The non-Monsoon of 2019

Beams of light from the setting sun illuminate the landscape near Sedona.

It’s been an unusual monsoon season across Arizona this year. After both a wet winter and wet spring—with above normal precipitation amounts all the way into the month of May—things went dry. The North American Monsoon started late this year with the first significant rainfall not arriving until the second half of July. This was unfortunate as the dryness partially contributed to a very damaging wildfire (Museum Fire) burning across portions of the San Francisco Peaks.

Just a few days later, the rains finally arrived. And, then, they stopped again. And it has been that way much of this monsoon season. A few days of rain, then a week or more of dry weather. A normal pattern would have rain falling perhaps four days out of seven for a two-month period. Folks around here have dubbed this monsoon the “nonsoon”.

And, of course, with the lack of moisture and thunderstorms opportunities for photographing storms, heavy rain, lightning, and sunsets has been a challenge. But it only takes one great photograph to make it a successful season. I’m still trying to get that photograph.

Here are some of the more interesting photographs from this “nonsoon monsoon” season.

The Museum Fire burns in the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff.
The Museum Fire burns in the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff.
A thunderstorm develops above the San Francisco Peaks as seen from the South Rim of Grand Canyon.
A thunderstorm develops above the San Francisco Peaks as seen from the South Rim of Grand Canyon.
Convection develops over the North Rim of Grand Canyon.
Convection develops over the North Rim of Grand Canyon.
Convection is reflected in the waters of Marshall Lake.
Convection is reflected in the waters of Marshall Lake.
A growing thunderstorm is reflected in Marshall Lake.
A growing thunderstorm is reflected in Marshall Lake.
The sun sets over Wupatki National Monument.
The sun sets over Wupatki National Monument.
Beams of light from the setting sun illuminate the landscape near Sedona.
Beams of light from the setting sun illuminate the landscape near Sedona.
Lightning strikes in the distance behind Upper Lake Mary.
Lightning strikes in the distance behind Upper Lake Mary.
Lightning on the North Rim of Grand Canyon.
Lightning on the North Rim of Grand Canyon.
Twilight lightning in Wupatki National Monument.
Twilight lightning in Wupatki National Monument.
Lightning strikes near the confluence of Grand Canyon and Little Colorado River.
Lightning strikes near the confluence of Grand Canyon and Little Colorado River.

Mountain Biking the Thunder Mountain Trail in Utah

Amazing scenery and hoodoos along the Thunder Mountain Trail.
Amazing scenery and hoodoos along the Thunder Mountain Trail.

The Thunder Mountain Trail (TMT), near Bryce Canyon National Park, has been on our To-Do list for a long time. We’ve driven by the trail many times while crossing that portion of Utah. We even did some mountain biking on the nearby Cassidy Trail many years ago—but didn’t include TMT.

Several times this spring we were ready to head out to Utah to ride TMT only to be thwarted by inclement weather. This has been a cool and wet spring across the southwest and many trails remained muddy or even snow covered through April. Again and again we postponed the trip.

Finally there was a break in the weather. It was expected to be warm and dry enough to dry the trails but not too hot as to make the ride uncomfortable. We also planned on riding a section of the Arizona Trail near Jacob Lake on our drive day. This would give us a few hours out of the car and on the bikes. Nothing too spectacular about the views on this section of trail as you are in the trees the entire time. Still, riding around at ~8000 feet elevation is something you notice.

We finished the day with food and lodging in Kanab, Utah. I have to tell you about our meal at Sego Restaurant in Kanab. They specialize in small plates and suggested that for two people we order 3–5 items. We went with five amazing dishes. Each was very different but with wonderful flavors and aromas. Worth doing again!

The next day was cool with overcast skies. This was unfortunate because it resulted in very muted colors and landscapes in a land where color defines the landscape.

We opted to park at the bottom of the mountain and ride up the paved bike trail to the gravel Forest Road and then, finally, to the Thunder Mountain trailhead.

Finally reaching the trailhead after climbing the paved bike path and the gravel road
Finally reaching the trailhead after climbing the paved bike path and the gravel road
Still a lot of snow at the higher elevations.
Still a lot of snow at the higher elevations.
First of many hoodoos on this trail.
First of many hoodoos on this trail.
Some big descents and switchbacks ahead.
Some big descents and switchbacks ahead.
Amazing rock formations everywhere.
Amazing rock formations everywhere.
More amazing rock formations and a few wildflowers.
More amazing rock formations and a few wildflowers.
Once in awhile I can get her to shoot some photos of me.
Once in awhile I can get her to shoot some photos of me.
Hoodoos and ridge-line trail.
Hoodoos and ridge-line trail.
The final major descent. Yep, that's the trail down there in the lower left.
The final major descent. Yep, that’s the trail down there in the lower left.

And now it’s snowing, again, on Thunder Mountain Trail. Looks like we timed it just about right.

Grand Canyon National Park: 100 Views

In celebration of Grand Canyon National Park’s centennial, the Grand Canyon Conservancy has published Grand Canyon National Park: 100 Views.

