Sunday, April 4, 2010

Springtime in the Desert

After what's been a long winter, I had really been looking forward to this trip in which I planned to head for the warmth of the desert. Originally, I figured to spend this entire adventure in search of wildflowers in the Sonoran Desert surrounding Tucson and Phoenix. However, on my recent winter trip to Moab, I was approached by friend and fellow photographer, Bret Edge, about the possibility of joining him for a three day, four wheel drive trip into the backcountry of Canyonlands National Park. He had scored the difficult to obtain permits for two nights of camping along the park's White Rim Road, an approximately 100 mile rugged drive through some spectacular canyon scenery along the Colorado and Green Rivers. His trip dates ran from March 22-24, right when I planned to head to the Sonoran Desert, but there was no way that I was going to pass up this opportunity. So I decided to incorporate both of these destinations into a longer road trip to get the best of both worlds!

 The White Rim in Canyonlands National Park

A couple weeks before this trip was realized, I was also happy to hear that a couple of other Colorado photographer friends, Jim Talaric and Rod Hanna, would also be joining us. The four of us initially met on a fun trip to the Page, AZ area a little over a year ago so I was looking forward to reuniting with everybody. So after meeting up the night before for a little photography and dinner, we embarked on our journey the next morning. The first thing that struck all of us was how slow the going was going to be. While the White Rim Road was far from a technical four wheel drive track, it often required very slow speeds and that made for long days on the road...especially when mixed in with frequent stops to take in (and photograph) the sights along the way.

 Driving Along The White Rim Road

The other thing we quickly realized was that this was going to be more of a scouting trip than a productive photography trip. While our camping areas were located in beautiful settings, they weren't necessarily places that translated to great photography. We encountered what we felt were the best photographic locations during the midday hours while we were making our way along the road. To get back to these locations during more favorable lighting conditions would have involved long, rugged drives under the cover of darkness...which none of us were too keen on doing. Still, I came away with a few decent photographs and now know some excellent locations to return to for an overnight trip or even a quick in and out venture. That knowledge, coupled with the excellent company provided by Bret, Jim and Rod made this a very memorable first leg of my journey.

 Washerwoman Reflection in Canyonlands National Park

Upon parting ways with Bret, Jim and Rod I made my way south towards the area of Bluff, Utah. After a final half day's worth of driving along the White Rim Road, I really didn't feel like doing anything more than the two hours of driving to get there. Besides, this would give me the opportunity to shoot a subject that I've wanted to revisit for some time now...the Goosenecks of the San Juan River. Goosenecks State Park is located in a spectacular setting overlooking the San Juan River some 1000 feet below while it meanders in series of horseshoe shaped loops. While I had visited this state park a few times now, I had never been there at the time of day or had weather conditions conducive to good photography. My plan was to shoot it before sunrise and shoot multiple images that I'd later stitch together to create a single, panoramic image. I arrived that night to scout out the area for the best panoramic vantage point (which turned out to be right at the main overlook), and set up camp for the chilly night ahead.

 Goosenecks of the San Juan River

Upon spending the early morning hours shooting Goosenecks State Park and nearby Valley of the Gods State Park, I made my way to Flagstaff, AZ for a badly needed shower and my next photographic subject....the Grand Falls of the Little Colorado River. These falls, situated on the Navajo Indian Reservation near Flagstaff, are the largest in the state when flowing. The catch is that for 11 months out of the year, they are reduced to a trickle. Only during spring melt and after the occasional monsoon do these falls show off their awesome grandeur. Fortunately, my timing was good and the water was roaring down the basalt lava cliffs which formed these falls during an ancient eruption. These falls are often dubbed "Chocolate Falls" due to the extremely muddy content from spring runoff.
Grand Falls of the Little Colorado River

While I really enjoyed my time hanging around this awesome display of nature, mother nature tried her best to make life miserable photographically. High winds (you know...the type that'll blow your hat off or tip over your camera and tripod if you don't keep a constant grip on them) and mostly cloudy conditions made for less than stellar photography. Still, I managed to come away with a few worthy images.

I was quite shocked when I woke up the following morning and looked out my hotel window to see snow flying! By the time I packed up and left it was near whiteout conditions and the snow was beginning to accumulate in earnest. Are you kidding me?!? It was definitely time to get the heck out of dodge! It wasn't long before I cleared the storm and by the time I hit my destination for the evening, Picacho Peak State Park near Tucson, it was a balmy 70+ degrees. Now that's more like it!! Unfortunately, clear skies and windy conditions made wildflower photography very problematic. This was compounded by the fact that I wasn't finding any good congregations of wildflowers to begin with. In particular, the wildflower displays on the flanks of Picacho Peak were very disappointing. And I found next to nothing when exploring nearby Saguaro National Park (the west unit) that evening. What did really strike me though, was how green the desert was...even more so than when I first visited in January. It was an incredible sight to see!

 Petroglyphs at Saguaro National Park

The next day I finally got my first good dose of wildflower viewing when I hiked around Catalina State Park just north of Tucson. A side spur of the Sutherland Trail provided the best viewing and I spent the better part of the evening photographing that area. Patience was definitely the name of the game due to the windy conditions. I'd find a composition I'd like and wait anywhere from 15-30 minutes for a sufficient lull in the winds to get one shot. If you weren't paying attention when the lull came, you'd be waiting another 15-30 minutes! It wasn't the most productive photography, but I didn't mind. It was warm and the scenery was breathtaking.

 Poppy Carpet at Catalina State Park

The next day I entered into the final phase of the trip as I headed back north to the Phoenix area. Here, I'd be meeting up with my wife, dog and an old (non photographer) friend from Minnesota, Greg Rynders. My camping for the trip was now done and I entered the cushy world of hotels, flush toilets and restaurants. The windy and clear conditions persisted which caused photography to take a back seat to hanging out, hiking and dining with my new company. The best photographic opportunity at this point came when we all visited Bartlett Lake northeast of Phoenix. The wildflower displays along the roadside of this lake were magnificent in places.

 Mexican Poppies and Lupine at Bartlett Lake

My final photographic attempt of the trip occurred at Lost Dutchman State Park on my final day. Here it was just myself and man's best dog Yoda. The plan was to hike up the Siphon Draw trail and look for anything photographic along the way. Unfortunately, this day the clear sky and windy conditions were accompanied by 90 degree temperatures and poor Yoda quickly wilted in the heat. By this time, so did my aspirations of producing anything decent photographically so we packed it in early and called it a day. Sometimes, the desert just gets the best of you. I was ready to head home!

To see additional images from my springtime desert southwest journey, click on the link below...

Springtime in the Desert Imagery