Hiking Slots and Washes

Sunday, March 19
We had an easy 100 mile drive into Page AZ where we will spend the next few days. High on the list of things I wanted to do again was photograph in Lower Antelope Canyon. They offer a professional photographers “special deal” where we can walk unescorted for 2 hours through the canyon with our tripods. The professional qualifications seem to consist of having a big camera and tripod. We qualify! Unfortunately the reality was that the professional option is not offered during Spring/Summer because of the swarms of folks wanting access.

Neither of us wanted to do the group tours because no tripods are allowed and one must stay with the group. There’s not much light in the slots, so that would mean high ISO’s and short exposure times, i.e. handheld. Upper Antelope still offered photo specials, but that experience is like cows being herded to slaughter.I looked around at some of the other slot tours and came upon Canyon X, a lesser known part of Antelope Canyon. There is also Secret Canyon and a couple of others worth looking into. Canyon X offers many of the same appealing features as Upper and Lower Antelope, but in a less dramatic setting. The sinewy curves and glowing light are there, but I had to work a little more getting compositions that weren’t too confusing.I called the tour operator, got a voicemail and a quick call back. It was Jacqueline Tsinigine, the owner/operator of the property, who was friendly and casual and told me to come by anytime. They would take us down to the trail. We still needed a guide, but they would pretty much leave us on our own while we worked. So we got 3 hours virtually unaccompanied for $68 each.

Entrance to upper Canyon X.

The tour is actually in 2 different small areas of the canyon. For the first part, we met Jacqueline at the take-off point about 8 miles south of Lower Antelope. There were only a couple of cars in the dusty lot so it looked like good timing. We threw our cameras and tripods into her Bronco and she ferried us down the 2 miles of sandy road to the start of the short hike down.
We picked up our guide there. He was trying to get out of escorting us down because he was in a roping competition in an hour and wanted to get going. He did bring us down, but then handed us off to another young guide who was already there with 3 other photographers. Our new guide was setting up a shot for the photographers by throwing sand in the air so light beams were created. We jumped in on the fun.The three had been there for a while, so our guide left with them on the short hike to the next portion of the canyon about 300 yards away. So we were left alone to explore. This part of Canyon X was just a couple of twists and turns, maybe 50 yards in length. There were a lot of images in that short space. Lovely twists and turns of sculpted sandstone, wonderful cracks and curves as well. Light was bouncing off the walls from above and constantly changing. After exploring here for a good hour, we decided we should try to find our guide again. We exited the slot and began looking around to where the next part of the canyon was. I couldn’t really see it directly, but there wasn’t anywhere else to go but down canyon, so we strolled down this much wider portion.The next slot was maybe 300 yards down, so it was just a shot time before we were at next entrance. We found our guide, who was just finishing up with the other 3. We were only there a few minutes before they left for the return trip. Again we were left on our own and had the canyon to ourselves. This portion was also just a few turns long – maybe 100 yards – but again there was lots to work with. The sun had crossed over the high canyon opening by now, so light down in the deeper parts of the slot was very low and less dramatic, but we still spent another hour poking around. Just about the time we were finishing up, another guide leading a middle-age hispanic couple came by. She asked us who our guide was, and I replied, “Which one?” We all kind of giggled and shrugged. We walked back out of this slot and leisurely made our way back up the canyon toward the trail out. Along here we began looking more closely at the canyon wall of this wider section. Some nice formations here too. The guide and her 2 charges caught up with us and we all walked back up together. The climb out from the canyon was back up the same two very wide sandy switchbacks we’d walked down before. Steel grating laid along one edge of the path, greatly eased the slog back up. Once on top, our young Navajo guide piled all four of us in her truck, and we were motored back to the lot. All tolled, only 5 other people were in the canyon while we were. This is a great alternative to hiking the other slots during busy times. I would still prefer Lower Antelope on the pro option because of the longer, more dramatic route, but this one was the best option today.

