A Moment of Autumn

Mount Baldwin over Aspens

This fall season has not been productive for me photographically, but I did get out for one short but glorious fall color hike in the Eastern Sierra. The geologist in me loves that some of the Sierra’s best aspens are paired with some of their most colorful metamorphic peaks!

Fall Trail

Tilted Limestone

Currant Mountain Sunrise

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.

Marine fossils (upper right) at 11,000 feet

Marine fossils (upper right) at 11,000 feet

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.

Duckwater Peak and Bristlecones

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.

Greg Russell photographing sunset on Currant Mountain

Greg Russell photographing sunset on Currant Mountain

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.

Flowers, Limestone, Dawn

Early light on tilted strata and bristlecones:

Strata Detail

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.

Sunrise Strata

Egan Range

Lower Terrace and Valley

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.

Limestone Waves

A panorama I shot for fun, which gives a better view of cliffs that for the two parallel terraces:

Lower Terrace Panorama

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.

Egan Range Rabbitbrush

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!

Terrace and Peak

Hot Springs

Balanced Rock Moonset

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.

Boulders in Forest

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.

Geologic Map Hot Springs

The balance point of Balanced Rock:

Balanced Rock Contact

The hike out in peaceful morning solitude was graced by a tortoise and some beautiful flowers (identification welcome!):

Arkansas Tortoise

Orange and Green

Leaves and Petals

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.

Spring and Pool

Display Spring Pool

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.

Hot Springs Buildings

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):

Fordyce Parlor

Blooming magnolias and a painted facade:

Main Street Magnolias

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.

Downtown in Trees

Summer Storms

Deep Springs in Gold

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.

Gilbert Pass Lightshow

Monsoon Mammatus

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.

Chocolate Mountain Cloud Epic

Druid Rainbow

Spring Storms

Owens Storm Cascade

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!

Cloudripper Snow

Fog in Piñon Forest

Westgard Fog Layers

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.

Westgard Fog Trees

A few beams from the rising sun made the fog especially beautiful.

Westgard Fog Bank

Badlands and Storm

Color in Storm

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.

Volcanic Hills under Cloud

Looking across the Columbus Valley playa to the Candelaria Hills and the Pilot Range:

Sun under Storm

Columbus Valley Sunrise

Columbus Playa

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.

Columbus Valley Watercourse

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.

Boundary Peak Dawn

Summer Playa

Monitor Playa Detail

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.

Monitor Playa