Moki Dugway, Cedar Mesa, San Juan County, Utah.

Moki Dugway Sunrise

Cedar Mesa south escarpment from the Moki Dugway, Utah.

Warm sunrise colors on the south escarpment of Cedar Mesa.

I was coming down off Cedar Mesa via the Moki Dugway section of Utah Highway 261 at sunrise. There were gorgeous colors in the clouds to the east, but I wasn’t in place for a good shot.

However, the same clouds served to extend the warm colors of sunrise for several minutes past when they otherwise would have disappeared, bathing the cliffs in a golden glow.

Moki Dugway, Cedar Mesa, San Juan County, Utah.

The Moki Dugway and Cedar Mesa in golden sunrise glow.

The shadows of cliffs upon other cliffs made for an interesting effect.

Sunrise shadows on the Moki Dugway, San Juan County, Utah.

Sunrise shadows, Moki Dugway.

Once below the Dugway, I turned east onto the Valley Of The Gods Road. The golden light persisted while I got some shots of some of the buttes along the southern escarpment of Cedar Mesa.

Valley Of The Gods and Cedar Mesa, San Juan County, Utah.

Sunrise on the southern escarpment of Cedar Mesa, from Valley Of The Gods.

Valley Of The Gods at sunrise, San Juan County, Utah.

Buttes and cliffs at sunrise, Valley Of The Gods.

Photo location: south end of Cedar Mesa, above Valley Of The Gods and Mexican Hat, Utah.

Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg

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Moonrise over Bears Ears Buttes, Utah.

February Moonrise, Bears Ears

moonrise over bears ears buttes, from Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah.

Moonrise over the Bears Ears Buttes, Feb. 20 at 5 PM, two days before Full Moon.

It was once again Full Moon time. Usually the best day for moonrise landscape shots is the evening before the Full Moon — the day before, rather than the day of Full Moon.

Two days before (Feb. 20), at 5 PM, an hour before sunset, the almost-full moon was rising over the Bears Ears Buttes, as seen from the Visitor Center at Natural Bridges.

Full moon rising over Bears Ears East Butte, southeast Utah.

Moon rising over Bears Ears East Butte at sunset, Feb. 21.

I once again turned to The Photographer’s Ephemeris (PhotoEphemeris.com) to help me plan my shoot for the following evening, Feb 21.

The moon would rise about 56 minutes later than the previous evening, almost at sunset. The Photographer’s Ephemeris also tell you the azimuth — the compass direction — that it will rise at. That helps immensely as far as getting in position to have the moon rise near an especially attractive landscape feature. In this case, the Bears Ears Buttes.

Full moon moonrise over Bears Ears Buttes, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah.

Moonrise panorama, Bears Ears Buttes.

The only problem with having the time and azimuth of moonrise to work with is that it’s only exact for a flat landscape, like an ocean or the plains. If there’s a mountain in the way, the moon won’t be visible until it gets up high enough to clear it. And the moon doesn’t rise straight up, it arcs toward the south, here in the Northern Hemisphere.

Moonrise, full moon, Bears Ears East Butte, Utah.

Full Moon rising over Bears Ears East Butte.

I had been hoping to position myself so that the moon would rise directly between the two buttes. But by the time it came up that night it appeared over the right shoulder of Bears Ears East Butte from where I was standing. Oh, well, it would still make for an awesome scene.

Moonrise over Bears Ears Buttes, Utah.

Moonrise and last rays of sunset on the Bears Ears.

By the time the moon rose over the butte, it was almost sunset. The low angle of the sunlight put a somewhat golden glow on the landscape.

Then the sun was down and it was time for a twilight shot.

Moonrise over Bears Ears Buttes, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

Moonrise at dusk, Bears Ears.

I had been blessed with clear skies for this shoot. Since I had the next day off I would be free to travel. The following evening the moon would be rising at dusk, 15 minutes after sunset. By the time it cleared the mountains I had in mind, it would be very nearly dark. Still, it was worth a try. So to Canyonlands I went. Stay tuned.

Photo Location: Natural Bridges National Monument, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

© Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg

Mesa Verde National Park in February

Mesa Verde National Park has the largest ancient cliff dwelling ruins in the Southwest, most notably Cliff Palace, though there are many other impressive ones as well.

Cortez, Colorado and snowy cliffs of Mesa Verde.

Cortez, Colorado along the east end of Main Street, with the snowy cliffs of Mesa Verde.

The park is located in southwest Colorado, about ten miles east of  Cortez, or about 35 miles west of Durango, the two largest towns in the area.

Cortez, Colorado at dusk in winter.

Cortez, Colorado at dusk.

Cortez makes for a nice “base camp” if you’re staying in a motel while you explore the area. In fact, the cliffs that form the North Rim of Mesa Verde also provide a dramatic backdrop to the town. If you’re camping in winter, you’re limited to what few commercial campgrounds are open.

Although the splendid Visitor Center and Research Center is just off of Highway 160, to get all the way to the south end of the park on Chapin Mesa, where the park headquarters, the museum, and the main cliff dwelling ruins are located, is 21 miles, a drive of 45 minutes.  Thus even a quick look at the highlights of the park takes at least a couple hours. And that’s just from the side of the road. In winter, the Wetherill Mesa road is closed, as is the Far View Lodge, and the campground. Also, there are no ranger-led hikes to the main cliff dwellings.

Mancos Valley and La Plata Mountains, from Mesa Verde.

The Mancos Valley and the La Plata Mountains, from Mesa Verde.

After passing the entrance station, some sharp switchbacks take you up onto Mesa Verde’s north end. The first pull-out is the Mancos Valley Overlook. Here you can view not only the valley, with Highway 160 following it east toward Durango, but the high peaks of the distant La Plata mountain range to the northeast.

North Rim of Mesa Verde.

Cortez, Colorado along the east end of Main Street, with the snowy cliffs of Mesa Verde.

The next stop is to look the other direction: northwest, at the Montezuma Valley Overlook. Montezuma Valley is where Cortez is located, and being on the North Rim of Mesa Verde you can also look all the way to the Abajo Mountains across the state line at Monticello, Utah.

City of Cortez, Colorado, and Abajo Mountains in Utah.

Telephoto shot of the Abajo Mountains in Utah, looking across Cortez and the Montezuma Valley in Colorado.

“Mesa Verde” means “green table” in Spanish. But it’s not like a typical mesa, which is typically quite flat. Mesa Verde is more like a table with two of the legs cut short, making it tilt to the south, toward the sunlight. That makes for more frost free days than you would otherwise experience if you were living up there at 8,000-8,500 feet in elevation. Meaning the Ancestral Puebloan people that grew their crops in the fertile soil got enough precipitation (usually) from being up that high, but warm enough for corn to mature before the first frosts of autumn.

Mesa Verde canyons and ridges, in winter.

Some of the canyons and ridges that form the interior of Mesa Verde.

So overall Mesa Verde, the landform, is more like several smaller mesas along with a lot of parallel canyons that drain from north to south.

Winter is a great time to take in the many variations in this complex of mesas and canyons. When there is snow on the ground, as soon as the latest storm has passed and the sun comes out again, the hillsides that are facing south start melting off almost right away. The slopes that are facing north, however, hold their snow much later, because in winter the sun is at too low of an angle to touch them. And the ground is too cold to melt snow that’s in the shade. Until spring comes.

Different aspects of a slope show where the winter sun shines, or not.

Even slight changes in direction affect whether the winter sun can warm a slope, or not.

Finally, to the south end of the park where the famous cliff dwellings are located. The trail down to Spruce Tree House, near the Archeological Museum, was closed due to a recent rockfall. So it was on to the Mesa Top Loop drive.

Oak Tree House cliff dwelling ruin, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

The ruins of Oak Tree House in its sheltering alcove in the canyon wall.

The Cliff Palace Loop is closed in winter, but you can get views of Cliff Palace from across Cliff Canyon on the Mesa Top Loop. From there, overlooks let you get scenic shots of the best ruins.

Fire House Ruin panorama, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

The two-level alcoves of Fire House Ruin. Where was the elevator?