Cathedral Wash
Monday, March 20
We weren’t ready to leave the area quite yet. It’s still been pretty warm with most days in the mid 80’s – easily 15 degrees above normal. But mornings are cool and it doesn’t really get warm until afternoon. So we decided on an early hike, and Cathedral Wash was one I’d read about in our photography guide and from friends who’d also done it.The hike starts about 2.5 miles down the road to Lee’s Ferry and runs down Cathedral Wash anywhere from 3.1 to 4.2 miles out and back, depending on where you read it. I did a hike recording on a new app, called, All Trails that put it at 2.2 one way. It is a communal app where everyone contributes their hikes and reviews of the trail. It i remarkable how many of the hikes we do are included on this app from other users. It is free in it’s basic form, but I chose to subscribe for $35/year to get access to downloadable maps that can be used while out of cell range. I can also make hike recordings tracked by the phones GPS function. How it can track with no cell reception is beyond me, but it works. Before getting to the hike, we stopped at the Navajo Bridge that crosses the Colorado to have a look. Out on the bridge were a number of people huddled around a woman with a tracking antenna. I saw a couple of birds that looked much like vultures. The turned out to be a pair of condors. We waited a while to see if they would take flight, but it was getting warm already and we needed to get going. At the trailhead located at a turnout along the road, there were just 2 other vehicles parked. We met one older fellow whose wife was doing the hike on her own because he’d hurt his back. This gave me pause because the hike features quite a few 4-6 foot drop-offs and one 20-30 drop from ledges that need some real care to negotiate. I wasn’t sure we would be able to make it.We started off well enough down the wash. It wa rocky and sandy as a wash would be, and as we walked along downhill, the walls got higher and higher. This also provided lots of shade and made hiking quite comfortable. The walls of the wash were quite varied in how they showed erosion. Some places had rocks long embedded, now half revealed. Other spots were just the opposite, with miniature caves pockmarking the walls. We eventually ran into the man’s wife walking back up the wash. She was stymied by the one huge drop-off and decided not to attempt it. A smart move. After a number of twists and turns and small to medium drop-offs, we came to the dry waterfall.I walked all along the rim looking for a way down. Several places look feasible, but I just wasn’t sure. I was about to give up, when down the canyon, the only other hikers on the trail were coming back up. Talk about your basic luck! We watched as they worked their way back and forth up and along the ledges. It was a bit difficult going and great care needed to be taken, but it went well for both of us. I probably would not have attempted this path without having seen someone else do it first. There were still more drop-offs and a number of very narrow ledges that required finger holds while our backends stuck out over the long drops. I found it great fun and more interesting than the photographs I was taking. Mary was less fun-filled, but did well. Eventually we began to hear, first as a whisper, then a roar,  the Colorado river as we wound our way down the wash. We emerged just as a couple of kayakers began shooting the mild rapids just in front of us. We were in time to watch another batch of kayaks and rafts run by. We enjoyed our lunch on a big rock at the edge of the river. A nice water cooled breeze came by every so often, but it was quite hot so we finished lunch, looked around a bit more and started back. While the way back was all up hill, it was gradual, except for the now climbing up all the drop-offs we’d negotiated.The dry waterfall remained the big problem. At it’s base I stood there awhile not able to figure out how to get back up. I remembered how I’d gotten down, but getting back up that way took a while to figure out. It involved standing on a wobbly rock, then lifting myself up backwards to sit on a small ledge. I then had to get my legs underneath me while holding on to tiny finger holds, then lifting myself up and over the ledge. I had no idea how Mary was going to get up. I was too high on the ledge to even grab a hand. She had to get herself up to the first ledge and get herself turned around on her own, which she did, then I was able to grab a hand, and after some cajoling, her other hand – oh the trust – and pull her up. Which I did.Mary’s adrenaline was really pumping now it it fueled her most of the way back. We were both tired and hot by the time we got back around 3 pm, but happy to have done it. The scrambling work we had to do made for a really interesting hike – though for different reasons hikes usually interest me. At the technical details of moving over this terrain forced my attention in a different direction and made it fun in a different way.

We will be making our way to Farmington, NM for a few days to restock and do wash and wait out a storm that is supposed to come this way. Not good timing for walking around in the Bisti Badlands wilderness. All those hard mud hill turn to sludge at the slightest drops. We shall see.

