Sandstone Monster: Freaky Beaked Creature

Coyote Buttes South strange sandstone figure
Stone Monster watches over the Desert
When stone imitate other things we call that a sculpture.  Some sculptures are natural and coincidental creature of nature while others are manmade.  These sculptures resembling reality are what gives the land our manmade names:  Rainbow Bridge, the Wave, Teepees.  Coyote Buttes South has a few sculpted sandstone figures that are named such as the "Control Tower".  I've heard of the "Witch's Hat" for the structure pictured above but from the side this looked like a creature with a long beak surveying all the desert for prey.  It's like an eagle or hawk but with a nightmarish lower body and bulk.
Gordon Smith's photo of the Control Tower in the desert
Control Tower at Coyote Buttes South
coyote buttes south wide vista
The wild sculpted desert

Cottonwood Cove: the Far Side of Coyote Buttes South

Yellow stripe through Coyote Buttes South
Color Streaks Through Stone
Coyote Buttes South is an immense landscape with no trails.  There are few landmarks and only limited information.  I used Photographing the Southwest:  Arizona to pick a sunrise location.  Beyond that I found information scarce.  Some online guide information and plenty of time looking at satellite images helped me decide where I wanted to go.  The problem is that something like this on satellite:
Coyote Buttes South satellite Images with some GPS locations I programmed before my trip.
Ends up looking like this in reality:

Coyote Buttes Cottonwood Cove terrain exploration.
Coyote Buttes images from the ground:  terrain looks much rougher in reality!
As usual, I wanted to explore further afield in this awesome locale, searching for something novel and exciting.  I like that feeling of discovery so I left the tall teepees of Coyote Buttes South and crossed that sandy 1 mile to reach the far side of Cottonwood Cove.  Here I discovered more teepees and some very colorful sections.  One teepee I've named the "Rainbow Teepee" because of the wonderful colors.  I also discovered a "Barrel Wave" formation that is all white with a few lines of color streaking through it.

Sand is a four-letter word.  I found plenty of it all over and it slows progress a lot.  Over on the far side, I saw nobody else but did see a couple footprints in the sand.  Somebody had come this way before.

Rainbow teepee of Cottonwood Cove in the foreground
West Side Cottonwood Cove Teepees
Red-brown chocolate teepees also infest this area.

My favorite discovery on this side was the White Barrel Wave, which feels like it's going to roll over me and all around me.  It's a long formation, probably 150 feet, and beautifully colorful!
Coyote Buttes South Wave Formation
White Barrel Wave:  A Stunning Discovery!
Smooth curved white sandstone
White Barrel Wave Detail
Another discovery was this stack of circular layers of sandstone.
Thin sandstone circular layers
Circles and circles in hundreds of layers.
Gordon's hike rating:
Hike Difficulty:                   ★★★ Moderate with Class 2 Scrambling
Trail Condition:                   ★★ Fair:  Good route-finding and common sense is necessary
Trail Hazards:                      ★★ Fair:  Sand and Sandstone
Trailhead:                              Coyote Buttes South parking lot
Time Required:                     Half day hike, (minimum 4 hours)
Distance round trip:              2 miles
Off the Beaten Path:             ★★★★ Yes, 4 Stars
Scenery:                                ★★★★ Excellent, 4 Stars
Photographic Potential:        ★★★★ Excellent, 4 Stars

Hell Hole Waterfall

Ivins Utah waterfall during amazing flash flood
Hell Hole Waterfall Drops 600 feet!
Trying to capture Hell Hole waterfall has been a quest for several years.  I've driven out to Ivins, Utah during many a rainstorm to gaze at the cliffs, searching for a waterfall that magically appears in the right conditions.  I've been disappointed time and again.  Finally this year I went during a heavy storm and did the hike (even when there was no falling water) because more rain was predicted in the next few hours.  I figured that if there was no waterfall, then I'd just shoot the vegetation and rocks.  I've done that before as a consolation prize.  I found a wonderful redbud in bloom that way. 

As I was deep in the canyon, focusing on a small pool of water while trying to photograph a reflection in it, I heard rushing water . . . like a shower.  I stopped, looked around and then looked UP to see this waterfall beginning to drop.  It grew heavier and heavier as I changed lenses and began to shoot this ephemeral phenomenon.  I shot several photos, trying to somehow fit the whole height of the waterfall into one frame.  The cliffs here are 600 feet high and I was just a few feet away.  I climbed the opposite canyon scree and found a higher viewpoint where I successfully took this photograph. 

