The Guadalupe Mountains are a long way from my home in the central Texas hill country. But in those remote and ancient mountains is a location I’ve wanted to experience and photograph in the fall – McKittrick Canyon – a winding path through rugged peaks that holds a remnant collection of bigtooth maple trees. Each Autumn, this canyon comes alive with fiery color of the changing maple leaves, a stark contrast to the surrounding desert landscape. I also wanted to hike up to Guadalupe Peak, the tallest point in Texas, and shoot both the sunset and the Milky Way from its lofty summit. I’d made this walk-up before, but this time I wanted to capture the landscape in evening light.
Over the course of four days, I was able to photograph some incredible landscapes, and I’m not sure if an image on a website can really do justice to the rugged beauty of this west Texas area. First, the Butterfield Overland Stage Route provides some great vistas of El Capitan. You have to obtain a key from the National Park to access two gates, but the views are worth it. You will need a four-wheel drive, for sure, as the road is treacherous at times.
I photographed from this location on several occasions and was fortunate to have some great light.
One of my points of emphasis this trip was McKittrick Canyon, the bigtooth maple trees, and “The Notch” that gives a great view of both McKittrick Canyon and South McKittrick Canyon. The maples were beginning to turn, and there were sections of brilliant reds and oranges, yet other areas were still quite green. The weather was beautiful, and with calm winds, photographing the scenery along this trail was a pleasure.
The grunt up to “The Notch” was steep and rocky, but the landscape showcased those granite mountains and jagged peaks both to the north and south. Looking back in the direction I came, the winding flow of red and orange leaves of the bigtooth maples in the distance followed the winding creek as it snaked through the canyon. While resting at the top, I even sat about three feet from a rattlesnake. That was quite the surprise. The round trip to this point and back to the trailhead turned out to be a little over 10 miles and actually wasn’t too bad. I’m glad, because the next evening I’d be trekking up a different trail – this time to Guadalupe Peak and the highest point in Texas.
At 8,751 feet, Guadalupe Peak is the tallest mountain in Texas. The trail to the top is relatively easy – just a gradual walk up gaining ~ 3,000 feet in altitude over 4 miles. The views at the top offer a unique perspective that looks across the Chihuahuan Desert to the east, south, and west. Below the peak is the famous El Capitan, the 8th tallest summit in Texas and one that I’d photographed both that morning and the night before from other locations. I arrived at the top of Guadalupe Peak a little before sunset, enjoying the quiet solitude. While there, I took in a wonderful sunset, and later witnessed the Milky Way at it rolled across the sky in the southwest. The walk down passed quickly, but I was glad to arrive back at the trail head. Trails at night always seem a bit creepier and unknown. I have good flashlights, but I’m always happy to be finished with long hikes at night. The thought of mountain lions is always in the back of my mind.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park, the less well known of Texas’ two national parks, will reward you if you are willing and able to get out and explore. Those age-old mountains – once part of the Delaware Sea 30 million years ago – hide valleys of lush green trees and crystal clear streams. Trout even survive in some of the pools tucked away in the canyons. Outside those canyon walls is a rugged and unforgiving desert. Both provide opportunities for exploration and contemplation. I hope to return again soon!
Big Bend National Park is home to some of the most amazing views in Texas. I’ve had the opportunity to photograph this remote Texas landscape along the Rio Grande several times, and at the end of each visit I’m left wanting more time, more sunrises and sunsets, and another day to explore the trails and vistas offered here.
The hike to the South Rim of Big Bend is often referred to as the best hike in Texas. Depending on your route or your curiosity, the round trip can often exceed 13 or more miles. While I’ve explored the Chisos Mountains and Chihuahuan Desert, I’d never visited the South Rim until recently. I’d planned to make this hike on other occasions, but poor weather made conditions to photograph the Rim not worth the effort of lugging camera equipment that far. But over the course of a four day visit to Big Bend and using a sunset-conditions predictor program, I finally found a good night to go.
To shoot sunset or sunrise at the South Rim, you either have to camp or hike one direction in the dark. Lugging a camera, several lenses, a tripod, and a star-tracking mount (for Milky Way photographs) took precedence over a tent, so I was left with the only option of hiking back in the dark. So I set out about 4pm on an April afternoon layered in wispy clouds and climbed the 2,000+ vertical feet up to Laguna Meadow. The hike itself isn’t hard. The trail is easy to follow and the uphill isn’t anything daunting. It’s just a long grind with a backpack full of equipment and gatorade. By the time I reached the edge of a 1,500 cliff of the South Rim, I’d only seen hikers going north in the direction of the trailhead. With the remnant of the Chisos stretching out before me and the Rio Grande winding through the desert far below, the landscape that rewarded my efforts inspired a sense of awe and reminded me of how small we are. (I would soon be reminded of this again while shooting the night sky). Finally able to take off the backpack, I set about trying to find the optimal locations for shooting at sunset. Agave, Prickly Pear, Claret Cups, and a view into the desert all clamored for my attention, and choosing was difficult only because of so many options. Ultimately, I decided on four areas – one while the sky was still blue, one for the moment the sun hits the horizon (for the star burst), another to capture the colors of the clouds at sunset, and a last take for the Milky Way finale.