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Yellow Rocks

Thursday, March 16We had an uneventful drive from Valley of Fire to Kanab, in Utah. Since we were going to be so close, we decided to attempt to gain access to a restricted hiking area known as, “The Wave”. It is a particularly amazing undulating sandstone formation that has exploded in popularity over the years. When I’d first seen images of the place 35 years ago in a photo magazine, the photographer refused to reveal the location. But word eventually got out and now everyone around the world want to go there. I guess, me too. Of course we didn’t score permits. We missed the first mornings drawing because while we changed our clocks for daylight savings time in Arizona, we didn’t allow for mountain time in Utah where the drawing occurred. We were one hour late. There were about 120 people hoping to score the 10 permits issued that day. Our plan anyway, in case of not being chosen, was to hike the Yellow Rocks trail off Cottonwood Rd. in the Vermillion Cliffs. This hike is outlined in an outdoor photographers guide we use, and describes white sandstone formations infused with veins of yellow and red. The elevation gain is over 1000’ and includes one of the steepest inclines I’ve ever attempted. We were soon out driving the 45 mile on Highway 89 to Cottonwood Road. Cottonwood is a dirt track suitable for most passenger cars, but having a little bit of high clearance would be a good idea because of some deeper ruts you might bottom out on. Otherwise the road is great and moves through some wide open areas with large hills and mesas all around. Unfortunately, major power lines also run along the cliffs, ruining an otherwise unobstructed view of the valley’s and into the canyons. We found the trailhead 14 miles in, at the junction of Cottonwood Road and Brigham Plains Road. Across the road were two cairns I thought might be the start. It was, more or less, but the path seemed more like a cow trail than people. Nonetheless, we followed it along. At one point I had to bushwhack just a little to get through some tamarisk. I knew we had to cross Cottonwood Wash so I found a likely spot and just made my own path to the wash.There was just a couple of inches of water in the wide wash so it was no problem getting across. The guide book said to point southwest and hike to a notch in the Cockscomb we were to hike along. The trail led up this canyon a short while the abruptly took a right. The trail climbed up the canyon wall at easily a 45 degree angle. It was very loose, rocky soil and quite often the trail was just straight up the incline. Sometimes we got a bit of relief when the trail switched back. The canyon all around was pretty impressive, but I spent most of my time concentrating on how to get up this seep, narrow path. Mary was game and did really well with just a little prodding from me. After 500 ft of this, we reached a saddle and took and extended break. The view of the Cockscomb was good here, but the light was still harsh. Still early afternoon, but by the time we get to the rocks, it should be better.The hiking was much easier from here but still rose another 200 ft. Soon we reached another viewpoint where the Yellow Rocks came into view for the first time. I thought we could walk around to the right in a wide arch along a ridge to get to the rocks, but after running into a couple of long drop offs, I changed course and walked down into the canyon, then back up along the base of Yellow Rocks. From here it is another 300 ft to the top of the formation.There is another route that runs along the left end of the rocks that would have been a better choice. If you can pick-up the cairn trail, it will lead you on an easier path to the rocks. But my detour did lead to some nice veins of yellow in the rock. We started up together, but soon separated and climbed to different areas. It is a steep but easy climb up the sandstone layers. Boots grab well on this stuff – as long as it is dry. Very slippery otherwise. Lots of huffing and puffing at this altitude. I wanted to get to the top, of course, while Mary moved around some of the lower levels. The top was quite windy and the view 360˚, but it wasn’t so good that I wanted to stay, as the wind was whipping along pretty well. I met up with Mary again around 20 minutes later and we began making our way carefully down the sandstone benches. The light was softening by now and the rich yellows were really beginning to stand out. Across the canyon, we could se other massive areas of solid yellow on the facing hillside and mountain of sandstone. We were careful to pick-out some landmarks from the last viewpoint so we knew where to point ourselves for the return trip down the mountainside. Retracing our steps brought us back to the Cockscomb viewpoint where the light was much nicer now. The colors were really standing out and the air seemed clearer than earlier. All that was left was the 45˚ descent. I thought it would be treacherous – especially for Mary – but fully using our trekking poles for support made a huge difference. Not a single butt slide was necessary. It was difficult, but doable. We were very tired with sore feet by the time we got back to the car. Still had the 60 mile drive back to Kanab, but it was worth it.

Friday, March 17thThis morning we showed up on time for The Wave lottery at the BLM office in Kanab. After 3 draws, it was all over. A group of 3, a group of 4 and another group of 4 that had to boot one person to stay under the 10 permit limit. 150 people trying today.We’ve been going up and down Main Street in Kanab (89) and kept seeing a police car at the edge of town parked by the side of the road. It was always there and I always slowed down even though I was under speed already. This morning I looked a little closer and what a surprise. The cop was the torso of a mannequin! They had a little fun with it. A Hitler mustache was drawn on it’s lip. At the BLM office, one ranger said the car used to have a bumper that read, “I Love Plastic Doughnuts”. Small town.I tried once more for a permit Saturday morning. I thought it would be even more crowded, but strangely, only 99 people showed up. Same result for us, except they took 3 sets of 2 people and 1 set of 3 people. the next draw was for 2 people, but because BLM doesn’t like one person hiking there alone, they allowed the 11th permit.On to Page and photographing Lower Antelope Canyon again.

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To Pahrump and Beyond

Saturday, March 11
We left Death Valley on Saturday (the 11th), and headed to Pahrump, Nevada to restock and repair. The Best Western there also runs a decent RV park and it was centrally located to make things easier. My first order of business was to get new tires I bought while in Death Valley installed. The Big-O tire shop was just a mile away and not too busy. They found my tires and installed them with no problems, and by the time I got back, Mary had most of the laundry done and was soon out to grocery shop while I cleaned the RV. By now the day was gone and we just enjoyed dinner as Pahrump cooled.

Valley of Fire State Park
Sunday, March 12
We left Pahrump mid-morning, heading for Valley of Fire State Park about 50 miles north of Las Vegas. VOF has 2 campgrounds that are 1st come 1st served and a number of water/electric sites. It’s getting pretty hot here. Mid to high 80’s for the next week. 80-85 is tolerable in the RV but pretty uncomfortable, so being able to use the air conditioner would be a great amenity.

