Pueblo Bonito

20130411-DSC_0087-2    Sometime in the early 800s AD, tiny far-flung groups of pre-Puebloans in the Four Corners region began to coalesce around a site located in a very remote Chaco Canyon. For nearly 400 years, the Chaco culture grew and prospered before collapsing around 1250, scattering its peoples across the Southwest. What they did left behind has been an enigma to archeologists since serious archeology began in 1896. Splendid, multi-storied ruins of magnificent architecture,  an extensive road system, an astounding understanding of astronomy still offers scientists and historians great puzzles for anyone who would explore and understand it.  Located along the shallow expanse of Chaco Wash there are dozens of small habitations, as well as ten Great Houses, the construction and use of which lies at the heart  of what’s now called the Chaco Phenomenon.  The greatest of these Great Houses is Pueblo Bonito, maybe the most recognized and investigated Ancestral Pueblo ruin in the Southwest.

Located at the very literal center of the Chaco universe, Pueblo Bonito, is a huge, multi-storied D-shaped Great House structure which, within it’s full two acres, rose more than four stories, contained more than 600 rooms, two huge, symmetrical plazas, nine Great Kivas and more than 30 more small kivas and ritual spaces. Building began around 850 AD and continued in stages over the next 300 years. Pueblo Bonito today offers the visitor a magnificent example of Ancestral Puebloan architecture and construction technique.  It’s symmetry is amazing, as demonstrated in it’s special alignment, which orients the building walls simultaneously to solar, lunar and cardinal directions.

All this goes to inform the conclusion of most archeologists that Pueblo Bonito was much more of a ritual center than a place of residence; a place to visit rather than a place to live. Evidence here is based on the physical structure of the ruin, limited habitation findings within and without the ruins, as well as the finding many small farming dwellings throughout the area.

From a photographer’s point of view, Pueblo Bonito is a place you can play all day. Capturing the ruins in their setting is a must—hugging the colorful vertical cliffs of Chaco Canyon. You’ll also be able to walk completely around the perimeter, observing unique architectural features and distinctive masonry, then stroll around the broad plazas and examine the several subterranean Great Kivas enroute. The southwest corner of the ruin is accessible for viewing—you can explore a large section of interconnected rooms  with beautiful doorways and windows.  A great perspective of Pueblo Bonito can be had by ascending the short Pueblo Alto trail for a top down view of the Pueblo ruins. Obviously the light changes throughout the day, but you’ll almost always be able to find good conditions throughout the complex.


A part of the National Park System, Chaco Culture National Historic Park is located in northwestern New Mexico  It’s also designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Park is also located near the eastern edge of the Navajo Nation.

Chaco Canyon is a lot easier to get to than you may have heard—until it’s not. Located in San Juan County on Hwy 550, the well signed turnoff  onto  CR 7900, is located just a few miles southeast of the Navajo community of Nagazzi at milepost  112.5. Exit and follow the signs  west for 21 miles, of which eight are paved and the remaining 13 are on rutted clay which can become gooey and impassible when wet and wildly ungraded when dry. Nevertheless, it’s worth the effort.  Watch the weather at all times of the year. Summers can be blazing hot and the winters cold and occasionally snowy. July and August are monsoon season and thunder storms are a regular feature. Contact the Park at (505) 786-7014 if you want the most up-to-date weather and road conditions.

Chaco Canyon has a small admission charge as do other Parks, so stop at the Visitors Center, which the best place to familiarized. It’s also where to arrange for camping if you plan to spend the night. Like other NPS Visitors Centers, this one is awesome—books, pamphlets, maps, displays and lots of good information.

The paved  road up Chaco Wash is one of those famous NPS one-way loops, which means you can pull over to look without taking your life in your hands; no extended parking though because all  of the major Great Houses on this route have designated parking. Each site also has a very informative interpretative pamphlet available at the trailhead—also to found at the Visitors Center.

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Tame Bright Light with a Polarizer

Cameras and Lenses    Some photographers use them, some don’t and a few don’t even know what they are. In brief, a polarizer is a lens-mounted filter that organizes incoming light to eliminate random reflection—a major daylight hazard for Southwest photographers. Today’s standard is a circular polarizer which adjusts via a rotating bezel to create to the exact amount of reflection that’s appropriate for your photographic intention.

