After making a few trips out to Big Bend to witness the stunning bluebonnet display in the desert, it is time to turn the camera toward the Texas wildflowers of central Texas and areas closer to home. My friend, Mike, and I, were still dragging from the early mornings and late nights and driving long distances in west Texas, but he’d already done some scouting in areas south of San Antonio, so I headed that direction to join him for a few days of wildflower hunting.
We really focused on areas around Poteet, though other locations are just as colorful as I write this.
The afternoon and evening found us shooting colorful fields along Eichman and Wheeler Roads. The clouds were nice and offered contrast in the blue sky, as well.
Just north of Poteet, Texas, and south of San Antonio, wildflowers of red, blue, gold, and purple fill a field on a cool spring afternoon. This colorful landscape is made up of groundsel (gold), bluebonnets, Indian Paintbrush, and phlox (the small purple blooms). A windmill rises in the distance to complete a beautiful spread of vibrant color.
The wildflowers south of San Antonio around Poteet in Atascosa County created a colorful palette in the fields this spring. Bluebonnets, Indian Paintbrush, White Prickly Poppies, and other varieties seemed to be blooming at every corner. This wildflower photo is from the late afternoon in mid-March. The bllue sky with a few high clouds was just about the perfect complement to the colorful explosion of blooms going on in the field.
We were also searching for a nice sunset spot. Unfortunately, the best areas we found all faced east – good for sunrise, but not so much for sunset. Still, we settled for a field of bluebonnets around a large oak tree.
Sunset south of San Antonio brough beautiful orange and blue to a bluebonnets landscape on this warm March evening. All was quiet as daylight waned. In this photograph taken near Poteet, hints of red paintbursh, violet phlox, and white prickly poppies can be seen mixing in with the carpet of bluebonnets.
The sunset did offer a little color, but nothing like we’d see the next morning.
And so when the sun arose a few hours later, we found ourselves in the middle of a beautiful wildflower field (with permission from the owner). Surrounded by reds (paintbrush), golds (groundsel) and blue (bluebonnets), the soft colors of the sky brought beautiful light. A windmill added a nice touch to the landscape as the sun peeked over the horizon.
Morning light streams through an old oak tree as a vibrant field of bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush awaken to a new spring morning. A windmill completes this beautfiul Texas wildflower landscape taken south of San Antonio near Poteet, Texas. In the distance, the calls of wild turkey and peacocks coudl be heard. It was a great morning to enjoy the wildflowers.
A windmill reaches into the morning sky as a field of bluebonnets comes to life on a cold spring morning. This colorful landscape was taken south of San Antonio in Atascosa County. Sprinked in among the bluebonnets are red Indian Paintbrush and golden grounsel.
This photograph was taken on private land with permission from the owner.
A little later, I moved closer to an old oak tree. My goal was to photograph the tree, the bluebonnets in the foreground, and horses just behind the tree. This is what I brought home…
Sunlight sparkles through an old oak tree as is spreads its warmth across a carpet of bluebonnets. Behind the tree and in the distances, horses graze and one watches me in this last orange light of a spring evening. Wildflowers were aplenty south of San Antonio.
This photograph was taken on private land with permission from the owner.
After spending a few days at home, I headed out to investigate the hill country. This area is still a few weeks away from any potential blooms. I have hopes that it will be nice in areas around Mason, Llano, and San Saba, but the bluebonnets I found were thirsty and needed rain in a bad way.
On one evening’s drive, I’d just about given up on shooting anything. But the sunrise turned out to be spectacular, so I pulled over and photographed bluebonnets along an old farm-to-market road.
On a lonely stretch of road between Llano and Castel, bluebonnets filled in the roadsides and ditches on a cool late March sunset. The sky lit up a in a beautiful orange glow as the the road carried my view down the hill and onto the next bend – always wondering what is next on these backroads of the Texas Hill Country.
This little section was about the best I’ve found so far. But bluebonnets always bloom closer to the road a few weeks earlier than blooms appear in fields. They just need rain.
So get out and enjoy the wildflowers. The colors are prolific south of San Antonio. I’m hoping we’ll see the same closer to home in the hill country. Fingers crossed!
Each trip I make to Big Bend National Park has a purpose, and my time out here always seems to pass quickly. Big Bend hides so many places to explore, experience, and photograph. The land of the Big Bend is one of my favorite places in Texas. These trips are for work, and often require the sacrifice of being away from my family. For me, this is usually the most difficult part. But this trip was planned several months ago – after the desert’s bluebonnet season was to close – and my trek out to west Texas had two specific goals. First, I wanted to hike the Mesa de Anguila and photograph an iconic bend in the Rio Grande from a vantage point that looks over the western and little-known portion of the river. Next, I wanted to shoot Hot Springs Canyon at sunset.
I had visited Big Bend only 10 days prior at the height of a once-in-a-lifetime bluebonnet bloom. I had expected the blooms to be fading or gone by the time I returned, but when my friend (we’ll call him Mike) and I drove into the park from the Study Butte side, we quickly found the Big Bend bluebonnets alive and well. So we had to adjust our plans.
We spent the first day exploring – driving Old Maverick Road, the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, and best of all, River Road West. To my surprise, the bluebonnets 8-14 miles down River Road West were spectacular. Some showed the signs of heat and age – colors fading and seed pods showing – but many were tall and deep blue. About eight miles in on this rough 4WD road, the rolling foothills of the Chisos Mountains showed waves and rivers of blue. We’d found our sunrise spot for the following morning.
After lingering too long on River Road West, we drove quickly back to Terlingua and then down to Lajitas for a hike to Mesa del Anguila. The trail starts on the south end of this little town, takes you through a wash, then three-quarters of a mile across the Chihuahuan Desert. Though it may lull a hiker into a sense of ease, the looming uphill portion of the hike to reach the saddle of the Mesa is clearly visible for the duration of this short, flat portion. At first sight, I didn’t think that winding white uphill zig-zag could be the trail – it was steep and long and rocky. As we neared, our fears were confirmed. But what was there to do? So we headed up. The trail wasn’t as bad as it first appeared, but parts were slick because of loose rock, and it was a nice grade of uphill slogging.