We avoided most of Vegas by driving around the southern outskirts, just stopping once for gas, then north through the Lake Mead Recreation Area. My newish geezer pass saved us $20 for the drive. I don’t remember this road at all. Mary tells me we drove this once on an earlier trip, but it seemed new to me. The hills and mountains around were pretty impressive and we thought we might do a day trip back this way again later.Turns out I didn’t need to worry about getting a hook-up site. The campgrounds were completely full. The ranger said only 3 sites had opened up this morning so her advice, look elsewhere. Our choices were dispersed camping 9 miles north near Overton on BLM land, or at Stewart Point 9 miles south, or the Recreation Area campground at Echo Bay 25 miles south. We didn’t want to be around a bunch of OVH’er at Overton, and Stewart was maybe 5 miles down a rough road off the highway and there was some confusion whether it was still dispersed.

Echo Bay turned out to be a very nice choice. It was lightly populated with just a handful of rigs and we found a nicely shaded site overlooking where the lake level used to be. Yes, we could see the lake out there, probably 2 miles away, but our view was still nice. It was hot and we were tired of driving, so we just set out the chairs and enjoyed another cooling evening.

Valley of Fire
Monday, March 13We were up and out early this morning ready to hike around the colorful rocks of Valley of Fire. Early is the best medicine for hiking in the heat as well as avoiding the crowds – and they are here in force. The main attraction for us here is the Rainbow Vista road that runs through the park to the White Dome trail head. Even this early the light was harsh. The light clouds overhead didn’t help soften the sun so finding an angle without using a polarizer or getting my own shadow in the frame was difficult. Working around the technical issues is part of the challenge of making photographs that I enjoy. I keep working until things begin to come together. Sometime it takes a while before that happens. Eventually those things drop away and I can just focus on form. We stopped at a few locations along the road, but wanted to get to the White Dome hike before it got too crowded. Trails like this, were there is lots to photograph can take us several hours to complete. The parking lot for the 1.25 mile loop hike was nearly full when we got there, but we seemed to be in a bit of a lull between people actually walking the trail.The first part descends sharply into a canyon of orange sandstone. It’s a good well-traveled trail with stairs made from the colorful rock in a couple of places. There is a bit of an old movie set at the bottom of the canyon and this is where the trail turns right into a nice little slot canyon. The entrance has rock walls that transition from yellow to pink sandstone and narrows quickly.It is short passage and on the other side there are several fascinating areas of striated sandstone and rock to photograph – and lovely shade if it is early. At this point we could branch off the trail to walk up a nearby wash, but in previous trips we found it too hot and of less interest photographically to want to do it again. We chose to just follow the main trail back to the trailhead. It is a fairly gentle rise up through more sandstone of many shades. We found some nice little caves and windows with amazing layers and fanciful formations to keep us busy. After hiking, we returned to camp for the day.

Tuesday, March 14Today is the hottest yet with temps up to 89. We decided to hang out in the morning, enjoying the cool air and catching up on our blogging. Later in the afternoon, we took an air-conditioned drive along the rec area. But first we drove to the actual lake whose namesake we are staying. We passed one long abandoned boat ramp, then another before finally reaching the current ramp. The lake level has been dropping for many years now, the high water mark clearly visible as a bathtub ring. Hard to judge how far down it is, but it seems like maybe 50 ft. Locals tell us it has actually risen this year. Of course it is dependent on water releases upriver from the other dams. We lingered here only a short time. This place is kind of disturbing to me. It seems so out of balance with nature, and knowing a little about water history in the west, makes especially concerned.We set out to do a drive down the North Shore road we drove in on. Not all the way, but just back to the place where the coloring in the hills got good. We stopped first at a rest stop that boasted some nice sandstone, and attempted a hike, but this afternoon was intensely hot, so we cut it short and just continued our drive. We are moving on to Kanab, Utah tomorrow. We’ve been through this area many times and each time we find new things to do. While here, we will probably try for a permit to hike to the Wave – a unique sandstone formation. Chances are slim with only 10 people allowed for this first-come-first-served lottery. 120 people is the average the past week. Lots of other things to do though.

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The Southern Valley

Tuesday, March 7Tuesday morning we drove the 30 miles down to Furnace Creek. There are 3 campgrounds to choose from here. Furnace Creek Campground has hook-ups and trees and is usually booked until forever. Texas Springs is set back in the hills somewhat, has some trees, but does not allow generator use at all. The sites are mostly pretty close together and offer little privacy. The hills are nice though. It is mostly for tent and small vehicle camping, but anyone can use it if you can fit in the space. This campground was also full. So we are in Sunset campground. It is basically a parking lot with a view, but we won’t spend many daylight hours here so we can live with it for a few days.The days are still very warm – in the 80’s. It works out well to do things early and late in the day to take advantage of cooler conditions. We hung around our site until it cooled off in the late afternoon, then took the short drive out to Salt Creek. This spring fed creek is home to the ancient but diminutive Pupfish. When water is flowing, the Pupfish bloom (or hatch) and make hay while it lasts. We walked the boardwalks that allow easy access to this marshy area enjoying the nice air and peaceful location. On the way back to camp, we decided to do the short Mustard Canyon drive to check out the colorful hills there. By now, high clouds had knocked out any sunlight and the formations we drove through lost their appeal. We drove the route without making a single image, then headed back to camp.After dinner, we sat outside as an unexpected show began to form in the sky. The clouds that had previously blocked out the sun were beginning to catch the light and glow orange, and then red. The mountain horizon became a silhouette under the fiery fluff of clouds and sky, so we grabbed the cameras once more. Here are my favorites once again from the evening.

