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.
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!
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.
First, I have to say it is kind of cool when you visit a national park and one of your books is on display. I had no idea my publisher placed the Texas wildflower book in the Chisos Lodge Visitor Center at Big Bend National Park. I’m humbled and surprised.
Next, it looks like we are in the doldrums of winter. Everything is brown and the weather has been generally gray. So on a whim over the holidays I studied and last week took a test that allows me to legally fly a drone for commercial purposes. I owned a drone several years ago but sold it because I did not want to mess with all the legal aspects nor the certification process. On top of that, I don’t want to hear drones overhead when I am hiking or “zenning out”in nature. I do not want to be one of “those guys.” I fully support the banning of drones in state and national parks.
All that said, I’d been asked about obtaining various aerial images of Austin by potential clients over the past year. So, what the heck. I’d read how hard the test was, so a friend and photographer advised me to use the ASA Test Prep study guide. I ended up cramming over about 10 days, then took the test last Thursday. I have to admit that when I started studying, most of the material was foreign – 3D classes of air space on a 2d chart, airport systems, military operations, FAA regulations, etc. However, I finished the test in 37 minutes (you get 2 hours to answer 60 questions.) My proctor told me it was the fastest finish of anyone she’d tested. I figure you know it or you don’t. I made a 93, which means I got 56 out of 60 questions correct. I know one of the questions I just bubbled in the wrong answer. The other three I missed I have no idea what they were asking! Nevertheless, I can legally fly a drone and get paid for it. I suppose one of these days I’ll look into buying a drone ?
That’s about all for now. I hope everyone has a good start to the new year. As for me, I’m looking forward to wildflower season, multiple trips to Big Bend National Park and west Texas, and some summer fun in the Colorado Mountains.