Spencer Millsap Photo Blog » WA state filmmaker and photographer

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Jumping around a bit here – but getting back into the swing of things. Took on a lengthy overnighter hike of around 22 miles or so with the cousin over the weekend to scope out some potential overnighter spots to return to with the whole crew. We got a bit more than we bargained for, but the hike was exactly what I needed. Skirting through forested ridge lines at the start, up and along beautiful exposed mountain sides in breezy 80 degrees overlooking the Olympic range all around us. Dropping into Badger Valley, the descent knocked us out as we made our way through sub-alpine meadows and back up to get spit right out next to Grand Lake. We chilled some trail beers in the lake, took in the sights and sounds, and had a whole barrage of chill deer encircle us for the evening supper. Up and packed up, we trudged our way back up and along Lillian Ridge towards Obstruction point for a brief lunch stop – then the long, slow 7.5 mile or so gain and loss along the ridge line back to Deer Park. Beautiful escape from my normal rainforest and coastal hike experiences in Olympic – so many more spots out there to explore.

Roughly the hike here – Deer Park Trailhead – Maiden Peak – Badger Valley – Grand Lake – Obstruction Point – Deer Park

 

 

Another sojourn into the deserts of south Texas with the crew – finally dusted off this hard drive and gave it some fresh eyes. It was great to relive the textures, the heat, the slow scrape along the rio, the wind tunnel, the cool rush of the baptism in Fern Canyon, the crisp night air sleeping under the stars in a hammock on my birthday – what a trip.

Starting off, we took on Cattail Falls – a rec from Megan who had heard about it – which is a relatively unknown major trail in Big Bend NP. It peels off a major dirt road and skirts it way up to the base of the Window Trail lookout essentially – the water may not have been flowing – but it was a sight to see in the middle of the desert. Meandering out, a massive, gnarly storm cell began to form above us with some intense lightning to follow. Weighing our odds after a 10 min group huddle – we booked it back through the open terrain to the car and just in time to get out and set up camp up in the Terlingua Ghost Town for the night as the storms rolled through – absolutely beautiful.

We set out the following morning and took on the Rio Grande into Santa Elena Canyon – unfortunately for us – it wasn’t flowing much, so most of our expedition was spent portaging all of our stuff. We only made a few miles at that before we camped for the evening. The rio was achingly quiet, but mesmerizing to say the least. We ducked into Fern Canyon, of course, which offered some awesome scrambling, cool caves, and tons of interesting rock formations to gander at.

Making our way out and back into Terlingua – we kicked off our river shoes and enjoyed the amazing views at the Leapin’ Lizard Guest House. Our host Bryn was a warm soul that had wandered into the region as an artist and just stayed, eventually expanding her tract with additional casitas here and there and landscaping the grounds. Such an awesome indoor/outdoor build that had detail, character, time, and passion put into it – and justifiable, for the views she has in her own tucked away valley overlooking the mighty Chisos range. We sipped Shiners, took in the grand views, riffed on our canoeing tactics, our past adventures, and future ones – and eventually we settled into our beds, mine being a hammock, and soundly slept under the night sky.

 

