Leaving Mono Lake…

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Staying in Lee Vining gave us the opportunity to visit Mono Lake. We were lucky with the light on the first evening we visited, but things didn’t really come together when we returned last night. The afternoon thunderstorms that brew over the Sierras didn’t quite cooperate with their timing, and we were left skunked with rain instead. Mono Lake is a fascinating place, and as with much of this area, we would love to have had more time to explore. As we head down into the zoo of people in Yosemite Valley we will be out of contact with the blog for a couple of days, so here’s a few more from our time spent at Mono Lake. This is a very often photographed location, but there is still something special about being there in person and trying to make your “own” images of what truly is a special place.

Where the Clouds Rest in Yosemite

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Soaring high above Yosemite Valley floor, Clouds Rest is a large granite ridge left over from when glaciers moved through the high country and carved out Tenaya Canyon. The top of Clouds Rest is 9,930 feet above sea level, and when Sam and I hiked to the top of it today, it felt like we climbed every one of those feet! In reality, the elevation gain was more like only 3,000 feet, but at this altitude, and in 80 degree weather, these two flatlanders from Maine were certainly challenged.

We started the hike at 8:30am, and were able to reach the summit by noon. The first 1.5 miles or so of the hike lulls you into thinking this isn’t going to be so bad. After wading knee deep across Tenaya Creek, we followed a wooded path alongside the water, but soon we started to climb, and climb quickly. The next mile had us navigating uphill switchbacks that despite the generous staired trail, absolutely tear at your legs and lungs. Things flattened out a little after that, and we were treated to a wide variety of beautiful wildflowers in bloom, the ever majestic and sometimes gigantic Yosemite trees, and a lovely quiet pond nestled in amongst the landscape.

The final push to the summit of Clouds Rest was long, hot, and dusty as the remainder of the 7.1 mile trail steadily climbed to where we were exposed above the trees on the granite that is synonymous with Yosemite. At the summit, we enjoyed the expansive views of the park, especially of the valley floor some 5,000 feet below – we also had an amazing view of the back side of half-dome. As you can see, Sam had no qualms about getting to the very summit, but with my fear of heights, I was quite content to admire the view from the wider “summit” part of Clouds Rest.

After a brief rest and a chance to refuel, we reversed direction and started the descent, confident in the knowledge that going down couldn’t possibly be as hard as coming up. Though we certainly moved along at a better pace going down, the length and elevation difference in this hike made for one of the more challenging experiences I certainly have had hiking. On our return to our starting point, the cool water in Tenaya Creek felt sooooo good on our feet and legs, and we were quite relieved to have finished this hike. It took us a total of 7 hours to complete, and that includes a 45 minute rest on the summit… not bad for two boys from Bangor, Maine.

Tioga Lake, Yosemite National Park

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When Sam and I started planning this trip, we originally wanted to stay at the canvas tents of the Tuolumne Meadow Lodge. Apparently these are a hot ticket though, so we had to settle for a motel in Lee Vining, outside the park and about a 25 minute drive back to Tuolumne Meadow. Bummed at first, though we soon realized the benefit of our daily commute… having the opportunity to experience the remarkable beauty of the landscape along the highest part of the Tioga Road. Even though Tioga Lake technically is outside the boundary of Yosemite National Park, the mountains you can see in this early morning reflection are inside the park! The image in this post is just one of many spectacular sights from this incredible stretch of road – a road that cannot possibly have very many equals when it comes to natural beauty. Tioga Lake… not many commutes have views like this!

Not Quite Yosemite… Mono Lake

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It was still raining lightly as we left the Whoa Nellie Deli. However, things looked very promising as the storm moved across Mono Lake and warm light started to stream over the Sierras toward us. The low-angled light made the ground seem as though it were on fire, and the dark and heavy storm clouds served as a perfect backdrop to what was a remarkable scene. It looked like tonight could have the potential to be one of those special sunsets, where the light on the edge of a storm is truly magical, so we hurried down toward the lake hoping that everything would come together.

