A Desert Paradise

It’s been some time since I last updated with an adventure.. largely because there’s several exciting things to note.

1. I have a small display of prints of bird photographs at the Eaton Canyon Nature Center, so if you live in the Pasadena area, head over there to go for a walk and check out the images. I’ll be updating them every few months. The Nature Center is open 8-5 every day of the week.

2. I’m producing a 2010 Calendar, which will be available for order in 1-2 months time. I’ll of course make an announcement when it’s ready to ship – but I wanted to share the excitement with you all! It will be a collection of California based images, representing the full spectrum of seasons, with each month featuring a different image accompanied by a short story with content similar to what you find here on the blog.

3. I am participating in a big art show in Pasadena next week. There’s a reception at 7pm on Friday April 24th at 35 S. Raymond, in Old Town pasadena, there should be free nibbles and drinks. The gallery director had the creative control over image choices, so it will be a collection of 8 large prints of abstracts from various southwest canyons. If you’re in the area come out and check out the show, and make sure to introduce yourself to me!

Ok.. now on to the story of the Desert Paradise.

Last time I mentioned I was hoping the desert blooms would hold out for me.. well, they did, at least, at higher elevations they did. These past two weekends I made my way to Anza-Borrego State Park in the very southern reaches of California. The Desert Region of California is a very strange place, by the way. This area includes towns like Palm Springs, Indio, Coachella, and Borrego Springs. To be honest, I have tried to spend as little time as possible in these establishments, but you can get an idea for the culture of the place by listening to the radio… which when averaging 400 miles of driving through Southern California over the weekends, you end up doing a lot. Nowhere else have I heard commercials on the radio for breast augmentation or the local night club. Furthermore, while Anza-Borrego is a State Park, that doesn’t mean you won’t encounter a 24 hour rave in the middle of the desert – literally, not off the dirt road, no no, off trail somewhere in a side canyon. Last weekend I met up with another local LA photographer Steve Sieren and we showed up at this little canyon in the evening to the sound of a faint thumping. To me it sounded like a subwoofer. Then, in the middle of the night Steve ended up talking to some guy coming back from the party, and mentioned there was a full on rave (with generators, amps, glow sticks, etc…), confirming my suspicions. When we were done with our morning shoot around 9am they were still going strong (though we never did find them). Also, leaving or entering the park by way of a dirt road is a bad idea – you end up in a maze of oscillating sand roads swarming with dirt bikes, ATV’s, and four wheel drive golf carts (not dune buggies, they really did look like golf carts, complete with plastic sunroof/roll cage). Clearly this isn’t my culture, and I don’t mean to offend anyone who partakes in these activities, but I was just confused. On more than one occasion I had to spend much longer than I’d have liked negotiating the sandy speed bumps, which had a wavelength of my car, and an amplitude of 3-4 feet (while probably fun on a dirt bike, they are not exactly pleasant in a car).

Ok, now on to the flowers, adventures, and a little bit of geology. The flowers in the lower regions of the park were spent, but at higher elevations they were still going strong. The park puts out a nice list of places with currently blooming flowers (as do the websites mentioned last time). On my first trip with Steve, we spent sunset at the Carrizo Badlands overlook. Before he arrived I spent a few hours exploring the badlands themselves, but couldn’t find any great blooms, and the vistas weren’t hugely inspiring from there. The classically cloudless desert skies didn’t help either. But it’s amazing what lovely little flowers will burst from the sand given sufficient rain and subsequent sun. This little patch of lupines and blooming Ocotillo (the awkward looking cactus with red flowers) seemed to capture the place for me, though I won’t consider it ‘art’, more documentary. Make sure you view the large image to actually see the details.


“Arid Blooms” ~ Anza-Borrego State Park, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D mkII, 16-35mm mkII, 2-stop hard GND, tripod
Exposure: iso 400, f/16, 1/25th sec

The following morning we spent at Plum Canyon – near where the rave was thumping. Given the lack of exciting skies, I concentrated on the details of the desert.


