Dinosaur National Monument Turns 100

Happy 100th birthday to Dinosaur National Monument! Originally created on October 4th, 1915 as a small preserve around a quarry of dinosaur bones in northeastern Utah, Teddy Roosevelt later expanded the monument to include the canyons of the Green and Yampa Rivers. I’m extremely fortunate to have enjoyed the monument and its canyons during eleven of its hundred years, and it remains one of my favorite places in the world.

Rio Gallina

Gallina Cliffs

An oldie from a few years back: the Rio Gallina in the Chama River Canyon Wilderness, northern New Mexico.


Tepee Springs Fire Descending

Our trip on Idaho’s Salmon River last week certainly proved interesting. After five days of heavy smoke and floating past a couple mellow burn areas, we started to hear rumors from other trips of a more active fire along the takeout road. So at least we weren’t surprised to find a pair of public servants dressed in fire gear waiting for us at the Carey Creek boat ramp to escort us through the Tepee Springs Fire.

Smoke, Trees, Sun

One happy surprise was that our vehicles were waiting for us, probably the last ones to be shuttled in before the road was closed to public traffic, absolutely filthy with the ash that had been raining down on the river corridor. So we loaded up, and then began to follow a very speedy pilot car down the heavily washboarded road. But only a few miles downstream, we stopped and were told to get out and talk to the incident commander. His name was Chris, he was a very pleasant and mellow local from McCall, Idaho He told us the fire was burning fast down a steep slope towards the road and the Manning Creek Bridge, and that we would therefore be spending the night there at a small inholding with the hotshot crews.

Howard Ranch Smoke

We were invited to hang out in our vehicles and run our air conditioners, but I don’t think the fire fighters realized that a) the smoke levels were child’s play compared to what we’d put up with for the previous week; and b) a bunch of long-time Idaho river guides aren’t that intimidated by being near an active burn. Though we all did our best to be very conscientious about following the firefighters’ instructions and staying out of their way, what we really wanted was to have some beers and enjoy the show.

Burning Snag

Trees and Fire

I’ve floated and driven past a good number of fires over the years, but this was the first time I’ve hung out by one for 16 hours with a camera and tripod handy. The fire personnel we talked to were all very friendly and sociable. They gave us a bunch of MREs to eat, which made the kids in our group pretty happy, and Eli (my son) got a real hotshot glowstick, which made it the best day ever for him.

Fire Season Camping

Ground Burn

As expected, the fire burned down from the ridge toward the river, and also headed upstream the way we had come. The little ranch compound was an island in the red glow, quickly being surrounded. It would have been a very unnerving situation if we hadn’t had engines, pressurized hoses, lawn sprinklers and a bunch of hotshots around us. After dark, we started to hear the reports of the firefighters’ flare pistols as the ignited a backburn in the dry cheatgrass above the ranch.

Blaze over Water

The firefighters told us that we were very lucky to get great views of a fire behaving well in calm conditions, with operations going as planned. I couldn’t disagree – the flames and the reflections in the Salmon were dramatic and beautiful.

Salmon River Burning

Chris, the incident commander, evidently wanted to offer us good surprises rather than bad ones; he’d told us repeatedly that we might be there all the next day, maybe even the day after, as we waited for the mile of road to the bridge to become safe. A vigorous fire on a steep slope like the one above the road really loosens up the soil as all the shrubs and roost systems are burned out, so falling rocks, boulders and smoldering logs were to be expected. But we got lucky. In mid-morning we got word that the road was okay, at least for now, and that we should pack up. Though they were gracious hosts, I’m sure the fire crews were eager to have us out of their hair, and we were eager to be gone, especially as the winds were already starting up. We’re all pretty efficient, and we got going in a hurry, weaving around only a few small rocks and burning logs in the road. It felt great to be across the river and onto pavement, as we watched more flames on the south side of the Salmon. Later that day, the fire jumped the river and grew rapidly, and we saw massive smoke clouds billowing up as we enjoyed breakfast in Riggins. It was an amazing show, and I’m glad to have seen it, but I won’t be disappointed if I never see it again. Idaho rivers and the American West being what they are, however, I doubt it’s the last major fire I’ll witness.

Fire and Water

At the time of this writing, the Tepee Springs Fire is over 94,000 acres, and despite receiving a little rain recently is only 30% contained. Many thanks and best wishes for the firefighters working there and throughout the West!

Lemhi Valley

Lemhi Valley Clouds

A client recently asked me for images of Idaho’s Lemhi Valley. Though I didn’t have anything which met her rather specific requirements, it was a pleasure to look through my archives from the area. Here are a few I like enough to share. The search definitely made me miss the area, with its rolling foothills, wildflowers and beckoning views of seldom-visited mountain ranges.