The waterfall lasted about 10 minutes, maybe 15 at most.  Then the show was over.  Mother Nature put on the whole display just for me, all alone in the canyon.  

Colorful Candy Rocks of Coyote Buttes South

colorful rocks at the Cottonwood Teepees of Arizona, dawn
Candy Rocks of Coyote Buttes South
Real yet unbelievable is what I experienced while exploring Coyote Buttes South.  The lines and colors swirl in ways I could never imagine to be natural.  Yet this was truly the handiwork of Mother Nature, that creative maven I've come to admire.  This photo was taken at the same sunrise location as my previous post and this high outlook truly is the place for sunrise in all this land.  I backed away from these rocks a bit, went with a wide 17mm tilt shift lens and shot several frames.  This lens allows me to stitch the frames together later and create a larger, wider vast landscape.  Just as I was doing this the sky brightened and changed from purple to blue, making this a most-colorful photo.  Enjoy the pastels of this incredible landscape!

Zion's Right Fork Waterfalls: Exploration in Depth + Trail Report

double falls right fork with sheets of falling water, seen from behind
Zion's Right Fork has much more to offer than the stunning Double Falls
Zion National Park has a less-crowded, almost private canyon for exploration called the Right Fork.  Also known as the Great West Canyon, this Right Fork is just south of the Left Fork and the famous Subway.  This canyon is longer, deeper and requires more time to explore.  It's a full 6 miles of hiking just to reach the good stuff.

Doubles Falls is the first amazing sight you will find here.  There isn't a prettier waterfall in Zion National Park.  I would argue this is the prettiest waterfall in all of Utah.  The setting is serene and so remote.  I swam here on both my visits and loved the showers coming off the upper shelf.

Photography here is rich in possibilities.  This trip I took of photo of my wife and the canyon from behind the falls which you see above.  The water drops in 4 different wet sheets while I have a view down the Great West Canyon.  If you look closely at the center, you'll spy my wife sitting on a rock enjoying the peaceful area.  I'll include other pictures of this waterfall from other vantage points.  
Right Fork exploration of North Creek to Double Falls
Double Falls, a standard view from the approaching trail
placid green pool in utah's southwest canyon
Grasses and Double Falls:  a view from the far left side of the pool
right fork canyon exploration
Double Falls in the Larger Right Fork Canyon
Most people run out of time and energy after reaching the paradisiacal Double Falls.  I can't blame them for lingering here and then beginning the long trek out.  I kept going on this, my second journey, here.  To bypass Double Falls, you walk back downstream about 100 meters and will find a steep path up the sandstone on the right which is also the south side on the canyon (all directions will be oriented if you are hiking upstream — to the canyon right is on the right of the stream as you hike up the canyon, got it?).

The trail between Double Falls and the next waterfall is through some trees, over loose canyon scree and generally higher up on the wall debris.  The river is left behind and you won't see it for awhile.  There is a trail albeit not obvious in all places.  After 20-30 minutes of bushwhacking, you'll drop down to "Boulder Falls" (named by me) or waterfall #2.
more waterfalls extend up the right fork of zion
"Boulder Falls", Waterfall #2 up the Right Fork of Zion.  You can see why "boulder falls" is an appropriate name!
Boulder falls is lovely but also very rugged.  I walked around and waded too here but it's too shallow for a swim.  To bypass this set of boulders, you must hike again on the right (south) side above the falls.  On my way back, I looked at the north side as a quicker route.  I could find no safe way on that side and ended up backtracking to get on the south side trail again.  Those boulders would require a jump and a drop of many feet (6-10 or more) and that's a huge no-no in the backcountry.  A broken leg here would be disastrous!  Better to not take that risk.

Some other pictures of "Boulder Falls":
Right fork waterfall with hiker-photographer-explorer Gordon Smith
Here's a self portrait of me, an exhausted wet hiker at Boulder Falls.
I include this shot for perspective on those boulders.  They are 6 to 15 feet high
and too large to scale.  Best to bypass them on the right (South) side.
Waterfall over a massive boulder in Zion national Park
Boulder Falls — a closer view with blue skies above.
Above Boulder Falls are smaller waterways which were the best route upstream.  Here are 2 pictures of the typical "trail" in this section.
slippery sandstone shelf
A slippery shelf of slickrock in the Right Fork
deep water in the Right Fork of Zion
Deep pool but small waterfall in this part of the canyon
This section between Boulder Falls and the next waterfall is delightful, beautiful and you'll be so happy seeing what is around the next corner.  There are many views and all of them good.  The abundance of clear water in the desert is like a drug to me, a natural high.

