New Explorations

I spent the Labor Day weekend exploring some new locations. It just so happened that the holiday weekend coincided with new moon. Milky Way photography is best photographed during new moon, when the sky is dark. Originally, I was planning to explore the bristlecone pine area of the White Mountains and the petroglyphs around the Bishop area. But I found out the bristlecone pine groves are closed at 10 PM and it was just too smoky to explore around Bishop.  So, I set my sights further east.
My first thoughts were Utah, but after doing some internet exploration I settle on a remote area in New Mexico, known as the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Study Area. This area is very remote and requires travel over miles of dirt roads, and dirt tracks. I did as much research as possible and had a pretty good idea of how to get where I was going.  The challenge would be not only finding the trailheads to the various locations I wanted to visit, but also being able to find my way back to my vehicle in the dark.
The wilderness area is out of cell phone range and miles from any cities or towns. I had to be totally self-sufficient and download any maps I would need ahead of time. I would have very limited communication with anyone the whole time I was out there.
My first stop was at the trailhead for Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness, which is actually right off a nice dirt road. Unfortunately, I arrived a bit late and only had time to eat a quick meal and hike the ½ mile trail to the edge of the canyon.  From there it is another ¼ mile scramble down into the canyon and over the other side where I found my first hoodoos to photograph.  Before I left the car, I opened the app, All Trails, and turned on the tracking feature, that laid down a track of my route. When I got down into the bottom of the canyon, I placed a marker, so I would be able to find my route back out of the canyon in the dark. I didn’t have much time to explore since the sun would be going down shortly, so I set up a composition amongst the first formations I came across.
There was not a soul around, it was perfectly silent, I didn’t even hear any insects.  On occasion a moth would fly into the beam of my lights, but that was the only other living thing I saw all night.
I took a few pictures as the sun just set, and then took a few more during “blue hour.” I planned on using the blue hour images as foregrounds for my Milky Way images.
When it began getting dark, I looked around for what I thought would be the best formations to use as foreground elements. Using the PhotoPills app on my phone, I was able to judge exactly where the Milky Way would appear at a given time, and I set my tripod down and began placing my lights. I took a series of images of the foreground as I placed my lights, solar lanterns (,  until I got the lighting I wanted. I photographed the foreground at 1000 ISO for 15 sec at f/9. Once I was satisfied with my foreground, I changed the camera to ISO 10,000; 6 sec; f/3.2 and set the interval timer to record 24 images that I planned to stack in StarryLandscapeStacker for the sky portion of the image.
Here is what I got when combining the blue hour image with the star image.

untitled-210904-_WAL1026-Edit.jpgMilky Way, Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Study Area, NM
Foreground -15 sec; f/10; ISO 64; 15mm; Nikon D850; Tamron 15-30mm G2
Sky- 24 exposures 6 sec; f/3.2; ISO 10,000; 30mm; stacked with StarryLandscapeStacker; Nikon D850; Tamron 15-30mm G2


Here is what I got  when lighting the foreground with the Luci Candle lanterns.


Milky Way, Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Study Area, NM
Foreground -15 sec; f/9; ISO 1000; 15mm; Nikon D850; Tamron 15-30mm G2
Sky- 24 exposures 6 sec; f/3.2; ISO 10,000; 15mm; stacked with StarryLandscapeStacker; Nikon D850; Tamron 15-30mm G2


This time of year, the Galactic Center, the most detailed part of the Milky Way, is only visible for a few hours before it sets below the horizon. It didn’t take long for this to be blocked by the formations in the foreground, so at about 10:30 I decided to head back to my car and get some sleep.
I easily found my way back down to the wash, and located my marker to the “trail” I wanted to follow to the top of the canyon.  Once I got to the top, I began heading in the direction I came from, but quickly discovered there were no landmarks to mark my way out.  Fortunately,  there was a stake with a ribbon on it that I located in my flashlight beam and that led to another set of stakes, with reflective tape on top, that pointed me out. I used the All Trails app to help me find my way back, but I noticed the GPS feature in the phone was not quite working correctly. (First time with this phone on a trip.) It would dart me off track and wander around, but eventually came back to my current location.  This was a little discomforting, but I managed to find the obvious route out and got back to my car safely.
The next day I decided to explore the region a bit more and see if there were any other formations I wanted to use as foregrounds for that night’s star images. I was a bit concerned when the GPS on my phone could not find my location and told me to get into an open area. As it was, I could see 50 miles in every direction, and I was on a wide open plain. Not a good sign. I grabbed my camera and hiked back down to the canyon to go exploring. I noticed on the map I had downloaded that someone had marked an area with “Yellow hoodoos” and I decided to try and find them.  That’s when I realized my GPS was not going to make this easy. For quite a while it could not find my location and I was wandering around trying to find my way and kept running into dead ends. Then when it did find my location it acted erratically. I would walk 5 yards one direction and the GPS would show I went 50 yards the opposite way, and then it would wander all around and eventually make its way back to me. I ended up wandering around for quite a while, and eventually did find some yellow covered hoodoos but was not able to determine if I was in the correct location due to my wacky GPS.


IMG_0132.jpgYellow Hoodoos - I think
iPhone X


That evening I made my way back to the area I had spent the night before, because I was comfortable with the fact that I could find my way out again.
This is my favorite image from the second night.


Milky Way, Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Study Area, NM
Made from a stack of- 24 exposures 6 sec; f/3.2; ISO 10,000; 15mm; stacked with StarryLandscapeStacker; Nikon D850; Tamron 15-30mm G2


The following morning, I headed over to a different section of the area, known as Valley of Dreams. It was quite difficult to find my way in due to the GPS.  I had downloaded several maps of the area and written directions of where to turn, but since the GPS was moving all around, I had a difficult time finding the 2 rutted tracks that led off the dirt road to the location.  When I finally made my way to what is the official trailhead, I realized that I would never be able to find my way back to the car, since I would be walking over 1 mile in flat, unmarked wilderness with no landmarks.  I remembered reading someone else’s account of  another parking place that was near a wash that led to the formations and I followed the map and found this parking spot. It was in the middle of absolutely nowhere, but I figured I could walk the wash to the Valley of Dreams and not get lost.
I had a quick bite for lunch and followed the wash towards the Valley of Dreams.  When I got close, I spotted a marker at the top of the wash and preceded along a well-worn trail to the formation. When I got there, I could see a lot of different hoodoos and interesting rock formations as well as a lot of petrified wood.

6900-210906-_WAL1696.jpgFirst View of Valley of Dreams


Petrified Log and Wood


I had no idea where to go to see the main formations that I was looking for. So, I pulled out my downloaded map with the trail marked and proceeded to try and find it with my Phone/GPS/All Trails app.
I was laying down a track, so that I could find my way back, but my GPS went haywire!  Here is part of the track it created and believe me I only walked about 75 yards in any one direction.


Haywire track laid down by my GPS


With the GPS randomly moving me about, I had no chance of finding my way.  I searched for almost 3 hours trying to pick up the trail using the GPS and had no luck.  So, I decided that I would find some other interesting formation that was close and easy to find, so that I could come back later in the day and prepare for my night images. Frustrated and mad, I trudged back the one and half miles to my car.
After eating a big meal and loading up my camera gear and plenty of water, I hiked back to the location I had found.  It was about 6:00 PM and sunset was not until about 7:30. I decided I had some time to look around. I was really hoping I could find my way to the formations I was seeking. I pulled out my phone, just to see what was happening, and it appeared that the GPS was working. I decided I was going to lay down a track to find my way back, but that I was just going to search by looking for well worn paths. The problem was there were many. But I did find a path that was going east and upward and looked like there were lots of footprints heading that way, so I followed it. I kept skirting the main cluster of formations and seemed to be climbing up above the formation.  Once I got up on the back side of the formation, I found lots of really interesting hoodoos, and was hoping I was getting close. The sun was getting lower and I knew I didn’t have a lot of time. I walked between a group of hoodoos and came across “The Giant Mushroom” and realized I was there!  At that point I checked the phone and it appeared to have laid down a track of the path I took, so I turned off the phone to conserve battery. Just beyond the “mushroom” was “Alien Throne,” the formation I was after.

I took pictures as the sun was setting and was scouting locations for the Milky Way.  PhotoPills once again showed me where I needed to stand to place the Milky Way just off center of the throne. Once the sun set, I began placing lights, and spent the next hour getting the lights in place as it was getting darker and darker. I used five Luci Candle Lanterns to light the throne and the other hoodoos nearby. I lowered the ISO and made my foreground images using a setting of 20 sec; f/7.1; ISO 1000; 15mm with my Tamron 15-30mm G2 lens. I actually bracketed a few shots lowering the shutter speed to make sure I had images where I was not over lighting the hoodoos. Then once it was dark, and the Galactic Core was visible, I began shooting my high ISO, short exposure images for stars. I took 24 exposures at 6 sec; f/3.2; ISO 10,000, knowing I was going to stack them in StarryLandscapeStacker to create the Milky Way portion of the picture.
I took a couple of different versions of the composition.

6900-210906-_WAL1902-Alien Throne-IG.jpg

Alien Throne and Milky Way, Valley of Dreams, NM
Foreground comprised of 4 exposures of rock elements, sky is 24 images stacked in StarryLandscapeStacker; 6 sec; f/3.2; ISO 10,000, 15mm; Nikon D850; Tamron 15-30mm G2; lights by Luci Lantern

untitled-210906-_WAL1855-Edit-IG.jpgAlien Throne and Milky Way, Valley of Dreams, NM
Foreground -20 sec; f/7.1; ISO 1000; 15mm; Nikon D850; Tamron 15-30mm G2
Sky - 24 images 6 sec; f/3.2; ISO 10,000; 15mm; Nikon D850; Tamron 15-50mm G2; stacked in StarryLandscapeStacker


And then I decided to leave. I packed all my gear back up and walked about 15 yards and came back to the mushroom and decided I needed to take one more picture.  So, I unpacked everything, put the camera on the tripod, placed my lights, took test shots with the lights in different positions and finally came up with one more picture.

6900-210906-_WAL1934-Mushroom Good Min Horizon Noise-IG.jpg"Giant Mushroom", Valley of Dreams, NM
24 images; 6 sec; f/2.8; ISO 10,000; 15mm; Nikon D850; Tamron 15-30mm G2; stacked with StarryLandscapeStacker


It was 10:15 PM and now it was time to head back.  I knew the only way I was going to make it back down was if the GPS worked, if not I was going to have to curl up on the ground and try and get some sleep and wait until the sun came up.  I pulled out my phone and at first it took the GPS a bit longer than I felt comfortable with to find me, but it did. I started using All Trails and the track I laid down to return and it seemed to be working. It was still a challenge to retrace my steps in the dark, and there was a few moments when the GPS got a little weird and I thought I might have to sit down for a few hours, but it bounced back and I was able to get down the hill with only a few wrong turns.
Once I got back to the wash, I knew I was safe, and I didn’t need the GPS any longer. I just had to meander my way back to the marker I had placed in the wash. I got back to the car a little after midnight, tired but very happy to be back safe and sound.
The GPS continued to give me fits all the way home leaving me in the same location on the highway for 50 minutes at a time, or showing me I was half a mile off the interstate in the middle of the desert, or showing I exited and went into towns that were half a mile away. Fortunately, I had insurance on my phone and was able to replace it after getting home.  I never want to go through that again!

I hope you enjoyed the pictures and the story.