2020 Patagonia. ARGENTINA: Bariloche & Los Glaciares. CHILE: Torres del Paine.

The beautiful parks of Patagonia attracted me for a second visit (January 28–March 7, 2020), escaping from dark Seattle winter to sunny South American summer. Meticulous planning created an active outdoor self-guided trip for 40 days with my brother Dave and sister-in-law Rebecca.

Phase 1 began in Argentina with a flight from Buenos Aires to the resort town of Bariloche. For 11 flexible days in a rental car, we looped south on Argentina’s Ruta 40 then returned north via Chile’s Carretera Austral. The trip started strongly with a fun overnight trek to Meiling Refuge, perched high on a flank of glacier-capped Tronador volcano. Seven tall waterfalls plunged from a hanging glacier. Further south we explored Butch Cassidy’s Ranch, Los Alerces National Park, and colorfully prehistoric Cave of Hands. Crossing into Chile towards Andes icecaps encountered twistier gravel roads along Lake General Carrera, to reach dusty Carretera Austral, Ruta CH-7. A 2-hour boat tour revealed the marvels of Marble Chapel Nature Sanctuary. On foot we admired the High Lakes loop in Chile’s new Patagonia National Park; Laguna Cerro Castillo; and Queulat National Park‘s spectacular Hanging Glacier.

In Phase 2, we flew south to El Calafate to rent another car for 14 days. Moreno Glacier’s calving and crashing ice fascinated us for hours from intimate boardwalks. An extra day in town allowed time for cruising remote parts of beautiful turquoise Lake Argentino to see impressive Spegazzini Glacier and more. Further north in Los Glaciares National Park, I re-experienced my favorite piece of Patagonia, based for 10 days in the hikers’ paradise of El Chalten under magnificent Mount Fitz Roy.

In Phase 3, we bused round trip from Argentina’s El Calafate into Chile to trek for 9 days on the wonderful W Route in Torres del Paine National Park. (Dave & Rebecca went on to cruise Antarctica, which unexpectedly added 7 days extra cruising from Ushuaia to Montevideo, Uruguay due to COVID-19 border closures!)

Favorite Patagonia photos from 2020


Click “i” to read descriptive Captions. Click the dotted square to scroll a set of thumbnail images. Add any of the above images to your shopping Cart using my Portfolio. See below for more extensive galleries and stories from each area visited. Or click here to see ALL photos from Patagonia 2020 in sequential order in my Portfolio.

WHAT’S NEW in 2020 since my last visits to Patagonia in 2005 and 1993?

Fulfilled by our 2005 trip to Patagonia and Antarctica, my wife Carol stayed in the USA to do an Asilomar quilt workshop in February 2020.

Still my favorite Patagonian destination, Argentina’s El Chalten resort has expanded since 15 years ago, yet retains a vibrant young pioneer vibe. Founded in 1985 as a stake in a boundary dispute with Chile, El Chalten is the youngest town in Argentina. Its easy-going residents are now here for the love of these majestic mountains. On a flexible schedule optimized with the weather forecast, we hiked many wonderful trails from comfortable lodging. Both traditional Argentine asado (ritual barbecue) and excellent yuppie restaurants have sprouted from the desert steppe. I highly recommend Resto El Muro which serves delicious perfectly-barbecued trout, lamb, beef, and vegetables. Paving the highway RP23 to El Chalten by 2009 has reduced travel time from El Calafate, from 4.5 hours down to 2.5 hours by car (3 hours by bus).

From El Calafate, a short drive into Los Glaciares National Park revisited magnificent Moreno Glacier, which calved and crashed icebergs into Lago Argentino, captured in the following video:

During my 1993 visit with four family members in a new South Korean rental van, we drove and ferried for 25 days round trip from Santiago to Chiloé Island via Chile’s scenic Lake District. On the remote gravel Carretera Austral, reaching 25 km south of Chaiten allowed us to admire yet another Andean volcano, Michinmahuida. South of us lay 730 kilometers of little-known highway reaching as far as Cochrane. We pondered, “what wonders might lie on that rough, remote road?” Some answers came 27 years later on our 2020 trip. In 2017, Michinmahuida became part of Pumalín Douglas Tompkins National Park, which bisects Chile and is South America’s largest national park. After successfully co-founding The North Face and Esprit with his first wife Susie Tompkins Buell, Douglas Tompkins and his second wife Kris Tompkins made the largest ever private gifts of land to a country, leading to the creation of Patagonia National Park (see my photos below), Pumalín, Corcovado, and other parks.

In 2000, pushing Chile’s Carretera Austral to Villa O’Higgins unleashed a new distance-bicycling and pedestrian adventure route connecting into Argentina, via a series of ferries and buses to Lago del Desierto and El Chalten mountain resort. Potholed gravel surface and choking dust haven’t discouraged the many bicycling, busing, and hitchhiking tourists who we encountered emerging from this remote route in 2020!

Today, the Carretera Austral (“Southern Way”, Ruta CH-7) has been completed for 1,240 kilometers (770 miles) from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins, opening previously-isolated rural Patagonia. Only ~100,000 people live along this lifeline, with the largest city being Coyhaique (population 57,000), a thriving hub that bustled with activity during our visit in 2020, as we looped back to Bariloche.

In the remoter parts of Patagonian, finding lodging in high season can be a gamble. Tents, pads, and sleeping bags reassured us as backup and let us stay in Patagonia National Park without paying expensive lodge rates. In cities with cell or Wi-Fi signal, Booking.com (sponsored) served us well to compare and find the next night’s lodging, setting clear expectations at a good discount. Pre-booking with AirBnb.com also proved valuable.

Back in 2005, right as we tried to enter Torres del Paine National Park, a careless camper in an unauthorized area caused a fire which closed the park for 3 days, shortening our planned W Route from 8 days to 5. Sadly in early summer of 2012, another careless camper caused a huge fire which burnt 10% of the Park, creating damage which is still prominently visible from most park roads and along the W Route from Refugio Grey to Skottsberg lake. Majestic forests that I remember from 2005 were decimated, leaving vast areas of eerie twisted tree snags rising from shrubby regrowth. With the help of careful replanting, the slow-growing lenga beech trees will take 200 years to recover. Crowding now impacts some areas such as the Mirador Base Las Torres Trail at midday. At the trail junction entrance to spectacular French Valley, the overused Campamento Italiano reeked of human waste; so “O Route” hikers should instead pay the price premium for Camping Francés or more-scenic Camping Los Cuernos. Thankfully, to prevent the Park from being loved to death, the total overnight capacity is now tightly controlled for both camping and lodging; although consequently, overnight visitors must book 6 months in advance. Despite fire damage, under-staffing, and some overcrowded hot spots, the park remains a magnificent treasure to behold, listed by UNESCO as a World Biosphere Reserve.

In my following video from Torres del Paine National Park, calving icefalls crash in avalanches from Cerro Paine Grande; powerful wind throws Dave off balance on a swing bridge, whips the surface of Skottsberg lake, and whirls mist on Lake Nordenskjöld; and the world’s southernmost parrot species flirts and chirps (the austral parakeet):

Money: US$ cash is king in Argentina

As of February 2020, all Argentine ATMs charge exorbitant fees (8% minimum) and by law restrict the amount withdrawn. I could get at most AR$8000 per transaction with a fixed fee of AR$630 per withdrawal yielding a dismal 56 pesos per US dollar (at Banelco ATM, whereas other ATMs were costlier). To avoid exorbitant ATM fees in Argentina, bring from home enough United States dollars cash as crisp NEW paper $20 and $10 bills. Or if uncomfortable carrying cash on the airplane, then wire US dollars from your home bank to a Western Union office in Argentina (only available in Buenos Aires and a few other major cities) to convert into pesos.

Credit cards are conveniently accepted at almost all groceries and gas stations in Patagonia, but many other businesses may not accept them. Credit cards followed the daily official bank rate (~61 pesos per US dollar), which in Argentina can be 10-25% less than you get for US$ cash at street rates. Make sure your card charges zero international fees, like Costco Visa. Many accommodations accept a credit card to hold the booking but usually give a better rate if paid in cash, especially US$ currency.

As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. To support my work:
Buy any products at Amazon.com | Reserve travel at Booking.com | Sign up for AirBnb.com

Phase 1: Bariloche 11 days car rental: loop Argentina’s Ruta 40 to Chile’s Carretera Austral

Car versus RV or camper

To best explore Patagonia by RV, fly to Puerto Montt or Punta Arenas in Chile. Check out Wicked Campers in Puerto Varas or Punta Arenas. Or try Rolling Patagonia in Coyhaique, in central Patagonia. See “Patagonia flight tips” at bottom for planning logistics.

In Argentina, Bariloche doesn’t yet rent RVs or campers. So several months in advance, we pre-booked a compact car. We found lodging for 9 nights of 12 in Phase 1. The remaining 3 nights used tents, pads, and sleeping bags brought from home (plus sleeping bags were later used once in Phase 2).

Sadly, miscommunication with a third-party booking site (ArgusCarHire) disallowed our initial Argentine rental car to enter Chile, which had been our main goal, starting from Bariloche. If you plan to enter Chile from Argentina, contact your rental car supplier directly (such as Modena in Bariloche) a week in advance to double-check their progress in obtaining a Chile-approved car and required paperwork (about US$60 extra). Luckily, we negotiated a replacement car to come three days later (giving us a superior clutch in a newer vehicle that didn’t require jump-starting).

ARGENTINA: Bariloche and Tronador Section of Nahuel Huapi National Park


Click “i” for informative Captions. Add any above images to your shopping Cart using my Portfolio.

Throughout our flexible 11 days with a car rented from Bariloche, we were able to find lodging or tent-camping either spontaneously or booked a day in advance. Although we had booked both the first and last nights’ accommodations in Bariloche, I regretted that the last night was nonrefundable, because on night 3 we found lakeside Villa Huapi outside of town to be superior in value to our booking at the aging Apart Costa Azul.

An open schedule plus a good weather window realized a spontaneous Friday plan with pinpoint timing: driving from Bariloche to Los Rapidos cutoff point on the road to Pampa Linda Trailhead, before the daily 2:00 pm one-way-road reversal. A sunny mid-afternoon start allowed time to hike 12 kilometers with 1046 meters gain (7.5 miles, 3400 ft up) through a lovely forest with soaring trees, to popular Refugio Otto Meiling, arriving at sunset in time for second dinner! Gardeners like me recognize the bright red drooping flowers of native hardy fuchsia (Fuchsia magellanica) growing in the understory.

Conveniently, Refugio Otto Meiling (external link) welcomes all, doesn’t take reservations, and serves good, hearty meals. I loved the crepe dessert with fresh raspberry jam! The down side was a dormitory floor tightly-packed with dozens of snoring bodies. Reaching the downstairs bathroom for midnight pee required balancing a tightrope between faces and feet on bouncy mats! The trail gives spectacular views of 7+ waterfalls plunging from Castaño Overo Glacier, best seen from the easy side trip to Mirador Castaño Overo (great for day hikers), done during our descent the next day.

With an altitude of 3470 m, the extinct stratovolcano of Tronador stands more than 1000 meters above nearby mountains in the Andean massif, making it a popular climb. The sound of falling seracs helped name the volcano Tronador, Spanish for “Thunderer.” Located inside two National Parks, Nahuel Huapi in Argentina and Vicente Pérez Rosales in Chile, Tronador hosts eight glaciers, which are retreating due to warming of the upper troposphere.

ARGENTINA: Los Alerces National Park; Butch Cassidy’s Ranch


Click “i” for informative Captions. Add any above images to your shopping Cart using my Portfolio.

We drove south on Ruta 40 through popular hippie town El Bolsón and turned southwest on RP71.

Near the end of their career, Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and Etta Place tried settling down to make an honest living from 1901–05 near the quiet farming community of Cholila, outside the northeast entrance of what is now Parque Nacional Los Alerces. Visiting their restored ranch enlivens history, off the radar.

Paving turned to dirt as we entered Los Alerces National Park (honored on UNESCO’s World Heritage List). An hour paid for parking allowed time to stroll across Pasarela Rio Arrayanes pedestrian bridge to a pleasant overlook on Lago Verde. We learned that seeing the ancient Alerces trees (Fitzroya cupressoides, the largest tree species in South America) would have required a boat tour consuming most of a day, for which we sadly lacked the time. Near sunset, we ate the dust of a dozen other cars exiting the park’s windy roads, to eventually reach our nice two-bedroom cabin with kitchen booked in Esquel (Cabañas Lorien, US$63).

ARGENTINA: Cave of Hands


Click “i” for informative Captions. Add any above images to your shopping Cart using my Portfolio.

We departed Esquel to rejoin Ruta 40, driving 6 hours south to an apartment Sol y Luna booked in the sleepy town of Perito Moreno, in Santa Cruz Province. The next day we drove south to Cave of Hands on remote paved and steep gravel roads, 169 km (105 miles) south of town. Along the roadside flocked exotic creatures including Darwin’s rhea or ñandu, and countless wild guanacos (parent species of the domesticated llama).

Located in a scenic canyon of the Pinturas River, the Cave of Hands (Cueva de las Manos) displays some of the earliest known human art in the Americas, protected for millennia under the rim of a dry canyon. This striking artwork is honored on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Dating to around 5000 BCE, the silhouette paintings of mostly left hands were sprayed using a bone pipe held in the right hand. The age of the paintings was calculated from pigments found in layers of charcoal from human fires and bone remains of the spraying pipes. The hunting scenes (mostly guanaco) and representations of animals and human life all date older than the stenciled hands, to around 7300 BCE. Visiting these exquisite artworks requires a low-cost tour led by one of the park caretakers/interpreters who live on site. The Visitor Center provides exhibits and restrooms.

After being inspired by this vibrant prehistoric art, we returned to Perito Moreno and turned west. Following Lake Buenos Aires, we crossed into Chile at Chile Chico, where the water’s name changes to Lago General Carrera.

CHILEAN CUSTOMS WARNING

Fresh or dried food cannot be brought into Chile (via car, bicycle, or airplane) such as: fresh meat, fish, groceries, milk, fresh fruits, dried fruits, fresh vegetables, even food bars (such as containing honey). Declare all food, so that disallowed food will be simply confiscated instead of incurring fines. Due to this inspection, be prepared for border delays.

CHILE: Patagonia National Park and Rio Baker


Click “i” for informative Captions. Add any above images to your shopping Cart using my Portfolio.

The pavement from Argentina ends in gravel immediately west of Chile Chico, where Saturday’s delivery of vegetables and fresh foods, sourced from distant Chilean suppliers, were now empty shelves on Tuesday. Prolonged Patagonian border disputes between Chile and Argentina have historically chilled relations and discouraged trade, isolating this remote town. Cabañas Cueva del Indio provided a comfortable new 2-bedroom apartment with kitchen for US$71.

The next day, we drove towards the ice-capped Andes on panoramic Ruta 265 along glacially-carved General Carrera Lake, which surprisingly drains westwards to the Pacific Ocean, via Bertrand Lake and the voluminous Baker River. The coast of the lake was first inhabited by criollos and European immigrants 1900–1925. In 1971 and 1991, eruptions of Hudson Volcano severely affected the local economy, especially sheep farming.

We turned south on Carretera Austral (CH-7) for 30 km to reach Salto Rio Baker, an impressive cascade which boils just above the colorful confluence of rivers Baker and Neff, just north of Cochrane in Capitán Prat Province. As Chile’s largest river by volume, Rio Baker dazzles your eyes with bright turquoise-blue color, caused by glacial sediments. Rio Baker was the proposed site of a controversial major hydro-electric project called HidroAysén, involving five dams, to be the biggest in the history of Chile. After the project was opposed by Chilean and international environmental activist groups, Chile’s Committee of Ministers denied its permit in 2014. Due to growing human demands, few rivers this large in the world remain undammed and free flowing.

Just north of Cochrane, camping in Chile’s new Patagonia National Park for two nights in Los West Winds Campground (external link) (CLP$8000 Chilean pesos or US$11 per person per night) avoided high Lodge rates ($600 triple, $500 double). From our tent doorsteps, we enjoyed hiking the Lagunas Altas Loop Trail (21 km round trip with 1100 m cumulative gain). Intensive ranching on this former estancia caused overgrazing, but through restoration and rewilding, native grasslands have recovered, wildlife has returned, and more people are employed now than when it was a ranch. Top-notch park infrastructure includes a classy Museum and Visitor Center, Lodge, Restaurant, campgrounds, and trails. The park’s inspirational story is a shining bellwether for the recovery of abused land in Patagonia and elsewhere.

Patagonia National Park (external link) consists of the Tompkins Conservation donation in addition to the former national reserves of Jeinimeni and Tamango, plus fiscal land. Parque Patagonia was created by Conservacion Patagonica, a nonprofit incorporated in California and founded in 2000 by Kris Tompkins, former CEO of Patagonia, Inc. In January 2018, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and Kris Tompkins signed a decree creating 5 national parks, including Parque Patagonia, which now attract ever more Chileans and others to appreciate this remote corner of the world.

CHILE: Marble Chapel Nature Sanctuary (Capillas de Mármol), on General Carrera Lake


Click “i” for informative Captions. Add any above images to your shopping Cart using my Portfolio.

A surprising number of motorboats plied the beautiful “Marble Caves”, officially called the Marble Chapel Nature Sanctuary (Capillas de Mármol), starting from Bahía Manso on General Carrera Lake. Services in the little town of Puerto Rio Tranquilo were clearly overwhelmed by the summer onslaught of bus package tours, bike packers, rental cars, and desperate hitchhikers. You can join a Marble Caves tour in Puerto Río Tranquilo; or save money and time like we did, by driving directly 8 km south to Bahía Manso, where we spontaneously joined a 2-hour tour boat on short notice. The best time is a sunny summer morning in calmer waters. The precipitous side road down to Bahía Manso was nervously passable with our 2-wheel-drive compact Volkswagen Suran (Highline), but if the road is wet, 4WD might be required to untrap your car.

CHILE: Cerro Castillo; Carretera Austral


Click “i” for informative Captions. Add any above images to your shopping Cart using my Portfolio.

Continuing north, our long days rattling over dusty gravel roads were suddenly relieved by smooth new concrete paving on Carretera Austral just south of Villa Cerro Castillo, a growing pioneer town in Coyhaique Province. Urbanization is marching southwards. As more-famous Patagonian treks become overcrowded, international adventurers increasingly seek alternatives, such as multi-night backpacking routes in Cerro Castillo National Reserve. Along with more than a hundred like-minded travelers, we day-hiked the Reserve’s main gem at Mirador Laguna Cerro Castillo, 14 km round trip with 1082 m gain (8.5 miles with 3550 feet). Steep basalt walls of the mountain Cerro Castillo resemble a castle (or Castillo in Spanish). Hostel & Camping Sendero Patagonia supplied a cheap tent site with great view, but the shared kitchen and shower house were aging and messy, plus Wi-Fi was broken. After the hike, driving north 75 km to Coyhaique, cellphone service allowed finding a beautiful apartment at Cabañas Río Claro, on short notice.

CHILE: Queulat National Park; Futaleufu


Click “i” for informative Captions. Add any above images to your shopping Cart using my Portfolio.

Waterfalls plunge spectacularly from Queulat Hanging Glacier, in Queulat National Park, in Aysen Province. The Glacier extends from the Queulat ice cap, which borders Ventisquero Sound (actually a fjord, carved by glaciers) in northern Puyuhuapi Channel.

Sendero Ventisquero Colgante, the best of the park’s few trails, reaches Mirador Ventisquero Colgante (Viewpoint of Queulat Hanging Glacier). Ventisquero (or “snowdrift”) is an archaic word for “glacier” used by early South American explorers. In summer, go early in the morning to avoid crowds. Entering the park’s rutted dirt road around noon required a 45-minute wait to park, pay entrance fees, then park again. We joined the friendly international hordes walking through dense forest (4 miles or 6.6 km round trip with 1150 ft or 350 m cumulative gain). The trail is wildly popular despite some steep steps, slippery rocks, roots, and mud. Waiting in line to cross the suspension bridge, limited to 4 people at once, took 30 minutes in late afternoon to return to the car. In contrast to drier areas east of the Andes crest (such as Lake Carrera, Chacabuco Valley, and Coyhaique), windward-side Queulat National Park is one of the rainiest places (3500 – 4000 mm) in Chilean Patagonia.

Phase 2: Fly from Bariloche to El Calafate

Argentina & Chile Patagonia trip map: three Dempseys travelled from 11 February - 05 March 2020: El Calafate, Los Glaciares National Park, El Chalten, Monte Fitz Roy, Lago del Desierto, & Torres del Paine NP. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Argentina & Chile Patagonia trip map: three Dempseys travelled from 11 February – 05 March 2020: El Calafate, Los Glaciares National Park, El Chalten, Monte Fitz Roy, Lago del Desierto, & Torres del Paine NP. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

ARGENTINA: El Calafate: Perito Moreno Glacier & Spegazzini Glacier on Lake Argentino, Los Glaciares National Park

Perito Moreno Glacier‘s loud cracks, groans, and calvings captivated us for hours from intimate viewing platforms on Lake Argentino (see video near top), on a bright sunny morning in Santa Cruz Province. The magnificent Moreno Glacier is one of 48 glaciers fed by the Southern Patagonian Ice Field (the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water). Surrounded by Los Glaciares National Park, Lago Argentino is the biggest freshwater lake in Argentina and reaches as deep as 500 meters (1640 feet). Its outlet, the Santa Cruz River, flows into the Atlantic Ocean. Using 2009 data, scientists report that nearly 90 percent of the glaciers in Antarctica and Patagonia are melting quickly, as are most glaciers worldwide due to global warming. Curiously, Moreno Glacier has been a relatively stable exception for the past hundred years. Located 78 kilometers (48 mi) from El Calafate, the glacier was named after explorer Francisco Moreno, a pioneer who studied the region in the 1800s and defended the territory of Argentina in the conflict surrounding the international border dispute with Chile. Los Glaciares National Park and Reserve are honored on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.


Click “i” for informative Captions. Click the dotted square to scroll a set of thumbnail images. Add any above Lake Argentino images (2020 & 2005) to your shopping Cart using my Portfolio.

Three nights in El Calafate allowed time to explore remoter reaches of Los Glaciares National Park. On Lake Argentino, we boarded the ‘Maria Turquesa’ Cruiser for their enjoyable Glaciers Gourmet Full Day Sightseeing Cruise (booked two days in advance for US$120 per person, plus add their shuttle service if you don’t have a rental car). Save money by driving yourself to their La Soledad private port. The highlight for us was sailing to the striking Spegazzini Glacier. The Old Settlers’ Las Vacas Station on Spegazzini Canal Bay intrigued us with stories of historic ranchland now transitioning to National Park management, grappling with feral cows and restoration of native forest. Back on board, the provided lamb sandwich lunchbox tasted great, as we swapped stories with fellow international travelers at our table. Cloud buildup dulled photography and quieted the glaciers’ calving, so cruising to revisit Moreno Glacier paled in comparison to yesterday’s loud excitement experienced from boardwalks.

ARGENTINA: El Chalten and Mount Fitz Roy, Los Glaciares National Park

The awesome knife of Mount Fitz Roy looms ever higher as you approach El Chalten mountain resort, in Los Glaciares National Park. Don’t miss the astounding sunrise view from Mirador al Chaltén, a pullout on Ruta 23 just 2 km southeast of town.


Click “i” to read descriptive Captions. Click the dotted square to scroll a set of thumbnail images. Add any above El Chalten images from 2020 & 2005 to your shopping Cart using my Portfolio.

Prebooking a nice flat in Patagonia Hikes Aparts served as a comfy home base in El Chalten. In this hikers’ paradise we dedicated 10 days to explore the following:

  • Chorrillo del Salto waterfall is 7 km round trip from El Chalten by vehicle or on foot. Walkers can start at the end of Avenida San Martín, on the same trailhead as Laguna De los Tres, but soon taking the path to the right which parallels the road to Lago del Desierto.
  • For a homespun taste of Patagonian history, don’t miss Andreas Madsen House Museum, seen exclusively via private tour led by Walk Patagonia, starting from their office at Avenida Antonio Rojo 62 in El Chalten. Danish pioneer Andreas Madsen arrived in 1905 and built the first house in El Chaltén, on his farm named Estancia Cerro Fitz Roy. Walk an easy 6 km round trip to visit his family home along Rio de las Vueltas, within Los Glaciares National Park, with a commanding view of Cerro Fitz Roy.
  • Laguna Torre: starting at sunrise to avoid crowds, we hiked 21 km (13 miles) round trip with 730 m (2400 ft) cumulative gain to Laguna Torre (634 m or 2080 ft) and Mirador Maestri, with stunning views of Cerro Torre (3,128 m or 10,262 ft elevation). On the way out, we encountered hundreds of hikers going both directions.
  • From Mirador Loma del Pliegue Tumbado (“hill of the collapsed fold”), see Cerro Fitz Roy rising high above Laguna Torre (634 m or 2080 ft). Sadly, clouds hid Cerro Torre that day. The trailhead starts from the Los Glaciares National Park Visitor Center, going for 19 km (11.9 mi) with 1170 meters (3860 ft) cumulative gain (which I’ve hiked 3 times).
  • Laguna de Los Tres is one of the park’s most crowded, most scenic trails. Start early (ideally before sunrise) and follow Sendero Fitz Roy for 20 km round trip with 1100 meters gain. To reach the best view, slightly descend left of Laguna de Los Tres then ascend 50 m to a bare knoll overlooking both it and Lago Sucia under mighty Mount Fitz Roy.
  • Huemul Lake and Glacier: A short, steep, sweet hike 4 km round trip with 215 m gain on private land. Pay the trail entrance fee at the campground at Estancia Lago Del Desierto. Note the knife-like north face of Fitz Roy rising to the south. Directions: drive or shuttle north from El Chalten for 35 km on gravel road RP23, leaving the national park, to reach Punta Sur of Lago del Desierto, just before reaching the ferry.
  • Paso Quadrado: Rio Electrico Valley staged my favorite experience in Patagonia. North of El Chalten, we parked where the gravel road RP23 crosses Rio Electrico bridge. An easy 7.3 km hike leads to Refugio and Campground Piedra del Fraile (“Stone of the Friar”). From the refuge, a scenic half-day route visits turquoise Lago Electrico under the glacier-clad Marconi Range, then leads to rocky Lago Pollone which reflects Mount Fitz Roy (8.5 km round trip with 320 m gain). For us, hiking to Lago Pollone completed a 16 km day including the trail from the highway. The relaxed, uncrowded Refuge’s dining building served good hearty food, including delicious pizza and cakes! We slept comfortably in our sleeping bags on provided mats in a quiet 4-person dorm room. After a breakfast of cold pizza saved from last night, we ascended very steeply to the breathtaking Paso Quadrado (gaining 1340 m vertically in 8.4 km round trip). Views improved steadily during the ascent. From Piedra Negra climbers camp, you can see an icy Chilean peak rising from the South Patagonian Ice Cap, 27 km northwest. What to me resembled a ptarmigan was actually a rufous-bellied seedsnipe (Attagis gayi), a common wading bird resident in the Andes. To our delight, a pair of rare huemul (south Andean deer, Hippocamelus bisulcus) wandered across Piedra Negra. A rocky, sometimes-exposed cairned route crosses between muddy green Lago Quadrado and an unnamed pure blue lake partially covered in ice. The last kilometer climbs steep snow which could require crampons and ice axe if icy, but was passable in soft snow using our trailrunning shoes. Scrambling the last 30 meters of rock to reach Paso Quadrado requires comfort with exposure (not for those with fear of heights).
Cerro Fitz Roy (3405 meters or 11,171 feet elevation)

is also known as Cerro Chaltén, Monte Fitz Roy, or Mount Fitz Roy. The first Europeans recorded as seeing the peak were the Spanish explorer Antonio de Viedma and his companions, who in 1783 reached the shores of Viedma Lake. In 1877, Argentine explorer Francisco Moreno saw the mountain and named it Fitz Roy in honor of Robert FitzRoy who, as captain of HMS Beagle (accompanied by Charles Darwin), had traveled up the Santa Cruz River in 1834 and charted large parts of the Patagonian coast. Cerro Fitz Roy was first climbed in 1952. Cerro is a Spanish word meaning hill, while Chaltén comes from a Tehuelche word meaning “smoking mountain”, due to its frequent orographic clouds.

Phase 3: CHILE: Trek the W Route in Torres del Paine National Park


Click “i” for informative Captions. Click the dotted square to scroll a set of thumbnail images. Add any above images (2020 & 2005) to your shopping Cart using my Portfolio.

Round trip by bus from Argentina’s El Calafate, our generous nine-day itinerary to trek the W Route in Chile allowed for two shots of weather window for each of the three major valleys, as follows:

  1. Picked up from our lodging in El Calafate (Argentina) at 6:20am, we bused (BookingCalafate.com, US$67 per person) from El Calafate 6.5 hrs to Laguna Amarga Entrance Station then to Refugio Pudeto in CHILE’s Torres del Paine National Park. Before crossing into Chile, be sure to eat your sandwiches or any fresh food, otherwise Chilean Customs will capriciously confiscate it at the border! (Going the other way, bringing Chilean food into Argentina is fine.) Walking an hour on the dusty park road reached Hosteria PehoeHosteria Pehoe, which provided wonderful views of Los Cuernos but mediocre meals, on our first of eight nights in the park. Take your hot showers early as we did, because others later suffered cold showers.
  2. Hosteria Pehoe’s concierge booked us a pricey US$150 ride for 28 km to reach the nicer Hotel Lago Grey, the best starting point for the W Route (if you can book it at least 5+ months in advance). Their shuttle boat ferried us to the sandspit where we boarded their Lago Grey Ferry’s special third sailing (at 14:00, US$92, reservations recommended), which cruises dramatically close to Glacier Grey before dropping we trekkers (and pick up others) at Vertice Refugio & Camping Grey for two nights. (The first two sailings drop & pick up trekkers BEFORE sightseeing the glacier.) Our W Route trek began auspiciously with onboard gratis pisco sours and astounding glacier views! Don’t miss the inspiring Mirador Glacier Grey just 1 km north of Vertice Refugio Grey. Their elaborate new mountain hotel lavished us with elegant bedding in comfortable 4-person shared dorm rooms.
    • W Route trekkers have a cheaper alternative ferry which takes no reservations, departing from Refugio Pudeto (our backup plan). Catamaran Hielos Patagonia ferries hikers to Paine Grande (US$35 for foreigners; 35-minute crossing at 09:00, 11:00, 16:15, 18:00). Walking from Refugio Paine Grande to Vertice Grey Refuge is 6.8 miles with 1200 feet gain, each way. You can walk to the nearby Salto Grande waterfall while waiting for the catamaran.
  3. Staying a second night at the remarkably comfortable Vertice Refugio Grey allowed weather flexibility to hike 4.5 miles round trip to the best viewpoint over Grey Glacier, located just after the Second Swing Bridge. If extra energy allows, continue up to twice as far, as we did to Campamento Paso Ranger Station viewpoint, relatively lightly traveled by day hikers (for 14 km round trip with 924 m gain & loss; or 8.9 miles, 3030 ft up & down). The thrilling trail crosses three swing bridges high over deep gorges cut into the steep mountainside, through ancient twisted Nothofagus forest, breaking periodically into panoramic views of vast Glaciar Grey and surrounding peaks. Dozens of weary but exuberant “O Route” backpackers exited one-way from Paso John Gardner towards Vertice’s hot showers.
  4. We walked from Vertice Grey Refuge to Refugio Paine Grande 6.8 miles with 1200 feet gain, with the gusty prevailing 25-mph winds at our backs. Our 6-bunk room encouraged hours-long conversations with two French economists (who we met again at Chileno Refuge).
  5. From comfortable Refugio Paine Grande, we hiked via panoramic Mirador Britanico in the French Valley to Camping & Domes Francés (12.9 mi gaining 4610 feet up, dropping 4050 ft down). Hiking to Mirador Britanico reveals an impressive cirque of tall cliffs, including Cerro Cota 2000, Cerro Catedral, the granite arête of Aleta de Tiburón (Shark’s Fin), Los Cuernos, and more. Mysterious thunderous crashes heard throughout the day turned out to be calving icefalls (see video near top) periodically plunging from the imposing Cerro Paine Grande (9462 ft or 2884 m elevation measured by GPS in 2011). Staying in Fully-Equipped Tents at Camping Francés required walking a steep 1-km road for dinner and breakfast, except for lucky people staying in the attractive geodesic Domes dormitories (which were harder to book). Good healthy dinners were served with fresh green salads, imported by boat via Lake Nordenskjöld, seen broadly below.
  6. A rest day scheduled at Camping & Domes Francés allowed weather flexibility for seeing French Valley (done yesterday). But the ambiance would have been better if scheduled 2 hours further east at scenic Refugio Torres.
  7. Walking from Refugio & Camping Francés to Refugio Chileno (10 miles with 2680 ft gain, 1860 ft down) was my hardest day, due to fighting a head cold in hot, humid weather. We followed along Lake Nordenskjöld then crossed drier estancia land, then steeply up Ascencio Valley. Refugio Chileno served the best food of the W Route, a delicious salmon dinner and layered dessert.
  8. We ascended from Refugio Chileno to Mirador Base Las Torres on Lago Torres, then descended all the way out to Fantástico Sur’s Refugio Torre Central on the park road (9.6 miles gaining 2450 ft and descending 3270 ft). The popular hike from the refuge to Lago Torres alone was 5.85 miles round trip with 1980 ft gain and loss. Rising at 4:00am allowed dozens of others from the hut to hike to Lago Torres to see magenta sunrise light strike the namesake Towers in a magical setting. But instead, I slept off my head cold and first ate breakfast with Dave and Rebecca before ascending the route. On the descent, we encountered hundreds of others going each direction, many doing a much longer day round trip from Refugio Central and other lodges located on the park road terminus (13.5 miles round trip with 3270 ft gain). For weather flexibility, we had tried to book a second night at well-worn Chileno Refuge, but it was fully booked several months in advance. Instead, Dave & Rebecca stayed in a Fully-Quipped Tent in Camping Central, and I stayed in a 6-person dorm room with 2 others in the spacious, nicely furnished Refugio Central, where all shared tasty hot meals. Chirping exuberantly in the trees were several of the world’s southernmost parrot species, the austral parakeet (Enicognathus ferrugineus or austral conure), posing for my photos.
  9. A Fantástico Sur shuttle bus (US$5 with several daily departures, ticket bought a few hours in advance) took us from the Central Welcome Center to Laguna Amarga Entrance Station, where we caught our afternoon bus back to El Calafate in Argentina (BookingCalafate.com, US$55).
Planning tips for Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

Backpacking in the park carrying your own tent and/or camping gear may pay off for stronger, younger, more-frugal adventurers such as on the longer, less-crowded “O Route” (see stingynomads.com) circumnavigating the Paine massif, counterclockwise only.

However, the most stunning landscape of the “O Route” can be seen by day hiking north from Refugio Grey across two exciting swing bridges, to the entrancing viewpoint over Grey Glacier just north of Second Swing Bridge (4.5 miles round trip). Also worthwhile for us was continuing on to Campamento Paso (8.9 miles total round trip, 3030 ft up & down). Above that, Paso John Gardner offers higher, perhaps grander, but incredibly windier views.

The Park’s grandest mountain scenery is on the W Route. My 60s-year old body prefers the comfortable huts and Full Equipo Tents, with all meals optionally provided (yes). Simply carry lightweight day-hiking gear plus change of cloths and camera. No need to carry any food, fuel, or camping equipment. Hot showers are available for all. Don’t hike the W Route from east to west, due to prevailing winds blasting you in the face. Go west to east as we did.

All lodging AND camping are strictly limited within Torres del Paine National Park, and must be booked at least 6 MONTHS IN ADVANCE, as we tried to do. Booking any later will severely limit your options. Booking everything ourselves for our 5-week trip cut costs nearly in half compared to a packaged tour, but took weeks of work and some headaches. The refugios (refuges) in the park are comfortable mountain hotels operated by two different companies, inconveniently requiring separate bookings:

  • Refugios operated by FantasticoSur.com: Camping & Domes Francés; Refugio Los Cuernos; Refugio Chileno; and on the park road terminus are grouped Refugio Torre Central, Camping Central, and Refugio Torre Norte.
  • Refugios operated by VerticePatagonia.com: Refugio & Camping Paine Grande; Refugio & Camping Grey; and Dickson Shelter & Camping (on the “O Route”).
  • Campgrounds operated by CONAF (nice park overview map): Paso Camping & Ranger Station (above Grey Glacier); and smelly Campamento Italiano.

Offloading your booking tasks to a professional organizer or tour operator can be worth the price premium. My research for self-guided tours on a budget revealed the following promising USA-based company: Pygmy Elephant’s 5-day W-Trek (external link).

Weather forecast for trekkers near Paine Grande at 500m/1600 ft elevation:
www.mountain-forecast.com/peaks/Paine-Grande/forecasts/500

Patagonia flight tips

All flights between Chile and Argentina must go through their capital cities. Over a dozen small airports serve Patagonia, but none of their flights cross the international border. (In our 2005 trip, one flight went from Ushuaua to Punta Arenas but wasn’t unavailable in 2020.) Efficiently touring within Patagonia can require patching together a series of one-way flight legs within either Argentina or Chile, but not flying crossing the border. Search by specifying “one-way” or “multi-city” in flight websites. To reach Torres del Paine by air from Chile, you must fly from Santiago to Punta Arenas Airport, then continue by bus or rented vehicle to Puerto Natales, and from there to the Park. Access from Argentina’s El Calafate by bus was more efficient for us. Our Argentine travel goals in El Chalten and Bariloche based our flights in Argentina instead of Chile. To explore Patagonia by RV, fly to Puerto Montt, Coyhaique, or Punta Arenas in Chile (see Bariloche: “Car versus RV or camper”).

“If anything can save the world, I’d put my money on beauty.”Douglas Tompkins (see video)

Patagonia overview map

Patagonia map: Argentina & Chile.  — January 28–30, 2020: Fly from Seattle > Los Angeles > Lima > Buenos Aires > Bariloche.  — January 31–February 10: Phase 1: road trip loop from Bariloche by three Dempseys driving 1600 miles in 11 days, first south on Argentina’s Ruta 40 then returning north via Chile’s Carretera Austral.  — February 11–24: Phase 2: El Calafate & El Chalten.  — February 25–March 4: Phase 3: Torres del Paine National Park, Chile.  — March 5–7: Fly home El Calafate > Buenos Aires > Santiago > Los Angeles > Seattle. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)
Patagonia 2020 map, Argentina & Chile. Itinerary:

  1. January 28–30, 2020: Tom Flies from Seattle > Los Angeles > Lima > Buenos Aires > Bariloche.
  2. January 31–February 10: Phase 1: road trip loop from Bariloche by three Dempseys driving 1600 miles in 11 days, first south on Argentina’s Ruta 40 then returning north via Chile’s Carretera Austral
  3. February 11–24: Phase 2: El Calafate & El Chalten.
  4. February 25–March 4: Phase 3: Torres del Paine National Park, Chile.
  5. March 5–7: Tom flies home from El Calafate > Buenos Aires > Santiago > Los Angeles > Seattle. Dave & Rebecca flew to Ushuaia to cruise Antarctica round trip. Their healthy ship unexpectedly added 7 days extra cruising to Montevideo, Uruguay due to Argentina’s COVID-19 border closures.

BEST TELEPHOTO ZOOM LENS 300mm+ for wildlife: Sony RX10 IV vs APS-C, 4/3

How well can telephoto zoom lenses magnify distant wildlife given their weight and price? For serious photography of wildlife and general travel subjects, my top pick is Sony RX10 IV:

Sony RX10 IV camera

Tom’s review: versatile Sony RX10 IV camera zooms sharply 25x with a 24-600mm equivalent f/2.4-4 lens.

  • $1700: 37 oz for 24-600mm equivalent f/2.4-4 zoom lens on 1″-Type sensor: Sony RX10 IV / RX10M4 (price at Amazon) (2018, 20 megapixels) is now my ultimate travel camera. This versatile wonder weighs just 37 ounces including battery and card (or 42 oz including the 5 ounces for strap, lens filter, cap & hood). This relatively compact camera includes a dust-sealed, bright f/2.4-4 lens with incredible 25x zoom, sharp across the frame from 24mm wide angle to 600mm wildlife telephoto. Its 1-inch-size sensor with stacked Exmor RS CMOS backside illumination BSI technology plus a big 72mm-diameter lens  capture images that rival a flagship APS-C system, even in dim-light test comparisons. Read my RX10 IV review. [Capturing great depth of field, its lens has a “full-frame-equivalent” brightest aperture of f/6.5 at 24mm wide angle to f/10.8 at 100-600mm equivalent.]

Below, compare Sony RX10M4 and earlier RX10M3 with larger-sensor multiple-lens systems and cheaper fixed-lens megazoom cameras.

Larger-sensor, multiple-lens telephoto systems (APS-C, Micro Four Thirds)

Compared to Sony RX10M4, the following rival camera systems can potentially capture higher-quality images using a larger sensor and larger-diameter glass to collect more light; but they are much heavier, mostly pricier, and require swapping out the bulkier telephoto to reach normal angles of view with yet another lens:

  • $1250-1450: 84+ oz for 225-900mm equivalent lens on a DSLR camera with APS-C sensor:
    Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary Lens for Nikon F
    (2015, 68 ounces, 4.1 x 10.2″) mounted on Nikon D3500 DSLR camera (2018, 13 oz body, 1550 shots battery life CIPA). Upgrading to Nikon D5600 DSLR (2016, 16.4 oz body, 970 shots battery life CIPA) or 15-oz D5500 adds $100-200. This Sigma lens gives the best telephoto quality & reach for the money, if you don’t mind bulky lens-swapping. Or for sharper center but softer edges, try Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD Model G2 (Generation 2, Model A022) for Nikon (2016, 70.2 oz); or save $200 on earlier, not as sharp Tamron Model A011 (2014, 69 oz/1951 g, 4.2 x 10.2″).
  • $1660-1860: 83+ oz for same 225-900mm equiv. lens on MIRRORLESS camera with APS-C sensor:
    Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary lens for Canon EF (2015, 68 ounces, 4.1 x 10.2″, 95mm filter size), mounted on Sigma Mount Converter MC-11 for Canon SGV lenses for Sony E (2016, ~3 oz, $250, for full stabilization and autofocus of Sigma’s Canon-mount lenses onto Sony E-Mount bodies) on Sony A6000 camera (2014, 12 oz body) or A6300
  • $2020: 49+ oz for 200-800mm equivalent zoom lens mounted on Micro Four Thirds sensor:
    Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f/4-6.3 Power OIS lens (2016, 35 oz, 72mm filter size, 3.3 x 6.8″) mounted on Panasonic DMC-GX9 mirrorless camera (2018, 14.4 oz body, 20mp, 260 shots per battery charge CIPA) both weather-sealed. Or save $200 on earlier GX8 bought used. This Micro 4/3 sensor has twice the light-gathering area compared to 1-inch type (but RX10 III somewhat compensates for its 1″ sensor with superior stacked Exmor RS CMOS backside illumination BSI technology, not found in GX9’s sensor; and their lenses have equal 72mm diameter). This “slower” Panasonic 200-800mm equivalent lens opens as bright as f/4 down to about f/5.6 within the 200-600mm equivalent range which overlaps with Sony RX10M4 or RX10M3. Within that 200-600mm range, the Sony has a faster f/4 constant real aperture, up to a full stop brighter at 600mm, possibly equalizing image quality. [This Panasonic lens has a “full-frame-equivalent” brightest aperture of f/8 at 200mm equivalent and f/12.6 at 800mm, meaning that within 200-400mm equivalent it can achieve shallower depth of field than RX10M4 or RX10M3, but the reverse is true higher than 400mm.]
  • $4000+: 66+ oz for professional 750mm equivalent lens on DSLR camera with APS-C sensor:
    Nikon 500mm AF-S NIKKOR f/5.6E PF ED VR (51 oz, 4.17 x 9.33″, 95 mm filter size) mounted on Nikon D3300 DSLR (2014, 16 oz body). Upgrading to Nikon D5500 DSLR (2015, 15 oz body) adds $100. Add $6600 for f/4E FL ED VR 500mm Nikkor lens; or add $8600 for f/4E FL ED VR 600mm Nikkor lens.
    • Professional lenses like this are a heavy, bulky, and costly commitment for travelers and hikers like me.
    • Legacy DSLR cameras use a bulky mirror box to bounce light from the lens into an optical viewfinder. The latest mirrorless cameras are more compact for travel and use an electronic viewfinder (EVF) to better realize the goal of “what you see is what you get.” The autofocusing speed of mirrorless now rivals DSLR cameras. The few remaining advantages of DSLRs include more legacy lenses, longer battery life and body durability. Further below, read more about wildlife telephoto lenses for legacy DSLR cameras, including acronyms explained (for image stabilization, ultrasonic focusing motors, and APS-C-only optimization) for major brands (Nikon, Canon, Sigma, Tamron, Sony).

Chilean Flamingo, Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle

Sony RX10 III is sharp across the frame throughout its breathtaking 25x zoom range, including at maximum telephoto 220mm (600mm equivalent) shown above. Sections of the Chilean Flamingo are shown at 100% pixel view. Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle, WA.


Cheaper, fixed-lens wildlife telephoto cameras

The following good-value wildlife telephoto cameras are cheaper than Sony RX10 IV or III and likewise don’t interchange lenses:

  1. $850: 50 oz for 24–3000mm equivalent 125x zoom lens f/2.8–8.0 on 1/2.3″ sensor: Nikon COOLPIX P1000 (2018, 16mp) attracts dedicated birders and wildlife specialists. In comparison, no practical DSLR or mirrorless lens can reach 3000mm! The P1000 has 5-stop image stabilization and fully articulated LCD, but only gets 250 shots per charge. As in COOLPIX P950, its tiny 1/2.3″ sensor won’t beat the superior processing power of cellphone cameras unless shooting at telephoto greater than 50mm equivalent, in bright outdoor light. At this tiny sensor size, extra diffraction through the camera’s minuscule aperture degrades image quality. Based upon Nikon P1000 moon photos, compared to my own moon shots on Sony RX10M4, shooting the P1000 at 1500-3000mm equivalent may be sharper than digitally cropping Sony RX10M4’s 600mm-equivalent images to achieve the same angle of view. (Note that Nikon’s “Moon Shot Mode” is JPEG only, no raw.) This assumes bright light, as with the sunlit lunar surface. In dim light, RX10M4 will gain ground in the comparison.
  2. $800: 35 oz for 24–2000mm equivalent 83x zoom lens f/2.8–6.5 on 1/2.3″ sensor: Nikon COOLPIX P950 (2020, 16mp). Fully articulated LCD. 290 shots per charge. P950 adds a flash hot shoe and can record RAW files (whereas older P900 only captured JPEGs). Compare with P1000 above.
  3. $600-800: 29 oz for 25-400mm equivalent 16x zoom lens f/2.8-4 on 1″-Type sensor: Panasonic LUMIX DMC-FZ1000 camera (2014, 20mp) with fast autofocus, fully articulated LCD. For $200 more, FZ1000 II (2019, 28.5 oz) is worth the upgrade premium (for new lower-noise sensor and sharper LCD screen & EVF). The FZ1000 II or I is a great-value travel camera and practically antiquates DSLRs for the needs of travel photographers! These excellent 1″-type sensors let you crop down from 20mp to digitally extend telephoto reach.
  4. $1000: 33 oz for 24-480mm equivalent 20x zoom lens f/2.8–4.5 on 1″-Type sensor: Panasonic FZ2500 (2016, 20mp) with fully articulated LCD with touchscreen, great viewfinder magnification, best video specs (ND filter, Cine/UHD 4K). But FZ2500’s lens collects a half stop less light (slightly lowering image quality), its telephoto doesn’t reach long enough for birders, and its CIPA battery life of 350 shots is shorter than Sony RX10M3’s 420 shots. (FZ2500 is FZ2000 in some markets.)

The above prices date from April 2020 on Amazon.com, where as an Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. To support my work, use these links:
Buy any products at Amazon.com | Reserve travel at Booking.com | Sign up for AirBnb.com

More Details

No longer is a DSLR camera with a mirror required for excellent birding and wildlife photography with quick autofocus. The following compact camera with excellent 20-megapixel 1″-Type sensor has a high-quality 25x zoom lens which reaches 600mm equivalent birding territory:

Or for Sony A6300(read Tom’s review) or older A6000, NEX-6, and NEX-7 mirrorless E-mount APS-C-sensor cameras (read Tom’s review), one could mount the following telephoto lens:

History lesson: cropping a newer 24-megapixel camera beat a better lens mounted on older 12mp camera

In 2012, cropping my 24-megapixel Sony NEX-7 with all-in-one 18-200mm lens handily beat the real resolution formerly obtained from 70 to 250mm on Nikon’s good 70-300mm F4.5-5.6G VR lens used on my 12mp D5000 DSLR camera. But upgrading to a 24mp Nikon D3200 camera (2012) or Nikon D3300 camera (2014, 16 oz) would restore the advantage of Nikon VR 70-300mm lens. In 2016 came the excellent Sony FE 70-300mm F4.5-5.6 G OSS lens (30 oz, SEL70300G), great for use on Sony A6300 making 105-450mm equivalent. But I prefer the all-in-one 25x zoom Sony RX10 III, introduced around the same time.

Because the DSLR legacy still runs strongly among many professional photographers, the remainder of this article discusses suitable DSLR telephoto lenses…

Wildlife telephoto lenses for DSLR (mirror) cameras

DSLR wildlife telephoto lenses optimal for on-the-go travelers

An optimally “lightweight” wildlife lens for Nikon DSLRs is Nikkor AF-S VR Zoom 70-300mm F4.5-5.6G ED-IF lens (26 oz, 105-450mm angle of view equivalent), which resolves detail throughout its range 5 to 20% sharper (for bigger prints) than the versatile Nikon AF-S DX 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II Zoom (20 oz, 3 x 3.8″, 2009) travel lens. Alternatives:

A good DSLR camera is Sony Alpha SLT-A65V camera (buy at Amazon.com) (2012, 22 oz body with SteadyShot INSIDE Stabilization) with good travel lens Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* 16-80mm f/3.5-4.5 ZA DT lens for Sony Alpha (24-120mm equiv, 16 oz). For wildlife and sports, add an excellent Sony 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 SSM G A-mount lens. Sony’s Translucent Mirror Technology speeds past very slow Live View autofocus of rival Nikon and Canon DSLRs (except the fast Canon 70D). The tilt/swivel 3.0-inch LCD aids hand-held macro and candid travel shots at arms length. Nikon or Canon lens-based image stabilization may beat Sony’s sensor-shift SteadyShot by up to a full stop of slower shutter speed.

For sharper handheld shots, get optical image stabilization built into the lens (Nikon VR, Canon IS) or body (Sony SteadyShot INSIDE). Superior lenses having fast f4 or f/2.8 brightest aperture excel for indoor action but are a heavy burden when traveling.

Newer DSLR lenses optimized for digital

Today, many lenses sold for DSLR cameras are still the older, heavier ones designed for full frame (35mm film size) cameras. By upgrading to newer lenses that are “Optimized For Digital APS-C”, you can save bulk and weight and enjoy comparable image quality with less vignetting.

A few newer lenses are “designed for APS-C only” and 250mm or longer, useful for a wide range of subjects including wildlife shots:

  • Nikon AF-S DX 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR lens (29 oz, 3.3 x 4.7″, 2012)
  • Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS (Image Stabilization): 2.8 x 4.3 in (70 x 108mm), 13.8 oz (390g). Canon Rebel APS-C crop factor of 1.6 gives it a field of view equivalent to a 88-400mm lens on 135 film.
  • Tamron 16-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD MACRO lens for Nikon (2014, 19 oz) 18.8x zoom with splash-proof design for cameras with APS-C sensor, for Nikon F-mount, Canon EF-mount, or Sony A-mount.
  • Tamron Di II VC AF 18-270mm F/3.5-6.3 LD Aspherical (IF) MACRO (2008, Model B003)
    • 15x zoom lens for Canon mount and AF motor supporting Nikon.
    • Lightweight 19.4 oz (550g), compact 101mm × 80mm (3.8″ × 3.1″).
    • Di-II is Tamron’s lighter weight design exclusively for APS-C sensors.
    • Minimum focus distance 19.3 inches throughout. Magnification ratio 1:3.5 at 270mm (74 x 49 mm coverage).
    • Tamron claims image sharpness similar to competitors (18-200mm Canon IS, Nikon VR, Sigma OS lenses) at same light weight, while zooming more, 15x versus 11x. Canon 18-200mm IS stabilizes images best of the bunch. Canon’s crop factor 1.6 makes 18-270mm equivalent to 29-432mm. Nikon’s 1.5 crop factor makes a 27-405mm equivalent.
    • I didn’t like the Tamron 18-270mm VC lens (returned) and instead upgraded to Nikon AF-S DX 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II Zoom Lens. The Nikon 18-200 “VR I” focused more reliably in low indoors light on a tripod and cropping its 200mm images beat Tamron’s 270mm. The Tamron autofocuses slower and lens creeps badly when pointed up or down.
      • Avoid older version which lacks VC: Tamron Di-II AF 18-250mm F/3.5-6.3 LD Aspherical (IF) Macro. 430g (15.2oz).

Brand terminology for image stabilization, APS-C-optimization, and fast ultrasonic focusing motors

Lighten your load by shopping for the new, smaller lens formats DX, EF-S, DC and Di IIdesigned for digital for APS-C size sensor cameras only:

  • Nikon/Nikkor DX format lenses for APS-C only (with “VR, Vibration Reduction” desired)
    • Nikon DX 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR lens (29 oz, 3.3 x 4.7″, 2012) all-in-one travel lens
    • Nikon AF-S DX 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II Zoom Lens (new in 2006 with VR I) is great for travel because its size and weight are optimized for Nikon cameras with DX sensors (APS-C size, as in Nikon D3300, D3200, D3100, D5100, D60, & D40X cameras). The DX lens design eliminates the extra glass which would have been required to cover a full 35mm size frame. Nikon DX format cameras have a “field of view crop factor” of 1.5, so this lens labeled 18-200mm can be thought of as a 27-300mm in 135 film terms.
  • Canon EF-S lenses for APS-C only (with “IS, Image Stabilization” desired)
  • Sigma DC lenses for APS-C only (with “OS, Optical Stabilization” desired)
  • Tamron Di II lenses for APS-C only (with “VC, Vibration Compensation” desired).
  • Note: Because the above DX, EF-S, DC and Di II lenses are designed for cameras with APS-C size sensor only, they will cause vignetting (darkened corners) at the wide angle end of their zoom if used on “full frame sensor” SLR cameras, such as on the expensive Nikon D3 (FX format), Nikon D700, Canon EOS 5D, or pricier Canon EOS 1D camera.
  • For sharper handheld shooting in significantly dimmer lighting situations without a tripod, insist on lenses designed with image stabilization (VR, IS, OS or VC above). By eliminating much time formerly spent setting up a tripod, I can better keep pace with non-photographers on group treks.
    • Note that the Sony Alpha (A-series) builds the image stabilization into the camera body with sensor-shift technology, which is a fine idea, except that comparable Nikon D60 and Canon Rebel cameras of 2009 gain back Sony’s handheld advantage through lower noise at a higher ISO settings. Then using a Nikon VR or Canon IS lens beats Sony’s handheld low light performance.
  • Also look for the fastest focusing lenses with ultrasonic motors to capture flighty animals, a feature branded as follows:
    • Canon – USM, UltraSonic Motor
    • Nikon – SWM, Silent Wave Motor
    • Sigma – HSM, Hyper Sonic Motor
    • Tamron – PZD, Piezo Drive autofocus system powered by a fast and quiet standing-wave ultrasonic motor
    • Olympus – SWD, Supersonic Wave Drive
    • Panasonic – XSM, Extra Silent Motor
    • Pentax – SDM, Supersonic Drive Motor
    • Sony & Minolta – SSM, SuperSonic Motor
  • The quality of new lenses usually equals or exceeds comparable past models.

Wildlife and birding lenses for APS-C cameras

For serious photography of wildlife or birds using an an APS-C size sensor camera, use telephoto lens labeled at least 300mm (angle of view equivalent to 450mm lens on 135 film or 35mm sensor). If your telephoto lens falls short of this, then you can crop to enlarge, at the cost of fuzzier images due to lowered resolution. A maximum aperture of f/5.6 or f/6.3 saves money and weight, yet can take decent images in good daylight (usually sharpest if stopped down one or two stops from wide open). Professional wildlife and bird photographers can sharpen image quality with heavier, more expensive lenses with brightest aperture f/4 in a 500mm or longer conventional lens (equivalent in terms of 135 film or 35mm sensor), possibly using a full frame 35mm-sensor camera.

CROP FACTOR: Cameras with APS-C size sensors have an “angle of view crop factor” that extends the telephoto by 1.5x for Nikon (or 1.6x for Canon) cameras, when compared to using the same lens on 135 film or 35mm sensor. For example, a favorite travel lens labeled “18-200mm” focal length has the angle of view of a “27-300mm” in terms of 135 film or 35mm sensor, on a Nikon DX format camera such as the Nikon D5100, D5000, D3300, or D60. A Nikon AF-S DX 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II Zoom Lens makes a great all-around travel lens, with a big 11x zoom that minimizes lens changes so that you don’t miss a shot. However, this 200mm telephoto is too short for serious wildlife photo enlargements, unless you are satisfied with web display or small 4×6 prints of animals. A Nikon DX 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR lens would better reach distant birds.
An iridescent blue, orange and green Danfe (or Danphe) Pheasant, the national bird of Nepal, Namche Bazaar in Sagarmatha National Park.

Photo: In Sagarmatha National Park near Mount Everest, that flash of iridescent blue, orange and green is a Danfe or Danphe Pheasant, the national bird of Nepal. Telephoto tips: 

  1. On APS-C size sensor cameras (such as Nikon DX format), for bigger prints of wildlife or birds, use a lens focal length of at least 300mm (which has an angle of view equivalent to a 450mm lens on 135 film or a 35mm-size sensor, a diagonally field of view of 8 degrees & 15 minutes). 
  2. An editor can act as a digital zoom: In Adobe Lightroom editor, I cropped to 10% of the original image to make an acceptable 4×6-inch bird print (but any larger print would look fuzzy at reading distance). The pheasant, 70 feet away in fog, would have been sharper if I had used a telephoto longer than 200mm on my APS-C sensor camera.
    [
    2007 photo: Nikon D40X DSLR, 10mp 3872 x 2592, cropped to 858 x 1002 pixels; published in “Light Travel: Photography on the Go” book by Tom Dempsey 2009, 2010. ]

Full-frame conventional lenses are bigger and heavier

The expensive “full frame” DSLR cameras (such as Nikon D600 camera, Nikon D700, or Nikon D3 with FX format; Canon EOS 6D, 5D or pricier Canon EOS 1D) require the conventional lens size which focuses sharply to the area of 35mm film, about 36 x 24 mm. Many new lenses are “optimized for digital” to work with both conventional and APS-C size sensors, to reduce vignetting (darkening at corners). For example, Sigma brand lenses labelled DG and Tamron Di lenses are the conventional size, optimized for both full frame and APS-C sensor cameras (though sometimes working better for one particular format).

Using these large, conventional lenses on APS-C size cameras can have some plus and minuses:

  • Advantages of conventional size lenses: The small APS-C size sensor (measuring about 22 x 15 mm) uses just the central area of the conventional 35mm lens, or the “sweet spot”, where images are usually sharpest, with lowest distortion (by not using the outside edges). Also, older lenses may be cheaper, easier to obtain, or already owned in your kit. And if you upgrade from an APS-C camera to a full frame DSLR, the conventional lens may stay compatible.
  • Disadvantages: Conventional size lenses are bigger and heavier (versus the newer Nikon DX, Canon EF-S, Sigma DC, and Tamron Di II lenses “for APS-C size sensor cameras only”), and most people won’t eke an advantage from conventional lenses versus the APS-C-only lenses.

In the lens brand list below, Popular Photography magazine October 2008 rates the following excellent travel lenses as roughly equal in image quality: Nikon 70-300mm 4.5-5.6G VR (which I’ve enjoyed using); Canon 70-300mm DO IS USM; and Sigma 120-400mm 4.5-5.6DG APO OS HSM AF:

Canon full-frame (EF-mount) conventional lenses with IS (Image Stabilization) for wildlife & travel images:

  • Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 DO IS USM. 3.2 x 3.9 in., 25.4 oz (82.4 x 99.9 mm, 720g), makes a great extension to the IS kit lens sold with the Canon EOS 450D / Rebel XSi
  • Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens (new December 2014, 55.3 oz) 3.7 x 7.6″, 77mm filter, 4 stops image stabilization, L-series weather resistance, reduced ghosting and flaring, 3.2-foot closest focus, new Rotation-Type Zoom Ring prevents dust sucking.
    • 1998 version: Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS USM Lens. 48.0 oz (1380g), 3.6 x 7.4″ (92 x 189mm), 77mm filter, 1.5 stops image stabilization, 6.5 feet closest focus, push-pull zoom (sucks dust)
  • plus bigger professional lenses with wider maximum aperture

Nikon/Nikkor full frame (F Mount) conventional lenses with VR (highly desirable Vibration Reduction) for wildlife & travel photography, in order of increasing price:

  • Nikkor AF-S VR Zoom 70-300mm F4.5-5.6G ED-IF lens (equivalent to 105-450mm angle of view in terms of 135 film). 26 ounces; 5.6″ length; 4.9 foot minimum focus. Compatible with full frame Nikon D3 DSLR. Lens size and price point attract sports and wildlife/birder photographers. Nikkor 70-300mm is sharper than Nikkor 18-200mm VR.
  • Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED Autofocus VR Zoom Nikkor Lens: (120-600mm equivalent angle of view when used on a Nikon DX mount/APS-C camera) 3.6 x 6.7 inches; 48.0 oz (1360 g). Ken Rockwell says “This lens is a miracle…to shoot still subjects with long exposures without needing a tripod…but for sports you may want the 70-300 AF-S VR.” One reader complained that this lens “does not have AF-S, so I found the focusing too slow for moving birds…and it didn’t bring birds in close enough”.
  • Nikkor AF-S VR Zoom 200-400mm f/4G IF-ED lens: 4.9 x 14.4 inches; 115.5 oz (3275 g). One of my readers was “impressed with the speed of its AF and the quality of the pictures, but the lens is awfully large and heavy”. About $5500.
  • Nikon 500mm f/4G ED AF-S Vibration Reduction (VR II) Nikkor Lens: 5.5 x 15.4 inches; 137 oz/8.54 pounds.
  • plus bigger professional lenses with wider maximum aperture

Sony Alpha DSLR full frame conventional lenses:

  • Sony SteadyShot INSIDE Stabilization (the sensor-shift built into Sony Alpha DSLR camera bodies) is a half or full stop of shutter speed worse than Nikon or Canon lens-based image stabilization, but Sony lenses may cost less for similar quality.
  • Sony A-mount 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 SSM G (SAL-70300G) lens for Alpha DSLR (27 oz/760g), 1.2m minimum focus distance, filter size 62mm. Tip: for sharpest images, set aperture at f/8 to f/11 at zoom settings 70 to 300mm.
  • Sony A-mount 70-400mm F4-5.6 G SSM II lens (53 oz/3.3 lb/1500g, 3.7 x 7.7 inches, SAL-70400G2, 2013) (or SAL-70400G lensboth for Alpha DSLRs) can be adapted onto a NEX camera using Sony LA-EA2 mount adaptor (7 oz, with translucent mirror for fast phase detection autofocus) but lacks OSS, thereby limiting hand-held photography and increasing tripod usage. Minimum focus distance 1.5m, filter size 77mm. This SAL-70400G2 SSM II lens is very sharp wide open at 400mm, has 4x faster autofocus, less flare/ghosting, and higher contrast images than previous version. As with comparable rival lenses, they have poor bokeh >250mm compared to prime lenses.

By the way, I don’t recommend using Sony A-mount lenses (such as 70-300mm or -400mm) on E-mount bodies (such as A6300, A6000 or NEX). Designed for in-body stabilization for Sony Alpha DSLRs, A-mount lenses all lack OSS (thereby requiring more tripod use on E-mount bodies). A-mount lenses also require a hefty A-mount adapter on E-mount bodies:

  • Sony LA-EA2 adaptor (7 oz, with translucent mirror for fast phase detection autofocus)
  • Sony LA-EA1 adapter (with Manual focus only, NO AUTOFOCUS).
  • You’d be better off using E-mount lenses on Sony A6300, A6000 or NEX.

Tamron and Sigma make good value full-frame conventional zoom lenses suitable for shooting birds and wildlife plus a wide range of other subjects, fitting many different brand camera bodies:

  • Tamron 28-300mm F/3.5-6.3 Di VC PZD Zoom Lens (2014, 19 oz) for Canon EF, Nikon F (FX), Sony Alpha mounts: attractive for wildlife/travel photography with ultrasonic PZD motor. Tamron “Di” lens designed for both full frame and APS-C sensor cameras. 42-450mm equivalent lens on Nikon DX format cameras (APS-C with 1.5x field of view multiplier), where the angle of view zooms from 75°23′ to 8°15′. Close focus 19 inches. Internal Focus (IF).
  • Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD (2014, 69 oz/4.30 lb/1951 g, 4.2 x 10.2″) for Canon EF mount, Nikon F mount, and Sony Alpha A-mount: 225-900mm equivalent on APS-C. UltraSonic Drive autofocus motor. Shoot at around f/8 for sharpest results (given sufficient tripod use and/or shutter speed). Excellent dollar value. Comparisons:
    • The 2008 Sigma 150-500mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM is no sharper at 500mm than the Tamron is at 600mm.
    • This Tamron 150-600mm matches image quality at half the price of Nikon AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR.
    • The Tamron’s modern optics easily beat the 1999 Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM.
  • Tamron AF 70-300mm F/4-5.6 Di LD Macro lens. 3.0 x 4.6 in. 435g (15.3 oz). Not image stabilized.
  • Tamron SP AF200-500mm F/5-6.3 Di LD (IF) lens. 3.7 x 8.9 in. 1237g (43.6 oz). Not image stabilized.

The following full-frame conventional zoom lenses by Sigma are a good price-value, fitting several different brand camera bodies:

  • Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary Lens (2015, 68 ounces, 4.1 x 10.2 in). Note: Sigma’s heavier, professional 150-600mm Sports version (2015, 101 ounces, 11.5-inches long) is splash and dust-resistant, focuses as close as 102-inches, and has 24 elements in 16 groups.
  • Sigma APO 150-500mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM lens (2008, 67.4 oz, 3.7 in. x 9.9 in.) filter diameter 86mm.
  • Sigma APO 120-400mm F4.5-5.6 DG OS HSM lens: (61.7 oz/1750g, 3.6 in. x 8 in)
  • Sigma APO 80-400mm F4.5-5.6 EX DG OS lens: Optical Stabilization helps by about 2 stops or so. Does not have HSM and may be slow to focus. 1750g/61.9 oz, 3.7 x 7.6 in.
  • Sigma APO 50-500mm F4-6.3 EX DG HSM lens: 1,840g/64.9 oz; 3.7 in. x 8.6 in. It has no optical stabilization; but good DSLR cameras can compensate by a few stops using high ISO settings.
  • plus bigger professional lenses with wider maximum aperture.
  • Sigma glossary of terms: DG = Sigma’s conventional full-size lens. In the future, look for newer, smaller 300mm and longer SigmaDC” lenses for APS-C only. OS = Optical Stabilization, very desireable. HSM = Hyper Sonic Motor for quiet and high-speed AF (Auto Focus), very desirable.

Tokina full-frame conventional lens for wildlife:

  • Tokina 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 ATX 840 AF D: Angle of view 29° 50’ to 6°13’ on APS-C camera; Minimum focus distance 2.5m (8.2 ft.); dimensions 3.1 in. (79mm) X 136.5 mm (5.4in.); 1020 g (35.9 oz); introduced June 2006, for Canon EOS and Nikon D. Unfortunately no image stabilization.

Check prices at Amazon.com. — buying at the links on this page supports Tom Dempsey’s work.

TELEPHOTO TIPS: How to avoid out-of-focus shots on any camera

  • Make sure image stabilization (IS, VR, OS, VC, or OIS) is turned on for all hand held shots (especially when using telephoto), to counteract blurring due to hand shake at slower shutter speeds.
  • Focus will be most difficult towards longest telephoto end of the zoom, due to hand shake and lens limitations, especially in low light. At 400mm using Canon IS or Nikon VR on an APS-C sensor, shoot at about 1/125th second or faster for sharper shots. For APS-C cameras in general, divide the lens mm by two, and the inverse is near the slowest possible sharp shutter speed when image stabilization is turned on. Raising ISO will help achieve faster shutter speeds.
  • Most DSLR lenses are sharpest stopped down by one or two stops from wide open: f/8 is easiest to remember as a good optimum that reduces the chromatic aberrations of wide open and prevents the light diffraction of small openings at high aperture numbers such as f/22.
  • Automatic multi-point focus usually hunts for the closest, brightest object, and is often not what you wanted to focus on, but can react faster than your fingers for capturing wildlife, sports, and action.
  • For shooting non-moving subjects on most cameras, a single AF point in the center (not multi point automatic) is more accurate. Lock focus, recompose, then release the shutter. On many cameras, when using single AF point, it’s easy to accidently press the “AF point selection” off center or forget that it’s off center, focusing on a location different than you thought. Some of the heavier, pricier DSLR models can lock AF point selection to avoid the common problem.

Terminology and metric conversions

  • oz = ounces. Above camera weights in ounces (oz) include battery and memory card.
  • g = grams. Multiple ounces by 28.35 to get grams.
  • sec = second.
  • mm = millimeters. A centimeter (cm) equals 10 millimeters. Multiply centimeters (cm) by 0.3937 to get inches.
  • ILC = Interchangeable Lens Compact = “midsize mirrorless camera” term used above
  • DSLR = Digital Single Lens Reflex = a traditional camera where an optical viewfinder uses a mirror to see through the interchangeable lens.
  • EVF = Electronic Viewfinder.
  • LCD = Liquid Crystal Display.
    • OLED (Organic Light-Emitting Diode) beats an LCD in dynamic range from darkest to brightest and consumes less power.
  • equivalent lens = To compare lenses on cameras having different sensor sizes, equiv or equivalent lens refers to what would be the lens focal length (measured in mm or millimeters) that would give the same angle of view on a “full frame35mm-size sensor (or 35mm film camera, using 135 film cartridge).
    • Compared lenses are “equivalent” only in terms of angle of view. (To determine sharpness or quality, read lens reviews which analyze at 100% pixel views.)
    • Crop factor” = how many times smaller is the diagonal measurement of a small sensor than a “full frame” 35-mm size sensor. For example, the 1.5x crop factor for Nikon DX format (APS-C size sensor) makes a lens labeled 18-200mm to be equivalent in angle of view to a 27-300mm focal length lens used on a 35mm film camera. The 2x crop factor for Micro Four Thirds sensors makes a lens labeled 14-140mm to be equivalent in angle of view to a 28-280mm lens used on a 35mm film camera.
  • Superzoom lenses
    • In 2013, superzoom often refers to lenses of about 15x zoom range or larger. Steady quality improvements in the resolving power of sensors has made possible superzoom cameras in ever smaller sizes. As superzoom range increases, laws of physics require lenses to focus upon smaller sensors (light detectors) or else to increase lens size. For a given level (most recent year) of technological advancement, a camera with physically larger sensor (bigger light detecting area) should capture better quality for a given zoom lens range.
    • 10x zoom” = zoom lens telephoto divided by wide angle focal length. For example, a 14-140mm focal length zoom has a 10x zoom range (140 divided by 14). An 18-200mm zoom has an 11x zoom range (200 divided by 18).
  • equivalent” F-stop = refers to the F-stop (F-number) on a full-frame-sensor camera which has the same hole diameter as the F-stop of the camera lens being compared. The concept of “equivalent” F-stop lets you compare capabilities for creating shallow depth of field on cameras with different-size sensors. Smaller-sensor cameras use shorter focal lengths for the same field of view, so at a given F-stop they have a smaller physical aperture size, meaning more depth of field (with less blur in front of and behind the focused subject). Formula: F Number (or Relative Aperture) = actual focal length of lens divided by diameter of the entrance pupil.

Buying anything at the above Amazon.com links supports my work.

I’m enthralled with what Bill Gates calls his new “favorite book of all time”: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018), by Steven Pinker.

2019 Sept: RV to Wyoming, Carhenge, Cahokia, Colorado, Utah

A diverse RV camping trip took us across the USA from Seattle to: Wyoming’s Wind River Range; Nebraska’s kooky Carhenge; Indiana family; Illinois’ prehistoric Cahokia Mounds; Colorado’s southwest corner; Utah’s Arches and Capitol Reef National Parks; and California family (September 4–October 20, 2019).

2019 Sep 4-Oct 20 favorites: RV to WY, NE, IL, CO, UT


Click “i” for informative Captions. Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site. Or click here to see ALL photos from 2019 Sep 4-Oct 20 RV trip in sequential order in my Portfolio.

Below, see all images from the trip in galleries by location:

Wyoming: Wind River Range


Click “i” for informative Captions. Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

The Wind River Range lies in the Rocky Mountains southwest of Grand Teton National Park. Mostly made of granite batholiths formed deep within the earth over 1 billion years ago, the Wind River Range is one of the oldest mountain ranges in North America. These granite monoliths were tectonically uplifted, exposed by erosion, then carved by glaciers 500,000 years ago to form cirques and U-shaped valleys. We enjoyed several hikes and a backpacking trip in Bridger-Teton National Forest on the west side of the Continental Divide (which follows the crest of the “Winds”):

Green River Lakes day hikes

Glaciers scoured the terminal moraine which naturally dams the Green River Lakes, which are the headwaters of the Green River (chief tributary to the Colorado River). Upper Lake offers the best reflection of Squaretop Mountain (11,695 feet elevation), an iconic granite monolith. To acclimatize, we hiked a loop of 7.2 miles with 700 feet cumulative gain entirely around Lower Green River Lake, including the short side trip to Upper Lake.

A tougher hike took us from Green River Lakes Trailhead, along just the west side of Lower Lake, to Slide Lake (13 miles round trip minimum, with 2100 feet gain). Those with more energy can add the Natural Bridge in Clear Creek Valley and loop back via the east side of Lower Lake.

Photographer’s Point day hike

Above Pinedale, along the enjoyable day hike to Photographer’s Point (9.6 miles round trip with 1150 feet gain), view Wind River peaks rising above the popular Titcomb Basin backpacking area.

New Fork Lakes day hike

From Narrows Campground, we hiked a pleasant trail along New Fork Lakes just past the end of the lake (4.4 miles round trip with 400 ft gain). (The kokanee salmon were not yet spawning on September 12, 2019.)

3-day backpack to Big Sandy Lake: Cirque of the Towers; Clear Lake, Deep Lake, Temple Lake

Our spectacular two-night backpacking trip established a tenting home base at Big Sandy Lake Campground (11 miles round trip with 1000 feet gain going in, and 400 ft gain going out). On Day 2, we hiked with lightweight day packs from Big Sandy Lake to Clear Lake and Deep Lake below East Temple Peak, then looped back via the the Continental Divide Trail to Temple Lake, Miller Lake, and Rapid Lake (7.5 miles, 1060 ft gain). Every step of this day hike offers inspiring views, such as the sharp spire of East Temple Peak above Deep Lake, Cirque of the Towers in the distance, and more. On Day 3, two hours before sunrise, I departed from Big Sandy Lake to reach Jackass Pass viewpoint for Cirque of the Towers and Lonesome Lake (6.5 miles round trip, 1860 ft gain) on the Continental Divide Trail. Then I joined Carol hiking out to Big Sandy Trailhead (5.4 miles with 400 ft gain).

Nebraska (NE): Carhenge, near Alliance


Click “i” for informative Captions. Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

Carhenge replicates England’s Stonehenge using vintage American automobiles, near Alliance, in the High Plains of Nebraska. After studying Stonehenge in England, Jim Reinders recreated the physical size and placement of Stonehenge’s standing stones in summer 1987, helped by 35 family members. “It took a lot of blood, sweat, and beers,” said Reinders, who built Carhenge as a memorial to his father. 39 automobiles were arranged in the same proportions as Stonehenge with the circle measuring a slightly smaller 96 feet (29m) in diameter. All autos are covered with gray spray paint, and the “heel stone” is a 1962 Cadillac. The site was gifted to the Citizens of Alliance in 2013. In the surrounding Car Art Reserve, Reinders’ “Ford Seasons” consists of four Fords, inspired by Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Jeske’s Over the Hill Campground conveniently welcomes campers adjacent to Carhenge.

Illinois: Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site


Click “i” for informative Captions. Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

Who knew that the largest prehistoric earthwork in the Americas is right across the Mississippi River from St Louis: Monks Mound, near Collinsville, Illinois. Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site preserves the largest prehistoric Native American city north of Mexico. Cahokia existed around 1050–1350 CE. The present park contains about 80 man-made earthen mounds, but at its apex around 1100 CE, Cahokia included about about 120 mounds and covered 6 square miles (16 km2) with a population briefly greater than contemporaneous London. Cahokia was the largest and most influential urban settlement of the Mississippian culture, which developed advanced societies across much of what is now the central and southeastern United States, beginning 1000+ years before European contact. Cahokia Mounds is one of 24 UNESCO World Heritage Sites within the United States.

Colorado: Great Sand Dunes National Park


Click “i” for informative Captions. Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

Dunes rise up to 750 feet tall in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, on the eastern edge of San Luis Valley, Sangre de Cristo Range, south-central Colorado.

Mesa Verde National Park


Click “i” for informative Captions. Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

Now honored by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, Mesa Verde National Park was established by Congress and President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 in the Four Corners region near the town of Cortez. Starting around 7500 BCE, Mesa Verde was seasonally inhabited by nomadic Paleo-Indians. Later, Archaic people established semi-permanent rockshelters in and around the mesa. By 1000 BCE, the Basketmaker culture emerged from the local Archaic population, and by 750 CE the Ancestral Puebloans had developed from the Basketmaker culture. The Mesa Verdeans survived using a combination of hunting, gathering, and subsistence farming of crops such as corn, beans, and squash. They built the mesa’s first pueblos sometime after 650, and by the end of the 1100s began building massive cliff dwellings.

Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America, was built 1190-1260 CE by Ancestral Puebloans. By 1285, following a period of social and environmental instability driven by a series of severe and prolonged droughts, they abandoned the area and moved south into what is today Arizona and New Mexico. Cliff Palace was rediscovered in 1888 by Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason while looking for stray cattle.

Colorado: San Juan Mountains


Click “i” for informative captions. Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

In 2019, we admired peak fall colors in late September and the first week in October in the San Juan Mountains. Silverton, Ridgway, and Telluride made great bases for hiking and touring in this spectacular southwest corner of Colorado.

Utah: Moab: Arches National Park

My brother Dave and I re-hiked a favorite trail: Devils Garden loop via Landscape Arch, Partition Arch, Navajo Arch, Double O Arch, Dark Angel, Pine Tree Arch (8 miles with 800 feet gain, with slight scrambling and exposure in places on the Primitive Trail portion, not for those with fear of heights).

Luckily for our group, the Devils Garden Campground host had left a paper note allowing us to grab sites left on October 10 by campers escaping cold 22-degree-F overnight temperatures, freeing sites which had been fully-booked 6 months in advance. Photographing sunset and sunrise around Skyline Arch was a joy! Below are photos of this and other-years activities in Arches National Park:


Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

Utah: Capitol Reef National Park

Dave and I hiked impressive sandstone gorges from Chimney Rock Trailhead over to Spring Canyon, under the looming shadow of Capitol Dome, then down to a car shuttle at Highway 24 (10 miles one way with 1100 ft descent and 370 ft gain). Wading across the Fremont River completed this spectacular, quiet escape from crowds elsewhere in the park. Below are photos of this and past-years activities in Capitol Reef National Park:


Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

Reference

Tom’s Southwest USA blog articles include Arizona, ColoradoNevada, New MexicoUtah, plus Texas. See also Midwest USA.

Calgary skyscraper glows with Tom’s jagged rock pattern

My favorite jagged rock image from Glacier National Park is now enlarged twice onto a Calgary skyscraper! The image glows on two lightboxes wrapping 64 feet and 54 feet around the base of a tower completed by Axiom Builders in June 2019:

  • SODO & Residence Inn by Marriott, 610 10th Ave SW, in Calgary, Alberta, CANADA (Corner of 5th St and 10 Ave SW; Google Maps).
Tom Dempsey's rock photo on SODO & Residence Inn by Marriott, 610 10 Ave SW, Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Two glass lightboxes display a jagged rock image by Tom Dempsey on the SODO & Residence Inn by Marriott, 610 10 Ave SW, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, completed in June 2019. Tom photographed the rock in 2002. Made of 30 glass tiles, the lightbox at left wraps the southwest corner 16.3 by 3.5 meters (53.6 feet wide by 11.6 ft high). The larger lightbox at right wraps the southeast corner 19.6 by 8.4 meters (64 feet wide x 27.5 feet high).

See more of Tom’s published work at this link.

Tom Dempsey's rock photo on SODO & Residence Inn by Marriott, 610 10 Ave SW, Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Tom Dempsey's rock photo is installed on two large lightboxes at the base of the SODO & Residence Inn by Marriott, 610 10 Ave SW, Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Billion-year-old rock breaks into a jagged pattern in Glacier National Park, Montana.

Billion-year-old rock breaks into a jagged pattern in Glacier National Park, Montana. Tom’s image is permanently displayed on the glass of two large lightboxes of a skyscraper completed by Axiom Builders in June 2019: SODO & Residence Inn by Marriott, 610 10th Ave SW, in Calgary, Alberta, CANADA.

2019 June: RV: Alaska-Canadian Highway; Cassiar; Yukon; Denali; Juneau; Glacier Bay

Our new Pleasure-Way Plateau XLTS RV drove like a dream for 6200 miles round trip from Seattle to Alaska from May 27-July 3, 2019. We reached Fairbanks and Denali National Park via the Cassiar Highway in BC and Klondike Loop through Yukon. We returned via the Parks Highway, Glenn Highway, and Alaska-Canadian Highway (ALCAN). A great side trip was by ferry from Haines to Juneau to Skagway. Out of five weeks, my top sights were 1) the day cruise from Juneau to South Sawyer Glacier in spectacular Tracy Arm Fjord, and 2) the fabulous flightseeing over Glacier Bay National Park starting from Skagway. Lastly, we returned for a bike ride and hike in Jasper National Park in Alberta, plus a quick stop to admire Mt Robson.

Favorite photos from Alaska-Canadian Highways trip 2019 May 27-July 3


Click “i” for informative Captions. Add any of the above favorite 2019 Alaska-Canadian Highway images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site. Or click here to see ALL photos from 2019 Alaska-Canadian Highway in sequential order in my Portfolio.

2019 Alaska & Canada trip interactive GPS waypoints and Google Maps

Alaska History

In Alaska, men have long outnumbered women; so Alaskan women jokingly say “the odds are good, but the goods are odd”.

From 10,000-30,000 years ago, Asians migrated across the Bering land bridge from Siberia. In 1784, Russians led by Shelikof settled permanently on Kodiak Island. Natives were enslaved and ill-treated for generations. In the mid 1800s, Americans and British undermined the weakening Russian fur monopoly and Tlingits waged guerrilla war. In 1867, Secretary of State William Seward instigated US Congress to buy Alaska from the Russians. In 1880, gold was discovered at Silver Bow Basin and Juneau was founded. In 1896, gold was discovered on a tributary to the Klondike River, easiest accessed by ship via Skagway. World War II ravaged Attu & Kiska Islands in 1942-43. Alaska became a state in 1959, with a size one-fifth that of the lower 48 states combined. After the 1968 oil discovery at Prudhoe Bay, the trans-Alaska pipeline was built 1971-77. The 1971 “Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act” formed Native Corporations.

Alaska’s resident population in 2019 is about 736,000 (similar to the number within Seattle city limits). Private pilots here outnumber truck and taxi drivers combined. Roads reach only 5 of Alaska’s 15 national parks. Alaska visitors each year outnumber residents by a factor of two. About half of all visitors come via cruise ship.

Global warming: Since the mid 1900s, Alaska has warmed 3 degrees Fahrenheit and its winters have warmed nearly 6 degrees. Human-caused climate change induced by emissions of greenhouse gases continues to accelerate the warming of Alaska at an unprecedented rate. Climate change is having disproportionate effects in the Arctic, which is heating up twice as fast as the rest of Earth. Earth’s glaciers are shrinking fast, as described below affecting Kluane Lake, Mendenhall Glacier, and Glacier Bay National Park.

Below are more extensive galleries and stories from each area visited.

CANADA: Barkerville, British Columbia


Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

Historically the main town of the Cariboo Gold Rush, Barkerville is now the largest living-history museum in Western North America. The town was named after Billy Barker from Cambridgeshire, England, who struck gold here in 1861, and his claim became the richest and the most famous. This National Historic Site nestles in the Cariboo Mountains at elevation 1200m (4000ft), at the end of BC Highway 26, 80 kilometres (50 mi) east of Quesnel. Gold here was first discovered at Hills Bar in 1858, followed by other strikes in 1859 and 1860. Wide publication of these discoveries in 1861 began the Cariboo Gold Rush, which reached full swing by 1865 following strikes along Williams Creek.

CANADA: Cassiar Highway, British Columbia


Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

The scenic Stewart–Cassiar Highway (Highway 37, aka Dease Lake Highway or Stikine Highway) is the northwesternmost highway in BC.

The nonprofit ‘Ksan Historical Village is a living museum of the Gitxsan Indigenous people, reconstructed in 1970 in the Skeena Country of Northwestern British Columbia. See impressive cultural artworks painted on longhouses and carved in totem poles. ‘Ksan is near Hazelton at the confluence of the Skeena and Bulkley Rivers on Gitxsan territory, a short drive off of the Yellowhead Highway (just east of the southern start of the Cassiar Highway). ‘Ksan was founded in 1866 (before Hazelton) and was populated by the Gitxsan Indigenous people.

In good weather, a side trip is worthwhile through Stewart, BC to Hyder, Alaska and beyond to Salmon Glacier, the world’s largest glacier accessible via road. Salmon Glacier, the fifth largest in Canada, is a 37km (23 mile) drive from Stewart, past Hyder and beyond the Bear viewing platform, along Salmon Glacier Road, built for mining interests.

In tiny Jade City, Cassiar Mountain Jade Store is worth a visit.

CANADA: Yukon: Whitehorse, Dawson, Klondike Highway


Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

We enjoyed a short hike from Miles Canyon Suspension Bridge, near Whitehorse, capital and largest city of the Yukon. At Miles Canyon and the former Whitehorse Rapids downstream, the Yukon River cuts through 8-million-year-old lava flows, the Miles Canyon Basalts. Salmon pooling above and below the rapids attracted humans who left tools here 2500 years ago, and likely other people arriving 8000-9000 years ago after the retreat of glaciers. These narrow cliffs and rapids also established the upstream terminus for paddlewheelers during the Klondike Gold Rush, eventually helping establish the City of Whitehorse. Whitehorse was incorporated in 1950 at kilometer 1426 (Historic Mile 918) on the Alaska Highway. The town was named for the former Whitehorse Rapids (now drowned by a hydroelectric dam), whose pale-colored glacially silted waters resemble the mane of a white horse. The Yukon River originates in British Columbia and flows into the Bering Sea in Alaska. Although historically and popularly called “Yukon Territory”, the territory is now officially called “Yukon” (after the federal government’s Yukon Act in 2002).

The SS Klondike No. 2 sternwheeler, launched at Whitehorse in 1937, was the largest vessel ever to sail the Canadian portion of the Yukon River. The SS Klondike No 2 moved silver-lead ore, freight, and passengers primarily between Whitehorse and Dawson, until retirement in 1955 ended the era of commercial steamboats in the Yukon. It’s now a National Historic Site in Whitehorse.

Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre, in Whitehorse, has some frighteningly huge skeletons of extinct beasts, such as Jefferson’s Ground Sloth (Megalonyx jeffersoni), which was endemic to North America from 10 million–11,000 years ago. It became extinct in Yukon 75,000 years ago. During the ice ages, Beringia’s climate alternated between warm interglacial and cold glacial periods. During glacial periods, sea levels dropped 120 meters, exposing a land bridge that was up to 1000 kilometers (620 miles) wide. Beringia, like most of Siberia and all of North and Northeast China, was a grassland steppe. Fossils found on both sides of the Bering Land Bridge show that since the time of the dinosaurs, it was a major route for the exchange of plants and animals between Asia and North America. Swedish botanist Eric Hultén coined the term Beringia in 1937. Beringia includes the Chukchi Sea, the Bering Sea, the Bering Strait, the Chukchi and Kamchatka Peninsulas in Russia plus Alaska in the United States.

Just west of Whitehorse on the Alaska Highway, the Klondike Highway departs north as Yukon Highway 2 to Dawson City.

Dawson City was the center of the Klondike Gold Rush (1896–99), after which population rapidly declined, in Yukon, Canada. Dawson City shrank further during World War II after the Alaska Highway bypassed it 300 miles (480 km) to the south using Whitehorse as a hub. In 1953, Whitehorse replaced Dawson City as Yukon Territory’s capital. Dawson City’s population dropped to less than 900 through the 1960s-1970s, but later increased as high gold prices made modern placer mining operations profitable and tourism was promoted.

Dredge No. 4, a National Historic Site of Canada, was the largest wooden-hulled dredge in North America. Operating from 1913 until 1959, it recovered 8 metric tones of gold. After nearly 30 years on the Klondike River, it was re-built near the mouth of Bonanza Creek to run for another 18 years before sinking where seen now, along Bonanza Creek Road 13 kilometres (8.1 mi) south of the Klondike Highway near Dawson City. A hydro-electric dam 60 km away powered the massive water pumps, winches, and 72-bucket line to sluice gold from river gravel, 24-7 from late April or early May until late November each season, and sometimes throughout winter. Vast river beds were upended into tailing piles, including 26 homes, as the ongoing Placer Mining Act gave mining rights precedence over surface rights.

Although Dawson City’s landscape is severely marred by industrial placer mining which continues to the present, my favorite sight was the Paddlewheel graveyard. Explore the ruins of seven historic paddlewheel boats discarded in the woods along the banks of the Yukon River. Directions: On foot or auto, take the free George Black Ferry to West Dawson and the Top of the World Highway. Turn right into Yukon River campground and park at its northern end. Walk through the yellow gate, turn left, and walk downstream a few minutes to the Paddlewheel graveyard. This site is protected under the Yukon Historic Resources Act. As we walked back to the ferry, a red fox (Vulpes vulpes) trotted by nonchalantly.

Jack London’s Cabin replica evokes the American novelist, journalist, and social activist (1876–1916). At age 21, Jack London spent a difficult winter 1897–1898 prospecting for gold from in a rented cabin, just prior to the gold rush of 1898. While he didn’t strike it rich, he later turned his Klondike adventures into fame and fortune with legendary short stories and books. His most famous works include “The Call of the Wild” and “White Fang”, both set during the Klondike Gold Rush. A pioneer in the world of commercial magazine fiction, he was one of the first writers to become a worldwide celebrity and earn a fortune from writing. He was also an innovator in the genre that would later become known as science fiction. London’s cabin, abandoned after the Gold Rush, was re-discovered by trappers in 1936 who noted London’s signature on the back wall. Yukon author Dick North organized a search in 1965 and eventually had the cabin dismantled and shipped out. Two replicas were made from the original logs. One is shown in Dawson City, while the other was re-assembled at Jack London Square in Oakland, California, Jack’s hometown.

A few blocks away, I photographed the Robert Service Cabin, rented by him 1909–1912. Robert William Service (1874–1958) was a British-Canadian poet and writer, often called “the Bard of the Yukon”.

Alaska: Taylor Highway Chicken


Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

Chicken is one of the few surviving gold rush towns in Alaska, worth a stop to see the metal chicken sculpture and the F.E. Company Dredge No. 4 (Pedro Dredge, part of Chicken Historic District), which ran 1938-1967 near Fairbanks & here at its final resting place in Chicken. Mining and tourism keep Chicken alive in the summer, and about 17 people stay through the winter. Gold miners settling here in the late 1800s wanted to name the town after local ptarmigan birds, but couldn’t agree on the spelling, so instead called it Chicken to avoid embarrassment!

Alaska: Fairbanks & North Pole (combines images from 2019 and 2006)


Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

I recommend the “Golden Heart Review” musical comedy, held nightly at the Palace Theatre in Gold Rush Town, Pioneer Park (Alaska’s only Historic Theme Park), in Fairbanks. Through songs and stories, the polished, professional cast covers the historical highlights of Fairbanks, also known as “The Golden Heart City”. Pioneer Park, run by the Fairbanks North Star Borough Department of Parks and Recreation, commemorates early Alaskan history with museums and historic displays. Pioneer Park was opened in 1967 as Alaska 67 Centennial Exposition to celebrate the centennial of the Alaska Purchase. After being given first to the state and then to the city, Mayor Red Boucher renamed the site Alaskaland, which was changed to its present name in 2001.

Alaska: Denali (Mount McKinley; combines images from 2019 and 2006)


Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

Run by concessionaire Doyon/ARAMARK Joint Venture, the non-narrated transit buses are green in Denali National Park and Preserve. From our RV based 3 nights reserved in Teklanika Campground, I rode the bus twice to Eielson Visitor Center, including one trip further to Reflection Lake, above Wonder Lake.

Don’t overlook Denali State Park along the Parks Highway in Matanuska-Susitna Borough adjacent to the east side of Denali National Park and Preserve. Hike the scenic Curry Ridge Trail (6 miles round trip with 1000 feet gain) from the great new K’esugi Ken Campground, in Denali State Park.

Alaska: Independence Mine State Historical Park, Wasilla


Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

Independence Mine State Historic Park is 14 miles northwest of Palmer, Alaska. The Independence Mines were a gold mining operation in the Talkeetna Mountains. Independence Mine was the second-largest hard-rock gold mining operation in Alaska, after a larger site near Juneau. Mining here dates back to 1897 around Fishook Creek; these claims joined to form Wasilla Mining Company, which worked the mines from 1934-1943 and again 1948-1950. The company ended operations in 1950 expecting to resume, but never did, thereby well-preserving its mining equipment and buildings for eventual donation to the state in 1980, which established Independence Mine State Historic Park.

Alaska: Glenn Highway & Tok Cut-Off


Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

Nabesna Road offers spectacular scenery in a seldom-seen, wild corner of Alaska, the headwaters of the Copper River. Tt Mile Post 16.6, Kettle Lake picnic site offers a great view of the Wrangell Mountains. A humorous sign here says “TOILET 1 MILE”. The Wrangell Lavas built the Wrangell Mountains over the past 10 million years. Mount Wrangell (14,163 ft) is the largest andesite shield volcano in North America. The cinder cone of Mount Zanetti (13,009 ft) rose prominently 1000 feet above its northwest flank during the past 25,000 years. Wrangell reportedly erupted in 1784 and 1884–85. Occasional steam plumes rise from the park’s only active volcano, and ash sometimes coats the summit snow. Flowing northward from it is the Copper Glacier, source of Copper River which flows northward, then westward along the end of the Wrangell Range, then southward to the Gulf of Alaska near Cordova, cutting through the coastal barrier of the Chugach Mountains, marking most of Park’s western boundary.

Alaska: Haines Highway


Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

A surprising gem, the Hammer Museum in Haines delighted my wife and I with its quirky and humorous tool displays!

At Port Chilkoot in Haines, we toured Fort William H. Seward National Historic Landmark. Also known as Chilkoot Barracks and Haines Mission, 1902-1945, it was the last of 11 military posts in Alaska during the gold rush era, and Alaska’s only military facility between 1925 and 1940. It policed miners moving into the gold mining areas in the Alaskan interior, and provided military presence during negotiations over the nearby international border with Canada. William H. Seward was the United States Secretary of State who oversaw the Alaska purchase.

Alaska: Juneau & Tracy Arm


Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

I had wanted to experience the Inside Passage by ferry between Prince Rupert and Juneau, but our dates had fully booked several months in advance. Instead, we ferried our 22.5-foot RV from Haines to Juneau to enjoy 5 nights in Mendenhall Campground. Then we ferried from Juneau to Skagway, all on the Alaska Marine Highway System. The Juneau area really captured our hearts.

Located in the Alaskan panhandle, Juneau is the capital city of Alaska and the second largest city in the USA by area (only Sitka is larger). Isolated by rugged terrain on Alaska’s mainland, Juneau can only be reached by plane or boat. Downtown Juneau sits on Gastineau Channel at sea level under the steep Coast Mountains up to 4000 feet high, topped by Juneau Icefield and 30 glaciers. Juneau has been the capital of Alaska since 1906, when the government of what was the District of Alaska was moved from Sitka. The city is named after a gold prospector from Quebec, Joe Juneau. Kudos go to the Alaska State Museum in Juneau, the best collection in the state.

Nature expert and sculptor R.T. “Skip” Wallen created “Tahku”, a stunning 6.5-ton, 25-foot tall breaching humpback whale statue with fountains and lights, completed in 2018 in Overstreet Park along the Seawalk near Juneau-Douglas Bridge in Juneau. Tahku celebrates 50 years of Alaska statehood 1959-2009.

I was intrigued by the Treadwell Mine Historic Trail, 3 miles south of Douglas Bridge next to Savikko Park. Formerly the largest gold mine in the world, this mini-town peaked in the 1880s, but was abandoned after partially sliding into the sea on April 21, 1917, when a massive cave-in flooded three of four underground mines 2300 feet deep, due to an extreme high tide and failure of unstable underground rock pillars. Now, spooky reminders poke through the forest on well-signposted and interpreted trail: the concrete New Office Building; 1917 slide site; “glory hole”, and the restored shell of Treadwell pumphouse. The 1914 Pump House had three centrifugal pumps which lifted 2700 gallons of saltwater per minute from Gastineau Channel for milling and fire protection during the winter when fresh water from the Treadwell Ditch was frozen in snow pack. Treadwell Mine operated 1882-1922.

For spectacular views over Mendenhall Glacier, hike the West Glacier (Mt. McGinnis) Trail 6-9.5 miles round trip, 1000-3200 feet gain, best late May-September. The Trailhead is a half mile from Mendenhall Campground entrance by road. A good trail skirts the northwest side of Mendenhall Lake then climbs through forest to the bare rock along the glacier’s west side, where some scrambling and route finding skills are required. Mendenhall Glacier flows 12 miles from downtown Juneau, in Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area, a unit of Tongass National Forest. Mendenhall Glacier has retreated 1.75 miles since 1929, when Mendenhall Lake was created, and over 2.5 miles (4.0 km) since 1500.

Don’t miss a day cruise to South Sawyer Glacier in Tracy Arm Fjord, in the Boundary Ranges of the Coast Mountains. We highly recommend the smoothly stabilized day cruise aboard the 56-foot boat Adventure Bound. This journey to the heart of Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness (Tongass National Forest) rivals Norwegian fjords and adds a punchbowl of icebergs from the spectacular South Sawyer Glacier, which calved ice into the tidewater with a rumble and a splash. Whales, bears, sea lions and other wildlife showed up along the way. The fjord twists narrowly 30 miles into the coastal mountains, with peaks jutting up to a mile high, draped with tumbling waterfalls.

Although few would call me religious, I loved the peaceful setting of the National Shrine of St. Therese, 22 miles north of downtown Juneau, in Tongass National Forest. A stone causeway from shore reaches this natural-stone chapel nestled amid a tranquil wooded island. This ministry of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Juneau is dedicated to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the patron saint of Alaska, missionaries, and the Diocese of Juneau. She wrote that what really mattered in life was not our great deeds, but our great love.

Alaska: Flightseeing over Glacier Bay National Park


Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

Flightseeing from Skagway or Haines (a cheaper base) is a spectacular way to see Glacier Bay. We were bedazzled by Mountain Flying Service’s 1.3-hour West Arm tour from Skagway. Glacier Bay is honored by UNESCO as part of a huge Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage site shared between Canada and the United States. In 1750-80, Glacier Bay was totally covered by ice, which has since radically melted away. In 1794, Captain George Vancover found Icy Strait on the Gulf of Alaska choked with ice, and all but a 3-mile indentation of Glacier Bay was filled by a huge tongue of the Grand Pacific Glacier, 4000 feet deep and 20 miles wide. By 1879, naturalist John Muir reported that the ice had retreated 48 miles up the bay. In 1890, “Glacier Bay” was named by Captain Beardslee of the U.S. Navy. Over the last 200 years, melting glaciers have exposed 65 miles of ocean. As of 2019, glaciers cover only 27% of the Park area.

Alaska: Skagway


Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

Skagway was founded in 1897 on the Alaska Panhandle. Skagway’s population of about 1150 people doubles in the summer tourist season to manage more than one million visitors per year. Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park commemorates the late 1890s Gold Rush with three units in Municipality of Skagway Borough: Historic Skagway; the White Pass Trail; and Dyea Townsite and Chilkoot Trail. (A fourth unit is in Pioneer Square National Historic District in Seattle, Washington.)

Alaska-Canadian Highway (1942 ALCAN)


Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

Open year round, the Alaska Highway is wider and slightly safer than Cassiar Highway. Both are worth driving as a loop, as we did in 2019. Road conditions were generally fast 50-65 mph, except some sections of permafrost heaves requiring 35-50 mph and a few dozen miles of gravel being repaved. The Alaska Highway comprises BC Highway 97 + Yukon Highway 1 + Alaska Route 2. It starts at Mile 0 in Dawson Creek, BC and goes via Whitehorse in Yukon to its officially end in Delta Junction, Alaska. Despite being driven by 100,000+ people per year (2016 estimate), this route feels quite remote, and is a great place to see roadside mega-fauna wildlife.

Originally known as the military acronym ALCAN, it is also called the Alaskan Highway or the Alaska-Canadian Highway. The ALCAN was built as a military road during World War II to link existing airfields to the territory of Alaska. In 1942, 1700 miles (2700 km) were completed, but weren’t opened to the public until 1948. As of 2012 the roadway has been shortened via reconstruction to 1387 miles (2232 km), entirely paved (except where being repaired). Informal historic mileposts denote major stopping points. Delta Junction, at the end of the highway, claims “Historic Milepost 1422” where the Alaska Highway meets the Richardson Highway, which continues 96 mi (155 km) to the city of Fairbanks at Historic Milepost 1520, often (but unofficially) regarded as the northern portion of the Alaska Highway, although Richardson Highway Mileposts are measured from Valdez. The Alaska Highway is popularly (but unofficially) considered part of the Pan-American Highway to Argentina (with a discontinuity in Panama).

