to show off the lovely structure of the blossoms.

Claretcup Cactus blossoms get their closeup portrait.
As I continued hiking, the rain started. Just sprinkles for a while. Then as I crossed back underneath Owachomo Bridge and ascended the trail, the rain became fat drops. But I was only a couple of minutes from my vehicle. Great timing.

Photo location: Natural Bridges National Monument, southeast Utah.

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© Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg

Monday, May 9, 2016

Greater Canyonlands Rainbow Evening

Snow showers on the Abajo Mountains and Monticello, Utah.

It was a rainy weekend in southeast Utah, making driving on the dirt roads in the area a muddy possibility. And in the mountains of southwest Colorado more snow. 

Rainbow panorama.

So I opted to camp above the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. Good roads, few people, outstanding scenery. This area outside the southern portion of the park is sometimes called Greater Canyonlands and has been proposed as a new National Monument.

Near Monticello, Utah I admired a storm cloud of snow and rain enveloping the Abajo Mountains. 

Rainbow closeup.

North of Monticello was the road to Hatch Point, my intended destination. I normally would have continued on to the Needles Overlook, but sunset time was nearing and I wanted to be further north. But on the way in a full rainbow slowed me down. 

Pronghorn buck with last patches of his winter coat.

I almost always see pronghorn in this area of high sagebrush. At this time of year the herds are split up, as the females have their young, each in their hidden spot, I suppose. Then I saw this big buck by the side of the road, almost unconcerned with me. I shot this photo of him right out the car window. Notice how almost all of his winter coat has been shed. 

Sunshine through the rain down along the Colorado River inside Canyonlands National Park.
The view to the west, over the side of the rim down into the Colorado River further slowed me down for photos. I loved how the sunshine lit up rain showers, with other buttes in shadow for dark contrasting shapes.

I did make it to my campsite shortly before sunset. The view down Kane Creek Canyon and to the Colorado River were dizzying and beautiful. 

Sunset time looking down on the Colorado River from near the Anticline Overlook.
To the east, the La Sal Mountains were showing off another late spring coat of new snow.

The La Sal Mountains just before sunset.

One of the peaks of the La Sal Mountains that was visible through the clouds.
Golden sunset rain showers over the Colorado River.

During the night I was treated to the peaceful sound of rain drumming on the roof of the vehicle. 

Photo location: San Juan County, southeast Utah.

Sunset on Kane Creek Canyon, from Hatch Point.
© Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg