Mesa Verde National Park

Story and Photography by Jerry Ginsberg

 

Spectacular Cliff Palace, largest of all ancient dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park, CO. Cliff Palace was home to an advanced civilization until about the 13th century. Even now, no one is certain as to why they left. © Jerry Ginsberg

 

Nestled in the southwestern corner of Colorado sits the first and (almost) the only national park established to protect the works of man, rather than Nature, the fascinating Mesa Verde.

Hidden for centuries and unknown to Europeans until a couple of cowboys looking for strays stumbled upon it in 1888, this treasure trove of Native American history includes several thousand structures, both simple and complex, that were built here spanning a period that is estimated to have lasted from perhaps 600 to about 1300 C.E.

The Anasazi, more recently dubbed Ancestral Puebloans, the people who lived here, managed to create a society that was quite complex and advanced for its time.

The majority of the structures and their remains are on the mesa tops, but the most fascinating and certainly photogenic are the 500-600 cliff dwellings carved into the bare rock in many natural alcoves just below the surface. Even after a good deal of scholarly investigation, no one today can be certain why these people left or where they went.

Mesa Verde is located right along Rt. 160 between Cortez and the wonderfully preserved town of Durango, CO. Just inside the park entrance is the new visitor center where you will need to get your tour tickets for several of the best cliff dwellings. The sites you will want to visit are in two distinct areas: Chapin Mesa and the less visited Wetherill Mesa. The road to the latter is open only from May thru September.

 

Spruce Tree House is perhaps the most accessible of all the ancient dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park, CO. Visit in the afternoon for the best light. Try descending the ladder in the kiva. © Jerry Ginsberg

 

For a good introduction, start with easily accessed Spruce Tree Ruin, located just below the Chapin Mesa Museum. Walk the short self-guiding trail, talk to a ranger, descend the ladder into the subterranean kiva.

On the Chapin Mesa tabletop, drive the Cliff Palace Loop and the rim drive for long distance views of many cliff dwellings built just below the mesa top. In this area, the major “do not miss” sites include Cliff Palace and Balcony House tours (advance tickets required) and external views of these two as well as Square Tower House and Sun Point.

 

Historic Balcony House, a dwelling of the ancient and long vanished Anasazi people, is well-preserved and somewhat stabilized in Mesa Verde NP, CO.  It is accessible only via open-rung ladder. © Jerry Ginsberg

 

Balcony House and Sun Point are best at first light, while Cliff Palace will look its best in late light and Square Tower House Overlook around sunset. Limited access into Square Tower House may be offered as well. Inquire at the visitor center.  If time permits, also walk the Petroglyph Point trail.

A special word about famed Cliff Palace. This was the very first and certainly the grandest structure sighted and explored by the Wetherill brothers back in 1888. It remains so and is by far the pre-eminent feature of Mesa Verde National Park. It is well worth setting aside a little extra time to explore Cliff Palace.

If you visit Mesa Verde during the busy summer season, drive the short road out to Wetherill Mesa. This special area has a somewhat different feel to it and offers several photo opportunities. Take the self-guided trail through Step House and the ranger-guided tour through Long House (advance ticket required).  The tram tour of Wetherill Mesa is not for serious photography, but can be fun.
A somewhat rough trail to the Nordenskiold Site may be open to visitors. Ask at the visitor center. While at Mesa Verde, just a short drive away you will find Hovenweep National Monument with its many varied Puebloan towers. A very worthwhile stop.

While Durango has a small commuter airport, the closest major airport is Denver.  Durango is a fun
and very charming town with ample lodging. Its nineteenth century train station is the departure point for the great Durango-Silverton train ride through the Animas River Gorge. Take this train ride if you can spare the time. Cortez, CO is a little closer to both Mesa Verde and Hovenweep and offers a wider choice of motels, but without the Old West ambiance.

Wherever you roam in this special area of the great Southwest, almost all roads are well paved and smooth, so renting a standard passenger car will be just fine.

Jerry Ginsberg is a freelance photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s National Parks with medium format cameras and has been awarded Artist Residencies in several national parks. Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America.