Fort Nelson Heritage Museum in British Columbia: this quirky museum is worth a stop to see the Alaska Highway construction display, pioneer artifacts, trapper’s cabin, vintage autos & machinery, a white moose, and more.

Near Liard Hot Springs, keep alert for herds of Wood Bison, a threatened species in Canada, grazing obliviously along the Alaska Highway. We saw 50 by day (but beware their dark bodies are invisible at night).

Watson Lake’s Sign Post Forest is one of the most famous landmarks along the Alaska Highway. Started by a homesick GI in 1942, the number of signs has snowballed. Private Carl Lindley, serving with the 341st Engineers during World War II, was assigned light duty while recovering from an injury and erected the signpost for his hometown: “Danville, Ill. 2835 miles”. Visitors may add their own signs to the over 80,000 already present.

Don’t miss the fascinating George Johnston museum at ALCAN Mile 804 in Teslin, Yukon, two kilometers north of the Nisutlin Bay Bridge. Colorful exhibits, dioramas, and artefacts honor Inland Tlingit people such as George Johnston, one of the Yukon’s renowned photographers. Best of all is watching in their small theater the touching National Film Board film: “Picturing a People” by Tlingit Director Carol Geddes.

As the Alaska Highway crosses the former inlet of Kluane Lake in the St. Elias Mountains, Yukon, notice clouds of dust swept from Slims River Valley, which dried since a recent glacial meltwater diversion. In a startling case of global warming, over 4 days in spring 2016, the Slims River suddenly disappeared, leaving windswept mud flats creating clouds of dust in the formerly clear air. With its main water supply cut off, Kluane Lake will be isolated within a few years, shrinking below its outflow into the Kluane River (which flows into the Donjek River, White River, Yukon River, and eventually the Bering Sea). Kluane Lake chemistry and fish populations are rapidly changing. For the last 300 years, abundant meltwater from the Kaskawulsh Glacier has been channeled by ice dam to drain via the 150-meter wide Slims River, north into Kluane Lake. Between 1956 and 2007, the Kaskawulsh glacier retreated by 600-700 meters, which most scientists attribute to human-caused climate change. Meltwater flooding from accelerating retreat in 2016 carved a new channel through a large ice field, diverting all flows to the Kaskawulsh River, a tributary of the Alsek, which flows into the Gulf of Alaska.

I reveled in hiking Sheep Creek trail (15 km with 1200 m gain or 4000 ft) for spectacular views of the Slims River Valley, surrounding St. Elias Mountains, plus Kluane Lake seen from Soldier’s Summit on Tachal Dahl (Sheep Mountain) Ridge. (Or halfway up also gives worthwhile views.) Three Dall sheep (Ovis dalli, or thinhorn sheep) encountered me on top.

Big Delta State Historical Park: Rika’s Roadhouse served travelers on the historic Valdez-to-Fairbanks Trail from 1913 to 1947, at a historically important crossing of the Tanana River. Find it off mile 274.5 of the Richardson Highway in Big Delta, in the Southeast Fairbanks Area, Alaska. Jovo ‘John’ Hajdukovich, an immigrant from Montenegro, had the north-south section of this log structure built in 1913. Starting in 1917, Swedish immigrant Rika Wallen operated this regional hub serving gold stampeders, local hunters, traders, and freighters; and she bought the roadhouse in 1923. With the construction of the ALCAN Highway and the replacement of the ferry with a bridge downstream, traffic moved away and patronage declined.

Alaska animals, wildlife (combines images from 2019 and 2006)

Our roadside wildlife sightings over 5 weeks in 2019 racked up 50 bison, 21 black bears, 8 grizzlies, 29 caribou, 8 moose, 28 dall sheep, 12 stone sheep, 10 red foxes, 9 bald eagles, 2 otters, 1 porcupine, 90+ Steller sea lions, 90+ harbor seals, various snowshoe hares, sandhill cranes, etc. The long bus ride round trip to Wonder Lake in Denali National Park is especially great for seeing wildlife.


Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

CANADA, Alberta: Jasper National Park images from 2019


Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

In Jasper National Park, we bicycled from Snaring River Overflow Campground to Ewan & Madeline Moberly Homestead (1903 log cabin) and Corral Creek (10 miles round trip). Jasper is the largest national park in the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site (which I find to be more spectacular than the Alaska Highway).

With 1 km of rerouting discouraging our bikes on flooded Jacques Lake Trail on 01 July 2019, we instead hiked on foot for 6 miles to scenic Beaver Lake, then nearly to Summit Lake before turned back by rain, in Jasper National Park.

CANADA: Mount Robson Provincial Park, British Columbia

See much more about Mt Robson at this link.

Blue lupine flowers bloom beneath Mount Robson (3954 meters or 12,972 feet), whose summit is the highest point in the Canadian Rockies.

Blue lupine flowers bloom beneath Mount Robson (3954 meters or 12,972 feet), whose summit is the highest point in the Canadian Rockies. Mount Robson Provincial Park (in British Columbia, Canada) is part of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site listed by UNESCO in 1984. This image was stitched from 2 photos having near and far focus for great depth of field. Click to Add to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Recommended Alaska guidebooks

Search for latest “Alaska travel books” on Amazon.com (look for updates every 1 to 3 years).

2013: 2012: 2012: 2012:
2012: 2009:

PHOTO CLASSES: camera workshops with Tom Dempsey, Seattle

Classes at Lifetime Learning Center (LLC) with instructor Tom Dempsey

The pandemic cancelled in-person LLC classes starting in Spring 2020. I’m not likely to teach again until successful widespread vaccination restores in-person classes.

Lifetime Learning Center
(206) 949-8882 or email llc_2000@hotmail.com 
Location: Lake City Presbyterian Church
3841 NE 123rd Street
Seattle, WA 98125

Tom Dempsey (standing left) teaches photography students at Lifetime Learning Center, Seattle.

Past workshops

Tom taught the following classes at Lifetime Learning Center in Seattle:

  • 2019 Apr 1-May 24 for 8 days MW: “Smartphone Photography”. The latest smartphones make photography easier than ever. Bring your fully-charged phone to class, and we’ll learn how to better previsualize, expose, focus, compose, make panoramas, edit color tones, and share to impress your friends. Upgrading your phone will really help your photography. The best now have dual cameras on the back (such as Samsung Galaxy Note9 and iPhone 7 Plus or later). Their 2x telephoto lens greatly improves portraits and brings distant subjects closer. The latest “HDR Auto” smartly captures better shadows while preserving highlights. Other good cameras include Galaxy S7 and Google Pixel.
  • 2018 Apr 30-May 16 for 6 days MW: “Editing Digital Photography”. Learn how to edit digital images with emotional impact, true to the subject. Because cameras don’t record like our eyes see, we must compensate with smart tonal adjustments in Apple Photos, in my favorite Adobe Lightroom, or in your preferred editor. We’ll cover cropping, tonal editing (exposure, contrast, & Adjustment Brush), histograms, and color theory. We’ll review before and after edits of students’ emailed photo homework.
  • 2018 Jan 8–Jan 31 for 8 days MW: “Smartphone Photography
  • 2017 Oct 31–Nov 16: “Digital Photography on the Go
  • 2017 April 4, 6, 11, 13, 18, 20:  “Editing Digital Photography
  • 2016 November 1–17: “Digital Photography on the Go”
  • 2016 March 28–April 18: “Digital Photography on the Go”

I am an Artist in Residence for Alpenwild.com offering photography workshops in the Alps.

In Summer 2011, Tom Dempsey taught a 5-day Alps Photo Workshop visiting Venice and the Dolomites Mountains, guided by Gary Scott of Right Path Adventures, DolomitesWalkingTours.com

Testimonials

  • “Tom, I really appreciate your patience in explaining the color wheel, techniques of editing, and how to access various settings on our digital cameras.” – Nora MacDonald
  • “Thank you for all your help in making me more comfortable with my camera. A great class!” – Rochelle Goldberg
  • “I’ve really been enjoying this, Tom, and I think what I’ve been learning here is improving my eye for painting as well as photography. Thank you!” – Kay.
  • “After taking two classes with Tom Dempsey, my skill at composing photographs has improved greatly. Tom is a skilled photographer, and a knowledgable and patient teacher. He does his homework, presents well, listens respectfully to the comments and questions of his students and follows up. Tom gets back to us with emails to answer additional questions as well. He presents information at the correct level for his audience, whether individually or in the group. I really appreciate Tom as an instructor and plan to sign up for his photo editing class.” – Deb West, who has attended three class series plus private tutorials

Images from my book, “Light Travel: Photography on the Go“:


Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. To support my work:
Buy any products at Amazon.com | Reserve travel at Booking.com | Sign up for AirBnb.com

2019 NEW ZEALAND: hike Rees-Dart, Gillespie Pass, Hollyford, Milford & Pororari Tracks; Mt Cook

Beautiful New Zealand attracted my fifth visit to hike the spectacular Rees-Dart, Gillespie Pass, Hollyford, and Milford Tracks plus more in southern South Island’s unique Gondwanan wilderness. Relishing an escape to Southern Hemisphere summer, I organized a 5-person family trip tramping in lush temperate rainforests for five weeks (2018 Dec 27–2019 Jan 31). Colorful fields of nonnative Russell lupins mesmerized us on the way to Mount Cook/Aoraki, where we repeated favorite Sealy Tarns and Hooker Valley hikes. Sadly flooded out of the Milford Track after one night, we regrouped to enjoy lucky weather elsewhere, such as gorgeous Pororari River Track.

Favorite New Zealand photos from 2019


Click “i” for informative Captions. Add any of the above favorite 2019 NZ images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site. See below for more extensive galleries and stories from each area visited. Or click here to see ALL photos from NZ 2019 in sequential order in my Portfolio.

See our detailed 2019 trip itinerary at bottom of this article. But for more comprehensive NZ travel planning tips on both North and South Islands, see “NEW ZEALAND trip guide and itinerary“.

WHAT’S NEW in 2019 since our last visit to New Zealand 12 years ago?

At Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers, a man impressed me saying that he was tramping the length of the country! In 2011, New Zealand established the Te Araroa Trail, which goes 3000 kilometers (1900 miles) from Cape Reinga to Bluff (40 percent on conservation land), requiring 3 to 6 months of walking.

As of January 2019, tourism has exploded. Reservations months in advance are recommended at Mt Cook, Te Anau, Milford, and Queenstown. Rates for Great Walk huts on the Milford, Routeburn, and Kepler Tracks doubled for foreigners this year versus last. Mount Cook area sights and services were super busy all the way out to Twizel, whose grocery was packed. Upscaling for higher-spending tourists, Queenstown now caps the total number of pricey legal tent sites and disallows Freedom Camping, so one must book paid sites early. Wanaka’s New World grocery burst with tourists at all hours; and the city has spawned suburban growth out to Albert Town, where we stayed 5 nights at a great AirBnb. On the plus side, you can now get good coffee, such as a “flat white”. Tourist crowds and prices at Greymouth Seaside TOP 10 Holiday Park noticeably decreased when the kids went back to school in the last week of January.

Very practical Jucy Campervans and car rentals with tailgate kitchens are seen everywhere (but we rented a cheaper Toyota Corolla as tramping in huts took us away from roads for 14 days out of 34). “Three-day Certified Self-Contained” RVs using “Freedom Camping Zones” have proliferated on South Island. Some Holiday Park public kitchens now charge $5 for use of pots/pans/utensils/cups/plates (formerly free), which seem to encourage tidier countertops.

Tourists from Hong Kong, China, and India are suddenly in abundance, reflecting rising wealth of the global middle class. Seasonal employees are often low-paid immigrants from China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, and the British Commonwealth.

Sheep outnumbered people in New Zealand by more than twenty-to-one in the 1980s, but by just seven-to-one now. Near Mt. Cook, we stayed 3 nights at Glentanner Park Centre; their Glentanner Station still runs 9000 Merino sheep which supply American Smartwool brand clothing. The fur of Australian possum, an invasive nonnative pest, is now smartly mixed with wool in NZ gloves & hats. Sheep numbers are declining but beef and dairy increasing. I was surprised to see herds of huge elk on fenced farms, supplementing red deer farms, to raise venison.

Globalization continues to disrupt New Zealand’s ecosystems. Since 2004, the unstoppable spread of didymo algae (“rock snot”, native to New York) has begun to choke native stream life. At Glade Wharf, we stepped off the Te Anau Express ferry into a chlorine pan to control possible didymo on our boots before entering the Milford Track. Since we last visited 12 years ago, the Department of Conservation (DOC) has spent millions of dollars on public land to control the spread of wilding conifers, which are invasive nonnative pine trees in the high country of New Zealand. In Ben Lomond Scenic Reserve reached via Skyline Queenstown gondola, I noticed vast gray wilding forests sprayed dead by DOC, to be replaced by native tussock. Wildings threaten biodiversity, farm productivity, and the landscape values of tussock grasslands.

I was glad to see extensive trap lines for stoats and rats along the Milford Track, Hollyford Track, Routeburn Track, Dart track, and Siberia Valley. These nonnative predators have devastated New Zealand’s unique bird life. Norway rats were on the ships of the first explorers, who arrived in New Zealand in the late 1700s. Stoats, weasels, and ferrets were introduced to New Zealand as early as 1879 to control nonnative rabbits that were destroying sheep pasture. Almost without exception, introduced species have been detrimental to the native flora and fauna. That being said, trekking once again into remote Fiordland and Aspiring National Parks still makes a wonderful escape into uniquely beautiful Gondwanan wilderness.

Mount Cook National Park: Sealy Tarns & Hooker Valley Tracks


Add any of the above 1998-2019 NZ images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

Both Sealy Tarns (4.3 mi round trip/1600 ft gain) and Hooker Valley Tracks (7 mi RT/500 ft gain) were well worth repeating this year. Native Spaniard (speargrass) plants and white mountain daisies peppered the scenic landscape. Also worth seeing is Tasman Glacier, which offers boat tours. Just a few meltwater ponds existed in the early 1970s at the current viewpoint on the glacier’s terminal moraine, but by 1990 they had merged into Tasman Lake. In further melting from 1990-2011, Tasman Glacier retreated a shocking 2 kilometers, and continued to disappear at an accelerating rate through 2019. See my Global warming, climate change gallery.

Near Geraldine (22 km north off SH72), Peel Forest Park Scenic Reserve was worth seeing again, strolling on Big Tree Walk through a magnificent podocarp (conifer) forest. Huge native totara trees, one almost three meters across, are thought to be about 1000 years old. A DOC campground with cabins is available.

Views from Mount John Observatory are well worth visiting by car or on foot from Lake Tekapo village. A riot of nonnative Russell lupin flowers bloomed in patches on Mt John and areas around the shimmering turquoise lake. The widespread diaspora of Russell lupins began with David Douglas bringing the herbaceous lupine (Lupinus polyphyllus) from North America to Britain in the 1820s. In the early 1900s, George Russell, a horticulturist from York, UK, spent two decades breeding the Russell hybrids (Lupinus X russellii hort). First naturalized to New Zealand by local farmers wanting to beautify their landscape in the 1950s, Russell lupins have invaded large areas of roadsides, pastures, and riverbeds. This alien plant most threatens indigenous species in the braided river beds of Canterbury region. Russell lupin is classed as an invasive species in New Zealand, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Argentina, the Czech Republic, Finland, Lithuania, and Ukraine.

Fiordland National Park: Milford Track

During our first night at Clinton Hut just 5 km in, heavy rains flooded the Milford Track and blocked the trampers in all three huts! (DOC nearly provided helicopter lifts for everyone over the floods to the next hut, but no dice.) The incoming hiker cohort was cancelled, and everyone was offered a second night in their respective huts, turning the four-day trip into five. Sadly, in order not to miss catching our Hollyford flight, we chose to exit via ferry back to Te Anau in late afternoon. After exiting the ferry and retrieving our car (left there for a planned family shuttle), we used nearby Fiordland National Park Lodge’s wi-fi to seek last-minute accommodation beyond fully-booked Te Anau. Upon driving 70 minutes, we found that the hotel in Lumsden had fumbled our Booking.com reservation, requiring staff to find us lodging 20 minutes further out. By 10pm, Carol and I went to sleep in the empty, staffless Riversdale Hotel, far from tourist crowds. Luckily, a room was available the next night in Distinction Te Anau Hotel & Villas, albeit pricey. We could then freely day hike Earland Falls, to surprise three of our family group who were exiting from four days spent on the Routeburn Track. Their story was of not only heavy rain but also of their son being sick for two days. Luckily the remaining time in NZ improved markedly, fulfilling our goals.


Add any of the above 1981-2019 NZ images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

Fiordland National Park: Routeburn Track: day hikes to Key Summit and Earland Falls

We relished two wonderful day hikes from The Divide in Fiordland National Park:

  • Key Summit: 4.7 mi round trip, 1389 ft gain
  • Earland Falls: 8.7 miles round trip with 2270 feet gain.
  • Catch good a weather forecast.


Add any of the above 1998-2019 NZ images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

Fiordland National Park: Hollyford Track in 3 days

We staged the Hollyford Track from Milford Sound Lodge, which has a nicely remodeled public kitchen & dining area, but our dorm building (NZ$40 per person) was unappealingly dark, crowded, and located 70 meters from the renovated bathrooms. Overnight options are very limited at Milford Sound: tenting was forbidden, we had no RV, and we couldn’t stomach NZ$345-849 for a private chalet. In retrospect, the dorm situation beat backcountry NZ huts. Milford Sound Airport was within walking distance of our car left at the waterfront public parking.

We enjoyed an easy version of the Hollyford Track (brochure and map) with a 3-day independent walker itinerary via a spectacular 15-minute flight from Milford Sound to Martins Bay, two nights sleeping in DOC huts, and personal car shuttle round trip from Te Anau. Highlights of the Hollyford include: seeing playful pups in the New Zealand fur seal colony near Martins Bay Hut; circumventing the muddy 10- to 12-hour Demon Trail (which has few views) via a fun jetboat ride along Lake McKerrow to Pyke River confluence; and strolling under beautiful tree fern forest under glacier-clad peaks soaring 8000 feet above.


Add any of the above 2019 NZ Hollyford images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

Queenstown

Bustling, upscaling Queenstown has much to offer if you’re ready for crowds. From the top of the scenic Skyline Gondola, I reveled in the 5-mile scenic loop over the steep ridge trail in Ben Lomond Scenic Reserve.


Add any of the above 2019 NZ Queenstown images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

Mount Aspiring National Park: Rees-Dart Track and Cascade Saddle

Yearning for the Rees-Dart Track inspired this revisit down under. Starting with a good weather window forecast for Cascade Saddle, the epic 5-day Rees-Dart Track proved much better than we had imagined. We set up our own car shuttle. While we were luckily unslowed by the many stream crossings, both vehicles and trampers would have been seriously hindered in a typical rainstorm. The remote wilderness huts surprised us with flush toilets and public sinks! 7 to 9 hours per day of sweat equity spent scrambling over the steep, sometimes mucky and rooty, sometimes excellent trails rewarded us with classic scenic wonders over the course of 52 miles in five days. Streams crashed from sparkling glaciers above lush green rainforest. The spare alpine vegetation reminded me of Peruvian Highlands. Dropping our packs for the 12.5-mile side trip to spectacular Cascade Saddle was a delight.

If using a Rees-Dart Shuttle Service, ask if a four-wheel-drive shuttle will take you a few kilometers further past Muddy Creek to get a jump on the long first day hiking in scenic Rees Valley to Shelter Rock Hut. At the end of the track, consider efficiently connecting with Glenorchy Wharf via a fun prearranged jetboat, which skips the last 1.5 hours of scenic walking to Chinaman’s Bluff parking lot.


Add any of the above 2007-2019 NZ images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

Mount Aspiring National Park: Rob Roy Track

Rob Roy Valley Track (easy 8 miles, 900 feet gain) is one of our favorite day hikes in the world. Start early in the morning to avoid inevitable crowds. From Wanaka, drive up Matukituki Valley on a gravel (“metal”) road with water crossings to the trailhead. Great hanging glaciers, crashing streams & waterfalls, swing suspension bridge, and kea alpine parrots.


Add any of the above 1998-2019 NZ images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

Mount Aspiring National Park: Gillespie Pass Circuit: Young & Wilkin Tracks to Siberia Hut and Crucible Lake

  • In 2019, we enjoyed tramping 4 days on the rewarding Gillespie Pass (Wilkin-Young) Circuit, to Siberia Hut and marvelous Crucible Lake. Problematic Makarora River crossings at the start and end are best done via jetboat as we did from Makarora via Wilkin River Jets. Drenching rain on the first day at Young Hut yielded to mostly sunny weather for the most important remaining three days.
  • In 2007, we did an easier, also spectacular option to reach Siberia Hut and Crucible Lake: Fly to Siberia Valley from Makarora and jetboat out. Day hike the spectacular but extremely steep and rooty track to Crucible Lake, and overnight at Siberia Hut. [Or the easiest option to sample the area is the one-day “The Siberia Experience“: fly in, hike 2.5 hours, then jetboat back.]


Add any of the above 2007-2019 NZ images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

South Island’s West Coast


Add any of the above 1981-2019 NZ West Coast images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

Along the wild coast of Paparoa National Park, we revisited the photogenic Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes Walk, on Dolomite Point. I also loved the strikingly beautiful forest subtly transitioning between subtropical and temperate ecozones on gorgeous Pororari River Track (which is part of a new “Great Walk” to open after October 2019).

Our detailed NEW ZEALAND itinerary for 35 days (2018 Dec 27 to 2019 Jan 31)

Several months in advance, our family group of five booked lodging for our first two weeks in New Zealand, including Mt Cook area, Te Anau, and two nights in Queenstown. The first step was booking the popular Milford Track, which sold out all January slots within seconds after bookings opened 6 months in advance! We could only get slots for two out of five of our group, so those three instead booked the Routeburn Track (reservable the next day), which also filled up very quickly. After fulfilling our prudent bookings up to mid-January, a 3- to 5-day weather forecast then determined when to do the Rees-Dart Track (which requires no reservations, though pads should be carried in case bunks are full). Later, Makarora Travel Centre lodging was easily booked on short notice to stage our Gillespie Pass Circuit. West Coast lodging was tight but bookable several days in advance, with a reprieve as kids went back to school in the last week of January. [Below, RT = round trip; T&C = Tom and Carol; DRK = Dave, Rebecca, and Kylan.]

27.     Thurs Dec 27: T&C: Fly from SFO to Christchurch, 19 hrs 15 min total duration = 12 hr10min flight + 3:20 layover + 4hr5min flight. [Fly SFO on FJ 871 departing Thursday, Dec. 27 at 9:00pm, duration 11:10 hours + 4:05 hours, arriving in Christchurch on FJ 451 at 1:35 pm on Saturday Dec 29. FijiAirways.com US$1266 per person; 1 FREE CHECKED BAG up to 50lb/23kg, 62 li/158 lcm, 1 FREE CARRY-ON BAG 7kg/15lb up to 45 li/115 lcm.]

28.     [Lost day via International Dateline.]

29.     Saturday Dec 29: Arrive in Christchurch IAP 1:35pm. T&C: Apex Rental Car: Toyota Corolla midsize sedan NZ$1489.29 for 33 days, 3 free extra drivers, pay at desk.  DRK: rent a Toyota RAV4 NZ$56.67/day for 65 days. Stay at an AirBnB. Buy SIM cards for both Carol & Tom’s phones: Spark’s “NZ Travel SIM” for foreigners, $49 SIM, good for 2 months, gives 5 gb, 200min talk, 200 texts. Buy backpacking & other food; butane cigarette lighter for stove; Snowpeak Gigapower stove fuel isobutane/propane mix for dinners+breakfasts for 9 days (2 Hollyford+4 Rees-Dart+3 Gillespie). Gas cooking stoves are provided in Milford & Routeburn Huts.

30.     Sunday Dec 30: Drive from Christchurch 4 hours to Glentanner Park, night 1/3. Nice short loop: Big Tree Walk in Peel Forest Park Scenic Reserve. See breathtakingly colorful fields of Russell lupin flowers via Lakes Tekapo & Pukaki.

31.     Mount Cook 2/3: Glentanner Park.  Hooker Valley Track (GMap: White Horse Hill Campsite, 6.8 miles, 450 feet), same trailhead as Sealy Tarns.

1.      January 1: Mount Cook 3/3: Glentanner Park.  Sealy Tarns (Start on Kea Point track from GMap: White Horse Hill Campsite, 5 miles RT, 1717 feet, steep) [or hike further to spectacular Mueller Hut 7.8 mi RT/3400 ft].

2.      January 2: Drive to Te Anau 5 hours. Next 3 nights T&C, next 2 nights DRK: Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers, Booking.com (this link supports my work). DRK: tent sites for four on Jan 2, 3, and 11.

3.      Te Anau: Buy backcountry hut passes. We rested today, but here are local hiking options: Kepler Track dayhike options: Take Brod Bay Water Taxi (Fiordland Outdoors Co. – Kepler Water Taxi, GMap) then walk back to Te Anau 11km. Or Brod Bay to Luxmore Hut 10.2 mi / 2870ft RT (or shorter to views at bushline). Longer: Brod Bay to Mount Luxmore 11.6mi/4000ft gain RT. Water Taxi 8.30am or 9.30am, return 4.30pm. Or Kepler Heli Hike drops you at Mt Luxmore Hut (optional walk 3 hrs RT 1300ft to summit Mt Luxmore) then walk back 4 hrs to Brod Bay Water Taxi.