Mono Lake is an ancient salt lake covering 70 square miles that lies in the shadow of some of the major Eastern Sierra peaks. It is renowned for several reasons, including the migratory bird population that visits each year, the beautiful landscape it offers photographers, and probably most famously, the interesting limestone “tufas” that are scattered along the shoreline.

Last time we were here the place was covered in snow, and although that certainly made for some unique conditions, the light on that particular occasion did not really cooperate. The sunset Sam and I witnessed last night in Tuolumne Meadow was spectacular, so we wondered if it might be asking too much for another good one tonight. We had our answer soon enough as the sun dipped below the crest of the Sierras and the sky began to light up in a way that makes photographers smile…

Cathedral Lake, Yosemite NP

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As I mentioned in my last post, Sam and I hiked in to Cathedral Lake this morning from Tuolumne Meadow. Apart from the steady climb at the very beginning I found this to be a very manageable hike. The 9,000+ feet of altitude took its toll on me early though, forcing my lungs, heart, and legs to work overtime. After the initial climb and thoughts of how they were going to carry my dead body out of the forest, we settled into a good rhythm and I actually felt fine most of the rest of the way. We crossed freshwater streams, saw large areas of mid-July snowpack, and admired what were often spectacular mountain views.

After about 90 minutes or so of hiking, we reached the clearing that signaled we were about to see the lake, but we still had one more hurdle to clear… a mosquito infested marsh that stood between us and what we knew would be a beautiful sight. I have never seen mosquitos as vicious and bloodthirsty as those that we encountered going across the 200 yard-wide marsh. I swear they were getting drunk on the insect repellant we had doused ourselves in, and when mixed with a little blood, they were absolutely loving their early afternoon cocktails. The breeze along the granite shore of the lake brought us a little respite from their appetites, but they were still active even there. Here’s Sam on the trail…

Lunch was spent enjoying the views and briefly exploring the area, but it was soon time to head back. Once again the mosquitos swarmed around us as we crossed the marshy area leading back to the trail. Without exaggerating, Sam must have been bitten fifty times on his shoulders alone, and we actually resorted to running to try to get away from them. We both laughed about it afterwards, but the image of him frantically trying to escape from the swarms of skeeters will stay with me for a long time 🙂

Storms were brewing on the way back home, so we quickened the pace as best we could without sending me into cardiac arrest. We made it back to Tuolumne Meadow and the car just before the thunder, lightning and rains came. First stop when we got off the mountain was to purchase some after-bite stuff that is supposed to stop you from itching… hopefully it works better than the bug repellent!

With the weather looking pretty bleak for the rest of the evening, we headed back down through the Tioga Pass to Lee Vining to get some dinner and decide what to do next. After a pizza at the Whoa Nellie Deli – yes, we ate there again – it looked like there might be a chance of the skies clearing and offering some good, stormy light, so we decided to stick close to home for the evening and visit the picturesque and surreal landscape of Mono Lake.

* apparently we completely missed that we should probably have visited Upper Cathedral Lake while on this hike… bummer.

Cathedral and Unicorn Peaks, Yosemite

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The image above was from a wonderful evening spent last night on the Tuolumne Meadow. We had some amazing weather conditions all come together to provide a stunning sunset complete with rainbows, and what better location to enjoy it from than the higher country within Yosemite National Park. In this image, I was looking across Tuolumne Meadow toward the impressive granite mountains known as Unicorn Peak (10,823 ft) on the left, and Cathedral Peak (10,911 ft) on the right.

I learned today that hiking uphill at 9,000 feet is hard on the lungs. Very hard. Sam and I made the 7 mile round trip hike to the beautiful Cathedral Lake, located on the other side of the ragged granite peak shown on the right hand side of the image above. A steady – and for me at least – tough beginning to the trail initially had me laboring, but I was able to make it all the way there and back alive, and am recovering very nicely right now. I will post some photographs from the hike later… that’s if I make it back from the daunting hike to Cloud’s Rest tomorrow.

