Monday, August 22, 2016

Unknown Slot Canyons in Big Bend

Big Bend is a truly majestic national park.  It is big, empty, and full of incredible scenery.  I have been visiting the park for over 25 years on numerous trips.  Of late it has been two to three trips per year to the park.

You might think that after all this time I would be bored with it, but it is really the opposite.  Every trip to the park I find something new.

Over my last few trips, I have been looking for out of the way places- here are a couple of them.

A couple of years ago, I was looking at Google Earth and found what looked like a little slot canyon.  I went exploring on my next trip and sure enough, it was!

I have visited that canyon a few times now and really like it.  

It is shallow and it has both narrow and wide spots.  At times the sun shines right through it.  Other times It gets nice reflected light.

I even ventured into it at Night one time to photograph the Milky Way from it.

It has become a favorite place to visit and this last spring, it was a place I spent a few hours one afternoon.

On another clear afternoon, I went exploring further in the area.  I knew that the rock in the area could form little slots so I wanted to see what I might find.

Imagine my thrill to find another one!

This one was very narrow and not even thirty feet long before it reached a pour-off.  However what it lacked in size it made up for in narrowness and charm.

I made my way in and set up a couple of photographs to capture the light.

Finding these off the map and unknown spots is always fun.  Having a spot that no one else has photographed is rewarding and so different then being at an overlook with 500 people like you get in the busier parks.

Being at the end of the road, Big Bend probably sees fewer people in a year than Grand Canyon gets on Memorial Day weekend.  It means a park I can have to myself and being able to find spots like these.



Thursday, August 4, 2016

Night on the Lost Mesa

In the spring of the year I made a trip to west Texas and New Mexico.  It was a chance to get out west for a week of dark sky and some landscape photography.  My first stop was to make the drive out to the Lost Mesa.  I have wanted to get there for a shot at the spring Milky Way for sometime and decided to make that the start of a longer trip into the Big Bend country.

If you have read any of my other  Blog posts on the Lost Mesa you will find out what a lonely and quiet place this is.  Roughly 1.2 million acres of mostly public land that has no paved roads, no signs to point the way, and where you are a long, long way from help.  A place few have heard of, and only a handful will ever visit.

A truly wonderful place for the adventurous.

I made the drive out and found the high desert grasslands were in their typical dry and dusty conditions.  There was also the severe clear that one often finds out this direction.  That would make for no sunset but I hoped that would in turn, make for a good chance at the Milky Way at 0300 in the morning.

I did a hike across the mesa and around some lonely mountains.  Occasionally I even snapped a photo although the light was harsh.
  
As evening settled in with zero clouds I got to my camping spot and would be close to me selected spot for the Milky Way.  I took a few pictures of the sunset light and probably deleted 98% almost immediately.

As dark settled in, I crawled into my Honda Element which was set up in camping mode, stretched out and slept.  By 0300 the next morning I was up and going.  I walked up a small hill with some ocotillo on top and an angle of view to the southeast.

The Milky Way was rising in the sky just as I had hoped and I set about making images of the scene in front of me.


I had brought both my A7R and A7S and was working both on two tripods.  Photographing with two cameras is very tough, but possible at night as the longer exposures give you time to go from one to the other.  However you stay busy and I always worry about kicking a tripod in the dark.

The ocotillo made some interesting foreground subjects that I did some light painting on.  I also did narrower images where I precluded any foreground and just combined the Milky Way and surrounding mountain peaks.

Before I knew it, the night was fading and dawn was approaching.

The image that I had previsualized was there and I was able to get it.  I had a good shot and it was off across dusty roads toward Van Horn, Marfa, and Big Bend.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Great Salt Lake in Winter

In January I had the opportunity to be in Salt Lake City for a couple of nights.  Me being me, I took my camera and tripod with the hopes of getting out to the Great Salt Lake for a sunset or sunrise.

As luck would have it I got to do both!

Since I was going to be staying a little north of SLC I thought getting out to Antelope Island would be a good destination.  Boy did I pick the right spot.

The island is in the Great Salt Lake and a state park.  I had visited once before during gnat season at the end of April now I was going back with snow on the ground.

As I made the drive across the causeway road to the island I entered a winter wonderland.  The view toward the island across patches of snow, water, and maybe some ice too toward the mountainous island and distant ranges beyond looked almost like those images you see from Antarctica.  It certainly was a far different look than I had seen before.