Golden Canyon
Tuesday, March 8We woke right about dawn to get a cool early jump on our favorite hike in Death Valley. The 4.5 mile canyon loop trail is one that seems to always reveal new surprises. My first surprise this morning though, was walking out to load the car and discovering a completely flat rear tire. I quickly found a metal shard sticking out right near the edge of the tread. Nothing to do but put on the spare and move on. We still made it to Golden Canyon by 8:30 and it was still nice and cool with a slight cool breeze.I prefer starting from the Golden Canyon trailhead and doing a loop down Gower Gulch, then out along the foot of the mountains back to the parking area. It could also be accessed from Zabriskie Point. The trail starts off winding up the canyon wash. This early there are still nice shadows that offer both shade and interesting patterns to work with. It is a gradual rise and easy walk.The trail soon branched off from the wash and we found ourselves walking up and alongside badlands mud hills of pale gold, peach and green. The trail narrows quite a bit and rises more sharply alongside what is actually the base of Manly Beacon, best seen from Zabriskie Point. It looks a little scary, but up close it’s quite easy. Just remember to turn around once and a while to watch the changing view. From the high saddle point, looking back down toward the canyon, for me is the closest I ever seen to a Georgia O’Keefe painted landscape in the way the lines of mountain and mineral veins combine. We lingered here over an early lunch and just observed the landscape for a time. Doing this, new compositions begin to appear. Some so abstract that scale comes into question and what it actually is, seems less important. People traffic was increasing by now with more and larger groups making their way up the trail. This was a good time to continue on.The trail down the other side wiggles around more mud hills before coming to a junction. At this point hikers can either turn left and walk up to Zabriskie Point via a new Badlands loop, or turn right down to Gower Gulch for the return trip to the trailhead.The Gower leg is all downhill to the exit point of the gulch. It starts as a wide wash, but soon narrows and winds through multi colored hills. I’d somehow forgotten how nice this portion of the walk was. It seemed that after each bend in the wash, another wonderful scene was revealed. But the fun did have to end sometime. At the exit from the gulch, the trail is kind of a slog back about 1/3 mile to the car. The hills we passed on the way back were actually very nice, but the harsh early afternoon light was doing glaring things to them, and we were ready for a rest and cool drink.But first, I went over to the local service station to find out if my flat tire could be repaired. It could not. Too close to the sidewall. Tim the mechanic said if I called into Big-O Tires in Pahrump and bought what I wanted, he’d pick it up in the morning and install it later tomorrow. Sounded good to me. Unfortunately in the morning he called in sick with a bad tooth. Which was true. I could see how much pain he was in when we talked earlier. Still no problem. We were here for a few more days.

Zabriskie Point and Dante’s View
Wednesday, March 9I didn’t find out until mid-morning that our tire would not be in today because Tim would not be in, so we kind of blew off doing anything this morning – getting too hot already. Instead, we waited till late afternoon for a trek up to Dante’s View, via a stop at Zabriskie Point. The warm afternoon light really highlighted the yellow in the hills. The new Badlands loop trail runs down from here, but that will wait for another time. Then it was up to Dante’s View, about 15 miles from camp. The views from the parking lot are pretty grand, but I like to walk down the rocky trail to several other overlooks along the ridge. From this high up, around 5476 feet, the land takes on a very differ feel – especially in this foreign terrain. It almost felt like I was in orbit, or at least flying high overhead. We stayed well after sunset hoping for a fiery sky, but tonight was a sunset dud with the cloud cover snuffing out any chance of a big finish. Can’t win em’ all.