Lemhi Valley View

Carmen Creek

Lemhi Valley Twilight

Off to Idaho

Grass River Cloud

We’re leaving tomorrow for an eight-day river trip on the Main Salmon in Idaho – basically a repeat of our summer vacation last year, only this time with even more smoke. What had been a surprisingly mild fire season in central Idaho blew up last week, and there are now numerous active burns, including one that we’ll be floating right by in the river canyon.I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I may get some photos that are actually dramatic, rather than merely hazy. But it’s hardly the first time I’ve rafted through active burns, and a wilderness river is always a thing of beauty.

Whitewater at Twilight, Salmon River, Idaho

Alpine Horses in the Toquimas

Toquima Horses and Aspens

Cresting a gentle rise on the summit plateau of Mount Jefferson, the highest massif in central Nevada, I was looking for wildlife. We (Greg Russell and I) had already seen three bighorn rams and an assortment of raptors, so I had high hopes, but to peek over the hill and look a group of wild horses in the eye was not what I saw expecting on alpine tundra 11,600 feet above sea level.

Toquima Horses Basin

The horses watched us warily as we circled and slowly approached them. We were certainly very eager not to appear threatening, but the country was open, and they certainly didn’t feel cornered. Their pasture was a broad swale sloping easily to the headwaters of a small creek, which flowed gently west until its valley plunged into the precipitous canyons of Mount Jefferson’s massive west face. Green grass and aspens were visible, though thunderstorms the previous day had left a dusting of August snow over the tundra. The horses tolerated us with good grace for almost an hour before they ambled away north to their business, and we walked south to ours.

Toquima Horses Cliffs

Only a few minutes later, as we made our way down a steeper outcrop, Greg spotted a beautiful arrowhead of white chert lying among the tundra flowers. The Toquima Range is know for its prehistoric high-elevation habitation, but to stumble across such tangible and splendid evidence was a thrill. Later we would find flakes of the same material (possibly chalcedony, if this page is to be believed) down at the base of the range. I’d love to know where the stone was sourced – I assume it would be somewhere conveniently local if it was used in lieu of trading for Mono obsidian.

Toquima Point

Memory of Rain

Memory of Rain

Actually, there’s been a lot of rain here in the western Great Basin lately, but it’s still a desert. These particular raindrops and sediments fell and flowed in Chalfant Valley, Mono County, California.

Two Hills

Two Hills

Two hills, Gilbert Pass, White Mountains, California – we’re enjoying a touch of summer monsoon weather, and even a bit of recent rain.


Pupfish Ripples

“Cyprinodon salinus is so very alone in the world. One of its subspecies is restricted to a thin bead of water a few miles long in the best of seasons, the other is exiled to a universe of less than one-half square mile. But measurements…. do not accurately describe the isolation of Cyprinodon salinus. To grasp this solitude it is necessary to sit on a ridge above Salt Creek and look down the long, broad spread of Death Valley, the bounding march of the Panamint and Amargosa ranges plundering the miles, and consider what it means to be so lost in the great sprawl of the Basin and Range country, to have swam into such an aching solitude, the years and sand and salt and vast distance spiraling away from your only home, like the land itself.”

– Christopher Norment, Relicts of a Beautiful Sea


There are many wonders in Death Valley, most of them mineral – badlands, canyons, mountains, tortured erosion, volcanic craters, salt, convolutions of rock layers whose arrangements and disarrangements speak of vast time and unfathomable forces. The depth, the heat, the light, the dryness are what we think of when we come to the place to be appalled at its barrenness. The thin veneer of visible life, the plants whose shapes have themselves come to seem quasi-mineral and the animals living their hardscrabble existence in such harsh desert, these creatures inspire sympathy and admiration for their tenacity. But one of Death Valley’s greatest wonders is perhaps its humblest, the one that simply should not be there, could never be imagined in such a place: fish.

Pupfish Ripples

The Salt Creek pupfish inhabit just a few short miles of below-sea-level stream where Death Valley’s subterranean water is briefly pushed to the surface by the underlying geology. This small habitat shrinks enormously in the summer, when air temperatures commonly exceed 120F and the creek’s water evaporates rapidly and grows twice as salty as seawater. Their neighboring subspecies, the Cottonball Marsh pupfish, has an even smaller and arguably harsher habitat among brackish pools in the salt pan and lives in 100-degree water in the summer. Some pupfish have been found to tolerate the heat by going without oxygen, respiring anaerobically for hours at a time. Yet each year, a population manages to survive the heat and salt to breed again in the cooler season.