Mostly cloudy skies hung over us with only occasional streaks of blue, and I wondered if this trek would be worth the attempt to shoot at sunset. About halfway up to the saddle, Mike gave out. He’s a great photographer, but not so much a hiker. A large boulder lay uphill, maybe a hundred yards ahead. I told him I thought the trail would flatten out some there, and I’d check it out and holler down at him. I made my way up to the large rock, only to find the rocky path kept climbing. He’d said to keep going, so I did, eventually gaining the saddle. From the top, I looked down to the Rio Grande as it flowed west to east far below. The problem was that to photograph the landscape like I wanted, I’d have to down climb off trail another quarter mile or more in order to reach a high cliff that offered the best vantage point.
I probably say this in every blog I write about Big Bend, but everything in the desert is designed to poke, stick, or sting a person. If you go off trail, you’ll find this out rather quickly. And as I veered off-trail, I was again reminded of this fact in short order. After several pokes though my jeans and a little loss of blood later (from several scratches and cuts from cacti and ocotillo), I reached the overhang that offered a magnificent view of the big bend in the river. This view has often been mistaken for Horseshoe Bend in Arizona, but it is unique in that this bend divides Texas from Mexico. From where I stood, I could peer down into the western portion of where Santa Elena Canyon begins to form. Not soon after my arrival, a faint glow on the western horizon soon turned into a bright orange glow shining through the clouds. I was pleased, and a little surprised, that the sunset brought a brief splash of color, allowing me to reel off a few images with two different lenses – one using a zoom to create a panorama and another a wide angle to capture the entire horseshoe shaped bend in the river in one image.
I wasn’t sure how they’d turn out, but my focus now turned to escaping back uphill to the saddle and down the other side to meet my friend.
Looking back up at the mesa, everything looked very nondescript. I started up the way I thought I’d come, but with light fading quickly my senses began playing tricks on me. I don’t often get spooked on evening or night hikes, but being out here near the border, in the dark, with no trail in sight made me a little nervous. Fortunately, I had my GPS. I re-calibrated my way up only to find I’d wandered too far east and found myself high on a ridge. I followed the GPS in the direction of the trail I’d come up, but ended up on a cliff overlooking the trail about 300 yards below. My fear of heights kicked in, as well as my fear of being stalked by a mountain lion at dusk. So with a tripod locked in one hand, a flashlight held in my mouth in order to free up one hand, and a GPS stuffed in my pocket, I began a precarious trip down the ledge – butt-scooting at times, holding onto small bushes with my free hand for balance at others. I don’t mind saying this was about the most freaked out I’ve been while hiking at night. (Well, maybe when returning from the South Rim in the dark a few years ago when my wife and I saw glowing orbs across a valley, that was a little more freaky…) But here, I was more worried about staying in one piece. By the time I reached the bottom about 45 minutes later, the backs of my hands were cut, I had thorns in the sides of my hiking boots, and my jeans were torn near my calves. But I found the trail, said a prayer of thanks, and scurried down to meet Mike. By this time, I think my friend was a little worried about me, as well. We made our way to the flat section on the desert floor, and an hour later we were at the Chisos Lodge – safe and sound.
The next morning, 4:30am came around pretty quickly. We were out of bed and made the long drive to River Road West. After turning from the paved road (Ross Maxwell) onto the dirt road (River Road West), eight miles and 30 minutes later, we were waiting for sunrise on the top of a bluff that overlooked the southern portion of the Chisos Mountains. Below, a sea of dark blue waited for first light. Bluebonnets ran down the slopes and into the distance – one of the most amazing sights I’ve seen in this park.
With light spilling over the distant peaks, we began photographing these amazing wildflowers. A slight breeze forced me to adapt my strategy and I began taking images with different focus depths and faster shutter speeds (I’ll refrain from the technical aspects, but it makes post-processing much more tedious). I’d stack these later to create a sharp image front to back. Now, I was just trying to capture the moment and the light. From this glorious morning, we worked our way back to the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, stopping in a few spots to photograph more bluebonnets. Eventually, we ended up back at the lodge for an early lunch.
We spent a few hours in the room looking at the previous night’s and morning’s photos, then were off to the east side of the park to scout and hike the Hot Springs Canyon trail to a spot I’d wanted to visit for sunset. Our scouting trip did not last long, and we quickly found the bluebonnets were fading on this side of the park.
After a short drive down an easy dirt road, the Hot Springs Trail greeted us. The parking lot was full of cars, most presumably had occupants visiting the Langford Hot Springs. An ominous sign greets visitors, declaring that theft occurs frequently at this sight. That’s always reassuring when you have half your business in the car. We took the high trail that bypassed the springs and revelers, and we saw nary another person for the 1.5 miles it took to reach a beautiful cliff high above the Rio Grande. In the distance to the east, through the opening of the Hot Springs Canyon, the cliffs of the Sierra del Carmen in Mexico rose into the warm desert evening. The colors of sunset stretched overhead in both directions – pastel pinks and blues in the east to brilliant oranges and vibrant blues to the west. I don’t know if photographs can do justice to the colors and landscape we enjoyed on this night.
Our last morning came early, and we had to make a decision – drive back to an area of bluebonnets with the iconic mule ears in the distance or head for home. At 5am, the clouds were thick. At 530am, a few stars could be seen. Based on hope, we packed quickly and headed southwest, racing down the Ross Maxwell Drive (slightly) above the speed limit. But we made it before the sky offered us some nice pinks and blues as sunlight underlit a low cloud bank.
