Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Stormy Skies Again At Last

White Canyon, Deer Flat, and the Woodenshoe Buttes on Elk Ridge, from Natural Bridges, June 28.
The June heat has arrived in southeast Utah's canyon country. Above average temperatures, too. It seems too soon. The heat and the relentless sun tend to drain me at this time of year. It's another "in-between time" of the seasons for me.

Last of the Prickly Pear cactus blossoms? June 28, 2016, Natural Bridges.
The bonanza of spring wildflowers has fizzled, save for a few stragglers and the earliest of the late summer blooms. I did see one Prickly Pear cactus still blooming in Natural Bridges yesterday. Other than that the main wildflower of the moment is called the Rock Goldenrod (Petradoria pumila), a member of the Sunflower family.

Rock Goldenrod - Petradoria pumila.
But help appears to be on the way! In fact, it arrived yesterday in the form of thunderstorm clouds. Then a shower that filled the potholes in the Cedar Mesa Sandstone terraces of the park. Some visitors that had been hiking the Sipapu Bridge trail reported small waterfalls pouring over the rim, causing them to delightedly have to take cover under an overhang for a short while.

Because Southwest's "monsoon season" appears to be building, maybe even a bit early. It's when moisture begins to flow into the region from the south and southwest. From the Pacific Ocean, Sea Of Cortez, Gulf of Mexico. We'll take it from anywhere.

White Canyon, Sipapu Natural Bridge, and Deer Flat, under stormy afternoon skies, June 28, 2016.
At the viewpoint overlooking Sipapu Natural Bridge (sixth largest in the world, you know), the afternoon clouds were beginning to look "threatening" to the southeast. Toward Navajo Mountain, where most of our storms seem to track from. Distant thunder. Bring it on.

The Bears Ears Buttes, Maverick Point, and Elk Ridge in a late June rain shower, June 28.

Then raindrops on the windshield. Then turn the wipers on fully. Loving it.

Sandstone terrace with a view: overlooking Kachina Natural Bridge's abandoned meander in White Canyon.

I got out to walk one of the sandstone terraces along Bridge View Drive, near the Kachina Bridge parking area. Potholes, newly filled with water. In one of them, the pollen of nearby Pinyon pine trees has collected on the surface.
Pothole with pine pollen, Natural Bridges.
The swirling breeze makes for ever changing patterns. A fluid pollen painting.
Pine pollen patterns on rain filled pothole, Natural Bridges.
With such variable cloudiness and unstable air, I was interested in seeing what would happen at sunset. Clouds make the sunset colors.

So I drove up Maverick Point and got into position.

Sunset colors on Maverick Point. Moss Back Butte the Tables Of The Sun, and Navajo Mountain in the distance.
 At this time of the summer, the sun is setting just to the north of the faraway Henry Mountains. There was a heavy cloud bank above them, but it did not extend all the way down to the horizon. Good: a slot for sunset, clouds above to reflect the colors. I watched the sun sink into the cloud bank, then waited until it reappeared from its lower edge.

Sun descending out of the clouds, over the north end of the Henry Mountains.
The golden sunset beams silhouetted the Henrys before sinking again out of sight for good. At which point I went home, quite satisfied.

Photo location: Maverick Point below Bears Ears Buttes, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

© Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg

Friday, June 17, 2016

Hanging Gardens at Natural Bridges

Hanging gardens in the sandstone canyon country of southeast Utah are a true niche environment. Amazing things happen in a small space.

Alcove Columbine in hanging garden, Armstrong Canyon, Natural Bridges National Monument.

They are formed by two things, primarily. One is that sandstone is porous. Water can slowly trickle down between the sand grains, even more so down all the joints in the rock (around here they had been sand dunes about 270 million years ago).

Alcove Columbine, below Kachina Bridge trailhead, Natural Bridges National Monument.

The other is that, on the Colorado Plateau in southern Utah, there are a variety of rock layers. And underneath the sandstone, sooner or later will be a much different layer. One impervious to water. Which means the water will flow sideways instead of down. Gently seeping out the side of an exposed cliff face. And there you have a hanging garden. Specially adapted plants seemingly clinging to a cliff face, or at least at the base of it.

Alcove Columbine closeup.

Since such places tend to be wet and shady, certain plants like it there. One is the Alcove Columbine, a delicately leaved and blossomed plant. Unlike their  much taller and robust cousins growing in the high mountains, these are small blossoms. They don't show off. You have to look for them in the shade of the bright high desert sunlight. 

