Landscape Photography at a Grueling Pace

Bandon Beach Color Sunset-00350

 

We just completed a 10-day photography trip. We covered about 2,500 miles between Las Vegas, Nevada and La Conner, Washington; we shot 15 locations, hit all but 3 sunrises and 1 sunset and covered over 10,000 feet of elevation. We shot mountains, beaches, forests and bridges and lighthouses. In short, we had a blast and completely exhausted ourselves.

Landscape photography is unlike any other endeavor. It requires knowledge of photography, hiking, survival and planning skills. It is not unusual to find us out hiking in the pre-dawn darkness to do a sunrise shoot and hiking back in the dark after a sunset shoot. It requires good reliable equipment and through understanding of how to use that equipment so you can find the buttons to adjust the settings. That is before you even consider the knowledge associated with the camera menus and the features and uses of lenses and filters.  It also requires a certain flexibility about signage at parks and waysides. Just what does “open dusk to dawn”really mean? You need to know when to park outside the gates of public places, and which gates will be left open.

Perhaps the most important skill/attribute is stamina. We shot almost every morning. This meant we were out of bed, dressed and heading to the location around 4:30 AM and waiting for the sun around 5:30 AM. It also meant that we didn’t hit the sack until around 11:00 PM after returning from a sunset on a beach and having to clean all the salt spray off the camera gear. We drove around 200 to 300 miles most days. A lot of that driving was on mountain highways. When we arrived at a desired location we hiked in during daylight hours to scope out shoot locations for both sunset and sunrise.

I can’t think of any other activity that has so much activity built into a single day. Although it was exhausting, it really is living to the max!

If you would like to see more of the images from our trip, please visit http://www.zfrontierphoto.com and click on the Gallery button, then look in the collection of “NEW” images.

 

 

Getting Motivated

This winter, we have been making a more concerted effort to get out for some photography day-trips.  We realized that we needed a project to focus our efforts.  To that end, we assigned ourselves a project to create a photo book about hiking the Spring Mountains, with particular focus on Red Rock Canyon National Recreation Area, which is a 30 minute drive from Las Vegas.  I don’t know if the book will ever come to fruition, but it has been a good motivator to get us out hiking.

Finding the motivation to get out for some photography on the weekends can be a little difficult.  We have always enjoyed hiking on the weekends.  It helps clear our brains and the fresh air and exercise feel great.  However, the extra challenge of planning some photography and getting out early for sunrise (or staying out late for sunset) can be a bit of a psychological and logistical hurdle.  By the time we finish a five day work week at our “paying” jobs, we often find it difficult to scrape up the energy and brain-power to concentrate on our creative hobby.  Weekends can also mean accomplishing a few of the chores that don’t get done during the week.  A big part of the challenge is thinking up new places to hike that have attractive photo opportunities.  Selecting a long-term project, like the Red Rock Book, creates focus for our hiking and photography, so it takes a lot less mental energy to get us out there with the cameras.

We recently changed the knapsacks that we use to carry our photography gear.  We switched to Mindshift Rotational-180 Horizon backpacks.  Most of the gear that we need for a day trip is all packed in the bags.  We can literally grab our packs and a couple of bottles of water and go.  Of course it still requires that we charge the batteries and make sure that we have memory cards ready and in the cameras.   However, we make a habit of doing that after we return from each day of photography.

Having a specific set of photographic goals and photo kit that is ready to grab-and-go helps us to overcoming the psychological and logistical hurdles.  We have found that we have a better attitude about getting out to capture great images.

 

Winter Wonderland

Moon Rise over Bryce Canyon 2
Each December between Christmas and New Years Day, we try to get away for a camping trip to enjoy two of our passions, hiking and photography.  This year, our original trip to southeast Arizona had to be modified at the last minute due to time restrictions.  Rather than abandoning our trip entirely, we made last minute plans for a much shorter 5-day trip to Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks in southwest Utah.  It was a cold trip and while we were visiting Bryce Canyon there were a couple of days of heavy clouds and snow flurries.  Despite the weather, we did enjoy some hikes and managed to capture a few photographs.  To display our images, we created a slideshow which we posted on YouTube.com. The link to the video is provided below. We hope you enjoy this selection of some of our favorite photos.

