24 Oct 2014

US Road-trip - Drive to Black Canyon

The drive from Estes Park towards the south-west of Colorado took us across the Trail Ridge Road, an extremely high pass, just west of the town. The weather wasn't great as we set off and soon we were in thick fog. Cars passing didn't seem to think headlights would be helpful, in spite of limited visibility. When we reached a parking area we stopped to look at the "view" just as the cloud seemed to disappear beneath us into the valleys below.

We had a brisk and breathless hike up across the tundra to a hoodoo formation, where the views came and went as the fast-moving clouds rolled by. My hat would've been a welcome addition to my apparel, as the wind was bitterly cold. As we got back to the car the cloud below us thinned and we had lovely views of the hills beneath us.

We continued on with the drive, eventually losing the altitude we'd gained, through more changeable weather.

At the bottom of the pass, near Granby Lake I stopped to photograph a couple of areas of beautifully coloured aspens (which even had hints of peach and red to the leaves, not just yellow). I strode out across a meadow towards the trees, armed with tripod and camera, but soon became a bit spooked when I heard a crashing noise at the edge of the meadow. It was just a dead branch falling to the ground, but it got me thinking about elk. And bears. I continued on, but realised that this was indeed elk habitat (I knew that before I set out anyway, as I'd read a sign saying that the area was closed at dusk as it was elk rutting season). The ground was squelchy and a couple of times I nearly got bogged down. Patches of grass were flattened here and there, presumably where the elk slept. The sun peaked out a couple of times, but was directly shining on to the trees; autumnal aspens look the prettiest when back-lit by the sun. The best photos I got were back at the safety of the road using a telephoto lens, so perhaps my journey was a little wasted.

We stopped a few more times along the way for me to capture some more leaves. I took some lazy shots through the windscreen when I couldn't be bothered to stop (hubby was driving).

We joined the I-70 briefly and then drove south through Breckenridge where we stopped for a quick, disappointing cup of coffee. Some ski resorts off-season just have no atmosphere, and this was one of those places. The rain that had come and gone all day, but was very much present as we got out of the car, didn't help.

Our final stop for the day was a town called Buena Vista (that I subsequently found out is pronounced "byoona vista" as the mayor wanted it to sound like the word "beautiful"!). It was a strange little place, with views of the mountains to the west hidden under thick cloud and a fast river flowing through it; the site of some white-water rafting competitions. I picked the town as a place to over-night as it looked pretty, had a fantastic new apartment-hotel - the Surf Chateau - that was pretty reasonable, and had a well-renowned brewery. The hotel was built in a new part of town, near the river, which looked almost like a model village, only with life-size houses. It was quite quaint, but a bit desolate. The whole town had a speed limit of 15 mph, which was a little frustrating, and the two policemen drove around (at 15 mph) presumably looking for some trouble. There didn't appear to be any; they'd even built a couple of skate-parks to entertain the teenagers. We ate and drank at the Eddyline Brewery, a stone's throw from the hotel. The beer was fantastic (the Crank Yankee IPA one of our favourites from the trip, which we had in cans beforehand on our balcony overlooking the river), but the food was a little disappointing.

The following morning fog clung to the hills opposite the hotel. The sun was trying to break through, but didn't quite manage. The overnight cloud had left a delicate sprinkling of snow on the mountain peaks to the west, which was sometimes visible through the lingering clouds that passed by. I don't think that we saw Byoona Vista at its most beautiful, sadly. Perhaps it needed more people...

We headed up the 15 mph road through the old town and finally got on to the road towards the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, a little-known national park with an impressively deep and narrow canyon and some spectacularly stripey walls. Along the way were many more autumnal aspens, some a deep peachy-orange. Near one stop we saw a magnificent abandoned mine, which was marked very clearly "PRIVATE" so no investigating more closely was possible, which was a shame.

Towards the canyon we passed a strange area called the Curecanti National Recreation Area, made up of a series of huge reservoirs that the road meanders alongside for ages. Perhaps it would look more attractive under blue skies, but under overcast skies it looked dry and desolate; apparently there's a big boating community out on the water. We carried straight on until we reached the turn-off for the south rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, just before reaching the town of Montrose. The weather was worsening, with ominous black clouds on the horizon as we climbed towards the canyon rim. When we reached the entrance we drove along the road the winds around the rim for seven miles, stopping at a few of the view points to gawk at the huge drops below us; all of the overlooks seemed to be very close to the road. The most famous of them is that opposite the aptly-named Painted Wall, which has pinkish seams running through the otherwise-dark rock face. Unlike Rocky Mountain National Park a couple of days earlier the park was almost empty, perhaps given the inclement weather; only a handful of us were braving the blustery drizzle to enjoy the views.