And now, as I type this wordy blog while Mike drives us home, I’m closer to relief for having finished another trip. Now I can say I had a bad feeling about Friday night, so I’m glad that trek is finished. After Friday’s attempt to reach the Mesa de Anguila, I asked Mike, who speaks some Spanish, what that name means in Spanish. He responded, “Trail of the Damned.” I just about spit out my drink when he said that (he was joking). But sometimes you get the feeling that things just are as they should be. That was one of those nights. So however it happened, I am thankful for returning safely. Whether it was luck, my experience on all sorts of trails in the day or night, or divine guidance, I am appreciative we finished that hike safely. And I doubt I’ll be going off-trail alone again for a long time. When my wife reads this, I doubt she’ll let me, either.
But I am thankful, as always, for my time in the Big Bend region and Brewster County, and for experiencing new and amazing sights – both with landscapes and bluebonnets and friends. I’ll be back, but it may not be for several months – most likely in the late fall.
Now it is time to turn my attention to the upcoming wildflower bloom around central Texas – and a new photography book about Austin that, according to my publisher, needs the photography portion finished by August. In between will be several trips to Colorado for wildflowers and Autumn colors. After the last few weeks of hiking and travel, I need some time to rest. But time waits for no one. And my wife and kids are waiting for me to be home – and that is the best.
Bluebonnets in Big Bend National Park don’t come around very often. In the last 15 years of my visiting the park in search of this west Texas version of the state wildflower, I haven’t seen too many blooms. I’m not an old-timer just yet, though I am approaching that status more quickly than I’d like. But in my time visiting this destination park, I’ve never seen a bloom that could equal the 2019 bluebonnet spring. I visited with locals, park rangers, and a few photographers I met on location and we all agreed this was potentially a once-in-a-lifetime bloom.
Big Bend has its own unique species of bluebonnet,Lupinus havardii, and it is slightly different than the more familiar blue flower known in the Hill Country and central Texas. It can grow up to three feet in height and is a bit sturdier, as well. In the past years when bluebonnets were present, I’ve found these blooms along the roadsides and occassionally in a few of the washes just off the main roads. They usually appear in mid-February in the lower desert elevations. In good years, a few weeks later the blooms often appear along the roads skirting the Chisos Mountains, higher in elevation, and sometimes linger until early March.
I was fortunate to spend several days in Big Bend during the third week of February, 2019, free to explore, scout, and photograph whatever I came across. The reports of the desert bloom appeared to be pretty positive, and when I arrived, I was really at a loss to describe the patterns of blue that stretched up the washes and tumbled down the slopes on the east and west sides of the park. Many miles down East River Road, small hillsides were full of bluebonnets. On the west side near Tuff Canyon, bluebonnets held to the edges of the canyon. Further below the iconic Cerro Castellon, desert waves of blue stretched a mile to the south.
After spending one full day scouting for sunrise and sunset locations, trekking across the desert and climbing plateaus that offered amazing views (and logging 10+ miles of off-trail hiking and exploring), opportunities for unique vantage points became apparent, and in this particular spring, bluebonnets at the peak of their bloom anchored the foreground.
My nemesis in the golden hours of my trip became the wind. In the soft light, the bluebonnet stems and petals waved gently in the breeze, but in longer exposures appeared blurry. I’ll avoid getting technical here, but the constant breeze forced me to take several layers of each image with different focal points, moving from immediate foreground to distant peaks. Sometimes, I’d shoot 6 or 7 different images in an attempt to have the entire photograph sharp from front to back. While this works, it is a long and tedious process. Still, a few beautiful sunrises and sunsets made the process worthwhile, and I’m pleased with the results. Of course, I’m always left wanting a few more days.
The bluebonnet bloom in February of 2019 in Big Bend National Park was spectacular, and I imagine (hopefully) that one day I will be an old-timer reminiscing about the waves of blue that covered the desert. I don’t know if I’ll see another spring like it in the Chihuahuan Desert surrounding the Chisos, but I can hope. And that, along with some photographs and memories, is good enough for me.
I’ve enjoyed many fun experiences as a professional photographer, from hiking in Rattlesnake Canyon in Colorado to standing on the South Rim in Big Bend National Park. One of those rewarding experiences that required a lot less work was shooting the moon – the Super Blood Wolf Moon.
At 11:12pm on January 20, 2019, the Super Blood Wolf Moon reached its peak over the Hill Country, glowing an eerie reddish-orange hue. Several events transpired on this night to create this rare view. The Super Moon was in view – when the full moon is closest to earth at ~ 223,000 miles; the Wolf Moon – a full moon in the month of January; and a total lunar eclipse – the earth coming between the sun and moon – causing the Blood Moon. This unique alignment of celestial events made for a great lunar show on this cold winter night. The next total lunar eclipse will not occur until May 26, 2021.
A few nights ago, January 20, the earth passed between the sun and moon, bringing on a total lunar eclipse. At the time, the full moon was closer to the earth than usual (~ 223,000 miles away). This occurrence is known as the super moon, and during this time the moon appears 14% larger and 30% brighter. Since these lunar events happened in January, the “Wolf” title was included, as well, since a full moon in January is called by this name (in American Folklore).
On this night, I didn’t have to travel far – just a few miles from my house in the Texas Hill Country. The walk from my car covered about 20 yards – a far cry from the 14 mile round trip to the South Rim in Big Bend!
I had scouted out this location earlier. Using The Photographer’s Ephemeris and Stellarium, both online apps, I knew when and where the moon would be when the eclipse reached totality. I nearly always include a foreground in my images – something to catch the viewer’s interested – and for this rare evening I chose an old windmill. I figured since I can shoot almost straight up to catch the blades of the windmill as well as the moon, I could find a composition that would capture both a portion of the windmill and the blood moon. I also wanted to have the foreground fairly far away so I could use my zoom lens, thus making the moon appear larger against the dark blades of the windmill. This effect is just changing perspective, but often makes the moon more dramatic.