The cliff dwelling era was when the Ancestral Puebloans built their adobe, often multi story dwellings and other structures. There are 600 cliff dwellings in the park. Cliff dwellings were built in alcoves: natural recesses in the sandstone cliffs. Alcoves that face south were preferred. Why? Because in winter they get the most sunlight, while in summer, when the sun is at a much higher angle, the alcoves are in the shade of the overhanging cliff in the heat of the day. They also built pueblos and pit houses on the mesa tops. In fact, there are many more of those than their are cliff dwellings. But the overhanging alcoves provide a lot of protection from the weather to the cliff dwellings, so they are much better preserved over the approximately 750 years since the last of the ancient ones migrated on from here.

Cliff Palace cliff dwelling ruins, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Cliff Palace, from Camera Point at Sun View.

Photo location: Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg

Norio Sasaki at Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah, eight months into his Americas Vertical Challenge.

Now For Some Real Inspiration: Nori Sasaki

Norio Sasaki, Americas walker, at Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah.

Nori Sasaki at Natural Bridges Visitor Center.

A visitor came in to Natural Bridges and said, “You have a celebrity on his way in here.” What? Who? Is President Obama coming to check our area out before he declares a Bears Ears National Monument around us early next year?

No, it was a Japanese man that was pulling his “cart” across America. And he did indeed arrive at the Visitor Center not long after. Fit as a fiddle, with an irresistible smile, but only workable English, I asked him about his trip. He wasn’t, it turned out, walking across America (the U.S.). He was walking the Americas from north to south. He’d started at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, eight months ago–June. He was headed all the way to the southern tip of Argentina, a total journey of three years.

Ranger Steve Lacey and Nori Sasaki, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah.

Park Ranger Steve Lacey was fascinated by Nori’s outfit and quest. Underneath the Alaska license plate is one from Okinawa.

His name is Norio (“Nori”) Sasaki, from Okinawa. He has worked as a lifeguard and in ski patrol, and he feels like protecting others is his duty.

Nori stayed in the park’s campground at my suggestion. He has been camping along the road–yes, even in the snow–all the way along his journey. He cooks his own meals, too. To stretch the money he has saved for his journey. He’s not soliciting donations. He’s self sufficient and happy.

Norio Sasaki leaving Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah.

Nori Sasaki leaves Natural Bridges on his way southward through the Americas.

The “cart” (a modern day rickshaw, I think) allows him to bring along more necessities than the largest backpack could carry. But it’s human powered, no gasoline to buy.

Nori averages 25 miles per day pulling that 160 pound rickshaw! On favorable grades he trots along, he doesn’t merely walk.

Why is he doing it? He gave me a printed explanation in English (I won’t make any corrections to grammar, etc.):

Purpose of my trip

I have been in a career that protects the safety and life of others. I have worked as a ski patrol and lifeguard. To protect and care for others I need to be strong both physically and mentally. Strength gives me confidence in rescuing people. I believe strength also gives my mind room to afford caring for others. I train myself through my journey on foot in harsh conditions to be strong and to never surrender. I want to live my only life to the fullest to meet wonderful people and great nature. No scenery is as moving as one you earned upon hours and hours of hard walking. While traveling I have met lots of caring and helpful people. The geographical borders seem irrelevant when it comes to caring and helping others. I also want to do the same for others. I appreciate the encounters and will continue my journey on foot to my limit with smiles.

May peace prevail on earth.

— Norio Sasaki

I especially like that line “…strength also gives my mind room to afford caring for others.” Wow.

It’s a Quest. He could continue to stay strong by working out at the gym, and running every day! I think it’s more about the “to meet wonderful people and [experience] great nature.

After his night in our campground, Nori went around Bridge View Drive to see the three magnificent natural bridges. Then he returned to the Visitor Center with more questions. I got out detailed maps of the next part of his journey south from here, and showed him some great camping locations I’d been to.

And then it was time for him to be on his way again. I found myself almost dreading the moment, getting a little choked up. His English wasn’t good enough for us to keep in touch, but I gave him two small prints with my email address on the back, just in case.

You never know.

Norio Sasaki and the Bears Ears Buttes, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah.

Norio Sasaki leaving Natural Bridges on Utah Highway 275, beneath the Bears Ears Buttes.

Photo location: Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah.

© Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg

 

Desert Cottontail rabbit and Rabbitbrush, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah.

Hoarfrost Winter Morning

Moss Back Butte, from Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah.

Moss Back Butte, from Natural Bridges Visitor Center.

