Landscape Photography by A. Jackson Frishman
Some places haunt the imagination. Ever since I heard of a mountain deep in Nevada formed of massive limestone beds tilted simply and steeply into the sky, I knew Currant Mountain was a place I would have to visit. It captures almost the archetypal form of Great Basin mountain building, directly viewable to the eye without complication: a huge chunk of ancient seabed wrenched from its repose by the stretching of North America, its marine layers forming swooping, angled cliffs high in the desert air.
After imagining the place for over a decade, I finally found both time and a willing victim who would not only consent to join me in humping directly up a few thousand vertical feet of trail-less mountainside, but would also agree to do it with an overnight pack and two gallons of water for the sake of being there at sunrise. Fortunately for me, Greg Russell is usually willing to be talked into these things. Our approach involved hours of very steep bushwhacking through sage, fir, limestone outcrops loaded with fossils, scree and many wonderful bristlecone pines. Though I had read that they grew on the mountain, the vigor and beauty of Currant’s bristlecone forest was a fantastic surprise. Hundreds of gorgeous gnarled trees grow up there, many of which are surely thousands of years old, though there are lots of young ones and even brand new sprouts as well.
As we neared the ridge, I was fighting real exhaustion as I felt the stirrings of a cold coming on. We gratefully dropped our packs on a small balcony near the crest, perhaps the only campable spot anywhere near where we hoped to photograph. I was quite concerned about the sickness and what the next day might bring, but we were up there and I was not about miss my enjoyment of the evening and morning.
Most Great Basin ranges tend to be more dramatic on the side that’s been uplifted, but Currant is an exception. The Devonian Guilmette Formation’s thick layers seem to have sloughed off any overlying strata or rubble as they plunge downward to the east. The tilt of the mountain is stunningly obvious and the giant eroded bowls of its east face form some amazing terrain. Currant is the highest thing for many miles around, so its east side is well situated to glow with the morning’s first light.
Early light on tilted strata and bristlecones:
I had hoped to make the summit that morning, and we gave it a try. But I knew that our photogenic approach did not put us on the standard route. We spent a couple entertaining and spicy hours scrambling around Currant’s high ridges and catwalks, but between the complexity of the terrain, my still present illness and the ticking clock, we left the true summit for another time and headed down. The southern White Pine Range and the Currant Mountain Wilderness are not easy places to visit, but they are a highly rewarding and remarkable slice of Nevada backcountry, and I hope that I’ll be returning.
For a warm-up evening before a bigger outing in eastern Nevada, Greg Russell and I hiked a jeep road up the west side of Ward Mountain in the Egan Range. Like so much of this region, the Egan Range is generously banded with layers of Paleozoic limestone, and here the layers form an upper and a lower terrace of rolling sagebrush slopes set between cliffy outcrops. We chose the lower terrace, and followed the two-track road as it rose and fell in and out of drainages.
A panorama I shot for fun, which gives a better view of cliffs that for the two parallel terraces:
This part of Nevada is better watered and lusher than many parts of the state, and the canyons were full of healthy fir stands, plus occasional signs of surface water. We even had a glimpse of a small arch in a limestone tower below us. The sage was green and thick, and I expect that these slopes could see excellent wildflowers at the right time of year. Eventually, we found a spot and waited for some evening light to break through the haze of wildfire smoke that now seems to be a regular feature of August in the American West.
The Egan Range runs far to the north and south, and contains several designated wilderness areas, many canyons, at least one mapped arch, some major caves and some big cliffs. It’s a little-known landscape with a ton of potential for backpacking, photography and enjoying natural history, and I hope to return for plenty more!
Of all the U.S. National Parks, one I never really expected I’d ever visit is Hot Springs. But expectations seldom mean much, and family connections brought me to central Arkansas this June, determined to see and enjoy this rather obscure and idiosyncratic National Park.
Hot Springs is hardly a wilderness park, but it does encompass several forested mountains, relatively undeveloped by local standards. To see a bit of the park’s backcountry, I was up and at a trailhead an hour before sunrise. 88 degrees and 95% humidity at 5:00 in the morning is rough going for a high desert dweller like me, and hiking these forests in the summer inspires a lot of respect, sympathy and a little horror for the lives of the native Americans and early settlers who inhabited these parts.
A couple miles on a lightly used trail, liberally laced with spider webs, brought me to Balanced Rock, an outcrop of boulders that provided a focal point and a view of the surrounding woods. The boulders are made of Arkansas novaculite, an attractive, hard, pale rock that reminded me of the beautiful quartzites in Idaho’s Lemhi Range. The geologic map of this region is fascinatingly convoluted with lots of impressive folding, and these mountains would be a wonderful geologic playground were they a little less afflicted by trees.
The balance point of Balanced Rock:
The hike out in peaceful morning solitude was graced by a tortoise and some beautiful flowers (identification welcome!):
Those big geologic folds funnel water down into the earth and send it back warm to the surface. Hot Springs was originally preserved in 1832, the first time the U.S. federal government took action to protect a natural resource. In the late 1800s, almost all of the springs were capped and diverted into bathhouses, and Bathhouse Row forms the core of the park. A couple small springs are still permitted to flow above ground a little, but one can only imagine what this hillside once looked like with dozens of streams of warm water cascading down to the now buried creek.