So do you use a polarizer? Here are a couple of good reasons why you might want to start:


With the enchanting light we have here in New Mexico, comes a stunning amount of daytime reflection. And while our eyes are able to compensate, our cameras aren’t as smart. Reflected light can radically skew the readings you get with your dSLR’s light meter, resulting in enough overexposure to blow out highlights, suppress coloration and generally ruin your image.

With just a twist of your polarizer’s bezel, you can eliminate as much reflection as you’d like. Glass will become clear, water will become clear, and glare will no longer plague your light meter, providing real data for a correct exposure.


When you remove reflection, you also open the door to true color. Want a stunningly saturated color shot without having to wait for a gray, cloudy day? Want a darkened sky and great cloud definition? Your polarizer will deliver the goods.

A Few Notes

Because your polarizer blocks reflection, it also takes a piece out of the total light coming into your lens. Up to two “stops,” meaning that your either have to change your aperture, shutter speed, ISO or all three. Usually not a problem in midday light, reflection in lower light situations may have you thinking past your light meter readings.

Just about every filter manufacturer: Tiffen, Hoya, Singh-Ran, etc. makes a polarizer. Some may be better than others; certainly the cost will vary. I buy all my lens accessories from B&H, Adorama or through Amazon, but I wouldn’t forget my local retailer in a pinch.


Pecos National Historic Park

Pecos Kiva    Nestled beneath the forested fingers of the southern Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the varicolored north wall of Glorieta Mesa, the juniper, pinon and pine woodlands of the Pecos Valley have long offered a direct pathway  between the upper Rio Grande Valley on the west, and the Great Plains to the east.  As a result, the Pecos Valley has been a crossroads of culture, commerce and conflict for at least 7000 years of human experience. A Towa speaking pueblo was established in the Valley around 1200 AD. In 1541, the Spanish conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado passed through in search of treasure on the Great Plains. Subsequent waves of Spanish colonists brought both agricultural innovations and the tender mercies of Christianity to the indigenous inhabitants. Plains Indians later traveled west on horseback to alternately trade with and terrorize the peoples of the Rio Grande Valley. In March of 1862, a Confederate force traveled up the Rio Grande Valley on a mission to seize the Colorado Goldfields. They were thwarted by Union forces at the Battle of Glorieta Pass, in what became most westerly battle of the Civil War.

Amazingly, this complex, centuries long  historical saga is now assembled under the aegis of the Pecos National Historic Park, a unit of the National Park Service that was established in 1990 to preserve and interpret the diverse cultural resources that this wonderful site offers.  There are three major components to be explored

Excavated between 1915-1929 by famed archeologist A.V. Kidder, Cicuye was a prosperous and powerful pueblo that grew to five stories and housed more than 2000 inhabitants. An interpretative trails runs through the ruins of both the north and south pueblo structures. Kidder backfilled his excavations in order to preserve them for further study, so only a few above ground structures remain: mostly low walls and several uncovered kivas.  Still, the site is picturesquely pastoral and worth your attention. Two subsurface, ladder accessible kivas do remain open for your exploration.  The Visitors Center will provide you with an interpretative guide to what you’re viewing and/or photographing, both here and the church area.

Mission Nuestra Senora de los Angeles de los Porciuncula de los Pecos,  which dominates the central site area, is the last of several mission structures to occupy this location. The first was build in 1619 and remained the hub of Franciscan activity until 1680, when it was violently destroyed during the Pueblo Revolt. When the Spanish returned in 1692, with a more enlightened attitude towards the Towas, the current structure was built and remains until today, albeit in a significantly deteriorated condition. The laddered kiva most adjacent to the church was built during the Revolt  as a native comment on Catholic Christianity’s occupation. Today, the church remains a beautiful rock and adobe structure, compelling to photographers and other visitors

The Civil War component to the Park is comprised of two remote sites: Canoncito and Pigeon’s Ranch. These sites, located in the dense juniper/pinon woodlands of the lower valley, are open to viewing on a limited basis. More information and access details can be obtained at the Visitors Center.

IF YOU GO . . .