Out of the remoteness that was Canyonlands National Park, we pushed back to civilization in the uber adventure town of Moab, UT. It was a cool spot with some great sites, great beer, and finally, a shower. Well, it was a camp sud bath in the Colorado River, but that was enough for both of us after a few days in what felt like the driest place on Earth. We drove around perusing sites and settled at Oak Grove campground along the Colorado just outside of town on the border of Arches National Park. The light crept lower to hit the rim in a bright red glow before dipping down below the horizon as we got a fire going. It was a perfect spot to settle into with the well-flowing river nearby and the crackling sparks of the fire lifting up to the sky. Up at first light on the rim, we headed into Arches National Park to hit up the Delicate Arch Hike. It was actually a pretty strenuous 3 mile or so loop that climbs up and up sheer rock faces and around some formations until you’re spit out into the giant bowl, and there it is in all its glory. Even at around 10 AM, we were surrounded by about 50-100 people coming and going. A line was already formed for people to take their photo under the arch, which we do too. It was a site to see there, millions of years of fanciful erosion to get to that shape, but I couldn’t help but feel like it was a little anticlimactic. Not a rare find, or even a site saved for those that put in the effort, but a site to take a photo of, say you’ve been there, and move on. There was a brief half second or so when the arch wasn’t framed with an arms outstretched family and it was just enough to get a mental image of this structure, having sat out here for so long undiscovered, following the path of nature, with the random cowboy, rancher, or passing party to enjoy it. I’d like to think there are other spots out there in Arches with the same vibe. They state there are some 2,000 arches in the park itself, and the place is open to backcountry hikers throughout the park, no specific campsite needed. Might have to lug some water in and find those last nooks and crannies.

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Our 2.5 shower spot in the Colorado River

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Sunset along the Colorado River from my campsite

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Moab coffee run

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That brief moment

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Landscape Arch

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En route back towards our final destination in Colorado, we had to hit some last spots, and Mesa Verde National Park was a site to see for sure. We pulled in and got setup at the Apache Road campground, site #366, and went into local town Cortez to the Main St. Brewery for some beers and non-freeze dried food. We were up early to drive the hour or so through the park around sunrise, stopping at a few lookouts, like the Cliff Palace, seen below. Of course we signed up for their “most adventurous” tour, Balcony House. It was a sold out, packed group of all sorts of families for the 9 AM first viewing tour. We were led by our local guide through foray of ladders, small passages, and more ladders to get a glimpse of an amazingly engineered Pueblo Indian cliff dwelling dating back to the 1200’s. It’s crazy to just creep up on a place like this, like prospector S.E. Osborn did in 1884. Between all the people, our talkative guide, and the rising heating sun, I managed to find some silent moments to properly capture the empty feeling this place has now, almost 1,000 years after the original habitants of the site. Our guide had us have a brief moment of silence, as he said to hear the “wind rush down the canyon.” It was interrupted by the approaching 9:30 group.

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Cliff Palace

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With only a half day left on the road, and a lot of highway miles eating away out our sanity, another final stop felt like it was so far out of the way, but we had to check it out. Great Sand Dunes National Park was completely off my radar, and I honestly had no idea the place existed. I can reference White Sands National Park, but who goes to these? Where even are they? What does it even look like? Well, it’s magical, and great. We approached for for what felt like forever, until we finally realized the dunes were that large, looming on the horizon, dark in color, not white sand, just next to the Rocky Mountains as a backdrop. They’re huge, with Star Dune at almost 755 ft, these are the tallest dunes in North America. We drove in next to some dark lingering thunderstorms on the horizon, sprinting through a massive wave of mosquitos RIGHT at the parking lot, out to the dunes themselves. We had barely any time before we had to hit the road, but it was a fitting final stop to see a just recently national monument turned national park that has a ton of spots from the dunes to backcountry mountain loops to come back to visit. The park is open at all hours and looks to have some amazing night sky views. Check this place if you have time to properly enjoy it. Snaking our way through little Colorado valley towns with piercing golden light, we pulled into Boulder late to pass out and regroup. Hitting one last brewery for a pre-flight indulgence, I hit the airport as was back to D.C. before I knew it. I haven’t had time to really reflect on the variety of sites and experiences we enjoyed, endured, and checked off over the course of those 12 days or so, tent camping every night, up with the sun, out just after dark, back to the simple needs, simple pleasures, not feeling like you’re hiking or exercising, just moving to get to the next amazing view or feeling that makes you feel small, yet joyful for what majesty we have in our backyards to enjoy whenever we please.

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Mosquito central

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Colorado golden hour

SHM_0596The final gear breakdown and re-park pre-airport. It’s been a ride. Back to the District. Thanks for following along!

Canyonlands National Park. Man. I knew nothing about this park outside of the off reference to the 127 hours ordeal, which apparently took place in the remote Maze District of the west side of the park. Turns out this park is huge, and has THREE visitor’s centers separated by the Green and Colorado rivers, the park has very distinct zones for what you are looking for. We opted for the lesser traveled Needles District in the south over the Isle in the Sky district frequented for its arches and Moab adventure seekers. Without days to spend a crazy 4 wheel drive vehicle, we opted out of the Maze district as well. We approached the gates of the park after making our way out of the hellish Manti-La-Sal National Forest, to feel even more remote than we were. Stopping at the family run outpost just outside of town for ice and firewood we crept into the visitor’s center parking lot and perused our hike options with the park guide. After we got setup at Campground A, Site #1, we had a fiery red sunset, a night of crazy stars and moonscape long exposures. Up before the sun hit our camp, we headed for the Chesler Park Loop. An amazing other world experience of needle formations, boulder hopping, an awesome tight narrow canyon called “The Joint”, a cairn filled cave, and a strenuous, make that grueling, last few miles out in the midday sun that had us spent by the end of it. There is so much to explore in this park, we barely scratched the surface. It’s beautiful in its vast simplicity, surrounded by sand castle-like needle spires was somewhat comforting, protecting. Yet this is a park not to be taken lightly. Pack a TON of water, rest often, and plan your hikes as best you can. The terrain was difficult at times just on our hike, and we only saw maybe a dozen people total on our multi hour 10 mile hike. This is a place I would LOVE to come back to for some short day stint hikes into a multi day backcountry experience. So many great little tucked away campgrounds with crazy vibrant night skies.

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Canyonlands Needles Outpost

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Campground A, Site #1

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Cave Spring Loop through an old cowboy camp

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Historic pictographs

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Ephemeral pools, or potholes, just above our campsite, that play host to a variety of desert resistant life

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Cairn City
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Day 5 and 6 was our movement time. We had an in between to head north and we knew there was a ton to see along the way. Driving out of the Grand Canyon, we knew we had to stop at Monument Valley National Monument on the way. I’d always seen the pictures, the Forrest Gump scene, the cultural impact the location has had on the world’s view of the “American West.” Amazingly for us, we pulled into the main visitor center, which was closed, but heard distant music and people stirring just nearby. Closing in, we noticed a local Navajo community event happening. Complete with tribal dancing, traditional wear, and people of all ages, it was a perfect welcome into the area. Hitting the main loop road in late afternoon turned out to be the best decision. We had time and everyone else was making their way out of the area of the day. It’s a pretty magical place when you stop and think of all the lore, the history, the tribal lands, the crazy magnitude of nature that formed such a place with its monolithic mesas. Kicked up dust and the lowering light made for a visual feast that afternoon.

In search of a spot for the night we veered west when we hit Monticello, UT and just after sunset slowly drove our way into Manti-La-Sal National Forest, a massive 1.2 million acre, broken up forest with numerous peaks, Mount Peale topping them out at 12,721 ft.  After some failed attempts and uber creepy looking campsites, we found a perfect spot at Buckboard camp, site #8. We set up camp late that night, got a fire going, had some sneaky deer come right up on us, and fell asleep under the whispering Aspen trees overhead. Up early, we decided to leisurely drive our way through the national forest. Climbing up and up around Aspens, through creeks, along Elk Ridge Bypass and then down into some nerve racking desert terrain that seemed to switch instantly to a death trap. Pushing through, Megan was a trooper through our 50 miles or so of twists and turns, up and downs, iffy drop-offs, and the potential of us having to ration our water for days. We FINALLY made it out after having to drive through a moving creek overflow near the final 50 yards to the main highway. Manti-La-Sal, a place not be taken lightly. Both beautiful and terrifyingly remote at the same time.

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