After a very cold night in the single digits Fahrenheit, the morning was absolutely calm, no breeze. As the sun illuminated the snowy landscapes around Natural Bridges, the hoarfrost that had formed on everything overnight glowed in the early sunlight.

Desert Cottontail rabbit and Rabbitbrush, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah.

Cottontail rabbit behind hoarfrost-coated Rabbitbrush.

That’s when hoarfrost forms: cold temperatures combined with high humidity and no wind.

Pinyon (pinon) pine cones and hoarfrost, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah.

Pinyon pine cones and hoarfrost.

Which brings a gorgeous sunny morning with the sun lighting up the frost crystals.

Scrub Jay, winter, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah.

Scrub Jay on a Pinyon pine twig.

The freezing cold doesn’t feel near as bad without a breeze, let alone wind. By comparison it feels quite comfortable.

Desert Cottontail Rabbit tracks and Rabbitbrush, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah.

Cottontail rabbit tracks and Rabbitbrush: signs of mid-night feeding.

Photo location: Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah.

© Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg

 

Desert Cottontail Rabbit, winter, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah.

Watching the Rabbits

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Desert Cottontail Rabbit in winter.

This counts as a “backyard wildlife” experience even though the little community at Natural Bridges National Monument is surrounded by millions of acres of wildland and wilderness. Wild animals do act differently when they’ve become conditioned to humans being around that show no intent of harming them. Like park rangers.

Because last winter I noticed how a Desert Cottontail rabbit that lives around our house has a spot where it likes to doze during many of the daytime hours in the winter.

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Cottontail in its midday napping spot.

It’s a perfect spot: it catches the midday winter sunshine, and has brush and other cover to break most of the wind, and also to protect the rabbit’s rear approach from any predator that might be sneaking up on it. But no brush facing south that would shade out the sunlight.

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Even better: the snow has melted underneath the bush, in between storms.

I was watching it again this winter. It started using its daytime napping spot again while there was still snow on the ground underneath the sagebrush bush. But as it warmed up the snow melted quickly underneath the bush, giving it an even warmer spot in which to laze the day by.

Cottontail rabbit habitat, winter snows.

Rabbit’s napping spot covered with snow, temporarily unused.

Then came our latest storm and the rabbit shifted to whatever other spots it likes better when the snow is soft and deep. Probably some other of the nearby sagebrush bushes that are even more sheltering, even though they don’t get any sunlight underneath them. A rabbit is well adapted to stay warm in the coldest of weather. Its sunny napping spot, when available, is a luxury it doesn’t need but clearly enjoys when available. Why not?

Desert Cottontail Rabbit, winter, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah.

Desert Cottontail rabbit, hoarfrost morning. The shrub to the left is called Rabbitbrush, too.

Several mornings after the latest big snows, I was walking to work when a different rabbit was out near the Visitor Center. It, too, was accustomed to the rangers and staff coming and going, so I was able to get several good shots of him in the dazzling hoarfrost morning light.

Desert Cottontail Rabbit, winter, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah.

Rabbit would rather linger a while longer, but I’m making him more nervous…

Desert Cottontail Rabbit, winter, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah.

See ya…rabbit decides I’m too close for comfort.

Until he finally had enough of my lingering, and moved off under the trees.

Photo location: Natural Bridges National Monument, southeast Utah.

Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg

 

White Canyon, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah in winter snow.

More Snow at Natural Bridges

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The Bears Ears Buttes, above Natural Bridges.

A weekend storm blasted in about a foot of snow over two or three days, depending on how you counted when the first storm started and when the second one, which was right on the tail of the first one, ended.

Mouth of Deer Canyon at White Canyon, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah.

Mouth of Deer Canyon at White Canyon, Natural Bridges.

Lovely! Natural Bridges National Monument in southeast Utah is an outpost. A self sufficient community. It was the first National Park Service unit to have a solar panel array installed to provide its electricity, in 1980, back when such a project was very expensive, and so was considered a pilot project.

Owachomo Natural Bridge in winter, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah.

Owachomo Bridge from the overlook, Natural Bridges.

Thus when a big winter storm hits Natural Bridges, the power does not go out. We enjoy it.

Sipapu Natural Bridge and White Canyon, Natural Bridges National Monument, winter.