Bryce/Zion Video

 

Valley of Fire State Park Excursion

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The first thing you need to know about camping at Valley of Fire State Park during the Thanksgiving holiday is that it is busy.  The campsites in the park fill up quickly.  We arrived on Wednesday around 10:00 am.  The park staff at the west entrance gate told us that there were only a few primitive camping spots left at the Arch Rock campground.  However, we boldly decided to take a chance and drive through the Atlatl campground where there were some sites with electrical and water hookups.  To our surprise, we found an open campsite with hookups.  The campsite had a pretty significant grade; regardless, it became our home for the weekend.

Our goal for the weekend was to capture some pictures for our photographic portfolio.  We had a loose plan to capture some landscapes photos in the morning and at sunset and maybe try for some moon, light painting and star photos after dark.

We were traveling with our elderly dog Prince, so our photography had to accommodate his schedule.  There was a time when Prince would have been up for long hikes into the desert and been happy to have been up from sunrise to sunset.  Now, at 14 years old, he finds our hiking schedule too aggressive.  So, getting up early in the morning for a dog walk before we head out with cameras makes it difficult to plan any photo sessions at dawn.  After Prince’s walk, we can leave him in our RV for his morning nap and we set off for our planned hikes.  We returned each day at noon and spent time with Prince for another dog walk and sitting out outside at our campsite.  Then after dinner, we could get out for another photography session.

On our first evening at Valley of Fire, we went a short distance from our campsite to Arch Rock.  We had done a little research and reviewed the location in the early afternoon.  The full moon was going to rise shortly after dark on an angle that might allow us to shoot it using the Arch as a frame.   Although we had nailed the planning, our equipment was not quite up to the task of getting the photo we wanted.   The moon was full and bright, but our flashlights were not sufficient for lighting up the foreground of The Arch.  We did capture a couple of nice pictures with the moon backlighting The Arch.  After of couple of hours of working the scene, we were both cold and it was time to retreat to the trailer for a hot drink.

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On Thanksgiving morning, we hiked the Prospect Trail.  This is a wonderful trail that can be followed to a junction with the White Dome Trail.  We planned a shorter 2 mile walk up into the pass where there are a series of interesting rock formations.  We had planned to spend about an hour among the rocks, but in the end we spent the entire morning working around the rocks.  The light was pretty good for mid-morning and finding great compositions was challenging and fun.

Friday morning we had planned to do two hikes, one on the Duck Rock Trail and one on the White Dome Trail to shoot the slot canyon once the sun was a little higher in the sky.   It was a short hike out to Duck Rock.  Unfortunately, at the time we arrived, the angle of the sun and thick cloud layer made shooting very difficult.  We tried to capture a decent image from a bunch of different angles. We walked to the far side of Duck Rock (it doesn’t look like a duck from that side) and we even hiked up an adjacent hill but nothing we did resulted in a composition that we liked.

Before we returned back to the car, Corinne suggested we continue down the wash to see if there might be something of interest a little further along the trail.  We scored!  Being open to walking a little farther can be the biggest factor in finding wonderful landscape subjects.  Less than a quarter mile down the trail, we ran into a series of natural tanks.  These are depressions that hold water.  Tanks are rare and important to the desert habit.  They provide water for local wildlife.  From the rock ledges above the tanks, the entire valley opened up providing a very interesting vista. 

ValleyOfFire SS 091

The geology in the area is very colorful.  We spent hours moving around the rocks, trying different compositions.  We spent so much time at Duck Rock Trail that we never made it over to White Dome Trail.  It was getting on to early afternoon and it was time to return and spend time with Prince.

