Monument Valley and Mesa Verde were supposed to be stops along the way to Fall colors in SW Colorado. These Native American landscapes turned out to be the focus of our trip.

The Mojave desert from our house to Las Vegas is about four and a half hours of tedious desert landscapes enlivened by trying to avoid giant trucks and speeding gamblers. My wife relieved me of the driving from Las Vegas to Mesquite so I could take a break and also photograph a sign I had seen on a prior trip.

Leaving Las Vegas

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The sign is adjacent to the Highway 15 on the way out of town. I guess what happens in Las Vegas doesn’t always stay in Las Vegas.

We stopped for a late dinner in Mesquite at Cafe Rio – a fast casual Mexican restaurant and I resumed driving. It was fully dark as we drove though the Virgin River gorge, St George, Hurricane and on to Kanab. We arrived around 11:00 PM and promptly passed out at the Comfort Suites.

The next morning, we stopped on the way out of town so I could get a shot of a truck advertising the local market.

Truck in Kanab

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After stopping for lunch in Page, AZ at the Dara Thai Express, we pushed on to Monument Valley, arriving in the late afternoon.

There are a number of ways to stay in Monument Valley. We opted for the cheapest, staying in the campground called Mitten View. The campground is actually a parking lot with a sandy hill on the East side where you can pitch a tent, and a series of parking spots for RV’s on the West side. There are no hookups for the RV’s but there is a bathroom with showers for the campers.

It is called Mitten View because the parking lot and tent sites have a magnificent view of a pair of mesa’s with hoodoos on the side that look like a pair of mittens. We stayed there before, a few years ago and loved that view. You can also stay in The View lodge and get the same view of the Mittens but it is hard to get a reservation and also very expensive for what you get.

Mitten View campground

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The View Lodge

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During the afternoon there were beautiful clouds rolling past so I made a timelapse of the Mittens.

As dusk approached, the light on the Mittens grew more saturated and many people from the lodge and campground began pulling out their cameras to capture the view to the East. My wife pointed in the opposite direction to where the sun was sinking behind clouds to the West and said we should go there. She was right, though I didn’t see how I could get a foreground that didn’t include a lot of parked vehicles and other distractions.

We hurried across a parking lot, a field and then onto a dirt road for hotel employee lodging until we got to a clear spot. I should note here that just two days earlier, I had purchased the brand new Sony A7rIV, a 60 megapixel, full frame, high speed, 15 stops of dynamic range, mirrorless camera. I expected it would be good but until that moment, I didn’t know how good. I found a good foreground, dialed the aperature down to f16 to increase depth of field and possibly get a starburst from the sun. The resulting image blew my mind. There I was, shooting handheld, straight at the sun and still not clipping the blacks on the left side of my histogram. Whoa!

Sunset with rays West of The Mittens

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After dinner that night, I put my camera on a tripod and caught the Milky Way with more foreground detail that I thought possible. It was so dark, I couldn't see my hands or the camera in front of me. That camera captures so much light, it is amazing. The lights on the horizon must be houses.

Night sky over The Mttens

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I had previously arranged with Phillips Photography Tours to go out before dawn the following morning so I could get some shots before Monument Valley is open to the public. Carlos Phillips is a Navajo and therefor can enter the Monument Valley tribal area whenever he wishes. Non-Navajos can only drive into the valley from about 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM. This is because Navajo families live there. If you want to get in early or late, you hire a Navajo guide. The other advantage of course is that the guides know the area, all the interesting features and what time to get to any particular spot for the best light.

At 4:30 the next morning, I met Carlos and three others in the lobby of The View hotel. Carlos then drove us into the park for about 45 minutes, over rough tracks in the desert, through gullies and deep sand to an area near the Totem Pole. The drive alone was worth the price of the tour.

The Totem Pole is a particularly slender, singular hoodoo at the end of an eroded fin of Jurassic sandstone. It made a striking subject with the sunrise behind. Again, I was blown away with the foreground detail in my image. I couldn’t see the sand and bushes with my naked eyes but the camera could see them as if it were already daylight.

Pre-dawn Totem Pole

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Totem Pole with foreground tree

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Later, we positioned ourselves to get a sunburst over the rocks.

Sunburst by the Totem Pole

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We made a number of stops along the valley and got some interesting shots but the best part of the morning were the stories Carlos told of growing up in that area.