4.      DRK begin Routeburn day 1/4: hike from the Divide to MacKenzie Campsite.  T&C day hike, joining DRK on Routeburn Track, to Key Summit side trip 3 hrs RT 4.7 mi/ 1389 ft. T&C hike Marion Falls/The Gantry GMap 20min round trip [optionally one can hike onwards to Lake Marion 3 hrs RT 4.4 mi/1565 ft.]

5.      Saturday Jan 5: T&C: Leave car at Te Anau Downs Boat Launch, GMap. Take 10:30am ferry to Glade Wharf to start Milford Track; first day is easy hike 3mi/5km. [Total distance would have been 36-40 miles in 4 days with 4600ft up, 5200ft down]. [DRK 2/4: to Routeburn Falls Hut. Gas cooking stoves are provided in Milford & Routeburn Huts.]

6.      Sunday Jan 6: T&C: Milford Track second day: Due to flooding delaying forward progress by an extra night, we return 5km from Clinton Hut to Glade Wharf; catch the 3:00 pm ferry to Te Anau Downs. Because Te Anau lodging is fully booked, we drive our car 90 minutes to the deserted Riversdale Hotel. [DRK 3/4: MacKenzie Hut.]

7.      T&C hike Earland Falls, meeting DRK [on their Routeburn day 4/4] on their hike back to The Divide. DRK stay in Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers BBH (dorm room 3 people, shared bathroom). T&C: stay in Distinction Te Anau Hotel & Villas booked on short notice 2 days ago.

8.      T&C, DRK drive both cars to end of Hollyford Road End to leave one car, then all 5 go in one car to Milford Sound where it remains parked for 3 nights. Past Homer Tunnel, see The Chasm GMap via 20 minute walk. All  of us overnight in dorm beds at Milford Sound Lodge (laundry available; hot showers; public kitchen; café; GMap).

9.      Hollyford Track, map, day 1/3: Easy day: Bring cooking stove kit with lighter & fuel, backup sleeping pads in case of full hut, changes of clothing & fresh camera & backup batteries. 10:30am airplane short flight for all of us (www.tripsandtramps.com) from Milford Sound to Martins Bay airstrip, walk 3.5 miles to Martins Bay Hut, dormitory lodging with pit toilets, partly on washed-out, muddy trail. Warning: Sandflies bit us voraciously at Martins Bay and in the Hollyford Valley; so put on your DEET repellent before exposure. Walk 2 more miles round trip on good trail to see the wonderfully entertaining New Zealand fur seal colony.

10.     Hollyford Track 2/3: Jetboat charter for 5 from 2.00pm-3:00pm, run by www.hollyfordtrack.com from Martins Bay Hut along length of Lake Mckerrow to Pyke River Confluence, NZ$130/person, www.tripsandtramps.com. Ride the Jetboat. Then hike to Hidden Falls Hut (12 bunks, GMap) 10.5 km, 3–4 hr.

11.     Hollyford Track 3/3: hike from Hidden Falls Hut to Lower Hollyford Road, Hollyford Trailhead, 9 km, 2–3 hr. All of us drive in one car to recover other car at Milford Sound. Drive 2 cars back to Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers.

12.     Drive 2.3 hours from Te Anau to Queenstown Top 10 Holiday Park night 1 of 2. GMap 1/2 T&C Self Contained Cabin. DRK in tents.

13.     Queenstown Top 10 Holiday Park night 2 of 2. I hiked a very scenic loop over the steep ridge of Ben Lomond Scenic Reserve starting from top of Skyline Gondola. One can extend this hike to Ben Lomond Track from 1-6.9 miles with 500-3236 ft gain in 5-6 hrs round trip. [Other good options outside of town: Bob’s Cove; or Glacier Burn: 4.6 mi/2152 ft. RT steep, rooty, GMap] (The DOC office in Makarora is unmanned, so get tomorrow’s Gillespie Circuit hut tickets and track info at Wanaka DOC office before going to Makarora; or get 6-month Hut Passes as we did.)

14.     As of today, nothing was prebooked, allowing a 3-day window for Rees-Dart Track (DOC). The forecast was good, so we hiked Day 1/5: we left one car at Chinaman’s Bluff in Dart Valley and shuttled all five of us in the other car to Muddy Creek parking lot in Rees Valley, via stream crossings possible in good weather in our Toyota Corolla & RAV4 rental cars. If in doubt, hire a car shuttle service, or possible jetboat in Dart Valley. We hike 11.9 miles, 1650 ft. up, 400 ft. down, from Muddy Creek to Shelter Rock Hut. (The first 4 miles are on a road which a 4WD shuttle could shorten, but you wouldn’t want to leave a car beyond Muddy Creek, isolated by possibly flooded stream crossings.)

15.     Rees-Dart Track 2/5: 6.2mi/9km with 1885 feet gain, steep on good trail to Rees Saddle, then a surprisingly punishing 1800 feet down on many scrambling very steep drop-offs, to Dart Hut.

16.     Rees-Dart Track 3/5: side trip: Hike to spectacular, steep Cascade Saddle (12.5 miles round trip with 3200 ft gain), the major goal and highlight of our 2019 trip! (Beware of several possibly uncrossable flooded stream crossings in rainy weather.)

17.     Rees-Dart Track 4/5: 11.25 miles, 1150 ft. up, 2600 ft. down, to Daly’s Flat Hut, on the easiest footpath conditions out of the five days. (Except beware of several possibly uncrossable flooded stream crossings in rainy weather). Sandflies are voracious here; so put on your DEET repellent before exposure.

18.     Rees-Dart Track 5/5: 10 miles, 1250 ft. up, 1440 ft. down to Chinaman’s Bluff parking lot, car shuttle. Walk by an eerie partly-submerged forest killed by the flooded blue-green lake in Dredge Flat, which was dammed by the 2014 Jan 04 landslide, which had required rough rerouting of three sections of the Rees-Dart Track (reopened in late 2017). Watch your step when tired! Other than slow clambering steeply up and down required through the rooty reroutes, the remaining path conditions today resembled speedy Great Walk standards. A section signed for cliff “exposure” turned out to be a safe, wide, well protected path with stairs and railings, with nice views over the new lake. Suspended glacial powder colors the lake a beautiful turquoise. Although this was our most difficult ever hut walk in 30 years, Rees-Dart Track paid off as our best experience in New Zealand! This night we stayed in Wanaka (Albert Town, AirBnb night 1 of 5).

19.     Wanaka (Albert Town, AirBnb 2 of 5): We relaxed. [Nearby popular option: Roy’s Peak: park by 6:30-7am, 8-9.7 mi / 3500-4000 ft gain to good view of Lake Wanaka.]

20.     Wanaka (Albert Town, AirBnb 3 of 5): Get up early to avoid the crowds, drive 80 minutes to hike the memorable Rob Roy Valley Track (easy 7 miles, 1700 feet gain).

21.     Wanaka (Albert Town, AirBnb 4 of 5): We relaxed. [Nearby option: hike Diamond Lake Track 3.9 mi/1529 ft, GMap.]

22.     Wanaka (Albert Town, AirBnb 5 of 5): We relaxed.

23.     From Makarora, start Gillespie Pass circuit 1/4: NZ$25 per person jetboat on Makarora River to Young River confluence, hike 10.6 miles, 2480 ft. up, 810 ft. down, 6.5 hrs to Young Hut. [One can optionally fly (Wilkin Jetboats Siberia Experience NZ$375 or Southern Alps Air NZ$395).]

24.     Gillespie Pass circuit 2/4: Young Hut via very steep Gillespie Pass to Siberia Hut 7mi/3020 ft up/3400ft down, steep, 6-8 hours. DEET repellent is advised to ward off clouds of sandflies at Siberia Hut. [Optional side trip to spectacular Crucible Lake adds 5.3mi/2040 ft 4+hrs RT, making a strenuous 12.3-mile day with 5440 ft gain; or else hike tomorrow from Siberia Hut as we did.]

25.     Gillespie Pass circuit 3/4: spectacular Crucible Lake 9.3 miles/2100ft round trip hike starting from Siberia Hut.

26.     Gillespie Pass circuit 4/4: 4.2mi/300ft gain/1300ft down one way to the exciting jetboat ride NZ$110pp from Kerin Forks to Makarora. Stay in Makarora Travel Centre, where Carol stayed 4 nights to take a break from this rougher track.

27.     Leaving Makarora, we stroll to the attractive Blue Pools in Mount Aspiring National Park. Walk up Haast Pass Lookout to absorb the area’s history. Along the drive over Haast Pass to Fox Glacier, we liked popular Thunder Creek Falls. Haast Visitor Centre (run by DOC) helps organize your West Coast visit. All five of us stay in bunks in a small private room at Fox Glacier Top 10 Holiday Park.

28.     West Coast: Near Fox Glacier, we drove through nice wilderness to foggy Gillespies Beach, in Westland Tai Poutini National Park. Close-ups of the exceptionally loud chorus cicadas were fun to capture on video in the bush. Walk around Lake Matheson, still attractive when the Alps are covered in cloud (but more magical when Mounts Cook and Tasman reflect, as in 2007). We five stay in a larger double room with kitchen in delightful Greymouth Seaside TOP 10 Holiday Park, night 1 of 2.

29.     West Coast: Greymouth Seaside TOP 10 Holiday Park, night 2 of 2. In Paparoa National Park, revisit fascinating Pancake Rocks; and hike gorgeous Pororari River Track.  [More local options: Hokitika Gorge. Or Charming Creek Walkway.]

30.     Jan 30: Drive to Christchurch, via Arthurs Pass NP: Devils Punchbowl, 4 mi RT 745 ft gain to high waterfall. Christchurch in an AirBnb house, which lacked air conditioning. Look for Christchurch lodging with AC in summer, as temperatures reached 92 degrees Fahrenheit today!

31.     Thurs Jan 31: We returned the rental car with full tank of petrol by 2:00pm. After 5 weeks in NZ, we depart CHC at 15:30pm, arriving in SFO 12:45pm (arriving before we started that same Thursday afternoon, due to crossing International Dateline). Flight times going eastwards are quicker due to prevailing winds: 4 hrs plus 3hr40min stopover plus 10hr 30min = 18hr 10min total duration. Rent car one way from SFO to Chico 3.5+ hrs. After several nights in Chico, we drove our own car to Seattle.

JAPAN: Tokyo, Kyoto, Alps, Matsumoto, Himeji, Nikko, Mt Fuji, Kii Peninsula, Nara’s Horyuji

Months of research paid off handsomely for our self-guided group of four in my first journey to Japan, 2018 October 10 – November 8.

Japan favorite photos


Click the “i” to turn on informative captions. Add any of the above favorite Japan images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

Our trip included 4 days in Tokyo, a week in Kyoto, and much in between. Coming from cooler Seattle, subtropical Honshu nicely extends fall foliage colors a month later. While our wives Barbara and Carol did a 10-day indigo-dyeing fabric workshop, Mark and I escaped into nature in the Japan Alps and Nikko National Park. Then back together, we four explored fabulous Matsumoto and Himeji Castles plus much more described below. Conveniently, history has packed the essence of Japan into central Honshu, the main island. As foreigners we qualify for the bargain-priced Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass) which reaches most major sights.

The free online Japan-Guide.com covers Japan travel in astounding detail, better than any book.

Incredibly helpful, Google Maps on my smartphone with Japanese SIM simplified point-to-point navigation. Our SUICA transit cards (ordered in advance) eliminated fumbling with unfamiliar change on efficient local subways and buses, and also bought items from vending machines seemingly found everywhere (dispensing hot bad coffee in a can plus cold drinks). The impressively-reliable Japanese train network includes 200mph bullet trains (shinkansen), which resemble ground-hugging jet airplanes. My preparatory efforts to learn spoken Japanese were put on hold after arrival, as English signs and helpful locals sufficiently crossed the language barrier.

The following interactive Google Map shows where we went in Japan. During the trip, I would simply click a desired destination, and Google Maps would describe the step by step directions, visually and/or audibly, as desired via train, bus or foot.

As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. To support my work:
Buy any products at Amazon.com | Reserve travel at Booking.com | Sign up for AirBnb.com

More extensive galleries of Japan:

Below, see all my Japan photos and travel tips grouped by city and area (mostly by Tom Dempsey, some by Carol Dempsey). Or view them in sequential order in a single gallery at this link in my Portfolio (where you can Add to Cart).

Tokyo


Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

On our first morning in Tokyo, we dove into a high protein fish breakfast at Tsukiji Kagura Sushi (map), one of many restaurants in Tsukiji Outer Market in Central Tokyo southeast of Ginza. In Ueno Park, the big Tokyo National Museum helped us understand the sweep of Japanese history. We highly recommend a Sumida River Dinner Cruise on a Yakatabune traditional Heian Period Japanese boat, such as Harumiya company’s “Odaiba & Skytree route” via Rainbow Bridge. Seating is at horigotatsu low table with a sunken floor to comfortably stretch your legs. In Asakusa district, we visited the densely crowded Sensoji (Asakusa Kannon Buddhist Temple, founded in 645 AD), which was completely rebuilt several times, mostly after World War II.

Destroyed by Allied firebombing during World War Two along with half of Tokyo, the Tokyo Imperial Palace and Garden was rebuilt in the 1960s and 1990s and is the home of Japan’s Imperial Family. In 1989, Emperor Akihito became Japan’s 125th emperor. 1,500 years of rule makes his Yamato Dynasty the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy in the world. Constitutionally, the emperor performs a symbolic role with no political power; and the role was similarly limited through most of Japan’s history.

Allied firebombing of Tokyo on 9 March 1945 was the single deadliest air raid of World War II (greater than Dresden or Hiroshima as single events), leaving more than 100,000 civilians dead and 1 million homeless. After Japan surrendered, the US occupying forces led by General Douglas A. MacArthur rehabilitated Japan between 1945 and 1952. Rising from the ashes, Tokyo is now a stunning technological wonder; and as of 2018 Japan has the world’s third largest economy by GDP. Not until 2010 did China finally surpassed Japan’s Gross Domestic Product. Shared history has deeply intertwined the economies of the USA and Japan. For example, the American convenience store innovator of 7-Eleven Inc. was rescued from mismanagement and became entirely Japanese-owned in 2005. 7-Eleven stores have spread widely across Japan.

Tokyo wowed us with some exciting modern architecture including: Tokyo International Forum; skyscrapers above Shibuya Crossing, the world’s single busiest pedestrian crossing; the beautiful greenhouse in Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden; graceful Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower built 2008; a free city observatory 202 meters high in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (Tokyo Tocho); and the Godzilla (Gojira) head on Hotel Gracery in the Kabukicho entertainment and neon red-light district, spectacular at night.

Despite a dense commuter population of 38 million people, the metropolis of Tokyo is one of the world’s safest cities. Japan is the most civil society I’ve ever witnessed. Careful attention to detail is applied everywhere: to pristine food presented with a delicate aesthetic, to the abundance of clean public restrooms, and to decorative manhole covers. Many toilets fill their tank using a faucet on top where you can wash you hands while the water runs immediately after flushing.

Politeness is a national virtue. Out of respect, no talking is heard on crowded commuter subways. Americans may be surprised that Japanese strongly frown upon pedestrians who smoke, eat, drink or talk on cellphones while walking. By most measures, the violent crime rate is at least 10 times lower in Japan than in the USA. Despite a quirky legal system which forces confessions, Japan incarcerates far fewer than the US (with a prisoner rate 13 times higher) or UK (3 times higher). Children can safely walk or transit unsupervised to school. Not everything is perfect in this male-dominated culture, such as the under-reporting of sexual assaults such as groping on crowded subways. But women and children apparently feel safe to walk most streets alone at night, unlike in many US cities.

Mount Fuji and Chureito Pagoda


Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

The dormant stratovolcano of Mount Fuji (3776.24 m or 12,389 ft), the highest mountain in Japan, last erupted in 1707–1708. Its symmetrical cone is snow-capped for about 5 months a year, as during our October visit. Overlooking Fujiyoshida City, a viewpoint by five-storied Chureito Pagoda offers iconic views combined with Mount Fuji in the distance (sadly covered by cloud by the time Mark and I joined Carol and Barb here, after their fabric workshop). The attractive pagoda, part of Arakura Sengen Shrine, was built as a peace memorial in 1963, nearly 400 steps up the mountain from the shrine’s main buildings.

Nikko: Toshogu, Lake Chuzenji


Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

Nikko features Japan’s most lavishly decorated shrine, 1600s Toshogu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tips: Get lodging with 6:00am breakfast or buy your own at a grocery the night before, in order to beat the crowds which fill up Nikko buses after 8:00am. Arrive at Toshogu Shrine’s box office just before it opens at 8:00am, as the site quickly becomes deluged with school groups and tourist hordes. This is an overcrowded, must-see wonder. Fall foliage colors were very nice at Ryuzu Falls and Chuzenji Onsen in late October 2018. Typically, peak foliage colors hit beautiful Lake Chuzenji around mid October. Ryuzu Falls was very nice, though crowded, even in the rain. Get off at Bus Stop #37, enjoy the falls, then walk 1 kilometer upriver along the raging stream, to less-crowded Bus Stop #38 to catch the next bus up or down.

Kyoto


Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

We devoted 7 nights to Kyoto, exhaustively exploring this amazing metropolis of 1.5 million people via foot, bus, taxi and train. Containing seventeen UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Kyoto is a cultural treasure house. Kyoto served as Japan’s capital and the emperor’s residence from 794-1868. Largely spared during World War II, Kyoto is a better place to see original historic buildings than Tokyo, where half the city was destroyed by Allied firebombing.

Tourist sights can get extra crowded in Kyoto on a Saturday, so we escaped to Kurama-dera. This peaceful Buddhist temple perches on a steep wooded mountain above Kurama, reached via an inexpensive private train plus funicular (cablecar), both not covered by JR Pass. Upon arrival, I learned that our planned 1-hour hiking trail between Kurama and Kibune was sadly closed until further notice, because two months previously, a typhoon had snapped trees and extensively damaged the grounds. Kurama-dera was nice and relaxing, but not as striking as our walk in “Kii Peninsula: Nachikatsuura, Kumano Kodo” described further below.

Himeji Castle


Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

Himeji Castle is both a national treasure and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in Hyogo Prefecture. As a lucky exception, Himeji Castle was never destroyed by war, earthquake or fire and it survives as one of Japan’s 12 original castles. Starting as forts built in 1333 and 1346, it was remodeled in 1561, remodeled in 1581, enlarged in 1609 to its present complex, extensively repaired in 1956, and renovated in 2009-15. Displayed inside are historic samurai armor and swords. From the upper floors, view fish-shaped roof ornaments that are believed to protect from fire. Across the moat, we enjoyed the movie-set gardens of Koko-en. Himeji Castle starred in Akira Kurosawa’s striking 1980 film “Kagemusha” and 1985 “Ran”, and in the 1980 television miniseries Shogun (portraying feudal Osaka castle). We conveniently visited Himeji by train as a day trip from Kyoto, best mid week to avoid crowds.

Nara: Horyuji Temple


Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

Among the major historic sights scattered across Nara Prefecture, I choose Horyu-ji, which is both a National Treasure and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Horyuji Temple’s 122-foot-high pagoda is the world’s oldest wooden building. The wood used in the center pillar of the pagoda is estimated through a dendrochronological analysis to have been felled in 594. The Temple was founded in 607 by Prince Shotoku, an early promoter of Buddhism in Japan. The similarly old Kondo (Main Hall) was rebuilt in 1954 after a 1949 fire destroyed 80-85% of its wood. As sights in Kyoto can get extra-crowded on weekends, a 3-hour round trip train to Horyuji served as a quieter, relaxing escape on a Sunday, located outside of Nara city.

Matsumoto Castle


Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

Built 1592-1614, Matsumoto Castle and its red bridge reflect magically in the moat, in Nagano Prefecture. Matsumoto Castle is a “hirajiro” – a castle built on plains rather than on a hill or mountain. Matsumoto-jo’s main castle keep and its smaller, second donjon were built from 1592 to 1614, well-fortified as peace was not yet fully achieved at the time. In 1635, when military threats had ceased, a third, barely defended turret and another for moon viewing were added to the castle. Inside, steep wooden stairs lead to openings for dropping stones onto invaders, openings for archers, as well as an observation deck at the top, the sixth floor of the main keep with views over Matsumoto city.

Across from the train station, Premier Hotel Cabin Matsumoto made an excellent base with elaborate buffet breakfast in this walkable city.

Japan Alps: Kamikochi, Mt Hotaka


Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

Starting from Tokyo by early morning train, the Northern Japan Alps are easily reached by early afternoon to start hiking. I recommend the following 4-day trek from Kamikochi via comfortable mountain huts up to 10,190-foot Mount Kitahotaka (29 miles with 6980 ft gain), in Chubu-Sangaku National Park. I reserved just our first night in Tokusawa-en hut via internet. We purchased four days of lunch materials at a corner grocery and would rely on huts for dinners and breakfasts. Departing from Shinjuku Station via JR Pass, we arrived before noon in Matsumoto Station, where Starbucks supplies a roomy lounge to relax and sip a drink. An $80 taxi ride whisked us directly to Kamikochi Bus Station to start the trek. (The bus schedule was limited, with arrival times too late). Japanese mountain huts prefer that you arrive by 2 or 3:00pm, and advance reservations are recommended.

  1. 4.65 miles / 340 ft gain from Kamikochi Bus Station to Tokusawa-en mountain hut (1570m / 5150 ft elevation). The separately-curtained individual dorm cubicles, delicious gourmet dinner and hot shower/bath were delightful surprises! Staff spoke enough English to help us book tomorrow night’s hut.
  2. Breakfast was a curious array of Japanese dishes. We ascended a scenic trail via Yokoo Valley, 7 miles with 2650 ft gain to Karasawa-goya mountain hut. I had staff use their two-way radio to book tomorrow night’s hut. Plus I walked an extra 2.4 miles with 1000 ft gain to Panorama Course overlook via a decaying trail exposed to steep slopes, secured where needed with fixed chains or ropes.
  3. On Day 3, I hiked from Karasawa-goya a total of 10 miles, with 2650 feet of steep ascent via a series of ladders and fixed chains to Mount Kitahotaka, then 5300 ft total descent to Tokusawa-en. Atop Kitahotaka-dake at 10,190 feet elevation, you can optionally dine or stay overnight at Kitahotaka Hut! But dense fog and a smattering of snow flakes at the summit quickly sent me hustling steeply back down the gauntlet of rocks with fixed chains. Heavy rain began upon arrival at Karasawa-goya, where I collected my remaining belongings to descend before dark, in time for a shower/bath and another gourmet dinner at Tokusawa-en hut.
  4. From Tokusawa-en back to Kamikochi Bus Station, we crossed Myojin bridge and looped back on the north side of Azusa River via pleasant boardwalks and peak fall foliage colors, for 4.9 miles with 340 feet descent. With no reservation, we caught one of the frequent buses onwards to Takayama city for two nights…

Japan Alps: Ogimachi in Shirakawago; Takayama


Click the “i” to turn on informative captions. Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

Two nights in Takayama allowed plenty of time to take a day trip via bus to worthwhile Shirakawago. Ogimachi is the largest village and main attraction of the Shirakawa-go region, in Ono District, Gifu Prefecture. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, Ogimachi village hosts several dozen well preserved gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some more than 250 years old. Their thick roofs, made without nails, are designed withstand harsh, snowy winters and to protect a large attic space that was formerly used to cultivate silkworms. Many of the farmhouses are now restaurants, museums or minshuku lodging. Some farmhouses from surrounding villages have been relocated to the peaceful Gassho-zukuri Minka-en Outdoor Museum, highly recommended, across the river from the bustling, more-touristy town center. Gassho-zukuri means “constructed like hands in prayer”, as the farmhouses’ steep thatched roofs resemble the hands of Buddhist monks pressed together in prayer.

Japan Alps: Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route


Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

A snowy crystalline scene greeted us at Tateyama Murodo Sanso mountain hut. At 8000 feet (2450 meters) elevation, Murodo is the highest point along the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, which offers lodging, hiking and views of the Tateyama Mountain Range, in Chubu Sangaku National Park. The Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route carries visitors across the Northern Japan Alps (Hida Mountains) via cable cars (funiculars), trolley buses and Tateyama Ropeway. Completed in 1971, this transportation corridor connects Toyama City in Toyama Prefecture with Omachi Town in Nagano Prefecture.

Tsumago to Magome: Nakasendo trail; Nagoya


Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

At a minshuku (family pension) in Tsumago, a tasty Japanese dinner of unfamiliar food included sweet fried crickets. Sleeping on hard futons dampened our enthusiasm for cultural submersion. Then a pleasant walk on the historic Nakasendo trail took us from preserved Edo-era Tsumago to Magome. I was more comfortable in the Western-style beds in the small efficient rooms of Sanco Inn Nagoya Shinkansen-guchi Annex in the bustling beehive of Nagoya.

Kii Peninsula: Nachikatsuura, Kumano Kodo


Click the “i” to turn on informative captions. Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

A heartfelt highlight of the trip was on the Kii Peninsula, where two nights in Nachikatsuura allowed a short walk along a Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route to Seiganto-ji Temple by Japan’s highest waterfall, Nachi-no-Taki. A colorful sunset over the fishing boat harbor followed cruising scenic coastal sea stacks in late afternoon. In Nachikatsuura, every morning except Saturday is a fascinating morning tuna auction, worth attending twice. A delicious maguro (tuna) dinner at Katuragi restaurant included tuna sashimi, fried breaded tuna and user-cooked tuna. Optimally located near the train, bus station, waterfront, and restaurants, the comfortable Hotel Charmant served a tasty breakfast.