Friday night found us out doing some light painting of the rocks near the campground.  Shawn gets a kick out of creating unexpected scenes on the rocks.  Corinne was more interested in getting a photo of star trails.  Unfortunately, right after we decided to switch from light painting to star photos, a cold wind started to blow.  Even with heavy cameras and excellent tripods the camera shake was very obvious.  Furthermore, the temperature dropped from being merely cold to uncomfortable!  It was time to retreat to the RV for a hot drink.

ValleyOfFire SS 132

On Saturday, we returned home to Las Vegas.  It was a short but fun trip.  Now it is time to see if we can make the most of the photographs we captured.

South Loop – A Favorite Hike

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It’s Saturday morning and the tea is prepared in our travel mugs and the dog has been dressed in his collar.  Saturday mornings are for hiking.  It is the favorite time of the week for the whole family.  We head off to one of our very favorite hikes which we call the South Loop.  The hike is actually along a portion of a favorite bike trail network in the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area (RRCNCA) called the Cottonwood Valley Trails.  It is located on the south side of Blue Diamond Road, between Las Vegas and Pahrump.  If you come from Las Vegas and pass the turn for Blue Diamond and RRCNCA, you should be able to easily identify the turn-off because it is only substantial dirt road heading south before you go over a mountain pass (Mountain Springs Summit).  The road is identifiable by a dirt parking area with a primitive toilet.   We like to park in a small dirt lot that is about 0.75 miles down the gravel road on the east side.   

The trail is open to mountain bikes, hikers, and horseback riders.  From the parking area, you can either take the loop trail north or south.  We prefer the southbound direction because it is usually counter to the direction of the bikes and it provides us with good visual warning when they are heading our way.  The bikes come down some very steep sections and some riders appear to be operating at the limit of their capabilities.  Although the trail markers indicate that bikes are to defer to horses and walkers, this is rarely the trail protocol.  Bikes expect the walkers to get out of their way.  That said, many riders have expressed their appreciation of us stepping off the trail and allowing them to continue through. 

As you travel south, you will gain several hundred feet in elevation.  The topography and vegetation is very nice through this area.  From the parking area, you start in a desert valley and then as you head south you go through a canyon with some large shrubs and junipers.  Many years ago, there was a fire in the canyon, but now the vegetation is returning.  So you will see a mixture of burnt and fallen down Joshua trees and new younger plants.  When you have gained about 250 feet in elevation, you will arrive at a level area with a large juniper tree.  Here the trail splits. If you continue south you will come out to a wider trail that heads slightly to the west.  This trail connects with the gravel road that you drove in on (but much further south of the parking area).  You can either follow the gravel road back or cross the road and continue west onto a longer loop trail that will take you back to the parking lot.  This loop option will take you about 3 to 4 hours to complete (assuming you walk at a moderate pace).  Most often, when we arrive at the split in the trail, we choose the left trail.  Immediately we follow a series of switch-backs up to Badger Pass, the saddle between two hillsides.  It is possible to take a smaller hiking trail to the North that heads to one of the summits.  Typically, we continue east and then north down the trail.  As we head down, we follow a lovely valley that opens up to some desert meadow areas.  In the spring, there are many yellow and purple wildflowers along the trail.  On one occasionally, we were fortunate to see a bighorn sheep on the rocky hillside watching us walk by.   In the meadow, there is another fork in the trail.  If you head west, the trail will return to the parking lot.  If you continue north, you will eventually arrive at the large paved parking lot on the north side of Blue Diamond Road where most of the bike riders park their cars.

This is a lovely morning walk.  It requires a little bit of energy as you gain a fair bit of elevation.  However, the trail is easy to find.  The bikes have worn a pretty big groove in the trail and good walking shoes are a necessity.  In the spring the trail has a lot of flowers.  As summer comes on, you will also see many lizards that lay out in the sun to warm themselves.  It is not unusual to see desert hares and coyote as well.  In the spring, the canyon and valley on either side of Badger Pass is rocking to the tunes of birds passing through to their summer homes.