Pecos National Historic Park can be found 17 miles east of Santa Fe, and is accessible from I-25. Take Exit 307 and follow signs north for several miles to the Park entrance, located on the left-hand side of the road. Facilities include an interpretative center, bookstore and restrooms. An entrance fee is charged and camping is not available.

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Shiprock, Part One

Shiprock Part One    Here’s a mountain with a story. Towering almost 1600’ above the desolate plain of far northwestern New Mexico, Shiprock is one of several sacred mountains within the Dine homeland.  An exposed ancient neck of an extinct volcano, its Navajo name is Tse Bit’a’, which loosely means “rock with wings.” With a little imagination, most folks can imagine it’s great plumage spreading down it’s massive basalt towers .

For years, photographers have been drawn to capture Shiprock’s majesty.  In that spirit, I recently made this trek from Albuquerque and, despite my very best efforts, I still managed to arrive at the site about 1 PM. The light was great, but only for reading, not so good for photography. What DID look a lot better to me (and better lighting) was this great, 10’ wide magma spine that extends directly south for at least two miles from the base of the monolith. Windows in the basalt formation create definition along the length of the formation, which has this really amazing sweep of sand, straight out of a Star Wars scene and a tribute to how hard the wind blows in this part of the world. I made shot 25-30 images before exiting. I’ll be back.

IF YOU GO . . .

From the Navajo Nation town of Shiprock in the far northwest corner of New Mexico, head south on NM 491 for about five miles, then west on Navajo 13.Just before where the highway crosses the massive volcanic dike, turn north onto the well defined dirt road and head as far as you want towards the base of Ship Rock—it’s absolutely impossible to miss. Do be careful of this dirt track though, as it appears that it might become impassable in wet weather.

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The Santa Fe Plaza

Old Santa Fe Hippie    In 1610, the new governor of Nueva Espana, Don Pedro de Peralta, moved the provincial capital from its first location at San Gabriel to a new and improved site further southeast, which he named Santa Fe. Thus began a chain of events leading to its current position as the epicenter of the New Age Cowboy universe. Ground zero is the Santa Fe Plaza.

This historic pueblo plaza has seen great events. As the capital city, Santa Fe was the terminus of El Camino Real, the administrative kings highway that connected  this provincial capital to its colonial mothership many many miles to the south in Mexico City. In 1822, commercial traders from the Mississippi town of St. Louis arrived in the Plaza, the completion of the general route of the Santa Fe Trail. The current Palace of the Governors is the original Palacio, and has seen the administration by Spaniards, Mexicans and finally in 1846, an American presence in the person of Stephen Kearney and his federal Army of the West. 3,800 Confederate soldiers visited in 1862 but only stayed a few weeks due to their defeat at the nearby Battle of Glorieta Pass by Union forces.

The Santa Fe Plaza remains the premier gathering point for The City Different. Annually, the plaza sees more than 100,000 visitors, amazing for what is really just a tiny city park. Home to the justly famous Spanish Market, Indian Market, the festivities of Fiestas de Santa Fe and many other community events, the Plaza virtually teems with photo subjects every weekend and daily throughout the summer and fall months.

This is a great place for street photography: jewelry selling under the Palacio’s south portico, street performers, a multitude of tourists of every sort, old hippies, new vagrants and the ever-presence of local characters going about the serious business of local-ness. Anywhere is a good place to start for photographers who enjoy the challenge of capturing people being people. Plan to go everwhere and spend some time at it. If you feel that you’ve tapped out the Plaza, consider strolling the side streets too. St. Francis Cathedral is just east on San Francisco Street. There are a multitude of galleries, few of which appreciate photographers making photographs.

IF YOU GO . . .

Santa Fe is a walk-around town, and you can expect to have lots of company. On-street parking is frequently available, except during street festivals or weekends, when you’re better off heading for one of the several city parking lots in the area. There are lots of ways of getting into Santa Fe, so I won’t belabor driving directions except to say that I’m pretty burned out on that cavalcade of conspicious commerce —Cerrillos Road—and always prefer taking St. Francis, coming from the south, off I-25.

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Claret Cup

Claret Cup cactus    Last spring, while wandering around at sunset, deep in the Ghost Ranch backcountry of northern New Mexico, I came across this beautiful specimen. Actually “came upon” is a misnomer because it turns out that watching amazing light play across towering rock walls and watching where I put my feet are two entirely different processes.  So as I stooped to remove a giant spine that had embedded in the side of my sandal, I realized that I was nose-to-nose with the ever wonderful Claret Cup cactus (Echinocereus triblochidatus) . Also known as a hedgehog cactus, this low growing, bluish green cactus with wicked 2” spines grows in mid elevation rocky areas, from 4-9000’. Red to red-orange blooms display from late spring through mid-summer, blooms that are followed in turn by  1” fruit, which are edible provided you know how to de-spine them.

Exposure data:  Nikon D5000, Nikkor 18-105mm, f/5.6 at 1/13 sec. ISO 100

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Blue River Overlook

20120508-DSC_0288    Heading west from the tiny village of Abiquiu, NM 64 rises gently, then abruptly to crest the escarpment that forms the eastern edge of the Piedra Lumbre country. Traveling this road, unpaved in 1935, Georgia O’Keefe paused to conceive what has now become one of her most famous works: “Blue River.” From the bottom of the hill to the top of the crest, this twisting upper portion of narrow road, affords, even after all these years, only one safe place to pull over and take in the view. It is where O’Keefe stopped, looked and created art and now, so can you.

Before you, and just below this scenic overlook you occupy, the Chama River emerges from colorful red rock cliffs and makes a lazy curve before disappearing east into the cottonwood bosque. There’s no end of photographic opportunities from this perch, but you can easily descent to riverside for an idyllic forest experience, some interesting geology and a vastly different viewpoint on the varicolored slopes before you.

IF YOU GO . . .

The overlook I’ve mention is located on the south side of the road and is a shallow turnout that can hold 4-5 cars. Depending on which way you’re arriving, the spot is about .3 mile down from the crest of the escarpment, or about .5 mile up from the bottom of the hill. It’s a steep precipice so I wouldn’t  move too far past the highway barricade, if at all. Access to the river is also found at the base of the hill, where a dirt road drops down to a small parking area and metal barricade. Don’t block access for other drivers and the local ranchers. Past the barricade heading west, the roadbed follows the course of the river for about as far as you’d care to take it.

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Snakeweed    A native plant that’s not nearly as interesting as its more intriguing name, Snakeweed Broom (Gutierrezia sarotbae) grows abundant but non-descript  across the broad expanses of upland New Mexico. It’s the bane of livestock range managers. Native peoples used it as an emetic.

For much of the year, Snakeweed exists as a ground hugging bush, short, compact and colored a deserty, flaxen drab. Appealingly, it does come somewhat alive at sunrise and sunset,  when you can briefly catch it displaying glowing gold in backlight.

Snakeweed gives it all for springtime. Come late March and continuing through mid summer, it fills out in green—specifically a florescent, mind-blowing green! Add the swiss-cheesy chocolate brown basalt of Albuquerque’s volcanic West Mesa escarpment and here’s what you get—a photo that some folks think is just over processed, Trust me, it isn’t.

IF YOU GO . . .

Because I know the Albuquerque hinterlands particularly well, I’ll suggest that just about anywhere on the West Side is good for hunting the wild Snakeweed.  If you were to ask specifically, I’d suggest a trip to The Volcanoes via Paseo de Volcan, or head into one of the escarpment canyons:  Rinconada, Boca Negra or Piedras Marcadas being the largest, and their accompanying mesas. Piedras Marcadas Canyon is a particularly good choice, because it can be accessed both before sunrise and after sunset.

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What Gear I Carry

Cameras and Lenses    Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so many years schlepping multi-day backpacks into the mountains, sometimes plus the weight of climbing gear, ski gear or both, or maybe it’s because I’ve gotten a lot more crafty and/or a lot less ambitious, what I now know for sure is that lighter is most certainly better and invariably easier.  And what is also clear to me is that this awareness has informed my photography in a really big way.

Just as with mountain travel, running around the photoscape with a limited, well thought out selection of the right gear is a lot more enjoyable and frequently more effective that carrying around the whole camera store. Ergo, the ability to be more light and agile on the shoot has huge benefits when photographing with people, wildlife and more. So after much thought and tinkering, here’s what I carry for available light photography in both benign and sketchy  weather conditions:

  • Nikon D5000 body with a Lowepro Transporter, quick release camera strap
  • Nikkor 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-S DX VR ED lens
  • Nikkor 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6 AF-S DX VR ED lens
  • Microfiber lens cleaning cloth
  • Tiffen Circular Polarizers for each lens
  • Tiffen UV Filters for each lens
  • Extra Nikon EN-EL9a camera battery
  • Lexar 8GB SDHC memory card plus at least two extras
  • Kata DT 211 Sling Torso Pack with raincover that carries it all easily and comfortably
  • Apple iPhone 4s, my constant companion

When I need stability in low light, I will happily tote a Manfrotto Monopod with a quick release ball head . Not so happily, I’ll bring an aluminum Bogen tripod capped with the afore mentioned ball head if necessary.


At the end of the day, consider that great images are created by great photographers and not by the quantity or even quality of equipment that’s carried. So once again, as with most things, it’s not what you have, but how you use it that counts the most. Happy shooting!

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The Original Mission Churches of New Mexico

St. Augustine Mission Church, Isleta, NM    When Don Juan Onate began his Entrada into the farthest north province of Nueva Espana in 1598, he brought with him 18 Franciscan priests for the purpose of Christianizing the native peoples he expected to encounter. Central to this royal charge was to be the building of Mission Churches, in or very near the major pueblo communities that they expected to encounter. Lots of building happened over the next 100 years.

As you’ll note from this Duotone image that I made earlier this year, these are large buildings with massively thick walls and soaring buttresses; they were constructed from  local stone and/or adobe and in a style that was easy for the inexperienced pueblo workers to construct. The missions were physically imposing by design as well as being majestically fortress-like, the better to impress and to protect the faithful.  It was protection that they regularly needed from predatory native neighbors  and, during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, from the oppressed and vengeful pueblo inhabitants themselves.

Traveling around northern New Mexico, you’re bound to run into churches that look just like the missions. The difference is not in appearance, since the mission style was easy to build by design, but that these other churches were built by and for the Spanish Colonial faithful. Native and Spanish congregations were not usually found near to each other because they usually represented different life stations and spiritual expectations.

IF YOU GO . . .

Photographers have been drawn to the New Mexico Mission Churches since cameras were invented. illuninaries like Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Paul Strand visited and made fantastic images in the ‘20s and ‘30s;  armies of professionals and amateurs have followed since. Is it your turn now—or again?

Because the original Mission Churches were built in pueblo communities, many are well preserved to this day. Unfortunately for photographers, picture taking is not permitted at most pueblos, so while you are welcome to visit, that’s about it.

Fortunately there are exceptions. Pueblos that do now, or have allowed photography in the past include, Acoma,  San Illdefenso, Picuris and Taos. Be sure to call ahead to each pueblo’s Governors Office for the most up-to-date information.

Acoma                                  800-747-0181

Picuris                                   575-587-2519

San Ildefonso                       505-455-2273

Taos                                      505-758-9593

Mission Nuestra Senora de Perpetuo Socorro (1598) and now know as San Miguel Mission, is located in Socorro, NM and is considered to be the oldest in-use church in the U.S. Photography is permitted.

The Salinas Missions National Monument is purposed to preserve the remains of three Mission Churches and related physical and cultural resources. These mission sites are located on the edge of the vast eastern plains of New Mexico. They include: Mission Nuestra Senora de Purisima Concepcion de Quarai is located at the Quarai site. Mission San Isidro is located at the Gran Quivira site and Mission San Gregorio de Abo is located at the Abo site. Call 505-847-2585 for more information.  Photography is permitted, subject to Park hours.

The Mission San Jose de los Jemez ruins are located at Jemez State Monument, just north of the village of Jemez Springs.  Call 575-829-3530 for more information. Photography is permitted, subject to Park hours. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

The ruins of Mission Nuestra Senora de los Angeles de Porciuncula and associated cultural resources is part of the larger Pecos National Historic Park, which also includes the Civil War battlesite of Glorieta Pass. Located just outside of the town of Pecos, NM. Call 505-757-7200 for more information. Photography is permitted, subject to Park hours.

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