So after checking out the location earlier in the day, I headed back a little before the peak of totality which was set to occur at 11:12pm. Practically laying on my back in order to shoot nearly straight up, I took several images, making sure I had everything aligned to my liking. I probably shot 50+ images over the next 15 minutes, keeping only four final versions.
Because the windmill and the moon were so far apart, while one appeared sharp the other would be a bit blurry. No amount of changing the depth of field on a long telephoto lens could overcome this difference. I ended up using two separate images for each final version – one with the windmill in focus and the other with the moon in focus. I blended the two together using Photoshop. I am pleased with the final versions, having captured and created something that our eyes can see but the camera cannot capture in one single image.
This blood moon image was taken at the peak of the eclipse. I used a windmill’s blades as the foreground – shot while basically on my back looking nearly straight up. I lightened up the foreground a bit so the blades of the windmill showed up a bit.
This photograph shows the rare Super Blood Wolf Moon as it turned a reddish-orange high in the Texas sky late in the night of January 20, 2019. With a windmill’s blades rising in the foreground, I used a telephoto lens to zoom in on both the windmill and the moon. This image is a composite of two photos, each taken to maximize clarity and sharpness. In the first image, the moon was the focal point. In the next image, the windmill was the focal point. Both were combined using Photoshop to show what the eye can see but the camera cannot capture, creating a sharp image of the windmill, maybe 50+ feet high, and the moon, about 223,000 miles away.
It was cold that night, and I am glad I did not plan on shooting the duration of the eclipse from partial to full to partial again. Here is how that full progression appeared back on April 15, 2014…
In the early morning hours of April 15, the earth passed between the sun and moon, causing a total luner eclipse and resulting in a ‘blood moon.’
This image was a composite of the moon phases over the course of several hours over Austin, Texas.
Maybe next time. After all, the next total lunar eclipse in my area is only a few years away – on May 26, 2021!
In the meantime, stay warm out there. Bluebonnets are on the way.
Several years ago, I was flying a drone – a DJI Inspire 2 – when the battery failed while the drone was around 300 feet and over water. A death spiral ensued and with a meek splash, as I watched in disbelief, the little flying contraption hit the water and sank quietly to the bottom of the Colorado River near Pennybacker Bridge. After experiencing the worst customer service imaginable (DJI wouldn’t honor any warranty that was caused by a battery failure despite the data showing it was not user error, just an orginal faulty battery that came with the drone), I gave up on drones for several years.
Last January changed things. I decided to once again add aerial photography to my portfolio, so I spent a few weeks studying for the FAA Part 107 exam, a test that allows one to fly a drone and sell the work commercially. On a cold day in San Marcos, I sat at a computer for less than 30 minutes, scored a 95 on the test, and was on my way. I thought the test was shockingly easy, but I had also spent time preparing, so maybe the studying paid off.
I should state here rather emphatically I don’t want to be one of those guys with a drone that annoy folks or bends the rules. I’m very careful not to interfere with someone’s peace nor invade their privacy. I usually fly straight up and straight down unless I’m over water, and and probably overly cautious. Anyway, I digress…
I waited another ten months until I finally purchased a drone. I bit the bullet and bought another DJI unit – this time a Mavic Pro 2 – and what sold me was the Hasselblad camera that was part of the drone. For my business, I need to be able to print fairly large prints. While not huge, I’ve been able to produce detailed prints at 54” wide, and the panoramas stitched from several images have been printed up to 9 feet wide.
While flying, I take no risks, and I take a ton of shots. I’ve found that some photos will come back with just a bit of blur – nothing that would be noticeable in smaller prints, but for enlargements, I need sharp, crisp originals.
After several test flights and practicing with the camera settings and gimbal, I was able to take a few trips to put the new drone in use. A few shots from San Antonio under windy conditions produced this panorama showing the well-known Tower of the Americas and Alamodome.
From southwest San Antonio, this view of the skyline shows the Tower of the Americas prominently. to the east (right) is the Alamodome. to the left (west, is the main skyline. In the distance, even the new Frost Tower, similar to the Frost Tower in Austin, is peeking out from behind the Tower of Life building.
The next weekend, my family and I headed to Houston to shoot the skyline around Buffalo Bayou along Allen Parkway. Here are a few images taken near sunset and at sunrise on a perfect 24 hours just before storms rolled into Texas’ largest city:
A lazy Saturday afternoon finds blue skies over the Houston skyline on a cool day in November. Below, Buffalo Bayou finds folks outdoors biking, jogging, or just taking a stoll along the paths lining the water between Allen Pkwy and Memorial Parkway. This image was taken with a drone. I am a Licensed FAA Part 107 pilot.
From high over Buffalo Bayou on a beautiful November morning, the sun breaks through the clouds and shines the first light of day through the highrises of the Houston skyline. Far below, Buffalo Bayou flows along, flanked by Memorial Parkway and Allen Parkway. The tallest building in the skyline is the JP Morgan Chase Tower at 1,002 feet high. This aerial sunrise image was taken with a drone and a licensed FAA Part 107 pilot (me).
You can see more photographs, both from the ground and from the drone, in my Houston skyline images gallery.
And for the last few weeks, I’ve been enjoying the fall colors around the Austin skyline and Ladybird Lake. Though late in November, the red oaks and cypress were full of reds and oranges and made for great color in these sunrise and sunset photographs:
The first sunlight peeks over the horizon and downtown Austin, Texas. This aerial panorama was taken with a drone and looks down on Ladybird Lake and across to the highrises of the capitol city. Taken in late November, the Autumn colors along the water are just showing up in the morning light.
On a beautiful November evening, this aerial photograph of downtown Austin and the skyline shows shows the fall colors found along Ladybird Lake. The “Jenga Tower” (formally known as the Independent) tops out at 685’ and is the tallest highrise in Austin, narrowly eclipsing the Austonian (683’).