Brittlebush ~ Anza-Borrego State Park, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D mkII, 24-105mm, tripod
Exposure: iso 400, f/4, 1/800th


Agave ~ Anza-Borrego State Park, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D mkII, 24-105mm, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 1/8th
Notes: This is a single exposure, but I took several at different focus settings and am hoping to blend them using some focus stacking software like helicon, but haven’t yet gotten around to that.

During our scouting that morning before sunrise, we stumbled upon a few Beavertail Cacti which were not yet blooming, but loaded with buds. It seemed like they were within a week or so of blooming to me.. so when I saw that there was a clearing storm predicted for friday night last week I decided to head back again in hopes of catching the blooming cacti and a colorful brewing storm. As expected, the LA traffic was terrible. I hardly made it to the park entrance in time for sunset, certainly not enough time to go find those cacti again and try to photograph them (provided they were indeed blooming). Well, I pulled off the road at the canyon, jumped out of the car, and scrambled to find something to shoot! These teddy bear cholla’s caught my attention first, more on the supposedly fuzzy teddy bears (spoiler: they aren’t so fuzzy).


Teddy Bear Sunset ~ Anza-Borrego State Park, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D mkII, 16-35mm mkII, 2-stop hard GND, tripod
Exposure: iso 400, f/16, 1/8th

Once those clouds disappeared, it was time to find something looking West, towards where the sunset was happening. I meandered aimlessly through the undulating wash, and suddenly stumbled on this blooming cactus – a king of Hedgehog Cactus I believe. I spent quite some time here, and at one point the clouds broke up to create this dynamic formation.


The Desert Dance ~ Anza-Borrego State Park, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D mkII, 16-35mm mkII, 2-stop hard GND, tripod
Exposure: iso 400, f/22, 0.3 sec
Note: for an image like this, where the wind was blowing pretty significantly, using a graduated neutral density makes processing the image significantly easier than trying to blend two exposures where the components may not line up.

Once the show was over I decided it would be prudent to see if the cacti I had come for were actually blooming. This involved a mid night treasure hunt with the GPS, being careful to avoid the spiny teddy bears, the near full moon helped quite a bit, otherwise this would have been a little too adventurous. Another popular name for them is ‘jumping cactus’, which is a surprisingly accurate nickname. As careful as you might be, they will somehow jump out and stab you in the leg.. then you’ve got this spiny ball of cactus digging into your muscle. There’s no hope of pulling it out by hand, that would just get your fingers stabbed too. By grabbing the spine-ball with two rocks I was able to de-cactus myself without breaking any of the offending needles. I got pretty good at this.. Anyways, I found all four of my target cacti, and… none of them were blooming. They had hardly changed at all! I guess it must have been too cold for them the past week. Ok, well, time to go exploring I guess!

For a closer look at those evil little spiny cactus creatures, here’s one at it’s best: backlit by the setting sun.


A Spiny Fella ~ Anza-Borrego State Park, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D mkII, 16-35mm mkII, 3-stop reverse GND, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/22, 1/30th sec

After looking at the map for a while, I decided to check out the badlands, and the view from Font’s Point and another nearby spot. The view is quite spectacular, similar to the Grand Canyon in a way, which is kind of ironic from a geological point of view. If you’ve ever looked at the Grand Canyon and wondered, “now where did all that stuff go?!”. Well, the answer is, it went here, to the Anza-Borrego Badlands. While the view was quite spectacular, the clouds had largely dissipated by morning, and I didn’t find anything exceptionally inspiring. Some people like the area so much that they’ve actually gotten married here.. using 4WD limos of course. I guess you can expect anything when you’re within a few hours of LA. On my way out I stumbled across this scene – the quintessential desert wash. For me there was a strong personal connection with this one, probably all the washes my parents took me hiking through as a kid.


Racing Down the Wash ~ Anza-Borrego State Park, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D mkII, 24-105mm, polarizer, tripod
Exposure: iso 200, f/16, 1/10th

While Anza-Borrego may be known for it’s wild flowers or maybe the badlands, what it’s really famous for are the desert oases – the Palm trees in the middle of the desert!


Paradise Lost ~ Anza-Borrego State Park, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D mkII, 70-200mm, polarizer, tripod
Exposure: iso 200, f/11, 1/4th sec
Notes: this was a 3-exposure panorama, blended with PTGui.

Again, what you’re seeing there is the contents of the Grand Canyon. Miles upon miles of inhospitable piles of mud filling in the cracks between what used to be significant mountains at the edge of an ocean teaming with life. And yet, despite the harsh desert climate, there’s Palm trees! A relic of the prehistoric paradise that must have been here (figuratively speaking). In fact, there are lots of little Oases, some with over 30 Palms, which serve as a home to the many desert animals that make there homes here. The park was originally made a state park for Anza-Borrego’s most famous canyon: Borrego Palm Canyon. The first one and half miles, leading to the primary Oasis, are teaming with tourists. Folks in dress shoes, pretty dresses, and a collection of toddlers make their way up the sandy wash to see the Palm trees in the middle of the desert. With the babbling brook and countless waterfalls, it really is like a little paradise, except for the people. The solution? Keep going! Here it starts to get a bit rough with some rock hopping, stream crossing, route finding etc. That’s what keeps the tourists away. Fortunately due to some recent flash floods over the past decade the vegetation wasn’t too thick, and it was relatively easy getting through as compared to reports from 10 years ago. After every few bends in the canyon another Oasis presents itself. Though smaller than the one the tourists go to, they are more photogenic, pristine, and relaxing. At this point it seems I had made it far enough up the canyon, gaining enough elevation, to actually run into blooming cacti. In fact, an entire hillside of the canyon was covered (well, relatively speaking) with blooming Beavertail Cacti! finding one with enough good blooms (generally only a few flowers open at a time), with a decent view of the canyon and Palm trees was challenging. But as if further consolation for my other cacti, there was one!


Desert Paradise ~ Anza-Borrego State Park, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D mkII, 16-35mm mkII, polarizer
Exposure: iso 200, f/18, 1/30th sec

I can’t remember if I’ve ever taken, let alone posted, a mid-day photo like this. I’m almost certain that’s never happened (save for detail shots that I managed to get in the shade one way or another). I was incredibly lucky to have fluffy drifting clouds both overhead and in the small patch of visible sky. As the clouds moved across the sun they acted as diffusers and reflectors, and here I managed to capture a brief moment right at the transition of shade and sun, creating a low contrast but sunny glow. It’s a bit of a postcard, but it doesn’t get much more desert paradise than that!

This seems to already have turned into a rather lengthy story, but there’s just a few more images to share, for all you bird lovers. Over the course of a few evenings at Eaton Canyon in Pasadena, I came across this California Thrasher. They have an exceptionally curved bill, used for searching the leaf litter for tasty bugs. They spend most of their time hiding in the bushes or on the ground, so getting a clear view with a nice background is challenging to say the least.


California Thrasher ~ Eaton Canyon, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D mkII, 500mm + 1.4x tc, monopod
Exposure: iso 400, f/5.6, 1/500th sec
Notes: I removed a twig (just one) that was roughly behind the birds head.

While not the most exciting of birds, the lighting and color contrasts made this one worth sharing for me.


Scrub Jay ~ Eaton Canyon, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D mkII, 500mm + 1.4x tc, monopod
Exposure: iso 800, f/5.6, 1/800th


Rufous-sided Towhee ~ Eaton Canyon, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D mkII, 500mm + 1.4x tc, monopod
Exposure: iso 1600, f/5.6, 1/250th

Alright, that’s it for now. For any of you local readers, I hope to see you at the reception on friday!

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5 Responses to A Desert Paradise

  1. Ben says:

    Dang! You had an amazingly productive trip! Great shots.

  2. Sally Theriault says:

    These are gorgeous photos of the desert! You might consider entering the Anza-Borrego Institute’s Annual Photo contest: http://theabf.org/events/photo_contest

  3. Thanks Sally, I’ll remember for next year!

  4. morningjoy says:

    I really wish I could journey to Pasadena to enjoy your exhibit, but I’m thankful for your blog. I tried to choose my favorite image,but alas I could not decide. You make the desert sing.

  5. ~wishiwasanotter~ says:

    You have a great site (I got here by way of Amber “aswirly”). Good luck with your photography and keep up your amazing work.

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