We are off to the world famous Whoa Nellie Deli in Lee Vining for dinner. We are getting some thunder and lightning as I write this, so plans for another short hike this evening have been abandoned. Instead, after dinner we will make the short trip down to the shore of Mono Lake, and who knows, maybe the weather will break and we will be rewarded with some nice light over what is a surreal landscape. Keeping our fingers crossed…

Tuolumne Meadow Sunset

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Long day. We were up before 4am to get to JFK for our flight to San Francisco, and as I write this I am still on east coast time where it is 2am. Traveling couldn’t have gone smoother, and by about 1pm local time we were on the road driving toward Yosemite.

As we made our way across the central California valley, even from one hundred miles away we could see some serious thunderheads on the horizon getting us excited about what we might see at our chosen first destination… Tuolumne Meadow. We passed up the opportunity to stop at many beautiful places along the Tioga Road so that we might get to Tuolumne before dark, and hopefully in time for some nice light playing with the storm clouds.

Sam and I both caught our breath when we first glimpsed the meadow, and we excitedly jumped out and started to explore. There was some stormy weather over Lembert Dome and beyond into the high country where Mount Gibbs and Mount Dana towered over the landscape, and with the sun behind us we were treated to a spectacular rainbow and some amazing late evening light.

In the brief but productive time we had here, there must have been fifteen or more deer happily grazing in the meadow, and the mosquitoes rivaled anything we have back home in Maine. As you can see though, nothing could spoil the remarkable sight before our eyes. Cannot wait to explore more tomorrow.

Moonrise and Mount Starr King

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From last year’s visit to Yosemite National Park, this scene was captured on a glorious summer evening spent at Glacier Point. Two exposures were blended to deal with the dynamic range and allow for a properly exposed moon and some detail in the foreground. I had been focusing on Half Dome when the moon rising in the distance over this 9,092 feet peak in the Clark Range literally made my jaw drop. The longer focal length helped compress the scene and go some way toward conveying how impressive the moonrise was. For some reason I didn’t process this image until this week when I was going back through my archives in preparation for the upcoming trip. Less than a month away now…

Yosemite

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As a family we had the good fortune of visiting the magnificent Yosemite National Park last summer. Yosemite is a place like no other, and even though we had heard tales of the beauty we would see there, we were all totally amazed to witness for ourselves what is a remarkable and spectacular landscape.

Sam just graduated from high school, and when asked what he would like for a present, he was pretty emphatic in his desire to travel west to see Yosemite again. When we left the park last summer I think we each had the feeling we would be back, but little did we know it would be so soon.

Last summer we spent the majority of our time in Yosemite Valley enjoying the icons – and the crowds. We had a wonderful time exploring along the Merced River and bending our necks to soak in views like Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, Bridalveil Falls and El Capitan, but all the while there we couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to escape the hordes of tourists and get up into the high country… this time we will.

On this trip we are incredibly excited to be spending most of our time up along the Tioga Road and especially around the Tuolumne Meadows area. At 8,500 feet, the temperatures at this elevation should be moderate and bearable, but it is the promise of experiencing the higher sierra that has us really anticipating our visit.

The image above with Half Dome standing large in front of Clouds Rest was made on a perfect summer evening from Glacier Point. Looking back up Tenaya Canyon toward the high country, you can’t help but sense the wonder of what must be a spectacular and unparalleled wilderness. Can’t wait to see it for ourselves.

We are currently researching and planning how we can squeeze every last ounce of Yosemite into our trip, so if you know of any must-see hikes to add to our itinerary, please share in the comments.

Book Publishing Made Easy

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You gotta love technology!

I wanted to create a lasting memory of the trip Sam and I took out to California, something that would be accessible to us and anyone else we wanted to share our trip with. Of course the blog is a nice mechanism for doing this, as are online hosting sites like Flickr and Vimeo, but not everyone is as excited about logging on and surfing the net as we are.

Searching for a more accessible alternative, one that could be enjoyed the old-fashioned way by holding it, I settled on using the “book” option within iPhoto to assemble and publish a hardcover, dust-jacketed, 10 x 13 book. I did some research on other online self-publishing options such as Lulu and Blurb, but settled on iPhoto largely due to the ease of use. Regardless of the tool you use, there are many options regarding size and shape, with beautifully designed templates making the compilation process very smooth. Choosing and arranging photographs was as simple as drag and drop, and the process of adding and editing text was easy.

