First Wildflower Reds of the Season: Paintbrush

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Indian Paintbrush and Prickly Pear Cactus, April 17.

I was cruising the highway north of Naturita, Colorado to enjoy an April evening. And to try to catch some trout.

The fishing action was nothing to write about, but I enjoyed being out in the wilds, as always. Nobody else around.

While checking out another little road spur through the sand toward the San Miguel River, the bright red of wildflowers caught my eye. I had seen prickly pear cactus as I drove, and so at first thought I thought the red might be the blossoms of Claret-Cup Cactus.

Nope. It was Indian Paintbrush, always the earliest of wildflowers in the high desert country. This clump happened to be nestled in against some prickly pear cacti, which added to the red-green color fiesta against the otherwise drab ground cover.

While walking back from the river’s edge I did spot a colony of Claret-Cups. So I will keep tabs on this site, as they will be blooming soon, too.

Photo location: Naturita, Montrose County, Colorado.

© Copyright 2018 Stephen J. Krieg

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Paradox Evening Light

Sunset sunbeams, Hwy. 90, Bedrock, Colorado.

I was driving on Highway 90 toward the hamlet of Bedrock, Colorado on an overcast afternoon. The closer I got the more interesting the light did, too.

Bedrock lies near the head of the Paradox Valley  in western Montrose County, near the Utah state line. The “West End” as the locals call it.

Sunbeam sunset, Paradox Valley and La Sal Mountains, Colorado and Utah.

The sun dipped below the cloud bank at just the right time. Intense white sunbeams streamed across the valley.

Sunset light on sandstone cliffs, Bedrock, Colorado, Paradox Valley.

Then the sunset light lit up the far cliffs. Warm light on red sandstone, a great combination. And fleeting, which is what makes it special.

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

© Copyright 2018 Stephen J. Krieg

It’s Spring, the Vultures Have Returned

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Three Turkey Vultures this morning.

Even though I love all four seasons here in the Four Corners Country of the high Southwest, as always I eagerly anticipate the first signs of spring.

The formerly “blonde” lawns in town are getting a bit of green from their bases.

Several days ago I awoke to hear a robin singing at dawn for the first time this season. Each morning. I no longer set my alarm to wake me up, except on work days. The robins will provide a much gentler and sweeter call to my ears.

But I was remaining a bit unconvinced still that it was really spring yet. Not that we won’t have a late springtime blizzard or two.

The trigger was when the turkey vultures would return from down south. Because I watched them as they would congregate near sunset time in certain tall old spruce trees in town. Yes, in town. After all, why not? They are silent, they don’t prey on anyone’s cat or little dog. I’d bet that most people don’t even notice them. They think the big black birds are more ravens. Except a lot bigger. And they glide with their wings in a “V” shape instead of flat.

And a few evenings ago I saw those “V” wings return. I thought it was early, even for this relatively mild winter. Until I saw them lighting in a big spruce tree down the street. They were back.

There was a skif of new snow on the ground here in town this morning. Tonight another snowstorm is coming in. Did the vultures return too early? Were the rotting animal carcasses running low down south?

Nah. They know what they’re doing. I had the opportunity to photograph them this morning because it was calm. They are master gliders, they don’t waste energy flapping their wings any more than necessary. Wait for the breezes to blow. Glide on.

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Photo location: Cortez, southwest Colorado.

See my best photography at www.NaturalMoment.com.

© Copyright 2018 Stephen J. Krieg

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

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

Wingate Cliffs Sunset

Wingate Sandstone Cliffs at sunset, Indian Creek Recreation Area, San Juan County, Utah.

Wingate Sandstone Cliffs at sunset, Indian Creek

The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park: serenely lonely in the wintertime. A great time to visit.

The day after snowshoeing in the Manti-La Sal National Forest at 7,000 feet elevation I decided to switch gears and go down about 2,000 feet to the high desert. That’s the kind of variety one can enjoy in southeast Utah.

No winter boots or heavy parka needed down there, especially since there had been several days of sunlight to melt any icy patches in the shady areas.

It was another sunny day, and calm as well. So pleasant for the last day of January.

I headed for the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. From US 191 between Monticello and Moab, take Utah 211 down Indian Creek Canyon to the Noodles. I mean Needles.

