A gravel road passes cottonwood trees in fall color, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
By the time I made this photograph, the day almost seemed to be winding down. We had gotten up before dawn and made our way to the start of a long gravel road, where we paused to photograph as the sun came up. It was one of those almost unplanned moments — no specific landscape in mind, but there was the rising sun, so we stopped and found that we could photograph a range of subjects in that light. Then we headed on down this road, eventually arriving at one of our possible goals, where we took a hike to a high place with a panoramic view.
By now it was getting on toward the middle of the day — mostly the non-shooting hours for photographers in many cases — so we headed back the way we came. As we drove we came to this flat with good-sized cottonwood trees spread along a small gravel road heading off toward the uplifted terrain of Capitol Reef National Park. The autumn color of these trees was irresistible… so we didn’t resist! We stopped, got out, photographed for a while , and then were back on the road.
Deep erosion gullies below an uplifted rock band empty into the valley below, with rugged terrain extending into the distance
Until a few years ago, although I had heard the term “waterpocket fold” before, I was almost completely unaware of what this geological feature is. Since that time I have visited it several times. On the first occasion I visited the area, but I still did not understand the geology. I “got it” that there was some sort of uplift — the land rising to the west of Capitol Reef was a pretty good clue — but I did not understand or really see any of the connections. I recall stopping at one road side pullout and seeing a sign about it, registering that it is something important, but not really understanding.
On more recent visits the reality of this huge and striking feature has finally sunk in. I began to see it a few years ago on a trip that took we away from main roads and way up on a rocky ridge from which I could look down into the eastern valley and clearly see some of the larger patterns — sinuous lines of angled rock, the valley twisting gently into the distance in the south. On the most recent visit it began to make a lot more sense, as I noticed features like the shadowed cliff band across the center of this photograph, which more or less represents the remaining underside of a layer that long ago continued on up into what today would be the sky. Its edge overhangs the softer material below, though it still erodes into the bottom of the valley. Further to the east in this photograph the impossibly rugged terrain of arid strata continues, eventually rising to a mountain range in the far distance.
Eroded ridge and valley in the Waterpocket Fold area, Utah
This landscape could hardly be more different from the landscape in yesterday’s photograph. The earlier photograph was of Drake’s Estero, at the Point Reyes National Seashore, made on a day that was almost entirely foggy until a brief interval of filtered sun illuminated the blue waters of the estuary, a bit of green on a peninsula, and distant sky and water. None of those things are found in this photograph.
This landscape from Capitol Reef National Park is austere, arid, and quite rugged. It has a special beauty, but it is not a beauty with soft edges, misty skies, and water. Here the land is laid bare, seeming from a distance to be devoid of plant life. (Once inside this landscape, it turns out to be a bit more alive than it might seem.) Geology and the effects of time are visible in these places with their colored layers of rock, deeply cut valleys, and rugged erosion forms. Here gullies lie below rocky ridges, and two valleys come together in a flat area laced by stream beds.
Summer sun penetrates clearing fog over Drake’s Estero, Point Reyes National Seashore
I took my camera for a hike this week. Or at least that’s how it felt. I have to confess that Point Reyes, a place I visit somewhat regularly, has always been a photographic challenge for me. I can’t quite put my finger on why that is. I certainly have good results with seascape photographs from other areas along the California coast. As I hiked today — an eight mile round trip to the entrance to Drake’s Estero* — I pondered this what might explain it. Because the point extends out into the ocean, it is often foggy. This fog is not the mysterious sort that hangs along the ground and partially obscures trees and hills. It tends to be the cold gray fog that hovers a few hundred feed up, simply blocking and flattening the light. Although I’m intrigued by this landscape, much of it can be quite barren. There are forests, but they often consist of slender trees growing closely together, often with dense undergrowth. It is difficult to find the things that attract me to the landscapes of the Sierra and the desert — rugged rocky forms, tall cliffs (there are some of these at Point Reyes), light-filled forests, bare and rocky ground. Oh, and did I mention the wind!?
But I keep going back, frequently returning with only a few photographs. This was one of those days. I very much like the place I hiked — a route that alternates between forest, tramping along the waterline, and traversing high bluffs above the estero. I walked four miles out past the end of the trail, to a place where I could walk along a narrow band at the base of cliffs that front the estero, and across the relatively still water were sandbars with birds. Beyond that the surf broke outside of the entrance to the estero. At this far end of the hike I was completely alone, and I found a rock to sit on and quietly take in this scene before turning around to retrace my steps. The photographic challenges on this walk were primarily the strong winds and the gray light. As I passed along the top of one of the bluffs, the sky cleared enough to produce beautiful, soft light on the water and the far peninsula, providing an opportunity to make my one good photograph of the day.
“Drake’s Estero” is, as you probably guessed, an estuary — but here I’m using the word that the park service uses for this feature.
Cliffs and eroded towers near Fruita, Capitol Reef National Park
I’m a sucker for juxtapositions of mountains and cliffs, and sunlit and shadowed surfaces. (In fact, “juxtaposition” is a word I think about a lot when making photographs.) This part of the world provides these juxtapositions with a vengeance. Everywhere in the red rock country of the Southwest there are sandstone walls, lined up, building one on top of the other, standing in front of and behind each other, layered with eroded rock and soil, standing above valleys and beyond lower ridges.
We had only a brief time to photograph on this first afternoon in Capitol Reef National Park. I had arrived in the middle of the afternoon and then busied myself with setting up a tent and a few other camp chores, plus catching up on the news with my friend Dave. By the time all of these important things had been taken care of the sun was rapidly dropping toward the horizon, so we quickly headed to a nearby area to see what sort of late-day light we could find. Literally within minutes of leaving our campground (which is just to the right of the shadowed trees visible in the lower part of the photograph) we came upon this intense and saturated late-day light, with shadows starting to stretch across the valley and the low foreground ridges.
Evening light on the autumn sandstone landscape of Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
I began this fall season visit to Utah in the far southwest corner of the state, making Kanab my base for the first few days. There I explored various valleys and canyons, mostly improvising an itinerary as the mood struck me. I returned there to a few places I had visited in the past and also visited a few new places. After a few days here I took a back-route up to Capitol Reef where I would meet up with my friend and fellow photographer David Hoffman.
I arrived at Capitol Reef in the afternoon, found Dave’s campsite (he had arrived earlier) and set up my tent. As I recall, we were unable to resist the lure of the nearby place selling home-made pies, and it wasn’t until late in the day that we decided to make a quick run for some sunset light. We found it quickly — the location of our campground is just out of sight to the right around the bend in the road running up this valley. Because the landscape tilts up to the west here, the sunset seems to come a bit earlier than I would expect, and we were barely in time of catch this light before the valley fell into shadow.
The Tuolumne River flows through the Yosemite Sierra Nevada high country
We had one day in the Yosemite area on the summer solstice, and we made as much of the long daylight hours as we could. We started out very early in the morning in Oakhurst, just outside the southwest boundary of the park, and then headed towards Tioga Pass Road. We took that route through the high country to Tuolumne Meadows, and after lunch we crossed Tioga Pass and headed down to Lee Vining for a brief east side visit.
While we were in the Lee Vining area we began to see interesting clouds east of the range, and it looked like lenticular clouds might form before sunset. That is my cue to find a high place with light from the west, so we headed back up to Tuolumne, stopping a few times on the way there, and finally arriving nearly perhaps an hour and a half or more before sunset. As we followed a trail out into the meadow to find foreground for photographs of the Sierra crest and the clouds I looked back to the west across the twisting river, meadows, and forests to see this scene in evening light.