Nature

Backpacking to Slide Lake – Park Range, Mt. Zirkel Wilderness, Colorado

I have spent little time in the Park Range in Northern Colorado.  Admittedly, I’ve spent more time skiing at the ski resort in Steamboat Springs than I have hiking in the same mountains.  I spend a lot of time researching and am very discriminant when choosing potential backpacking adventures.  When I lived in Colorado, other mountain ranges were closer, and now that I am in Wyoming, the Bighorn Mountains too are closer than the Park Range.  When I am willing to drive, exotic areas like Yellowstone and the Wind River Range tend to draw my attention.  As a result, I have mostly overlooked the Park Range.

Even though I have largely avoided the Park Range, the Mount Zirkel Wilderness that encompasses a great portion of these mountains and it should not be ignored!  The mountains may not be as tall as others in Colorado (not a single 14er in the range) but they are still plenty rugged and are great to look at and, of course, photograph.  In 2014, I met some friends on the fourth of July for a two night backpacking trip to Slide Lake.

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The outlet to Slide Lake starts as a stream but then fans out on immense slabs of granite that were pitched just enough that I could manage to walk around in the (cold!) flowing water looking for compositions.

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I was surprised how much snow was lingering around Slide Lake but also how rapidly it was melting.  I took the above picture by carefully walking out onto a snow penninsula that stuck out into the lake.  I was luck to have captured this photo; by the time we packed up camp and headed out at the end of the weekend, this snow bridge had collapsed and floated out into the lake like a small iceberg.

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Although the Mount Zirkel Wilderness is not as well known as other areas in Colorado, I am glad to have visited and look forward to backpacking it again.

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Circle Park Wildflowers – Bighorn Mountains, Wyoming

A few weekends ago, I ran up to the Bighorns for a quick weekend getaway.  I had planned my first backpacking trip of the summer starting out from the Circle Park trailhead in the southeastern part of the range and drove up to near the trail head Friday after work to car camp before hitting the trail the next day.  When driving in to Circle Park after sunset on Friday night, I could see in the twilight that the meadows were packed full of wildflowers and knew an early rise to shoot sunrise was in order.  The 4:40 alarm came around way too soon but crawling out of my warm sleeping bag was surprisingly easy; I was excited to get out and check out all those wildflowers!  Once up and about, I was bummed to see that not as much as a single cloud was in sight!  Still, I can’t complain about how the sun back lit some of the taller flowers and made them appear to glow.

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Early Summer on Casper Mountain – Laramie Range, Wyoming

Casper Mountain rises just south of Casper, Wyoming but it may as well be a world away.  Come June, town can get scorching hot and the vegetation can dry out pretty quickly.  It is a border zone between the great plains to the east and the high deserts of the American West.  I guess if you really pressed me, I’d say Casper is more high desert than plains, but nonetheless, it’s flat and pretty dry in the summer.  But drive Casper Mountain Road south out of town and up 3000′ on top of Casper Mountain, a very different landscape awaits you.  Much of the mountain is covered in forest but head all the way to the south side of the mountain and you will encounter a vast open area.  In late June and early July, this area is blanketed with colorful wildflowers.

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These photos are from two weeks ago when I headed up to catch a Friday night sunset.  Wyoming had been getting pounded with thunderstorms for a couple weeks and this Friday was no different.  Thunderstorms blew through town that afternoon and evening, but the weather forecast called for the storm to pass and the area was to clear up around sunset.   I was excited at the prospect to have a chance at getting out of the house and not risk getting struck by lightning!  Just in case the storm decided to stick around, when I grabbed my camera gear, I stuffed my rain jacket in my pack and was off.  It turned out I didn’t need that jacket and instead enjoyed a fantastic sunset.

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After just fifteen minutes of driving, I was on top of the mountain but realized June 5th was definitely a little premature for the full showing of wildflowers.  My expectations were biased based on my visit up last summer at the end of June when the whole area was quite literally a carpet of wildflowers.  The images don’t quite show it, but I had to hunt for good groupings of flowers and the ones that were out were not quite in full bloom.  Still, I think I managed to find plenty of flowers that were out and photogenic!

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As the storm dissipated the wind died down; a rarity in Wyoming!  Because there was little wind and the flowers were not blowing all around, I took the opportunity to practice a “focus stacking” technique.  Due to the optics of lenses and because some of these flowers were about a foot away from my camera when I took their picture, not all of the image could be in focus as once.  For example, if I would focus on the flowers in the front, the mountain in the distance and sky would be blurry and just the opposite true if I focused instead on the distant mountain.  So, I set my composition and took a series of frames focused at different points of the scene such that between all the frames, every bit of the composition was in focus.  I later used a blending technique in Photoshop to combine all of those frames into one image!  It’s not Photoshop trickery, it is just a method to overcome the limits of my camera; I actually described the process in a previous blog post.

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I said it before and I will say it again, I’m super lucky and happy to have such an incredibly beautiful place practically out my back door.  If you like the outdoors, there are few better places to live than Wyoming!

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Backpacking Yellowstone National Park – Loop Hike from South Boundary Trail to Heart Lake

In late August last year, I spent a week with several friends visiting Yellowstone National Park in northwest Wyoming.  The highlight of that week long vacation was a four day, thirty mile backpacking loop hike into Yellowstone National Park’s backcountry.  Before we even arrived in Yellowstone, it had been raining…a lot.  On the first leg of the backpacking trip, which started on the south boundary trail (8K7) right at the south entrance, we had to cross the Snake River.  By mid August, the river at the South boundary is only supposed to be knee to thigh deep, but to my surprise, the incessant rain had turned the river into a waist deep raging torrent.  After some searching for “the best crossing” and some heated debate, my group linked arms and crossed the river as a team making it across without major incident.  Then, after hiking for several hours, we arrived at our first campsite (campsite 8C1) near the Snake River Hot Springs.

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Around sunset, the storm broke up just a bit to create some interesting light and cloud formations while several extinct hot springs along the river banks made for some interesting and very unique views.  The next day, we continued on our hike and the rain continued to fall.  We had to ford the Snake River again (which was still deep and fast moving) and then continued up the Snake River Cutoff Trail to press on to our second campsite on the upper Snake River (campsite 8C4).  While hiking the cutoff trail, the trail faded in and out and I eventually lost the trail completely.  Thankfully, I’m quite comfortable hiking off trail with just a map and compass to navigate, but from the looks on my companion’s faces, especially the two from NYC, they were less comfortable with the situation!  We arrived at our camp later than expected, soaked to the bone, and cold.  We built a big fire to warm up and attempt to dry off, ate dinner, and then crawled into our damp sleeping bags for the night.

The next day, we continued on to Heart Lake.  While hiking, we saw two wolves including one feeding on a bull elk carcass!  What a rush!  Too bad my camera was stored safe and secure in my backpack.  By the time we arrived at our camp on the shores of Heart Lake (campsite 8H3) the rain had finally stopped and the sky was even flirting with clearing up.  I spent a couple hours exploring the shore near our campsite and ended up capturing several enjoyable images in the constantly changing weather conditions.

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Our first campsite was great because of the proximity to hot springs, the second campsite was neat due to how remote it was, but the third campsite at Heart Lake was my favorite.  There is simply something special about camping on a lake shore miles away from anything that can be described as civilization.  How peaceful.

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On the last morning of our backpacking trip, we woke up to incredibly dense fog blanketing the area.  The fog was so thick, you couldn’t see more than a few yards!  The conditions were quite eerie and I imagined the scene could have easily been described in a Stephen King novel.  I was just waiting for a zombie, or maybe more realistically, a grizzly bear to come lumbering out of the impenetrable fog to bring an early end to our backpacking trip!  Alas, we saw no zombies or grizzlies for that matter.  However, with the limited visibility, I was glad the final leg of the hike was on a well established, easy to follow trail!

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Once back on the trail, we passed several hot spring areas in the aptly named Witch Creek Drainage before reaching the Heart Lake Trailhead (8N1) before noon.  My companions settled down and rested while I stuck my thumb up in the air on the shoulder of the South Entrance Road.  It took probably twenty minutes or so, but a curious elderly gentleman picked me up and gave me a ride back to the South Entrance where we left my truck four days earlier.  I jumped in my truck, picked up my friends, and we raced to the Town of Jackson to stuff ourselves with good food and amazing beer at the Snake River Brewery.

Even though it was a soggy trip and I didn’t see a grizzly bear (yeah, I know it is weird that I WANTED to see Smokey), I had a fantastic time backpacking in Yellowstone!  I guess I will just have to come back for another trip!  So many miles of backpacking trails existing within Yellowstone you could spend a lifetime hiking here and enjoying both the unique landscapes as well as the abundant wildlife!

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Following in the Footsteps of Butch Cassidy – Hole in the Wall Country, Wyoming

Butch Cassidy, born Robert Leroy Parker, was born in Utah in 1866 and grew up to become one of  the most infamous outlaws of the American West.  Butch robbed banks and trains and also engaged in horse theft and cattle rustling.  Although born to a religious Mormon family, Butch Cassidy devoted his life to crime.  Well, I’m certainly not following the Butch Cassidy’s footsteps  in the concept of following his career path, but a few weeks ago on a recent trip to a remote area in north central Wyoming, I literally walked in his footsteps!

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During Cassidy’s life as a criminal, he favored a few locations to hide out in between committing his crimes; one such location in Wyoming is known as The Hole in the Wall.  “The Wall” is a red rock escarpment that runs for nearly fifty miles and is broken at only one notch along its entire length.  The remote location coupled with difficult access via the one passage through the wall made for an easily defensible hideout for late 19th century outlaws.  Cassidy was not the only outlaw that spent time hiding here, but a conglomeration of bandits also used the Hole in the Wall hideout.  Ultimately, the loose band of criminals became known as the Hole in the Wall Gang.

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Only a handful of ranches and hunting outfitters still operate in the area making Hole in the Wall country as remote as it was in Cassidy’s time.  Other than the grass, sagebrush, and expansive views, the only other thing I would describe to be in abundance is barbed wire fences; I drove through numerous gates to get to The Hole in the Wall and it was a challenge to keep fence lines out of my photographs.

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Butch Cassidy spent time in prison for some of his crimes but later in his criminal career he fled the United States and was killed in a shootout in South America in late 1908.  Thankfully by tracing his footsteps I won’t meet the same fate!

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West Thumb Geyser Basin – Yellowstone National Park

Lewis and Clark Expedition member turned mountain man John Colter was the first white explorer to describe the thermal features and area that encompasses what we now know as Yellowstone National Park.  At first John Colter was written off as crazy and the strange place he had described was mockingly referred to as “Colter’s Hell.”  But eventually, other explorers returned from the American West with tales similar to what Colter described.  One such tale was that a large alpine lake existed where one could catch a fish and then swing his pole over a steam vent and cook his catch without so much as taking a step.  Those early explorers could have very well been referring to the West Thumb Geyser Basin on Yellowstone Lake.

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Today, a large parking lot and boardwalk paths make accessing, walking, and viewing the West Thumb Geyser Basin very easy.  Once on the boardwalk that is elevated above the shores between thermal area to the west and the lake to the east, the early explorer’s fishing tale is easy to believe!

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I’ve vistited Yellowstone several times now, but last Summer was the first time I pulled off and checked out the West Thumb Geyser Basin.  It isn’t nearly as grand as the geyser basins in and around Old Faithful (it was also less crowded), but with this geyser area immediately adjacent to huge Yellowstone Lake makes it a special place worth exploring.

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Lupines, Lupines, Lupines! – Laramie Mountains, Wyoming

The Laramie Mountains of South East Wyoming are not well known to most people.  They are not the high peaks of Colorado nor are they the strikingly rugged mountains such as the Teton Range and Wind River Range of western Wyoming.  Despite the Laramie Mountains’ lowly status among the ranges of the Rocky Mountains, they should not be ignored.  At the northern terminous of the Laramie Mountains is Muddy Mountain and Casper Mountain; two unassuming flat topped peaks that are below 9000′ in elevation.  These unassuming peaks are just high enough to support large and incredibly beautiful stands of wildflowers; a large contrast to the dry basins that lie in every direction around the Laramie Mountains.

I missed the peak color of the Baslsamroot flowers and a couple of other dominant wildflowers you see in Wyoming, but I caught the lupines at their peak!  One of my favorite things about living out West is that open space and incredible scenery of all types are just a short jaunt from my front door here in Wyoming.  I can’t imagine calling anywhere but the American West my home!

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Jackson Hole – It Never Disappoints!

I recently returned from a backpacking trip in Yellowstone National Park, a trip in which my group never saw the sun and was constantly wet.  Heck, it was the last week of August and one night the snow line came within a few hundred vertical feet of our camp!  With the weather making things such a struggle to stay dry and warm, it was a real challenge to get out and take great pictures.  Don’t get me wrong, I am busy editing a bunch of photos that I did take in Yellowstone, I just wasn’t as successful as I had hoped to be.

Personal expectations aside, I did manage a few great images on the morning of my last day of vacation.  I had just dropped my travel companions off at the Jackson Hole airport and was heading north towards Togwotee Pass and on towards home in Casper, Wyoming when I noticed the storm clouds start to part and barely reveal glimpses of the Teton Range off to the west.  I thought the moment was right just as I was pulling up to the start of a construction zone.  I pulled off the road onto the shoulder and jumped out of my truck to get a few images as the clouds lifted off the mountains.  I got a tongue lashing from the flagger for exiting my truck at the start of a construction zone, but after a week of frustrating and lack luster photography conditions, I was fine with taking the abuse in order to capture a special moment in an incredible mountain setting.

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Spearfish Canyon – Black Hills, South Dakota

I spent Memorial Day weekend this year in the northern Black Hills in western South Dakota.  The weekend was mostly a mini family reunion; so, that meant drink coffee, eat, chit chat, repeat.  However, Nancy of Prairie View Imagery and I did find time to hit up a few of the highlights of Spearfish Canyon.  Even though I was raised in South Dakota, I have not spent much time in the Black Hills, but Nancy was an excellent guide!  Sadly, with the cold and rainy spring, even though it was the end of May, few trees had budded out and had leaves.  At least the above average snow in the winter accompanied by the spring rains meant more water flowing through the canyon and over the waterfalls!  I thought Spearfish Falls were especially picturesque.

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Yellowstone National Park – A Look at the Geyser Basins

Yellowstone National Park…I currently own five maps that cover the topography and trails of the entire park.  Yet, I have never been in the Yellowstone backcountry.  In fact, I have only visited Yellowstone once.  Even though I have moved to Wyoming, the park’s closest entrance is still a four and a half hour drive from my home in Casper.  Even with the long drive, I plan to visit America’s first National Park many times to come; in fact, I’ve officially booked a four day backpacking trip into its backcountry this August!

Until August, all I can do is look at my earlier images from the park and dream of what sites are to come.  I’m so excited, I had to share a few…

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