Category Archives: Travel

Top Ten Destinations in the West

Published: January 26, 2018

Well, What Sea?

Well After Sunset Along the Pacific Coast


I know my top ten may not be the same as your top ten. After all what interests me may NOT interest you (though for the life of me I can’t think why not!)  As a Landscape Astrophotographer I tend to gravitate to interesting views, unusual geology, natural landscapes and places where the sky is dark and clear at night.  I’m not a city guy. The chance that you’ll find me in a tavern or night club is extremely slim.  And while I do appreciate great architecture, and (ancient) history you’re much more likely to find me on a mountain top or along the shoreline or in the desert. Forests feel crowded to me unless they are surrounded by granite, basalt, sand dunes or lava.  Flat is usually boring.

I also want to be frank that this list is based on the places *I* have been. There is an equally long list of places I have NOT been but where I wish to go.  I’ve also narrowed this list to Nevada, California, Western Utah and Arizona. I am listing my destinations in order of the eye appeal and “spiritual oneness” I get from visiting them.  I’ve also provided some hints what seasons are best, and the amount of effort it takes to reach these places.

 

    1. Nightfall at Cathedral PeakYosemite National Park.  There is a really good reason Yosemite is so heavily visited. The first time I drove into the valley with the family I went slack-jawed. It is hard to imagine how beautiful Yosemite is. And the first time I stood on Half Dome – long before permits are required to make that hike – I literally wept – and not just because the hike was arduous, but because the view makes the heart flutter.  You feel tiny and the granite feels big and solid.  Yosemite is a very large park and there are four primary areas to visit.
      A> The valley which in the summer is overrun with tourists, and noise and distractions but quiet and beautiful when snow laden in the winter.  The summer is also when the mighty Yosemite Fall becomes a whimper. To really be astounded the best time to visit Yosemite Valley is in the early spring.  Late April to Early May.
      B> Another area of Yosemite worth visiting is the entire Tioga Pass road: especially Tuolumne Meadows area. There is awesomeness nearly everywhere along the 54 miles of road and it is always less busy than the valley. Warning: Tioga Road (Hwy 120) closes November through May.
      C> A third place that is justly popular for its scenic splendor is Glacier Point. The road to this amazing overlook is also closed in winter.
      D> And finally there is Wawona and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees. Impressive, but not as impressive as the huge trees elsewhere in California e.g. in Big Basin State Park.
      There are also many, many spectacular landscapes to be seen far from anywhere a car can go. Some of the most rewarding views of Yosemite require backpacking into the High Country, like the photo above which is Cathedral Lake – a trail from Tioga Road.


    2. Reaching for the Sky Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, California. Lone Pine is a small town with plenty of restaurants. But at the doorstep of Lone Pine are the Alabama Hills – bizarre rounded rock formations many of which you have probably seen before in movies like Planet of the Apes and car commercials and westerns.  It’s a gorgeous landscape with so, so many places to explore. There is plenty of quiet in Alabama Hills and there are many places to roll up and enjoy the dark skies and the fantastic rock formations. Rising out of Alabama Hills is mount Whitney – the tallest mountain in the United States – the lower 48, that is.  Alabama Hills is lovely in any season – prefer late fall – but beware the summers can get hot. 100 degrees Farenheit is not unusual.  A high clearance vehicle is definitely a plus if you want to go on some of the dicier roads, but not needed for the main roads.  There is a good reason we offer workshops here. It’s awesome.

    3. Mono Lake South Tufas before Dawn [4776] *Explored*Mono Lake near Lee Vinning, California.  Mono lake has a very alien vibe due to the tufa formations that have been revealed because of Los Angeles’ thirst for water.  Mono Lake has grown touristy – it’s not unusual to see a busload of photographers disembark and jostle for the best spots to set up a tripod. Despite that, Mono Lake is well worth a look. Not far from Mono Lake are other interesting attractions like Bodie – a ghost town, June Lake and the June Lake Loop, and the entire stretch of the Eastern Sierras all the way down to Alabama Hills. Any season is good to visit Mono Lake, but winters are harsh and cold.