Overall, I’m liking the Mavic Pro 2. I’m not into the technical aspects, so you can get that information elsewhere, but I will say this little flying machine is fun to fly, easy and intuitive, and with a little post processing, can produce nice images that folks seem to like. And for me, that is the bottom line. I look forward to adding to my gallery featuring aerial photographs from across Texas.
Thanks for listening. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to shoot me an email.
The alarm goes off. It is 4am. Rain is falling outside and I’m nice and dry inside my sleeping bag – inside my old 4-Runner 30 miles from Presidio, Texas, in Big Bend Ranch State Park.
I had made the 8.5 hour trek to this location for two main reasons – to photograph the landscape from the highest point in the park – Oso Peak – and to make a return trip to Fresno Canyon to photograph sunrise.
But is is 4am and raining. I’m not sure I want to crawl from my warm bag and drive 20 minutes down a dirt road to the trailhead. But I do, and soon I’m bumping through the dark while trying to munch down a protein bar and sip from my small bottle of Sweat Leaf peach tea. How many people would really do this? How many people have even heard of Fresno Canyon and the Solitario?
Rain is still falling as I reach the trailhead. I put on a headlamp, calibrate the GPS, double check the tripod, camera, and lenses, gatorade, and snacks I’m bringing along, and with a flashlight in hand and headlamp on, head into the dark.
I’m torn… the clouds above show patches of light and dark, but the rain is still gently falling. This trek is all about faith.That’s a pretty good analogy. I’ll have to remember that.
I press on. The trail is relatively faint, but sporadically marked by cairns. It is an easy hike – some might even call it a walk. Every once in a while I have to turn on my hand-held flashlight and search for the next pile of rocks. This is my second attempt to reach the rim of Fresno Canyon. Last year, I lost the trail in the dark and missed sunrise at the canyom rim by about a quarter mile. I won’t make that mistake again.
The rains have mostly stopped. The air is cool and I’m still in complete darkness. Stars are visible to the west and even overhead.
After two miles of easy walking, I reach the edge of a large wash. A switchbacking trail leads down into the small valley, into some dense vegetation. Hopefully, no bears or mountain lions are hanging around. In ten seconds, I’m heading back up the trail to the top of the wash. Five more minutes of walking and I can see the faint outline of the Solitario, a circular rock formation that covers over 50 miles. The complex geologic structure rises from the Chihuahuan Desert and is flanked on its west side by Fresno Canyon.
I know I have arrived. With dark skies overhead, I see traces of light along the ridges of the Solitario. Slowly, I step the edge of the canyon rim and peer into the abyss. Still surrounded in darkness, I’m left to wonder what it will look like when daylight arrives. Splashes of red and orange begin to outline the clouds above the distant rock cliffs. This has a lot of potential.
The next 30 minutes are a blur. The sky catches fire in one of the most stunning sunrises I’ve ever experienced. The canyon seems to echo in full vibrant color. The grace and the beauty of this desolate and rugged land arise like a vast fire for a few fleeting minutes.
This panorama shows Fresno Canyon and the Solitario in Big Bend Ranch State Park. My morning to reach this amazing sight began at 4am. I was sleeping in the back of my 4Runner because of the overnight rains. When I awoke, the rains were still falling. Nevertheless, I organized my pack, drove the few miles down a relatively easy 4WD road, and started the hike around 5am. The rains were lighter, and I could even see a few stars in the west. Two and a half miles later, after an easy walk through the desert, though route-finding was a bit difficult in the dark, I found myself standing on the edge of Fresno Canyon. Few Texans have seen Fresno Canyon, and many folks don’t even know if its existence. I felt priveleged to stand there. Across the gorge, the Solitario rose from the floor. From overhead, the uplift appears like an impact zone, but it actually the remains of a laccolith (an uplift of igneous rock in a circular shape) and covers approximately 52 square miles. As light began to spread through an opening between the horizon and clouds, the sky overhead slowly turned to fire, glowing in reds, oranges, and golds. This sunrise was one of the most amazing sights I’ve had the opportunity to both experience and photograph. I hope this image in some small way conveys the beauty of that rare morning.
This is a lesson for me… Sometimes I just have to keep moving – hoping it will all be worth it – because sometimes it is. I’m glad I kept walking – even in the rain.
Vaya con Dios, my friends.
After almost a week in the wilds of Big Bend Ranch State Park, then over to Big Bend National Park, I found myself exploring an area of Texas I didn’t know quite as well – Brownsville, Texas. I’d walked the sands of South Padre Island and driven the Queen Isabella Causeway in the past, but I’ve not photographed the resacas (waterways) in this border town. I had the opportunity to basically be guided around the area by a local, and jumped at the chance.
My friend – I’ll call him Mark for now – is a photographer, as well, and better than he gives himself credit. We met in San Antonio just after lunch and made the drive to Brownsville. Mark had written down 25 potential locations for me to shoot, locations in Brownsville, Port Isabel, and South Padre Island. He’d made arrangements for us to stay in Brownsville, so that first night we focused on a few scenic resacas.
Before the trip, I had never heard the word resaca. Now I know these waterways are remnants of the Rio Grande River flow. Ten percent of Brownsville is taken by these waterways, and with the sun low in the horizon followed by a setting crescent moon, the evening offered some nice photographic opportunities.
A crescent moon sets in the west over a resaca in Brownsville, Texas. These waterways are found throughout this border town and add beauty to the city. This footbridge crosses the water on the campus of Texas Southmost College.
That first night, I noticed traffic seemed a little haphazard. In some ways, it reminded me of my younger days when commuting in Rome. I once had been driven around the eternal city by a monsignor at the Vatican (he was an American serving there). I asked him what was his secret to managing the driving madness. His answer: Don’t make eye contact! He said if your eyes met the eyes of another driver, that gave him permission to cut you off. I asked if he’d ever been in any wrecks. His answer, grinning: Sure, everyone who drives here has. Brownsville wasn’t that bad. As we weaved in and out of traffic on a Thursday night in Brownsville, I asked Mark if it was always so crazy driving here. Smiling, he said: It’s Brownsville. I’m glad to say we never had any fender-benders, but driving was a bit sketchy at times.
