National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson gave some of the best photography advice I’ve heard: “If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff.”
In that spirit I planned another road trip, this time centered around New Mexico. I wanted to check out Albuquerque’s annual Balloon Fiesta, where more than 500 hot air balloons take flight at dawn. I wanted to see the incredible dunes at White Sands National Monument. And I wanted to re-visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park, because the first time I went – back in 2006 – poor tripod technique prevented me from getting good photos. On the way to New Mexico and back I also intended to make a few other stops, including the Kelso Dunes, Grand Canyon National Park, Petrified Forest National Park, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Saguaro National Park, the Imperial Sand Dunes, Salvation Mountain, and the Salton Sea.
I never get tired of photographing sand dunes. The sun and wind orchestrate a landscape of constantly changing shapes, patterns, and shadows. It’s simultaneously simple and amazingly complex. The experience of walking on a dune field can be exhilarating – a conflicting mix of desolate vastness, beauty, and pleasant loneliness.
So I’m always on the lookout for new dunes to explore, and I realized that it would be easy to stop by the Kelso Dunes on my way to New Mexico. The Kelso Dunes are in the Mojave National Preserve in southeastern California, and if I left San Francisco early enough I could make it there for afternoon photos.
I arrived at the trailhead to the Kelso Dunes at about 2pm. The sun shone strongly, and according to my car the temperature had already hit triple digits. As I hiked out, lizards darted away from the trail so quickly they didn’t even seem to be touching the ground.
I knew from photos I’d seen that the Kelso Dunes were pretty scrubby, with few areas of vegetation-free sand. But the area was still interesting to see, and the view from the top of the highest dune was worth the hike out, even in the punishing heat.
The dunes were crisscrossed with a huge variety of animal footprints, and – while I certainly may be way off base about this – I spotted a pattern in the sand that looked exactly like photos I’ve seen of sidewinder rattlesnake tracks. After that I became much more interested in watching where I stepped.
I spent the night in Needles, California (where my only previous association had been with Snoopy’s brother Spike), and from there drove straight to Grand Canyon National Park. I’d been to the Grand Canyon several times before, but I’d never been lucky enough to get good light for photos. So I planned to camp at the southern rim that night and photograph the canyon at sunset and sunrise.
I didn’t have to wait long for signs that my luck was better this time. Some interesting clouds moved in before sunset, glowing pink and orange in the fading sun and reflecting warm light into the canyon. I stood happily on a rock outcrop between Mather Point and Yavapai Point and took far too many photos.
The clouds didn’t offer anything special at sunrise, but after the beautiful sunset it would have felt greedy to expect more.