2015, 5D Mark III, Aaron Bates Photography, April, Big Bend National Park, Bluebonnet, Canon, Chisos Mountains, Columbia Sportswear, Desert Marigold, F-Stop Gear, Globemallow, Indian Paintbrush, LEE Filters, Ocotillo, Prickly Pear Cactus, Rio Grande River, Scorptionwood, Sunset, Texas, USKestrel Photography, Vasque Footwear, Wild Heliotrope, Wild Petunia, Yucca
Rejuvenation…That is what Spring means for me.
This year, more so than many years prior, I am feeling substantially more rejuvenated.
Starting in late October 2014 and going through early March 2015, my physical, mental and emotional state was just not where it needed to be. Battling some health issues for half of December, all of January and a large portion of February really had me down.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, things stabilized somewhat in March. Turning my focus towards a trip to Big Bend National Park, I became excited to explore and create new images. Aaron Bates (@AaronBatesPhoto) and I had been discussing a joint trip to @BigBendNPS for wildflowers, night-sky photography and whatever else may come to be during the trip.
The first of April finally came and the trip was on! Arriving late on the 1st, I made it to the hotel near the airport by 11:30pm and quickly got myself situated for the morning. Aaron picked me up and we endured the long drive from Austin to Big Bend NP. Shortly before the entrance, we saw this field of yellow before us and just had to stop and do a little shooting!
As we entered the park, we noticed the wildflowers were looking pretty fantastic, so we knew that part of the trip would certainly be up to our expectations. The weather forecast, however, was not looking to be very promising, for our intended goal of some night-sky photography…but we still resolved to give it a go, if feasible.
First up was finding a campsite. Signage as we entered the park indicated our fortune may not be so good; campsites seemed to be in short supply. We made our way to Chisos Basin Campground and after seeing the short supply, were almost resigned to taking one site for the first overnight, then grabbing a different one the next day if one came available. As luck would have it, a site that was taken just before we got there, opened up for the whole time we be there, so we snagged that and got our camp set up.
Having camp set up, we made our way up to Window View Trail to get ourselves prepared for sunset. The clouds on the western horizon weren’t looking like things would come together for sunset, but we still had some time, so we headed up to the Chisos Mountains Lodge dining room for dinner. After dinner, we dropped down the hill to the Window View Trail and got ourselves in position to shoot sunset.
As the time approached for sunset, Mother Nature was not cooperating very well though there were a few moments where the light, clouds and scene were just gorgeous!
Aaron and I hung around until a bit after evening twilight. The longer we waited, the worse the cloud cover became. One shot that Aaron was really keen to get (and subsequently me too, once he talked about the location a bit) was stars over Window Notch. Sadly, the cloud-cover squashed that opportunity for night#1.
Next up was sunrise; given the forecast wasn’t looking great, we set the alarm so as to be able to get up and get out to a location for sunrise if the conditions prevailed.
The alarm went off and we both awoke to blustery and very overcast weather. The likelihood of anything worthwhile for sunrise was negligible, so we decided to skip sunrise and see how things looked after a couple of hours. The extra hour of snooze time was nice and after getting ready to start the day, Aaron and I headed out towards Chihuahuan Desert Trail area to shoot wildflowers. The Ocotillo were a mix of blooming and still somewhat dormant. Bluebonnet’s along the roadways were vibrant and plentiful. One spot we stopped had a nice field of wild petunia’s, bluebonnet’s and marigolds!!
We spent a couple of hours shooting as well as a drive down a dirt road on the north end of the park area. The goal was to scout out good wildflowers for a stop as we exited the park, en route back to Austin. In typical fashion, time flew by and we both were getting hungry, so we headed back to Chisos Basin to grab some lunch before we undertook the longest trek of the trip.
A full belly was good; our next location was a measly 6.1 miles away. South Rim Trail is…hmmm…how should I say this…a great, but exhausting trek! The first three miles of the hike are quite the butt-kicker. Climbing from roughly 5300 ft at Chisos Mountain Lodge to almost 6600 feet of elevation. A short section of up & down for .4 miles, then another 1.3 miles of up (another 600 feet of elevation gain in 1.3 miles). Two hours and forth minutes from start to the South Rim area. Not bad, carrying ~40lbs of gear (we did leave unnecessary lens gear to free up some of the normal weight) and 3L of water!
The views from the south rim are absolutely stunning and, when Mother Nature cooperates, could provide for some amazing night-sky spots. Big Bend NP is noted for being one of the prime dark-sky locations in the USA. The temperature change from Chisos Basin to South Rim was not significant…at first. After 15-20 minutes of consuming some trail bars and hydration and taking advantage of good light to shoot, winds started to pick up and we both found ourselves realizing things could get a little dicey if we were to stay beyond twilight. Sunset was less than stellar with haze along the basin floor and clouds obscuring what would likely have been a phenomenal sunset under normal conditions. Still managed to create a decent image.
