Sunday, October 12, 2014

Los Pollos Hermanos

We are huge Breaking Bad fans so we had to stop by a few of the filming locations while we were in Albuquerque. We took a look at Walter and Skyler's house, the Pinkman mansion, Tuco's headquarters and Hank and Marie's house. Then we dropped in on Twister's fast food restaurant which was the setting for Los Pollos Hermanos, the chicken place owned by Gus Fring where so many scenes were shot.

I snapped a pic of this mural on the wall. We ordered a diet coke and sat in Walter White's booth for a few minutes. Kind of kitschy but we had fun.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta

This is quite a show! We attended the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta this morning and had a great time. We woke up at 4 am (!) and drove to the park so as to arrive before the traffic got too bad. The balloons go up very early to take advantage of calm winds in the morning.

At 5:45 am the first six balloons went up as part of the "Dawn Patrol." These balloons test the wind conditions and determine whether or not the rest of the field can fly. The weather was cloudy but the winds were calm. It's beautiful to see the balloons light up the sky before dawn.

Dawn Patrol at the Balloon Fiesta

Check out that Wicked gas jet!
 The dawn patrol reported back... and the yellow flag was lowered and a green flag raised in its place. This was the go signal, and the first of more than 500 balloons started to ignite their jets! 

The sky was soon filled with balloons. They let you right on the launch field and you can wander amongst all of the balloons as they inflate. It's pretty cool to get that close up. 

It got to the point where you didn't know where to look - we were surrounded by balloons! 

Then at about 7:30 things really got interesting when the special shapes started launching. Balloons of every imaginable shape and size were being inflated. It made for some really cool effects. 

Darth Vader and Yoda

Love that cow balloon!

Butterflies and Sharks and Bees and Gators

It was a great experience. By about 8 am most of the 500+ balloons were in the air. We lingered a bit and then departed while the rest of the crowd headed for the vendor booths. We drove to Frontier restaurant (a famous diner in Albuquerque) for a fantastic breakfast burrito. 

As we drove home we saw dozens of balloons still in the air, and a few were trying to land in parking lots and other open spaces (they typically fly for about 1-2 hours). Apparently a few hard landings occur each year and we saw on TV later that one balloon almost got stuck in a tree. 

We plan to go again tomorrow for the Night Glow Show. I'll post a few more pictures then. This is definitely a bucket-list event - worth attending. It happens every October but plan well in advance if you decide to go because the hotels and RV parks book up fast. 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef NP is probably the most under appreciated amongst the five parks in Utah. Most people just take a quick drive through and miss some of most interesting sights. We were able to stay 3 days and see much of the park.

Cathedral Valley in Capitol Reef NP
The picture above and the few that follow are from a seldom-visited section of the park called Cathedral Valley. You need a high clearance vehicle to navigate the 58-mile drive through the valley, including crossing the 3 foot high Fremont river. The views are spectacular and this is considered one of the best areas of the park.

Denise with our rented Jeep at the Temple of the Moon

Temples of the Sun and Moon in Cathedral Valley
Layers of brilliant color 

There is also a paved scenic drive in the main park with several hiking opportunities. The rock patterns are very interesting and different from what you see in the other Utah parks.

View from Panoramic Poiunt

Denise on a rock cliff as we hiked

On another day we drove the Burr trail which allows you to see the Waterpocket fold, the main geological feature in the park. This is a warp in the earth's cruse that formed 65 million years ago - the largest of it's kind in North America. It's kind of hard to capture on film but here is an attempt.

The Waterpocket fold - a warp in the earth's crust
At one point on the Burr trail you drive down the wall of the Fold via a set of switchbacks. This was pretty exciting. The following is not my picture (it was "borrowed" from an National Park service site) but it shows how the road manages to get down the Fold. 

Burr trail switchbacks which we descended

On the Burr trail we came upon a small slot canyon. It only went for about 1/4 mile and then abruptly ended in a vertical wall.

A small slot canyon off the Burr Trail

End of the Slot
This ended our tour of the Capitol Reef NP area. The area was quite a surprise - I didn't expect that the scenery would be so amazing. It's worth more than a simple drive through if you have the time.

Our motorhome on Utah State Route 95

Sunday, October 5, 2014

House on Fire

There is a famous ancient pueblo ruin on the Cedar Mesa called House on Fire. You can see how it got it's name:

House on Fire

This is an amazing sight if you catch it in the right light. It's not actually a house but rather a place where the people stored their grain over 800 years ago. 

So how does this place get that blazing appearance? Most importantly, you have to get here at the right time - late morning in the summer or about noon in the fall. We got there at 11:15 am on October 5 and waited a bit before the light was right. You have to catch it when ruin is in shadow, with the sunlight hitting the red rock canyon and reflecting up onto the roof. If you wait too long the sun will directly illuminate the ruin and and wash out the scene.

Here's a shot with Denise in her blazing purple shirt contrasting with the fire: 

Here's a view from the side. You can see the entire ruin but the blazing effect is not quite as spectacular. 

If you want to go, it's pretty easy to find if you know where to look. It's in a place called Mule Canyon. Starting in Blanding Utah, travel west on Utah 95 for about 20 miles and turn right just past mile marker 102. Don't be fooled by a sign for "Mule Canyon Ruins" which is a a reconstructed site for "side of the road" sightseers. If you turn right on the correct road you will soon see a BLM sign where you stop and pay a small fee. Travel down the road about 0.3 miles, park at the side of the road at the bottom of hill and cross the road to find the marked trailhead (coordinates N37.53739, W109.73203). The hike is an easy 1 mile walk along well-marked trail beside a dry wash. After about 30-40 minutes look to the right, above the wash, and you can see the site. It's marked with some cairns leading up to the rock ledge on the right.

Time your visit right and you can easily add this photograph to your portfolio. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Monument Valley - A Photographer's Paradise

You've seen this place in countless movies and TV commercials... and for good reason. In Monument Valley you are immersed in spectacular vistas, impossible monoliths and mystical sensations. The photographer is tempted at every turn. 

The best time to take photographs is late afternoon and we were lucky to have a sky with interesting clouds. Here are a few examples of the fascinating terrain. It's not hard to get a great picture here. 

Monument Valley is on Navajo land and all of the tourism here is run by the Native Americans. You can take a guided tour in a large open truck (yuck) or pay a fee and drive the 17-mile dirt road in your own car. We opted for the latter to get more peace and solitude. 

This is our fourth visit to Monument Valley and we noticed a big growth in commercialism. There is a new hotel ("The View") and dozens of tour guides. Based on the number of foreign tourists, it seems that the Navajo have figured out how to market to Europe and Asia. Quite a contrast to the old days when you would pay the Navajo a few dollars and they would let you on their land. 

There is one hike available, a 3.8 mile loop around West Mitten. Interestingly we saw only a handful of people on this hike as most of the tourists seem to pile into the motorized guided tours. We really enjoyed the solitude and beautiful views and would heartily recommend taking this hike (bring lots of water - it's hot). 

Denise contemplates West Mitten from the Wild Cat trail
Denise on the trail with East Mitten and Merrick Butte
West Mitten looks much different as you circle it - the views keep changing. Here is a picture from the side.

I liked the clouds in this one - almost like a sail. 
Backlit with a halo around the thumb 

The hike took a bit less than 2 hours. We tried to get into "The View" hotel for dinner but they were booked with tourists so we had dinner at Gouldings Lodge. This was the hotel we had stayed in during our previous 3 visits. It hadn't changed... you don't visit Monument Valley for the food (enough said).

In the evening as the light was running out I took one more photograph. You've seen this one before - it's the "classic photo" taken from the patio of The View hotel and visitor center. 

Monument Valley is located on the Arizona/Utah border in the four corners region. It's a bit out of the way (Cortez CO and Farmington NM are the nearest cities) but it's worth the effort to get here.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Mesa Verde National Park

We really enjoy visiting Native American sites in the southwest and have been to many different ruins, but Mesa Verde is the most spectacular of them all. The ruins are very well-preserved and the National Park service does a good job of controlling the crowds to minimize damage and allow for good views.

The site is located at the top of a large table-top mountain (mesa). The Ancestral Pueblo people noticed that the soil at the top was much more conducive to farming and decided to move there around the year 700.  

The top of the mesa is green (verde) 
The Ancestral Pueblo people were good farmers and engineers, and around 1190 they decided to move off the top of the mesa and build structures within caves under rock overhangs. Nobody knows for sure why they did this, but these new dwellings were highly defensible and it might be that the original people wanted to defend their position from incoming visitors. This location also allowed them to build elaborate irrigation systems which helped combat the changing dryer climate. 

Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde
The largest of these dwellings is called Cliff Palace, an apartment complex where about 54 privileged families lived. This is an elaborate structure with kivas and multi-story structures. You must take a ranger-guided tour to visit this site, and we took the last tour (5 pm) which provided good light and fewer people. 

Notice the kivas (round subterranean structures) used for religious and family gatherings

Cliff Palace has a prime location facing south (warmer in winter) and in a very defensible position. Here is a picture which shows how the tours operate. You can get up close and the ranger provides interesting commentary.

Tour at Cliff Palace

Well-engineered 3-story building
The people who lived here used to be referred to as "Anasazi". This term is not preferred by the current Pueblo people because it is actually a derogatory Navajo term which means "Ancient Enemy". We now refer to these people as "Ancestral Puebloans".  It took a lot of effort to change all the signs and there are still many places in the southwest where you will see the "Anasazi" term.

We also visited Spruce house, another outstanding example of a cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde. Here one of the kivas has been reconstructed with a roof as it would have originally looked. 

Spruce House where you can visit a reconstructed kiva
Unfortunately, some of the cliff dwellings including the right side of Cliff Palace are deteriorating due to rain water undermining the foundation. The ranger estimated that within 5 years there will need to be extensive reconstruction. This will have to be supervised by current Pueblo people because there are many cemeteries around and underneath the structure. I would recommend visiting Mesa Verde soon as they may have to close parts of the park to undertake this large project.

I will leave you with the famous mystery of the Ancestral Pueblo people. In the late 1200's they left these elaborate structures and moved elsewhere. This happened simultaneously in many locations around the southwest. Nobody knows for sure why the people left, but it's likely due to drought conditions and increased population. 

Mesa Verde National Park is amazing - go there. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Durango to Silverton Railroad

Silverton was a tiny mountain town until 1882 when the narrow-gauge railroad tracks from Durango were completed. It grew to a decent-sized mining town based on silver, and they were taking it out "by the ton." Today the mining has mostly been exhausted and Silverton is a small tourist town with a beautiful steam-powered train ride leading to it.

The train ride has many beautiful views, and you have plenty of time to take it all in because it goes very slowly. It's a 3.5 hour ride to Durango! We took the bus up the mountain (1.5 hour) and the train back - which is what I would advise to anyone unless you really want to be on a train for 7 hours.

Our steam-powered locomotive in Silverton

I would not want to be the guy shoveling coal
We splurged and took one of the first-class cars near the back of the train. The seats were very comfortable and the view through the roof glass was great.  

The train goes along the Animas river much of the way making for superb views. I was able to get a few good pictures as the train went around curves, and a couple of times the tracks traversed a narrow ledge above the river bank.

Along the Animas River

On the cliff overlooking the river 

It was a pretty amazing feat of engineering to build this in 1882, but the silver boom was a strong incentive. Today we tourists get to take advantage of their hard work!