Staying to the right and south isn't such a necessity in this section of the canyon.  I found myself crisscrossing the stream and working my way past successive obstacles.  Nothing was too challenging right here.  This eventually led to the beautiful #3 waterfall, which I'll name "Red Flower Waterfall".  That has a Zen ring to it and this place certainly leads the explorer to contemplate the perfection of such moments as these.
waterfall and flower in the desert
Red Flower Waterfall, Waterfall #3
Utah's redrock waterfalls as unique as they are beautiful
Hiking around Red Flower Waterfall, this was my last view
As you can see from the above photo, this is another shelf waterfall and this time you bypass by hiking on the left or north side of the stream.  It's not much further before reaching the most picturesque waterfall of all.  I found this just before the end and have named it "Secret Oasis" but I guess the secret is out so maybe that's a poor name.
a waterfall with tiny red wildflowers in a deep slot canyon.
Secret Oasis in Zion's Right Fork, Waterfall #4
The walls here are getting constricting and close.  It's becoming more of a slot canyon and the end is near.  I discovered the lovely red flowers here again but changed to a wide-angle lens and inverted my tripod so I could get a very low perspective.  This allows the flowers to take a much larger part of the frame and emphasizes their delicate beauty in the midst of a greater surrounding.  This fourth waterfall is small but the flowers and the distant pine tree and cliffs make this my favorite photograph of the whole trip.

The same tall straight pine tree in this picture is also in my photo of Barrier Falls.  To reach Barrier Falls from the Secret Oasis, just climb around this small waterfall on the left (north).  This is an easy bypass and Barrier Falls is just a few feet away.

Right fork slot canyon pool and Barrier Falls
Imposing and silent: Barrier Falls in Right Fork of Zion.  Waterfall #5
Barrier Falls is named appropriately.  The long steep slope made slippery by seeping water makes this the end of the hike.  It is impossible to go further.  I had wondered if there might be some kind of bypass to Barrier Falls but there truly is not.  The canyon walls narrow here and make it impossible to circumvent this wonder.  So enjoy Barrier Falls.  You've made it as far as you can go and this lovely deep long pool is a great place to swim or rest or both.  The waterfall itself is not really that great because it simply seeps down the large rock face, never really collecting into a chute of water at any point.

If you've made it this far, you are probably tired but happy.  This hike is strenuous but highly rewarding and off the beaten path despite being in Zion National Park.

Gordon's hike rating:
Hike Difficulty:                   ★★★★★ Very Strenuous with Class 3 Scrambling
Trail Condition:                   ★ Poor:  Good route-finding and common sense is necessary
Trail Hazards:                      ★★★ Moderate:  Hip-deep water, steep slopes, bushes, boulders
Trailhead:                              Grapevine or Right Fork (Grapevine is better)
Time Required:                     All day hike, (minimum 10 hours to reach Double Falls and then return)
Distance round trip:              12 miles or longer
Off the Beaten Path:             ★★★★★ Yes, 5 Stars
Scenery:                                ★★★★★ Spectacular, 5 Stars
Photographic Potential:        ★★★★★ Spectacular, 5 Stars

Dawn at Coyote Buttes South

Dawn at Cottonwood Teepees in Coyote Buttes South
Dawn glows from the sky and stone at Coyote Buttes South
Sunrise at Coyote Buttes South is a highlight of the year for me.  Pink clouds and no wind made the silence unmistakeable as I stood over a world of swirling sandstone colors.  Coyote Buttes South is remote enough that this overlook has no name.  It should have a name like "inspiration point" or "artist's lookout" but few people make it here to the Cottonwood Teepees.  

Coyote Buttes South colors take it up a notch from the North buttes.  Here they are mixed like saltwater taffy and run through rocks, ridges, edges and cliffs.  The colors run through everything!  It's amazing and might be hard to believe until you see it, touch the stone, take a breath and realize that you are not dreaming.  

To get here, you've got to get a permit, drive the sandy road and walk about a mile.  The sand makes it slow.  Start before sunrise if you want to see this view because the light waits for no man, woman or photographer!

Green Glow, Smooth Flow (a post about processing)

Lovely shelf waterfall into a green pool in southern Utah
Green Glow, Smooth Flow
I discovered this photo in a group of RAW files I never got to during the 2017 year.  In sorting through them, getting rid of the rubbish, I found this one and said to myself, "there's a jewel."  I began processing the photo primarily by adjusting the luminance of various color channels to help the falling water retain it's bright whiteness.  This was easily done using the blue color channel in Lightroom.   Then I turned to the greens.  The greens are under and above the water in this photo and (as always) I try to process them to look like they did in reality.  I was there.  I saw all this and even swam in the water.  This is what it looks like.  The only missing element is the sound of falling water.  

With this longer exposure, I blurred the waterfall and smoothed out the water's surface.  I also captured some blurred motion in the foliage as it swayed in a slight breeze.  Some of those most-blurred leaves have been cloned out on the plant at the lower left.  I also copied and blended some from another exposure (taken just seconds apart from this one) on one tree in the upper left also.  

At exposure time, I used a polarizing lens and a longer shutter speed to take reflections off the wet rocks and water's surface and to blur the falling water and surface.  

Watkins Glen: Trail Report

ferns cling to walls at watkins glen waterfall
Watkins Glen:  classic view of falling water, bridge and pools
Watkins Glen is both a town in the Finger Lakes region of New York as well as a state park.  Among photographers it is most famous for the view pictured above:  the bridge, stone stairs clinging to a cliff while water is falling all around is surreal.  To me it felt like I had entered Rivendell from Lord of the Rings.  During my trip to New York, I went to this location twice.  I went in the afternoon with my family.  During that trip, several hikers were always to be seen in front of and behind us.  I wouldn't call it crowded but it was not empty.

That same day, early in the morning I came here alone at the time of sunrise and saw two people total during my entire hike from the top of the gorge to the bottom and then back up.  I really had the whole place to myself and was delighted to discover waterfall after waterfall all the while walking on a perfectly maintained stone path that was created to blend in with the natural surroundings.
Hiking up the trail at WAtkins Glen
Approach to Cavern Cascade from the bottom of the gorge
water falling to a deep pool below.
Looking down a waterfall
stone steps in slot Canyon New York
Enchanted Trail:  Watkins Glen
Watkins Glen waterfall with green pool, beautiful landscape photography
Elven Fishing Hole:  my favorite shot from
Watkins Glen
Gordon's hike rating:
Hike Difficulty:                   ★★★ Moderate
Trail Condition:                   ★★★ Fair
Trail Hazards:                      ★★★ Moderate:  stone path, irregular surface, steep stairs
Trailhead:                             State Park parking lot on the North side of the Gorge, off the 409
Time Required:                    2 - 3 hours
Distance round trip:             2 miles but a shuttle can make this a 1-mile trip instead
Off the Beaten Path:             ★ No, 1 Stars
Scenery:                                ★★★★ Awesome, 4 Stars
Photographic Potential:        ★★★★ Sweet, 4 Stars

Big Spring: 4 Miles into the Narrows

Big Spring Virgin Narrows Landscape photography
Big Spring:  a difficult and beautiful destination in the Virgin Narrows
I hiked (and swam) to Big Spring in the Zion Narrows.  I love the Virgin Narrows in Zion National Park and hoped to finally go all the way to a special spot 4 miles upstream where fresh water copiously pours out of solid rock.  I went in September.  Rain had fallen about a week earlier which muddied the river more than I expected.  I walked up in liquid that resembled chocolate milk.  At one point I even had to swim through a deep section!

Big Spring is a lovely destination.  Three different flows come out of the rock with beautiful ferns and trees adjacent.  Photographing this beauty required a wide-angle lens and a polarizer.  The fast flow of water rattled my tripod when I shot in the river itself, making me keep a hand on it at all times.  I climbed up on the spring to shoot these ferns up close but it can be quite slippery (remember, this is called "slickrock") so watch out.

This hike took much longer than a typical 8-mile trek because of the water and the Zion shuttle.

Landscape shot of Big Spring in Utah's Zion Narrows
Big Spring in Zion
Virgin River at Big Spring
Big Spring stands at a curve in the Virgin River
Zion Big Spring comes out of sandstone and falls into the Virgin River
Big Spring pours straight out of the Cliff
Big Spring flows into the Virgin River Narrows
Big Spring and the Muddy Virgin River
Gordon's hike rating:
Hike Difficulty:                   ★★★★ Strenuous
Trail Condition:                   ★★★ Moderate
Trail Hazards:                      ★★★ Moderate:  slippery boulders everywhere, 1 deep swim
Trailhead:                             Zion:  Temple of Sinewava
Time Required:                     Most of a day, (minimum 7 hours)
Distance round trip:              8 miles
Off the Beaten Path:             ★★★ Yes if you travel this far upstream, 3 Stars
Scenery:                                ★★★★ Excellent, 4 Stars
Photographic Potential:        ★★★ Great, 3 Stars

Cavern Cascade: 270° Photo Stitching

cavern cascade of watkins glen new york
Cavern Cascade in Watkins Glen State Park
I wanted to photograph Cavern Cascade from behind from the moment I walked underneath the falls.  This is such an exciting experience to have, I hoped to capture the feeling of being there.  My camera lens is simply not wide enough to capture the path coming down on the left, passing behind the waterfall and then continuing on to the right and then down into the light of the canyon. 
behind the waterfall at Watkins Glen state park
I took the photograph by standing behind the waterfall and,
using a tripod, took many photos in nearly every direction.
Immediately I thought of stitching multiple photos together.  Adobe Lightroom make this a much easier process.  I shot more than 20 frame in a portrait orientation at different exposures to allow for the darkest shadows and the brightest rays of morning light.  Then I walked away with hope of salvation in the digital darkroom. 

Back home, Lightroom (LR) could not stitch it together.  Some images are a little too dark or unclear for LR.  I turned to Photoshop (PS) for answers and help.  PS came to the rescue and was able to make this kaleidoscopic image come to life. 

Please look through the image at original size to see all the amazing detail that comes out in this shot.  You might feel the mist of the waterfall too.  :) 

New York: Sacred Grove

A yellow leaf on the ground in the sacred grove
Fallen Leaves in the Sacred Grove with Green Trees lit up
I visited the Finger Lakes of New York in Autumn and explored some of the nearby attractions.  There are so many, it was hard to choose.  One worthwhile stop if the Sacred Grove in Palmyra.  This special grove of trees is where Joseph Smith saw God the Father and Jesus Christ.  Held sacred by the LDS faith, this lovely spot is ideal for wandering and reflection.  I arrived just as leaves were falling yet the trees still had plenty of green foliage.  To capture my best pictures, I got quite low to the ground and focused on one or two colorful leaves while aiming the camera up to catch the tall trees.
walking path through the sacred grove where joseph smith prayed
Typical path through Palmyra's Sacred Grove
sacred grove pathway with wooden bench
Rough wooden benches allow time to sit and reflect
Gordon's hike rating:
Hike Difficulty:                   ★ Easy
Trail Condition:                   ★ Flat, maintained
Trail Hazards:                      ★ Minimal
Trailhead:                             Joseph Smith Home visitor center
Time Required:                     1-2 hours
Distance round trip:              1-2 miles
Off the Beaten Path:             ★★ No, but not crowded either, 2 Stars
Scenery:                                ★★ Good, 2 Stars
Photographic Potential:        ★★ Good, 2 Stars

Tonga: Vava'u Travel Photography — Part 4: People of Tonga

Tongan sister carries her baby brother up the long steep hill
Tongans are friendly and generally open to photography themselves.  As I wandered all around the islands in search of unique experiences, I met many Tongans.  I'd hold my camera up and ask if it was OK to take their photo and most said it was.  I had a few refuse, but most were happy to smile and typically went on with their own business. 
tonga man in Vava'u riding a bike
This man was a pastor at one of the island churches. 
He rode his bike to service on Sunday.  Many Tongans
are dressed elaborately for Sundays.
tongan women in green and pink dresses in Vava'u
Tongan women dressed for church
Dugout canoe in Vava'u Tonga sailed by 4 boys
Four Tongan Boys in a Dugout Canoe
traditional tongan clothes worn by young man walking
Walking on Tonga to Sunday Service
In the middle of our trip we were invited to a Tongan Feast on the island of Vakaeitu.  Vakaeitu has only one family living on the island so this was an authentic family affair.  The marlin was caught that day and brought in by everybody who could lend a hand.  After the feast, the family played music and danced for us too.  It was wonderful!
6 men carry a heavy marlin fish to tongan feast on vakaeitu
Marlin carried by 6 men to a Tongan Feast
vava'u tongan feast with music and dancing.
Dancing by Flashlight on the Beach at Tongan Feast