We awoke on Saturday morning well before dark. Our destination this a.m. was past Port Isabel and over the bay (Laguna Madre) to the sand dunes of South Padre Island. We had planned on driving down Ocean Blvd until we found some nice dunes, but high water prevented us from traveling more than a few miles before the road was too much under water for us to continue. I had no idea that a hurricane 600 miles away could affect the water levels on the beach. But it had. So we parked, scampered up and over the sand to the east, then dropped down the other side and headed toward the ocean. From there, on a windy October morning, we both enjoyed a beautiful sunrise. The beach was filled with shells and parts of shells. When the water would recede between waves, the shells would leave zig-zagged and curving lines in the sand. With the sun’s glow on the sand, I really liked the lines in the beach.
From South Padre Island, this is a beautiful early morning sunrise. As the waves washed out to the Gulf waters, the lines in the sand created by shells tumbling in the shifting surf weave a tapestry in the orange light of morning. Overhead, three gulls watched my work from overhead.
We played here, photographing every angle we could manage, then headed to the other side of the island to photograph any fowl we might find. After that, a trip over the causeway to Port Isabel allowed us a brief stop to photograph the Lighthouse in the center of town. After that, I was guided to an amazing Mexican restaurant, but not before shooting the courthouse of Cameron County.
After a midday siesta, Mark took me back to the island,but this time we were shopping for stuffed dolphins. Yes, being away from my family sometimes requires me to bring my girls a gift as pennance for being gone. And they love dolphins. After stopping at several tacky tourists shops, I finally found a pink and a blue dolphin – perfect for a peace offering. From the tacky tourist are, we shot several locations – birds on a stump in the water at sunset using a 400mm prime lens, the east side of the Queen Isabella Causeway, and the west side of the Causeway.
The Queen Isabella Causeway stretches 2.37 miles from Port Isabel to South Padre Island. It spans the Laguna Madre and is the onlyl road connecting the south Texas mainland with the island. This image was taken from the South Padre Island as a crescent moon was setting in the west.
On a humid October evening on South Padre Island just north of Port Isabel, the sun last light spreads across the water between the Island and the mainland. In the foreground, an egret searches for fish who may swim his way.
We tried to photograph some shrimp boats, but in asking for permission from (apparently) the crew, the gnarly guys working did not speak English. I tried talking slower and louder and using hand gestures, but one fellow just took a drag from his one-inch cigarette, turned, and walked away. The other said, I think, we needed to talk to the boss. When asked where the boss was, he shrugged and sat back down to do whatever was doing before being interrupted.
That night, after a long, hot, and humid day, Mark took me to a street taco dive. Both outside and in, the area was teeming with Hispanic folks enjoying the evening. I am 100% sure we were the only gringos in the place. And the street tacos – bisteak and barbacoa with avocado and goat cheese were amazing. I tried the sauces, too. The orange sauce, whatever that was, left the right side of my face numb – as if I’d been to see the dentist. Some might ask if I was a true Texan. The answer is yes – 4th generation! And that stuff was numbingly hot. The left side of my face will remember how good those tacos tasted. The right side remembers nothing.
A little more time in Brownsville shooting around Texas Southmost College and the resacas made it a successful, fun, and enlightening trip. I had some great food, donated some blood to the local mosquitoes around the water, and enjoyed exploring a new location.
My lingering thoughts on Brownsville and the coast…
– the people I met were truly friendly and kind
– the food was amazing – lunch, street tacos, and a bakery we found the final morning about 6am
– the mosquito population is alive and well
– Brownsville has some surprisingly gorgeous areas
– I’m still finding sand from a windy morning on the beach
– It is a long drive from the Hill Country to the Texas/Mexico border.
If you’ve been following my work, you probably know my business keeps me busy photographing great landscapes and even some skylines across our great state. But each summer for the last 20+ years, I’ve spent a few months in Colorado with a home base in Winter Park. Last year, because my Texas photography business was going so well, and since I had a plethora of Colorado images, I decided to branch out to Colorado. With my kids in school, it is harder for me to trek to the mountains in the non-summer months, but I’ve been trying. But for now, summers are my time to roam, explore, and shoot. This past June and July have been no exception. So in this blog I wanted to share some of the highlights from outside of Texas.
First, I spent about a week total shooting a place that reminded me very much of west Texas and one of my favorite places, Big Bend National Park. Colorado National Monument is just west of Grand Junction. It is a hidden gem and not very visited by tourists, but the canyons are mesmerizing, especially in the morning and evening light. Rim Rock Road runs along the rim of several canyons, offering access to amazing hiking trails and beautiful vistas.
Further west, with Black Ridge Road connecting the two, McInnis Canyons, and especially Rattlesnake Canyon and Arches, are just a few miles away. The catch is, to access the arches requires a heavy-duty 4WD, high clearance vehicle. Fortunately, I have a friend and a Grand Junction native offer his services, so we drove approximately 8 miles in about an hour over absolutely terrible roads to shoot at the Rattlesnake Arches for a sunset and sunrise. The light was spectacular and provided both images and memories that will last a long time.
Each summer, I spend some time hunting Colorado Wildflowers. Despite the drought conditions in much of Colorado, some colorful blooms were still out there. Probably my favorite place this year was on a hike to Lost Man Lake near Independence Pass. I had to drop about 10 feet down into a ravine, then cross a very cold stream, but a cluster of Columbine caught my attention and provided a beautiful foreground for a fast-flowing cascade near Aspen, Colorado.
Another location with good wildflowers was a hike along the Upper Piney Lake Trail. About five miles up the trail, the last three providing some class three scrambles, a friend of mine and I finally made it into a large cirque. Here, golden sunflower and purple aster flowed down from the steep slopes.
Closer to home, I took advantage of the full moon to photograph a Fraser Valley icon, Byers peak.