I have been checking the FedEx tracking site almost every day since ordering, anxious to know when the finished product was going to arrive. The anticipation of seeing a printed journal of the adventures that Sam and I shared together has been very real for me, and much more intense than I had expected.

On order for about a week, the book – “Californiadventure” – arrived today, and I can happily report that I am absolutely thrilled with how it turned out. The quality of paper and printing is OK, but the overall production of the book – especially the dust-jacket – gives it a very nice feel. If you were to visit your local bookstore and find a copy of this book on a shelf there, the quality is such that you would probably never know it had been self-published.

As much as I enjoy the benefits of working and displaying images digitally online, there is something permanent and “real” about our book, so when we close the lid on the laptop and rejoin the analog world, this book will always remind us of the wonderful Californian adventure we shared together.

Sand and Water

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I am experimenting with adding a black border on the top and bottom of this image… I was wondering if it helps in the presentation of the details?

Late one afternoon while wandering throughout the Mesquite dunes in Death Valley I came across these patterns in the sand on the edge of a temporary pond. Recent rains had impacted the dunes in many ways, and I was intrigued by the textures, shapes and lines created by the past subtle (and not so subtle) movement of water. They reminded me of the awesome power of nature at work, and even though they were the result of very recent changes, it was easy for me to imagine that they were from a more ancient time.

Maybe not a typical grand landscape that we are used to seeing from Death Valley, but this image serves as a more intimate reminder to me of the experiences I had with Sam exploring what is a wonderful national park. He was immediately impressed and drawn to discovering everything he could about these dunes, and I think genuinely appreciated the uniqueness and scale of his surroundings. Knowing that this was his kind of place, time spent exploring what was an almost surreal landscape together, is time that I will always treasure.

Although you see the world different than me
Sometimes I can touch upon the wonders that you see
All the new colors and pictures you’ve designed
Oh yes, sweet darling
So glad you are a child of mine

–  Child of Mine by Carole King

Mother Nature at work…

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When we first arrived in Death Valley we were somewhat disappointed by the impact of the previous week’s rains on the landscape. Many of the roads were closed, and access to most of the more remote locations was limited. Even the famous icons were impacted, with the Mesquite sand dunes actually flooded in places, and the salt flats at Badwater under maybe an inch of water. Our disappointment soon gave way to recognition of the fact that we were witnessing Mother Nature at work, right before our very eyes.

We spent our first evening in Death Valley at Badwater, where there was about an inch or so of water pooling in the salt polygons. The shapes and textures were not exactly pristine, but nonetheless the place was still recognizable as the Badtwater salt flats. The following morning we returned to the same location, only to find that considerably more water had seeped down through the earth onto the valley floor, and the salt flats were showing serious signs of upheaval and chaos. While this made for some interesting reflections of the Panamint Range, it also made composing a pleasing image quite challenging. As you can see in the video that Sam shot from that morning, much of the landscape was broken and uplifted, probably due to the impact of the water level rising underneath. A couple of days later and the ridges and shapes were completely gone, totally submerged under a shallow but widespread lake that stretched across most of the entire valley floor.

It was very interesting to see the changes in the landscape occur so abruptly, and although we would like to have been able to see the park in all its traditional splendor, our visit during this time allowed for an intriguing and impressive glimpse of the raw power of nature as huge swaths of land were literally transformed overnight.

A Death Valley Icon – Zabriskie Point

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OK… I know that this is probably the most photographed scene in Death Valley National Park, but there is a reason for that. Well there are actually two reasons… first of all it is relatively easy to get to, as the hordes of tourists swarming all over the overlook will confirm. Standing as a gateway to the park for many, anyone willing to walk a quarter of a mile slightly uphill on a paved path will be rewarded for their efforts. Secondly, and most importantly, it truly is a sight to behold, especially if the elements all come together for the photographer willing to get there early or stay there late.

There is a “social” trail off to the right of the parking lot that leads up onto a ridge that skirts the right hand side of this scene. This trail will offer the intrepid photographer some exceptional and less traditional views of the valley, Telescope Peak, and Manly Beacon. In the interest of being more original than most of the photographers who would set their tripods up along the ridge in front of the overlook as I did in the photograph above, Sam and I debated hiking this trail on our morning visit to this location. However, we decided since we would need to navigate the steep and narrow path up onto Red Cathedral considerably before dawn, that it would not be a great choice.

As we hung around the evening before, we saw every other person leave pretty much as soon as the sun dipped below the mountains across the valley. Apparently they weren’t aware that it was then that the light starts to get interesting.

Badwater Underwater

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I wonder how long it will take for the shallow lake that recently formed on the Badwater salt flats to retreat and once again reveal the classic salt polygon shapes?

The image above is from our second morning in Death Valley, and as you can see the unique conditions that existed with water pooling in the flatter areas and the ridges heaving up made for much more chaotic shapes than normal. Within days this whole area was covered in water, completely submerging not only the salt polygons, but most of the entire valley floor.

I have been here several times in more traditional conditions, so to see the salt flats distressed and changing right before our eyes was quite impressive. The shallow pools of water made for some incredible opportunities to catch the Panamint Range reflected in the foreground, though being there in person was much more impressive than any photograph can possibly convey.

We were very fortunate on this morning to see nature at work right before our eyes, and when combined with a very dramatic start to the day, Sam and I marveled at the fact we were the only people around within miles to share this scene.

Amargosa Cafe

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Death Valley Junction is a quirky little place located between Pahrump, NV and Death Valley National Park in California. It is like a ghost town, except for the Amargosa Hotel and Opera House, where the renowned Marta Beckett performed for years.

On a previous morning when we had driven through here we noticed a tiny little cafe attached to the hotel. We resolved to return here on our way out from the valley, and today was the day. Classic Americana, the decor inside was straight from the 1950’s, and the breakfast we were served was hearty and cheap. Highly recommended if you ever find yourself passing through this part of the world in need of some sustenance.

Zabriskie forwards

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When I checked the NPS road conditions page on Sunday night it said that the way to Dante’s View was now open! I have been up to Dante’s view before, and though it is a very impressive sight, the real reason we were so happy was that we would finally be able to see somewhere new!

We set the alarm for 5:00am, planning on making the 40 minute drive to high above the park. We packed all of our belongings and left the valley floor for the last time, excited to be able to check out a place that had previously been inaccessible during our stay. We passed by the dark and deserted Zabriskie Point parking lot, and accelerated on up Route 190 toward the Dante’s View turnoff. Imagine our disappointment when we got there to find that the road was still closed higher up where the snow and ice was.

We had discussed this possibility, and immediately switched to Plan B – to re-visit Zabriskie Point and spend some time among the tourists. At least this time we might get some nice light, since the skies overhead were filled with fast-moving and dappled clouds.

Before dawn the light was really cool, though our concern was that the clouds were actually moving too fast. As they raced across the sky from right to left, it soon became obvious that they were not going to sync with the sunrise as we had hoped. As always, being in a place as beautiful as this was reason enough to celebrate, so we chilled with the other 13 tripods and 50+ tourists and enjoyed the muted but pleasant show. I tried a couple of longer exposures using a 6-stop ND filter, trying to deepen the colors and capture some of the feeling of movement in the sky.

When we thought the best of the light had come and gone, we packed up our gear and made the short climb out of the valley. It was with mixed emotions that we said goodbye to Death Valley, a place that gave us so much in the short time we were there. Definitely a place to return to someday, we were also anxious to start our journey back home to be with Lori and Jack.

Zabriskie backwards

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On our last night in the park we made a reservation at the Furnace Creek Ranch so that we would be closer to the route we would be taking back to Vegas in the morning. We had checked out Badwater as a potential evening shot, but it was under water and a bust. Earlier in the day we had enjoyed a cool hike in Golden Canyon, and after a yummy burger for an early dinner we settled on checking out Zabriskie Point.

Zabriskie Point is traditionally an early morning shot. When standing on the overlook the suns rises behind you and lights up the peaks of the Panamints before racing across the valley toward Manly Beacon. Zabriskie Point is an icon that is photographed by just about anyone who visits Death Valley, and who can blame them?