More of Jerry’s images are on display at www.JerryGinsberg.com 
Or email him at jerry@jerryginsberg.com 

 

Channel Islands National Park – America’s Galapagos

Story and Photography by Jerry Ginsberg

 

Camping on Anacapa will allow you to capture a great sunrise from spectacular Inspiration Point at the island’s east end.  © Jerry Ginsberg

                               
We are accustomed to driving to our national parks. This is definitely not the case with Channel Islands National Park. This little archipelago of a half-dozen rocks jutting out of the Pacific Ocean a few miles off the coast of central California is reachable only by a short boat ride. This rather contradictory blend of remoteness and accessibility offers some unique opportunities for us photographers.

The Channel Islands are called America’s Galapagos – and for good reason. A wide variety of birds and pinnipeds are in plentiful supply. Western gulls find safety here. Continue reading

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Story and photography by Jerry Ginsberg

As I have mentioned a time or two, Grand Staircase-Escalante in central Utah is my favorite national monument. This is the case primarily for one reason; variety. This sprawling tract covers close to two million acres, almost as big as immense Yellowstone National Park.  The monument was established in 1996 with the former Escalante Wilderness as its core, primarily as a means of protecting this chunk of central Utah from the prospective strip mining of its extensive coal deposits. At the same time, whether by accident or design, it has the simultaneous effect of protecting some of the most spectacular rock formations in all of the Southwest. Lucky us!

There are several wonderful areas within the boundaries of “The Escalante” so it can be a challenge to decide where to begin. Whether or not you have researched the monument online in advance of any trip here, it’s a good idea to make an initial stop at one of the BLM / multi-agency ranger stations serving the Escalante. They are located in the towns of Kanab and Escalante, Utah. Stopping to speak with a ranger can help to put some of the photo opportunities here in some degree of logical order.

In brief and in no particular order, the prime ‘Do Not Miss’ areas here are:

Curvy red sandstone in Devil’s Garden, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Utah. © Jerry Ginsberg

Devil’s Garden A tightly packed and surreal playground filed with outrageously eroded hoodoos and arches. My wife, at a willowy 5’9″ is accustomed to her high vantage point. Even in light of that, she is quite struck to be “feeling like Alice in Wonderland” among these remarkable geologic forms. Continue reading

NATIONAL PARKS: Yosemite National Park

Story and photography by Jerry Ginsberg

Without a doubt, one of the crowning jewels of both the national park system and the entire world is Yosemite. Over the eons, millions (billions?) of tons of metamorphic granite have been shaped and sculpted, largely by glaciers, into countless harmonious and visually riveting forms.

After decades of being photographed by the renowned Ansel Adams and the many who came after him, creating original images here is a real challenge — but it is not impossible. There is an absolutely endless variety of compositions in Yosemite even though so many natural features are pretty much a monochromatic gray. John Muir called the Sierra Nevada — home to Yosemite — “the range of light.”

Then it seemed to me that the Sierra should be called, not the Nevada or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light. And after ten years of wandering and wondering in the heart of it, rejoicing in its glorious floods of light, the white beams of the morning streaming through the passes, the noonday radiance on the crystal rocks, the flush of the alpenglow, and the irised spray of countless waterfalls, it still seems above all others the Range of Light.” John Muir from The Yosemite (1912)

To enjoy a productive photo trip to Yosemite, we should first get organized by breaking the park into four distinct regions. These include Yosemite Valley, the High Country, the Glacier Point Road and the Mariposa Grove of giant Sequoia trees. There are many other subjects in-between, but these are the primary areas of this thousand square mile wonder. Continue reading

NATIONAL PARKS: Grand Teton National Park

Story and photography by Jerry Ginsberg

Grand Tetons © Jerry Ginsberg

Jackson Hole, with its sharply serrated Teton Range, is undoubtedly one of the most dramatic and striking scenes in all of North America. It is a great choice for a photo trip in at least three seasons.

Just south of iconic Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park is too often overshadowed by its more famous neighbor. Rather than making an outing in the Tetons merely an extension of a trip to Yellowstone, we photographers should think of both as being equally worthy of our time. Continue reading

NATIONAL PARKS: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

Story and photography by Jerry Ginsberg

Towering Wrangell Mountains in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska.

The Wrangell and St. Elias mountain ranges contain some of the largest volcanoes in North America. © Jerry Ginsberg

Ever wonder which of our 59 national parks is really the biggest? No, it’s not mighty Yellowstone or even sprawling Death Valley. Measuring a vast 13,200,000 acres, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, tucked into the southeast corner of Alaska, is far and away the biggest national park around, equal to six Yellowstones! It is larger than Massachusetts and New Hampshire combined, and includes two entire mountain ranges – the Wrangells and the St. Elias. Together with contiguous Kluane National Park across the border in Canada, the combined cross-border tract totals more than a whopping 25,000,000 acres and is the biggest wilderness area in the world.

