As winter drags on, there are times when no matter how good the snow is, all I can think about is getting out to the desert for some warm weather backpacking. Such was the case last week when Claudia and I drove over to Utah for four days of backpacking in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park south of Moab. And what a refreshing trip it was, with exciting weather and some fantastic light to photograph.
The trip also provided ample opportunity for me to test out my new Sony A7R 36mp camera matched up with my favorite Canon lenses. Since this is a popular new camera, and my first new professional camera in over four years, I’ll write a brief mini-review at the end of this post.
This last weekend we drove out to Cedar Mesa, Utah for one last desert camping trip for the season. We arrived a few hours prior to sunset, found a nice spot to car camp, and eventually lit a little fire to enjoy. After being glued to the computer the last few weeks, the fire, stars, and open space were balm for my soul! The next morning we would wake up early and embark on a three-day backpacking loop through Fish Creek and Owl Creek Canyons.
For this trip I decided to leave my workhorse Canon camera and lenses at home, instead opting to travel light with only my new little Fujifilm X100S large sensor compact camera. These three days in the canyons provided a good opportunity to get to know the X100S. Since it’s a popular new camera I will write a “mini review” of my first impressions below, and this post will be more of a camera report than a trip report. All these photos were taken with the X100S, but please note that some are stitched panos and most of them are adjusted in photoshop to some degree.
On our way back to Colorado from California, we spent about 10 days in the canyons of Utah car camping and doing some fantastic day hikes. We started in Escalante National Monument, probably my favorite canyon region in all of Utah.
Our first hike was through a seldom visited slot canyon called Red Breaks. Although the guides I read called this a “non technical” canyon, it ended up being a very challenging slot canyon, with numerous puzzling chokestones that had to be climbed over. Some of these chokestones required sketchy exposed moves or chimney maneuvers to pass, and we became a bit worried after we had climbed over enough of these that turning back would not have been a safe option, yet each successive chokestone became more and more difficult.
Not only were the chokestones challenging in Red Breaks, but in some areas the slot was so narrow that we could barely squeeze through while pulling our backpacks behind us. A wider person or anyone with claustrophobia should not attempt this slot canyon! I would classify this slot as “non technical” only for very proficient canyoneers and comfortable climbers; for anyone else I would stress that this is an extremely challenging slot canyon. In fact it was the first slot that I was happy to finally exit!
From Red Breaks we hiked cross country over slickrock slabs and valleys to a fascinating sandstone formation called “The Cosmic Ashtray”. This is one of the more curious and mystifying geologic formations I’ve seen, and I have no idea how such a thing could have formed. It’s difficult to comprehend the scale in the photo above, but suffice it say, it’s enormous! We stayed until sunset and hiked back to the truck in the dark… all in all, a 12 hour day of hiking! Not too shabby for the first of eight days in a row of hiking!
Our second hike was to the famous Zebra slot. The slot itself is actually very short and not very deep, but it has these beautiful striations and embedded moki ball stones which make it very photogenic. Photogenic, that is, if you don’t care about taking the same photograph that every other photographer takes, more or less. Claudia was kind enough to pose in there for me, which adds some scale and reality to the otherwise surreal formations.
After Zebra, we drove around to the other side of the Escalante River drainage via the incredible Burr Trail Road which leads east from the town of Boulder through jaw-dropping canyon scenery. I’m not sure if I’ve ever driven a more scenic drive in the desert! Our destination was Little Death Hollow canyon, another slot canyon off the Escalante.
Little Death Hollow is not an especially deep slot canyon, but it goes on for quite a long way and makes for a great hike – especially around midday when the sunlight is bouncing around between the canyon walls.
After our time in Page, we realized that circumstances were pulling us back home and our long desert trip was coming to a close. For one final night in the desert on the way back, we car camped on the edge of Cedar Mesa, with a commanding view spanning all the way from the San Juan Mountains on the far eastern horizon to Monument Valley far to the south.
Being November 6, we fortunately had just enough cell reception up there to check the election results – the suspense would have killed me otherwise. I’m not going to say much about it here, except that I’m proud to be a Coloradan! For the half of the population that is sorely disappointed, well, now you know how I felt in ’04. Life goes on, hopefully for the better.
Our next stop after the Grand Canyon on our long scenic detour back to Colorado was in Page, Arizona, where we spent a day hiking a slot canyon similar to the famous Antelope Canyon but without the crowds. See LOTS more photos below! Continue reading “Slot Shots from Page”→
Exhausted from our strenuous trek into the Grand Canyon, we needed a day of relaxing to recharge our batteries, so we camped at the North Rim campground and enjoyed the viewpoints from around there. The campground was virtually empty, aside from a large group of firefighters who were conducting a seemingly large-scale prescribed burn in the forests along the North Rim. The smoke from the burns drained into the canyon, filling it with haze and making for some strange atmospheric conditions.
At the beginning of November, Claudia and I were excited to go on a backpacking trip into the Grand Canyon, which neither of us has seen before. It was a great introduction to walk down all the way down into the heart of it, and WOW, we were impressed!
Our loop route took us down from Monument Point on the North Rim, down the Bill Hall Trail, over the Esplanade, across Surprise Valley, down into Tapeats Creek, along the Colorado River, up the Deer Creek Trail, then back up to the top again. All in all, more then 5,000 feet of elevation drop, and then back up again! Along the way we saw some of the most incredible sights, springs, and waterfalls we’ve ever seen in the desert.
The Racetrack is a mysterious and fascinating location in Death Valley National Park – a flat dry lakebed playa in a remote desert valley where large rocks seem to have moved around by their own volition, leaving random tracks in the dry mud revealing their path. How did these rocks move?
The theory is that given just the right conditions, rain will flood the playa, then freeze, and then once the ice starts melting a little, strong winds will blow the ice-bound rocks around on the slick mud underneath. It’s hard to believe, but the tracks are there – something made these rocks slide all around the playa!
These particular tracks – illuminated by the setting moon – are especially interesting. At first glance I assumed that they were car tracks – that some idiot had driven his car out there. Upon closer inspection, it’s clear that no car in the world could make tracks like this! Even more mysterious is that about a hundred feet away from these tracks are an almost exactly identical pattern, but aligned facing a different orientation. It boggles the mind!
After leaving Bishop, we headed to Eureka Dunes in Death Valley National Park. These dunes are just about as tall as the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado, but are basically one single big dune, instead of an endless repetition of them. Another striking characteristic of the Eureka dunes is their absolute pristine remoteness – there is nothing out there in that valley! No lights, no distant towns, just one dirt road and absolute silence. Very cool.
Any regrets about leaving the cold and snowy Sierras vanished as we enjoyed a perfectly calm and warm desert evening atop the highest dune, with our bottle of wine and my camera of course.