Not really expecting to capture anything exciting, I set up my camera and tripod anyway, and we just hung out enjoying the antics of the many tourists who huffed and puffed their way up to the overlook. We shared a bag of Flamin’ Hot Funions – not something we can get back in Maine, and as the sun went down it was a very relaxing evening.

Most of the people left after the sun dropped behind the mountains across the valley, though it was only after this that the light started to get nice. While everyone was looking across the valley, I grabbed this first image of the earth shadow above the folds and creases to the south. The second image is from about half an hour after the sun had set, and it shows the colorful sky as a backdrop to Manly Beacon. Both images are manual blends to address exposure issues the camera has with dynamic range – and both images better represent what the actual scene looked like to my eyes.

We will be at Zabriskie Point again in the morning for what we hope will be a classic sunrise – fingers crossed 🙂

Badwater Gone

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We decided for the first time on our trip to skip the sunrise and take advantage of the extra sleep. Traveling to get here and getting up early every morning was beginning to take a toll, so when we finally hit the road at about 10am we were feeling better and more rested.

Scouting for the evening, we headed over to Badwater to see how the level of water was impacting the area. When we had left the valley a couple of days previously, most of the salt flats were submerged in water creating a shallow lake. We weren’t sure if the two days we had been gone would mean that some of the water would have evaporated, or if more water would have seeped through the ground to further deepen the lake.

When we got to Badwater we made sure to add some sunblock to protect from the mid 70’s temperature, and headed out on the tourist path toward the flats. There were absolutely no salt polygons… none. There was considerably more water on the valley floor, and it had encroached almost to within a half mile of the parking lot. Stretching as far as the eye could see from south to north, the lake was quite impressive. As we made our way back to the car we appreciated that we had got to see the salt flats a couple of days before, though we couldn’t help wondering how long it would take for the famous salt ridges and shapes to return? In the meantime, here’s an image depicting what this area “normally” looks like.

Sam’s photographs

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I wasn’t sure if Sam would have the patience to deal with my methodical photography antics on this trip. I know he likes to take photographs, but this would be the first time he was subjected to the whole process of using a tripod, seeking a pleasing composition, getting up early and staying late, and waiting, and waiting, and waiting… for the good light. It certainly is a time consuming process, and I have to admit that I feared he might get bored hanging around.

I needn’t have worried because he has totally embraced the process, and it is very cool indeed to see him wander off to capture his own take on the scenes we visit. Although he is still learning about the technical side of things, he has a naturally good eye for composition, and some of the images he has made on this trip are truly amazing. He has been using a borrowed Rebel Xsi, along with his own Panasonic Lumix which allows for shooting 16:9 format images – which offer a very cool wider perspective.

Most importantly to me though is that he obviously appreciates the beauty of the places he finds himself in. He understands the importance of enjoying the experience of being there first, and making a photograph of what he sees second. I asked him to share some of his favorites from the trip… I am sure you will agree that he is quite the image-maker!

Dunes redux

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Back in Death Valley for the evening, I asked Sam if he could choose go to one location in the valley (that was open), where would it be? He responded quite emphatically that he wanted to return to the sand dunes near Stovepipe Wells.

We were staying at Stovepipe Wells that same evening, so that worked out well as we parked the car a ways past the new parking lot and started hiking in to the smaller dunes to the east. In addition to exploring a part of the dunes we hadn’t seen previously, we were also trying to avoid the many footprints that marred what is a pretty landscape.

Sam headed off to do his own thing and before long he was merely a speck, appearing and disappearing as he navigated the ups and downs of the dunes. I felt quite proud of him for being willing to leave me behind and do this by himself. Maybe he just wanted some peace and quiet away from his dad!

The warm light soon started to get lower in the sky, and before long we were treated to shadows stretching down into the hollows between the dunes. Our decision to head to this part of the dunes paid off in that we saw fewer footprints, and for most of the evening we were probably the only two people in what was a very large area.

I didn’t see Sam until the sun had actually set, that’s when I saw him climbing one of the higher dunes before making his way along a ridge to where I had settled in to enjoy the dusk. I think he really enjoyed the solitude of being out on the dunes totally by himself for the evening, and I have a feeling he will remember this time for the rest of his life.