Another hanging garden denizen is a small shrub, the Birchleaf Buckthorn - Rhamnus betulaefolia. Its almost egg shaped green leaves are distinctive in the park. A wiry stem grows from wherever the water source is, at the base of a cliff or out a crack in a face cliff.

Birchleaf Buckthorn - Rhamnus betulaefolia
In some spots, you might even find ferns. This example is on a terrace above the streambed in Armstrong Canyon. 

Ferns in a hanging garden in Armstrong Canyon at Natural Bridges.
Why ferns in a certain hanging garden but not in others? The same question can be about where Alcove Columbines and Birchleaf Buckthorn grow. Geology and soil type? Seed source? Something to ponder as you pause in the lovely shade of an overhanging cliff in canyon country.  

Photo location: Natural Bridges National Monument, southeast Utah.

© Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg

Friday, June 10, 2016

June Mountain Meadows, San Juan National Forest, Colorado

Springtime high country meadow panorama, San Juan National Forest.

Springtime in the Rockies. The cool moist spring had suddenly changed into summer heat down in the high desert canyon country. So it was time to move upward in elevation, to cooler life zones.

I drove up out of the Dolores River Canyon onto the San Juan National Forest. Lots of high country up there, and almost nobody around. I pulled over to photograph some Rocky Mountain Iris, Larkspur, Mule's Ears, Lupine, and more. The chokecherry blossoms were just coming out, too.

I eventually found a suitable camp: off the main forest road, with scattered large Ponderosa pine trees for shade until the sun started to go down. 

Side road campsite, with Ponderosa pines, Gambel oak thickets, and meadow plants.

Rocky Mountain Iris - Iris missouriensis.
The only thing better than a wild iris is...two of them in a nice composition.
Rocky Mountain Phlox - Phlox multiflora.
A stand of Silvery Lupine in the forest.

Mule’s Ears - Wyethia amplexicaulis.
Serviceberry in bloom.
Roadside Chokecherry blossoms.
Emerging Gambel Oak leaves, with Lupine in the background.

By late afternoon I'd found a really nice campsite. A few huge Ponderosa pine trees for shade, lots of wildflowers, and most of all: solitude.  

Geyer Onion - Allium geyeri

Geyer Onion - Allium geyeri
Gambel Oak leafing out.
Photo location: San Juan National Forest, Dolores County, Colorado.

© Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Lower Dolores River Boating Release 2016

The Dolores River Canyon below McPhee Reservoir.
The fertile Montezuma Valley of southwest Colorado is a heavily irrigated plain that grows pinto beans, wheat, corn, and alfalfa. 

An irrigation canal in the Montezuma Valley of southwest Colorado.
All that water has to come from somewhere. From the Dolores River, which has its source high in the San Juan mountain range. 

The Dolores flows cold, clean and beautiful from its source up near Lizard Head Pass at almost 14,000 feet in elevation, down to the town of Dolores. There it's dammed by McPhee Reservoir, second largest reservoir in Colorado. 

Downstream of the dam the Dolores is an emaciated high desert river, choked off to not much more than a trickle at times. That is unless the mountain peaks gather enough snow in the winter and spring to replenish McPhee to the point where the irrigation demands are met. And more. Only then is water released out of the dam for recreational boating.  

Driving down the steep gravel road into Dolores Canyon north of Dove Creek.
Last weekend, there was enough for a recreational boating "spill", for the first time in five years. I wanted to see it.

So I drove to Dove Creek ("Pinto Bean Capital of the World") and to the Dolores Canyon rim area. Hanging a left at the sign saying "River Access" I descended into the canyon. It had been a cool spring, and the hillsides of Gambel Oak were lush with bright green. As you reach the canyon bottom, there are also some scattered tall yellowbark Ponderosa Pine trees.

Down the steep twisting gravel road to the Dove Creek pump station, where the BLM has its Mountain Sheep Point Recreation Area.

Mountain Sheep Point Recreation Area in the Dolores Canyon, one of three put-in points for river runners.
There were about fourteen vehicles already parked at the site. I walked toward the river, where several parties were rigging up their boats. I talked to the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) law enforcement ranger that was overseeing the activity. 

Boaters rigging up on the Dolores at Big Sheep Point Recreation Area (Dove Creek pump station).
The ranger told me that, on average, the reservoir gets full enough to do a recreational spill for the lower Dolores boaters every four or five years.

I then drove the short ways downstream to the Box Elder Campground. It's right on the river, and true to its name there is a lot of shade to be had thanks to the large Boxelder trees (Acer negundo) growing there on the floodplain. There were only a couple sites taken. Doubtless the rest would be filled soon, it being Friday afternoon and a rare boating holiday to boot. I considered camping there, but decided to leave it to the boaters.

