Tag Archives: scenery

Western survivors

On my first western trip, I visited Moab in July. We went hiking in 105 degree heat, the sun pounding the ground and anything above it. We learned to respect the desert, because the desert will win.

I always stop and admire the brave stalwarts of the desert—that scraggly tree growing from a forbidding rock face or that little flower, full of color if only briefly. They can never move. They survive or die.

In an ancient landscape shaped by wind and water on continents that no longer exist, the desert plants are ephemeral. Like the ruins of the southwest and our cities, the landscape will outlast them. But they, like us, can be beautiful for their time.

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Scrub at Canyon de Chelly National Monument

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Wildflower in Capitol Reef National Park

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A lone tree at Bryce Canyon National Park

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Wildflower at Zion National Park

The Art of the Park

I’ve posted many times before about my love for WPA-era travel posters and some of my own tribute work. I have a wall of stylized postcards that I have collected along my travels. Like the parks passport stamps I described a few months ago, the WPA postcards became an exciting item to collect. Every time I have a visitor in my home, we talk about the parks. Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, county open spaces, state parks, they are all wonders of the west and worthy of a place on the wall. Not all of these places have postcards, which I am slowly working to remedy. But today’s post is about the great parks’ art that I have accrued and slathered upon my walls.

Below I include a few of my favorites from the wall. Some of the cards I like the depiction of the specific piece of scenery, others I like the color palette or the stylization. We all have stories about our visits to parks. These cards tell stories; the stories of these cards have augmented my stories. They let me dream for weeks and months after a trip about the animals, the scenery, the history, and the cultures of the parks I visited.

New Mexico has 14 National Monuments, extensive Bureau of Land Management sites,  wildlife reserves, open spaces, state parks, and more. In a future post, I’ll talk about my work to create posters for the New Mexican sites that lack them today.

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Western Skies: Sunsets

After a year in New Mexico, some things grow familiar. Red or green chile goes with everything, in the morning there’s probably a hot air balloon somewhere, and at night I will hear people gunning their engines on Route 66. But the New Mexican sky still amazes me. Whether its the stars at night, the distant rain, or the views of mountains for miles, it’s so different than the skies I have lived under for the rest of my life. In Missouri and Virginia, the sky was overhead. In New Mexico, it wrap around you like a bowl, a massive semi-spherical window into the universe.

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Luminarias in New Mexico

It’s Christmastime, and in New Mexico that means the night is full of glowing paper bags. The streets of Old Town are lit with luminarias, candles in bags that are somehow transformative.

New Mexico is my fourth state in a decade. I’ve lived in Missouri, midwestern and self-conscious; northern New Jersey, its traffic snarled under the spires of the country’s greatest city; and central Virginia,pastoral and historic and preening. New Mexico stands apart. Maybe it feels different because it belonged to a different country until just before the Civil War. Maybe a place that actually gets mistaken for Mars (and is used to study Mars) inevitably feels different. But throughout my short six months in this state, I’ve enjoyed feeling like a stranger in a strange land that is still familiar enough to feel like home.

It’s luminaria season in New Mexico. When New Mexico was New Spain, Spanish merchants brought the tradition of paper lanterns from China . Something as simple as votive candles in brown sacks dates back centuries. And it’s as beautiful as ever to behold.

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Luminarias in an Old Town courtyard

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Old Town Holiday Stroll

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Christmas in New Mexico

 

National Monuments in New Mexico

Of the 117 designated national monuments in the United States, 14 of them are in New Mexico, second only to Arizona.  When I moved here in June, I dreamt of Arches National Park and the Grand Canyon and the mountains of Colorado. But I am learning what wonders my own state contains. All are 5 hours or less from Albuquerque, and 8 of them are among the 20 least visited national monuments in the country.

The national monuments here vary wildly. There’s anthropology at the Gila Cliff Dwellings in the mountainous southwest (discovered by a man shirking jury duty). There’s a 17th century Spanish Mission at Salinas Pueblo Missions in the eastern grasslands. There are miles of white gypsum dunes at White Sands, which also doubles as a bombing range.  There’s Petroglyph National Monument on the west of Albuquerque, with canyons full of ancient drawings.

The western landscape expands your vocabulary. You can see a slot canyon and hoodoos, or oddly-shaped rock columns 75 feet in height, at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks. In addition to the lava fields and caves of El Malpais, you can check out the tinajas, dents that hold water after rain and bloom sporadically with life, in the sandstone bluffs. Anywhere you find sandstone you might find tafoni, or small and intricate erosion patterns.

