Monsoon Afternoons

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Monsoon thunderstorm over the Montezuma Valley, east of Cortez, Colorado.

The early half of the summer in the Four Corners region is typically the driest part of the year. Winter is over, but the rains are few or nonexistent.

After that, though, the Southwest’s “monsoon” season of thunderstorms begins, to the delight of area residents. Rain in a high desert land, variety in the skies.

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Rain in the valley, with the North Rim of Mesa Verde on the skyline.

Typically the mornings start clear and sunny. But as the summer temperature climbs throughout the day the clouds begin forming. Then boiling up, like a teapot steaming. After that, you might get rained on, and you might not. It just depends. And in the evening, you have a much better than average chance of seeing a rainbow.

See more of my photography at www.NaturalMoment.com.

© Copyright 2017 Stephen J. Krieg

Revisiting Four Corners

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Years ago while wandering across northeast Arizona, I saw highway signs directing the interested traveler to see the Four Corners monument, the only place in the United States where four states meet. Having naturally been good at geography in school (let’s not talk about arithmetic) I was interested in visiting it.

Of course I knew that it was just a very important survey point established in the middle of nowhere, ordered to be plunked down by white politicians in Washington, D.C. that were still struggling to define the western portions of their country back in the 1800s. It wasn’t the summit of a mountain, or the lowest point on the continent. Nothing like that. It was merely there…where lines drawn on a map to separate four states happened to cross.

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Tall flags: Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Tribe, and the USA. And what a sky!

But when I got to the park, a Navajo Indian park, I scoffed at the notion of paying a fee to look at that point stuck in the ground. So I turned around at the entrance booth, vowing never to pay to see something so politically frivolous. After all, Major John Wesley Powell had done his best to advise drawing boundaries by watersheds, a naturally sane guideline. It was ignored.

Now, decades later, I find myself living just 40 miles from the Four Corners monument. I wouldn’t have given it any more thought except that I work at a job that involves giving visitors advice about what to see in the area. And one of those topics most frequently raised is going to see Four Corners.

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Everybody comes for this picture to be taken. I took pictures of the pictures being taken.

A recent visitor said: “That’s the biggest ripoff I’ve ever seen!” If he expected Pike’s Peak, no wonder. But these days I have different feelings about the Four Corners tribal park. So I drove down there to see what I could come up with this time.

Mid July, and the summer thunderstorm clouds were building beautifully. Driving south from Cortez, Colorado’s green irrigated ranch fields, down into the high desert of the Ute Mountain Ute Indian Reservation, then onto the Navajo Nation. Dinetah, in their language.

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Oh, the summertime blue skies! High desert dry air, mountains in the distance.

Finally I was at the entrance to the Tribal park. The entrance fee is only $5.00 per person, and I was only one of those. Still, the employee at the booth asked: “How many people?” It must be a job-ingrained thing from doing that all day for years.

I parked in the dirt parking lot and walked to the area of interest: a circular plaza ringed by Navajo artists selling their wares. A formal sign warned anyone intending to scatter a departed loved one’s ashes there to forget it. Because to the Navajo cremation is desecration of a body. To each their own, but don’t do yours here. Fair enough.

There was a small line of people waiting to have their pictures taken on the exact mark where the four states meet. From what I’ve heard the survey marker is off somewhat, but who cares? It’s not like it’s a holy temple or something. It’s a spot on a map, people! Just have fun with it. So many visitors do.

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Even the restrooms are scenic. From outside.

I had expected more Navajo food vendors to be ringing the park. Not so. Only two establishments were there, one offering Navajo Tacos for $8-12. The other, Grandma’s Fry Bread Shack, was closed.

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Navajo Taco stand.

As far as the Indian art vendors within the cherished ring of booths? The necklaces, etc. were cheap in price. Real cheap. In the $5 to $15 range, like you would see at roadside stands in the middle of nowhere elsewhere in Navajoland. But beautiful. Knowledgeable Indian artwork buyers would sneer at it. So what? These items are cheap only because they’re in the middle of nowhere, rather than in a high rent shop in town. These artists know how to make the best stuff, but these tourists aren’t interested, so they offer the stuff that does sell way out here. My advice? If it looks beautiful to you, buy it. It was handmade by a Navajo, even if it was from cheap parts. You will be supporting their household. It will be a no-brainer purchase. If you would rather have an expensive version of their amazing craft, go to town. To the city, even. I did not photograph any of the artists’ wares, at their urging. They wish to keep their designs unique.

I left the Four Corners park feeling serene and refreshed, somehow. I love the wide open spaces, high desert feel of the area. From it you can see Sleeping Ute Mountain to the northeast, and the Carrizo Mountain range to the south.

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Go to Four Corners. Be grateful it’s not Disneyland. Any money you care to spend will be supporting a local culture that is beautiful and enduring.

And maybe Grandma’s Fry Bread Shack will be open. I wish it had been when I was there. I had only potato chips in the car.