Badwater and Ashford Mill
Thursday, March 10
Tim was out again. Our tires remain in Pahrump. For our last foray in Death Valley, we decided to drive down to Badwater and the Harmony Borax Works ruins. I was a little nervous about traveling without a spare, but it’s all paved road so I take this chance. From up on Dante’s View last night, I could see a tiny object in the vast salt pan next to Badwater. I had no idea what it was. Today as we drove down, I got a better look. From the road it look like either a boat or a vehicle of some sort but still too far away to know for sure.From the parking area at Badwater, we walked over a well trodden salt pan, now completely flattered. Along the way I stopped for detail images of undisturbed formations along the edges. As we walked out further, we could see that the object was indeed a vehicle stuck in the salt pan. We decided to hike out to it. Apparently it was someone on a joyride who, once stuck, abandoned the van and fled. Up close, we could see attempts to un-stuck it. The crust of the salt is very thin and fragile. It is amazing the van made it this far out. It looked to be in pretty good shape. A 4-wheel drive van just abandoned. Wow. We continued down to the borax works, stopping from time to time for view photographs. I never get tired of the long, vast views. We’d hoped for some nice wildflower views as well, but it is just too early and we won’t be around for any of the bloom. There are lots of plants, especially in the Ashford Mill area, but almost no blooms yet. We did find some creasote bushes with their small yellow flowers.Few flowers at Ashford either. Just single examples of Desert Gold and Sand Verbena.
Finishing up our day at Ashford, we headed back to camp. Our tires were still not in – Tim couldn’t get a dental appointment until today, but promised he’d be in tomorrow. Instead I arranged to get them myself since we would be stopping in Pahrump on our way out for wash and restocking anyway. It’s a nice service to have if it works, but not in this case.

Overall, it was a great stay in Death Valley – the exception being the sandstorm and aftermath. Time to move on again. We’ve decided that on the way to New Mexico, we should stop at a few of our favorite spots for a day or two here and there. Tomorrow we head to Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada for a brief visit.

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3 More Days in Death Valley

Darwin Falls
Saturday, March 4
Temperature in the valley is supposed to be in the mid-80’s today so we thought it prudent to head for the hills. There is a new-to-us hike, known as Darwin Falls. It’s also at around 3000’ so should be substantially cooler. Darwin Falls is actually 30 miles outside the valley itself, but still in the park technically. It is just west of the Panamint Springs Resort 2 miles off Highway 190 at the end of an unmarked dirt road that we eventually found.To start off, it is a bit of a trudge up a dry open wash, but for only about a quarter mile. The wash narrows to a canyon and it is here we began seeing water flowing. Trees and grasses shade the banks and small pools of water with reeds offer pleasant shadey stops. The waterfall is spring fed further up the canyon and the stream it creates flows year round.There really isn’t an established trail up the canyon and we had to scramble over several slippery rock obstacles.There were also 5 or 6 stream crossings over very wobbly impromptu branch bridges to negotiate. It took us a couple of hours of careful walking to get to the lower falls. Here the fall runs down a rock face and splits towards the bottom to flow into a nice little pool. Because this is the sole water source for the resort on 190, swimming is not allowed, nor are pets.From here, the trail, if you could call it that, climbs up and over the rock face off to the left of the waterfall. We actually could see no trail, but listened to some other folks describing to another hiker how to follow the zig-zag of the ledge to get over the top to get to the upper falls. The talk was that upper falls is way better. After the stumbely hike to this point, we really weren’t up to scaling the cliff, so turned back after a nice lunch next to the pool. All in all, a pleasant little hike to an unusual place. Photographically, not that interesting to me, but a nice hike.

Driving back through the Panamint Valley, I was dismayed to see a dust storm throwing grit hundreds of feet into the air. High winds were forecast for tomorrow in Death Valley, but I was very surprised to see it here now. I joked to Mary that it was just in this valley. Our valley would still be calm – which, strangely enough turned out to be the case.

Titus Canyon
Sunday, March 5
The high wind warnings predicted for the valley today are between 8 AM and 10 PM with gusts to 40 mph. There is really nothing to do in the actual valley when it is like this. The grit and unrelenting blowing really takes away doing anything much outside. We decided to find a canyon that might be somewhat protected from the blowing, so headed out to Titus Canyon.At 8:15 the wind began picking up. By the time we left the campground at 10, we could see dust being blown even higher into the sky than yesterdays blow in Panamint Valley. It looked to be blowing north, right up the valley. Our campground seemed to be protected from the worst of it, so I cracked a couple of vents and a window to keep the place cool while we were away. Yes, that was a mistake.Driving the 20 or so miles toward Titus Canyon, I could see the dust didn’t seem to be too bad on the canyon side where we wanted to hike. I was hoping the canyon itself would be protected from the worst of the blowing and we could get in a nice hike. A dirt road that runs through the canyon  can be driven on a wide loop that starts outside the park near Ryolite, but because of recent storm damage, that road is closed. We could still walk in though, and so drove up the alluvial fan created by the outflow of eons of flash floods, to the entrance of the canyon.

At the entrance to Titus looking into the valley.

