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Hikes For A Special Day

Valentine’s Day is for candy, flowers, and love, right? Candlelight dinners and champagne? Sweet nothings whispered into your beloved’s ear?

Or how about great hikes under gorgeous skies in sweet solitude? National monuments and other natural areas don’t close in February weather – they’re still out there to be enjoyed, even if most visitors opt to stay inside.

Choose from three of the best hikes in the west to see if your Valentine has real staying power.

The spiritual, artistic petroglyph hike at Piedra Marcadas

Petroglyph National Monument is home to over 20,000 petroglyphs, chipped into volcanic caprock mostly between 1300 and 1700. It’s next to a metro area with over 500,000 residents, on Albuquerque’s west side. Yet most of the year, it’s pretty quiet, especially in February. Its Piedras Marcadas unit holds 5,000 pristine petroglyphs, showing anything from quail to mountain lions to dancing shamans to stepped cloud terraces to spirals to kokopellis. There are also Christian crosses, carved by Spanish conquistadores in the 1500s and 1600s to counteract what they saw as pagan magic.

Hand panel, Petroglyph National Monument

Are the ‘glyphs representations of epic hunts? Pathways to ancestors, near the exit from the previous world? Ancient graffiti? Since we can’t ask the people who carved them, we’ll never know for sure. Even modern Puebloans disagree on their meaning, but do regard the 17-mile escarpment they’re carved on as a holy place, filled with vestiges of their ancestors. The trail at Piedras Marcadas is a level, sandy 1 ½ miles round trip. That may not sound like much, but I’ve spent several hours there just photographing.

The psychedelic shapes hike at Tent Rocks

Just an hour northwest of Albuquerque, there’s a slot canyon rivaling the better-known slots in Arizona and Utah, with just a fraction of their visitors. Ash and pyroclastic flows from the nearby Valles Caldera super volcano hardened in the area over 6 million years or so. The vaguely-phallic cone-shaped rocks eroded out of the underlying sandstone, forming the protected shapes in Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument.

Slot canyon, Tent Rocks

Water’s erosive power shows especially well in one of the slot canyon’s scattered trees. Its trunk stands five feet above roots laid bare by repeated flash flooding from mountainsides miles away. Banded sandstone is pretty any time of day, but if you see any black clouds anywhere on the horizon or a rain forecast within 100 miles, stay out.

The 600 foot scramble to the cliff summit is worth the sights of the Sangre de Cristo range to the east and downward views of the ‘tents’.

The tough love scramble hike behind Chaco’s Kin Kletso

This one sits at the end of a 10-mile stretch of dirt road, the last three of which are unmaintained by San Juan County. That keeps Chaco Culture National Historical Park nearly deserted in winter. Chaco was the center of a flourishing civilization between 880 and 1150, and was sporadically re-occupied until 1300. Ancestral Puebloans built not one but 13 Great Houses there, rising to three and four stories. Imagine quarrying sandstone blocks, cutting and dragging support timbers over 50 miles, and constructing monumental buildings – with no horses, carts, or metal tools.

Trail to North Mesa behind Kin Kletso

Just west of Pueblo Bonito is the smaller Kin Kletso ruin. It was one of the last Great Houses to be built, and shows architecture similar to the later Mesa Verdean construction further north. It’s also the modern gateway to North Mesa. After scrambling up the crack behind it, you’ll stroll a sandstone bench above the canyon to views of Pueblo Bonito before the trail splits off to climb towards Pueblo Alto and New Alto.

On the trail to Pueblo New Alto

Pueblo Alto excavations indicate sherds of more than 150,000 complete clay pots, far more than permanent residents would have left. Pueblo Alto also has line-of-sight with the Penasco Blanco and Tsin Kletsin Great Houses on South Mesa, and to Huerfano Mesa to the north. Sitting at the terminus of several Chacoan roads, it may have served as a signaling station, in addition to housing pilgrims or other visitors to Chaco.

The modern trail also gives you a view of the Jackson Stairs leading their steep way down to the Canyon floor.

Pueblo New Alto

This one will test your caution and fitness at the end – you return through the crack and down the same rock-littered slope you hiked up behind Kin Kletso.

So there they are – three excellent choices for your New Mexico Valentine’s Day. One of them will be just right for pre-burning the calories from that candlelight dinner.

Shot Notes

Lift Detail From Petroglyphs

Volcanic rock is dark. But your camera wants everything to be 18% grey. To get it looking the way my eye sees it, I underexpose by 3/4 to 2 stops. Unfortunately, this may also begin to darken the petroglyph too. I fix this in the camera a couple ways. First, I’ll use a polarizing filter in mornings and afternoons when I can get the correct angles for it to work well. Polarizers will increase the contrast in any scene without messing up the colors. The catch is that the sun needs to make a 90-degree angle with the axis your lens points to. They’ll work at other angles, but less well. Finally, when the sun is low on the horizon, they don’t work at all.

Then I check the shot for petroglyph detail right after I shoot. A digital camera’s immediate feedback lets me change exposure and composition on the spot if I don’t get what I want. That’s much better than waiting for processed film to come back, long after I took the shot and can’t do anything about it.

For more tips on petroglyph and Pueblo ruin photography in hidden World Heritage sites, you can get my free guide here.

High Contrast Range In Slot Canyons

I start by shooting in raw format – always. To give a sense of place and depth, I included some sky with the slot canyon shots. The story is about the rock – weird shapes, textures, colors – and the water that sculpted it. That meant holding detail in the shadowed depths of those canyons, close to the rock. This served up a very high contrast range, tough for any camera. Fortunately, modern dSLRs and mirrorless cameras capture up to 14 stops of contrast, versus black and white film’s 8 stops or less.

Those canyons were dark, so I set ISO to 2500 to insure a fast enough shutter speed to handhold without shake. I started in aperture priority with 3/4 stop overexposure, checking for blown-out sky after each shot.

No Urban Exclusion Mode For Slots

I chose a wide 24mm for most shots, since I had enough important detail to fill the frame. I also wanted sharp close-up foregound detail with acceptably-sharp distant background, and the 24mm gives lots of depth of field. For tighter compositions, I picked 42mm-65mm. I used f/10 aperture for adequate depth of field In most cases, and focused on those important foreground details.

Why f/10?

With full-frame and especially with APS-C sensors, you start to see sharpness loss from diffraction around f/8 with most lenses. That’s where light diffracted away from the aperture’s edges becomes significant compared to the amount of light heading straight on to the sensor. The diffracted light makes sharp lines in your subject look fuzzy. Stopping down further just makes it worse.

f/10 is a good compromise between sharpness loss and depth of field. It also gives enough depth of field to keep distant backgrounds acceptably sharp at 12×19 print size and 3-foot viewing distances. Remember to ‘err long’ – keep foregrounds sharp, and let the distant stuff go to h$!!. That’s especially important for slot canyons, where the closeup sandstone textures and erosion are your story.

Remember – break that rule if you like what you see in your viewfinder.