Archive for Grand Mesa

Day 7 – Grand Mesa

Posted in Photography, Travel with tags , , , , , on 07 November 2013 by Richard Hornbaker

[This post is part of The Accidental Photo Adventure]

So far this trip we had a trend of grand landscapes – mountain ranges, canyons, etc.  Now, we were shifting gears, and the adventure really began.  We were venturing “off the map” – away from designated landmarks and toward discoveries of our own.

Mapping the Course

We decided to head East into Colorado, and for the first time we didn’t really have a destination in mind.  Instead, we had a theme – fall foliage.  On an idea, I’d found an article in one of the Colorado papers from a couple weeks prior. It listed a bunch of places to see fall colors, and estimated the leaves would be turning right about now.  It seemed our timing was accidentally perfect.

Taking pointers from the article, I mapped out a dozen sites in Google Maps and started to piece together a route from Moab.  A bunch of sites got cut from our list because they were too far out of the way, or only accessible via long dirt roads.  But even the shortened list was a pretty good selection.

Grand Junction AAA

On the first leg, we headed in the general direction of Northwest Colorado, ending up in Grand Junction where we hit the AAA office for some maps and local advice.  It was there we transferred the Google map to a good old fashioned paper map using a highlighter – paper being much more reliable than mobile Internet access in the mountains.  (Something that many folks don’t realize: if you’re a AAA member, you can get free maps and guidebooks at any branch.)

The storm that’s crossing the central US is starting to roll in, but so far we’re still ahead of it by about a day.  We have no idea where we’ll stop for the night, but we’re trying to avoid ending the day in any of the many ski resort towns – there’s no sense in over-paying for our room.

Our course would take us diagonally to the Southeast toward the middle of the state, passing first through Grand Mesa, the connecting with a highway that’d take us back Northeast in a zig-zag pattern across the state.

Grand Mesa

Heading toward Grand Mesa we had our first near-miss with wildlife. OK, well it wasn’t really a near-miss… we had plenty of room to brake, but suddenly an 8-point buck was sauntering across the highway right in front of us!  Big guy, too.  We’d been debating for days whether to get a GoPro Hero3 video camera for the dashboard – at this point, we regretted not having it.

As we got to Grand Mesa, a dark storm was rolling over the peaks.  It added a great dramatic element to the photos, but it also made the light challenging.

“Did you see that?” “Yeah, we gotta go back and shoot that!” We were on the hunt, and it totally changed the dynamic of our trip. Instead of having the next destination programmed into our GPS, we were on high alert the whole time, scouting for photo ops at 60 miles per hour.  This is one such opportunistic shot – a small valley running parallel to the highway:


The above image is an HDR comprised of 5 shots at 1/3-stop increments. It’s actually very close to the primary frame in the set – partly because my tastes in HDR are very conservative, but also because I applied strong graduated neutral-density (GND) filters to darken the sky when the images were shot.  As the trip wore on, I came to prefer a soft-edge GND between 3 and 5 stops (0.9 to 1.5), which was achieved by using an 0.9 GND and adding a second 0.3 or 0.6 GND.

The clouds offered even more dramatic skies as we continued across Grand Mesa.  Driving up one side of the ridge, the storm was coming toward us:


As I work more with Nik’s HDR Efex Pro 2, I’m continuing to refine my custom presets.  In the image above, I moved my post-HDR tone-curve tweaks from Lightroom into an HDR preset, which both reduced the number of steps in my workflow and improved my consistency.  I really, really wish I’d shot this image as a stitched panorama to yield super high resolution.  But as it was, we barely got to make our shots before the rain came down.

We continued our trek across Grand Mesa, driving through the storm and coming out the other side of the mesa. We were looking at the back-end of the storm, and the scene was completely different but equally spectacular:


And yet another very colorful image as we headed back toward the storm.  I’m thinking this one is destined for a canvas print, and may be my best shot of the trip:


It’s said that “luck is preparation meeting opportunity”, and this is a perfect example.  As we were nearing a junction in the road, my colleague pulled over to take a phone call.  I literally shot this next image handheld out the car window, using the doorframe as my stabilizer.  Of course, I did still have GND filters on the front of my lens.


All this goes to prove that good weather is boring, and foul weather makes for great images – you just have to endure it.

Change of Plans

Well, it’s not as if a change of plans was unexpected.  We really had just a rough idea what we wanted to do, and we were improvising one step at a time.

The idea for today was to make it back up to the top of the state, near the main freeway, before heading southeast through Aspen the next day.  However, the day got long and we found ourselves about halfway along that route, in the town of Paonia.

McClure Pass was next on our list and just up the road, but there wasn’t going to be much light left. We checked rates and found it cost half as much to stay where we were for the night. So, we’d spend the next day at McClure Pass, and then head through Aspen. The only challenge: the storm was going to hit overnight, so the weather might be pretty bleak, and the foliage might be hidden beneath snow.

After Aspen, we’d try to make it to Colorado Springs by nightfall.  There we’d find the Garden of the Gods park. And maybe some train scenery. Perhaps even a drive to the top of Pike’s Peak.

Fortunately, the only motel in the area was not only a reasonable price, but pleasant too.  It’s a family operation, run by a charming little Polish lady.  We’d been fortunate to land in their off-season – after July, but before the ski resorts opened.

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But even more surprising was the Italian restaurant where we had dinner in Paonia.  At the rear of the very unassuming Flying Fork Bakery is a garden, through which we entered the Flying Fork Cafe.  This place truly is a gem – it could easily have been a high-end boutique restaurant in a major city, but instead it was hidden away in this little town deep in Colorado. My colleague is a bit of a foodie and he travels regularly to Italy, and he was pretty darned impressed by the place.  Needless to say, it’s highly recommended.



Intro | Day 1: Getting Started, Zion | Day 2: Zion
Day 3: Red Canyon, Bryce Canyon | Day 4: Capitol Reef, Canyonlands
Day 5: Dead Horse Point | Day 6: Monument Valley | Day 7: Grand Mesa
Day 8: McClure Pass, Aspen, Garden of the Gods | Day 9: Wolf Creek Pass
Day 10: Durango & Silverton Railroad, Albuquerque Balloon Festival
Day 11: Pre-dawn Balloon Launch, The End | Trip Prep | The Gear
FotoMomenti – My Comrade’s Portfolio



The Accidental Photo Adventure

Posted in Photography, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 07 October 2013 by Richard Hornbaker

Road Trip Map

A friend and I ventured out on a 17-day photo safari. What unfolded was very different than we planned, and a lot more exciting!

My shooting partner is a consultant-for-hire, and we’d long discussed taking a photo trek after he wrapped up a multi-year project. The plan was to do a road trip and hit a bunch of US National Parks while he drove his car home cross-country. No family, just photographers, so plenty of patience for the speed of the art.

The plan was to start in Arizona, go through Utah (Zion, Red Canyon, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Canyonland, Arches, Monument Valley), up to Wyoming (Grand Tetons, Yellowstone), then Montana (Glacier), the Dakotas (Mt. Rushmore, Badlands), and through Nebraska (farmland) to Omaha where I’d fly home. 17 days, 3000 miles, and 10 national parks. Originally, the plan included Death Valley, but that was nixed due to the logistics and cost of a 4-wheel-drive vehicle to get where we’d want to shoot.

It was all going smoothly until the 5th day of our trip – October 1, 2013. That’s the first day of the US Federal fiscal calendar, and the national parks were all closed because the politicians hadn’t approved the next year’s budget. At the same time, a tropical storm that hadn’t been in the forecast started to make its way from the Pacific across the central US, leading to heavy snowfall and tornadoes along our route.  We found ourselves suddenly improvising our entire itinerary day-by-day.  Here’s the route we ended up taking:

Road Trip Map Actual

We’d planned to stay in motels along the way (rather than camp), but only the first two cities had been booked. Originally, this was because hotels to the North had excellent availability, they wanted as much as 7 days notice for cancellation, and our itinerary was still flexible. This proved more fortunate than we could have predicted.

What follows is a story that’s not so much about photography, but rather the trip from a photographer’s perspective. I’ll be adding the pages below as I process photos, for a little extra personal motivation – if you subscribe, you’ll get notified when they’re posted. I hope you enjoy it!


Intro | Day 1: Getting Started, Zion | Day 2: Zion
Day 3: Red Canyon, Bryce Canyon | Day 4: Capitol Reef, Canyonlands
Day 5: Dead Horse Point | Day 6: Monument ValleyDay 7: Grand Mesa
Day 8: McClure Pass, Aspen, Garden of the Gods | Day 9: Wolf Creek Pass
Day 10: Durango & Silverton Railroad, Albuquerque Balloon Festival
Day 11: Pre-dawn Balloon Launch, The End | Trip Prep | The Gear
FotoMomenti – My Comrade’s Portfolio