Photo location: Four Corners, Navajo Nation Tribal Park. Or should I say: Colorado/New Mexico/Arizona/Utah?

See more of my photography at www.NaturalMoment.com.

© Copyright 2017 Stephen J. Krieg

Moonrise Over Cortez

The Full Moon rises over the North Rim of Mesa Verde, as seen from Cortez, Colorado..

The Full Moon rises over the North Rim of Mesa Verde, as seen from Cortez.

Last night’s Full Moon rising over the escarpment of the North Rim of Mesa Verde, as viewed from Cortez, Colorado.

See more of my photography at www.NaturalMoment.com.

© Copyright Stephen J. Krieg

Red Mountain Greenery

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Iron Mountain from U.S. Hwy. 550.

I was once again driving the San Juan Skyway circle of highways in the high country of southwest Colorado. I pulled over that fine late June morning for a shot of Red Mountain, named for the iron ore that colors its rocks and soil.

So which one is Red Mountain? Trick question! There are three of them up there, No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3. So I’m not much help. They all look great. Especially with the spruce, fir, and aspen forests on their flanks.

While wandering the highway’s shoulder with my camera my eye was caught by a small, cold mountain stream that was passing underneath the road. Willows and bright green algae, the morning sunlight on it just right.

Mountain stream at U.S. Hwy. 550, San Juan Mountains, Colorado.

Cold mountain stream and Red Mountain.

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Morning sunshine, reflections, and deep, cold-water shadows.

Photo location: San Juan National Forest south of Ouray, Colorado.

See more of my photography at www.NaturalMoment.com.

© Copyright 2017 Stephen J. Krieg

High Country Waterfall: San Juan Mountains

Waterfall in San Juan Mountains, Colorado.

Mountain waterfall, San Juan Mountains.

It’s early summer (or late spring) in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado. Springtime greenery and wildflowers.

The snowmelt from the uppermost peaks and tundra was in full roar.

Photo location: San Juan National Forest near Silverton, Colorado.

© Copyright 2017 Stephen J. Krieg

High Country Wildflowers: Mules Ears and Lupine

Mule's Ears and Silvery Lupine, Ouray County, Colorado.

Mule’s Ears and Silvery Lupine in bloom, Ouray County, Colorado.

Late June and I was back in the high country of the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado for the first time this summer.

After a stellar day at Lizard Head Pass, I was off the next morning to Ridgway, Ouray, and Durango.

Maybe I got started too early, after photographing the Milky Way during the middle of the night. Because shortly before dawn I pulled over for a nap. Afterward, the sun was rising and I could see all the early summer wildflowers in bloom in nearby pastures.

I had chosen my pre-sunrise nap location well, it seemed.

Photo location: Ouray County, south of Ridgway, Colorado.

© Copyright 2017 Stephen J. Krieg

Step House Ancestral Site, Mesa Verde

Overlook on Step House Ruin, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Step House site from an overlook, Wetherill Mesa, Mesa Verde National Park.

At Mesa Verde National Park you can only visit the cliff dwellings on-site as part of a Ranger-led tour. To protect them from the high numbers of visitors that want to see them these days. (If you don’t care for such a one or two hour trek, there are nice overlooks to get photos from above).

Path to Step House ruin, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Paved path down to Step House alcove site, Wetherill Mesa.

The Ranger-led tours only cost $5 per person, per tour. A nominal fee. But you have to buy your tickets in person at the park, or in Cortez, not online. You can buy them locally up to two days in advance, though.

Step House Ruin, the stone steps, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Step House site, looking up at the ancient stone steps hugging the face of the alcove.

There is one notable exception: the Step House site on Wetherill Mesa. You don’t need to buy a ticket, because they station a Ranger down there from 9am to 4pm to both protect the site and to answer questions for visitors.

Step House cliff dwelling pueblo, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

The cliff dwelling pueblo at Step House, Wetherill Mesa.

Step House is also an easy walk, on a paved path. Not only that, but it has been developed so as to show off two very distinct periods of habitation. Most noticeable is the cliff dwelling pueblo, which was the later period, just before they exited the area around 1300 A.D. But long before that, the pre-puebloans, who had not yet learned how to fire pottery, let alone build habitable stonework pueblos, lived on the same site in pit houses.

Reconstructed pit house dwelling, Step House Ruin, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Reconstructed pit house dwelling at Step House.

And at Step House a pit house has been reconstructed to give you a much better idea of what that had looked like. It’s a wonderful two-for-one walk, just a stone’s throw from the parking lot.

Panoramic photo of the Step House Ruin site on Wetherill Mesa, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Step house alcove panorama, Wetherill Mesa.

Photo location: Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

© Copyright Stephen J. Krieg

The Green Table Finally Greens Up (Mesa Verde)

Mountain Mahogany, Cercocarpus montanus, at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus montanus) leafing out and flowering, Mesa Verde, April 24.

Mesa Verde means “green table” in Spanish. Mesa Verde National Park is a tilted green table, heavily dissected by its canyons that also flow south.

