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Getting the Picture.

A national parks photographer takes us on a photo tour of four sites in the Southwest.

IS THE SKY BRIGHTENED in the east at Big Bend National Park, I pulled into the Santa Elena Canyon parking lot. I hopped out, donned my pack, and walked briskly down to the bank of the Rio Grande in the cool morning air.

A canyon wren's descending trill echoed off the canyon walls as I mounted my 4x5 camera on a tripod. As the sun peeked over the horizon, its light painted the 1,500-foot cliffs that tower over the river with pink. I shot frame after frame of large format slide film until the light became too harsh.

Although I photograph National Park System areas all over the country, I always return to the Chihuahuan Desert parks of west Texas and southeastern New Mexico. I spent much of my childhood at Carlsbad Caverns National Park exploring the backcountry and underground areas of that park as well as its sister national park, Guadalupe Mountains. As my photographic career became established, I returned often to photograph these parks along with Big Bend National Park and Fort Davis National Historic Site. Drawn by the endless variety of photographic scenes, I have produced two books on Big Bend and every year produce calendars featuring the parks.

September and October are among my favorite months and early and late in the day, when the heat is most bearable, are usually the best times to photograph the parks. The summer monsoon season tapers off in September, but dramatic skies linger, and the rains bring blooming wildflowers and add some green to the desert. The parks are usually only lightly visited in early fall. Big Bend, Guadalupe Mountains, and Fort Davis all lie partly in cooler mountains, but by mid-October temperatures are pleasant everywhere. The four parks make a great photographic trip; if possible, allow two weeks for a thorough tour.

Big Bend

Start your trip at Big Bend National Park, a more than 800,000-acre park lying on a curve of the Rio Grande in a remote corner of west Texas. The river has carved three major canyons on its path through Big Bend. The mouth of Santa Elena Canyon catches the sun's first light, offering dramatic shots of one of the park's best-known landmarks, and the mouth of Boquillas Canyon, reached by an easy walk, looks best in evening light. Mariscal Canyon requires driving a long, rough dirt road and, for the best photos, a hot, strenuous hike up to the canyon rim. It may be best left until winter. However, if time and money allow, consider taking a river trip to get the best photos. Light is often dim at sunrise and sunset at these canyons; be sure to use a tripod and a slow speed film with saturated colors for best results.

If it gets too hot by the river, move up into the foothills of the Chisos Mountains. The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive offers great views of jagged Mule Ear Peaks, Sotol Vista, and the reddish-brown cliffs of the western ramparts of the Chisos. Even higher in the mountains, cooler temperatures and additional rainfall foster a scrub forest of pine, juniper, and oak. The slopes are often lush with grass and wildflowers in late summer and early fall, including the bright scarlet blooms of shrubby mountain sage, prolific blue dayflowers, and the candelabra-shaped yellow-flowered stalks of agaves. In the Basin, in the heart of the mountains, the Window Trail leads down to Oak Creek, where a small stream winds through a scenic narrow canyon, pouring over cascades before ending in a high waterfall.

Some of the best sunset photos of the park capture panoramic views of mountain and desert from the Lost Mine Trail. It requires a moderately difficult hike, but the reward includes a dramatic landscape of rugged mountain peaks, deep canyons, twisted pines, and pinnacles of eroded red rock. If you wish to photograph sunset on the trail, be sure to take a good flashlight and keep an eye out for rattlesnakes in the cool of evening.

Fit photographers may want to consider the long, strenuous climb to the South Rim, where the high mountains fall away abruptly in massive cliffs. Classic views encompass the Rio Grande more than a vertical mile below and mountains far away in Mexico.

Big Bend has three campgrounds that are open year-round and primitive car-camping sites on backroads. The lodge in the Basin is open all year. Reservations are recommended. Motels, restaurants, and river outfitters lie just outside the park in Study Butte, Terlingua, and Lajitas. For more information, visit the Park Service website at or call 915-477-2251.

Fort Davis

From Big Bend, head north to Fort Davis National Historic Site, which lies in the foothills of the Davis Mountains, where the days are warm and the nights cool. Oaks, pinyons, and junipers dot the lush, grassy volcanic hills, which in early September can be filled with wildflowers. Billowing thunderclouds offer a dramatic addition to photos of this historic frontier fort. The 460-acre park protects the best preserved U.S. military fort in the Southwest. About 20 percent of the original buildings have been restored. The geometric rows of officers' quarters and barracks make great photo subjects against a background of grassy mountains. For the best light, plan to arrive as soon as the park opens in the morning or stay until it closes in the evening. I usually use color slide film, but the old buildings of the fort often tempt me to shoot some black and white, especially if the sky has dramatic clouds.

The charming little town of Fort Davis adjoins the park. It has several motels and bed and breakfasts and most other services. Davis Mountains State Park adjoins the historic site and has plenty of oak-shaded campsites. For more information, visit or call 915-426-3224.

Guadalupe Mountains

In September, Guadalupe Mountains National Park can still be fairly hot, but the slopes are usually lush and green and thunderstorms add drama to the skies. By mid-October, grasses have turned gold and gone to seed and autumn color has begun.

The park is probably most famous for its colorful big-toothed maples in rugged McKittrick Canyon, and the soft light of gray days often gives you the best images of scarlet and gold. The deep, sheer-walled canyon gets heavy use during fall color, especially on weekends. Most areas of the park require hiking, but some trails, such as the one up McKittrick, are easy During the height of color, an early start is advised to avoid the crowds. Stay on the trail; the canyon's delicate vegetation cannot withstand much trampling.

Smith Spring also has good autumn color and fewer people. A relatively easy 2.3-mile loop trail leads to a delicate oasis shaded by maples, oaks, pines, and madrones, whose smooth pink bark offers interesting close-up shots. A stream tumbles into a fern-lined pool under a twisted old maple. Smith Spring offers the best photo opportunities in the soft light of cloudy days.

The towering limestone cliffs of El Capitan Peak, shaped like the prow of a massive ship, are one of the most recognizable landmarks of the Southwest. Unlike many of the park's other destinations, no hiking is necessary. Great images can be obtained along U.S. Highway 62-180 on the south side of the park. The peak turns multiple shades of pink and gold at sunrise and sunset.

Photographers in good condition can hike up into the park's high country. In stark contrast to the desert slopes below, the mountaintops hide a forest of pine, fir, and a few aspen. In early September, the 8,000-foot high country is lush, green, and cool. Wildflowers abound in the meadows. Views from the peaks, especially Guadalupe Peak, Texas' highest point, are unsurpassed. An overnight backpacking trip may be necessary to get sunrise or sunset photos in the high country.

The park maintains two year-round campgrounds, Pine Spring and the more remote Dog Canyon Campground. The closest motels and restaurants he some distance away in White's City and Carlsbad, New Mexico, and Van Horn, Texas. Visit, or call 915-828-3251 for information.

Carlsbad Caverns

Carlsbad Caverns National Park lies an hour away from Guadalupe Mountains National Park and preserves a lower section of the same mountains. Enormous limestone caverns he hidden beneath the stark desert surface.

You will have many opportunities for photos on the three miles of paved trails through the caverns. The existing electric cave lighting used during tours of Carlsbad Caverns changes color on film, so time exposures tend not to work well. Without a lot of lighting equipment and a tripod (not allowed on most tours), it is difficult to photograph large chambers. Try using a faster film and concentrate on photos of formations and small scenes not more than ten to 20 feet away. To create more depth in your photos, use a synch cord and hold your flash several feet away from the camera. Remember to stay on the trail; cave formations are very fragile.

Tours of Slaughter Canyon Cave, located in a remote part of the park, follow a strenuous dirt trail and require flashlights. The area around the Clansman and Christmas Tree formations offers the best photo possibilities of the tour. The eerie Clansman resembles a skull draped with white robes, while the larger Christmas Tree sparkles with thousands of tiny calcite crystals. Reservations are advised for Slaughter Canyon Cave trips.

For surface shots of the park, hike the little-used trails up Slaughter or Yucca canyons into the backcountry. Deep, sheer-walled canyons beg to be photographed, particularly if you are blessed with a dramatic sky Drive the gravel scenic loop that starts near the visitor center late in the afternoon for more possibilities. The overlook of Rattlesnake Canyon offers the best views on the drive.

Restaurants are in the park; all other services can be found in nearby White's City and Carlsbad. For more information, visit or call 505-785-2233.


LAURENCE PARENT is a professional photographer who lives in Manchaca, Texas.
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Title Annotation:photography tips for four national parks in Texas and New Mexico
Publication:National Parks
Geographic Code:1U8NM
Date:Sep 1, 1999
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