Each summer, a friend of mine and I climb a few mountains. This summer, we hiked up a repeat – Grays and Torreys Peak. We’ve climbed 31 of Colorado’s 54 14,000’ peaks, but summited nothing new this year. Still, here is an image from the top of Grays
The wildflowers along the trail were pretty amazing, as well.
One of my favorite places in all of Colorado to spend time is the Maroon Bells. A lot of other folks feel the same way, as it is the most photographed place in the state. The two peaks, North Maroon and Maroon Peak, both rise over 14,000 feet high. With Maroon Lake in the foreground, the photographic options are seemingly limitless. As a bonus, each June the Milky Way rises over the peaks for a few days between 3:30am-4:00am. The whole scene is beautiful, and the only folks out at that time are making their way along the lake and heading for an ascent of one of the Maroon Bells peaks.
One of the most spectacular sunsets I witnessed this summer came from Rocky Mountain National Park. I had driven over to Grand Lake one evening and into the west side of the park. Up the road a ways is an old barn – locally known as the Little Buckaroo Barn. Despite the whimsical name, this barn is part of a homestead from the early 1900s and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The sunset on this particular night was amazing.
I still have a week or so until I have to take my girls back to Texas and get them ready for school, but it won’t be long until I can spend more time up here in the fall.
Until then, I hope you enjoyed this escape from the Texas heat!
Big Bend National Park is one of my favorite places in Texas. Just to the west of this region is the oft overlooked little brother – Big Bend Ranch State Park. I’d wanted to explore this largest state park in Texas for quite some time. My first trek to “the other side of nowhere” happened about 8 weeks ago in early February. That brief excursion left me wanting to see more. My wife and I spent some time along FM 170 between Presidio and Lajitas exploring some of the trails there, but I wanted to return and visit the interior. To accomplish this, I needed some things to fall into place. First, my wife was tired of making the long drive to the Big Bend area, so I needed to gain permission from her to head out for a 3 day trip while she took care of the home front. She agreed, mostly, I think, so she could stay home. Next, I had to find a friend who could take time off and who enjoyed exploring because when I’m camping, I’d rather have someone around to share in the discomfort. So I asked a friend of mine to come along. While he goes by a different name, we’ll call him Bob for this story. And on Friday morning we met at 7am at the Whataburger in Fredericksburg (he came from San Antonio and I departed from Dripping Springs) and were on our way.
Bob is a photographer, as well, though he doesn’t practice professionally. However, he does excellent work and knows what he’s doing, is willing to get up at 345am and stay out late to get the best shots, and likes to experience new places. I had been watching the weather for 2 weeks, even though I realize how unreliable a forecast is until you’re in the 48 hour zone. And even then the forecast looked sketchy with regards for sunrises and sunsets being colorful.
Our plan was to drive the interior of Big Bend Ranch State Park (BBRSP), check in at the Sauceda Ranger Station, then set up camp not far from our trailhead destination. Sometimes plans don’t work out even when you think they did. Everything went as accordingly as far as we knew, as we passed through Fort Stockton, Alpine (had lunch at “Come and Take It Barbecue”), then on through Presidio, then down the 27 mile dirt road to the Sauceda Ranch House. The ranger who was on duty, Kirsten, was quite helpful and full of information. Soon, we had claimed La Posta as our campsite, only about 5 miles from the Fresno Canyon Rim trailhead. The remainder of the afternoon was spent photographing some of the local cacti blooms and waiting until sunset (and hoping for good color in the sky).
On a recommendation from Kirsten, the ranger, we drove the very bumpy 4WD Osa Loop to a lofty clearing. “You’ll know it because all the grass will be flat because the cows lay down up there.” And sure enough, after bouncing and rattling up something that resembled a dirt road, we found the place where the cows lay down. The views were ok, too, but not spectacular (maybe I’d been spoiled from Big Bend National Park). As sunset approached, Bob and I found ourselves on this hill that had nice views in both directions. The sky was not offering much hope for color, so we reluctantly made the decision to drive the 4WD high clearance road back to the main dirt road, then back to camp. About 5 miles from the campsite, the sun peeked through the clouds right on the horizon, and we scrambled to capture the moment. We scurried up a small rocky slope and shot for a short time. I had decided to run back to the car to change lenses, but a rock reached out and grabbed my foot, sending me into a headfirst dive. But I saved the camera (that was the fleeting thought as I hit the ground). A quick check showed I had blood oozing out both hands, and elbow, and both legs. The sun was setting quickly, so the blood could wait. As I type, I have wound on both hands and legs from rock-puncture wounds that caused a fair amount of bleeding. Nevertheless, I still recovered in time to enjoy an unexpectedly colorful pink and blue sunset.
Back at camp, we hunkered down for a rough night. Bob retired to his tent. I chose to stretch out as best as possible in the back of my 4Runner. I feel safe saying it was one of the worst nights of sleep I’ve experienced in quite a while, so it wasn’t that difficult getting ready at 3:45am and driving out by 4am. By 4:20am we had found our trailhead, having only missed one turn. The trail to the rim of Fresno canyon is about 2.6 miles (GPS indicated we covered 2.59 miles) and was well marked – or so we thought. Hiking in the light of a full moon was a pleasure, and we even stopped to shoot the distant mountains as they glowed in the dim light.
At one point we even witnessed a meteor streak across the sky. Amazingly, the green trail it left in the night sky glowed for at least 30 seconds. It was a pretty cool thing to see, for sure. Continuing on, we arrived at the canyon rim in a little over an hour – much earlier than we’d planned. How did we get here so quickly? I guess we were fast walkers in great shape. So we waited another 45 minutes until the first glow of orange appeared in the east, then spent the next hour trying to capture those moments of beautiful light at a remote place that few Texans have ever seen – and so many more don’t even know about. It is here that I am embarrassed to say we had not reached the canyon. I admittedly was underwhelmed with the “canyon” that stretched out before us. It was on the smallish side and out of curiosity, I had walked halfway down and back up in the dark. Little did I know at the time, if we had kept going – down and back up – we would have come to an amazing sight. The realization that came a few days later still makes turns my stomach in knots. And my obsessiveness about getting the best shots takes over. And I’ve already started trying to figure out when I can return and take care of this unfinished business.