When I shoot at sunset, I usually take 3, 5, or 7 exposures of the same image in order to adjust the foreground and sky accordingly. Some folks do this to create an HDR effect, but I try to bring out the colors while leaving the scene more realistic. I’ll also shoot different focus points in order to make sure the entire image is sharp and consistent. With that said, I was fortunate with the clouds and sunset, as the combination of light and color made the long hike worth it.
This first image is a panorama looking west at the moment the sun fell below the horizon. A path winds along this southwest rim where you can find some amazing panoramic views – even to Santa Elena Canyon on the western edge of the park boundary. This photo is comprised of at least 12 different images, then blended and stitched together to show the true colors of sunset high on this mountain.
The next image comes from the South rim looking south over a portion of ancient remains of the Chisos Mountains. Beyond those peaks, the Rio Grande runs east, serving as a boundary between the Lone Star State and Mexico. Taken about 15-20 minutes after true sunset, this photograph shows a cactus as it hangs onto a cliff 1,500 feet above the desert floor. The foreground was taken as a separate image, then blended with a photograph of the distant mountains to create sharpness throughout. The sky was yet another image in order to bring out the colors of a beautiful Texas sunset.
After this series of photographs, I pulled out the IOptron StarTracker, a device I use to track and shoot the night sky. After aligning the machine with the north star and mounting my camera on top, I set about capturing long exposures of the Milky Way at a relatively low ISO to show points of light as sharp and crisp, just as you’d see if you were standing there. I should note the foreground of this image was taken about 30 minutes after sunset while it was nearly dark, but with still enough light to bring out the definition of the distant peaks. With the foreground and the Milky Way taken at separate times, I then blend the two together back at home and do my best to give it a realistic feel. I feel strongly that a good Milky Way image should contain a strong foreground element. It is a fine line when combining the two (foreground and night sky). I want the viewer to feel the sense of awe with the vastness of the Milky Way while also having a foreground that stabilized the scene. Having the foreground just the right brightness – not too light or to dark – is the conundrum. For these prickly pear cacti, I also used a soft light to slightly increase their illumination.
When you are photographing the Milky Way at Big Bend, you are witness to one of the darkest skies in North America. The stars are truly amazing in this isolated corner of Texas and sparkle with a clarity rarely seen in other places of not only in our state, but the U.S. in general. Underneath a canopy of shimmering light, I embrace that sense of wonder at what the heavens hold and find myself full of ponderings and possibilities.
But then a 7 mile trek in the dark still awaited. The walk back in the wee hours of the morning was uneventful except for the dive-bombing birds and the UFO above a distant ridge. I felt fortunate to have witnessed a beautiful sunset at such a remote and truly Texas landscape. While my time here was brief, I hope to return again one of these days.
If you read this far, thanks!
Happy and Safe Travels.
Vaya con Dios
While it seems most folks are eagerly anticipating the advent of wildflower season here in the Texas Hill Country, my wife and I sneaked out of town for a few days and found ourselves cruising at nearly light speed (exactly 80mph in case any officers are reading this) west on I-10, then south through Alpine to Terlingua and eventually the Chisos Mountains. If you’ve made the drive from the Hill Country to this area, or heck, anywhere for that matter, you know it is a long one.
I had planned on making the hike to the South Rim of Big Bend National Park on my first afternoon to photograph sunset, but because of inefficiency from certain folks the area, my start time was delayed, and with a 6+ mile hike in front of me, that meant I’d be arriving at the South Rim after dark. No good. So instead, I made the short trek up the Lost Mines Trial and enjoyed one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve seen in a long time. I was happy to be there, but also had some angst and a little irritation about not being out at the South Rim for such a colorful event.
Big Bend has a lot to offer – great hikes to unusual rock formations, a variety of ecosystems ranging from desert landscapes to small forests with even a few remnant aspen groves still clinging to the cliff in the upper elevations, and unique wildlife such as mountain lions, black bears, javalinas and an plethora of birds including roadrunners at every twist and turn of the trail. I love this park and it keeps me coming back for more. But if the weather doesn’t cooperate, it can be pretty harsh. While I was fortunate to enjoy a few good sunsets and sunrises, I also encountered 35-50mph winds and near freezing temperatures. That made outdoor activities slightly less enjoyable, and at times photography proved virtually impossible.
Last year I ventured out to Big Bend around this same time and found wonderful areas of bluebonnets. This year, the bluebonnets were sparse. However, the prickly pear cacti were beginning to bloom, so I tried to take advantage of that at sunset (You can’t shoot prickly pear blooms at sunrise because they close at night!). In the lower elevations of the surrounding Chihuahuan desert between the Chisos and Santa Elena Canyon, several areas showed off yellow and orange blooms from Texas most prominent cactus.
With the winds often gusting, these little blooms seemed the best thing to add to the foreground because they are much sturdier than most flowers, and that worked in my favor. Nevertheless, photography was challenging as I tried to make the most of a difficult situation.
While the return home seemed much longer than the drive out there and with the disappointment of not making it to the South Rim, I am already hoping to return in late April or May- just depends on the weather.
Now, though, I turn my attention to Texas wildflowers. I’ve heard there are already Easter colored fields south of San Antonio. So I need to charge up the batteries and hit the road.