The historic buildings of Bathhouse Row are interesting and mostly attractive, though some of the more monumental and institutional architecture is definitely a product of its time. The Rehabilitation Center (below) and the Arlington Hotel are enormous and rather looming. The former was used to provide spa treatments to U.S. soldiers, and the bathhouses offered many early attempts at physical therapy, some of which were likely ahead of their time, while others make one happy not to have lived 100 years ago.
In its time, Hot Springs was a popular destination for the well-heeled (including Al Capone and the Mob), and it has some nice examples of early 20th Century opulence. For instance, the Edwardian parlor in the Fordyce Bathhouse (which is now the Park visitor center):
Blooming magnolias and a painted facade:
Hot Springs is certainly an unusual member of the National Park system, but it has plenty of historic and natural interest, and I’m glad to have had a chance to see it.
The seasons have turned, and I haven’t had too much time for photography. But the last week has brought some welcome summer monsoon moisture, and a marvelous run of evening storm clouds that go crazy with color at sunset. For the last two evenings in a row, the entire valley has been blanketed in honey-colored glow.
I often shy away a bit from photographing on evenings like these, since the color is just so lurid. But sometimes such light shows are impossible to resist.
The new normal around here seems to be a disappointing winter followed by some stormier spells in spring (see, for instance, May 8th last year, when we got our biggest snowfall of the entire 2014-15 season). This spring is playing out along the same lines, with the drought of February and March followed by some satisfying April storms. Though none of these recent systems have been especially epic in terms of actual precipitation, they’ve provided some epic views of the Sierra!
I don’t get too many opportunities to photograph fog here in the Great Basin desert, but the storm system a few weeks ago brought some beautiful shifting banks of mist to the forest around Westgard Pass in the White Mountains.
A few beams from the rising sun made the fog especially beautiful.
Colorful volcanic rock, sweeping empty valleys and shafts of sunlight breaking through winter storm clouds made for a glorious January afternoon in the badlands of Esmeralda County, Nevada.
Looking across the Columbus Valley playa to the Candelaria Hills and the Pilot Range:
A tranquil dawn in remote western Nevada, as the sun rose on the dry sediments of an ancient lakebed – even in one of the driest regions of North America, the memory of water is always written on the landscape.
Nevada’s highpoint, Boundary Peak, together with its conjoined twin Montgomery, look down from over 8,500 feet above, over the Volcanic Hills to the playa.
Here are a couple semi-abstract views from last summer, on a warm evening with hazy skies from distant fires, above the Monitor Valley Playa in central Nevada. Monitor Valley is one of Nevada’s most beautiful, high up at around 6,000 feet, remote, unencumbered by any paved roads in its 70-mile length, empty save for a few small ranches, and flanked on either side by the relatively lush and wild Monitor and Toquima Ranges.
Great Basin playas are each a little different, and their colors can be very interesting, particularly under the light of changing skies. This one appeared to be quite wet, set among grasslands green from the summer rains.
Wildflower report from a flying visit to Death Valley yesterday:
One thing most people seem to neglect in reporting wildflowers is mention of places where they DIDN’T see anything. This is also useful information. We didn’t see any blooms of note crossing Panamint Valley. There was a little desert gold getting going as you head up the east side around 2k elevation, but not extensive yet – maybe in another week. We took a brief look half a mile down the road to Trona – nothing yet. Basically nothing in Darwin Canyon. Nothing much coming down into DV from Towne Pass either, except an isolated patch by Emigrant Campground.
Badwater area and south is still very much the place – starting around Natural Bridge turnoff, things get good. The desert gold photographed the best, but some of the fans around Badwater were covered in in primroses, with purple phacelia making a showing as well. We went as far as the Copper Canyon fan, which was awesome.
If one didn’t want to head down to Badwater for some reason, there’s also a lot of desert gold between Furnace Creek and Salt Creek, and along the Beatty cutoff.
I’d love to hear what people are seeing up the road to Ubehebe, towards Cottonwood Canyon, on the West Side Road, or in other parts of Panamint Valley! Even if the answer is “nothing,” it’s good to know.
Born in New Mexico, raised in Wyoming and Montana, the mountain west has always been my home. I come from mountaineering families on both sides: my maternal grandfather was a pioneering climber in the Sierra Nevada, while my father guided in the Tetons and climbed in China and Nepal. Both my parents guided for Outward Bound. I ran my first river at nine months old, and have been hiking and backpacking longer than I can remember. My other major influence has been my step-father, Stephen Bodio, a nature writer, falconer and traveler, and as fine a family member as I could hope to have.
I studied black and white photography in high school, under an excellent teacher, but failed to apply myself. After high school, I began guiding for ARTA River Trips, and my interest in photography gradually rekindled as I endeavored to share with friends and family my work in the finest landscapes of the American West. Meanwhile, I studied classical literature, philosophy and history of mathematics at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity in 2005. I am currently living with my wife and son in Deep Springs Valley on the Nevada-California border.
Photographically, I travel light and prefer to shoot off pavement and explore unknown locations. My favorite landscapes include the unknown expanses and little-visited mountains of rural New Mexico, the canyons of Dinosaur National Monument, and the vast wilderness of Central Idaho. I have also been fortunate enough to travel in Turkey and Mongolia, and can’t wait to do more.