There are places in this world that defy expectations of how a landscape should look; places that are twisted and broken; places that are filled with other-worldly forms and shapes; and places that shift the spectrum of what we might think are normal hues for a landscape on planet earth.
Utah is certainly one of those places and in a small, overlooked area in the center of the state, where a layer of Mancos shale has been exposed by the elements, there lies an expanse of bluish colored earth, which depending on the light, might be a subtle grayish blue, or a more deeply saturated aqua-blue.
In every instance, the landscape is surprising; the texture can range from rough and deeply creased to smooth and almost sensual. In some places, it resembles a network of arteries (which, I suppose, in a way, it is).
In other places, it is a series of waves advancing on some forgotten beach. But everywhere there is at least a hint of blue. When you are used to red, sepia, or even more common grays and browns, the change can be quite startling. One location, in particular, was a prize we had to spend a little time searching for. Factory Bench overlooks what has come to be known as the Moonscape Overlook. It is a place that changes your perception of how the world should (or might) look.
If the light is right, the whole experience becomes exaggerated by the deep shadows playing over the complex terrain. Every twist and turn, every sinuous channel becomes more deeply etched into the unearthly earth.
Spending a night on the plateau above these badlands was an adventure in itself. A storm, which had been building throughout the day, moved in around sunset. Wind whipped the tent through the night and several times I was sure our shelter would be ripped away from us. But our little Coleman prevailed and by morning, things had calmed down enough that we could have a peaceful breakfast.
This last image was made looking east across the broken, variegated wilderness. Not far from here is the Mars Research Station where teams of scientists and engineers have been spending long periods of time in a simulated habitat to prepare for a possible trip to the red planet. The remote and other-worldly landscape allows them to make their preparations without light pollution or other outside influence.
On this same trip, we spent time in Capitol Reef and Goblin Valley. Probably it was the crowds and touristy nature of those parks that turned me off (I am a hopeless misanthrope), but neither of them had an impact on me as strong as did the blue badlands of Caineville Mesa and Factory Bench.
2015 was an exceptional year for me in terms of photography. Not just for the images, but for the experiences as well. I made an effort to be more adventurous, and spontaneous in my choice of subject matter. I also vowed to be more responsive to the images themselves when it came to post processing. In all, there are thirty-seven photographs, so I will present this post in two parts. I hope you enjoy viewing them as much as I enjoyed making them.
In late January we had a heavy snowfall which made it impossible for me to drive out of my driveway. So, I walked down to Soda Dam to photograph it in its winter splendor. This image seemed to be a black and white candidate from the start.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70 f2.8: 1.3 sec., f20, ISO 50
March took me to southern Arizona to photograph desert wildflowers. I didn’t find the showing I had hoped for, so I contented myself by pursuing Teddy Bear Chollas. When photographed in the right light, they have a luminous quality about them. I made this image at sunset in the Lost Dutchman State Park, east of Pheonix. The fabled Superstition Mountains lie on the horizon.
Nikon D800 with 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1.3 sec, f16, ISO 50
I’ve been to Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash many times over the years, but I seldom explore along the southern edge. In April I decided to change that; I made this image looking northwest from the top of the southern rim. This is the section I call the Yellow Badlands. It’s like taking a look back through time.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70 f2.8: 1⁄8 sec, f18, ISO 50
In May while exploring a part of Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash I had never been to before, I came across this incredible hoodoo hidden in a small ravine along the northern edge of the main wash. I stayed and worked the area for nearly two hours. This is the first of many compositions using what I call the Neural Hoodoo as the main subject.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 16-35mm f4 lens: 1⁄30 sec, f16, ISO 50
This black and white image was made from the opposite side of the Neural Hoodoo. If forced to choose a favorite, this would be it.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 16-35mm f4 lens: 1⁄25 sec, f16, ISO 50
This final image of the Neural Hoodoo was made from the same general location as the first, but I zoomed in to capture a more intimate portrait.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 16-35mm f4 lens: 1⁄15 sec, f16, ISO 50
At the same time I was exploring the far reaches of Ah Shi SlePah, I was discovering some of the amazing and convoluted drainages along the southern rim of the wash. I made this image on a stormy evening in late May. I could not have asked for more appropriate light for this scene.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄60 sec, f18, ISO 50
In early June I went out to the Bisti Wilderness. At the far reaches of the southern drainage, I made this image of a multi-colored grouping of hoodoos. I had photographed this same group several times in the past, but I think this is my favorite. The clouds seem to reflect the lines of the caprocks.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70 mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄40 sec, f16, ISO 50
One morning in late June I noticed the chollas around my house were blooming. I set out the next morning for the Rio Puerto Valley to capture the splashes of color in that dramatic landscape. I made the first image (above) in the ghost town of Guadalupe. The return of life to the desert seemed coincidental to the ongoing decay of the adobe buildings.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄6 sec, f16, ISO 50
In this image, a blossoming cholla stands at the head of a deep wash as a rain cloud passes over Cerro Cuate in the distance. Even the slightest precipitation sustains life in this environment.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄10 sec, f16, ISO 50
Early on the morning of July 4th, before the road was closed for the parade, I slipped out of town and drove out into the San Juan Basin. I didn’t really have a plan other than to visit the Burnham Badlands, which lies to the west of the Bisti Wilderness, and covers a relatively small area as badlands go (about one mile by two miles). This graceful hoodoo sits smack in the center of it.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄20 sec, f16, ISO 50
After completing my exploration of the Burnham Badlands, I drove west through the heart of the Navajo Reservation and arrived at Shiprock in the early evening. I drove one of the dirt roads that runs along the lava dike until I found a spot I liked. I set up my camera and tripod then waited for the light. Over the next two and a half hours, I made almost a hundred exposures as the light changed and the sun crept toward the horizon. This is my pick.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄6 sec, f16, ISO 50
Hidden in plain sight, just a few miles north of Ah Shi Sle Pah is the Fossil Forest. At the end of a low ridge which runs east to west, you can just make out the telltale signs from the county road: the striated color, and the deep cut drainages where geologic treasures lie exposed. I went there with an agenda: to find a fossilized tree stump. I’ve related the whole story in an earlier post, so I’ll just say here that we were able to locate the stump after some scrambling and sleuthing.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 16-35mm f4 lens: 1⁄25 sec, f16, ISO 100
In July, I made a trip to visit my daughter Lauren in Madison, Wisconsin. She accompanied me on the return trip. Early on the second morning, somewhere in central Kansas, she mentioned the large birds roosting on the fence. I had driven past and hadn’t noticed them, so I backtracked until we found them. The birds turned out to be a committee of turkey vultures sunning themselves and drying their wings. I was able to get pretty close to them without distressing them, and I managed to capture quite a few exposures. This is my favorite.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 24-120mm f4 lens: 1⁄640 sec, f9, ISO 500
In August we set out on the high road to Taos. The way passes through many small villages: Chimayo, Truchas, Las Trampas, and Picuris Pueblo to name but a few. At Picuris, we visited the plaza, and there, I noticed the shapes and texture of the adobe walls of a small church. This is the result of my efforts there.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 24-120mm f4 lens: 1⁄400 sec, f14, ISO 1600
Farther up the road, we took a fork to visit the village of Tres Ritos. There, in a meadow by the side of the road, was a spray of mountain asters with a small wetland full of cattails just beyond it. The dark foreboding sky intensified the saturation of the colors and was the perfect backdrop for the scene.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄640 sec, f16, ISO 1600
In late August on a trip to Denver, I drove up highway 285 instead of using the interstate. Late in the day, the clouds were hanging in tatters from the peaks of the Sangre de Cristos to the east. The grasses were just beginning to turn and the colors filled the spectrum. When I came across the trees, it all came together.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄5 sec, f11, ISO 50
On my return from Denver, I was driving across the Taos Plateau and the nearly full moon was climbing through the clouds above the Sangres. The Chamisa was in bloom and all I needed to do was find the right combination.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄500 sec, f13, ISO 800
Still on the Taos Plateau. The texture and colors in the grasses and sage, along with the rays of sunlight piercing the dark clouds caused me to pull over again (at this rate, I would never get home). The lonesome Ponderosa Pine anchors this image, but the thing that really ties it all together is the thin strip of light colored ground below the mountains.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄500 sec, f11, ISO 800
In my previous post: Roaming The San Juan Basin, I described a two-day journey through a place with landscapes as varied as they are timeless. At one point during that journey, I passed a nondescript cattle guard on San Juan County Road 7650. To the north, a little more than a mile from the road is a ridge that has been eroded over time, and which now displays all the telltale signs of a badlands: deeply eroded gullies with unevenly spaced bands of color, large areas of red deposits, and the unmistakeable outlines of hoodoos against the smoother walls of hardened ash and clay. I filed it away for future reference.
Actually I had been aware of this small badlands for several years, but had never explored it. I decided to make the effort in the near future. So, a few weeks later, Robin and I loaded up the car and headed out to the Fossil Forest. At the top of my list was finding a certain petrified tree stump that overlooked a drainage to the south. I had found a photo of the stump online and had a copy of the image on my phone; as it turned out, it was an invaluable aid in ultimately finding the location of the fossil.
From the parking area on the road we walked about a mile to the north until we reached the small drainages and scattered hoodoos that marked the boundaries of the badlands. We then explored some of the drainages to see if there was an obvious, or easy way to the top. No such luck. Eventually, we came across a relatively wide ravine near the eastern edge of the ridge. I recognized a petrified log I had seen on the BLM website; it was partially buried and lying near the mouth of the the wash. This seemed like a good place to begin the climb to the ridge top.
Actually, it was more of a scramble than a climb. There is about a one hundred foot elevation gain from the mouth of the drainage to the crown of the ridge, but it was steep. Once on top, we surveyed the area from our new perspective. To the east lay a jumble of clay hills with bands of black (lignite) and daubs of red (clinkers). To the north and south were more banded hills that fell away into the steep sided ravines which emptied onto the desert floor.
Now that we were on top, we began looking for the features that were visible in the photo I had on my phone. We came across several petrified logs most of which were eroded and broken into small pieces. At each of the promontories that intersperse the ravines, I walked to the point to compare the features. It was after several failed attempts that I looked across the next channel and spotted the stump.
There is a feeling of accomplishment that comes after searching for and finding something that is situated in a remote location, especially if that something is a millions year old relic of a former time. As I made these images, I tried to imagine the way the world was when this remnant of a lost age was intact and alive. It is not unlike the emotion I experience when I stand among ruins that were constructed by unknown hands thousands of years ago.
We spent a half hour or more working the scene from different perspectives before deciding to begin the hike back to the road, the car, the present world. After negotiating the way down from the crest of the ridge, we followed one of the many washes that empty into a series of small arroyos that drain this part of the San Juan Basin. On the way, we passed a mound of mudstone and lignite that was just beginning to reveal its secrets: yet to be formed hoodoos, still uncovered petrified trees, possibly the petrified bones of an, as yet, undiscovered dinosaur. What will this landscape look like a hundred thousand years from now? Will there be anyone around to wonder at its past?
The plan was to explore a small badlands on the Navajo Reservation. It is close to the settlement of Burnham, which is about half way between New Mexico Rte. 371 and US 491. I packed up the car early on July 4th and headed into the expanse of the San Juan Basin.
I have been wanting to make the drive across route 5 for some time, but I always put it off. The first half of the drive is unremarkable: a straight track across high desert grassland. As the road drops off the plateau, however things begin to get more interesting; the view opens up and you can see across the lowlands clear to the Chuska Mountains along the Arizona border. There are several volcanic plugs visible, including Shiprock on the distant northwest horizon.
These first two images show the landscape looking across the badlands from the top. One shows Shiprock in the distance, and the other is a view of the main part of the badlands area. The route to the bottom is gained by finding a trail across the bentonite hills and between the numerous small washes that drain the uplands. This is where a good GPS system was invaluable, The “breadcrumb” feature made it relatively easy to follow the path back to my car.
When I reached the bottom, I made my way to the most prominent feature, a tall gracefully eroded hoodoo atop a small mound. The colors are mostly yellows, blacks, and reds, the subtle gradients made an interesting compositional element, as did the small boulders strewn across the floor of the wash.
I had heard about a petrified stump somewhere in the area and I set out to locate it. I started by skirting the margins of the flats, moving in and out of each small drainage. I really had no point of reference, but since these badlands are relatively small, I felt confident that, if I kept looking, I would find the stump. I stopped to make a photo near the southern edge of the main wash and as I turned around to continue my search, I saw what I was looking for on the opposite side of a low outcropping. What I found most interesting about this particular piece was the nearly intact root extending down as if it was still doing its job of delivering water to the tree; such a commonplace relationship frozen in time and space.
I continued exploring for the next couple hours and found more petrified logs and small hoodoo groupings before making my way back to the car. As I began the climb back to the top, I made a photo across one of the tributary washes to the jumble of bentonite mounds that surround the lowlands.
As I continued the climb out, I made several more images, including the one below, looking westward to the Chuska Mountains. I was thankful for my GPS, I had to reference the “breadcrumb” feature a couple times to find my way out of the maze.
When I reached the car, I realized that it was still relatively early in the day. Looking out over the landscape, I once again saw Shiprock on the horizon and decided to drive there to photograph it at sunset, hoping for some nice color in the overcast sky. I returned to IR-5 and continued west to its junction with US 491 and then headed north to my destination.
I drove onto the dirt road just east of the lava dike and followed it for a couple miles until I found a good spot and began the wait; there was still a couple hours to go before sunset. I set up my camera and tripod, made a few exposures, and repositioned the setup. I then settled in to wait for the anticipated light show. I made exposures whenever the light was interesting, and read a book I had brought along to help pass the time. In the end, sunset was not what I had hoped it would be, the clouds grew more dense obliterating the evening light and muting what little color there was. But, I had plenty of images with some nice light to choose from. This is my pick out of those, the side-lighting does a nice job of revealing the rugged texture of Shiprock, and also casts a nice glow across the foreground.
I drove to Farmington to spend the night satisfied that I had come away with some good images. I decided that I would extend the trip through the next day and see where the wind would take me.
I have photographed and written about Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash extensively. The place is a unique environment and the relatively small area of interest is still revealing new secrets to me. But, as I stood on the edge of the wash recently, I looked to the horizons and wondered what else might be hiding in that seemingly featureless landscape. The thought stayed with me, so one morning I opened Google maps and began searching for telltale signs of eroded areas along the edges of the wash. As I moved west, I eventually came across a region that looked promising. I then began looking for means of access and found a road that ended right at the edge of the area on the map. A quick look at Garmin Base Camp identified GPS coordinates and I was on the road.
Exploring at home on a computer is quite a bit different from driving out into a remote place where you have never been. The dirt two track off the main dirt road seemed endless–even though it was actually only a little over two miles from start to finish. At one point I drove into a section where the road became extremely sandy, and I had to backtrack or risk getting stuck. I eventually found my way to the end of the road and parked. on one side was the broad expanse of Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash, on the other was a wall of incipient hoodoos emerging from a black hillside. It looked like my hunch had paid off.