So I’m slowing traveling to the national monuments of New Mexico, camera in hand. I’ve visited Petroglyphs, Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks, and El Malpais.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks

Tent Rocks is named for its rocks that resemble tents, which tower 75 feet. The excellent “slot canyon trail” takes you through a slot canyon, by the hoodoos, and to a viewpoint overlooking the hoodoos; the viewpoint also provides panoramas of New Mexico scrub and the Valles Caldera. The other trail, the Cave Loop Trail, is an easy enough walk but not very interesting. Tent Rocks is a fairly small and recently established national monument. It’s easy to reach from Albuquerque and Santa Fe, with good quality roads.

If you visit Tent Rocks in the summer, get there early. We went in July and arrived at 9 AM and it was hot at the end. Other than the summer heat and rain, Tent Rocks is a great year-round destination. It is fairly popular and gets bus tours on summer weekends.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument in New Mexico, near Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

Sandstone hoodoos in Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument in New Mexico, near Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

Slot canyon.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument in New Mexico, near Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument in New Mexico, near Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

El Malpais National Monument

El Malpais translates to “the bad country.” The park has two branches which follow lava fields, which you can see easily on the satellite image of the park. Highway 117 traces the eastern edge and features sandstone bluffs, the second-largest natural arch in New Mexico, and lava fields. Highway 53 traces the west and features volcanic caves and ice caves, although many of the best features are reached only by dirt road. This weekend, I visited the sights along highway 117.

The Sandstone Bluffs Overlook area is great. The light and bright sandstone really stands out against the black fields of lava below. To the north, you can see Mt. Taylor, an inactive volcano. Dents in the sandstone, tinajas, are common on the bluff tops. Though it hadn’t rained much before we went, some still contained water and one had ice at midday.

La Ventana arch, just off the road, is the next stop south. This time of year, the north-facing arch seemed to be in shadow all day. I plan to visit again in April or May, when the light might be better but before the crushing summer heat.

The last stop south is the Lava Falls Area, which features a 1 mile hike through Pahoehoe lava. This is smoother and easier underfoot than most of the lava in the park. The Lava Falls Area is only 3000 years old, extremely young in geological terms, and some of the youngest lava in the lower 48.

In mid November, crowds were no issue. We went on a nice November day and were quite comfortable, even with the altitude. In the Lava Falls Area, it was bordering on warm, with all that black stone everywhere. I suspect much of El Malpais would be unbearably hot in the summer. The dirt roads in the western part of the park are impassable with snow, so the best seasons for El Malpais are fall and late spring.

"A tinaja is a bedrock depression that fills with water during the summer monsoonal rains and when snowfall accumulates in the winter. These microhabitats spring to life when the baked-dry stone basins fill with seasonal water." -From the National Park Service El Malpais website. Sandstone Bluffs Overlook in El Malpais National Monument in western New Mexico.

A tinaja in the sandstone bluffs, looking north to Mount Taylor. Below to the left are the lava fields.

Sandstone formations at Sandstone Bluffs Overlook in El Malpais

Lava Falls Area at El Malpais National Monument in western New Mexico.

Lava Falls Area at El Malpais National Monument in western New Mexico. The lava here has several textures, but my favorite is this ropy, viscous one.

Petroglyph National Monument

Petroglyph National Monument is on the west side of Albuquerque. I realize only now that I didn’t bring my DSLR camera on this trip, but the picture below shows even a cell phone can capture the petroglyphs well. There are three sites in Petroglyph, all easy to reach. The most popular site, Boca Negra, requires some uphill hiking. The two canyons supposedly require less. Like El Malpais, the rock is black and volcanic (though older), and it gets hot in the summer.

In Petroglyphs, you can visit the Three Sisters volcanoes on the western mesa. These three cinder cones are remarkably small, but due to their position atop the mesa are visible from the whole city. Hiking the Three Sisters is still on my to-do list, but I suspect the views back toward the city and the Sandia Mountains are pretty great.

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Petroglyph at Boca Negra site

Getting Lost in the Devil’s Garden

The sun was falling on the primitive trail of Devil’s Garden in Arches National Park in Utah. The sandy trail was damp from heavy rain the day before, but the sky was bright and blue above. The last traces of golden hour set the massive red rocks around us aflame. We could turn back and repeat the scrambling and climbing that brought us to our current place or we could go forward on the loop, which looked sandy and tame. We had read that the primitive trail was a 3.5 mile loop– we thought from the trailhead. Rather, it was from the main trail. So when we chose to keep going on the easy-looking sand, it was for several more miles than we bargained for.

