Spring snow and apple blossoms

A late season storm brought a bit of snow to Flagstaff a few days ago. Our crab apple tree had just burst forth with blossoms earlier in the week. For just a few hours there was a delightful juxtaposition of colorful blossoms and new snow.

What? Wait! I’ve already written this! Last year, same time we had a late season snow that covered the blossoms on the crab apple tree.

Spring snow on crab apple blossoms.
Spring snow on crab apple blossoms.

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As I said in that previous post, “Such is spring in northern Arizona. Warm and sunny days with occasional reminders of the departing winter.”

Desert mountain biking in southwest Utah

Longer days and warmer weather combined to send us off to southwest Utah for a couple days of mountain biking. We made our first mountain biking trip to this area last fall and had a blast riding the trails—so it was time for a return trip.

View of Zion National Park from the trailhead on Gooseberry Mesa.
View of Zion National Park from the trailhead on Gooseberry Mesa.

We left Flagstaff on a Monday morning and arrived at Gooseberry Mesa by early afternoon. After a quick lunch at the trailhead we started off on Windmill Trail. A short distance brings you to the north edge of the mesa with amazing views to the north—and down.

View from the edge of Windmill Trail.
View from the edge of Windmill Trail.

It doesn’t take long before the trail veers away from the edge and takes you through ramps, chutes, small hills, and steps on a high-traction surface. (The geologic name for this rock is Shinarump Conglomerate.) There are no long uphills here—but many short and quick ascents and descents.

Descending one of the numerous "rollers."
Descending one of the numerous “rollers.”
Rolling into a sandstone bowl.
Rolling into a sandstone bowl.

Finding the route through here is as easy as following the painted dots on the rock.

Follow those dots!
Follow those dots!
More bowls.
More bowls.

The trail ends on the west end of the mesa at The Point which provides a magnificent view of the Virgin River valley as well as the Hurricane Cliffs trail system.

View from Gooseberry Mesa Point.
View from Gooseberry Mesa Point.

On Tuesday we headed for the Hurricane Cliffs Trail System. These trails are at a lower elevation than Gooseberry Mesa and it was a bit warmer—although still comfortable. We headed up Jem Trail, connected to Crytobiotic, and then on the newer Dead Ringer. This would take us to the top of the mesa where we could connect with the More Cowbells trails.

Hurricane Cliffs trail system: Jem Trail.
Hurricane Cliffs trail system: Jem Trail.

Although Dead Ringer never gets very steep, it is perched on the side of a hill with moderate slope.

Dead Ringer Trail as seen from the mesa top and More Cowbells Trail.
Dead Ringer Trail as seen from the mesa top and More Cowbells Trail.

More Cowbells is rated Easy and is a great trail for beginner riders. It is most easily accessed from the Upper Gem Trailhead on the mesa top rather than riding up from the bottom. We returned down Dead Ringer and connected to the Goosebumps—a trail with lots of quick ups-and-downs—and then back to Jem for the fast downhill run back to the car.

The next day we returned to Gooseberry Mesa to try the non-system trail known as Gander. This is an intermediate trail with big mileage if done out and back. It’s best done as a shuttle. Or, in our case,  we did a shorter version of the out and back as we were running out of time.

Riding the rim of Gooseberry Mesa on Gander Trail.
Riding the rim of Gooseberry Mesa on Gander Trail.

It was getting late and time to go. From Gooseberry Mesa, we drove north towards Rockville. The road was pretty good—until it suddenly wasn’t. For a brief stretch, it was steep, narrow, and rocky and I wondered if I was getting into something I might regret. It was over in about a mile and smoother roads returned. We took the scenic route home through Zion National Park and were back in Flagstaff late Wednesday evening.

Comet Lovejoy still visible in constellation Cassiopeia

Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy is still visible in the sky in the constellation Cassiopeia. It is not as bright as it was a few months ago but can still be seen with a pair of binoculars. It is probably best viewed in the evening as Cassiopeia moves lower in the sky overnight and in the early morning hours. This makes it more difficult to see as there is more atmospheric attenuation at these lower elevation angles.

Sky map for locating Comet Lovejoy (03/22/2015) using the free and open source <a href="http://www.stellarium.org" target="_blank">Stellarium</a> planetarium software.
Sky map for locating Comet Lovejoy (03/22/2015) using the free and open source Stellarium planetarium software.

Using my recently acquired iOptron Skytracker for tracking night sky objects I took numerous exposures totaling 14 minutes (9x60s@iso1600; 10x30s@iso3200). These were then stacked in Deep Sky Stacker (DSS), a very good and free program designed for astrophotography.

Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy on 03/16/2015. A faint tail can be seen extending to the upper right.
Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy on 03/16/2015. A faint tail can be seen extending to the upper right.

The resulting image was then post-processed using the Astronomy Tools v1.6 actions in Photoshop.

 

Moonrise above the snow-covered San Francisco Peaks

Here are a few recent images of the nearly-full moon rising above the San Francisco Peaks in northern Arizona. The day before the full moon is often the most photogenic time as the landscape is still bathed in sunset light while the moon has already climbed well above the horizon.

But if only it was that easy! Earlier in the day I had used The Photographers Ephemeris (TPE) to find a location. I decided that a position on SR64 north of Williams, Arizona, would work and at that distance the moon would appear quite large juxtaposed against the mountains. Unfortunately, when I arrived at my predetermined spot I was not able to see the mountains. Numerous cinder cones and small hills completely blocked my view. I wish TPE was more intelligent than this photographer and would let me know of obstructions.

With less than 15 minutes until moonrise and one-half hour until the moon would be above the peaks, I had to find a new location quickly. I backtracked south on SR64 and then east along Route 66 but hills and trees continued to block my view. When I did finally get a clear view I was too far south and the moon would rise south (right) of the peaks. I stayed around for a few minutes to get a few consolation images of the moonrise then headed east again. Arriving in Parks, Arizona, I turned north and kept looking for a location with the moon above the peaks and a clear view. Finally, I found this location.

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Although these were not the images I thought I was going to get I’m still happy with the result.

Note: No speed limits were broken while trying to reposition!

Photographing the night sky with the iOptron SkyTracker

As mentioned in a previous post, I now have a tracker mounted on my tripod (iOptron SkyTracker). With this gadget, I can take longer exposures of the night sky without star trails. Exposures of 30 to 120 seconds typically give me the best results. Shorter exposures don’t gather enough light and the longer exposures may show a hint of star trails.

There was an evening a bit over a week ago with mostly clear skies. Very thin cirrus clouds were moving across the area. I was unable to see them while photographing but inspection of satellite imagery at the time showed that there was some high-altitude moisture moving across the area. The result? The thin clouds produced a faint glow around the brighter stars in the constellation Orion. I like the result.

Orion and M42. (ISO1600, f/4.0, 120s exposure)
Orion and M42. (ISO1600, f/4.0, 120s exposure)