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10 Favorites of 2013

The last few years I’ve been doing a year-end favorites post showcasing a number of my best images from the year. I’ve done a variety of numbers. From now on I’m going to focus on 10 images, no matter how hard it is to choose. While I haven’t had a chance to write individual stories for each of the amazing places I visited this last year, you will find many of those images on flickr, 500px or google+. Check out past favorites posts from 2010, 2011 and 2012.

First up we have one of my favorite places in one of my favorite parks: the Eureka Dunes in Death Valley National Park. I always wanted to visit the area and never did in the days I was driving an old Toyota Corolla. Now I’ve been there several times with my Nissan Xterra and can’t wait to go back. I was able to squeeze in a quick trip in April to this place. Exploring around the massive dunes (which reach as far as 700 feet above the valley floor!) I came across this remnant of an ancient lake bed. What really took me by surprise was that it was pink! The color contrasted with the cool sands of the dunes and the magnificent layered Last Chance Range illuminated by the setting sun.

Ancient Playa and the Last Chance Range

Ancient Playa and the Last Chance Range

After working like mad for the day job for much of the first part of the year, I embarked on a massive road trip. I needed a break, and I was eager to expand photographically outside of California. Expand I did, covering 9066 miles in 32 days. I’ll have more to say about this road trip in the coming weeks.

The first destination was the Grand Canyon. I had never been to the Grand Canyon. I’ve seen thousands of photos and I’ve heard plenty of stories from people over the years, but I had never seen it for myself. This was destination one. And wow! What a canyon it is! I have seen lots of canyons over the years here in California but none of that really prepared me for the immense scale and awe inspiring landscape of the Grand Canyon. I highly recommend visiting at least once in your lifetime. This is my favorite image I took in the too short time I had at Grand Canyon National Park. This is sunset from a very popular spot – Hopi Point. The light was magical. A single cloud masked the sun and for a moment softened the light and brought out the warm, rich colors of the canyon walls. A few moments later direct sunlight cut back across the landscape and the soft warm colors were no longer so vibrant.

Sunset at Hopi Point in the Grand Canyon

Sunset at Hopi Point in the Grand Canyon

The next major way point in my journey was a place I had learned about after seeing photos from other photographers at the Fred Miranda Landscape Forum. I am a fan of sand dunes. Ever since my first visit to Death Valley National Park in 2008, I have fallen in love with the intricate sand formed patterns and infinite shapes and sizes of these fascinating and dynamic piles of sand. Death Valley does not of course have a monopoly on sand dunes, and there is a whole national park named for them – Great Sand Dunes National Park in southeastern Colorado. My drive there from the Grand Canyon was long. I arrived in the total dark in pouring rain in the middle of black bear country. I couldn’t see anything. The next morning I awoke to find tremendous piles of sand, the largest in North America, in a clearing morning storm. The Eureka Dunes above reach 700 feet. The Great Sand Dunes reach 750 feet at the summit of Star Dune. These dunes are very different than the Death Valley sands. The sand has more of a brown-gold hue, with patches of black magnetite providing dark accents. Added to the mix was the fact that rain had just fallen and the winds were drying sand on the surface. All together, you get the great tonal variation seen here. I loved the texture of these dunes.

Great Sands

Great Sands

The next National Park on my journey brought me to Badlands National Park in South Dakota. This is a park I always wanted to visit. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but after my short one night visit I definitely want to return and spend more time there. Here the flat emptiness in South Dakota is interrupted by “The Wall,” which is a formidable 100 mile long stretch of cliffs separating two levels of terrain. Exposed at the Wall are various erosion patterns and layers with grasslands above and below. One image in particular is a personal favorite. It plays tricks on my mind when I look at it, as the layers of sediments in the eroded landscape form near perfect horizontal lines that break the image up bottom to top in a way that makes me think of scanlines on an old analog television. The landscape was illuminated by a just rising sun. I definitely want to revisit this place soon and explore the land and the wildlife more.

Layers of the Wall

Layers of the Wall

Next up was the number one destination for the road trip – Yellowstone National Park. This is another amazing place I had never had the chance to visit before. I booked 6 nights there and loved every second of it. Wow! Two images from this part of the trip are in the list. Neither of them are iconic places you will see time and time again. I think Grand Prismatic Spring is pretty much the coolest natural thing I’ve ever seen, and yet I don’t include a photo of it here. Instead first we have a rainbow and thunderstorm over the hot runoff from Terrace Spring. My first full day in the park featured scattered showers, and I recognized conditions were right for a rainbow. I was on the west side of the park and the sun was getting low. I was driving around looking for a spot looking East to frame up a potential rainbow shot. Not knowing much about places in the park I settled on the place I started the day at. Here at Terrace Spring the hot runoff heads away from the road with a few trees nearby and the lush Yellowstone wilderness beyond. I set up and waited. A group of tourists came over and asked me what I was shooting. I told them a rainbow would appear and they kinda laughed and started walking off. No sooner had they started to walk off than the rainbow appeared. I yelled to them to look and then they smiled and laughed. This has remained a personal Yellowstone favorite for me.

Rainbow at Terrace Spring

Rainbow at Terrace Spring

The second image from Yellowstone that I have chosen is one of simple symmetry. I’ve been a fan of water-reflected symmetry ever since my visits to a flooded Badwater Basin in 2011. I came across this scene wile exploring the edges of Yellowstone Lake. I just loved the simple symmetrical composition of the lodgepole pines, grasses and water. Light rippling in the water provides a little breakup to the reflection surface. I just find it very pleasing to the eye and thus is edged out photos of all sorts of Yellowstone icons to claim a spot in my favorites list.

Yellowstone Lake Symmetry

Yellowstone Lake Symmetry

One of my days in Yellowstone was set aside for a trip down south to the neighboring park below – Grand Teton National Park. My first thought of this park usually is of an iconic image from Ansel Adams at the Snake River Overlook. I found this to be another superlative park. The sudden rise of the Teton Range over the Jackson Hole valley is dramatic and awe inspiring. As it turns out, I picked an interesting day to explore the park. I stopped at an overlook area and watched as an incoming storm passed over the Tetons heading right towards me. With my new lightning trigger I was able to get a little cloud-to-cloud bolt just before I headed to safer ground (also just before horizontal rain started!). The storm was dramatic and beautiful. Living in southern California I really do miss storms. One day was nowhere near enough time for this amazing park. I will be back. This stormy scene is my favorite from my time in Grand Teton National Park.

Thunderstorm Over the Tetons

Thunderstorm Over the Tetons

The next National Park on the journey was Olympic National Park. I had visited this park very briefly about 10 years before. I had seen the beaches and mountains but not the rainforest. I was most excited for the beach and for the rainforest. As it turns out, the rainforest can be dry in the summer. And with the dryness the light can be harsh. I was not terribly pleased with the photos I was able to take in the forest. Cloudless skies dominated above, so we headed to the beach first. Second Beach was a really neat place with large rocks offshore covered in trees. At the coast, a thick marine layer hugged the shoreline in stark contrast with the blazing sunshine just 1/2 a mile inland. Defiantly we stayed at the beach through sunset hoping for a break in the clouds. Fortunately a slight break occurred. The tide was out but was just starting to come back in. Waves wrapped around the stacks and collided in opposite directions, forming neat patterns in the wave surface.

Opposing Tides

Opposing Tides

The Redwoods. I love trees. In particular, Redwoods will always have a place in my heart whether they are the tall graceful giant coastal redwoods or the thick, red, massive giant sequoias in the Sierras. In the past I have seen other photographers’ photos of shafts of light in fog in forests. I had always wanted to see such a sight myself, but never had the opportunity. When I arrived for my two night stay in the Redwood National and State Parks area in northwest California, I spotted a scene that was everything I had been wanting to see and then some. Along the coast a marine layer of low clouds was yielding overcast conditions. I drove around to get my bearings in the park and then discovered that the road went right up into the clouds. Near the top, I suddenly was aware of all the beams of the sunlight filtering in from the high canopy above. I pulled over and went to work and watched in awe as the light moved through the trees. The fog revealed each shaft of light spreading out in every direction from the Sun. The scene was magical, and I felt as though I had been transported back in time to a prehistoric era. Not since “Wow” had I felt compelled to vocally say “Thank You” aloud to Nature around me for sharing such a quality experience with me. If forced to choose one picture from 2013 as my “best of”, this is it.

Redwood Rays

Redwood Rays

Finally, if you follow my various photography postings around the web, you might occasionally come across a train photo or two. I have since I was a kid been completely fascinated by steam locomotives. This fall I had a chance to take a photo under beautiful lighting conditions. The sun was setting and the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society‘s 765 here was steaming home after a series of excursions to the east. Pacing along side the locomotive on the roadway, suddenly the steam engine started emitting picturesque black smoke. We later learned the black smoke was by request of Norfolk Southern, the railroad that owns the tracks here. Normally, a fireman will run an efficient fire which produces little to no smoke. Photographers like me will often wish that the fireman was wasting a little fuel in order to give us some picturesque black smoke. With the setting sun, it was magical. You can see some video I shot while chasing the train here.

Black Beauty and Black Smoke

Black Beauty and Black Smoke

So there you have it. After much agonizing over how to narrow down 50,037 photos to just 10, this is what I came up with today. Tomorrow I might change my mind, but I’m going to stick with it. I look forward to many new adventures in 2014. I really enjoyed breaking photographically out of California. It has really ignited a desire to arrange photography trips much further away. Hopefully my day job will afford me new opportunities to travel this year. Also, I have a new years resolution to make the time to write more in this blog to go along with some big changes I have planned for the rest of my web site. Happy New Year!

January 5, 2014 - 8:52 pm

Simon Holden - Great work, Kurt!

January 11, 2014 - 4:45 am

Jimmy Denham - Nice work!

Fire Recovery: Revisiting the Station Fire Devastation

The “Springs Fire” of the last few weeks destroyed the vegetation of a large swath of the Santa Monica Mountains (along with a few buildings and RVs). Thinking about how this area will recover inspired me to go and check on how another burned area is recovering, 3.5 years since the devastating “Station Fire” swept through the San Gabriel Mountains. I had visited the area on the weekend the Angeles Crest Highway re-opened (which would close again about a week later when rain sent landslides through). When I visited these burned out hills, it had already been a couple of months since the fires and green was already starting to emerge. What would the landscape look like now, in May 2013, compared to December 2009 when I was last here? I had not been back to the area since that trip. I’m still sad about the loss of Colby Canyon and Strawberry Peak trails in particular. You can see my surreal pics from the Station Fire itself, which were the first pics posted in this photography blog here here and here. Much of the area shown in these pictures is contained in the Station Fire Recovery Area. You can see a map of the area here: http://maps.fs.fed.us/stationfire/. All of my photos were taken from turnouts on the side of the highway.

Roadside Devastation, December 2009

Roadside Devastation, December 2009

Roadside Devastation, May 2013

Roadside Devastation, May 2013

Green has returned! That was immediately evident as I first began my slow drive up the Angeles Crest Highway. Gone are the browns and greys. Young green has returned to the hillsides that were bare.

Burned with a little new growth, December 2009

Burned with a little new growth, December 2009

Approximately the same view, May 2013

Approximately the same view, May 2013

At the bottom of the second picture you can see another thing that was very evident: trash. The fire burned away all the trash, but it seems careless people just can’t help themselves, and trash was evident roadside wherever I stopped. Sad.

Tall burned trees along the road, December 2009

Tall burned trees along the road, December 2009

Treeless, May 2013

Treeless, May 2013

The trees are gone and the drainage along the roadside has been completely reworked. I would guess there were debris flow problems here in the floods after the fire. These next few photos are approximate but from the same turnout. I couldn’t figure out exactly where I had pointed the camera before. Even with GPS coordinates it wasn’t too obvious.

Hillside, December 2009

Hillside, December 2009

Hillside, May 2013

Hillside, May 2013

Burned bushes and new growth, December 2009

Burned bushes and new growth, December 2009

Much greener, May 2013

Much greener, May 2013

As you can see it’s a pretty dramatic difference, even in the little areas.

Along the road, December 2009

Along the road, December 2009

Along the road, May 2013

Along the road, May 2013

These wider views show the dramatic transformation. I could have framed up the view exactly the same, but I opted to keep my own shadow out of the shot. The plants are mostly small compared to what they once were. 3.5 years isn’t long enough to get large growth out of these areas yet. It had been some 60 years since the last time fire had swept through the area.

Burned out detail, December 2009

Burned out detail, December 2009

Burned out detail area (approximate) May 2013

Burned out detail area (approximate) May 2013

And finally we get to one large burned tree from the Station Fire that is still standing.

Brown Landscape, December 2009

Brown Landscape, December 2009

Green Landscape, May 2013

Green Landscape, May 2013

While there is a lot of recovery that has already happened, it’s clear there is a long ways yet to go. Some of the trails it seems will remain closed for some time. Some trails may be permanently lost. The regrowth of course doesn’t respect old trails, and rockslides have obliterated parts of trails. Essentially what I gathered is that the trails have to in essence be rebuilt, and that is still going to take some time.

Strawberry Peak Trailhead

Strawberry Peak Trailhead

Modern Hiker just posted about efforts to work on the Strawberry Peak Trail. I hope in a year maybe the trail might re-open, though the views will be a bit different.

Looking up towards the old Colby Canyon trailhead

Looking up towards the old Colby Canyon trailhead

Other trails might not be so lucky. I hope to one day hike Colby Canyon again. The high point in the picture is Strawberry Peak.

Not all was lost

Not all was lost

This last image finally is a view from the Red Box Picnic Area. Wildflowers are blooming and you can see old growth unburned on the right, saved surely as part of the efforts to fend off the fire on Mt. Wilson. I look at this area and see a little glimpse into the future for the areas like Pt. Mugu State Park that recently burned. Those areas are more accessible, and perhaps it will be interesting to follow the recovery there more closely.

May 13, 2013 - 3:15 pm

Kiley - Great blog post. Thank you for sharing. Very interesting…

Springs Fire Devastation

During my 12-hours-a-day 6-day week work marathon of the last week at the day job I could only briefly see the news of the fires that suddenly erupted across southern California just as a blast of the Santa Ana winds and heat arrived. The very first posts of this blog were of the “Station Fire” back in 2009, when an enormous wildfire destroyed some of my favorite hiking trails in the San Gabriel Mountains. Many of these trails remain closed in the burned areas. Last night I sat down and looked at a map of the Springs fire and became very sad since it appeared that this fire was doing the same to more of my favorite trails. This morning I decided to head out and see what I could see of the damage.

Sycamore Canyon was the first area that was burned out. However I could not really stop there as Caltrans was all over the place. The buildings there all looked like they were saved, but clearly the canyons beyond were totally burned. The entrance to Pt. Mugu had an area to stop and no one else around, so I got out to take a few pics.

Burned Out Mugu

Burned Out Mugu

As you can see, the devastation was near total in areas the fire reached.

Pt. Mugu Stata Park sign now with added character

Pt. Mugu Stata Park sign now with added character

The entrance sign had bubbled in the heat, but has been saved no doubt by firefighters.

End of the road sign

End of the road sign

This scorched call box and destroyed sign were at the northern edge of La Jolla Canyon here just a short ways from the Mugu entrance sign. The road sign here wasn’t so lucky.

Devastated Area at Pt. Mugu

The whole area as far as I could see beyond the entrance way was just burned to a crisp. The entrance was of course blocked off and a sign warned of no entry permitted.

After Mugu I continued on. The fire jumped the PCH in a few places but was stopped. The military firing range had the palm trees at the entrance burned but the rest of the facility escaped harm. The Santa Monica Mountains on the north side from the point all the way through Camarillo are totally burned except for the area around the communications equipment which was saved. I continued driving along, getting off a the nearest east road and ending up at the Cal State University Channel Islands campus. The fire here reached the very edge of campus and was fought back. Here you can see the green campus grass and the burned hills immediately behind.

Fiery Edge of Campus

Fiery Edge of Campus

Just around the corner from the campus was the entrance to the University Glen Apartments. The entrance road was burned all around, with signs perhaps of the firefighter battle around like this odd patch of green in a sea of burned land.

A green flowering island in a burned sea

A green flowering island in a burned sea

And this somewhat spared palm and bush

Green and black

Green and black

I took a drive up Yerba Buena Road, which I was surprised was open. I thought the fire had reached there, but instead it was over at the next road north (Deer Creek). The area I had most feared was burned appears to be ok for now. The burn maps I’ve seen have shown the fire has reached almost up to the other side of this ridge in at least one place. With full containment expected tomorrow, I’m hopeful that this means the area is safe. My next hike here will have some seriously renewed appreciation for the green-ness around me.

Saved Landscape

Saved Landscape

And finally here’s a view of what has been temporarily lost. This is a hike I did with the Sierra Club’s Wilderness Travel Course back in 2010. Here is an image looking down on the Point Mugu entrance from above, followed by a picture from today showing the location the picture was taken from with a red arrow.

Looking down on Pt. Mugu State Park Entrance

Looking down on Pt. Mugu State Park Entrance


Location of previous view

Location of previous view

Ultimately, wildfires are a part of the natural way of things here. Wildfires raged through clearing the greenery long before we humans showed up to stop them. The plant life will come back. For a long time it won’t look the same, but eventually the cycle will show us once again that it is just that – a cycle. Perhaps next weekend I will venture into the once burned areas of the Station Fire to see how the recovery there is coming along. Soon at least I will go revisit that desolation and I bet I my spirits will be uplifted by the renewal of life there. My thoughts are with the brave firefighters who are still fighting the Springs Fire. I hope it is completely contained soon.

Customer photo

Customer photo of an 18x70" aluminum mounted print of "Wow"

Customer photo of an 18×70″ aluminum mounted print of “Wow”

For those that don’t know, I do sell prints of my photographs. Here is a customer photo of an 18×70 inch print of “Wow”, a panoramic photograph detailed here: http://blog.kurtlawson.com/?p=1080

This particular print is a Fujiflex Crystal Archive print which has been laminated onto a piece of aluminum. A wooden frame on the back side which provides mounting to the wall and floats the image off the wall without a border. It’s a fantastic way to experience this unique moment in Death Valley National Park back in January 2011. If you would like something similar, contact me for a quote or browse my current inventory of framed photographs in my online store. I also custom make prints to order.

The Dynamic Salt Flats of Death Valley National Park

A northern view at Badwater, March 2013

A northern view at Badwater, March 2013

During my first visit to Death Valley National Park, I shot some pictures at sunrise at a location known as Badwater. This is the lowest point in North America, at 282 feet below sea level and thus the final low point for water entering the vast salt pan that makes up the main valley floor. Of course, not all water makes it to this point, but this does fill with a few inches of water on occasion, and in 2005 was deep enough for people to kayak across for the first time. The salt flat was interesting in that first visit. For miles and miles, a pale white-grey texture of salt crystals formed polygons off into the horizon. Mostly, these were very low but were well defined by more dense concentrations of salt crystals. The polygons of mud crusted with salt varied from place to place, but mostly followed a fairly uniform set of characteristics through the main part of the Badwater salt flat area. Here is a view to the north in 2008:

A northern view at Badwater in 2008

A northern view at Badwater in 2008

All in all, I honestly didn’t find the Badwater area to be terribly interesting. I was intrigued by the contrast to the west when standing in the shadow of the Black Mountains while the Panamint Range was fully bathed in sunlight, but the actual ground didn’t inspire me on this first visit and I didn’t come back for a few years. In late December 2010 everything changed at Badwater. Heavy rains flooded the salt flat with several inches of water. Whatever the salt flats looked like prior to being flooded, the flood waters erased everything. This made for some awesome images, including many that are my personal all-time favorites. Here though is a similar angle during the day. You can see the mud under the water. There is no sign of the salt crystals or the vertical uplift of polygonal shapes. In fact, there’s nothing of the polygons at all. The surface has been erased back to flat mud, with little bits of texture dotting the underwater landscape.

A northern view at Badwater, January 2011

A northern view at Badwater, January 2011

I made hundreds and hundreds of photos during the time Badwater was flooded. You can see some more here in my photo blog posts from two weekends there:
Tales of a Flooded Badwater
Tales of a Flooded Badwater Part II

As soon as I freed up from work again, I headed straight back in the hopes that the water might still be there. What I saw instead was a vastly different landscape.

A northerly view at Badwater, March 2011

A northerly view at Badwater, March 2011

The water was gone. There was fresh salt everywhere. There were no polygonal shapes, only dotted miniature mesas as far as the eye could see, and salt crystals so bright white that it was at least as bright as snow. I was blown away by the change in the landscape. I returned in November to shoot my Christmas card. This time new polygons had formed. The flats were still brilliant bright white crystal salt, however.

A northerly view at Badwater, November 2011

A northerly view at Badwater, November 2011

In January 2012, the polygonal surface looked different yet again:

A northerly view at Badwater, January 2012

A northerly view at Badwater, January 2012

And finally we get to the present day, which can be seen in the first image at the beginning of this post, and here is also a western view from the same location showing the extent of the uplift.

Western view at Badwater, March 2013

Western view at Badwater, March 2013

The mud and salt crust at Badwater to me resembles the very fundamental forces that created mountain ranges everywhere. Here is my hypothesis based on my own random visits and observations. It seems as though the mud and salt solidified after the flood in 2011 into a fairly consistent texture. Then, as the environment of Death Valley added and subtracted moisture to the salt flat, the crust began to expand and contract with the temperature changes and the forming and dissolving action with moisture. Eventually, cracks form which allow more moisture to seep through with more salt, concentrating the salt at the cracks. The overall cracked pattern appears like that of dried mud but on a larger scale, with some polygonal chunks a few feet across. With the concentration of salt along the cracks, the crystals there begin to push the plates apart from one another as they grow. This creates uplift at the edges as the different sections of crust expand outward and crack along the edges forming miniature mountain ranges. The current state of Badwater seems similar to what I found at the edges of a circular white salt flat in the middle of largely mud about 3/4 a mile from the road to the south of Badwater. Here along the edges the salt had fractured up nearly a foot off the floor, tapering off into more flat white patterns towards the center of the circle. So perhaps what is happening now at Badwater is similar to what was happening at the edges of this circle, indicating less and less water until ultimately the salt flat just turns into mud resembling the Devil’s Golf Course section.

Huge uplift at the edge of circular salt flat, March 2011

Huge uplift at the edge of circular salt flat, March 2011

Badwater is a much more fascinating place to me now since that first visit in 2008, and I have new appreciation for the way the Death Valley landscape is constantly changing. I wonder if anyone has done a study of the stages of the changing landscape at Badwater. It certainly seems to have cycles. I wonder what it will look like during my next visit. I’m looking forward to finding out.

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