I only had about an hour to sunset and so headed out to an area I knew had a view west and north across a bay with more mountains.

I got there and to the lakes edge with just a few minutes to sunset.  I had brought my Sony A7R and adapted Nikon 20, 50, and 100mm lenses as it makes a very small kit.

I worked with all three.

The light was bright but there were in essence zero clouds in the sky.  So I stated wide and then as the sunset went to a narrower view.  The view north had some great compositional elements and the longer lens and polariser to help make the scene pop some.

It was a good way to end a day.

I was up early the next morning and decided to go back.  I arrived with the stars and moon still in the sky and went back to the same area.  It would put the mountains between me and the sunrise but I liked the location and hoped it would be good.

At first I got a few images lit by the moon.  Then as the night faded I got a few more images.  I stayed there until the light was getting closer to sunrise and the clear sky looked like I had already seen the best light.


I drove across the island to see the view back toward SLC with some low clouds and fog in the sky and I was able to set up a quick composition as the sun was rising over the mountains lighting up the fog into a great scene.

Shortly thereafter I was on the road out of the park with a full day of activities to accomplish.

A sunset and a sunrise.  Neither very long but enough to make a few nice images and have a great experience.



Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Llano River

After 4 great days in Big Bend with snow, the Milky Way, and fall color, I decided to do something a little different for the way home.  My trips to BBNP are usually a cannonball drive west to the park (ten hours), a week in the park, and a cannonball drive home (again ten hours).  So I left Big Bend mid-morning on Dec 30th with a plan to explore some areas along the drive and a plan to stay over on the Llano River.

I left the park and started a meandering path from Marathon that took me down several lonely roads as I moved east and north.  It was scenic and empty.  My kind of road.

Eventually we crossed the Pecos and made our way up to I-10.  From there it was a quicker drive late in the day to Junction and the Llano River, getting there just before sunset.

There along the river I was just able to catch a sunset view looking up the river.

There were a few clouds in the sky, but I also hoped there might be a few stars too.  So I went about changing over from the daytime landscape set up to the nighttime astro-photography kit.

After it was dark I was able to make out some of the Milky Way in the west and then I was able to make out the fainter ORION arm of the galaxy rising in the east.

I spent a couple of hours taking images until it was time to call it a night and get some sleep.

One thing I did notice is that I no longer had the dark sky of Big Bend.  Looking to the east the lights of Austin were lighting up the clouds and it is still over 100 miles away.  It would seem like a dark sky spot if you came there from Austin but compared to Big Bend.... it was way too bright.

So these were my last few images from the trip and I would take off in the predawn light on the 31st to be home before lunch.  A great trip even if it was a quick trip.  It already made me ready to get back to Big Bend in the spring.


Thursday, June 9, 2016

Dark Winter Night in Big Bend

Big Bend has some of the darkest skies in the country.  Being the end of the road and a long way from anywhere makes it a great place to truly experience the night sky. Add in the long dark nights of winter and you can really see the stars.

On my December 2015 trip we were lucky enough to have part of the night without the moon allowing a chance to photography the winter night sky.  Now the galactic core is not visible then as it is below the horizon then you can still see the spiral arm of the Milky Way and even if it is not as bright as the core it is still very visible in the dark skies of west Texas.

Since my journey into the park took so long because of the snow it was very dark by the time I got to the Sotol Vista overlook.  It was also very windy with winds well past 50 mph.  I could see the sky somewhat clearing and I wanted to try a pic.  So I carefully set up my camera and tripod and got all of three images.  The conditions were just so brutal with the cold and wind I was not sure I could even get a non blurry shot.  So I hoped for the best and drove to camp.


Luckily I got one good one!

In camp it was less windy and also dark and cold with snow on the ground.  There was one other camper there!  I put up my tent and did a few customary tent shots.  

My tent, at night, on snow, with fall color in the trees.  What a great way to spend the night!

Over the next two nights I did more nightscape images.  I revisited some of my favorite parts of the park and captured the night sky as best I could.

The rugged volcanic landscape on the western side of the park is a great foreground for night photography and I put the fisheye lens to good use.  In fact, every image in this post is a fisheye lens image.  I love wide angle and I find the fisheye is truly the best way to capture the size of the Milky Way in the night sky.