In celebration of this legacy national park’s centennial, the work of some of the country’s most talented photographers is paired with essays by canyon veteran Scott Thybony in a love letter to an irreplaceable place. Like candles on a birthday cake, 100 breathtaking photographs capture the deep and abiding appeal of Grand Canyon—as Thybony so eloquently writes, its “pure geometry of earth and sky.” This book is truly the “collector’s item” for Grand Canyon National Park’s centennial year!

I’m pleased to note that three of my photographs were selected for inclusion in this book.

Twilight lightning near Grand Canyon.
Twilight lightning near Grand Canyon.

The first image is an example of not giving up. I was packing up my gear to leave Lipan Point and drive home when a small cumulus appeared. I stopped what I was doing and watched it for awhile and realized that it might become a thunderstorm. So I unpacked the gear and set it up again and waited. The sun went down and then the storm started to produce lightning. And I got this shot of lightning exiting from the top of the storm, heading down in the clear and then going through a layer of low clouds before hitting and illuminating the ground.

The following two images were shot the same day. Thunderstorms were slow to develop but there was this interesting band of clouds just above the horizon. I waited until the sun was behind the clouds and the result was these beautiful beams of light and shadow spreading across the canyon.

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

Finally, after the sun had set thunderstorms developed across the North Rim of Grand Canyon. There was still plenty of twilight to backlight the storms and to produced some reflected light in the canyon.

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

“Leave it as it is. Man cannot improve on it, not a bit. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it.”

-Theodore Roosevelt

You cannot see the Grand Canyon in one view, as if it were a changeless spectacle from which a curtain might be lifted, but to see it, you have to toil from month to month through its labyrinths.

-John Wesley Powell

Thank you, Mr. Roosevelt and Major Powell.

An Early Season Hike up West Fork of Oak Creek

It’s only the second week in April and that is still early in the season for hiking up West Fork of Oak Creek. There are numerous water crossings along the 3.3 mile maintained trail; these are usually easily crossed on stepping stones or small logs placed across the stream. Beyond the maintained trail, however, there are several water crossings that are simply too large for stones or logs and one must wade through the water. This early in the season the water is still chilly—and there was even some residual snow in the shadier parts of the canyon.

West Fork Oak Creek ("The Subway")
West Fork Oak Creek (“The Subway”)

We were especially interested in learning how the canyon had fared during the heavy rain events that occurred in January and February. Flagstaff, for example, received three times its normal precipitation (6.51 inches vs 2.16) in the month of February. And there were other periods of above normal flows in Oak Creek; e.g., mid January, early February, mid February, and an extended period in March that corresponded to snow melt at higher elevations.

USGS gauge data for Oak Creek showing several high flow periods this winter.
USGS gauge data for Oak Creek showing several high flow periods this winter.

Our interest ties back to the Slide Fire that occurred in this area in May 2014. In the aftermath of the burn, heavy loads of silt and ash flowed from the higher elevations and into the canyon. This turned a beautiful canyon with deep pools in the sandstone into a ash-blackened, silt-filled creek. For those who have long cherished the beauty of this canyon the results of the fire were heartbreaking.

Silt and ash have been flushed from this swimming hole in West Fork Oak Creek.
Silt and ash have been flushed from this swimming hole in West Fork Oak Creek.

But we knew that, in time, rain would scour out the ash and silt and return the canyon to its former pristine self. But normal rains were simply not enough to accomplish this. This would require sustained above-normal amounts of water. We traveled up the canyon in early January but, even then, most of the silt from 2014 was still there. But the heavy rains were about to start.

Another narrow section of West Fork Oak Creek that has been cleansed of silt and ash.
Another narrow section of West Fork Oak Creek that has been cleansed of silt and ash.
This large pool was filled with silt after the fire. Now it is finally clear again.
This large pool was filled with silt after the fire. Now it is finally clear again.

We were very happy to find that the heavy rains and runoff had finally cleared the canyon of silt and ash. Black, muddy shores and beaches were cleansed and replaced with deep, light-colored sand. Silt-laden pools were scoured out back to the sandstone bottoms and filled with beautifully clear water.

Large pool in West Fork Oak Creek.
Large pool in West Fork Oak Creek.

The canyon had finally recovered from the aftermath of the Slide Fire.

Spring Conditions in Sedona

It’s March and the days are getting longer and warmer. The recent epic snow in Sedona has melted and most of the mud is gone to be replaced by perfect trail conditions. Melting snow from the higher terrain continues to flow down Dry Creek and Oak Creek and the runoff in the creeks is impressive.

Crossing Dry Creek on the new Outer Limits Trail.
Crossing Dry Creek on the new Outer Limits Trail.
High water flows down Dry Creek as seen from the recently rerouted Girdner Trail.
High water flows down Dry Creek as seen from the recently rerouted Girdner Trail.
Bridges can be useful when the water is this high.
Bridges can be useful when the water is this high.
Footprints.
Footprints.
Massive tubr blowout!
Massive tube blowout!