 We have also uploaded a video of a recent hike.  We hope you enjoy it!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2b-aM4_84f8

 

China Ranch Date Farm

DateFarm
China Ranch Date Farm in Tecopa CA is an unusual oasis in the Mojave Desert. It is about 85 miles west of Las Vegas and it is an easy day trip. It is also a short drive from Death Valley National Park. We visit the date farm approximately once a year to have a short hike along the creek and to enjoy a nice date milkshake afterwards. We use the trip to stock up on the many varieties of dates (an excellent natural sweetener for smoothies and baking) and a loaf of date bread or two usually falls in the bag. The store also has a variety of locally made art, semi-precious stones and antiques. All in all the store is a very pleasant browsing opportunity.

YouTube Video

China Ranch History

The legend goes that a Chinese man came to this canyon after many years of working in the Death Valley borax mines. He developed the water, planted fruits and vegetables, and raised meat for the local mining camps. It became known as Chinaman’s Ranch. The water at China Ranch is sourced from Willow Creek. Sometime in 1900, a man named Morrisonarrived and apparently he ran the Chinese farmer off at gun point and claimed the Ranch for his own. Since then, the canyon has had many owners and has fulfilled many different purposes,including a fig farm, cattle ranch, hog farm, alfalfa farm, and others. In 1970, the property was purchased by Charles Brown Jr. and Bernice Sorrells, the son and daughter of area pioneer and long-time State Senator Charles Brown of Shoshone. It remains under the ownership of these families today. The date grove was planted from seed in the early 1920’s by VonolaModine, youngest daughter of Death Valley area pioneer RJ Fairbanks.

Over the years, several national magazine companies as well as movie studios have taken advantage of the fantastic scenery here as a back drop for their projects. The scenery available includes austere badlands, lush desert oases, palm orchards, rocky gullies and canyons, a running desert stream, historic buildings, and others. In 2001 Paramount Studios used China Ranch for the desert scenes of their hit movie "The Sum of All Fears", starring Ben Affleck and Morgan Freeman.

Dates

In March and April both the male and female trees produce a dozen or more large brown flower pods which split open to reveal the flowers inside. The long stems of male flowers, heavy with pollen, are gathered and placed inside the female flowers to assure complete pollination. One male tree can supply enough pollen for 40-50 females. By mid May, the developing dates on the female plants are marble sized and the flower stalk has grown to a length of 4-6 feet. In late August the bundles are nearly full-sized, but are still green and immature. Depending upon the variety, the dates will now turn either bright red or golden yellow. At the farm, the dates are covered with heavy paper wraps to protect them from rain, birds, and sunburn. In the fall, the fruit is fully ripe, turning either deep brown or jet black, and softening and sweetening into luscious fruit. The harvest season lasts from September through December, as each of the different varieties ripen. Typical adult trees will produce100-300 pounds of fruit each season.

Hiking

A trail guide at the China Ranch gift shop list several hikes in the area. Their web site (http://www.chinaranch.com/) also lists 6 hikes, including the short 200 yard creek trail that has nice interpretative signs and the more ambitious 4-mile Slot Canyon trail.

The Slot Canyon Trail is a four mile round-trip hiking and equestrian trail that leads to a unique and interesting canyon. To get here, take the Amargosa River Trail, from China Ranch, to the Amargosa River. Go north, along the T&T railroad grade, to the rock-lined side trail, leading west. Follow this trail a short distance to the river, cross the river, and follow the wash, up along the west bank. Cross the river with care. This is a shallow river, and you should have no difficulty. Continue up the wash, which ends in a narrow and twisted "slot canyon," with vertical walls.

The Amargosa River Trail was established on the historic T&T railroad grade, through Amargosa Canyon. The only trailhead available to access the Amargosa River trail is located at the China Ranch Date Farm. This trail retraces portions of the Old Spanish Trail. Six miles of trail are maintained up the canyon to the north. This includes a two-mile loop trail from China Ranch to the confluence of Willow Creek and the Amargosa River, and then back up the east side of the creek. The nearly level grade provides easy hiking and horseback riding opportunities.