After all that, we still had a nice sunrise… just not the dramatic views we had expected. But at the time, we didn’t realize our failure, so we were content.
Fresno Canyon cuts through the desert in this remote region of BBRSP, and from our ravine only a quarter mile from the canyon, we got a taste – a partial view – of the Solitario and flatirons. When I visit places like this, I’m always interested in hearing stories about the first settlers. I really can’t imagine attempting to forge out a life in this arid south Texas place. Water is scarce, vegetation is angry and always ready to prick you with tiny spears, and food sources are not abundant. One of the only graces about this harsh environment is that it rests at over 4,000 feet in elevation so the temperatures are often cooler than those along the Rio Grande only miles away.
So with work finished for the morning, we departed. It is always fun to hike in the daylight after the original hike takes place in the dark. The landscape is no longer hidden and mysterious, and the colors, textures, and formations become reality. Everything looks different when you add a little light.
Back at the car, we inched our way back to the main dirt road, stopped to buy a few stuffed animals for my daughters at the ranch house, and took our time to stop and photograph various places on the way back to FM 170.
Once our tires hit pavement again (really an underappreciated part of driving), we drove to Presidio, had lunch at the Oasis restaurant (serves a pretty good cheeseburger), then checked into our hotel (the Riata – which despite outward appearance was actually a pretty nice place for cheap – clean rooms and a clean bathroom). For an hour, we rested, then again headed out, this time to photograph probably the most well-known hike in the park, Closed Canyon. I had shot here before, but Bob hadn’t seen it. We met some nice folks from California and Marble Falls along the path, and slowly explored the area between the high rising rock walls that cut through this Colorado Mesa.
Finishing at Closed Canyon, we made the decision to head to our final destination of the evening – the Big Hill. This location appears on some maps, but not others. It is a simple pull-out along FM 170 that offers spectacular views of the Rio Grande looking west. About 100 yards east from this pull-out is another pull-out – this one leading to the Dom Rock. Both of these places are easy access, but if you are willing to put in a bit more effort, even better views can be had.
We knew the full moon would be rising at sunset, so the plan was to shoot both directions and go back and forth – full moon to the east and setting sun to the west. The sunset turned out to be all we could have hoped for – a sky full of pink, red, orange, and blue pastels.
Beneath this colorful palette, the green strip of the Rio Grande wandered west towards the setting sun. More astounding was the fact that we didn’t see another person – or even a car – the entire time we were working. This place really is off the beaten path. I’ll not belabor how beautiful this landscape is, so I’ll just leave this image to show what we experienced.
After wrapping up the evening, we made our way back to the hotel (took about 55 minutes), then returned to this spot the next morning for sunrise. Again, colors greeted us with reds and pinks in the sky, but after a colorful sky, eastern clouds soon took over. To the west, the sky was soft blue and white and pink. The contrast in colors between sunrise and sunset always catches my attention, especially when comparing images from relatively the same locations.
From here, the photography part of our trip came to an end, and it was hometime. But not before one more adventure. As we left Terlingua and drove in the direction of Alpine, we made the required stop at Checkpoint Charlie – the area where the border patrol checks cars traveling north. Somehow, their dog make a “hit” on my car, so we were tagged and pulled over. The officers had Bob and I wait in a detention area while they emptied our car. I asked Bob, “Is there anything you want to tell me now?” He said nope, and carried on a lively conversation with the guard who was making sure we didn’t make a run for the… empty, barren landscape that stretched out a hundred miles. We sat there maybe 20-30 minutes while the dog was allowed to sniff around inside our car (all our belongings for the trip had been thrown on the ground). Not surprisingly, the dog found nothing, and avoided the clink. On our way again, made our way through Alpine before stopping at the Dickeys Bbcue in Fort Stockton for an early lunch. After that, it was hometime and hugs for my girls and wife. Yes, it was quite a 3 day tour.
Unfortunately, this has been a less than stellar spring for our favorite Texas wildflower. The reports that I’ve received from friends putting in miles around south and central Texas show that while there are blooms along the roadsides and in some fields, the coverage is not full. I’m still hoping to find a few spots on the hill country for bluebonnets, but I don’t have high hopes. At this point, Ennis might have a decent showing. We should know more in the next few weeks. I’ve taken very few photos of bluebonnets this year, and I think this is my favorite – a white bluebonnet (or whitebonnet):
In a field of bluebonnets, one lone wildflower stood out – this white bluebonnet (or maybe a whitebonnet?). As bees buzzed all around this field, it took 23 shots to capture this image of the bee in flight as it surveyed the unique colors of this single flower in the Texas Hill Country.
It took 23 images to capture this bee in flight. I had originally hoped to photograph a bee that was sitting on a petal, but each time a bee landed, it was on the side of the bluebonnet opposite the lens. But this bee in flight turned out better than I could have hoped.
I do have a good feeling about firewheels. Again, time will tell, and future rains will dictate the fullness of the fields, but I think the Hill Country is off to a good start.
Big Bend is calling my name again. I’m hoping to get out there again before April’s end. I hear the prickly pear cacti are blooming, and I’d like to photograph the Rio Grande at sunset. One morning for sunrise, I am planning on trekking out to Fresno Canyon in Big Bend Ranch State Park. I’ve not spent much time in the interior of BBRSP so I’m looking forward to a little adventure. For some reason, that area (the Big Bend region) appeals to me. I’m not sure if it is the isolation or the big sky landscape, but there is something there – like a distant memory of childhood that brings a peace and joy that really can’t be described adequately to someone else.