He showed us a crack in the cliff face where children were stored by their parents when they went hunting. He pointed out hand-holds up a cliff face and said that there was a spring on top of that mesa where wild onions grew all summer. He said his ancestors would retreat to the top of that mesa if attacked. He also showed us natural enclosure in the rock where he said as a young man, he and his friends would drive wild horses by shouting and waving their arms. He said they would then take turns  jumping down on a horse as it escaped, grabbing it by the mane and holding on as the horse became exhausted from running in the sand.

He showed us a number of interesting spots to get a photo along the way.

Keyhole view

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As we were driving back to the main dirt road, we passed a couple of hogans and Carlos casually mentioned which hogan was for men and which was for women. I asked if we could stop and photograph the hogans. He said, “Sure. If you want to go inside, just pay $2.00”.

It turns out that Carlos’ sister was in the female hogan and that the hogan had belonged to Carlos grandmother, Susi Yazi. When one of our campanions remarked that she had eaten a dish named Susi Yazi at the restaurant in The View, Carlos confirmed that indeed, the dish was named after his grandmother. Turns out that Susi was well known in the Navajo nation for being abducted by whites when she was a child, escaping and living on her own for two years as she made her way back to her homeland.

I should note that while I keep referring to them as Navajo, that named was given to them by their enemies, the Apache. They call themselves Dineh, meaning “the people”.

Female hogans are rounded

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Male hogans are pointed

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Inside the Woman's Hogan with Carlos sister

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Carlos had mentioned that the Milky Way would be visible behind the Totem Pole that night, so I signed up to go out with his company again (you can always sleep when you’re dead, right?).

I didn’t use the camera again until evening as it was windy and dusty. I did get a few shots around dusk when the wind died down.

Valley beyond North Mitten

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That evening in the hotel lobby, my wife and another photographer met a relative of Carlos who took us into the park. Again we drove in the dark through gullies and deep sand until we finally stopped and got out. We could see the stars but nothing else, so we used headlamps to follow our guide into the brush.

Using my headlamp, I set up my tripod, attached my camera, removed the lens cap and set up the shot. Again, I was blown away by the bushes and sand I saw in the foreground. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face and the camera could see the landscape! The forground was blurry and noisy but that fact that it was anything but black amazed me. 

Totem Pole and Milky Way vertical

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I asked if we could do light painting on the Totem Pole but our guide said “No. There is someone living nearby and they wouldn’t like it.” I decided to switch lenses to get a wider perspective. I was nervous about doing so because there was still a little wind and I didn’t want to get sand on my sensor. I did it anyway. Using a Metabones Adapter, I attached an Irix 15 mm, f2.4. It is not as “fast” as the Sony lens but it’s remarkably free of coma and barrel distortion, even at f3.2 (all lenses should be stopped down a little for sharpness).

Milky Way by the Totem Pole at 15mm

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During the early morning tour, we stopped at another place that Carlos said had served as a sheep corral for his grandmother. At that time, Carlos had said that the Milky Way would be inside the dome overhead. That was where we went after shooting the Totem Pole.

As it turned out, that was the only other place we went despite being out for about three hours. The drive times over sand and rough terrain limits how far you can go.

In all my night images, I separate the foreground from the sky in the developing process. While I use the Luminence slider in Photoshop to reduce noise for both foreground and sky, I made the color temperature of the sky bluer than the way it came out of the camera. A global temperature change to the whole image would lose too much of the warm tones in the rock.

As much care must be made in developing night sky shots as is required to capture them in the first place. I typically spend at least a half hour on the developing process.

Milky Way at Sheep Corral Arch

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We slept in the next morning to around 9:00 AM. After a late breakfast and a cold shower (apparently, our hosts turn off the water heater after the morning rush), we headed back to Kayenta and highway 160. Heading East through the desert, we paused briefly at Four Corners National Monument before stopping for lunch at The Farm Bistro in Cortez. We had an excellent lunch there and decided to stop again if we passed through Cortez during mealtime. Continuing on through Durango, Pagosa Springs and an 11,000 foot pass, we finally arrived at our motel outside the little mining town of Creede, Colorado.

Creede was our easternmost destination and was selected because it is much like the ghost town of Bodie but still occupied. It would also be a prime location for Fall colors in the San Juan mountains. I had chosen that particular weekend because for the last 30 years, that weekend was the date of a classic car show at the peak of Fall color.

Fall colors in an old mining town with a classic car show sounded good but as we were approaching Creede over the high pass, I noticed a distinct lack of Fall color. The aspens were still green, even at higher elevations. Not good. When we arrived that evening, I asked one of the owners of the hotel what happened to the Fall colors. He said, “We usually get snow starting in November. Last year we didn’t get any. In fact, we didn’t get any until March and then it came down deeper than anyone can recall. As a result, Spring came late and it looks like there won’t be Fall colors for at least another week”. He went on to say that, This has never happened before”.

That was a disappointment, expecially after driving so far. I had been concerned about timing the color but relied on the annual Fall color car show for timing and also the fact that there is a lot of vertical terrain in Southern Colorado. Usually, if the colors aren’t popping where you are, you can go up or down a few thousand feet in elevation. That wasn’t helping here as even the highest elevations had no color. I had also searched the internet for Fall color reports in the area but didn’t find any. Oh, well. We had planned on spending two nights in Creede and another couple of nights in Ouray, CO., but we decided to just see the car show the next day and then change our sebsequent hotel reservations. On the upside, the place we stayed (Blue Creek Lodge) was charming and the owners were very nice. The motel itself looked like it was built in the late 1800’s but the cabins were newer and the “blue creek” or Rio Grande was just across the street. A dog, at least one cat and several chickens roamed freely. We felt relaxed there and decided to come back another year.

Blue Creek Lodge

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Blue Creek Lodge parlor

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Cat vs chickens in the yard

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The Blue Creek Lodge is not actually in Creede, but a few miles down the road. Creede is a charming little town and the car show was a lot of fun. There was a DJ playing music. Barbecue and other food was for sale and there was a fun, small-town atmosphere. People were friendly and relaxed. We had a good time, in part because the music played on loudspeakers was from the sixties and seventies and many of the vintage cars brought back old memories as well. Exhibitors went to a lot of effort to dress up their car with funny decorations, such as one car pictured below with a drive-in dinner tray attached to the window and fuzzy dice hanging from the rear-view mirror.

Classic cars by Creede restaurant

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Yellow hot rod by the bank

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Red cruiser by the park

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The main drag - with a view to the end of town

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The Creede Repertory theater

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Drive in tray and fuzzy dice

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Funny sign on the wall

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There were some classier cars as well and a couple of monster trucks.

Silver Daimler Benz

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Shelby Cobra

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Monster trucks

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After an enjoyable morning at the car show, we headed up the street towards the old mines and stopped in the Creede Mining Museum. Admission was a donation of $2 apiece.  There were a number of rooms, lots of explanatory text and myriad artifacts. Touring that museum was a bit like touring a cleaned up, well lit and curated version of Bodie ghost town. I don't know if it was because we were there on the day of the car show or if it is normally quiet but we had the place to ourselves.

After leaving the museum, we drove on up the road to see the ruins of one the mines. To really see mining history, we will have to come back in the summer and take a 4-wheel jeep tour. 

Creede Mining Museum

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Creede Mining Museum bar

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Cash register in museum

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In the early afternoon, we headed back down the highway to Cortez, Colorado. Besides cancelling a second night in Creede, we had to cancel two nights in Ouray, Colorado (no Fall colors). We had one night already booked after that in Mesa Verde. That meant we needed rooms for the three nights prior to our reservation in Mesa Verde, including one for that night .Fortunately, we were able to get a room that first night in the Best Western Plus in Cortez.

When I had originally booked just the one night in Mesa Verde, I hadn’t realized how far off the highway or how big Mesa Verde actually is. It is an hour’s drive from the highway to the only hotel in the park (Far View Lodge). It’s another 45 minutes beyond that to the cliff dwellings that make Mesa Verde famous. There is no way to see the park with a one night stay. Our bad luck with the Fall colors turned into a really good visit to Mesa Verde.

By the way, there is no phone service in Mesa Verde. Not only is there no cell service (which was typical for most of our trip, even on the main highways), there was no landline service. In order to change a hotel reservation, we had to drive over an hour from our hotel in Mesa Verde to get cell service in Cortez.

Spruce Tree House at Mesa Verde

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If you don’t already know, Mesa Verde is rich archeological site of the Ancient Puebloans, the ancestors of many tribes in the Southwest, including Hopi, Zuni, Laguna, Acoma and others. The name Mesa Verde is from the Spanish for “table” and “green”. It is a bit of a misnomer though because unlike a true mesa, Mesa Verde isn’t flat. It is higher in the North and lower in the South, making it a “Cuesta” or slope in Spanish. Why does this matter? Mesa Verde supported a very large population in part because of its South facing grade. The South facing slope meant that the ancestral puebloans got 20 more days of sunshine to grow their crops and they also had more warmth in Spring and Fall because the cold air flowed off the highlands. Summers were a little cooler too and the high country had more rain. These favorable conditions allowed the area to support a larger population a thousand years ago than the area (including Cortez) supports today.

The native people were ingenious in how they hunted, farmed, built structures and irrigation systems on that land. They were successful from around 550 to 1270 AD. Originally, they were hunter gatherers who as they settled into farming, made pit houses and woven baskets. By AD 750, they began building houses above ground using poles and mud. They clustered these houses in groups forming “pueblos” (Spanish for village). By AD 1,000, they were making two and three story structures of double walled rock. Between AD 1,150 and 1,300, thousands of people lived in the pueblos. By this time,. The pueblos were like apartment buildings with public spaces in the form of courtyards and kivas (A kiva is an underground space for meetings and ceremonies, reminiscent of the pit houses of their ancestors). Buildings were covered in colored plaster and they were making excellent clay pottery and woven fabrics. Life was good. Then, around 1,225, they began building the cliff dwellings. There are two big mysteries to Mesa Verde. Why did they move out of the mesa top pueblos and build their homes on the sides of cliffs. Then after about 80 years of intense building activity, why did they abandon their cliff dwellings? These are the mysteries of Mesa Verde.

There is a lot to see at Mesa Verde. If you are very short on time, the visitor center near the main highway is excellent. The dioramas and exhibits are very informative and also very respectful of the indigenous inhabitants. You can learn a lot by spending an hour in that museum.

4 story Square House

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Drainage and water catchment off Sun House

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If you have a full day, you can drive into the park (remember, it takes nearly two hours to get to the cliff dwellings, exhibits and museum), drive out on Chapin Mesa and stop at all the overlooks to see the cliff dwellings. They are remarkable. To photograph them in good light, late afternoon is the best time.

If you have two days or have booked a tour ahead of time, take one of the ranger-led tours of a cliff dwelling. This is the only way to get up close or inside a cliff dwelling. We took two of those tours, Cliff Palace and Long House. I should note that Long House is out on Wetherill Mesa, also an hours’ drive from Far View Lodge but in a different direction. I wouldn’t try to see them on the same day. You can book tours at the Visitor Center near the highway, the Museum at Chapin Mesa or at the welcome center in Durango. You can’t join a tour without a ticket. You should also note that tours sell out a day or two in advance.

Entering Long House

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Long House

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The alcoves were formed by erosion due to water seeping between layers of sandstone and shale. The Ancestral Puebloans trapped the water seepng out the the back of alcoves. In the photo below, you can see depressions in the sand with little water channels leading to them. Ancestral Puebloans used to put bowls in the depressions to catch water. You can also see evidence of water in the greenery that grows at the base of the alcove in back.

Long House water seep catchment

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Long House interior

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You can’t help but be impressed with the magnificent structures still standing after 800 years, particularly in that they were built without any metal tools. All they had were rocks and any parts of plants or animals local to the area. They used rocks to chip other rocks and make bricks. They cut down trees with axes made of a rock tied to a branch with yucca fibers. They made baskets out of plant fiber and then later out of clay. Amazing.

For whatever reason, the Ancestral Puebloans abandoned their homes and farms on top of the mesa and moved to the cliffsides below. They used natural alcoves in the rock wall in part because alcoves provided shelter from the rain and snow, partly because alcoves usually had some water and partly because they were warmer in Winter because the South facing rock held the heat. All of the cliff dwellings face South.

Why did they abandon their homes up on the mesa? No one knows for sure, but archeological records show that there were far fewer large game animals in the trash heaps of later sites than at earlier ones. The climate was becoming drier. Overpopulation may have led to competition for scarce resources. Most archeologists suspect that no one would go to the effort to build such elaborate structures unless they were afraid of being killed by other people. Getting into a cliff dwelling required climbing a cliff face using hand-holds carved into the rock. It was dangerous. Remember all food, most water and other resources had to be carried on these precarious cliff faces.

So why were the cliff dwellings abandoned? Studies of tree rings show that the area suffered a 30 year drought just before the end. Other marauding groups may have come into the area. No one is sure. In any event, the Ancestral Puebloans didn’t die out, they just moved South and spread out to form the puebloan tribes of today.

If you have any interest in early cultures of the Southwest, Mesa Verde has to be on your list. It is a remarkable testament to the ingenuity, courage and resourcefulness of the indigenous peoples of the Southwest. The National Park Service is taking good care to protect these sites and build museums and other structures to educate the public. I hope this inspires you to check it out for yourself.

My wife and I also realized that the best part of our trip was getting to know the local people everywhere we went, especially getting an insight into the lives of the Dineh through Phillips Photography tours and the townspeople of Creede. Beauty is not just in the landscapes.



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