The sun dimmed, and the sand yielded to climbing and rock scrambles. Arches rock is sandstone called slickrock. At Arches National Park, people crawl and climb over every arch and rock fin. It can be a challenge to photograph an arch without including some neon-clad idiot. So normally slickrock isn’t slick. But the rain-damped sand stuck to our shoes and acted as a lubricant, like sand on a shuffleboard table. We chose the sandy path because the rocky path to this point had been a challenge. And with even less chance of turning back, we were facing it again.

At one point, we slid down a 10 foot slope into some branches at the bottom. If you missed the branches, your slide would be longer and steeper. There were other shorter slides. It was like nature’s playground.

Then we came to a point where you must cross a ledge above a drop off. By ledge, I mean a slight bowing in the side of a rock fin. Twilight was setting in. My husband scooted across and warned me that the ledge was slick. I sat down and scooted, my camera bag bulging over the drop, skewing my center of balance. I inched along. My foot slipped. I darted forward, not at all steady. I was across the ledge. I looked back. If I had slipped, I would have slid rather than fallen, but down a 20 foot, 60 degree incline with prickly trees at the bottom. I imagined myself trapped in back country with a twisted ankle and no food and water for a night. It seemed less like a playground then.

Night fell. Thankfully, it was a clear night with a bright moon; our only other lights were the flashlights on our iPhones. There were more scrambles, though none as bad as the ledge. The trail was marked with small piles of rocks.

At one point, we missed a pile marking. We turned down a canyon. It was easy and first, and covered with footprints, a good sign. But it grew narrower and rockier, and the footsteps disappeared. I slipped and banged my camera bag. Yesterday, I discovered that I dislodged the front glass piece on my favorite lens with that jolt. Humph.

The canyon ahead was even narrower, and we wondered when we last saw a rock pile. We back-tracked. At the entrance to the canyon, we saw the rock pile. We had been lost, but we were back. Unfortunately, the marker lay beyond a massive puddle. At least in back country Arches, we were pretty confident that there wasn’t much living in that red muddy murk. The puddle was surrounded by steep rock–we hoped it wasn’t too deep, opaque as it was. Tree branches poked up from the water. We hoped they were sitting on the bottom rather than floating, but it was hard to tell. We tried to scoot around the periphery. My husband slipped. The water was up to his knees. We waded through, grateful it was that shallow.

Finally, the trail settled down, and we walked through a grassy prairie. The stars came out; the milky way stretched over red rocks and prairie. Here and there, a shooting star flashed. We walked stiffly back to the main trail. Then we drove to Moab and got sushi, a bit more sandy than usual, our shoes still squishing with water. It was a victory meal.

It was a good adventure. We didn’t slip or fall and the pictures turned out beautifully. Next time I’ll be more careful reading the distance markings, though, and respect slickrock after rain. The rest of my shots from that day are on Flickr. Other than my pitfalls, mostly caused by my lack of caution, I’d highly recommend this hike. I felt very wild and saw such beautiful things.

The view after all that twilight struggle, a hand-held star shot. A pretty delightful reward.

The view after all that twilight struggle, a hand-held star shot. A pretty delightful reward.

Fins of red rock. Later we got a little lost amongst all those massive parallel slabs.

Fins of red rock. Later we got a little lost amongst all those massive parallel slabs.

Amongst the red fins.

Amongst the red fins.

Partition Arch in Devil's Garden.

Partition Arch in Devil’s Garden.

The red rock fins and the La Sal Mountains. Though I didn't love the night hike, I'm so glad for the gorgeous golden hour shots I got.

The red rock fins and the La Sal Mountains. Though I didn’t love the night hike, I’m so glad for the gorgeous golden hour shots I got.

Double O Arch, just before we went off onto the primitive trail. I'm so glad I got to see it in such a beautiful state.

Double O Arch, just before we went off onto the primitive trail. I’m so glad I got to see it in such a beautiful state.

Golden hour play!

Golden hour play!

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument is between  Santa Fe and Albuquerque. It’s only about a 3 mile hike, with only 600 feet in elevation rise. If you want to visit Tent Rocks, arrive early, before the heat and the tour groups, and bring lots of water.

At Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, you hike through a limestone slot canyon. Up above, there are formations of the most unusual shapes– some are like tents, some are like upraised fists, and some are like petrified dunes. It[s a testament to the power of wind and water in the west. My sorest muscle after this hike was my neck– from craning at all the great scenery.

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