Channel Chase

For a creature with such an epic lifestyle, the pupfish are not particularly majestic nor dignified. But they are vigorous and lively, guarding their small territories and chasing mates and rivals with a flitter of blue in water scarcely deep enough to cover their two-inch bodies. In calm stretches of Salt Creek’s clear flow, they hardly seem aquatic at all, appearing to levitate above the desert gravel. When they take a notion to move, they accelerate suddenly, pushing a band of sunlit crescents before them. Though it’s surely anthropomorphizing to think so, one can’t avoid a feeling of joy as they zip about in their small world, unconcerned that 15,000 years of warming and aridity have shrunk their great Pleistocene lakes to a few patches of moisture amid the ranks of stony mountains and scorching basins.


“Once there was more water: giant lakes arrayed like fingers splayed in soft sand, tracking the basins…. It would have been something – to stand above Death Valley and see a lake 80 miles long and 600 feet deep, cupped between the Panamint and Funeral Mountains. Lake Lahontan, Lake Russell, Searles Lake, Panamint Lake, Lake Manly: gone these last 10,000 years, gone with the giant ground sloths and saber-toothed cats, gone with the glaciers. The gulls that wheeled above the lakes, the fish that swam through the waters, the snails that crawled amid the algae and reeds – all the creatures that lived with the waters would have gone elsewhere if they were able, or perished, or followed the dying streams into springs and hidden canyons. And in these places the descendants of these refugees have lived on for generation after generation, wedded to the promise of water flowing from the mountains or rising up from the ground, a liquid fossil drifting through thick beds of rock and time.”

–  Christopher Norment, Relicts of a Beautiful Sea

Shallow Pool

Maze of Granite, Oasis in Stone

Wild Granite Morning

Down an obscure dirt road, up a thousand feet of scree, sand and unwelcoming piñon forest, and through an obstacle course of massive boulders, and you’ll at last reach an intimate view of what is surely one of Nevada’s most remarkable rock outcrops. Back in the Mesozoic, as the Farallon Plate subducted beneath the west edge of North America, it sent forth a host of granite bubbles which would eventually form the Sierra Nevada, plus a few further east in the future Great Basin. This one intruded into the convoluted taffy pull of fault-contorted strata that would one day be lifted up to form the Toiyabe Range. The Toiyabes are one of the Great Basin’s more geologically and topographically diverse ranges, and the spires, walls and gorges of this granite-lined drainage form a forbidding scenic climax in the mountains’ eastern flank.

Toiyabe Granite

My visit to the area coincided with one of the many pulses of Pacific moisture that have been giving our region an unusually wet May, welcome moisture and consolation after a historically dismal, precipitation-free winter. I scouted a trailless path to promising views surrounded by mist and rain squalls, and went to bed with high hopes for a dramatic sunrise, but as I started uphill in the early dark I saw nothing but thick clouds. I hoped for a break to the east at dawn which never materialized. At last, forty minutes after sunrise, a few pale beams managed to break through the gray. It was not the light I hoped would complement such a landscape, but it was something. I’ll be wishing for better luck on future visits.

McCloud Descent

Once the chance of dawn light was well and truly over, I picked my way downhill into the maze in hope of reaching the creek. Rumor has it that people occasionally climb these formations, and I was hoping I might stumble upon an informal trail to ease the way. If any such paths exist, I didn’t find them. But I did make my way down to a beautiful stretch of creek where the small stream threaded its way over waterfalls in a gorge of polished granite slickrock.

McCloud Spiral Falls

The riparian trees were glowing spring green, and flowers and moss formed miniature gardens below the massive walls and brush-choked slopes, without the slightest sign of human visitation.

McCloud Microgarden

McCloud Shooting Star Cluster

Overhanging Garden

McCloud Creek Cleft

This is why I love Nevada.  The state can often appear to be nothing more than unending desert and sage with nondescript arid ranges marching to the horizon; in truth, that aspect of the landscape appeals to me. But the outcrops of fantastic geology, the hidden pockets of lushness and water tucked away among innumerable mountains, these isolated treasures bring life and magic to the vast spaces. They evoke ecologic memories of Pleistocene lakes and ice, whispers of the expanse of geologic time, and their intimacy and rarity make the endless ridges and basins of their surroundings seem to spread even wider. Emerging from the granite maze, the sweep of the Toiyabe front stretches away as the clouds brush the peaks, a breath of moisture blowing east through the empty land.

Toiyabe Rain


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