White Canyon from the Sipapu Bridge viewpoint.

Afterward, the sunny skies show the new snow coating on the canyons and buttes in all their glory. The National Park Service crew keeps the roads and walkways to the overlooks cleared for the visitors to enjoy.

Kachina Natural Bridge in winter, from the overlook, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah.

Kachina Bridge from the overlook, Natural Bridges.

Photo location: Natural Bridges National Monument, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

© Copyright 2014 Stephen J. Krieg

Faith, Trust, Patience…and A Promise Amid the Ancients

 

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Kachina Natural Bridge on a late January afternoon.

It was a fairly drab day, photographically, in one of the least drab locations on Earth: Natural Bridges National Monument. Mostly overcast skies in the dead of winter. But open vistas, clean, crisp air–what more could one want?

Though spring was still a long way off, it was coming. It always does (how’s that for a bold prediction?). At this time of year the days are getting longer by two minutes per day. An hour a month!

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Muddy boot tracks across the ice.

Another winter “rove” hike down to Kachina Natural Bridge, in January. Why? Because I’m a park volunteer, and so I get to do such things in the line of duty. To check trail conditions, talk to visitors, answer questions, etc. If anybody’s about, that is. Which, at this time of year, there aren’t many. Sometimes not even any. Like that day.

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Bighorn sheep petroglyph and ancient hands pictographs on southeast buttress of Kachina Natural Bridge.

It was in between the big snows. The gorgeous plastering of the canyon walls and trees just after a snow storm was almost gone, and I was hopeful for the next one soon. Although I love spring as much as anybody, until it gets here I’d rather have snow than drab brown and gray. Even in Canyon Country, where the sandstone buttes and cliffs provide an endless source of wonder. They look even more awesome after a snow storm.

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Kachina Bridge ruin site, White Canyon.

The west buttress of Kachina Bridge forms a massive overhanging cliff, a sandy alcove free of snow on a high bank well above the creek bottom. And that alcove must have been a very sacred place to the ancient ones. They were the ancestral puebloans (sometimes called Anasazi) that migrated on to form today’s pueblo communities (Hopi, Zuni, the Rio Grande pueblos) between 700 and 800 years ago.

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Mud flow patterns, and ancient handprints, on the canyon wall above one of the little adobe ruins at Kachina Bridge.

Once again I pondered the small adobe structures. A couple of the conical ones were probably small granaries–grain storage bins for maize (corn), that precious commodity. But the circular, open flat topped one at the bottom of the cliff face mud flows? I think it had a different purpose, quite possibly ceremonial. Especially with the ghost like figures painted on the inside back wall.

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Ghostly pictographs inside the main adobe ruin at Kachina Bridge.

What’s also unique about this site is the presence of butterfly pictographs (paintings). There are several here. It must be some kind of clan or society symbol. They didn’t doodle on these rock faces–each drawing painted, or pecked into the stone (a petroglyph) took time and intent. It’s clear that they revered these places as special, even powerful.

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Butterfly pictograph, Kachina Bridge Ruin site.

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Connected spirals petroglyph, Kachina Bridge ruin area.

I checked the old wooden box nearby holding the visitor register. About a week earlier was an amazing entry by a couple from Germany. “What a stunning place we have found. Magical and spiritual at the same time. In Boulder [Colorado, or Utah?] we bought a couple rings from the Navajo tribe to give each other the promise to spend our lives together. We could have not found a better place to do this, being by ourselves, witnessed by the spirits of the ancestors.”

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“The promise to spend our lives together” entry in the register, Kachina Bridge ruin.

I closed the register box and walked back down from the ruins alcove underneath the bridge again. There in the sand by the little stream trickling by between the frozen pools someone had written: “Faith–Trust–Patience”. The same couple?

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“Faith, Trust, Patience” in the sand beneath Kachina Bridge.

Finally, it was time to head back up to the trailhead. Only 400 vertical feet to go, once again. The lungs and legs were willing, though I can’t say they were excited. Or was that just my mind? Once again I did it, looking forward to doing it many times more before I leave this place.

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Snow packed stone steps leading out of White and Armstrong Canyons up to the rim.

Photo location: Natural Bridges National Monument, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

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The author…

© Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg