Thursday, October 02, 2008

Big Bend Weekend

Last March (2008), I took a trip to Big Bend National Park. Just me and my camera.

Once upon a time, before the age of digital cameras (i.e. the late 1990’s), I used to be a regular amateur photographer. Most of my vacations revolved around photography. I would go out to the western U.S. and spend my time visiting the national parks in search of great pictures. Those vacations were focused on finding the right place to be at sunrise and sunset, and the rest of the day spent hiking, or searching for the right place to be for the sunrise or sunset magical light. I have not done one of those trips in a long time. The photography in my more recent trips was more of quick tourist snapshots constrained by whatever I could fit in while traveling with a tour group. So this weekend in Big Bend was an attempt to get back to that type of trip, and focus on photography as I try to learn how to take better pictures in the digital age. I picked this weekend to take the trip for its full moon, which I hoped would make for some interesting night time pictures.

Photo Album Links:
- Big Bend
- Natural Patterns Album

I took a ½ day off from work, and after meeting some friends at Gurerro’s for lunch, drove to Ft. Stockton for the night. After stocking up on supplies at the Wal-mart, I checked out Pepito’s Cafe. Its parking lot was full of local cars, so I figured it was the place to be and was not disappointed. I got up extra early for the 2+ hour drive to Big Bend. I made the same mistake I make every time I go to Big Bend, and ended up on the wrong road south out of town since the sign is a little confusing. But fortunately it did not take long to figure it out.

My goal was to get a backcountry campsite on the South Rim so I could be there for sunrise and sunset pictures. I know from past visits, those sites I wanted are usually taken first, so I wanted to be the first in line when the office that issued camping permits opened at 8:00am. On a trip 10 years ago, despite getting to the office before it opened, we were still 10th in line and did not get the sites we wanted. This time I arrived a little before 7:00, and no-one was in the parking lot. I dozed a little in the car, and then got out to take some pictures of the setting moon. One other car showed up about 7:45, but they were not looking to get a camping permit, so there was no hurry to line up at the office door in the back of the building. I walked around to the back to get in line, but it was just as the sun rose, and the Chisos mountains were illuminated in warm red light at 7:56. This perfect light only lasted a couple of minutes, and I managed to take a few pictures before it was gone. Then the office opened and I was the first and only person in line.

Unexpectedly, most of the south rim campsites were temporarily closed due to peregrine falcon mating season (I should have checked ahead). But I lucked out and got the SW2 site for my first night in the park, less than a mile from the south rim. It was one of about 3 sites that were close enough to the Rim and not closed. I stopped at the lodge restaurant for a big breakfast buffet, since my next few meals would consist of energy bars and raisons. Then I got my pack together. In addition to minimal camping gear, I took my digital SLR, traditional SLR, backup pocket digital, and 2 tripods. I hiked in 5 miles to my campsite along the Laguna Meadows trail. Along the way, a Blue Jay let me get close, and so I took a bunch of pictures. Many of them with my wide-angle lens.

Once I got the tent set up, I napped for a couple of hours. Then I hiked out to the south rim about 2.5 hours before the sunset. I had seen some examples of time-lapse photography and I was curious to try. So I set up the D-SLR to take a picture every 30 seconds for two hours to capture the different shadows in the hills south of the rim as the sun went down. There was another photographer there. He had been in the park for a week, and he gave several much-appreciated tips on other places to visit. Once the sunset hit, I got some great shots.

I hiked back to my tent in the dark set up my traditional 35mm camera for long night time exposure shots of star-trails. My plan was to let one shot expose for 3 or 4 hours with moonlight illuminating the foreground, and then get up in the middle of the night to turn the camera around before the moon moved into the shot for a second shot with some hills in the foreground. But I did not set my alarm properly, and did not get up until 5:30am which gave me around a 7-hour exposure. I was afraid the moon would have washed out the shot, but instead it just made one big bright streak half way through the picture in this shot.

Then I hiked out to the south rim before sun-rise and took two 30-minute time exposures before the sun came up. These came out pretty well. There was enough moonlight to illuminate the valley floor like it was daytime.

The other photographer was there, and we hiked a little further east to find a better vantage point for the sunrise. We got a bunch more pictures. I set up another short time lapse sequence, but I had the interval between pictures a little too long for it to be interesting.

The weather was pretty clear as we took the pictures, but by 30 minutes after sunrise, the good early morning light was gone, so we started walking back to our campsites. By the time I got half-way, low clouds started moving in from nowhere. By the time I got my tent and gear packed, fog had moved in and the temperature started to drop. Since I figured there would not be much to see due to the weather, I abandoned my plan to hike out using the Pinnacles Trail route with a side trip up to the top of Emory Peak, and instead used the slightly shorter route back the way I had hiked in. This picture of some deer at the trailhead show what the fog was like during most of my hike back.

I set up camp for the next two nights in Chisos Basin. But the clouds decided to gather in the basin even when the rest of the park was sunny. This left my campsite a little cooler than perhaps I needed, but not too bad. After a quick lunch at the lodge, I drove towards the Rio Grande Village on the eastern side of the park. The Sierra del Carmen Mountains were visible ahead. Clouds were spilling over the mountain tops like a slow moving river from the other side of the mountains, but I could not capture this in a picture to do justice to the sight this gave. I did the hiking loop trail by the hot springs, which is accessible via a short dirt road from the main highway. From the far side of the loop, I started to hike along the Rio Grande towards the Rio Grande Village, until I saw some nasty looking clouds coming my way. Since it was after 4:00 I turned back. Along the way back, I noticed the interesting fossil in the ground, shown below.

Then I drove over to the west side of the Chisos mountains to look for a place where the setting sun would illuminate the mountains well. I found a place along the side of the highway where I could point the camera east into the mountains which would be illuminated by the sun setting behind me. Clouds had filled the Chisos basin, and they were trying to push out over the western mountain ridges and through the gap known as the "Window". This produced a slow, visible flow as the clouds tried to spill over the mountain ridge towards me. As the clouds spilled over, they evaporated. In some places the cloud vapors spilled rapidly over the edge of the ridge before evaporating, creating a waterfall effect. I tried another timelapse sequence with the camera set to 20 sec in between shots, but that was too slow to capture the effect.

After sunset, I drove 20 miles to the town of Terlinga at the western edge of the park hoping to get dinner and fill up with gas. But since this was Easter Sunday, all the restaurants were closed. I got back to the basin too late for their Easter feast, so I had bagels and raisins for dinner.

On Monday, my last full day, the Chisos Basin was still filled with clouds. I drove out a little bit on the highway toward the Rio Grande Village to get sunrise pictures as the sun illuminated the Chisos mountains. But, there was too much cloud cover for good pictures. As I drove back into the basin, the clouds started to open up and I got a few pictures with blue sky, but once inside the basin it was foggy again. After breakfast, the weather was clear outside of the Chisos Basin. I drove down the Ross Maxwell Highway on the western side of the park, and then turned up the Old Maverick dirt road. I stopped at the Terlingua Abaja ruins and from there hiked an hour and a half up the creak bed. I started noticing everywhere the dried mud cracks and pebbles formed interesting patterns dry riverbed, and so I started capturing pictures of the various natural patterns. I put these in a separate album (link).

By the late afternoon, the weather in the Chisos basin finally cleared. As I returned to my camsite, I noticed the park police car was following behind. Being careful not to speed, I turned into the campground and he was still following me at every turn but not putting on his lights to pull me over. At the campsite, he pulled in behind me. After running my drivers license through the system, I got a warning for a broken tail light.

I hiked down to the Window trail for sunset, which had me looking out from the edge of the mountains in the opposite direction from the previous day’s sunset pictures. I got some good pictures and then hiked back in the dark with my headlamp. I ran part of the trail back, as best I could while carrying the camera gear.

On Tuesday morning, I got up at super early again and packed up the car for the drive back to Austin. On the drive north out of the park, I did not see any other traffic for the first hour and a half, until about 6:30am. When I was 30 miles from Ft Stockton, I saw the first truck coming the opposite way, and then it was a constant stream of traffic heading south is stark contrast to the empty roads I had gotten used to. I guess everyone was headed to work at the same time? I was hoping to get breakfast at Pepito’s Cafe, but it was not open and so I had to settle a quick breakfast stop at McDonalds. I timed the drive right for lunch in Fredericksburg and got back to Austin with a little bit of the afternoon left to unpack, unwind, and start processing the pictures I took.

Photo Album Links:
- Big Bend
- Natural Patterns Album

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  1. John, you take the best pictures! those are awesome!

  2. ver nice pics! - shorey

  3. Awesome pix Frier...thanks for sharing!

  4. Thanks for remembering that day on my blog!! You do take the best pics! m


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