Other than its famous prehistoric cliff dwellings and dizzying geology, the Mesa looks rather drab after the snows are gone and the deciduous vegetation has yet to leaf out.

Thus it has been interesting watching the progression of springtime through the various shrubs, forbs and grasses as they turn the brown and gray back to green.

Bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) leafing and blooming, Mesa Verde National Park, May 4.

Bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) leafing and blooming, Mesa Verde National Park, May 4.

The earlier leafing species such as Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus montanus) and Utah Serviceberry (Amelanchier utahensis) seem to be well adapted to the weather swings of early spring. They don’t sweat cold snaps, even the occasional late snow storm.

Utah Serviceberry (Amelanchier utahensis) blooming at Mesa Verde, May 7, 2017.

Utah Serviceberry (Amelanchier utahensis) blooming at Mesa Verde, May 7.

On the other hand the “Oakbrush”, the Gambel Oak (Quercus gambellii) that tough small tree that resprouts vigorously even after the major fires that occurred in the park about 15-20 years ago, is cold sensitive. It leafs out later, and cautiously. I was to find out why during this particular spring.

Gamber Oak, Quercus gambellii, leafing and beginning to flower, Mesa Verde National Park.

Gambel Oak leafing and about to flower, Mesa Verde, April 24.

Things had been greening up nicely in the park. In fact, it was a very early spring, especially judging by how early the yucca plants were beginning to send up their flower stalks, at 7,000 feet in elevation.

North Rim of Mesa Verde, from Montezuma Valley Overlook, May 4, 2017.

North Rim of Mesa Verde, Gambel Oak barely leafing out, May 4.

However, things changed on May 18 when a late snow storm hit the area.

Late snow, Montezuma Valley Overlook, Mesa Verde.

Late snow, May 18, Montezuma Valley Overlook, Mesa Verde.

The early leafing shrubs showed why they have the confidence to take late cold snaps in stride. A little bit of cold damage to their newest shoots, but otherwise no sweat.

Early leafing shrubs in late snow, May 18, 2017 Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Early leafing shrubs in late snow, May 18. The Oaks are still brown.

The Oaks, though, were stunned. Tender baby leaves, and flowering catkins, were zapped. The storm passed quickly, providing some gorgeous parting shots. But as far as the Oaks, you could almost hear them arguing (“I told you it was too early!”).

Wilted Gamel Oak (Quercus gambellii) leaves after the May 18, 2017 cold snap storm, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Wilted Gamel Oak leaves after the May 18 cold snap storm.

So the Oaks had to regroup, not that they are not splendidly built for that, too. (I told you they are tough). Their Plan B was to shift their energy to leafing out yet again, and the heck with the flowering this year. There’s always next year, you know.

May 18 ice on Mountain Mahogany, Mesa Verde.

May 18 ice on Mountain Mahogany, Mesa Verde.

Which means few acorns, that round fat nut that wildlife like deer,  turkeys, and rodents feast on in the fall. But even more so the black bears, which chow down on the acorns for their high starch content, building up the layer of fat that their bodies will depend on during their winter hibernation. So we could see more bear incidents this fall, as they try to supplement their diet with human garbage and such.

Above Montezuma Valley Overlook, Mesa Verde National Park, June 11.

Above Montezuma Valley Overlook, Mesa Verde, June 11.

But finally, the Oak shrubs/trees are almost fully leafed out. The Green Table is back to being almost at its height of green for the summer.

At Montezuma Valley Overlook, Mesa Verde National Park, June 11, 2017.

At Montezuma Valley Overlook, Mesa Verde, June 12.

Photo location: Mesa Verde National Park, southwest Colorado.

See more of my photography at www.NaturalMoment.com.

© Copyright 2017 Stephen J. Krieg

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Moonset and Sleeping Ute

Full Moon setting at dawn over Sleeping Ute Mountain in southwest Colorado.

Moonset at dawn, Totten Reservoir State Wildlife Area

At the time of the Full Moon each month, there is not only the anticipation of landscape photos featuring moonrise in the evening, but the next morning there is moonset, too.

For moonset at that time of the month, you have to be up and out there to your selected photo spot early. I almost missed mine this month, having turned off the alarm and dozed away. Waking to the sound of a robin starting to sing outside my window, meaning: it’s dawn, and you should have been up!

I scrambled out of bed, out of the apartment, and drove to Totten Reservoir, which I had previously scouted for its view of the North Rim of Mesa Verde, but also its view to Sleeping Ute Mountain across the lake.

It was breezy as I walked down from the parking lot to my chosen spot. Only to find a cloud of mosquitoes dancing in the lee of a Cottonwood tree. Not going to set up my tripod there! A few yards further down, the breeze was too stiff for the insects to get to me.

Then the almost-risen sun added streaks of pink and white from the east, overtop Sleeping Ute Mountain to the west. My reward for hustling out there.

Photo location: Totten Reservoir State Wildlife Area, Cortez, Colorado.

© Copyright 2017 Stephen J. Krieg