About the time twilight hit, we both knew that the clouds were not going to clear and any shot of night-sky photography was out the window…so we began the process of trekking back to Chisos Basin. The 6.1 miles in didn’t seem as long on the trek back, though by the time we hit the saddle which indicates the last 3 mile section of downhill to Chisos Basin, both of us were feeling it in our knees, hips and back. Every so often on the trek back, we would do a 540 (360 horizontal and 180 vertical) to make sure we didn’t get surprised by critters (Bears & Mountain Lion are known inhabitants in the park). Other than some “Common Pauraque” that were making odd noises and sitting on the trail until we approached then buzzing us (low flight), the trek back was rather uneventful!
We arrived back at Chisos Basin around 11pm and we were both ready to get back to camp, make a hot meal and then crash! Before we did though, we used the free wifi up by the dining hall to check the weather forecast for the next day and much to our dismay, sunrise and the full lunar eclipse did not look to be very promising for shooting.
Once ready to crash, the alarm was set so that we could check the skies. When the alarm went off, Aaron looked out the tent window and the sigh was almost deafening. Overcast skies meant we would not have any chance of capturing the event. Major bummer, since we were really looking forward to using the dark-sky properties of Big Bend NP to our advantage.
Another morning to sleep in a little (perhaps an hour or so). Then we got up, headed up to down to the Alon fuel station / convenience store for some coffee and make our way back to the wildflowers in the eastern side of the park. Along the way, we came across a small group of orange Indian Paintbrush. Unique color mandated stopping to shoot.
This little cluster was absolutely gorgeous and I took the opportunity to do some macro photography using an extension tube attached to my ultra-wide lens!!
We finished up shooting these magnificent Indian Paintbrush and headed off to get some coffee. Coffee in-hand, we headed to the west side of the park to see what could come about there. Amid the vast landscape we shot wildflowers and did another hike, this time out to Cattail Falls. The water was flowing ever so slightly and the sun was out just enough to enjoy this little oasis for about an hour.
One the drive back to the campground, to have an early dinner, we saw a blooming yucca plant with The Chisos Mountains looming large behind it and a small cache of wildflowers nearby as well, so we turned around and drove back to the spot and parked so as to spend a little time there.
We got to the dining hall about 10 minutes before they opened for dinner, so we had a chance to use the wifi and review the weather forecast. There was a chance the skies would be clear, so our plan to shoot sunset at the Rio Grande Overlook in the southeast part of the park had potential.
Dinner was pretty good. If you are ever at Big Bend National Park, the Chicken Parmigiana at the dining hall is fantastic!! Bellies full (once again), we set out for our sunset location. Wildflowers distracted us a little and eventually we had to scoot or we would miss sunset.
The trek from the parking lot just beyond the Rio Grande RV Park up to the overlook is only about a half mile in length with about 300 feet of elevation gain. The trail is a bit rocky, so watching foot placement is important as you don’t want to roll and ankle here!
The wind was a but of an issue once again, though the views were amazing. As sunset time approached we were dealt another blow by Mother Nature. Cloud cover obscured the sun almost completely…
Hiking back to the vehicle, we both talked about the need to return to Big Bend NP when the weather was more conducive to our photographic wishes. The drive back to camp was spent discussing the game-plan for the last day. We decided to get going early, break down camp and shoot as many wildflowers as we could on the east side, west side and then as we headed out of the park on the drive back to Austin.
Camp break-down took about 15 minutes and we were off. In typical fashion, the skies were looking amazing and our day started looking up!! There was still a slight breeze as we shot wildflowers on the east side of the park and the first couple of spots on the west side of the park. Near the west entrance station, Aaron pulled into a turn-out to look show me the neat variation in soil color to the north.
A huge variety of wildflowers at this spot made both of us grab the cameras and tripods. Seeing an Ocotillo bloom partially open, we both were shooting a variety of compositions to show the beauty:
Cactus flowers were everywhere. Such vibrant colors where a no-brainer to shoot.
We finished creating images here and started driving out to Big Bend Ranch State Park to see what wildflowers we might see there. A nice variety of flowers here and there; eventually we realized time had once again slipped away and we needed to make our way back to Austin. Returning to Study Butte, Terlingua and the west entrance, we plodded along. The 45mph speed limit made for a slower than desired drive.
Towards the north entrance to the park, a field of purple with spots of orange caught our eyes and yes, we had to stop one more time! Aaron had some compositions in mind and while he was off doing his thing, I did a couple more macro shots, one of Globemallow:
and one of Wild Heliotrope (aka Scorpionweed):
Finally we left the park, heading up US-385 towards Fort Stockton. Shortly before we got to Fort Stockton, we were driving through an area where a storm had recently passed through and seeing this storm off in the distance to the east, we both saw this storm as a great black + white composition (which we would later share out as a dual composition to show our visions were very similar).
The remainder of the drive to Austin was spent talking about this trip, plans for future trips to Big Bend NP and a few other locations where we could meet up and do some photography. Feeling very rejuvenated by the fantastic trip to Big Bend NP, my outlook on things has improved quite a bit! Wildflowers a breath of fresh air and getting in the first camping trip of the season sure helped as well.
Placing too much pressure on yourself can have adverse effects. Wildflowers, beautiful vistas, camping and grand hikes were exactly what I needed to take that weight off!