The Amargosa River begins in Nevada, draining several thousand square miles of central Nevada. It flows south into California for over 100 miles, then it flows north for 80 miles, ending its journey at Badwater in Death Valley. Along the way it is fed by numerous freshwater springs, geographically isolated from other areas. The Amargosa River is often called the “hide and seek” river because of its inclination to travel underground, occasionally resurfacing to create lush oases surrounded by a harsh dry desert environment. The Amargosa River is one of only two perennial rivers in the Mojave Desert, and one of the only free flowing desert rivers in the US southwest.

Christmas 2010, Dec 28 – Flagstaff to Black Canyon City

The day did not start so well. In addition to heater problems, our coffee didn’t start to brew automatically as it usually does. Corinne set the coffee to come on at 7:30 PM rather than 7:30 am. I think we both thought that we were in for a difficult day!

We check the weather and determined that the temperatures were going to drop, with highs at 1 degree and snow expected. Without a working furnace, this helped us decide that we just didn’t belong in Flagstaff. It took us most of two hours pouring over our travel guides and iPad RV apps to finally decide that we should get down near Phoenix. It would get colder there, but no where near as cold as Flagstaff. The problem was that we didn’t want to be in the city. We eventually settled on trying a small town just north of Phoenix called Black Canyon City. Once we decided where we wanted to go, it did not take us long to get ourselves moving. Much to our relief, the day went fine. It was a very easy drive down (7,400 ft to 2,000 ft in elevation).

We settled in at the Bradshaw Mountain RV Resort. We couldn’t reach them by phone (it is the holidays), so we were not sure what we would find when we arrived. What we did find was that the staff had left a map of the resort with all the available spots. We took Prince for a walk and eventually settled on one that had relatively easy access and no overhanging trees. The turns are a little tight for pulling the jeep, so we unhitched it and caravanned around to our spot. Corinne helped me back in and in short order we were settled.

After a little lunch of Prime Rib leftovers that was enjoyed by all three of us, we headed off in the Jeep to explore. Corinne had researched the area on our way down and thought there was a hiking trail at the south end of the town. She was right; the Black Canyon Trail has an entrance just off the west side of the highway’s frontage road just south of the town. It was well marked and easy to find. As it turns out there are actually 2 trail entrances. The Black Canyon Trail stretches from Phoenix to Prescott with a length of about 60 miles. A second smaller nature trail called the High Desert Trail also has an entrance just to the right of the Black Canyon Trail (the nature trail is the one that does not allow horses). Not knowing any better, we struck off on the High Desert Trail. It turned out that fortune was smiling on us as this turned out to be a lovely loop trail for an afternoon walk. It meandered up to the top of a ridge and then proceeded to follow the ridge providing the walker with a number of spectacular views. It eventually worked its way down the ridge and into a cactus forest. All of the well known cacti were represented; Teddy Bear Cholla, Saguaro, Prickly Pear, and Hedge Hog. We even walked through a Cholla fruiting forest. Of course there were other desert plants present, but the cacti were very impressive. The trail took us about 45 minutes to walk but we stopped quite a bit along the way. There were a number of benches set up for people to have a sit and rest. Prince enjoyed the slower pace as he had time to hunt for “mice”.

The afternoon was so lovely that we decided to do a little exploring by car. On the west side of the Highway 17 frontage road we had noticed a series of very old buildings. The parking lot was full, which of course meant we needed to know what was so popular. We found the Rock Springs Café and Pie Company. Well we simply couldn’t go by without sampling the wares. A piece of Tennessee Bourbon Pecan and Peach Cobbler later, we were ready to explore the little market that was housed in the adjacent building. A jar of locally made “Mesa” honey was acquired and then we were on our way.

We also found the local Chamber of Commerce which had lots of information and brochures about the tourist highlights in the area. The young man volunteering at the office was very helpful and Corinne came out armed with a stack of maps and brochures. I am sure these will figure prominently in our travels tomorrow.