Japan travel tips

  • The most complete, useful and well written online Japan reference is: Japan-Guide.com. The printed Lonely Planet guidebook is also useful.
  • Absolutely essential for transit and navigation in Japan, Google Maps requires a Japanese SIM card in your smartphone. We ordered our Japanese SIM card in advance, which works nearly everywhere (on all trains except in tunnels). Unless your “Wi-Fi Calling” feature requires it, don’t get the portable Wi-Fi device, which costs more than a SIM, adds bulk (the size of a pack of cards but 5 ounces) and must be charged separately and has much shorter battery life than your phone.
  • Google Maps is the best navigation app, much superior to the Maps.Me app or Garmin devices. Google Maps only work online in Japan; that is, downloadable offline maps aren’t available for Japan (unlike maps for many other countries like USA which are downloadable in chunks). In contrast, Maps.Me maps CAN be downloaded for offline use, but I gave up on using them as they have fewer landmarks and sometimes led us down blind alleys. Using a navigation app, when starting from a standing stop, you must move about 30-50 feet before determining if your direction is correct relative to the map. Find out which way is north on your map and use a Compass app to help determine directions in the real world. Confusingly, Japanese printed maps show East upwards, with North left (instead of up). Tall buildings in Tokyo sometimes interfered with GPS accuracy by several blocks, without my knowledge, for a few minutes at a time. Many place names have multiple entries across Japan or even within the same city. Try to find locations as links from official websites. Addresses in Japan are inscrutable and often inconsistent when romaji words are typed into Google Maps. Realize that an objective such as a restaurant may be in a multi-floor building, so read its description carefully. As Google Maps guides you within a few meters, examine building directories on the surface street. In dense, disorienting Tokyo surrounded by sun-blocking tall buildings, we circled completely around Bangkok Café before determining that it was far above us on the 10th floor of a large multi-use building.
  • Allow extra time getting through Shinjuku Station, the world’s busiest railway station, which handles more than two million passengers per day. Try to find out ahead of time which exit is required to reach your hotel or destination. With 200 exits, Shinjuku Station frequently confounded our route finding! Finding your way into the big stations was usually well signed. But arriving via train or subway into the belly of a huge unfamiliar rail station can make difficult finding the right exit. Smartphone GPS not working underground and intermittent lack of English signs makes route finding difficult through a multistory rats’ nest of twisty passageways with no sense of direction. Stopping to look at your map will often attract a Japanese local to attempt to help you.

Why do Japanese commonly wear surgical masks in public?

In 2003, medical supply maker Unicharm released a new cheap, disposable, effective mask for hay fever sufferers, launching a boom in mask popularity. In Japan, surgical masks are worn in public for many reasons: preventing sickness in oneself; avoiding spreading of sickness to others; warmth; increasing privacy; reducing unwanted social interaction; fashion; and precluding the need to wear makeup.

Sony RX100 VI pocketsize 8x zoom beats 10x Panasonic ZS100

In 2018, the best and brightest pocketable 8x-zoom camera is Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 VI / RX100M6 (11 oz, 24–200mm f/2.8-4.5).

2019 UPDATE: the Sony RX100 VII upgrades version VI to focus even faster. See my BUY CAMERAS menu for latest updates.

But for less than half the price, image quality is nearly as good with Panasonic Lumix DSC-ZS100 (2016, 11 oz, 25-250mm equivalent lens f/2.8-5.9). Read my ZS100 review. Even cheaper is the smartphone-beating ZS70.

At a premium price, Sony RX100M6 buys us the following (versus Panasonic ZS100):

  • Sharper images. While both camera lenses tend to be sharp in the center, RX100M6 is notably sharper towards the edges of every frame, especially at 200mm equivalent. In dim light, ZS100 shots examined at 100% pixel magnification look smudgier and lower in contrast.
  • Superior viewfinder: 2.36 million dots (vs 1.66M), larger magnification 0.59x (vs 0.46x), with better OLED (vs LCD) blows away ZS100’s sketchy EVF. This one-touch viewfinder elegantly beats the inconvenient pop-and-pull action in previous RX100 versions.
  • Tilting TFT LCD display screen: 1.23M dots (vs fixed 1.04M dots).
  • Superior autofocus: Eye AF, new phase detection with 315 focus points (vs 49 points contrast-detection-only).
  • Smaller body, with lighter-weight batteries.

In its favor, Panasonic ZS100 costs 55% less, captures superior edge-to-edge macro (5 cm close focus magnification best at 45mm equivalent, versus 8 cm on RX100M6), has longer battery life (CIPA-rated 300 shots vs 240 shots), and has stronger flash (8.0 meters vs 5.9 m at Auto ISO). In historical perspective, this 2016 feat of miniaturization allows image quality from the 20-megapixel ZS100 to rival all of my cameras used over 34 years until 2012 (beating my cameras up to 4 times heavier, up to 11x zoom range, up to 12 megapixels, at base ISO 100). Yearly advances have now optimized zoom quality in portable travel cameras having a 1-inch Type sensor size (explained here).

The 11-ounce Sony RX100M6 clearly beats Panasonic ZS100 as my new multi-night backpacking camera, for when my 37-ounce main camera Sony RX10M4 seems too heavy. My photos from the Rees-Dart Track in New Zealand 2019 show that at wider angles of view, the pocketable 8x zoom RX100M6 captures publishable image quality nearly as good as the bulkier 25x zoom RX10M4 (whose three-times-heavier system weighs 64 oz, versus 21 oz, for camera + chest-mounted-bag + 4 batteries + accessories). When backpacking, 2.7 pounds is a significant savings when I replace the RX10M4 outfit with RX100M6 (which has the same sensor but collects less light due to smaller lens diameter, and shortens sharp optical zoom range by a factor of three).

Review of Sony RX100M6 / RX100 VI camera versus Panasonic ZS100.

Sony RX100M6 / RX100 VI is noticeably smaller than Panasonic ZS100, yet captures sharper images with a brighter lens as it zooms to telephoto (f/2.8-4.5 versus f/2.8-5.9). Enlarging RX100M6 at 200mm telephoto can equal the quality of 250mm on ZS100.

Essential accessories for Sony RX100 VI / RX100M6

Best rivals: cheaper pocketsize travel cameras

If Sony RX100M6 seems too pricey, consider the following cheaper options which beat rivals at their given price points:

  1. Panasonic Lumix DSC-ZS100 (2016, 11 oz, 25-250mm equivalent lens f/2.8-5.9) far exceeds smartphone resolution. Read my ZS100 review.
  2. Panasonic Lumix DC-ZS200 (2018, 12 oz, 24-360mm equivalent lens f/3.3-6.4) outguns all pocketable 1″-sensor rivals with a versatile 15x zoom, but sibling ZS100 is sharper and brighter through 10x.
  3. Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 versions IV, III, II, or I, within its limited 3x zoom, is sharper and brighter than that sub-range of Panasonic’s 10x-zoom ZS100. Save money with used or earlier III, II or I versions — read Tom’s Sony RX100 III review.
  4. Best value pocketable superzoom: Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS70 (2017, 11.4 oz, 24–720mm equiv 30x zoom, 20mp, EVF) beats smartphone image quality. Or save on older ZS60.

Sony’s “Eye AF” feature: superb autofocus tracks human eyes

For reliably sharper people photography, automatically focusing on human eyes for action and portraits, use Sony’s Eye AF to override your chosen AF area, by holding down the CENTER key on RX100M6. Eye AF works great for sports photography, even at telephoto. This new autofocus paradigm beats most other camera brands. To optimize button placement, I reassigned Eye AF to the C key (garbage can icon), and reassigned CENTER key to AEL toggle (Autoexposure Lock):

  • MENU > Tab 2 > List#9 > Custom Key for still photos > C Button > Eye AF
  • MENU > Tab 2 > List#9 > Custom Key for still photos > Center Button > AEL toggle.

RX100M6 improves focus acquisition speed to 0.3s versus 0.5s on the previous RX100 version 5. Eye AF is twice as fast. It is the first RX100 camera to include Sony’s High-density Tracking AF technology, where more points are concentrated around the subject to improve AF accuracy for moving subjects.

Recommended settings for Sony RX100 VI / RX100M6

  • MENU > Tab 1 > List#1 > File Format > RAW: is for advanced photographers using a raw file editor workflow system, such as Adobe Lightroom CC Classic. In my workflow, I don’t like “RAW+JPEG“, which creates unneeded extra files. “JPEG‘ has insufficient editing leeway for me; but if you choose to keep it as the default, select JPEG Quality = Extra Fine.
  • MENU > Tab 1 > List#4 > Focus Mode > [AF-S or AF-A or AF-C or DMF or MF]  but I usually prefer DMF:
  • MENU > Tab 1 > List#4 > Focus Mode > DMF (Direct Manual Focus): is like AF-S except after shutter button half-presses to lock AF, turning the lens ring then magnifies the subject to confirm what’s in focus. On List#11, set Focus magnif. Time = 2 or 5 Seconds.
  • MENU > Tab 1 > List#6 > Face Prty in Mlti Mtr = ON: measures brightness based on detected faces when [Metering Mode] is set to [Multi].
  • MENU > Tab 1 > List#11 > MF Assist > On: in MF (Manual Focus) mode, turning lens ring magnifies subject to confirm what’s in focus (as in DMF). Set Focus magnif. Time = 2 or 5 Seconds.
  • MENU > Tab 1 > List#11 > Peaking Setting > Peaking Display On [with defaults Mid & White]: flashes edges where focus is sharpest in the frame.
  • MENU > Tab 2 > List#5 > Release w/o Card > Disable: because we don’t want shooting effort wasted; we want to be prompted to put in a recordable memory card if not present.
  • MENU > Tab 2 > List#7 > Zebra Setting > On, Level 100+ for RAW; 70 for JPEG: indicates overexposed areas with zebra stripes.
  • MENU > Tab 2 > List#7 > Grid Line > Rule of 3rds Grid
  • MENU > Tab 2 > List#9 > Function Menu Set:  Lets you set the two rows of quick-access settings assigned to the Fn (Function) button. I like Fn = Drive Mode, Focus Mode, Focus Area, Touch Operation, ISO, Metering Mode, Flash Mode, Flash Comp, White Balance, Peaking Display, Zebra Display, ISO AUTO Min. SS
  • MENU > Tab 2 > List#10 > Audio signals = Off: to quiet the annoying beeps, better for non-intimidating people photos.
  • MENU > Tab 5 > List#5 > Date/Time Setup: always check if camera is set to the local time of day, especially if in your editing process you mix shots from two or more cameras.
  • MENU > Tab 5 > List#5 > Area Setting: if the minutes are set correctly in Date/Time, change the Area Setting each time you shoot in a new time zone, as a quicker way to set the hour.
  • MENU > Tab 5 > List#5 > Format: erases memory card; only format card after several backups have been made.

Sony RX100M6 at 200mm beats Panasonic ZS100 at 250mm & 200mm

The following test shows that a Sony RX100M6 image shot at 200mm equivalent telephoto beats Panasonic ZS100’s quality at 250mm or 200mm. RX100M6’s sharper 200mm shots can simply be digitally enlarged to beat ZS100’s 250mm equivalent zoom.

Telephoto comparison test of two cameras: Sony RX100M6/VI and Panasonic ZS100

Telephoto comparison test of Sony RX100M6/VI at 200mm versus Panasonic ZS100 at 200mm and 250mm.

Compared to a 37-ounce Sony RX10M4 camera, the pocketable 11-ounce Sony RX100M6 has the same sensor and nearly equal image quality up to 200mm equivalent. Or a pocketable Panasonic ZS100 costs half as much as RX100M6 and is nearly as sharp at center (but not at edges). In this duck example, compare 200mm and 250mm from two pocket cameras versus 600mm from RX10M4:

Telephoto comparison test of three cameras: Sony Cyber-shot RX10M4 at 600mm equivalent at f/5.6; Sony RX100M6/VI at 200mm equivalent; Panasonic ZS100 at 250mm

Telephoto comparison test of three cameras: Sony Cyber-shot RX10M4 at 600mm equivalent at f/5.6; Sony RX100M6/VI at 200mm equivalent; Panasonic ZS100 at 250mm.

Panasonic ZS100 captures macro shots superior to RX100M6

Although Sony RX100M6/VI can focus sharply beyond 12-24+ inches from the lens, it captures poor macro quality around the edges of the frame at 3.15-inch (8 cm) closest focus. It enlarges biggest at 50mm equivalent zoom. Closely-focused subjects will be sharp at the center of the frame, but can be very blurred around the edges, which can actually help to isolate the center subject, popping it away from the background. But copy work of small flat subjects such as printed text will have unacceptably fuzzy edges. See magnification test images below.

As a workaround for better macro, try:

  • A good smartphone with 2x tele second back camera, as in Samsung Galaxy S9+ or my Note9 (Amazon).
  • Earlier Sony sibling cameras RX100M5, RX100M4 or RX100M3.
  • Larger Sony RX10M4 or RX10M3 cameras with superior macro at 400-600mm f/5.6 and also fun results at 24-90mm. Read my RX10M4 review.
  • Excellent Panasonic ZS100 macro at 45mm equivalent. Fitting handily into a shirt pocket, Panasonic ZS100 enlarges best at 45mm equivalent. This optimum setting is very sharp and rectilinear from edge-to-edge, although the subject must be very close to the front of the lens, sometimes overshadowed. At 25mm, f/5.9 is sharper than f/3.5, but edges are still much too soft. For optimal close focus, zoom to 45mm equivalent and don’t forget to press the Flower Button (Macro, Left Arrow).
Macro magnification test of 5 cameras: Sony RX10M4, Panasonic ZS100, Samsung Galaxy Note9 smartphone, Sony A6300 + SEL1670Z lens, Sony RX100M6

100% pixel magnification test from five cameras: Sony RX10M4 is best at 600mm equivalent at f/5.6; Panasonic ZS100 best at 45mm; Samsung Galaxy Note9 smartphone best at 2x tele 52mm. Significantly poorer quality comes from the macro for SEL1670Z lens on Sony A6300 at its best 105mm enlargement. Inferior quality is captured by Sony RX100M6/VI at its best macro enlargement at 50mm equivalent.

50mm lens test in dim indoor light

Below, five cameras tested with 50mm equivalent lenses in dim indoor light are compared at 100% pixel magnification. All were shot in raw format and optimized similarly in Lightroom.

Five cameras tested with 50mm equivalent lens and compared at 100% pixel magnification: SEL1670Z lens on Sony A6300; Sony RX10M4; Sony RX100M6/VI; Panasonic ZS100.

Five cameras tested with 50mm equivalent lens and compared at 100% pixel magnification: SEL1670Z lens on Sony A6300; Sony RX10M4; Sony RX100M6/VI; Panasonic ZS100.

Results: Best image quality at 50mm equivalent in dim light is captured in the following order:

  1. The 4x zoom SEL1670Z lens on Sony A6300 does best.
  2. The 25x zoom Sony RX10M4 looks almost as good.
  3. The 8x zoom Sony RX100M6/VI has only slightly more noise than RX10M4, which could be fixed by shooting at ISO 800 instead of 2000. Impressive results from a camera weighing one third as much!
  4. The 10x zoom Panasonic ZS100, cheapest of the four, places last. Despite its noisier, lower-contrast results, ZS100 still captures decent quality, for less than half the price of any of the other three cameras.

Evocative images can be created with any camera. For travel, I recommend any of these good-quality zooms having at least 8x range for greater compositional flexibility.

Review: Sony RX10 IV / RX10M4 upgrades the ultimate travel camera

In 2018, Sony RX10 version IV (RX10M4) reigns as the world’s best midsize travel camera, with bright 25x zoom f/2.4-4 lens, remarkably sharp from edge-to-edge from 24-600mm equivalent. This all-in-one marvel is also my top pick for portable wildlife telephoto. Unprecedented versatility with publishable image quality have made Sony RX10M4 & RX10M3 my main travel cameras since 2016.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 version IV (Amazon) happily upgrades my version III camera with improved autofocus, menu reorganization, and touchscreen autofocus. This article reviews the RX10M4, reveals hidden settings, suggests accessories and compares with rivals. CIPA battery life is a respectable 400 shots per charge. See our recent trips to southwest USA and Canada shot on RX10M4.

Sony Cyber-shot RX10 IV (RX10M4) with 24-600mm equivalent f/2.4-4 stabilized zoom lens.

Sony Cyber-shot RX10 IV / RX10M4 with 24-600mm equivalent f/2.4-4 stabilized zoom lens. 20MP 1″-type stacked CMOS sensor. Phase detection 315-point autofocus. Touchscreen AF.

Detailed Review of Sony RX10M4

RX10M4 firmware update 2.00 adds Real-Time Animal Eye AF and improves camera stability

Check your firmware version number using the MENU button > SETUP6 > Version. If you have version 1.00 like I did, be sure to Download the latest Sony RX10 IV Firmware Update 2.00 (released by Sony Support on 14 November 2019). The 2.00 update adds Real-Time Animal Eye AF; enables the possibility to operate the real-time EYE AF by half-pressing the shutter button; and improves the overall stability of the camera. But to make the new Animal Eye AF feature work with Half Press of the shutter button, you must toggle: MENU1 > Page 6 > Face/Eye AF Set > Subject Detection > set to [Animal] or set to [Human] (default). To find it easier in the future, use Add Item to put “Face/Eye AF Set” onto Tab 6 > STAR menu (My Menu1). Read more at helpguide.sony.net.

Telephoto quality

Let’s talk tele first — the main reason to have this substantial 37-ounce camera. The duck and flamingo examples below show how wonderfully sharp is RX10M4’s 600mm telephoto for wildlife, hand-held with SteadyShot ON. If a 37-ounce RX10M4 seems too big, consider the pocketable 11-ounce Sony RX100M6 which has the same sensor and nearly equal image quality up to 200mm equivalent. Or a pocketable Panasonic ZS100 costs half as much as RX100M6, is nearly as sharp, and reaches to 250mm. In this duck example, compare 200mm and 250mm from two pocket cameras versus 600mm from RX10M4 to see how much detail is sacrificed:

Telephoto comparison test of three cameras: Sony Cyber-shot RX10M4 at 600mm equivalent at f/5.6; Sony RX100M6/VI at 200mm equivalent; Panasonic ZS100 at 250mm

Telephoto comparison test of three cameras: Sony Cyber-shot RX10M4 at 600mm equivalent at f/5.6; Sony RX100M6/VI at 200mm equivalent; Panasonic ZS100 at 250mm

Three extracts from this Chilean Flamingo image show the crisp 600mm-equivalent telephoto reach of Sony RX10M3 (same lens as RX10M4):

Chilean Flamingo, Woodland Park Zoo

Even at maximum telephoto 220mm (600mm equivalent), extracts from edges and center are crisp (enlarged at 100% pixel view in the above photo, shot at optimal aperture f/5.6, for 1/1600th second to freeze movement, at ISO 100 to minimize noise). Sony RX10 III is sharp across the frame at all zoom settings: optimally crisp at f/4 from 24-400mm equivalent and at f/5.6 from 500-600mm).  Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle, Washington. (In Adobe Lightroom, raw file exposure was adjusted +1.86 EV, Highlights -84, plus Sharpening.)

Telephoto tips for RX10M4
  • For sharper hand-held shots at 600mm maximum telephoto, use 1/100th second shutter speed or faster, with Image Stabilization ON.
  • Zoom Assist: The big button on the base of the lens is Focus Hold by default. In order to more easily locate birds or small subjects at 500-600mm telephoto, to see outside of that narrow angle of view, reassign the Focus Hold button (or another button) to Zoom Assist as follows: press MENU > Camera Settings Tab 2 > List #9 > Custom Key(Shoot.) > page 2 > Focus Hold Button > [Zoom Assist]. While held down, Zoom Assist quickly widens the angle of view to allow re-centering upon a bird, so you can pan to follow the bird’s motion, then release Zoom Assist to restore your original narrow angle of view.
  • You can increase zoom racking speed from 24 to 600mm in just 2 seconds, by setting Zoom Speed = “Fast in MENU > Settings Tab 2 > List #6. I mostly use the default 4-second “Normal” for finer framing control, except where fleeting wildlife or sports require Fast. The Zoom Speeds of Fast and Normal apply to still shots; but Movie recording mode thankfully automatically invokes a slower, virtually silent zoom to avoid jarring video viewers. RX10’s power zoom being locked on track at all settings avoids the annoying zoom creep (slippage when pointed up or down) behavior of most 11x-19x manual (non-power) zooms made by Sony, Nikon, Tamron and others for APS-C cameras. The short 2 or 4 seconds to rack through RX10M4’s incredible 25x zoom beats the longer inconvenience of changing lenses on interchangeable lens systems such as APS-C or full frame, which I formerly used 1978-2015.

Close-focus enlargement / macro

is another compelling reason to own the Sony RX10M4. Examine how the flower looks at 24mm and lizard at 600mm equivalent:

Desert rock nettle flower, Death Valley National Park, California.

At 24mm equivalent, Sony RX10M4 can focus very closely to the lens, sharpest near the center. The flower’s stamens are captured crisply, as shown enlarged in the inset at 100% pixel magnification. A desert rock nettle (Eucnide urens / desert stingbush) shrub blooms with creamy yellow flowers in Fall Canyon, a wilderness area in Death Valley National Park, California. (Shot at f/5.6, 1/500th second, ISO 100.)

Zebra-tailed lizard / Callisaurus draconoides. Fall Canyon, Death Valley National Park, California, USA.

This small reptile was photographed several feet away by my Sony Cyber-shot RX10M4 camera at 600mm equivalent cropped by 2x, shot at f/5.6, 1/1000th second, ISO 100. The inset lizard head shows impressively sharp details at 100% pixel magnification. Zebra-tailed lizard / Callisaurus draconoides. Fall Canyon, Death Valley National Park, California.

Below, I test the close focus (macro) capability of five top travel cameras, to report their biggest magnification of a letter “e” printed on paper:

Macro magnification test of 5 cameras: Sony RX10M4, Panasonic ZS100, Samsung Galaxy Note9 smartphone, Sony A6300 + SEL1670Z lens, Sony RX100M6

100% pixel magnification test from five top travel cameras.

Three top travel cameras with excellent macro
  1. Best of the bunch, Sony RX10M4 / RX10M3 captures superb insect and flower macro at 600mm equivalent at f/5.6, with sharp rectilinear results, zero distortion, and tightest magnification of subjects down to 2.7 inches wide. At 600mm, RX10M4’s 28-inch closest working distance from the front of the lens avoids shadowing the focused subject and helpfully leaves undisturbed such flighty subjects as butterflies or lizards.
    • RX10M4 can capture excellent macro at 400-600mm f/5.6, though subject magnification declines to 3.2″ wide at 550mm, 3.8″ wide at 450mm, and 4.2″ wide at 400mm.
    • RX10M4’s macro can be fun and useful at 24mm, sharp in center but may be heavily shadowed at closest focus 1.2″ from the front of the lens, heavily warped with barrel distortion, and fuzzy at edges. Despite technical lens imperfections at 24mm, my intimate close focus shot of the desert rock nettle photo above looks fine, no problem. Emotional impact is more important than perfection.
    • Much more rectilinear than 24mm is 65-90mm macro of subjects as tight as 3 to 4+ inches wide, at f/4 — sharp at center but with soft edges and some barrel distortion. But Panasonic ZS100 at 45mm equivalent enlarges much more sharply and rectilinearly than RX10M4 at 70mm or 24mm.
    • Surprise: at middle focal lengths 110-380mm equivalent, minimum working distance from the front of RX10M4’s lens jumps — to 55″ at 250mm, which drastically widens the tightest magnification of subjects to 10+ inches wide.
  2. Fitting handily into a shirt pocket, Panasonic ZS100 enlarges best at 45mm equivalent. This optimum setting is very sharp and rectilinear from edge-to-edge, although the subject must be very close to the front of the lens, sometimes overshadowed. At 25mm, f/5.9 is sharper than f/3.5, but edges are still much too soft. For optimal close focus, zoom to 45mm equivalent and don’t forget to press the Flower Button (Macro, Left Arrow).
  3.  Samsung Galaxy Note9 or S9+ smartphone enlarges surprisingly well at “2x tele” f/2.4 with deep depth of focus, using a second dedicated back camera with 52mm equivalent lens.
Two cameras with poor macro
  1. Significantly worse quality comes at close focus using a pricey SEL1670Z lens on Sony A6300, even at its best 105mm enlargement at f/5.6. As with most APS-C camera lenses, it focuses better on subjects from 2+ feet to infinity. Due to the physics of their larger sensors, APS-C cameras require specialty lenses for decent macro. But that macro lens money would be better spent on a good Panasonic ZS100 pocket camera, or paid towards the superb Sony RX10M4.
  2. Although it can focus quite sharply at subject distances further than 12 inches from the lens (sharper than ZS100), Sony RX100M6/VI captures very poor quality at macro, such as its tightest enlargement at 50mm equivalent zoom. As a workaround to achieve superior macro, try earlier Sony sibling cameras RX100M5, RX100M4 or RX100M3; or Panasonic ZS100 at 45mm close focus; or Sony RX10M4 or RX10M3; or a good smartphone with 2x tele second back camera, as in Samsung Galaxy Note9.

Editing raw profoundly beats JPEG

High dynamic range is retrievable from well-exposed raw-format image files, with plenty of leeway to brighten shadows in the following Grand Canyon image shot at wide angle:

Sunset seen through gnarly pine trees at Mather Point Overlook, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, USA. Starting at least 5 to 17 million years ago, erosion by the Colorado River has exposed a column of distinctive rock layers, which date back nearly two billion years at the base of Grand Canyon. While the Colorado Plateau was uplifted by tectonic forces, the Colorado River and tributaries carved Grand Canyon over a mile deep (6000 feet), 277 miles long and up to 18 miles wide. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Sony RX10M4 is my do-everything camera, capturing this dynamic sunset view from Mather Point in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. Shot in raw format with 24mm equivalent lens at f/4, 1/160th sec, ISO 100 and optimized in Adobe Lightroom. © Tom Dempsey

I strongly prefer shooting raw format, because JPEG format severely limits tonal editing. The foreground branches in the above image would have been irrecoverably dull if shot JPEG-only. Raw images can be best rendered back to my original perception using Adobe Lightroom CC Classic software on a PC.

