After reading the title I know most of you are thinking; “what’s a Moki Dugway”? My answer would be; “think Thelma and Louise”. At the end of the movie, being chased by the police, Thelma and Louise reach a dead end when they drive up to the end of a mesa. The only way out is to drive off the cliff into oblivion. The ending could have been filmed at Moki Dugway.
(The decent begins)
Hearing the Stories
I first heard about Moki Dugway from friends who had driven it 2 years ago. When we left the “House on Fire” pueblo ruins our next destination was Valley of The Gods. Our route would take us on the intimidating drive down Moki Dugway. Moki Dugway is part of highway 261. Highway 261 is a 2 lane highway through the high desert in the southeast corner of Utah.
(Rt. 165 stretches to the horizon)
It’s a road where you can travel at 75mph and feel like you’re not going fast. About the only signs you’ll see is “Free Range Cattle-Use Caution”. This means cattle roam free here and will wander across the road at any time. Proof of this was the dead calf we passed on our route down this remote highway. As we neared Moki Dugway we started to see signs of what we were coming to. Road signs started appearing with cautions:
(The valley below)
No Vehicle Over 27 Ft.
Dirt Road for the next 2.5 miles
No vehicle over 27 feet
Use Caution-No Shoulder or Guardrail
When they built highway 261 they must have arrived at the mesa, and with no route around it, they simply cut a road into the face of the mesa. Moki Dugway starts at over 6000 feet and drops 1100 feet over 3 miles of dirt road with numerous switchbacks, no guardrail, narrow to the point where, in some places, only one vehicle can fit through at a time and absolutely stunning scenery. I mentioned in my last blog (“House on Fire”) that I had reversed the route for the day to start out at House on Fire.
(where we're going)
Top to Bottom
This put us in the position of driving Moki Dugway from the top down. If you’re going to drive it this is the route you want because, as you descend, the scenery spreads out before you. I was glad I wasn’t driving so I could take it all in. It would be easy to get distracted and drive off the road-leading to a plunge of hundreds of feet in some places. We stopped numerous times on the way down because the views were stunning and we wanted to shoot.
(Looking into the Valley of the Gods)
Where The Hell Does the Road Go?
When we reached the bottom, looking back up, there was little indication that a road existed there. Other than the brief sighting of a vehicle on one of the precarious sections there was no indication where the road went. I can imagine driving up from the south and seeing the road head into the mesa, the thought must be; “where the hell does the road go”?
(Above the high desert)
If you ever find yourself in this area try and include Moki Dugway in your itinerary. It’s a once in a lifetime experience. The drive is an adventure in itself but the stunning views over the vast high desert and Valley of the Gods are the real reward.
Butch Lombardi-East Bay Images Photography
House On Fire
One thing I do is a lot of research before embarking on a trip. I always figure, if you’re going to be in an area, it helps to know what’s there and what you should see. It also allows you to find some hidden gems that otherwise might be missed. So it was with “House on Fire”. While sifting through a bunch of links for places of interest along our route I stumbled across a blog on a hiking website. It recounted a hike into Mule Canyon to the House on Fire pueblo ruins.
(On the road in the high desert)
Finding a Needle in a Haystack
I looked up the location and found we were going to be driving right by it. The blogger mentioned a pueblo ruin that could be accessed from Rt. 95 between Blanding and Natural Bridges National Park. Since we were heading to Natural Bridges I added House on Fire to our route. There is a restored pueblo ruin right on 95 but the blogger said, while it’s nice, it’s only a pit stop. House on Fire is what should be seen.
Rt. 95 in Utah is not the Rt. 95 of the east coast-it’s the exact opposite. Traveling 95 through the vast expanse of the high desert, there are no towns, stores, or houses. What you find is mile after mile of stunning scenery and nothing else. We always left in the morning with a full tank because there were sometimes over 100 miles between gas stations, and anything else for that matter.
The instructions for finding house on fire went something like this. On Rt. 95, just around the 102 mile marker, look for a dirt road on the north side of the road. Turn in here and travel about 1/3 mile. On the left will be a lock box with envelopes. Place $2.00 per person in the envelope and put it in the lock box. Place the tab from the envelope on your dash and park across the dirt road in a pull out. Hike down the dirt road and look for a dry wash on the left. You will see the trail. Follow the trail up the dry wash (Mule Canyon) for about 1.25 miles. Look for the pueblo ruins on the right.
We followed the directions and found the trailhead without much difficulty. It was actually cloudy and cool that morning, looking like rain was imminent. We entered the dry wash and started our hike. We kept a wary eye on the sky as storms in this area can drop heavy rain a few miles away. While not raining on you, they can send a cascade of water down many of these canyons impacting hikers with flash floods even though they are miles away from the rain. It was a fun hike and we welcomed the greenery along the bottom of the dry wash that was alive with birds, collared lizards, jack rabbits, and, most likely, snakes that we never saw.