With the long dark December nights it was easy to get some night images and still be asleep by an early hour.  That is a real plus as one of the things as often happens after a week of night photography is you then need a vacation to get caught up on sleep.

Over the three nights I was in the park, I got lucky enough to make some great images and see some good views of the night sky.

Many people would have missed it as they only look for the Milky Way during the summer not realizing it is visible year round.

I am already looking forward to the dark skies of December 2016 with the new moon between Christmas and New Years it looks to be another good time for a winter trip!
  

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Snow in the Chisos

After driving for 14 hours through snow, I arrived in Big Bend and set up my tent on snow.  It was cold and windy but I knew the snow would begin to melt the next morning.  The sky was rapidly clearing and the forecast for a sunny day.  My plan was for a sunrise at Santa Elena Canyon and then to go to the Chisos, hoping the higher elevations of the mountains would both have made more snow as well as have it last longer.

At sunrise I was at Santa Elena Canyon and while it was not a winter wonderland there was some snow on the cliff walls of the Sierra Ponce.  I photographed the sunrise and then it was off to the Chisos.

The snow was a good 6" deep up around the mountains and there were many stops to be made on the drive.  This was the first time I have been in Big Bend with this much snow and I wanted to make the most of the opportunity.

So it was several stops.  The western ramparts of the mountains made for some great images with the snow on the walls, the peaks, and on the cactus and yucca of the desert.

It was finally mid-morning before we actually got up to the Chisos proper.  It was probably a good thing as the park service had closed the road overnight into the Basin.  It is a steep and winding road and was probably icy.

As we ascended into the mountains the snow got deeper.  The high one goes the more trees grow and they were covered in snow!  Where the leaves peaked out I saw that they were in full fall color too!

The week after Christmas and it is the peak of fall color in Big Bend plus a fresh snowfall!  
I could not believe my luck.

The stops became more frequent.  Every pullout was used as we drove into the Basin.  The views were amazing.  The clouds were rapidly disappearing and the sun shown bright in a clear blue sky.

There were images everywhere.

After what seemed like an instant we finally got into the Basin and it was 1:30 in the afternoon.  The snow was rapidly melting and we were hungry since we skipped breakfast to be out in the snow, so it was off to the lodge for a cheeseburger.

After warming up, a burger, and looking over a few images on the camera, we made our way back out of the Basin.  Already the snow was much diminished from the morning and by the time we got back to Cottonwood the snow was all but gone there.

Luck had been with us and we had seen a great winter event here in the desert.



Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Journey to Big Bend


In December of 2015 I decided to plan a trip west between the holidays.  The year before, in December 2014, I had done a winter trip to the Guadalupe Mountains and arrived in the park in a blizzard.  It was a spectacular trip where I got to photograph snow as well as the Milky Way over the winter peaks.

My hope was to do something similar in 2015 and I made plans to go again.  As I watched the weather another blizzard was making its way across west Texas and it looked like I would have similar conditions.  With the way the weather looked, Big Bend seemed to be the better option as it would get snow but be more on the edge of the storm.  

Snowy Roads in Texas
On the morning I left the blizzard was stretched out across west Texas.  I started west from Fort Worth on I-20 but could see on the weather and Google Maps that west of Abilene the roads were at a crawl, so I decided to to to go south and stay east of the snow line.  I turned south at Cisco, then followed US 377 southwest to I-10 at Junction.  I started west again, but soon found myself in the snow and worsening roads.  I exited 10 in Sonora and headed south to US 90.  I still passed through snow but now on empty roads and I was able to make progress.  I drove past the Devil's River with trees in fall color and eventually got to 90.  Then I turned west into a 50mph wind and made my way to Marathon.

Devil's River
The snow was blowing there and I turned south on US385 to the park.  I made the park entrance at sunset.  From there it was still almost a 2 hour drive to Cottonwood campground which I found almost empty and I set up my tent in the snow.

What was normally a 10 hour drive had become an almost 14 hour day of zig-zagging to avoid the snow but I had made it.  The drive was interesting and seeing the fall color on the Devil's River was a big surprise that I was glad to be able to photograph.  Now, here I was in a national park that I had almost all to myself and there was snow on the ground in Texas!  Talk about a great way to start a trip!!