Colorado National Monument

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Colorado National Monument (locally referred to as The Monument) is a National Park Service unit near the city of Grand Junction, Colorado. Spectacular canyons cut deep into sandstone, and even granite–gneiss–schist, rock formations.

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When John Otto first saw the rugged red rock canyons south of Grand Junction in 1906, it was love at first sight. The following year he wrote . . .

“I came here last year and found these canyons, and they feel like the heart of the world to me. I’m going to stay and build trails and promote this place, because it should be a national park.”

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The area was established as Colorado National Monument on May 24, 1911. Otto was hired as the first park ranger, drawing a salary of $1 per month. For the next 16 years, he continued building and maintaining trails while living in a tent in the park.

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Otto spearheaded fundraising campaigns, collected signatures for petitions, and penned newspaper editorials and endless letters to Washington politicians in support of national recognition for the ancient canyons and towering monoliths of his adopted home.

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This is an area of desert land high on the Colorado Plateau, with pinion and juniper forests on the plateau.

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There are magnificent views from trails and the Rim Rock Drive, which winds along the plateau.

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Nearby are the Book Cliffs and the largest flat-topped mountain in the world, the Grand Mesa.

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The park became more well known in the 1980s partly due to its inclusion as a stage of the major international bicycle race, the Coors Classic. The race through the park became known as “The Tour of the Moon”, due to the spectacular landscapes the race passed through on Rim Rock Drive.

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Just another day at the office!

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California – Death Valley

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The very name evokes all that is harsh, hot and hellish – a punishing, barren and lifeless place of Old Testament severity. Yet closer inspection reveals that in Death Valley nature is putting on a truly spectacular show: singing sand dunes, water-sculpted canyons, boulders moving across the desert floor, extinct volcanic craters, palm-shaded oases and plenty of endemic wildlife. This is a land of superlatives, holding the US records for hottest temperature (134°F/57°C), lowest point (Badwater, 282ft below sea level) and largest national park outside Alaska (over 5000 sq miles).

-Lonely Planet

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Death Valley is a contradiction of the natural world. Its deadly heat is contrasted by snow capped mountains. It’s dry and below sea level, yet the occasional rain causes wildflowers to bloom. Even its name is a contradiction as plenty of life and beauty exist here.

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Death Valley National Park comprises more than 3.3 million acres of spectacular desert scenery, rare desert wildlife, complex geology, undisturbed wilderness and sites of historical interest. Death Valley is unique because it contains the lowest, hottest, driest location in North America. Nearly 550 square miles of its area lie below sea level. Ecologically, its plants and animals are representative of the Mojave Desert.

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The moniker belies the beauty in this vast graben, the geological term for a sunken fragment of the Earth’s crust. Here are rocks sculptured by erosion, richly tinted mudstone hills and canyons, luminous sand dunes, lush oases, and a 200-square-mile salt pan surrounded by mountains, one of America’s greatest vertical rises. In some years spring rains trigger wildflower blooms amid more than a thousand varieties of plants.

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The park protects part of the Mojave Desert and many other formations such as mountains, canyons, valleys, sand dunes, and salt flats. There is roughly three-million acres to explore in the park and due to its desolate nature, it’s important for travellers to plan and pack thoughtfully.

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At 3.4 million acres, Death Valley is the largest national park in the United States. Humans made their mark in Death Valley at least 9,000 years ago, with rock art and other artifacts left behind as evidence.

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Dozens of scenes from Star Wars have been filmed in Death Valley, including Artist’s Palette (the Sandcrawler scene from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope), Golden Canyon (Jawa scenes from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) and Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes (Droid scenes from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope).

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“Death Valley is really wide-open – it’s bigger than Rhode Island – and it’s less a part of California than an ungoverned territory, so there’s lots of weird cops-and-robbers stuff going on.”

– Gus Van Sant

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Despite it’s foreboding name, Death Valley is home to bighorn sheep, reptiles, lizards, snakes, amphibians plus more than 300 species of birds, not to mention the explosion of fauna that erupt after a rainfall.

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“Probably the one Bible passage that is read by Jews and Roman Catholics, Protestants, Islam, more than any other chapter is Psalm 23. And in Psalm 23 there is a verse that says, ‘Surely, yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.’ “

-Robert Schuller

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Only 15 miles separate the highest elevation in Death Valley National Park (Telescope Peak at 11,049 feet) and Badwater Basin (282 feet below sea level).

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In 1849 emigrants bound for California’s gold fields strayed into the 120-mile long basin, enduring a two-month ordeal of “hunger and thirst and an awful silence.” One of the last to leave looked down from a mountain at the narrow valley and said, “Good-bye, Death Valley.”

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Almost like being on another planet, a trip to Death Valley should be on your bucket list because it’s truly like no other place on Earth.

Arizona-Mount Lemmon

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The drive up Catalina Highway offers impressive views of the valley of Tucson, the surrounding mountains and the rock formations known as hoodoos. There are many vista points along the way that offer good stops to take photos.

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I have travelled all over the USA and visited most of the major National Parks, and I believe that there is no more dramatic drive than the 30 mile trip to the top of Mr Lemmon. There are pull-offs, trailheads and scenic overlooks all the way along the highway. I took an amazing number of beautiful photos – one breathtaking view after another. Because you climb nearly 7,000 feet in elevation, you go through several different and unique ecosystems.

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Going through this drive is like going from the border of Mexico to the border of Canada in one hour. You start going through the residential areas of Tucson, then go through the desert passing large saguaros. Slowly, as the elevation increases you’ll notice some trees. By the end of the drive you’ll be surrounded by dark green trees more reminicent of the Rockies and if it’s winter you’ll see snow. The road up Mt. Lemmon is long (about 25 miles) but well worth the drive. Along the way there are dozens of stops, each giving you a unique view at various elevations. The mountain itself is over 9000 ft. Near the top is the town of Summerhaven, which doesn’t really have too much, but is a nice break. If you want to hike to the top of the mountain (or ski – yes you could ski near Tuscon), turn right off the road near Summerhaven. Unless you’re visiting Summerhaven, you’ll need to pay a $5 entrance fee.

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The wonders of the desert foothills and rocky gorges of the Santa Catalina Mountains are marvellous and accessible.

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“The desert tells a different story every time one ventures on it.”

~Robert Edison Fulton, Jr.

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“A desert is a place without expectation.”

– Nadine Gordimer

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“I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams.”

~Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

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“Arizona looks like a battle on Mars.”

~Author Unknown

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“In the empire of desert, water is the king and shadow is the queen.” ~Mehmet Murat ildan

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“Once, it was so damned dry, the bushes followed the dogs around.”

~Nancy Dedera

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Arizona-Sabino Canyon

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In the eastern foothills of the Santa Catalina mountain range, Sabino Canyon is a world of natural beauty. Stunning vistas, the freshness of the morning air, the tranquility of running creek water, and the rugged backdrop of Thimble Peak make this place so unique.

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During the winter and summer rainy seasons, pools of water form in rocky outcroppings that wind up among hillsides resplendent with palo verde trees, cholla and prickly pear cactus and graceful groves of ocotillo.

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The oasis of Catalina Canyon is one of the most scenic spectacles in Arizona. A paved road runs 3.8 miles into the canyon, crossing 9 stone bridges over Sabino Creek. It begins at an altitude of 2,800 feet and rises to 3,300 feet at its end, a popular drop-off in summer because of the swimming holes at Hutch’s Pool and The Crack.

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“So I came down here, to breathe dust and walk with the dogs– to look at a rock or a cactus and know that I am the first person to see that cactus and that rock.”

Author: Douglas Coupland

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Arizona Waterfalls are about as contradictory as they get. Given the hot and arid climate that epitomizes the deserts of the American Southwest, it’s easy to dismiss this state as lacking waterfalls. Yet we manage to find them, proving that even waterfalls can be resilient in such unforgivingly dry climates.

“Desert springtime, with flowers popping up all over the place, trees leafing out, streams gushing down from the mountains. Great time of year for hiking, camping, exploring, sleeping under the new moon and the old stars. At dawn and at evening we hear the coyotes howling with excitement—mating season.”

~Edward Abbey, Postcards from Ed: Dispatches and Salvos from an American Iconoclast

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“I have never been in a natural place and felt that it was a waste of time. I never have. And it’s a relief. If I’m walking around a desert or whatever, every second is worthwhile.”

– Viggo Mortensen

Arizona – The Sonoran Desert

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The Sonoran Desert is an arid region covering approximately 100,000 square miles in southwestern Arizona and southeastern California, as well as most of Baja California and the western half of the state of Sonora, Mexico. Subdivisions of this hot, dry region include the Colorado and Yuma deserts. Irrigation has produced many fertile agricultural areas, including the Coachella and Imperial valleys of California. Warm winters attract tourists to Sonora Desert resorts in Palm Springs, California, and Tucson and Phoenix, Arizona.

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Prickly pear cactus are found in all of the deserts of the American Southwest, with different species having adapted to different locale and elevation ranges. Most require course, well-drained soil in dry, rocky flats or slopes. But some prefer mountain pinyon/juniper forests, while others require steep, rocky slopes in mountain foothills.

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Like other cactus, most prickly pears and chollas have large spines — actually modified leaves — growing from tubercles — small, wart-like projections — on their stems. But members of the Opuntia genus are unique because of their clusters of fine, tiny, barbed spines called glochids. Found just above the cluster of regular spines, glochids are yellow or red in color and detach easily from the pads. Glochids are often difficult to see and more difficult to remove, once lodged in the skin.

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The trip across Arizona is just one oasis after another. You can just throw anything out and it will grow there, I like Arizona.

~Will Rogers

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Crash landed on Earth, an alien stepped out onto an arid, rocky bajada and found himself dwarfed by gigantic, grotesque, green figures with arms reaching toward the sky. Feeling at home in this weird landscape, he approached one fiercely armoured mammoth, which he estimated to be 35 feet tall and weighing several tons. “Where am I on your planet?” he questioned the giant. The strange green figure remained silent.

Where was the alien? By the distinctive characteristics of the peculiarly human-like plant, he could have only been in the Sonoran Desert. His geographical location could be pinpointed to be either in extreme southeastern California near the Colorado River, in southern and western Arizona, or south of the border in northwestern Mexico. These are the only places on earth where the saguaro cactus — grand symbol of the Sonoran Desert, the West and arguably the United States — grows.

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If the stately 20-to 50-foot saguaro could have talked to the alien, it would have had tales of the Old West to tell. Some have been around since Teddy Roosevelt became president in 1901. A few still living today were tiny young upstarts, perhaps growing under the shelter of a paloverde tree, when Thomas Jefferson was elected President in 1801.

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The saguaro can grow only in narrow environmental niches within the Sonoran Desert, usually below elevations of 3,500 feet. Freezing temperatures and frosts can kill or damage the delicate plant. Wild arms and drooping limbs may indicate that a particular plant survived a bitter winter.

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These distinctive human-like arms begin to grow only in middle age, about 75 years, after achieving a height of 14 to 16 feet. The oldest, with dozens or more branches, have marked the passage of many years.

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When the pleats are more deeply shadowed, more defined, drought has shaped the cactus. The plant can lose up to 82 percent of its moisture before it dies of dehydration. In times of little rain, shallow roots near the soil’s surface can capture the moisture of even the lightest rainfall. The downward-pointing spines, “drip tips,” also help by directing rainwater toward the base of the plant. These clusters of spines also play a role in cooling the outer skin; they help deflect wind and provide insulation from freezing as well.

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Another feature of the saguaro, the many holes on its body, makes one wonder if the Gila woodpeckers inflict much damage as they hammer into the tissues used to store water. Often, these meticulous birds drill 2 or 3 holes before they are satisfied. But the plant quickly minimizes damage by sealing off the wound with callous scar tissue to stop water loss. Conserving water loss is essential to the survival of the saguaro. When the sun beats unmercifully on its waxy, watertight, outer surfaces, microscopic pores close. At night, when temperatures are lower, the pores open, allowing for the entry of carbon dioxide, necessary for photosynthesis and the manufacture of carbohydrates.

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“Even the plants in Arizona wanted to hurt you.”

Author: Janette Rallison

“He’d always had a quickening of the heart when he crossed into Arizona and beheld the cactus country. This was as the desert should be, this was the desert of the picture books, with the land unrolled to the farthest distant horizon hills, with saguaro standing sentinel in their strange chessboard pattern, towering supinely above the fans of ocotillo and brushy mesquite.”

Author: Dorothy B. Hughes

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“If you don’t die of thirst, there are blessings in the desert. You can be pulled into limitlessness, which we all yearn for, or you can do the beauty of minutiae, the scrimshaw of tiny and precise. The sky is your ocean, and the crystal silence will uplift you like great gospel music, or Neil Young.”

-Anne Lamott

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Land of extremes. Land of contrasts. Land of surprises. Land of contradictions…. That is Arizona.

~Federal Writers Project, Arizona: The Grand Canyon State, 1956

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I live in the dry dusty desert

Where we’re always short on water

And even if the sun fell upon us

It couldn’t get any hotter.

~Terri Guillemets