(House One Fire Pueblo Ruin)
After hiking for, what seemed like more than 1.25 miles I was beginning to wonder if we were in the right canyon? Suddenly Cyndy said; “there it is”! Sure enough up the cliff to our right we could see the ruins. We almost walked right by them.
We scrambled up the rock face and were standing in the middle of a small collection of ruins. The fact that they have existed, undisturbed for around 1000 years, is pretty amazing. Add to that the fact that you can walk among them, look inside, and imagine what it must have been like to live here was really a unique experience.
House on Fire
“House on Fire” got its name from the way it photographs. In the right light, the ruin looks like flames are pouring out of the roof. The best light is early, before the sun gets around to the west. It won’t have the same effect in sunlight. This was supposed to be our last stop of the day but I reversed the itinerary to take advantage of the lighting and time of day. This would provide an added benefit later in the day although I didn’t realize it at the time.
( Ruins at House on Fire)
We probably spent over an hour here before we headed back to the car. There are more ruins further up the canyon but it would have required about a 10 mile round trip and we didn’t have the time (or the desire) to put in that much time on the trail. We had gotten what we had come for and it was time to move on.
(Through The High Desert)
Through The High Desert
One of the places that I had not planned on visiting but added to the trip was Monument Valley. After doing research I decided that Monument Valley was worth adding to our itinerary. We left Canyon De Chelly after breakfast and set out across the desert headed north toward Utah on Rt. 191. The land we were passing through is known as the high desert. As the miles rolled beneath us we were presented with sweeping vistas across miles and miles of desert for as far as the eye could see.
(Canyon De Chelly)
We saw occasional wild horses, a ranch here and there, and some beautiful scenery. The cell phone was useless-no signal, the radio was silent-not a station to be found as the auto scan cruised back and forth without finding a signal of any kind. We passed the time chatting and planning our next stop at Monument Valley. As Rt. 191 intersected Rt. 163 we passed over the San Juan River. We watched as a rafting trip passed under us headed down the San Juan toward the Colorado. We turned left and headed down Rt. 163 in the direction of Monument Valley.
(West Mitten, East Mitten, Merrick Butte)
As we got closer we could see the 3 formations-The Left Mitten, The Right Mitten, and Merricks Butte- that make up the iconic formation that Monument Valley is famous for. We stopped at the visitor’s center to get acclimated to the valley and what we wanted to see. The iconic shot for Monument Valley is at sunset or sunrise. We decided to stay for sunset. This gave us a good part of the afternoon and evening to do some exploring. One of the things that’s included in the entry fee is the ability to drive the 11 mile dirt road that takes you through Monument Valley. We set out to travel this route and see the valley close up. Monument Valley is a starkly beautiful place. Many of the areas are sacred to the native Navajo People.
Mountain Dew Massacre
As we reached the furthest point on the route I became victim to what I called; “The Mountain Dew Massacre”. My cousin, Dave was driving, my wife Cyndy was in the back seat and I was riding shotgun. I had the Canon 7D in my lap and had just opened a Mountain Dew. The SUV hit a deep rut. I grabbed for the camera and succeeded in dumping a large amount of Mountain Dew all over the 7D. I grabbed towels, wet them, and proceeded to wipe off and dry out the camera. One of the dials was a little stiff and the lens was (and still is) harder to remove but everything still worked. We got back to the visitors center around 5 and decided to eat. After eating we went out and set up to get ready for the sunset. I wanted to be set up early because this is a shot that everyone comes for and I wanted to be at the wall so no one could get in front of me. Last thing I wanted was to try and shoot around or over someone.
(East Mitten, Merrick Butte)
I remembered being a Hopi Pt. in the Grand Canyon 2 years ago. I had set up there a good hour before sunset. I got a spot right on the edge of the canyon. For a while I was alone. A few people stopped to shoot but then moved on. As the sun set the people began to pile up behind me. By the time the light was good I had people 10 deep behind and on the sides of me, trying to get a good shot. I held that spot until the good light was gone. I envisioned the same thing happening here at Monument Valley.
( West Mitten, East Mitten, Merrick Butte)
As we waited for sunset, one thing was beginning to be a concern. It had been mostly cloudy all day. Here we were in the land of abundant sunshine and it was cloudy. As I looked to the west I could see a narrow band of clearing in the cloud deck. If it held until the sun dropped to that level it would provide the kind of light I wanted. We watched and waited, taking a shot every now and then, when the light changed enough to be interesting. As the sun dropped into the slot in the cloud deck, the opening held. It held just long enough to provide a burst of light across the valley and over the monuments before it disappeared over the horizon.
(West Mitten, East Mitten, Merrick Butte)
Waiting Out The Light
The crowds of people never materialized behind me. Once in a while someone with a camera would walk by and ask; “what are you waiting for”? As if some big event were about to happen and they were going to miss it. When I answered; “the light”, they would say; “oh”, like they were thinking; “it’s already light what’s he talking about"? As darkness descended on the valley, we packed up our gear and pointed the SUV in the direction of Blanding UT. We had 90 minutes more on the road, it was 8:30 PM. A hot shower and a soft bed was looking mighty inviting.