The more I saw, the more excited I became. Unlike the well-known part of Ah Shi Sle Pah where the features are exposed in an unbroken display several miles long, this small extension seemed to be more recently unearthed in smaller, more intimate areas scattered along both edges of the wash.
I could see more places to the west that looked promising, but by that time, it was getting too late in the day. I wandered and photographed in the immediate area for a couple of hours before deciding to call it a day.
A couple days later, I was on my way to Ah Shi Sle Pah again to further investigate the terrain I hadn’t had a chance to cover on my previous foray. I had identified a place to park that would put me within a mile of the region I wanted to explore. The route took me over a sage covered plain and then dropped into a small tributary wash where I found some hoodoos and petrified wood.
I made a beeline for my ultimate goal, which required several short climbs out of the wash, onto the sage, and back into the wash. I finally arrived at the main wash and began climbing around in the rocks on the northern edge. It was slow going because I had to choose my route carefully due to sudden drop-offs, sink holes, and the possibility of buzz worms (rattlesnakes).
At one point, I looked back to the main wash and across the way I had come and made a photo. But I was drawn by some force to continue to see what lay beyond the next ridge, the next cluster of hoodoos. I came to a crest and dropped into the next tributary. Things were really starting to get (more) interesting. There was an image everywhere I looked.
The landscape was tortured and shattered. Forces of erosion and weather had sculpted an unimaginable (even for that area) jumble of hoodoos, spires, and tables. One small hoodoo bore an uncanny resemblance to a brain on an over-developed spinal cord.
So, there I was thinking it couldn’t possibly get any better, when I caught sight of what is possibly the most bizarre, unearthly formation I had ever seen. It was a hoodoo, but the support column was perforated in places, and the part that remained around the perforations was shaped like some sort of geological accordion. But, my brain stamped it as an exposed part of some mesozoic nervous system.
I spent close to two hours working the thing from all possible perspectives. I was lucky to have an incomparable atmospheric display with light that was constantly changing.
The fluctuating illumination on the scene resulted in mood swings worthy of the subject. In the end, I walked away with close to two hundred images and plans to return at some time in the near future. The fragility of the structure is such that I imagine it could crumble and fall at any time.
But, I have witnessed other such oddities in the vastness of the San Juan Basin that have defied the vagaries of time and weather against all odds for decades, centuries, millennia, so perhaps this wonderful piece of nature’s art will endure for a while.
The one half mile long dirt road that leads from New Mexico Hwy 57 (actually, also a dirt road) cuts through the sage brush prairie with only the slightest sign that there could be anything of interest ahead. The road comes to an abrupt end in a small turn around and a suggestion of a drop beyond the slight rise at the edge of the featureless plain. But, a short walk to the edge of that rise will change any pre-conceived ideas about Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash. The land falls away quickly into a jumble of strange shapes that defy the imagination. Usually, when I make this trip, I walk down into the midst of it all, but on this trip, it was my intention to capture the landscape along this southern edge of the wash, to use the incredible shapes and textures to make more broad landscapes to tell the story of how this place was formed, and how it continues to evolve.
It is here, at the edge, where most of the action is. Hoodoos, their caprocks sitting at jaunty angles, are scattered about in clusters, looking for all the world like groups of alien beings assembled for a social gathering. Petrified logs, looking much the same as they did when the tree fell millions of years ago, emerge from hillsides waiting to surprise and delight visitors. All of these features make great elements for a photographer. That’s one reason why these badlands are destinations for landscape photographers from all over the world.
Something else that stands out here on the edge of the declivity is the color. The soft clay/ash matrix which holds it all together, is a yellowish brown that differs from the whiter color found deeper into the wash, this yellow coloration indicates the presence of iron oxides in the soil. In places, the hue can be more saturated and stand out from the rest, thereby becoming a magnet for the eye, as the hoodoo column in the photo below does.