The air was fairly clear here, but still very very windy. The canyon walls are very narrow and high at this point. We started walking in, and as hoped, the wind did begin to lessen somewhat. By about midway up the section we intended to walk, the wind actually started blowing the other way – and much harder. It was blowing up AND down the canyon. We kept going, photographing all the way, but the wind really commanded attention and made picture making less interesting. it didn’t seem dusty although our eyes were saying otherwise and we could see it in the sky high over the canyon walls in the distance. We stopped for lunch after a couple of hours in a little eddy of calm air. As we sat, another couple came down the canyon telling us that in another quarter mile where the canyon really opens up, the wind was blowing furiously – too much to continue. We didn’t need to hear more than that. We finished lunch and turned back. The going was a little rough as we came back down the canyon. We experienced frequent sustained gusts of what felt like 30-40 mph that went on for easily 20 seconds at a time. At times, the wind blew us to a stop and walking forward was actually difficult – and this was all down hill. Mary had to hang on to me a couple of times to stay upright. Grit got in mouth and eyes and was not fun.We finally got back to the car and really enjoyed a treat of coffee and cookies while watching the storm blow over the valley. We headed back to camp, but it was soon clear that our campground was now well involved in the dust storm. I knew what awaited us inside the rig. The only question was how bad. Bad! The wind had yanked the vents I had cracked wide open, but that part wasn’t so bad because I had reversed the airflow before leaving so the fans were blowing air out of the rig. The problem was the bathroom and kitchen window I left open a little. We now had indoor dunes in both locations and a thin layer of dust everywhere else. Even if everything was closed up as tight a possible, the fine dust would still have gotten in, but the extra sand blown in made for several hours of cleanup. Won’t do that again. The upside to all this wind is that our next dune walk tomorrow morning should be on completely smooth sand with no footprints. Looking forward to that!

Mesquite Flat Dune Walk #2
Monday, March 6We woke at 5 AM this morning to get out to the dunes a little earlier. I wanted to be further into the dunes than we got during our first visit and sunrise is a littler earlier as well. The sandstorm yesterday really erased most of the previous weeks traffic so almost everywhere we looked we saw smooth sinewy lines and clean expanses of sand. A few others had beaten us out there so we walked to an area well into the field to get some separation. We still had a little time before sunrise to photograph in low flatter light. This sometimes can make for very subtle studies. When dawn arrived, the same scene can take on a very different look.While it was calm when we started out, a breeze soon did come up. Nothing like yesterdays blowing, but getting up too high in the dune field and close to edges meant getting pelted a little with sand blowing off those edges. If one wasn’t careful, one would get a sand shower. And it’s not too great for the cameras either. From here, Mary and I went separate ways as I went looking for different angles and new dunes deeper in the field. It was so nice to be able to point anywhere to find interesting compositions, all with no footprints. We worked the dunes for a couple of hours, then met-up again and headed back to camp. Our two days on the dunes has already made the trip worthwhile.We broke camp a little later and moved down the valley to Furnace Creek where we will camp for the next 5-6 days. Sunset campground at Furnace Creek is for RV’s and is essentially just a big parking lot with amenities, but it gets the job done. The Texas Springs campground nearby is for tenters and RV’s and is much nicer, but no generators can be used there. There is a reservation only campground but it is always full. Looking forward to our days in this section. We were treated to our campground namesake that evening as we watched the clouds in the sky catch fire.

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First Day in Death Valley

Friday, March 36618-landsharkWe traveled from Fresno to Bakersfield where we overnighted in order to stock up for the next 10 days or so. Thursday morning we made our way over the Grapevine and into high desert country. It was an easy drive into Death Valley, with only one stop to visit the Land Sharks of Trona, a rock pile painted to resemble sharks or perhaps moray eels. By late afternoon, we were well ensconced in the Stovepipe Wells campground – basically a gravel parking lot with spectacular views. A happy hour was called for as we watched the shadows grow long across the valley.6679-dvduneThe valley has gotten more rain than usual this year, but it still far less than last year and not really at the right times for a banner wildflower bloom. There is nothing much blooming in this portion of the park and only sparse blooms at this point in the southern sections, but there is still so much more to do here. Friday morning we were up pre-dawn to take advantage of the calm sunny conditions to walk and photograph the dunes. Somewhat cloudy skies are predicted for Saturday, and high winds on Sunday, so getting out today was important. Certainly don’t want to be on the dunes in the wind.6638-dvduneThe disadvantage to calm weather is that hundreds of footprint paths don’t get blown away. Sometimes this can work in my favor, but usually they just serve to distract from the composition. It means hiking further into the dunes to find less traveled areas.6652-dvdune 6643-dvduneMary and I split up to roam in our own directions. Eventually I found some really nice areas to explore. As the sun rose, new areas became more interesting as shadow and light began playing with the  contours of sand forms.
6665-dvdune 6666-dvdune 6674-dvduneI’ve been on these dunes so often over the past 40 years, I tend to worry a little that I won’t find the place inspiring anymore. So not true. Once the first image is made, all worries are put to rest. It becomes an exercise in discipline to slow down, make careful compositions and really experience the place again. The images come easily, with the only constraint being the light becoming too harsh to continue.6693-dvduneAs I was framing my final image of the morning (above), I slowly became aware of the jet noise that was at first faint, but now getting louder. It is not uncommon to hear jets over the valley. Mostly it is military on joyrides over the valley in fighters, or high altitude airliners crossing over the state. I pretty much ignored it until the increasing loudness became annoying. Looking around, I couldn’t at first locate it until I looked directly overhead. It was a stealth bomber slowly cruising along accompanied by a jumbo jet sized aircraft! It was low enough for me see the markings on it’s underside. Swinging my camera up, I realized I had on my super wide-angle lens. By the time I’d gotten lenses switched, the jets were flying into the sun and far away. All I got was a bomber dot. But it was quite an experience to see it so close.
That seemed like a good ending point for the morning. I eventually found Mary in the dunes again and we returned to camp.