I hiked the easy Slick Rock Trail in the park mostly for the exercise, then started the drive back up along Indian Creek. I had seen a total of four vehicles all afternoon. Besides the extremely pleasant hiking weather, the absence of crowds is why this is one of my favorite times of year to visit this spectacular area.

The walls of Indian Creek Canyon are dominated by the vertical burnt red cliffs consisting of Wingate Sandstone. World class rock climbing if that’s your thing. Me, I like to stare at them from down on the valley floor. Especially when the low light approaching sunset lights them up.

Indian Creek Canyon recreation area in winter, Utah Highway 211.

Utah highway 211 in Indian Creek Canyon. Snow on the north sides of the cliffs.

Photo location: San Juan County, southeast Utah.

See much more of my photography on my website: NaturalMoment.com.

© Copyright 2017 Stephen J. Krieg

Moki Dugway View, San Juan River Valley

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

The Moki Dugway section of Utah-261 at the south end of Cedar Mesa.

Winter in the high desert canyon country of southeast Utah. It’s been a good one for the mountain snowpack; the Abajo Mountains are at 200% of normal as far as moisture content from this winter’s snow and rain, forecasting a lush green spring.

The Moki Dugway is an unpaved portion of Utah Highway 261 that connects the southern end of Cedar Mesa with US 163 between Bluff and Mexican Hat. The Dugway drops 1,100 feet in just three miles, making it a spectacular (some would say white knuckle) stretch of road.

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It’s a spectacular view from the southern edge of Cedar Mesa looking down onto the San Juan River valley, with Valley Of The Gods, Monument Valley, and several mountain ranges in the distance.

It’s also within the new Bears Ears National Monument declared on December 28, 2016.

See more of my photography on my website: http://www.naturalmoment.com.

© Copyright 2017 Stephen J. Krieg

Evening Snow Squall, Canyonlands

Evening snow squall clouds over the La Sal Mountains in southeast Utah.

Evening snow squall clouds over the La Sal Mountains in southeast Utah.

It was the afternoon before the January Full Moon, and the weather wasn’t looking good for my favorite time of the month: Moonrise over a wild landscape. Especially mountains.

Since I live only an hour away from the La Sal Mountains in southeast Utah, I always think of them for moonrise shots, especially since there are some great viewpoints on public land in which to position oneself.

But on this particular afternoon, January 11, another snow storm was headed our way. The clouds were wrapped tight around the upper peaks of the La Sals. And they didn’t look like they would dissipate around sunset time, either.

Still, I headed out toward the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, because the clouds were mixed with areas of blue sky and everything was in flux. Unpredictable light, often the best kind.

Wintry snow squall clouds over the Colorado River near Canyonlands National Park.

Wintry snow squall clouds over the Colorado River near Canyonlands National Park.

A viewpoint down toward the Colorado River and the distant Island In The Sky district of Canyonlands was a mix of shadow, sunlight, and snow squall clouds.

The clouds never did part over the La Sal Mountains, but I was out there. I was ready. And I enjoyed some spectacular views anyway.

Photo location: northern San Juan County, southeast Utah.

© Copyright 2017 Stephen J. Krieg

Newspaper Rock archaeological petroglyphs, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

Winter Solstice Time at Canyonlands

Utah Highway 211 to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.

Highway 211 through the Indian Creek Recreation Area. La Sal Mountains in the distance.

Winter Solstice occurred on December 21 this year. Supposedly the shortest day and longest night of the year.

However, the day length had been stuck at 9 hours and 32 minutes since December 19, and won’t be a full minute longer until Christmas, Dec. 25, when it will be 9 hrs. 33 min. for four days. Yes, a whole minute longer.

Utah Highway 211 along the upper part of the Indian Creek canyon, in winter.

Upper Indian Creek area of Highway 211 east of the Needles.

Just two days after that, on New Years Eve, the daylight will be two minutes longer than on Christmas Day, at a whopping 9 hrs. 35 minutes! You can follow along at sites such as sunrisesunset.com. The days start getting longer faster the further they get past Solstice, but until then it rather creeps along. The dead of winter begins.

Wintertime snowy cliffs above Indian Creek Recreation Area, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

Snowy sandstone cliffs above Indian Creek Recreation Area.

The day before Winter Solstice I drove in to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. It’s only an hour’s drive from my home, and I hadn’t been there lately. The roads were cleared from a recent snowstorm, so I was sure it would be fun. Sunny and calm.