    4. Dream Highway [C_071601]Big Sur. Big Sur is the name of a town in about the middle of a region loosely defined by a long stretch of winding Pacific Coast road (Highway 1) that runs from Carmel, California all the way down to Cambria. The Hearst Castle which is an interesting historical, artistic, and cultural anomaly can be found in San Simeon. The road hugs tall mountain cliffs with sheer drop offs into the often churning Pacific Ocean below. If I have to pick a favorite spot in Big Sur that’s easy. Pfeiffer Beach.  Often in the summer in particular Big Sur can be cold, foggy and windy, but really any time is good to go. If you’ve never dipped a toe in the Northern California Pacific Ocean, don’t expect it to be warm EVER.  Big surf comes in the winter – from November to February. Accommodations along Big Sur are scarce, expensive and heavily booked especially when school is out. And there are LOTS of destinations worth visiting: Point Lobos, Pfeiffer Beach, McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

    5. Famous III [C_035478]
      White Mountain, near Bishop, California. If you want to see the most amazing and oldest living things on the planet you will need to drive up White Mountain to the Patriarch Grove or at least to the Schulman Grove.  And while Bishop to the West and Nevada cities to the east are doing their best to light pollute the skies, it is still well dark there and you will see the Milky Way if you look.  Like many other places, the road is often closed in the winter, but it usually closes later than the Sierra roads and opens sooner.


    6. The Overlook at Zabriskie Point 7118Death Valley National Park.  First you need to know that Death Valley is HUGE. And yes, it is extremely hot from late spring to mid fall. But the spring flowers can be amazing and the scale of the place is hard to fathom.  And while it is a desert, you may be shocked at how colorful it is. As with many places in the west, the most desolate and difficult to reach areas of Death Valley are the most interesting: the Racetrack Playa, the peculiar Darwin Falls, Eureka Dunes and Dante’s View.  Expect to travel hundreds of miles to see all these things and to pay a princely sum on gasoline.  If you go, you had better visit Zabriskie Point – sunrise is better than sunset at the point. Accommodations are hard to find.  If forced to choose between Death Valley and the Grand Canyon, Death Valley wins easily.

    7. Watching the Watchman [42-011228]Zion National Park, Hurricane, Utah. I’ve visited Zion in the winter when snow and Navajo Sandstone conspire to make a beautiful landscape, and in the summer. I preferred the winter. My wife took this photo.

    8. Snow Flocked Bryce Canyon [IMG_151594]Bryce Canyon. Unfortunately I have only visited in the winter. It was drop dead gorgeous with the snow and the hoodoos.

    9. The Colorado River Makes A Grand ArcHorsehoe Bend. The scale and grandeur of this magnificent bend in the Colorado river is every bit – and more – breathtaking than any vista I’ve ever seen in the Grand Canyon. And Horsehoe Bend has the great advantage of being very close to the Antelope Slot Canyons and Page, Arizona. Page is a large enough city to rest and resupply in. Lake Powell is nearby, too. Horsehoe Bend is “just one place” and is easily accessible with about a 1/2 mile walk from the road.

    10. The Goodbye Look [5-001753]
      Antelope Valley Slot Canyons. On Navajo tribal lands it’s worth every penny you might be charged for a tour.  When you stroll through this majestic place – even if you do so amidst throngs of tourists you’ll find it hard to not feel a oneness with the beautiful and intimate windswept colors and curves.


    11. Black Rock Desert, Gerlach, Nevada. If you look up the definition of desolate, this place might well be mentioned in a footnote.  Unless you make the mistake of going during the Burning Man festival in which case this empty flat dry lakebed ringed with modestly sized mountains becomes a sprawling metropolis of what seems like a zillion people. Or so I’ve been told. The good news is it is still very dark here.  It did not make my top ten, but it did beat out the rest of our list.

    12. Lake Tahoe – Many places around this picturesque lake to drink in photos and views.
    13. Mount Shasta – Right off highway 5 going north/south you’ll find vistas, waterfalls, and some remarkable history and views.
    14. Lassen National Park
    15. Sedona, Arizona – Hard to argue with the wind sculpted Navajo Sandstone all around.
    16. Tucson, Arizona – Not only are there desert stretches, the Saguaro National Forest, Mount Lemmon, and the Santa Catalina Mountains, but also Kitt Peak Observatory and many dark areas around. Unlike, e.g. Phoenix which is Las Vegas – like in its light pollution intensity.
    17. San Francisco – As cities go, San Francisco has many lovely vistas and landmarks. Especially from, e.g. the Marin Headlands.
    18. Seattle – like San Francisco, Seattle has some great views, landmarks and vistas. They are a little harder to find because of the heavy forests all around. But when it is clear enough to see the Space Needle, Mount Ranier, or the snow covered Olympic Mountains, it is awesome.

    How Do These Rank Against my Top 7 Most Beautiful Places in the World?

    I’m not as well-traveled as some, but I’ve been quite a few places. Here are my top 7 most gorgeous places to be – ranked from 7th to 1st.

    • Horsehoe Bend, Page, Arizona. Described above.
    • Antelope Slot Canyon, Navajo Lands near Page, Arizona. Described above.
    • Petra, Jordan.  The ancient, expansive and elaborate hand carved tombs of this ancient Nabatean city are winsome. And to make the stay even more pleasant the many Bedouin people I met while there made me feel very welcome.
    • Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California.  Described above.
    • Patriarch Grove, White Mountain, California. Described above.
    • Thira/Oia/Firostefani, Santorini, Greece
    • Granite Park, Inyo National Forest, California. On my GPS I put “Saw God here” – it was THAT awesome. Granite Park is well above the tree line at about 11,000 feet and it will take a serious back-packing effort to reach it.

Got a top 5 super favorite place in the west we did not list? Please comment (and include a photograph).

Cruising

Publish Date: 29-November-2016

I, Steven, have recently completed one of my bucket list items… capturing stars and astro landscapes aboard a cruise ship. My interest in the idea is based on several observations:

  1. Night photography can be about movement – like star trails, for example – and cruise ships move.
  2. Cruise ships go to and through some of the darkest spots on earth – far away from any land producing artificial light
  3. Being aboard a ship means NOT having to drive anywhere or fly anywhere. Bed, food, drink and entertainment are never farther away than the length of a football field.
  4. I can still spend time with my family rather than alone in the wilderness because… we are all in the same “wilderness” at the same time.

brillianceoftheseas

My particular cruise was aboard the Brilliance of the Seas by Royal Carribbean. The ship departed from Tampa, Florida to Key West, then to Cozumel and back to Tampa. The good news is the things I feared most did not happen: I only gained 1.5 pounds and none of my equipment fell into the sea. I also had no motion sickness – though some I traveled with were uncomfortable in what were relatively light seas.

Sunrises, Sunsets and TimeStacks

It does not have to be all about night photography, right?  My travel from the West Coast to the East Coast for the cruise made it a lot easier for me to be awake at sunset and near impossible to greet a sunrise.
Sunset Reversal

Location Is Important

These two trails were taken on different days (one when the ship was cruising south, another two nights later when cruising north). Both were taken from Deck 5 with no moon. The first trail was from near the bow (front of the ship), the other from off the stern (back).

South Bound

South bound star trails from near the bow of the ship** Please read below for how I got here… it is an important detail.

Stern Seas

Looking south from the stern of a north bound cruise – with unfortunate clouds – but look at all the motion!  That bright  streak (and the cloud illuminated above it) are another passing cruise ship.

The ship was steadier when southbound – thus the first star trail looks pretty normal. The second one from the stern of the ship looks like a seismograph! Want to get a feel for the motion from the stern? Watch the video.

Tips and Insights

I did not meet any resistance or complaints from the crew or passengers using my tripod on deck. That is in part because I was mostly using it at night and had already scouted out areas to place it. My first recommendation is to …

Scout!

First scout your vessel thoroughly… do this before embarking (using deck plans available on the internet), then during the first day, and at night.  I discovered that a passageway open during the day, was gated at night. Unfortunately, that passage led to the darkest part of the ship. More about this in a minute.

Too Little Darkness on Board

Cruise ships are floating cities, and like cities, lights are everywhere and unavoidable. Onboard the Brilliance there were 2 darkish places to go and one dark place where I could not go*. One darkish spot was the top deck toward the bow. There are lights everywhere, but if you shield your eyes and moved deck chairs to cover over some of the bulkhead lights you could make out stars. What I could see, however, was nowhere near the glory that I’ve seen in even moderately rural areas. A darkish spot – mentioned by guest relations, was the starboard (right hand) side of deck 5 near the stern (back of the boat). Again, lots of lights everywhere, but that area was dark enough that with some eye shielding I could easily make out Orion.

See the next photo to see just how much light a ship casts about… the moon illuminated the sky as well – but you wouldn’t be able to see even this many stars by eye in a dark clear sky in any normal area of the ship.

Over the Railing

The light from the ship illuminates the water around it, while the moon illuminates the sky (Cuba is glowing in the distance). Notice how the ship’s pitching and rolling turned stars into squiggles.

Getting Where it Is Really Dark

You may be wondering how I pulled off the photography on the bow given that the passageway was barred at night. It happened innocently. I took advantage of a quirk on the Brilliance of the Seas. In the theater on the ship on the upper level there are what are best described as “box” seats adjacent to the wings of the stage. That area has nearby doors, one marked “Exit” the others are marked crew only. I took the “Exit” and it put me out by the passage to the Helicopter landing pad on the bow of the ship.  There was then another “gate” barring access to the helicopter landing area itself – but it was plenty dark up front. I swung my tripod up on the helopad area and controlled it with my intervalometer being careful to create as little light as possible. That’s how I got images for the first of two star trails above. I then stood at the outer rail of the helipad and took a panorama of the bridge area. Straight up and forward were MUCH darker.

Much of the crew area and the wheel house spanning the entire front of the ship is kept dark with little extra light.

Much of the crew area and the wheel house spanning the entire front of the ship is kept dark with minimal extra light. Note how much light there is on the top deck where you can see silhouettes of passengers through the glass. This is a stitched 4-shot panorama.

Packing for the Cruise

For a 5 day cruise, I took one camera, two smaller lenses batteries and a tripod. I packed almost all of my clothing for the trip inside a single large (carry-on size) bag with some extras in a small carry on “personal item”. That packing arrangement works great for short trips. To accommodate “Formal Night” I stole some space in my wife’s luggage for dress shoes and a suit.

Would You Like To See Celestial Delights On a Cruise?

Knowing that many travelers have never seen a properly dark night sky, I contacted Royal Caribbean and let them know I thought a potentially great ship resource was untapped. If you had a chance to view incredibly dark skies on board your cruise ship, would you relish that opportunity?  Please let us know in a comment below or on our Facebook Page. Perhaps the cruise line will contract SCA to teach night photography in addition to the many other courses on board. I, for one, would love to get on a dark deck and stare up into the Geminid meteor shower – or view the Milky Way at its finest.!

We Are Always Tweaking

Original Publish Date: 12-November-2015
Last Revision: 12-November-2015

When we get questions on our older columns, we often answer them directly and update the articles to reflect new information. For example, when we originally published our three part series on Finding and Photographing the Milky Way we had no clue they would be our most read articles. Over time we added more charts, and tables, including a table listing when the best time is to spot the Milky Way – alas, not October through February.

The Milky Way Series

Pointy Land
The articles in the Milky Way series are:


Meteors and Meteor Showers

Celestial Slasher [C_224-9234]

We have also made periodic updates to our articles on photographing meteors and meteor showers.  We point this out because the best shower of the year is the Geminids and that shower occurs December 12-14.  Start planning right now!

To help you out, we have begun adding “Original Publish Dates” and “Last Revised” dates to our articles.  Of course most of the principles we have written about are timeless.

How to Fly with Camera Gear

We, that is, Steven and the Mrs. recently had to attend a funeral on the East Coast. Steven lives on the Left Coast.  If you’re wondering what this post has to do with photography, he will admit that this article is part rant against Delta Airlines and part tips on transporting photography (or other) gear and assorted other tips. I’ve flown all over with my gear both in the US and internationally and picked up a few tips which I offer to you. I would be interested to hear any tips you have as well! If you want to skip the rant and go straight to the tips, just scroll down for the title: “Tips on Traveling with Camera Gear

Fare Tip: Bereavement fares may be available, but those fares are very likely to be a bad deal. Qualifying for a fare requires many hoops to jump through. You may find, as we did, that you can get a much better price by using PriceLine or similar service. Warning, however: you may also discover that you will be treated like a pariah. Our 3 flights went from San Jose, to LAX to Raleigh-Durham. In each flight we were relegated to the non-reclining back row seats.  This means no-resting, and extreme first hand familiarity with the poo bin. Indeed, even the new aircraft we flew on from LAX to ATL actually had direct visual access INTO the bathroom. Arom-rama and people standing around twitching does not really heighten the flying experience in any way.

Book early enough to NOT have to be in or near the back row (hard to do, of course if your travel is of an emergency nature).

But wait, it’s worse!  When we booked we were only able to claim seats on the last leg of our 3-hop circuit. The other two legs were “gate holds”.  When we checked in at the airport desk rather than actually giving us boarding passes for any flights, we were given a “placebo pass” for the first leg and told to claim our boarding passes at the gate. The gate was CHANGED however. It wasn’t actually gate 7, but gate 5.  At gate 5, apparently there was some additional difficulty. The printer was not printing.  No problem, we were told… just stop at any attended counter when we disembark.  Mind you that we only had a 40 minute layover, the plane was late arriving and since we were at the back of the plane we lost still more time while the hordes ahead of us disembarked. We had what seemed to be fractional seconds to exit the plane get boarding passes AND get to the departure gate in another terminal.  The first attended Delta counter employee said “Sorry, we’re really busy with this flight right now, could you please go to another counter?” What did we learn from this?

Insist on getting all of your boarding passes at the beginning. Don’t believe it when they tell you you can get them later – you may not have enough time or cooperation.

We ran to the gate listed on the flight display only to find that the plane we were to take the next 4+ hour ride on was already boarding.  We found ourselves relegated again to the “bathroom seats”. By now we were quite hungry, but without time to even buy a snack in LAX. We were relying on the food (at extra charge) to be served on the long leg of our flight. BUT (you knew there’d be a BUT), they RAN OUT OF FOOD about 12 rows ahead of us.  One bag of peanuts and pretzels were our only sustenance.  On a subsequent leg, beverage service was suspended due to turbulence.  The back half of the plane was unserved – not the airline’s fault, of course, but it is a cautionary tale about being prepared.

Tip: Pack something to eat *and* drink. Something substantial because you can’t trust the airlines (Delta, at least) to have any food for you. Bonus tip, make sure that your food is in your “personal item” since you may not be able to fetch it if there is turbulence, or you have to store your bag far away (see below). Ditto for any medication you might need.

The Delta in flight entertainment screens worked great except for the intermittent pop-up 32 second advertisements that were SO LOUD you literally had to yank off your head phones or risk deafness. Oh, and the Delta attendants were also hawking American Express cards seat to seat. On the way back, I was amused to learn that the entertainment system runs Linux, and crashes!  So a tip here is do not use the Delta entertainment system unless you really want additional aggravation. Besides, they are going to charge you $5 to play Sudoku – you can get the iPhone app for free. Another thing to consider: in my experience about half of the jacks for headphones are marginally to completely non-functional.  You’re better off bringing your own entertainment on board.

Delta Inflight Entertainment Crash

Delta Inflight Entertainment Crash

Tips on Traveling with Camera Gear

As you are probably aware, Delta and many other airlines charge an additional fee if you check baggage. The additional charge has many side effects, including making it take longer to check-in. And of course it also means people are taking MORE on board the airplane to avoid those fees.  The geniuses at Delta (and Virgin) have confounded the problem with their policies. If you lug a huge-ish bag all the way to the gate, they will gate check your bag for FREE. Smart people have concluded that schlepping a large bag to the gate will likely result in not being bilked out of another $50!  The bag fiasco also means that the airline will try really hard to convince you to gate check your bag otherwise there won’t be enough overhead space!

My fully packed f-Stop Tilopa photo bag WITH tripod easily fits in every overhead bin I’ve faced. I usually separate the tripod and put it crosswise in the narrow section at the back of overhead bin. You can also attach the tripod to either side of the bag, but depending on your tripod, it might be too long to fit.

FStop Tilopa Pack

FStop Tilopa Pack

On most aircraft, the Tilopa fits long-way in – meaning the bottom of the pack is at the back of the bin rather than sideways. In fact, it’s almost a perfect fit that way. The Tilopa might look bigger than many carry ons, but it’s not! My Tilopa even fit sideways in the 50 passenger commuter aircraft. One additional benefit to carry ons: domestic airlines do not usually weigh your carry on. You might get away (as I did*) with stuffing 45 pounds of gear in there! And don’t worry, the posted weight capacity of those overhead bins is around 160 pounds… so even if three of you packed the crap out of your bags and stuffed them in the same overhead bin, the bin is engineered to take it.  It also means if you could appear to effortlessly shuffle a 100 pound bag around the airline would be none-the-wiser and you’d not have to pay an overweight baggage fee! If the airline wants to shake you down for every nickel and $20 bill they can, you might as well do some creative baggage management of your own. Besides, do you really trust baggage handling to not break or “lose” your thousands of dollars investment in camera gear?

I’ve never had a problem traveling with my tripod. Screeners seem to understand what a tripod is both when traveling domestically and internationally. Once when leaving Israel I was warned that I might not be able to take the tripod on board but there was no problem going through security. Every once in a while I am asked to remove my camera and lenses from the pack, but most of the time the pack – chock full of bodies, lenses, batteries and miscellany goes through screening without a hitch.

Those overhead bins aren’t ONLY for passengers. On our Delta flight we found toilet paper, and leaking bathroom deodorizer refills together with the usual oxygen and blankets in the overhead bin above us. To find space for your pack, you’ll want to get on the plane as SOON AS YOU CAN. That usually means you want to be IN LINE well before your zone or row are called even if they politely insist that you wait in your lounge seat. But being the first in your group may not be enough. The only available overhead space might be many rows in front of or behind you.  I now understand why the guy in row 33 put his junk over my row 17 seat: he was not lazy he had to adapt because the airline had co-opted what would have been his overhead space.  If you’re traveling on Southwest, it is probably well worth the $10 fee per flight to get “automated checkin”. That may get you in the A list for boarding.  If you find yourself in the “B” or “C” section on Southwest, you might want to get the $40 business boarding “upgrade” for at least one in your party.

Those overhead bins apparently are seldom ever cleaned. I used a thick white paper towel to wipe out the leaking bathroom deodorizer and the paper towel came out as black as my camera bag!  Don’t throw a sport jacket up there unless it’s in something to keep it from getting icky – or maybe you don’t mind smelling like a lavatory 🙂

Oia at Night (Οία τη νύχτα)

Oia at Night (Οία τη νύχτα)

*I often carry about 45 pounds (17 kg) of gear in my pack. Only the Greek airline Aegean asked to weigh my carry-on bag – and their weight limit was 7 kg despite the 90 kg capacity of the overhead bins.  They allowed me a waiver since the flight wasn’t full.  Despite their check of my carry on bag Aegean is one of the best airlines I’ve ever traveled on. Delta could learn a few lessons from them!