Standing just about anywhere along this southern rim will give you a good idea of the underlying structure of the area. You can literally see the geologic history of the earth at that place. The deeper into the wash you look, the older the formations are. There’s a lot to see, which means it’s easy to overwhelm your viewers with too much information. When composing an image, it’s important to use design elements like color and light to draw the eye to the main points of interest in the scene.
Of course, the way the light lies on the scene, will play a large part in determining the feeling an image will convey. As the sun neared the horizon to the west, it broke through the overcast in places in a series of rays that shone on the vista and, in turn, caused a dappled light which spotlighted parts of the scene, creating a natural vignette, and reducing the general saturation of the colors. The forms and creases were emphasized by the angled light as well. On the downside, shooting into the general direction of the sun requires that you be vigilant for lens flare (unless it’s intentional), and the dynamic range for such a scene can easily overwhelm your camera’s capabilities. I made five exposures of this image in case I needed to blend them in post processing, but I was actually able to complete the final version using only one exposure.
As I was walking back to the car I was in high spirits because I could feel it, you know, that excitement you get when you know you’ve made some good images and can’t wait to get them uploaded and bring them to fruition. Another lesson learned, or I should say re-learned: change your perspective and do things differently; widen your view and look for the possibilities.
I spend a lot of time in the desert, more specifically, in the badlands of the San Juan Basin. And, of the nine recognized badlands located there, I usually find myself wandering in either the Bisti Wilderness, or Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash. But, I want to step out of the box here and give a nod to the rest: the Ojito Wilderness, Mesa de Cuba, San Jose, Lybrook, Mesa Penistaja, Ceja Pelon, and De Na Zin.
What exactly is a badland? Merriam-Webster defines it as: a region marked by intricate erosional sculpturing, scanty vegetation, and fantastically formed hills–usually used in plural. The pre-requisites for a badlands to form are a grouping of harder sedimentary deposits: sandstone, siltstone etc. suspended in a softer matrix. As the softer material is eroded away, the harder, more dense material is left exposed, often perched on pedestals of the soft matrix.
But, at times the harder deposits may just be scattered haphazardly across a playa or alluvial plain or they may be isolated and in unexpected angles of repose. The seemingly inexplicable arrangement of the features is part of the mystique of the badlands. How did they get here and why? The answer to that question could fill a Geology text, and I am not even remotely qualified to go there. I can say, with some authority however, that the photographic possibilities are as close to infinite that you can get.
As you can imagine, the creation of such an environment takes time…a lot of time. Mesa de Cuba, the youngest is 38-54 million years old. San Jose is 48-64 million years old, Lybrook, Ceja Pelon, and Penistaja are all 60-64 million years old, De Na Zin, along with Bisti and Ah Shi Sle Pah, is 70-75 million years old, and Ojito is the oldest at 144-150 million years old. Each of the aforementioned locations have their own personality, and each of them offer there own version of timeless beauty.
Color is an element that often takes center stage in the badlands. Depending on the mineral content of the soil, there may be layers of red, yellow, blue, or even green. Combine this palette with the other strange and, often, unexpected elements of the landscape and the other-worldly, remote locations become even more surreal.
Possibly the most noticeable feature of such environments are the many erosion channels and drying cracks that cut into the soft bentonite, and mudstone that form the matrices that support the entire system. When the light is right, they stand out in stark relief revealing an almost unimaginable complexity.
As I already pointed out, most of these locations are much smaller than their more famous big brothers: Bisti, and Ah Shi Sle Pah. But, what they lack in size, they make up for in their diversity and surreal beauty. When you add to that the knowledge that these environments have been so many eons in the making (that petrified log emerging from the side of that bentonite mound was a cypress tree in a Mesozoic swamp), and are ever evolving (those sandstone slabs you just walked over will be the caprocks of hoodoos in some distant, future landscape), exploring and photographing them becomes even more significant and mysterious.
Just as you can never step into the same river twice; because of their fragile, and ever-changing nature, you can never visit the same badlands twice.