A 2 Week Odyssey Through the High Desert of AZ & UT
After visiting the high desert for the first time in the spring of 2011, I felt I had to come back to this area again. It presented a rich landscape of color, contours, and formations, that are a challenge to photograph. My first exposure to the high desert only made me want to see more. It took me about a month to plan the route to take advantage of the many national and state parks and monuments in this area. In all we made it to 11, spending an afternoon to 3 days, depending size of the park or monument we were visiting. This is a first in a series of blogs with pictures from my travels.
The Painted Desert & Petrified Forest.
Like just about everyone, I had heard about the Painted Desert and The Petrified Forest. On our last trip we had skirted a portion of the Painted Desert. On this trip our route would take us near the Petrified Forrest National Park, which also includes a portion of the Painted Desert. It would be the first stop on our Odyssey. We drove from Phoenix to Overgaard, where we would spend our 1st night on the road. My cousin Dave and his wife, Sue, have a summer place here to escape the summer heat of the Phoenix area.
Breakfast on Rt. 66
The elevation change from Phoenix to Overgaard drops the temperature 20 degrees. We hit the road to the park early the next morning with plans to have breakfast at a little place in Overgaard. Only problem it was closed. We decided to drive for a while and stop in Holbrook before we got to the park. We found a little place In Holbrook and pulled up in front. It was then that I saw the sign-we were on historic Rt. 66-that fabled highway from Chicago to LA that exists only in pieces now.
(Petrified Log Balanced on a Ridge)
46 year Later
The last time I was on Rt. 66 was in 1966, on a bus from Chicago to Ft. Leonard Wood MO.-not exactly a pleasure trip. This meal would start a routine that would last for the rest of the trip-a hearty breakfast then hit the road. Lunch would be granola bars and trail mix. We would stop for supper around 5 in order to be in the parks etc. for the best light at the end of the day.
The Petrified Forrest is the only park we visited that is accessed off a major highway. Rt. 40 passes through the park and the main entrance is right off the highway. We entered here and drove the length of the park, stopping to shoot and explore along the way. The colors in the Painted Desert were enhanced by the spring greening of the desert. The Petrified Forrest is truly unique. 200 million year ago trees fell and were buried in silt. Cut off from oxygen the trees didn't rot, silica gradually replaced the wood and turned the trees to stone. Now erosion is gradually exposing them. I found it fascinating to actually touch a tree that was alive when dinosaurs still roamed this part of the world.
Stories Told in Stone
Among the colorful desert scenery and giant trees, there are stories left in stone by people of ancient cultures who inhabited this land long before the white man arrived. On rocks throughout the park, you can find their stories, carved into the soft stone that makes up this part of the desert. Because of the climate they have endured and remain a reminder of the people who once inhabited this land. This was the beginning of a 2500 mile odyssey through national, state parks and monuments, ancient ruins and incredible scenery. Next stop Canyon De Chelly.
Like many days, when I head out with the camera to shoot birds, I wind up with something entirely different. Yesterday we headed out to hike a few Audubon preserves-looking for any early migrant warblers. Migration has been a little behind schedule due to unfavorable weather conditions this spring. We decided to head to the Emily Rucker Preserve in Tiverton first. It's always a good place to start because you can get to several other good spots pretty quickly from there. The first thing we noticed heading out was how quiet it was. As we walked we saw almost no birds. We decided to do a loop along a salt marsh. On the back end of the loop I saw movement, coming up from the water where a stream enters the marsh. I put my hand up and stopped and Cyndy stopped behind me. The movement I saw materialized onto the path-It was a mink!
From all my past experiences with mink, I knew this chance would be fleeting. Every other encounter I've had with mink has lasted a few seconds-unless I didn't have a camera of course. When he first entered the path he looked away from me. That gave me a chance to get set before he saw me. I waited until he looked at me and pressed the shutter release. I fully expected him to bolt but he surprised me-he started trotting toward me in that wave-like gate of the weasel family.
Every time I clicked the shutter he'd stop. He'd look around, sniff the air-trying to figure out if what was ahead of him (us) was a threat. As he got closer and closer I started thinking he was going to run right by us. Looking at him through the telephoto it was beginning to look like he was going to be on my shoes shortly. Finally, he got to about 15 feet away. He stopped again, sniffed the air, and then decided that he'd better head back to the water. So he exited the path and scampered down the bank.
For any of you who aspire to shoot wildlife, I'd offer some advice from this shoot.
1: Always be ready because you never know what's going to come your way.
2: Know your camera well enough so that you can change settings on the fly.
As soon as he came into view I knew I needed to change settings. I had last photographed a bird in the marsh-good light. I now found myself in deep shade with a very dark subject. I hadn't put the flash on the camera so I needed to adjust on the fly. I boosted the ISO to 1600 and opened the lens 2 stops without putting the camera down. Excessive movement would have caused him to bolt. Also, if your in a situation where you're in constantly changing light, AWB is a good choice so you can let the camera adjust white balance for you.