Riverside cliffs of the Dolores Gorge with the boating spill underway.
Dolores River at Box Elder Campground, the river still rising.
So I drove back out of the gorge, back to Dove Creek and then east toward Cortez. At Cahone I once again turned north. Across the green farm fields until the road swung down toward the river again. This was the Bradfield Bridge access area. The most upstream put-in point below the dam. From here you could float 97 river miles to Bedrock, Colorado, through one of the most scenic canyons in the southwest. It's 20 miles to where I'd just visited at Dove Creep Pump Station (Big Sheep Point Rec Area), then 40 miles to the Slick Rock bridge, passing through the Snaggletooth rapids stretch, which at 2,300 feet deep is the deepest part of the gorge. Finally, another 60 miles to Bedrock if you didn't take out at Slick Rock.
Boaters rigging up at Bradfield Bridge, uppermost put-in point on the lower Dolores below McPhee dam.
Why would a boater not go all the way down the 97 miles of fantastic wilderness river gorge to Bedrock if they had the time? Because of the unpredictable conditions of the release from the dam. The water coming into the dam from the high country varies with how fast the snow is melting up there. Plus, the warmer weather down here on the agricultural plain has the farmers using more water to irrigate their fields than if it was cooler.

Dolores River at Bradfield Bridge, 12 miles below the dam.
The bottom line is that the recreational boating spill is only going to last a few days, maybe more. The farmers and the towns get the water first and foremost. When the flow into the reservoir slacks off too much, the flow out of the dam will, too.  

Which means that a boat can get stranded somewhere down the gorge if the boatman guesses wrong. High and dry when the river flow slacks off too much. And the country is much too rugged to drive a vehicle down to the river except for all but a few choice spots. So one must plan according. Better safe than stranded.

I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the lower Dolores in lush springtime vegetation. Even more so to see the river flowing for several days at least, and river runners that love the Dolores to be able to experience at least a few more days down in that wilderness gorge.

© Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg

Friday, June 3, 2016

Early Summer at Natural Bridges: Owachomo Bridge, Armstrong Canyon

Narrowleaf Yucca plants send up their flowering stalks near Owachomo Natural Bridge.
May has turned into June at Natural Bridges National Monument, and an uncommonly (though quite appreciated) cool and moist spring has shifted to some hot, dry days.

Owachomo Bridge panorama.
So it's time to get acclimated to high desert summer weather. I load my REI daypack with four liters of water instead of just two. I'll only be down in the canyon for a few hours, but more is better, and the faster I drink it the lighter my pack becomes. Plus, I like to keep one liter in case I meet someone that hasn't brought enough and is in heat distress. You never know.

Owachomo Bridge from Zeke's Bathtub, an almost perennial pool in Armstrong Canyon.
The temperature on this glorious early summer afternoon won't exceed 80 Fahrenheit, but compared to 70 and below it's a good transition toward the 90s. 

Cliffrose (Purshia mexicana) in bloom at 6,500 feet.
Cliffrose - Purshia mexicana - are at peak bloom here at 6,500 feet. Visitors from lower desert elevations are delighted to find they get to see them and inhale their fragrance a second time this year.

I walk down the short trail to Owachomo Bridge. Then underneath the thin long span, to look for new shots from below it. The sky is classic southeast Utah: deep blue, low in haze, with pearly cumulus clouds for a fantastic accent. 

Narrowleaf Yucca (Yucca angustissima) leaves and flowering stalks.
The springtime wildflowers are quickly fading with the increased temperatures and long days, while the late spring to early summer blooms are enjoying their peak. 

Narrowleaf Yucca blooms.
Once again I photograph some more Narrowleaf Yucca - Yucca angustissima - in bloom. The tall (waist high to chest high) flowering stalks that have grown fast as corn are open on many plants, while some are already done. 

Narrowleaf Yucca blossom closeup.
Representing the yellow spectrum of wildflowers at this time of the season are Stemless Woollybase, Thrifty Goldenweed, and Common Hyalineherb. 

Stemless Woollybase - Hymenoxys acaulis
Thrifty Goldenweed (Haplopappus armeroides) in typical clumps.

Uinta Groundsel (Senecio multilobatus)

Common Hyalineherb (Hymenopappus filifolious), with its long wispy flower stalks and small blossoms.

No rattlesnakes seen on this hike, as usual. I've only seen two here in a year and a half.

Armstrong Canyon, from the trail downstream from Owachomo Bridge.
Photo Location: Natural Bridges National Monument, southeast Utah.

© Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg