Racehorse Falls, Washington (or the Tale for Four Trails)

Racehorse Falls:  A photogenic landscape near Bellingham, Washington
During a recent trip to Bellingham, Washington, I searched for photography destinations and saw some photos of Racehorse Falls.  This waterfall splits halfway down its' course, like an upside-down wishbone.  I'd never heard of it but it's beauty was without doubt.  With some very sketchy online accounts to guide me I drove to what Google called the trailhead.  Happily I discovered a good trail going directly into the woods.  Things were going great until I got to the river.  I heard water, I looked over the edge and saw two smaller waterfalls but not the big one I'd seen in photos.  Not Racehorse Falls.

Trail #1
The trail turned up (left) so that's where I went.

I continued to hear falling water and spied a rope tied to a tree.  This long rope went down a steep slope where I found another rope which continued to go down to the river.  At the bottom I discovered a beautiful waterfall and punchbowl pool.  This scene was photo-worthy so I took some photos but felt I ought to search further for the real Racehorse Falls.  Those two long ropes made climbing up the slope much easier and cleaner.  I'm glad they were there.
Bellingham Washington waterfall on Racehorse River
Punchbowl Pool and Waterfall on Racehorse River
Trail #2
The trail kept going higher so I followed . . . for a long time . . . without any sign or sound of a waterfall.  After much wasted effort I decided to return down the trail and go off on a different trail I'd seen near the beginning that had some logs across it (usually this means it's NOT the right trail).  I didn't know where else to look.  So back I went, almost to the trailhead, to pick up this other trail.
Racehorse falls trail through forest trees
Pretty trail but no waterfall going further uphill
Trail #3
After an easy walk in the woods this trail suddenly turned awful and going down to the water would risk my life if I pursued the steep unstable slope.  I stopped.  I returned again to the trailhead.

Trail #4
My fourth and final attempt at finding Racehorse falls had me hike straight to the river and then I went down (right) and discovered a hidden path that led right to the waterfall.  Alakazam!  There was Racehorse Falls and it was freaking gorgeous!!!
Tall Waterfall seen through the forest trees
First view of Racehorse Falls
landscape photography racehorse waterfall
Climb over the fallen logs and boulders to explore the
base of Racehorse Waterfall
Log at the base of Racehorse Waterfall cascade.
Racehorse Falls as seen from the boulder field directly at its' base.
waterfall washington landscape photography gordon smith
Profile of a beautiful waterfall
Gordon's hike rating:
Hike Difficulty:                   ★★★ Moderate because of steep parts
Trail Condition:                   ★★ Fair:  turns and directions are not marked, easy to go wrong
Trail Hazards:                      ★★★ Moderate:  steep slopes
Trailhead:                             Racehorse Falls Trailhead (on Google maps)
Time Required:                     2 hours if you know where to go
Distance round trip:              2 miles
Off the Beaten Path:             ★★★★ Yes, 4 Stars
Scenery:                                ★★★★ Great
Photographic Potential:        ★★★★  Great, Unique waterfall in stunning setting

Wildflowers Among the Lava Rocks

joe blake hill in arizona strip
Yellow Wildflowers growing among Lava Rock
Unexpected beauty in the bleak desert is the reward that "desert rats" have come to love.  On a Sunday evening I went out for a casual drive to Joe Blake Hill.  Never knowing what I would find, I got out and looked around.  In the peak of bloom these yellow flowers popped with color.  The black lava rock provides a natural dark contrast to the lovely yellow.  I adjusted my ISO to allow a quick enough exposure to prevent wind from blurring my flowers.  Then I composed my shot and pressed the button.  Sometimes I just don't know if a shot will be any good but I shoot with hope.  This was one of those moments. 

I believe there are several stages to photography.
1.  Planning the excursion.
2.  On-site photography:  composition and camera settings to capture the moment.
3.  Post-processing to polish and develop what I saw in step #2.

On this occasion I only saw the potential during step #3.  In the darkness of my digital darkroom the light sandstone mountains in the distance and the yellow colorful flowers came to life again for me and I recognized this valuable shot.  This was a wonderful discovery that seemed to drop into my lap without any great effort on my part.  

Grapevine Spring, Zion National Park

Hiking Grapevine trail to Grapevine springs in Zion, Utah
Grapevine Springs, Zion is a wall of seeping water coming out of sandstone.
Grapevine Springs is the namesake for the "Grapevine" trail in Zion National Park.  Thinking this must be a big deal because it has it's own trailhead, I wondered why nobody ever writes about it, hikes to it nor are there any pictures of it on record that I can discover via Google Search.

So I went on a hike to discover this spring and assess its' merits and beauties myself.  Hiking upstream from the Grapevine trail, one must keep a lookout for water coming from the left.  Follow this water up a nonexistent trail through and over many branches and you will arrive at a wall.  This is a magic wall with water dripping and ferns clinging.  I can't say it's a big deal but the subtle attraction and the sense of discovery and privacy is rewarding.
Grapevine Springs has lots of water dripping down a green cliff.
Grapevine Spring:  Shot in the Water -- Camera got plenty wet for this photo.
Grapevine Springs, Utah
Closeup of Ferns and dripping water.  This has a pretty steady flow.
Ferns and Flowing water in Utah
At the base of the dripping cliffs
This shot is a set-up shot of how close I had to position my tripod legs and my
own feet to photograph the water streaming down off
the beautiful green ferns.  My camera got plenty wet for several minutes
in the showers!
Gordon's hike rating:
Hike Difficulty:                   ★★★★ Hard:  bushwhacking and no trail to follow
Trail Condition:                   ★ Bad/No Trail
Trail Hazards:                      ★★★ Moderate:  slippery rocks and upstream travel
Trailhead:                             Grapevine, Zion National Park
Time Required:                     4 hours
Distance round trip:              4 miles
Off the Beaten Path:             ★★★★★ Yes
Scenery:                                ★★ Fair, 2 Stars
Photographic Potential:        ★ Poor, 1 Stars

Trail Report: Shaman Gallery in Tuckup Canyon

Round headed pictograph located in Tuckup Canyon, Arizona
Pinhead Pictograph Portrait!
Because of its' near-ness and "secret" status, Shaman's gallery pictographs in Tuckup Canyon are often discussed like they are legendary.  My local contacts have told me about this place for years and I finally decided to make the trip.  If you search a little bit, you'll discover these are on the main Tuckup Trail that descend into Tuckup Canyon.

Finding it on Google Maps is easy.  Finding it in reality is a bit more difficult because the roads have no signs and they criss-cross a lot.  Without my GPS and some waypoints I'd entered ahead of time, I would not have found the right road to the trailhead.  If you go, take a GPS and make sure you know what roads you should be taking.  It will not be obvious once you are there.

The trail is well-maintained and going down it quick and easy.  The descent is about 2,000 vertical feet over about 3 miles.  The canyon is pretty without being gorgeous.

GPS is also very helpful to know where to look for these pictographs.  They don't jump out at you.  They are on the left (north) side of the wash, under an overhanging protective sandstone lip.  Here's a picture of the location.
Shaman Gallery is under that overhanging rock in the center.
One can scramble up to the pictographs and enjoy a picnic looking at these old and imaginative figure.  I liked lying on my back and looking up at them.  Pretty psychedelic stuff.  I can't say I understand them but I certainly enjoyed them.  One figure looks like a ladder with a head on top.  Pinhead and disfigured fingers and ghost figures abound.  It's so amazing these exist, unprotected from the elements for 3000 years and yet the colors in the pigments are still vivid red, brown, black, yellow, green, white and orange.  It's a great visit to the past.

Tuckup Canyon pictographs in the Grand Canyon
The main panel of Shaman's Gallery
ancient native american pictograph in the grand canyon
Ghostly Cactus Figure
sunny days at the grand canyon in pictograph
Sunshine captured in art 3000 years ago
pictograph in tuckup canyon, arizona
Ladder Man
pictograph painted on the stone
Detail showing they painted ON the sandstone: 
pictograph, not petroglyph
View of the wash.  You must hike all the way out of this canyon. 
Long ways up.
Hiking out is twice as slow as coming down.  It's a steady slog and I made it without incident.  Just stop and catch your breath.  Often.

Gordon's hike rating:
Road Difficulty:                   ★★★★★ Horrible:  No directions, some big rocks and deep ruts
Hike Difficulty:                   ★★★ Moderate 2,000 foot elevation drop and then climb
Trail Condition:                   ★★★★ Good
Trail Hazards:                      ★★★ Moderate:  Elevation gain, loose gravel
Trailhead:                              Tuckup Canyon
Time Required:                     Most of the day
Distance round trip:              6 miles
Off the Beaten Path:             ★★★★ Yes, 4 Stars
Scenery:                                ★★ Fair, 2 Stars
Photographic Potential:        ★★★  Good, 3 Stars

Looking Over a Billion Years

Toroweap overlook and the Colorado River far below.
A small human figure sits near the edge of Toroweap looking down into the deep canyon.
A sitting woman in the distance caught my attention as sunset approached.  She was backlit and the sun was far enough north in the sky to be out of frame.  The sun sent some amazing orange rays of light on the far canyon cliffs which then bounced off the redwall where I stood.  The dark greens of the Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon separate the two dramatic sides. 
A rounded boulder sits overlooking the Colorado River at the Grand Canyon
Rock with a View

Deep Toroweap: most frightening place in Arizona

Toroweap overlook frightens all visitors
Toroweap:  That's a 3,000 foot drop, sonny!
Toroweap scares the *#%@ out of me!  It's straight down 3,000 feet and there's no rail to protect anybody.  You can walk all along the ledge and everywhere the danger is just right there to the south.  I worry about wind tipping someone off balance and then it's too late.  Some guys were throwing a football to each other by the edge when I was there.  Another couple were sipping some beer while sitting 6 feet from the edge.

That's not me:  I am a bonafide chicken when it comes to edges that lead to certain death.  I may peer over but I keep my center of balance over my back foot and don't dwell very long.  I think this shot shows why I'm so scared of Toroweap.  There's the edge and what's that just over the edge?  Yeah, it's the giant Colorado River.  It looks small because it's 3,000 feet straight down!  I go because it's a beautiful landscape but I leave because of a gut feeling that it's just unsafe.  So enjoy the shot because I am not heading to Toroweap again anytime soon.

Half and Half Rock: Gem of Coyote Buttes South

Yellow and purple striped rock in Arizona
Half and Half Rock:  Yellow and Purple Strips run through everything here!
Half and Half Rock is an extension of the surrounding stripes running throughout Coyote Buttes South.  Not only is it amazing that the stripe runs exactly though the middle of the rock but it's mind-blowing that the same stripe continues across the ground and up onto the northern wall of sandstone.  It's like someone with purple chalk drew a wandering line through the whole landscape without regard to obstacles. 

This small wonder is one of the first places the casual visitor to Coyote Buttes South discovers.  He sits right on the eastern border and the sandy trail leads to this general area from the parking lot.  If you seek, you will find.  If GPS coordinates help, then here it is:  N 36°57'39.3"  W 111°59'16.9".

A literal rock star, this little guy has been photographed by some of the most famous landscape photographers.  Fatali flipped his photograph to make it a mirror image of reality.  I photographed Half and Half rock with a variety of lenses trying to get some pleasing compositions.  The above shot was taken at 104mm at f/16.  The longer focal length compresses the lines on the rock and the lines behind on the sandstone wall. 

(I should note that these were taken in the middle of the day in December, with the sun low in the sky but just about directly south of my location.)

A totally different view can be had with a wide angle lens.  Here I shot 17mm and got very close to the stone.  This allows a whole landscape view with the peaks and hills in the distance.  Although Half and Half Rock occupies roughly the same area in the picture, the surroundings are much further away and smaller with the 17mm lens.  In this shot, you can also see a depression just to the upper left of the Rock.  This is often filled with water or even snow, but I had no recent moister before my trip.  I personally like the dry look. 
Coyote Buttes South purple sandstone
Wide angle view of Half and Half Rock with the surrounding hills of sandstone.
How you place the lines your photograph also give creative variations.  My top shot has the background lines on the left of the Rock.  My 17mm shot has the lines perfectly aligned.  Below the background lines are on the right of the Rock, kind-of like a scarf blowing in the wind.
Coyote Butte South Lines of purple and yellow
Half and Half Rock under the Lines
Then, of course, there is the selfie shot.
St. George Photographer Gordon Smith taking landscapes
Gordon Smith and Half and Half Rock:  Photographer and Subject share the moment.

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