Not far from the Painted Wall is the Chasm View. I watched the beautiful pattern of the rain as it fell elegantly down into the canyon, until I realised that it was coming towards us. We rushed back to the car - only a minute or so dash away, but our legs were instantly soaked (we were wearing waterproof jackets, at least).

The storm passed by relatively quickly, during which time we drove to the end of the road at High Point and then sat in the car at Sunset View until the rain eased. We revisited the Painted Wall and a couple of the other sights we'd missed on the way in, but the rain was hovering around and only stopping temporarily, so we cut our losses and drove down into Montrose. The weather-forecast for the following morning was better, so I decided I'd return and try to capture the canyon at sunrise.

Montrose is a rather strange town - spread out along the main roads that meet there - with a small central Main Street, which was completely dead. We stayed in a great motel, the Region Inn, which served fresh cookies and coffee in reception all day and were welcomed by incredibly friendly staff. We looked on TripAdvisor, as usual, to find somewhere to eat and decided on the Indian place in town. We walked down there - neither of us wanting to miss out on drinking by having to drive - and found it completely dead with bright lights - not very inviting. We continued on; I remembered reading about a Thai place - that would have to do instead. It turned out to be about 2km away, so we worked up quite an appetite. The food was fairly average and the place wasn't licensed, so we could have driven, after all. On our way home we stopped in the local craft beer pub, had a quick drink, then had an early night.

I woke up in the dark and crept off to get my hoped-for sunrise shots, leaving my husband fast asleep. The canyon was eerily quiet when I pulled up at the Chasm View parking spot, and it was still pitch black, but the light came very quickly; within minutes of my arrival it was light enough for me to walk to the viewpoint without needing a torch. The horizon was blocked by scattered clouds, some of which turned a vague pink colour. It wasn't easy to capture a dark canyon with a washed-out sky above. I tried a couple of long exposures as the clouds were moving quickly. The canyon didn't really look like this, but with a bit of photoshop it looked far more impressive!

I rushed off to the Painted Wall hoping that it would catch any colour in the clouds, should any materialize. I should've stayed put for longer, as I turned round to see the sky on fire for only a minute or two, but the foreground wasn't the best looking eastwards.  Again, a little photoshop helped, although I don't like the HDR look.

I stayed a while, hoping that the sun would come up properly, but the clouds were stubborn and it only came out for brief moments. Once or twice it revealed itself and the whole wall glowed. I returned to the Pulpit Rock overlook, where I watched the sun continue to peak out tantalisingly, before disappearing again.

I'd decided on leaving by 8.15, so that I could be back by 9 am, so that I could enjoy the free breakfast on offer at the motel (fresh, local eggs!) and get on the road at a reasonable hour. On the way back down from the canyon the sky cleared to the south and the sun shone on a bright field dotted with hay bails. The golden hour light that had mostly been missing on the canyon rim was finally there for me.

Next stop: Telluride

US Road-Trip - Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

The first real stop on our road-trip was the stunning Rocky Mountain National Park. I hadn't made it there on my last visit, and only allocated one night there on this trip (wanting to cram in as much as possible). We left Boulder on another day of beautiful sunshine and headed through the canyon to the west of the city, with locals driving about a car-length behind us (welcome to driving by our fellow road-users on a good part of the rest of the road-trip!) in spite of the windy, hilly road. I stuck to my guns and managed to avoid any of the cars rear-ending me, and eventually the traffic thinned. Along the route we began to climb steadily and saw the first of the real autumnal trees. We stopped a few times at pull-outs, mainly once we'd turned north on the 72 at Nederlands. I realised at this point that aspens are pretty much the only deciduous trees in the area, and that the leaves go yellow before falling to the ground (none of the red maples to be found here!); pretty, but no variety. A lot of the aspens were already bare.