Sandstone cliff face in upper Indian Creek, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

Sandstone cliffs and snow along Highway 211.

Driving north from Monticello, Utah on U.S. 191 it’s only about 15 minutes to the turnoff onto Utah Route 211, the highway into the Needles District. Route 211 parallels the Indian Creek drainage before it finally empties into the Colorado River inside the park. The easternmost part of the drive was still high enough in elevation to have snow on the cliffs, under a trademark Utah high desert blue sky.

Newspaper Rock State Historical and Archaeological Site, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

Newspaper Rock site, from the parking lot.

Roughly halfway to the Canyonlands National Park entrance is the famous Newspaper Rock archaeological site. There is a parking lot with restrooms and a very short walk to this amazing petroglyph panel.

Newspaper Rock petroglyph panel archaeological site in winter, San Juan County, southeast Utah..

In winter the sun’s angle is low enough to keep much of the petroglyph panel in sunlight.

I’m not wild about the name “Newspaper Rock”, because it conjures up a modern image of ink on newsprint. Instead, these are ancient symbols laboriously pecked into rock, some of which could well be 2,000 years old. And they last infinitely longer than ink or paper.

This was the perfect time to visit the site, with the fresh snow, the low angle of the December sun lighting up the panel, and only one other visitor for a few minutes. It would make for photos much different than the typical ones you see over and over of this site.

Newspaper Rock archaeological site, petroglyph panel, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

Newspaper Rock in winter.

The rock panel is perfect: Dark patina (think rock “varnish”) on a smooth sandstone face, with an overhang above to shade the panel for most of the year, which serves to slow the weathering process. Pecking through the patina reveals the much lighter sandstone beneath, making the image pop out visually.

Newspaper Rock archaeological site petroglyphs, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

Newspaper Rock petroglyph panel, upper portion. (Click on image for larger).

So many symbols that it is mind boggling. Animals, tracks, imposing horned humanoid figures (shamans in sacred regalia? Alien beings from outer space?).

Newspaper Rock archaeological petroglyphs, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

Newspaper Rock petroglyph panel, lower portion. (Click on image for larger).

Not all these depictions are prehistoric. Anything showing a horse, or a wagon wheel, is after the Spanish first arrived in North America in the 1600s. There are even some fairly modern dates added, something which is strongly discouraged by the steel fence keeping visitors a safe distance away from the panel.

Newspaper Rock archaeological petroglyphs, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

Sun and shadow made for a nice vertical composition of petroglyphs and rock angles. Notice that some footprints that have six toes.

From the highway into the Needles District, a nice view of the snowy summits of the La Sal Mountains to the northeast near Moab, peeking above the red rock layers along the lower Indian Creek Valley.

Utah Highway 211 to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.

Highway 211 through the Indian Creek Recreation Area. La Sal Mountains in distance.

At the Needles Visitor Center, all was quiet. The remoteness of Canyonlands National Park means that wintertime is very off season, so there aren’t enough visitors to keep the VC open at this time of year. No entrance fee, just drive on in. The restrooms do remain open, and you can get water and park brochures and maps. The campground is open year round.

Not far past the Visitor Center is a turnout for the Roadside Ruin. Again, not the best of names. I made me expect some rubble of a pueblo foundation. Instead, it’s a very nice and easy walk to a very well preserved granary tucked into a small out of sight alcove.

"Roadside Ruin" ancestral granary site, Needles District, Canyonlands National Park, southeast Utah.

“Roadside Ruin” ancestral granary site, Needles District, Canyonlands National Park.

The interpretive sign for Roadside Ruin said that stone-and-mortar pueblo dwellings hadn’t been found in this area, indicating that it was intensely farmed (corn, beans, squash) and the dried grains stored in the granaries. So it was used in the growing season, not year around.

"Roadside Ruin" ancestral granary site, Needles District, Canyonlands National Park, San Juan County, Utah..

“Roadside Ruin” ancestral granary, Needles District, Canyonlands National Park.

The doorway into the granary is through the roof. Otherwise they might have built the walls up until it met the roof of the alcove, and put the door into the side. Sometimes the ancient ones did, sometimes they didn’t.

The Needles District of Canyonlands is a hiker’s and four wheeler’s paradise. But on this day I had elsewhere to go. So I will be back throughout the winter to enjoy the lack of crowds.

© Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg