Autumn hiking in Oak Creek Canyon

It’s been a relatively warm and very dry autumn so far across northern Arizona. For example, Flagstaff recorded 0.42″ of rain for the months of September and October combined—normal is closer to 4 inches (4.04″). This combination of warm and dry might be responsible for the less-than-stellar autumn colors in the aspens and other trees. Or, perhaps it was actually pretty colorful and I just happened to go out at the wrong times. Either way, it’s been a bit of a challenge for me this year to get the high-impact, really colorful photographs.

A previous post highlighted some of the photographs of aspens taken across the higher elevations and also provides some comparison with previous years.

More recently, I’ve been shooting images in Oak Creek where there are plenty of maple, oak, sycamore, and other types of trees to provide a nice mix of colors.

Maple leaves in Oak Creek Canyon.
Maple leaves in Oak Creek Canyon.

While wandering around looking for autumn colors, we saw this. I’ve walked by this rock face in Oak Creek Canyon several times and never noticed the name etched in the rock.

[Dr. B. Frankson Rugby, N.D.]
[Dr. B. Frankson Rugby, N.D.]
We also found ourselves hiking up the North Wilson Trail in Oak Creek Canyon with hopes for some maples. Those we did find were not particularly photogenic because they were surrounded by dead/burnt trees—courtesy of the Brins Mesa wildfire of 2006. On the other hand, I enjoyed this view from the Wilson Bench near the intersection of North Wilson and Wilson Mtn. Trails.

A view of Sedona from Wilson Bench.
A view of Sedona from Wilson Bench.

On our descent I enjoyed the quickly shifting patterns of light and shadow on the opposite side of Oak Creek Canyon. Perched high up on the canyon walls is the area known to rock climbers as “The Waterfall.” Visitors to Oak Creek Canyon during the spring snowmelt season have often looked up from the road to see water cascading down this rock face. They may not have known that it is also a world-class rock climbing site.

"The Waterfall" rock climbing area in Oak Creek Canyon.
“The Waterfall” rock climbing area in Oak Creek Canyon.

As we descended the North Wilson Trail I was able to see that some of the best color was—where else—along Oak Creek and in the parking lot from which we had started. We still had some time so down to the creek we went. The light was very soft with no hard shadows or bright spots and autumn colors were nicely reflected in the waters.

Oak Creek.
Oak Creek.
Oak Creek.
Oak Creek.

I’ve always skipped the North Wilson Trail in all the years of hiking around here. Now, I wonder why. It’s a steep trail, for certain, but very interesting views in all directions.

Aspen colors 2017: Inner Basin and Arizona Trail

Some years it’s easy to get great photographs of the changing colors of aspen leaves in northern Arizona. The weather is good, the timing is right, you’re in the perfect place. It all comes together.

That wasn’t this year.

We set out several times on the mountain bikes to see and enjoy the color. First we were too early; then we were too late. We were out of town on a long-planned trip and the peak color season occurred while we were gone. It happens.

Not that I’m complaining. I’ve been able to get good photographs many times in the past and there will be opportunities again in coming years.

So here is a collection of pre-season photos, post-season photos, and a few from several years ago comparing colors in the Inner Basin on similar dates but different years.

Early season colors seen along Waterline Road (09/25/2017)
Early season colors seen along Waterline Road (09/25/2017)
Early season colors seen along Waterline Road (09/25/2017)
Early season colors seen along Waterline Road (09/25/2017)
Early season colors along the Arizona Trail near Bismarck Lake (09/29/2017)
Early season colors along the Arizona Trail near Bismarck Lake (09/29/2017)
Late-season aspen along Waterline Road (10/17/2017)
Late-season aspen along Waterline Road (10/17/2017)
Late-season aspen along Waterline Road (10/17/2017)
Late-season aspen along Waterline Road (10/17/2017)
Mountain biking on Inner Basin Trail (10/17/2017)
Mountain biking on Inner Basin Trail (10/17/2017)
Mountain biking on Inner Basin Trail (10/17/2017)
Mountain biking on Inner Basin Trail (10/17/2017)
Mountain biking on Inner Basin Trail in 2014 (10/14/2014).
Mountain biking on Inner Basin Trail in 2014 (10/14/2014).

Based on previous years, I thought we might still find some great color in the Inner Basin this late in the season. We certainly did in 2014—but not 2017.

And here are a couple from 2015—another good year for aspen photography.

Inner Basin Trail (10/07/2015).
Inner Basin Trail (10/07/2015).
Lockett Meadow and Inner Basin (10/08/2015).
Lockett Meadow and Inner Basin (10/08/2015).

An early snowfall on the higher summits juxtaposed with the aspen almost at their peak made an interesting composition. Getting this view required more hiking and climbing that anticipated—but ultimately worth it.

Total Solar Eclipse—2017

I first started thinking about the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse (TSE) about ten years ago. I looked at the path of totality and then began to figure out where good places to shoot the eclipse with interesting foregrounds might be. One of my first choices was Alliance, Nebraska, home of CarHenge. A lot of other folks considered this location as well.

Composite image from 1740–1750 UTC. The totality image is a blended composite of two images at different exposure settings.
Composite image from 1740–1750 UTC. The totality image is a blended composite of two images at different exposure settings.

Then I began to look carefully at the sun angles and realized the eclipse was near mid day and the sun would be high in the sky. Getting this shot to work would require a wide- or ultrawide-angle lens and that would result in a very small solar disk. Hmm—not quite what I wanted.

After pondering this for a few years (yes, years) I decided to forego the wide-angle view with an interesting background and do a close-up using a telephoto lens. Just the sun—no foreground. That simplified the issue because almost anyplace would work. So, where?

I’ve spent a fair bit of time in this part of Wyoming and Nebraska as part of my storm chasing and storm photography so I had a fairly good idea of places that might work. For a few years, I planned on using the Orin Jct Rest Area located along I-25 in eastern Wyoming. That should work. After all, not that many people were going to be there. Right?

Well, things changed in the year and months leading up to the TSE. Every media outlet was running stories and the public was getting pretty enthusiastic about this eclipse. My plan didn’t look so good anymore.

I spent several months looking for alternatives and eventually narrowed it down to a few locations in eastern Wyoming. Using aerial maps I was able to find pullouts along roads and highways and figured that these could work. Other folks probably had the same idea. Hmmm…

Glendo, Wyoming, kept coming up in my short list. They are a small town but realized that they were in the center of totality and they were going to be visited by a great many people. I decided to be one of them but held out for some of my other options.

Viewing the early stages of the eclipse.
Viewing the early stages of the eclipse.

We left Denver on Sunday afternoon to drive to our hotel in Wheatland, Wyoming. I had booked it almost a year in advance and checked several times over the months to make certain my reservation still existed. It did. Good. Traffic to Wheatland was not bad but heavier than normal. That was expected. Upon arrival, we drove a few miles more to one of the alternate Rest Areas (Dwyer Junction) I had selected and discovered folks were already filling the parking lot with cars, campers, and telescopes. This did not bode well for arriving here the following morning. Glendo was looking more and more like the best choice.

The next morning we awoke early and headed out the door around 5:15 a.m. for the 30 minute drive up the highway to Glendo. Travel was quick and traffic was light. And then we crested a hill and all I could see was billions (well, maybe thousands) of tail lights on cars moving very slowly. Oh, no! This might be a problem. Although we moved at a crawl, we did move and we arrived in the field at Glendo by around 6:30 a.m. and I was taking test photos just a few minutes later.

Plenty of time to take a nap.
Plenty of time to take a nap.

We had arrived at our destination with plenty of time to spare. That was a major success. Now, all we had to do was wait a few hours for the spectacle to begin.

Observers watching the early stages of the eclipse from the meadows at Glendo, Wyoming.
Observers watching the early stages of the eclipse from the meadows at Glendo, Wyoming.

I had considered different cameras—including cameras I already have and cameras I might rent. I thought about different lenses for my cameras. I even rented a telephoto lens a few months earlier to test and eventually decided not to use it for the eclipse.

Right up to the moment I got into the car in Flagstaff I was still trying to decide between my Nikon D750 full-frame DSLR and 80-200mm f/4 manual focus lens versus my Panasonic Lumix FZ150 25-600mm (equivalent) “bridge” camera. I had already tested and compared both extensively. The Nikon would give me better images (larger sensor, newer technology) and I could easily run of a set of bracketed images without touching the camera. The Lumix would give me a much larger image of the Sun/Moon but would require constant attention to focus and manually setting all the bracketed images.

I chose the Lumix. I decided that I wanted bigger images rather than better images. After all, I had used a Nikon D700 and 50mm lens to shoot the annular eclipse in 2012 so I wanted to do something different. So, the Lumix won. And I didn’t regret that decision at all. As I said, I had tested both and concluded I could get good enough images from either system.

I had spent months planning—and practicing—how I was going to shoot and observe the eclipse. And when it happened, I still forgot a few things and made a few mistakes. Here are a few of my post-eclipse notes:

And, then, it began. A small nick in the sun from the encroaching moon. Crowds were briefly excited but quickly became subdued as we waited for totality. It was warm, but slowly cooled as the sun’s disk was blocked. The light became soft. Crescent sun shadows were everywhere. It became cooler and darker as we neared Totality. Twilight was upon us but the sun was still too bright to watch. The Diamond Ring effect was stunning and the crowds were in awe. A few more seconds and TOTALITY. It became dark and we could look at the sun and see a “hole in the sky.” It was an emotional moment and I was surprised.

I forgot to look around me for the shadow and light in the distance. I forgot to look for the planets in the sky. I forgot to look for the “shadow bands.” I did remember to take photos at a variety of exposures but forgot some important details. I forgot a lot of things but I’ll never forget TOTALITY.

It was over too quickly and the Diamand Rings reappeared, followed by a thin crescent. The moment was gone—but the memory will remain.

In spite of the mistakes, I still managed to capture some good images.

I shot several images on the Lumix every 15 minutes and kept checking focus. Still, several images were not sharp. That is where the 80-200mm f/4 lens for the Nikon would have been better since it has manual focus with a hard stop at infinity. So easy to focus. As totality approached, the Lumix began having trouble focusing. Oh, no! But it managed. And during totality, I made certain that the camera did not go into “sleep” mode as that would require focusing again.

Wide-angle view of Totality. Amazing!
Wide-angle view of Totality. Amazing!

The only real mishap was with the Sony RX10 which I used as a secondary camera. I wanted to shoot images in wide angle (24mm equivalent) during totality but I was so busy with the Lumix that I was rushed shooting with the Sony. I should have already had it on the tripod—in fact, it was on the tripod earlier but I took it off to shoot photos of the crowd. So I shot hand-held images at very long exposures but a few of them were good enough.

Earlier, I had accepted the idea that even if all my cameras failed and all my pictures failed I would still consider it a success if I witnessed Totality. There would be thousand, even millions, of great pictures to look at from other photographers. All I needed was to see it.

It was a success. Totality was so amazing that it is hard to describe.

And then there was the traffic after the eclipse. We traveled 15 miles in 3 hours.
And then there was the traffic after the eclipse. We traveled 15 miles in 3 hours.

The next eclipse across the United States is in 2024. Maybe I’ll just watch and enjoy the experience and leave the camera at home. Hmmm…..

Monsoon thunderstorms continue across Northern Arizona

The North American Monsoon continues across the Southwest bringing thunderstorms almost every day to northern Arizona. Rainfall amounts across much of the state have been well above average with Flagstaff receiving 4.5″ compared to a normal of 2.6″ in the month of July,

Of course, all this storminess brings opportunities for photographing interesting skies, lightning, and sunsets.

I was heading towards the South Rim of Grand Canyon when I decided that Wupatki National Monument might be more interesting. Although there wasn’t much in the way of lightning there was a nice sunset with a thunderstorm in the distance.

Sunset at Citadel Pueblo in Wupatki National Monument.
Sunset at Citadel Pueblo in Wupatki National Monument.

Another day brought a great sunset with beams of light illuminating the inner canyon.

Sunset from Lipan Point, Grand Canyon National Park.
Sunset from Lipan Point, Grand Canyon National Park.

I found myself in Sedona a few nights later hoping for lightning at sunset. The lightning was there but clouds to the west blocked the light of the setting sun. This spectacular bolt of anvil lightning traveled horizontally for a great distance before terminating above Cathedral Rock.

Lightning over Cathedral Rock, Sedona, Arizona.
Lightning over Cathedral Rock, Sedona, Arizona.

Early afternoon cumulus development near Marshall Lake on Anderson Mesa resulted in this small cumulus cloud producing a very photogenic shadow.

Cumulus cloud over Marshall Lake.
Cumulus cloud over Marshall Lake.

And, later that afternoon, we found ourselves at Lower Lake Mary watching another cumulus cloud develop to our east and reflected in the water.

Cumulus cloud reflected in Lower Lake Mary.
Cumulus cloud reflected in Lower Lake Mary.

I’ve been trying to capture evening thunderstorms and lightning (image) over Grand Canyon with a crescent moon illuminating the interior the canyon. Not very easy to do. I was able to get the moonlit canyon. And there was lightning but it was over 100 km away and resulted in teeny, tiny bolts in the phots. Well, I’ll just keep trying.

A crescent moon illuminated the interior of Grand Canyon.
A crescent moon illuminated the interior of Grand Canyon. (120 second exposure, f/4, ISO 200, 16mm)

Sunset and Lightning at Grand Canyon

The other day provided a good opportunity to photograph both lightning from thunderstorms and sunset at Grand Canyon. Satellite imagery from the new GOES-16 satellite indicated that skies remained clear across western Arizona as well as southern Nevada and California. This would allow the setting sun to appear below the cloud deck from the thunderstorms and—maybe—create a great sunset with the clouds glowing from below as the sun approached the horizon.

GOES-16 visible satellite imagery.
GOES-16 visible satellite imagery.

Close, but it didn’t quite happen that way. The clouds never took on that beautiful glow. On the other hand, an abundance of monsoon moisture in the lower atmosphere allowed the sun to create beams of light and shadow through the depths of the canyon. This was at its best when the sun was briefly obscured by some mid-level clouds creating some shadows at my location—but with sunlight streaming into the canyon below.

Beams of light and shadow play across Grand Canyon.
Beams of light and shadow play across Grand Canyon.

After the sun had dropped below the horizon the beams were gone, of course, but there was still color in the western sky.

Twilight colors at Grand Canyon.
Twilight colors at Grand Canyon.

The earlier thunderstorms over the area had dissipated but new storms developed about 50 km to my west. This distance meant the visible bolts were fairly small. I wanted big bolts dropping into the canyon near me. What we want and what we get…well, you know.

The radar image shows my location (circle) and the storms to the northwest.

Twilight thunderstorms and lightning over Grand Canyon.
Twilight thunderstorms and lightning over Grand Canyon.
Evening thunderstorms and lightning over Grand Canyon.
Evening thunderstorms and lightning over Grand Canyon.

The lightning images are composites of multiple photographs taken over a period of several minutes. The shutter was left open for 15s for each photograph. Some had multiple lightning bolts while others were dark. Even though it was almost 90 minutes after sunset the photographs were still able to pick up twilight colors on the western horizon.

All in all, an illuminating evening (bad pun intended).