Later in the afternoon, we hiked a couple of miles into Mosaic Canyon – another nearby location. The smooth polished walls of marble and the slotty nature of several sections, are the real attraction here. One can only imagine the forces that created all of this. Photographically, perhaps not the most interesting of hikes, but we alway enjoy seeing and hiking this canyon.6722-mosaic6725-mosaicComing out of the canyon after the hike, we were treated with a last bit of light. The sun had found a crack between clouds and treated us to a little show.6784-mosaicStill later, back in camp, we enjoyed the last bit of sun as it set behind the Panamints. Tomorrow we hike the new-to-us Darwin Falls trail. Waterfalls in Death Valley? Stay tuned.6793-mosaic

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Back on the Road

Monday, February 27
Merced6499-mercedAfter a leisurely load up over the weekend, Mary and I left Monday on a new 2 month road trip. Our first real stopover will be Death Valley for a week or so. Then we will make a quick crossing of Arizona so we can spend much of the rest of our time in New Mexico.  The Bisti Wilderness, aka Bisti Badlands, has been of interest to us for some time, but we’ve never planned it into a trip until now. Located near Chaco Canyon, it will be a first look and we hope to spend an extended time there if weather permits. The rock formations there are quite different from anywhere else I’ve seen so I am hoping for some great days.6487-merced6491-mercedOur good friends, Jeff & Betty invited us to spend the evening at their home in Merced before we got going in earnest. It’s just 100 miles from home, so we got there early enough to have a good visit. Our other close friends, Rick & Mary were also going to be staying the night at J & B’s place, so it was an especially nice evening for us all.6492-mercedWe got to Merced by mid-afternoon and after a brief visit,  J & B took us on a tour of the backroads of Merced. It is almost shocking how much water in laying around in vernal ponds and fields. Signs of flooding were everywhere in this flat valley – damaged and closed roads, with water in every low-lying depression. Everything is green in the extreme already. Winter? Not here. The almond, walnut and various fruit trees so in abundance here are well into their spring blooms.6506-merced6512-mercedRiding out there took us to an emerald landscape punctuated by white and pink blossoms. I hadn’t seen this in many years. The rains let up this week, at least temporarily, and the bright light and cool air was a wonderful way to start a trip. It is a bit too early for abundant wildflowers, but conditions look good for a very good year. Wish we could hang here for a while, but we have an itinerary and want to keep on track. To top off the afternoon, we got a far away, but nice view of a couple of bald eagles.6503-mercedA little later, Mary & Rick arrived and we spent a great evening of food, drink and noisy conversation. After a seam busting breakfast in the morning, we said our goodbyes – Betty giving us an awesome lemon cake and Jeff, a bottle of his homemade lemoncello. I think an evening on the dunes with this combo might just be the trick. Thanks so much you guys. You’re the best!

February 28
We didn’t have far to go for our Tuesday drive. Just around 40 miles to Fresno so we could drive and photograph on the Blossom Trail that runs around the orchards all through the area. While there are no wildflowers to speak of yet, the orchards are a different story. Especially the almond trees. We got ourselves situated in a really crummy, but cheap, RV park and set out to drive the trail. We’re only here for the night, so accommodations are no big deal.6520-fresno6525-fresno6533-fresnoThe Central Valley area has for decades been home to these orchards. Mile after mile of walnut, almond, orange and plum trees are quite a striking impression of an altered landscape – a theme I am exploring. It is a huge cash crop for growers, but requires huge amounts of water to keep them in production.6569-fresno6546-fresno6580-fresno6600-fresno6605-fresnoIn drought years, the trees still must be watered. This is difficult or impossible when water allotments are cut. Farmers cannot just let the fields go fallow – the trees die. They believe they should get whatever amount they want no matter the water situation. Questions remain as to whether growing such water demanding crops is a sound idea in a time of dwindling supplies. Even with the aquifers that exist throughout the valley beginning to collapse due to over-pumping for irrigation, the orchards continue to be planted – even as others are left to die due to water cutbacks. The signs on the highways say it all. “Food grows where water flows.”6593-fresno


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