A Summer Hike up West Fork Oak Creek

In early July we invited some friends to join us for a hike up West Fork Oak Creek. This is a hike we used to do almost every year until the Slide Fire in 2014 . We made a short trip up the canyon when it reopened and were pleased that the canyon had not burned but saddened by all the silt and ash that had clogged the deep pools.

West Fork Oak Creek—First Narrows
West Fork Oak Creek—First Narrows

Earlier this year we did our first hike up the canyon in many years. Our main interest was to learn if the heavy rains of this past winter had successfully flushed out the silt and ash from the 2014 Slide Fire. As reported in a previous article here, the heavy rains had done a fine job of returning the canyon to its former pristine condition.

First time in West Fork!
First time in West Fork!
Wading through the water in the first narrows in West Fork.
Wading through the water in the first narrows in West Fork.
Above the first narrows in West Fork.
Above the first narrows in West Fork.
Water is channeled into this narrow and shallow slot in the canyon.
Water is channeled into this narrow and shallow slot in the canyon.
Enjoying a break in the cool shade above the narrows.
Enjoying a break in the cool shade above the narrows.

Now, with warm weather and sunny skies, it was time to hike as far up West Fork as time would permit. In the past, we have made it up and just beyond the “Camping Permitted” point which is around six miles up canyon. Years ago, we also did an end-to-end starting at Woody Mountain Road and hiking the entire length in a day. But since that “boot camp” day back in 1999, we have only hiked up from the bottom. This day was no different—except that we traveled farther up the canyon than any of our previous hikes. That’s a successful day. We spent about six hours hiking up and returned in about five hours.

Our friends were not able to commit as much time so they turned around after about 3.5 miles (i.e., after the “End of Trail” and just a bit beyond the first narrows).

Another narrows section.
Another narrows section.
Tree and sandstone wall.
Tree and sandstone wall.

The wildflowers were great. There were masses of Monkshood and Monkey Flowers—so I was motivated to get a photograph of both “monks*” in one shot. Nope. Apparently, they prefer slightly different conditions and while they would sometimes be close, they were never clustered together. Columbines were also in great abundance. And there were a few flowers we could not immediately identify but could certainly enjoy.

Monkshood wildflowers.
Monkshood wildflowers.
Columbines line the shore of West Fork Oak Creek.
Columbines line the shore of West Fork Oak Creek.
Stream orchid.
Stream orchid.

About a mile or so above the “camping permitted” sign we began to encounter thickets of brush from one side of the canyon to the other. These made forward travel very difficult. They also brought back memories of how challenging this section was back when we did the entire canyon. And, with that in mind, we declared that location to be our turn-around point.

Deep pool with overhanging sandstone wave.
Deep pool with overhanging sandstone wave.
Reflection pool.
Reflection pool.
The crux move. If you slip, you swim.
The crux move. If you slip, you swim.
Hiking through the narrows.
Hiking through the narrows.
Cairn marking the trail.
Cairn marking the trail.

What a fun (and tiring) day!

Milky Way and Wupatki National Monument—July 2019

A few nights ago I had an opportunity to photograph the Milky Way under exceptionally clear skies. I wanted to do two things: One was to replicate an image I shot a few years ago and the other was to get a Milky Way/landscape composite with a moonlit foreground.

I headed out to Wupatki National Monument (an International Dark Sky Park) and set up in a dark parking lot with a moonlit landscape. The Moon was still well above the horizon and I took several long exposure images to get a good foreground. After the Moon had set, I shot the Milky Way (using a star tracker to eliminate star trails). Back at home, I would then merge the two images. The result is the image below showing the Milky Way aligned above the distant San Franciso Peaks with mesas rising on either side of the shallow valley.  What also shows up is the large amount of light pollution in Flagstaff. Flagstaff is the worlds First International Dark Sky City but it takes a lot of work to keep the skies dark. I fear we may be losing the battle.

The Milky Way stands above the San Francisco Peaks in northern Arizona.

After completing this set of images, I moved to my next location to take my final shot. This is a single, 30-second image at high ISO (ISO 3200) with the tripod carefully centered on the stripe down the middle of the road. Comparing this shot with the one taken a few years ago indicates that the older image was blessed (if that’s the right word) with airglow in the lower part of the image giving it a much more interesting character. The newer image lacks this airglow but does have a more interesting horizon.

Road to the Stars II.

And now the North American Monsoon has begun to ramp up across the southwest and clear skies will be a rarity for the next few months. Time to start photographing storms and lightning!

Two Moons

Here are two images that are about the Moon.

Moonrise behind Cathedral Rock.
Moonrise behind Cathedral Rock.

The first image shows the full Moon rising behind Cathedral Rock. The day before Full Moon is a preferred time to shoot this type of image since the setting sun still throws a bit of light on the rock. Didn’t work this time as there were clouds in the west blocking the sun. Last month it was the other way around: clouds blocked the Moon but the Sun cast beautiful light on the rocks. Still, I like the way the Moon is framed between the pillars of Cathedral Rock.

First Quarter Moon illuminates Grand Canyon.
First Quarter Moon illuminates Grand Canyon.

The second image does not show the Moon but rather the light it casts upon the Grand Canyon. The Sun had set and fading sunset colors were still visible low on the western horizon. The first-quarter Moon was throwing plenty of light into Grand Canyon and casting long shadows. This was a long exposure of 30 seconds (f/4, ISO 800, 50mm) so one of the trees in the foreground shows a bit of thrashing from the evening breezes at Timp Point on the west side of the Kaibab Plateau.

Milky Way, Moon, and Mercury

It’s that time of year when the Milky Way is visible through much of the night. It is best observed when there is no Moon in the sky—and from very dark skies away from areas of light pollution. I wanted to capture both the Milky Way in a very dark sky and to capture Moonlight gently lighting up the still partially snow-covered mountains. So I headed out to Kendrick Park for some midnight sky photography.

The Milky Way rises above the San Francisco Peaks in northern Arizona.
The Milky Way rises above the San Francisco Peaks in northern Arizona.

The result is this composite of two images. The first was taken of the San Francisco Peaks as the moon was low in the west at around 1118 MST. This was a bit more than an hour before moonset (0030 MST). An exposure of 300 seconds at ISO 800 and an aperture of f/8 was used.

The second image was taken at 0047 MST shortly after the moon had set allowing the fainter stars in the night sky to appear. This image was also 300 seconds at ISO 800 and an aperture of f/5.6. To prevent streaking of the stars an iOptron Sky Tracker was used. The two images were then blended together.

This is similar to images taken in the past of Cathedral Rock and Wukoki Pueblo with the Milky Way rising above. Also present low in the photograph is airglow (or nightglow).


Last week the two-day old crescent Moon (only 3.7% directly illuminated) provided a photo opportunity as it set over Upper Lake Mary. During the months of May, June, and July, the thin crescent Moon lines up with the long axis of Upper Lake Mary. This results in nice reflections of the Moon on the waters of the lake—but only if there is little or no wind. A bonus this month was the small planet Mercury was also setting in the northwest.

A thin crescent Moon throws a large reflection in Lake Mary, Flagstaff, Arizona.
A thin crescent Moon throws a large reflection in Lake Mary, Flagstaff, Arizona.

The image also shows the unlit part of the crescent Moon illuminated with Earthshine, also known as Da Vinci Glow. Yes, that Leonardo Da Vinci. Mercury can be seen just above the treetops on the far right side of the image.

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.