When we arrived at Rocky Mountain National Park we found out that it was National Parks Day, and that therefore entrance to the park was free, so all the world and his wife would be there. We looked at each other and grimaced (we had to get an annual pass anyway, so the fact it was free was irrelevant). I had overlooked this fact and it meant that the park would be super-crowded (we'd made this mistake when hiking in Yosemite five years earlier and faced a queue of about 150 people for the chained section after a long hike up to Half Dome, at which point we cut our losses and turned round, highly disappointed). At each junction were signs saying "PARKING FULL", so we pulled in at the main Park 'n' Ride and waited at the end of a long line for the bus up to the trail-heads. We didn't have to wait too long, and chatted to a local and his friend and got a bit of advice about timing on the trails and eating places in town. We didn't have enough time to hike up to the Loch and get back and drive to our B&B in time for check-in at 6 pm, so we decided to hike to Emerald Lake. It was a good decision, as it was absolutely stunning, in spite of the crowds (and boy, was it busy). I'd looked on Flickr to get some ideas for hikes and none had prepared me for the grandeur of the mountains - rocky indeed!

We hiked up past Nymph Lake, a picturesque lake covered in lily pads, a couple of unnamed ponds, then Dream Lake, where a few people were fly-fishing, and finally got to Emerald Lake, which might have looked a little more emerald had the sun been shining on it, but was still magical. Some of the trees glowed golden in the sun, which was rapidly moving behind the peaks above Emerald Lake.


It was a fantastic hike, and in spite of the altitude (10,110 feet at Emerald Lake) we still managed it easily enough. My husband will probably testify to the fact that due to my taking endless photographs, we took it quite slowly!

We arrived back at the bus-stop to find that everyone else had the same idea. The ranger told us that the wait was about an hour, which seemed strange, given that it seemed as if there was a similar number of people waiting as had been earlier. Buses came and went, leaving room for people at stops further down the valley, so it took a long time; the queue shuffled forward very slowly. Eventually a bus arrived after we'd been waiting for 45 minutes and took us down to the car. Once we got back to the car things seemed a little quicker, until we reached a long queue of cars trying to leave the park. It gave me the opportunity to pop out to capture a pretty meadow, but was otherwise frustrating.

The reason for the tailback eventually came clear as we neared the entrance station. Cars had pulled over and any still driving by were going at about 5mph, to see a harem of elk, with a large male nearby. By the time we arrived we caught the tail-end of the show (literally) - the male was just disappearing into the trees. The whole thing was a little annoying and we couldn't see what all the fuss was about; they were elk, after all, not moose or bears!

A brief burst of normal speed out of the park followed, but quickly came to an end as we approached the outskirts of Estes Park. The only reason for the hold-up was the sheer volume of traffic, all heading into the town centre, past one set of traffic lights, and either parking there or driving out the other side. By the time we cleared town and headed down the 36 to our B&B it had taken us over two hours since we'd finished our hike (and we'd only gone about 5 miles) - a frustrating end to a wonderful hike. We made the journey back to town for a "gourmet pizza" (recommended by one of the guys in the queue) - didn't turn out to be very gourmet after all, but the leftovers made for an easy lunch on the road the following day when we headed south.

Next stop: Buena Vista

US Road-trip - Boulder, Colorado

It had been 9 years since my previous mini road-trip from Denver to Las Vegas, so I was pretty excited to be going back to Colorado and Utah, visiting a few more places along the way (including a tiny bit of New Mexico and Arizona, but avoiding Vegas), this time with my husband.

We decided to give Denver itself a miss (having spent a couple of days there and exhausted myself in the magnificent Denver Art Museum) and head straight to Boulder, where we spent our first two nights - I thought it would be a good place to recover from jet-lag (and try out a few of the local craft beers, of which there are many).

After a beautiful flight over the peaks of southern Greenland, we landed safely, picked up our rental car and drove up to Boulder - an easy distance after a long flight. We arrived at our Airbnb apartment in a quiet residential street a few blocks back from Pearl Street and then headed into town to find the Mountain Sun pub (supposed to be "English-style pub" but not sure they've actually been to an English pub before, as it didn't bear much resemblance to one). The waiter offered free fries (they'd cooked too many) - husband was shocked to be offered something for free. "No is an okay answer!" said the man as he wandered off to find a good home for the fries. We tried a couple of beers (thankfully they did halves), ate massive burritos and felt utterly stuffed (had forgotten about US portion sizes...). Needless to say, we couldn't finish the burritos, so good thing we turned down the free chips too. We were soon completely exhausted and couldn't drink any more - alcohol has a greater impact at altitude (Boulder is at 5,430 ft or 1,655 m above sea-level); it was also the equivalent of 6 am by the time we left the pub. 

The following morning we headed to Snooze, a buzzing brunch place, where we put our names down on a waiting list, headed to a different cafe (the Laughing Goat) for a quick coffee, watched a few hippies and hipsters adorned with varying combinations of dreadlocks, tattoos, hiking clothes and tie-dye pass by ("Hey Phoenix, how's it going? Wanna go hiking this afternoon?"), before getting the text to tell us that our table was nearly ready - nice system, which even worked with my UK phone. After more enormous portions - we shared a massive plate of blueberry pancakes and huevos rancheros - we headed off on our first hike, hoping to get fit, acclimatised, stave off the jet-lag and of course enjoy some nice views.

The walk through town to the trail-head was pleasant and easy enough - mainly in the shade, past traditional old houses, up a slight hill, but once we hit the trail things changed. After walking across the open meadow up a gradual incline, I felt terrible and had to stop every 20 metres or so to rest. Others on the trail were also suffering, so I didn't feel too unfit! The combination of the sun beating down on us (it was about 26 degrees, 1 pm and I didn't have a hat), over-full stomachs, the altitude and the jet-lag, left us feeling exhausted and sick (I also realised that the biggest hill I ever climb in London is about a 10 foot incline, so a thousand foot hill was a little more than I'm used to). It got a bit better as we headed uphill and out of the direct sun, but it took a lot longer than expected. I'd hiked to the Royal Arch on my previous visit and didn't remember feeling affected by the altitude at all. The pancakes and eggs sitting heavily in our stomachs and the scorching sun clearly didn't help.

The Royal Arch trail was closed for repairs this time, so we headed towards Flatirons 1 and 2, taking a series of switchbacks to the side of a massive boulder scree slope, and eventually we reached the ridge between the two peaks. Hawks circled around in the thermals above us, occasionally landing on treetops and rocks close by. We chatted to other hikers, all of us enjoying the glorious views; the place was teeming with locals and tourists alike. We headed on a path behind the saddle that led round the back of Flatiron 1 where the views spread to the west, to the higher mountains in the distance - although they didn't look that high without a covering of snow (a couple of days too early for that).

After enjoying the views (and taking a few photos, of course) we walked down to the slightly thicker air. We hadn't taken much water with us, so were grateful for water fountains at the public toilets in the Chautauqua park at the trail-head. We then wandered through the university area back to town and tried another craft beer bar, the West Flanders Brewing Company, for a little sundowner and a spot of people-watching, something Boulder's a great place for.

In the evening we went to another brewery/restaurant - Shine - which was run by three sisters, who were sitting on the next table, and also had pictures of themselves everywhere, which seemed a little narcissistic. We'd planned to go to the Avery Brewery, but it was a bit out of town and we didn't have the energy to figure out how to order a cab, so decided to save it for the night before we flew home when we'd return to Boulder in the hope of catching up with old friends who couldn't make it this time. The jet-lag soon got the better of us and we headed home down the dark streets (they don't go in for streetlights away from the main drag, it seems) for an early night. As we got back to the apartment a party was in full swing next door, but fortunately we were in the basement on the other side of the building, so it wasn't noisy. As we nodded off the smell of marijuana wafted through the place from our upstairs neighbours - an apt welcome to Colorado, we thought, given that it's just been legalised. Oddly, though, this was the only time we smelt the distinctive smell during the trip (the other times we thought we smelt it were when we drove past dead skunks in the road).

Next stop: Rocky Mountain National Park.

22 Sep 2014

Stack-chasing in Iceland

This trip to Iceland wasn't all about the volcanic eruption, northen lights and waterfalls; I also went in search of some impressive stacks up on the Vatnsnes Peninsula in the north. For years I'd seen pictures of Hvítserkur - a distinctive 15-metre-high black basalt stack, speckled with white from guano, with two small arches at its base. I discovered that it wasn't quite on the ring-road in the north, but not far off it,  and that there was a hostel based just next to it, which made viewing at sunrise and sunset pretty straight-forward.

After my volcano-viewing I drove west via the Tröllaskagi Peninsula, that straddles the border between north-east and north-west Iceland. Not wanting to drive round every peninsula (the roads are generally gravel, and therefore a little hard-going), I missed out the Skagi Peninsula, but then headed for the Vatnsnes Peninsula (via a little detour to the delightful Holufossar falls). The road up to Hvítserkur, and the Osar Hostel, is dusty and bumpy, and a lot longer than I'd thought, but I eventually pulled up at the rather desolate-looking hostel. No-one was there, which seemed fitting, and the wind had come up since my trip to the waterfall. I called the number on the hostel door and a ruddy Icelandic farmer came and helped me get set up. I had planned to get a single room, but the place was quiet, so I plumped for a bed in a dorm, together with ridiculously expensive linen (ISK 1500). The room had six beds and at that point (around 6pm) was empty. "You could get 5 big construction workers turning up to join you," he told me, with a slight raise of the eyebrows and a wry grin.

Annoyingly, the only internet at the hostel was based down at the little reception room, which is locked outside office hours (most of the time off-season), so in order to check email, northern lights forecasts, etc I had to huddle next to the building out of the wind. But I was soon off down the path to the beach, in search of the much-photographed stack. I thought it might be at the bottom of the path, but it turned out to be a bit of a way up the beach. Just off the shoreline was a collection of seals on a small sandbank, and a couple stopped to watch and photograph them. The ripples along the beach matched the slight waves lapping at the shore.

I continued to my destination, where I was greeted by the striking stack and the view of tripod legs and men with big cameras! This was a photography tour, with 8 clients, mainly from the US, and an Icelandic guide. Surprisingly there was actually one female photographer - a rare sight. A couple of them were very chatty, and they discussed f stops and ISO levels. All of them were fixated on the ripples - we were lucky to be there at low tide to see the photogenic ripples, but they weren't that amazing. I preferred the shadow of the stack in the milky water.

At one point they all decided to make a move forward to the water's edge - checking first with me that it was okay (photographers can be very gracious, although not always so). Not long after the sun had set (it wasn't the most spectacular of sunsets again), the group was off up a steep path, with mutterings that they had to get back to their hotel for dinner. There was no restaurant in the vicinity and the hostel didn't do any food off-season, so I didn't have that issue (I was having bread, cheese and ham for my supper, again), and I was able to stay on the beach until the last of the light disappeared, enjoying the reflections in the ripples beneath the stack.

I stayed a little longer than I should, and ended up clambering up the steep path in near darkness (my torch was packed away in the hostel, although I could have used the light on my phone) - the only slight mishap was a small stumble resulting in a tiny dent on the thread of my new circular polarising filter (always put the lens cap back on!). I desperately hoped for some northern lights to magically appear, but there was nothing. I enjoyed playing around with the polarising filter as the skies darkened, although it brought some rather uneven skies.
I made it back to the hostel at about 9.45pm, cold, hungry and extremely dehydrated. In my room was a sweet young Austrian couple - no burly workmen. We chatted about our Icelandic experiences as I downed some water and nibbled at my unexciting sandwich. The highlight of their trip so far - or at least the strangest thing - was that they'd met some horses along the roadside just up the peninsula earlier that day and one of them had licked their car window a few times. By 11pm it was time for ear-plugs in and off to sleep, with no early alarm set as it was forecast to be overcast the following day.

In the morning I finished off my bread, cheese and ham (that was three meals on the trot, so I was truly sick of it), played with a nippy border collie puppy before heading north around the peninsula, hoping to meet the car-licking horses. When I got there the horses were miles away in the field and nonchalantly glanced over at me, but showed no interest in coming to see me, let alone licking my very dusty car. I continued on until I saw a sign for a seal colony, where I had a not-so-quick quick stop.

Then it was south via a beautiful lighthouse (another not-so-quick stop) before reaching Anastaðastapi - another impressive stack that I'd found out about on the Vatnsnes Peninsula's website. It was a short walk down the hill to the stack, which was covered in lichen and weeds, giving it a bright orange-yellow-green appearance. I took a few long exposure shots of it as the clouds came and went overhead. It was quite blissful, with the sun shining on my back as I sat playing with my filters. Before I left I found a spot of water providing a perfect reflection of the stack. A couple arrived and the man (in his fifties) expertly clambered around the full extent of the stack before heading back up the hill with his companion. 

It would have been a great spot for sunset, but I had to get to Grundarfjorður for the night, so not possible on this trip. I eventually tore myself away from this lovely geological feature, climbed the hill and drove south, in search of some lunch. No more stacks after that, but it was definitely worth making the detour around the peninsula to see both Hvitserkur and Anastaðastapi, each very different and impressive.

More photos from my trip can be seen on the Iceland Sept 2014 gallery on my website.

Please contact me for details of licensing/usage/prints of any image on sophiecarrphotography@hotmail.co.uk