While size does indeed matter, there is more to this sprawling wilderness than volume. Stunning peaks such as Sanford, Drum, Blackburn, Wrangell, St. Elias and others fill this rugged park. Continue reading

NATIONAL PARKS: Yellowstone

Story and photography by Jerry Ginsberg

Aerial view of Grand Prismatic Hot Spring in Yellowstone National Park, WY.

Grand Prismatic Spring © Jerry Ginsberg

Yellowstone is not only America’s first national park, but the very first such preserve in all the world. Brought into existence with the 1872 signature of President Ulysses S. Grant, Yellowstone set the example for the worldwide park and preservation movement. It is the quintessential essence of our park system. Even after almost a century and a half, Yellowstone remains one of the crown jewels of the world.

We discussed a winter trip to Yellowstone in the October 2015 issue of eNews. In this issue, we’ll explore this vast park in warmer weather. Continue reading

NATIONAL PARKS: How do national monuments differ?

Story and photography by Jerry Ginsberg

President Theodore Roosevelt was the original maverick. When he saw a problem, he found a solution, even if he had to bend the rules a bit to create one.

As far back as 1906, this activist president was faced with a need to protect the immense volcanic plug called Devil’s Tower in eastern Wyoming. Characteristically forging his own path, he applied the new Antiquities Act in an unorthodox fashion to create America’s very first national monument. Before he was done, Roosevelt signed 18 national monuments into existence.

Congress had intended the Antiquities Act to protect “objects of historic and scientific interest.” In essence, it was meant to prohibit pot hunters from stripping ancient Native American sites of their treasures. Still, after over a century of precedent, Roosevelt’s creative application of the act has now become settled law, and its continued use is unlikely to be altered going forward.

Certainly not all such monuments come into being in this dramatic fashion. Many wind their way through a bureaucratic process that can take years.

Once a monument is established, it becomes a unit of the National Park Service. Some monuments are administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). No matter how they come into being or who administers them, national monuments do not have national park status, facilities or the number of visitors that frequent national parks.

Of the approximately 130 national monuments presently in existence, 30 have been established in this young century alone. Continue reading

NATIONAL PARKS: White Sands National Monument

Story and photography by Jerry Ginsberg

Glowing gypsum dunes in White Sands National Monument, New Mexico.

White Sands © Jerry Ginsberg

Although the big state of New Mexico has just one lone national park within its borders (Carlsbad Caverns — see NANPA eNews December, 2016), there is a national monument that offers another opportunity for some terrific landscape images.

At just a few miles from the comfortable town of Alamogordo, New Mexico, the White Sands National Monument is an easy drive of only about three hours from Carlsbad Caverns National Park. If flying in, you might check for flights to both Albuquerque and El Paso, Texas.

White Sands is located in the Tularosa Basin, in the middle of the famous White Sands Missile Range. Because of its location, the dune field is closed to the public on days when a test launch is scheduled. Check in advance to avoid disappointment. Even then, launch schedules can change, and they take priority over tourism (and even us photographers).

Few National Park Service units have names that are so very descriptive as White Sands National Monument. The sand making up these terrific dunes is actually a granulated form of the mineral gypsum, and it glistens sparkling white, especially in the bright New Mexico sunlight.

Even though you’ll be driving the unpaved gypsum tracks within the dunes, they are hard-packed and suitable for any standard passenger car.

Hiking through these semi-firm dunes is only slightly less strenuous than doing so on the more typical loose sand found elsewhere. As you traverse a small part of this enormous 275-square-mile dune field, the rolling shapes seem to come at you in endless waves. Continue reading

NATIONAL PARKS: Bryce Canyon National Park

Story and photography by Jerry Ginsberg

Early morning light illuminates the fantastic hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

Sunrise Point © Jerry Ginsberg

Among our 59 national parks, perhaps the one that offers the greatest degree of pure fun is Bryce Canyon in southwestern Utah. Just a 56-square-mile morsel of the vast southwestern red rock country, Bryce Canyon offers deeply eroded red, orange, yellow and ochre amphitheaters, curving natural bridges, ancient bristlecone pines and an iconic Douglas fir so tall that looking at the top might well tax your neck muscles. Continue reading