Tip: To optimize signal-to-noise ratio at shooting time, I shoot near base ISO 100 or 200 and expose highlights of the Histogram curve to the far right (to the bright side), while avoiding truncation or Highlight Warning (or Zebra). If underexposure occurs unintentionally, thankfully  RX10M4’s base ISO (100 or 200) raw images can be brightened in Lightroom to have almost the same amount of noise as if shot at higher ISO 1600. This advantage is called ISO invariance, found in raw files of RX10M4, RX10M3, RX100M6 and RX100M5.

HDR (High Dynamic Range) software can now combine multiple raw shots, for Night Photos

HDR techniques combine multiple shots to increase detail, improve dynamic range, and lower noise levels, as done in the latest top smartphones (to compensate for their tiny cameras).

New in 2018, we can now combine multiple raw files with the free Kandao Raw+ tool, as described in dpreview.com. This is a great leap forward for night photography! No tripod is necessary. Simply stand in one place and capture a fast burst of 8 to 16 overlapped raw frames. Expose the Histogram curve to the right as usual. Don’t worry about exposure bracketing or subjects in motion. As a master reference, pick one frame, then import up to 16 overlapped frames into the program to create a single DNG file, which can be further edited in Lightroom. The software magically recreates the scene with improved dynamic range like your eyes see. The technique can theoretically recovery brightness detail of up to four Exposure Values greater than would be contained in a single raw file.

TIP: Bright Monitoring is a welcome new feature for night photographers, when subjects are otherwise too dark to see in the viewfinder/monitor. In PASM modes only, a Bright Monitoring toggle brightens the viewfinder/monitor to better see the composition, without affecting exposure compensation. I assigned it to Custom Button 2 (C2 on top of the camera):

  • MENU > Tab 2 > List #9 > Custom Key(Shoot.) > Custom Button 2 > [Bright Monitoring]
  • It only works with Manual Focus (MF on focus mode dial), and not with MF Assist or Focus Magnifier. It may slow shutter speed response.
  • Bright Monitoring continues after shooting, until you toggle its button or turn off the camera.

JPEG-only option: multi-shot HDR (High Dynamic Range)

Instead of shooting raw, most people like to shoot the default JPEG file format, which conveniently requires no editing step. Out-of-camera JPEGs are looking better than ever, especially from top smartphones, which have greater processing power than larger cameras. But JPEGs can still benefit from artistic editing to appear more like your eyes see. To brighten shadows with less noise, try shooting HDR:

If you shoot JPEG-only (Quality Extra fine, Fine or Standard), for high-contrast subjects, try the High Dynamic Range (HDR) “Exposure Diff. Auto” feature, where the camera makes three exposures which are merged in-camera into a single JPEG file:

  • MENU > Tab 1 > List #10 >DRO/Auto HDR > [Auto HDR: Exposure Diff. Auto]  or else [1.0EV – 6.0EV] lets you pick HDR strength as a fixed Exposure Value difference.
  • Choosing Auto is more practical than picking a fixed EV difference 1.0EV – 6.0EV.
  • Use only when the subject is motionless and lighting is constant.
  • It just works for picture Quality=JPEG-only. (“HDR AUTO” menu is grayed-out and unavailable if Quality=”RAW+JPG” or “RAW”).

Shooting JPEG automatically uses DRO (Dynamic Range Optimizer)

If you shoot JPEG files, Sony thankfully invokes automatic Dynamic Range Optimization (DRO) by default. This brightens shadow details while preserving highlights, somewhat like your eyes see. More details:

  • MENU > Tab 1 > List #10 >DRO/Auto HDR > [D-Range Optimizer Auto] is a great default, or else manually pick [Lev1 to strongest Lev5].
  • These DRO settings create tags which affect raw file appearance in Sony raw conversion software, but are ignored in Adobe Lightroom (which is fine, as I prefer my own raw shadow-editing choices).
  • D-Range Optimizer Auto works if picture Quality is set to RAW+JPEG or JPEG-only (Extra fine, Fine or Standard).
  • If shadows still appear overly dark, try editing the JPEG, shooting HDR (several shots combined), or editing raw.

Dim light photography using SteadyShot and Hand-held Twilight mode

Impressively, Sony claims SteadyShot image stabilization of up to 4.5 stops of benefit for slower shutter speed hand-held, especially at telephoto angles of view. Sony SteadyShot sharpens my hand-held shots so well that I rarely use a tripod anymore. Unleashing your camera from a tripod releases inner creativity.

For dim light, Hand-held Twilight mode works great in caves, indoors, or night scenes. Introduced in 2010 Cyber-shot cameras, this innovative JPEG-only Scene/SCN mode combines a burst of shots to reduce subject blur, camera-shake, and noise. Hand-held Twilight mode has served well in my Sony NEX-7, RX100M3, RX10M3, and current RX100M6 and RX10M4 cameras.

Also melding a burst of shots, Anti Motion Blur uses a higher shutter speed (via noisier higher ISO) to help freeze subject motion indoors. Set with: MODE DIAL > SCN > Control Dial (adjacent to MOVIE button) > [Anti Motion Blur] or [Hand-held Twilight mode]

In Munot Castle's lower chamber, explore a spectacular, cool vaulted casemate built in the Renaissance, in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, Europe. The Munot, Schaffhausen's iconic circular fortress, was built by forced labor in 1564-1589 after the religious wars of the Reformation. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Shot with Sony’s Hand-held Twilight mode (combining several shots of 1/8th second, f/2.4, ISO 1000, 24mm equivalent, combined into one JPEG file, on Sony RX10M3). In Munot Castle’s lower chamber, explore a cool vaulted casemate built in the Renaissance, in Schaffhausen, Switzerland. This iconic circular fortress was built by forced labor in 1564-1589 after the religious wars of the Reformation. (© Tom Dempsey)

50mm lens test in dim indoor light

Below, five cameras tested with 50mm equivalent lenses in dim indoor light are compared at 100% pixel magnification. All were shot in raw format and optimized similarly in Lightroom.

Five cameras tested with 50mm equivalent lens and compared at 100% pixel magnification: SEL1670Z lens on Sony A6300; Sony RX10M4; Sony RX100M6/VI; Panasonic ZS100.

Five cameras tested with 50mm equivalent lens and compared at 100% pixel magnification: SEL1670Z lens on Sony A6300; Sony RX10M4; Sony RX100M6/VI; Panasonic ZS100.

Results: Best image quality at 50mm equivalent in dim light is captured in the following order:

  1. The 4x zoom SEL1670Z lens on Sony A6300 does best.
  2. The 25x zoom Sony RX10M4 looks almost as good.
  3. The 8x zoom Sony RX100M6/VI has only slightly more noise than RX10M4, which could be fixed by shooting at ISO 800 instead of 2000.
  4. The 10x zoom Panasonic ZS100, cheapest of the four, places last. Despite its noisier, lower-contrast results, ZS100 still captures decent quality, for less than half the price of the other three cameras.

Evocative images can be created with any camera. For travel, I recommend any of these good-quality zooms having at least 8x range for greater compositional flexibility.

Recommended accessories for Sony RX10 IV or III

Focus and exposure tips for RX10M4 / RX10 IV

  • Sony’s RX10M4 online Help Guide helps explain every feature.
  • I prefer half-pressing the shutter button to lock the exposure, except when the AEL button toggle locks exposure first, in which case the shutter button is freed to half-press-lock just the autofocus:
    • MENU > Camera Settings Tab 1 > List #8 > AEL w/ shutter > [On]
  • Set the AEL button (Auto Exposure Lock) to behave as AEL Toggle. Otherwise locking the exposure will require our thumb to be awkwardly stuck holding down the AEL button until the shutter button is fully pressed. An asterisk * on the LCD or EVF indicates when AE is locked.
    • MENU > Tab 2 > List #9 > Custom Key(Shoot.) > page 2 > AEL Button > [AEL toggle]
  • For static landscapes, I prefer Focus Mode dial = DMF or S. My typical shooting habit is:
    1. First press AEL button as Toggle to grab a test exposure of the subject’s midtone, or on an edge halfway between dark and bright.
    2. Then half press and hold to lock focus on a high-contrast edge grabbed from the subject.
    3. Keep holding the half press and recompose to your desired framing. Then fully click the shutter release to capture the image.
    4. Correct the exposure with AEL on a brighter or darker area on subsequent shots as needed. Delete unneeded extras in the field.
  • For subjects in motion, you can dial the Focus Mode (online guide) to A (Automatic AF, new in RX10M4) or C (Continuous AF).
    • Setting A invokes Single or Continuous according to the movement of the subject: when the shutter button is pressed halfway down, focus locks if the subject is motionless, or continues to focus if the subject is moving.
    • If Drive Mode is set to Continuous Shooting, then Continuous AF is used from the second shot onward.
    • The constant hunting of C (Continuous Auto Focus) can be problematic on any camera, so I almost always use DMF or S.
  • Know that the default Focus Area = Wide, using automatic AF points over the maximum area.
  • For landscapes and non-action subjects, I prefer the reliable accuracy of Focus Area =Expand Flexible Spot. If focus is locked onto a moving subject, take the shot as soon as possible, or half press again to refocus (or use Focus Mode C or A).
  • Sony names their touchscreen usage as “Touch Panel” on LCD and “Touch Pad” when using viewfinder.
    • You can override the default Focus Area = Wide with a specific AF point pressed with your right thumb on the “Touch Pad” (when eye is to viewfinder) or “Touch Panel“. To cancel a touched AF point, press the CENTER button, to return to automatic Wide. Only when you half press and hold down the shutter button will focus be attempted and locked. I suggest these touch settings:
    • MENU > Tab 5 > List#2 > Touch Operation > [Touch Panel+Pad].
    • Or if inadvertent touches get annoying, disable it with [Off] or restrict to [Touch Panel Only] or [Touch Pad Only].
    • MENU > Tab 5 > List#3 > Touch Pad Settings > [Operation in V Orientation=ON, Touch Pos. Mode=Relative Position, Operation Area = Right 1/2]
  • In Playback mode, to examine picture sharpness (magnified by 5.3 times), flip the zoom tele lever once, then back out slowly with wide zoom lever, or fully back with CENTER button. Or double tap on Touch Panel to zoom in or out.

Secret settings for Sony RX10M4 / RX10 IV

  • Yay, the MENUs are reorganized in RX10 IV, still deep but easier to use than version III.
  • Sharpest apertures: Through most of its 25x zoom range, RX10 III is sharpest when shot at f/4 aperture; but f/5.6 is sharpest at 500-600mm equivalent. These optimal f-stops give you the best balance between diffraction (through smallest apertures) versus chromatic aberrations (possible in all cameras at brightest openings; luckily hardly noticeable in RX10 III and IV due to automatic in-camera corrections before writing JPEG and raw files to the memory card).

Sun starburst (at f/16 using Sony RX10 III camera) shines on lichen growing on twisted old tree wood at Glacier Pass. Backback to Mirror Lake in Eagle Cap Wilderness, Wallowa–Whitman National Forest, Wallowa Mountains, Columbia Plateau, northeastern Oregon, USA. Hike 7.3 miles from Two Pan Trailhead (5600 ft) up East Lostine River to camp at popular Mirror Lake (7606 ft). Day hike to Glacier Lake via Glacier Pass (6 miles round trip, 1200 ft gain). Backpack out 8.7 miles via Carper Pass, Minam Lake and West Fork Lostine. From September 11-13, 2016 Carol and I walked 22 miles in 3 days. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Sony RX10M4 & M3 can create a special soft-focus starburst effect at aperture f/16. Photo: Eagle Cap Wilderness (read Tom’s article), Oregon.

  • Starburst: Stopping down to f/16 aperture, RX10III creates a wonderful starburst effect emanating from intense pinpoints of light such as the sun or light bulbs. But as on most cameras, f/16 SERIOUSLY SOFTENS FOCUS (seen at 100% pixel view). Diffraction through the tiny f/16 hole cuts resolution in half compared to f/5.6 or brighter apertures. At all apertures brighter than f/16, down to f/2.4-4, rounded blades smooth the opening for more attractive bokeh (the appearance of the out-of-focus areas), and the starburst is NOT created. Using Adobe Lightroom CC, I like to stitch multi-image panoramas where the sun shot(s) have an f/16 starburst, and the remaining shots use sharper f/4 to f/5.6 settings. Alternative: For sharper starburst images at f/4 to f/5.6, you may want to use a starburst filter (screw-on or hand-held square glass) instead of suffering the detrimental effects of f/16, unless your artistic intent is soft-focus.
  • Fill flash synchronization down to 1/2000th of a second works exceptionally well for back-lit portraits in harsh sunshine. Most other cameras only synchronize as fast as 1/200th second.
  • Assign the following to the Fn button for quick access: ISO Auto Min SS = minimum shutter speed at a given ISO = STD (standard), SLOW, SLOWER, FAST, FASTER. I like the SLOW setting to hand-hold shots which can blur moving water in relatively dim light.
  • Turn on Face Detection and assign Eye AF to a button, for instant focus on human faces and eyes throughout the zoom range, great for portraitsaction & sports.
    • MENU > Tab 1 > List #14 > Smile/Face Detec. = [ON]
    • MENU > Tab 2 > List #9 > Custom Key(Shoot.) > Custom Button 3 (Trash Can icon) > [Eye AF].
    • Hold down the assigned Eye AF button, and a detection frame displays over the eyes when they’re focused. If the focus mode is set to Single-shot AF, the frame will disappear after a second. Continue holding down the Eye AF button while fully pressing the shutter release button. Not supported for focus mode = Manual.
  • Turn OFF the Pre-AF option, for more reliable half-press focus-locking and quicker autofocus in the telephoto range, especially 400-600mm equivalent.
  • Instead of hunting through menus, put favorite settings on the Fn button as follows: MENU > Tab 2 > List #9 > [Function Menu Set].
    • I inserted: Drive Mode, Flash Mode, Flash Compensation, Focus Area, ISO, Metering Mode, Smile/Face Detection, SteadyShot for video, HFR Frame Rate, Peaking Level, ISO AUTO minimum Shutter Speed, Zebra.
    • In shooting mode, set PEAK = MID (handily indicates area of sharpest focus).
    • Set Zebra = [100+] for raw files (highlight overexposure alert). For shooting JPEG files, for Caucasian skin tones, consider Zebra = [70]
  • But some important features buried in Menus are sadly not allowed on the Fn button. Workaround: use the MENU > Tab 6 > STAR menu (My Menu1) List #2/2 > [Add Item] for quick access! I recommend adding the following, to be more easily remembered on the STAR menu (My Menu1) List #1/2:
    • Face/Eye AF Set: in Firmware upgrade version 2.00 (described further above), to make Animal Eye AF work with Half Press of the shutter button, you must toggle: MENU1 > Page 6 > Face/Eye AF Set > Subject Detection > set to [Animal], or set to [Human] (default).
    • Panorama: Size (only active when Mode Dial is set to Panorama)
    • Panorama: Direction (only active when Mode Dial is set to Panorama; for setting vertical or horizontal sweeps to make the panorama)
    • [Movie symbol] Exposure Mode (only active when Mode Dial is set to Movie): allows setting Manual exposure mode for movies (see important Video Tips below).
  • Use the quick Memory Recall (MR on mode dial, initially set within a confusing menu) to quickly set a whole palette of settings.
  • Affix painters’ tape to the following set-and-forget switches or dials, per personal preference. Otherwise, if you frequently take the camera in and out of a carrying bag (such as my Lowe chest-mounted for hiking), dials frequently get bumped to unexpected settings, causing confusion. Painters’ tape removes cleanly with no residue and protects the camera’s finish.
    • Exposure Compensation dial taped at zero. I prefer AEL Toggle button, which handily resets when camera is turned off; whereas the Compensation dial stays set, easily forgotten yet biasing every future exposure.
    • Viewfinder diopter-adjustment dial taped for your vision.
    • Focus Mode dial taped at DMF setting lets the front lens ring make fine manual focus adjustments with a magnified view after locking AF with half press of shutter release button (crucial for macro and telephoto).
      • DMF is like S (Single-shot AF) plus magnification.
      • If half-press AF lock is difficult to achieve (such as for a low-contrast telephoto subject), painters’ tape can be lifted and Focus Mode dial reset to MF (Manual Focus).
      • For subjects in motion, use C (Continuous AF).
      • Or more handily, A (Automatic AF, new in RX10M4) invokes S or C according to the movement of the subject: when the shutter button is pressed halfway down, focus locks if the subject is motionless, or Continues to focus if the subject is in motion.
      • If Drive Mode = Continuous Shooting, then Continuous AF is used from the second shot onward.
    • Focus Range Limiter switch taped at “FULL” allows shooting macro close focus at telephoto. (The other setting “∞-3m” is for reducing “focus hunting” time if shooting action subjects further than 3 meters away when zoomed between 150-600mm.)
    • The much-used and inadvertently-bump-able MODE DIAL should not be taped. Instead, turning ON the Mode Dial Guide helpfully reminds me of the current setting (AUTO, PASM, MR, MOVIE, HFR, PANORAMA or SCN).
      • MENU > Settings Tab 5 > List #2 / Setup2 > [Mode Dial Guide=ON].
  • Be sure to [Disable] the Release w/o Card setting in MENU > Tab 2 > List #5 of 10. The “Release Without Card” default is ON for most cameras, in order to allow customers to freely test cameras on sales floors without a memory card inserted; but forgetting to replace a removed card sadly allows you to shoot without recording any images! Luckily, RX10M4 continuously flashes a bright orange warning message, “NO CARD”.
  • Know that every time you half-press the shutter button, a harmless “FULL” message in a white box briefly displays on LCD or viewfinder, to indicate Focus Range Limiter status (or if set at “∞-3m”, then“LIMIT” displays if zoomed between 150-600mm, or “FULL” displays between 24-149mm equivalent).

Video tips for Sony RX10M4 / RX10 IV:

  • The MOVIE button marked with a red dot can record with the current video settings no matter where the Mode Dial is set.
  • Some video Settings can only be changed when the top Mode Dial is set to Movie mode (icon shaped like a film frame with spindle perforations).
  • Some videos can be less distracting with a constant manual exposure as you pan across subjects of varying brightness. You can set the following secret P, A, S and M exposure modes, when Top Mode Dial = Movie mode:
    • use MENU > Tab 2 > List #1 > “Exposure Mode” > press Center button, then scroll through PASM video options. To find it quicker, add movie “Exposure Mode” to My Menu1 (the sixth menu tab, marked with * asterisk symbol).
    • To get a constant exposure during a video, use video M (Manual) mode: set ISO 100 (or as desired to a constant ISO number, but not AUTO ISO), set Aperture with ring on lens, and set Shutter Speed with either of the back two dials.
    • To control subject-motion blur, set slow S (Shutter Speed) for more blur (as slow as the inverse of the frame rate in frames per second, fps).
    • A Shutter Speed about twice as fast as the frame rate makes video look “normal”.
    • Set a faster Shutter Speed (more than twice the frame rate) for a choppier, more jittery video, like in the film “Gladiator”.
  • Play with the amazing High Frame Rate (HFR) video mode, shot in XAVC S 1080p HD format. For example, slow down action by 8 times at 480p (shooting frame rate) at 60p50M (frame rate of movie playback). I like setting Shoot Time Priority; and REC Timing=End Trigger, which records the 4 seconds BEFORE you pressed the Record Button! Limitations: only 4 seconds of real time are recorded (with 10-20 second delay writing to card); minimum ISO is 800; you must lock focus and exposure before recording; and HFR requires fast SD Memory Card Speed Class 10 or UHS Speed Class 1. (Previous RX10M3 records only 2 seconds of real time.)
  • Assign a dedicated button to Focus Magnifier for use in Videos (else none is available). Tips: Focus is faster at brightest apertures (lowest f-number).
  • For high contrast scenes, to better preserve details in shadows and highlights simultaneously, as for later tonal editing of wildlife videos, set Picture Profile (in MENU > Tab 1 > List #10).
    • PP3 standard for HD television, not intended for tonal editing. Its natural color tone uses the [ITU709] gamma.
    • PP5 for Cine1 gamma for later tonal editing, or
    • PP6 for Cine2 gamma to preserve even more highlights for later tonal editing, or
    • PP7 for S-Log2 gamma (which requires even more editing than PP6 to compensate for the flat, dull appearance).
    • PP8 for S-Log3 gamma and the S-Gamut3.Cine under Color Mode. New in RX10M4.
    • PP9 for S-Log3 gamma and the S-Gamut3 under Color Mode. New in RX10M4.
    • Warning: the above Picture Profile that you set for video is remembered when the camera is turned off, and will also affect both JPEG and raw still images (but any custom settings for black level, black gamma, knee and color depth won’t affect raw).
    • Picture Profile, Gamma Display Assistant, Peaking Level, and other items buried in the menus can be assigned to “Custom Key (Shoot.)” and/or to the quick Fn button (using MENU > Tab 2 > item 9 > “Function Menu Set“).
  • Tip: only buy a Sony camera in a country having your native NTSC or PAL video format, or else every time you turn on the camera, you’ll forever be dismissing an annoying video notification message: Running on NTSC (on my PAL-native RX10M3 camera bought in the UK when set to nonnative NTSC).
  • RX10M4 lacks an electronic ND filter (Neutral Density), which is especially important for video in bright light, at bright apertures for shallower depth of field. Workaround: simply attach a glass ND filter to the 72mm threads on the front of the lens when needed, the old-fashioned way. Or try Panasonic FZ2500 with built-in ND filter.

RX10M4 negatives:

  • Touch Panel/Pad doesn’t support menus, Playback, or Text.
  • Cannot zoom while shooting a burst of frames in Drive Mode=Continuous.
  • In M/Manual mode, you must turn off Auto ISO every time, set ISO manually, then set back to Auto ISO when switching back to P, A or S mode. I prefer Manual mode to always default to manual ISO. It forces Manual mode’s ISO to that of the other PAS settings, and vice versa.
  • Avoid rain splatters: Despite Sony’s claim of “dust and moisture-resistant” body, DON’T EXPOSE YOUR RX10M4 or RX10M3 CAMERA TO RAIN (even if immediately wiped off), as wind-driven droplets killed my RX10 III. Yes, its weather sealing successfully kept dust and condensation out of the lens throughout my 16 months of use. But then one fateful rainstorm disabled the camera by shorting-out the focus and LCD, sadly outside of its 1-year Sony Warranty. Still, the lens interior remained pristinely clean and moisture-free. But rather than risking an estimated $656 repair, whose 90-day guarantee is voided by “liquid damage”, I recycled the camera. Buying a new RX10 III allowed completion of my UK photo shoot. Back in the USA, I sold the UK camera and I upgraded to a US-model RX10 IV.

World’s top travel cameras ranked by Tom

RX10M4 is first in my ranking of top travel cameras (shown with Amazon pricing snapshot from September 14, 2018):

  1. $1700, 37 oz: $1700, 37 oz: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 IV / RX10M4 camera (Nov 2017, 25x zoom 24-600mm equivalent f/2.4-4) is the best of the bunch. This all-in-one tool overpowers all rival superzoom cameras with 1″-Type sensors. The 20-megapixel RX10M4 and previous RX10M3 both beat 10x to 19x lenses on rival 24-megapixel APS-C DSLR cameras. I no longer need to carry a pocket camera for improving close-focus shots, as RX10 already has a 1”-Type sensor. With deeper depth of field than APS-C or larger-sensor cameras for a given f-stop, it enhances details from close flower shots to distant bird feathers at 600mm equivalent telephoto. Both versions IV and III weigh 37 ounces (including battery & card), plus adding 5 oz for strap, lens filter, cap & hood makes 42 oz.
    • $1400, 37 oz: Sony RX10 III (May 2016, 37 oz, 25x zoom 24-600mm f/2.4-4, no touchscreen): autofocus of version III significantly lags compared to IV, especially at 400-600mm .
  2. $1000, 33 ozPanasonic FZ2500 (December 2016, 33 oz, 20x zoom 24-480mm equivalent f/2.8–4.5): costs 25% less, adds a fully articulated LCD with touchscreen, increases viewfinder magnification (EVF 0.74x versus 0.7x), autofocuses faster, has better menus and improves video specs (ND filter, Cine/UHD 4K), in comparison to Sony RX10 III. But FZ2500’s lens collects a half stop less light, slightly lowering image quality; its telephoto doesn’t reach long enough for birders; and its CIPA battery life of 350 shots is shorter than RX10III’s 420 shots. (FZ2500 is FZ2000 in some markets.)
  3. $1200, 11 oz: PocketableSony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 VI (2018, 11 oz, 8x zoom 24–200mm equivalent f/2.8-4.5, RX100M6): rivals the image quality of RX10M4 through 200mm equivalent, and at 30% of the weight. Avoid dropping its slippery body by adding Sony AG-R2 attachment grip. Fit into Tamrac Digital 1 Photo Bag with extra Wasabi Power NPBX1 batteries. Avoid LCD scratches with QIBOX Premium GLASS Protector to preserve resale. Exceptionally high quality from a miniature body ranks it above my former DSLR cameras and cameras below.
  4. $600, 29 ozPanasonic FZ1000 (2014, 29 oz, 16x zoom 25-400mm f/2.8-4.0): best price-value for a midsize camera. Adds fully-articulated LCD, and autofocus for action & sports is a bit faster than RX10 III.
  5. $550, 11 ozPocketablePanasonic ZS100 (price at Amazon) (2016, 11 oz, 10x zoom 25-250mm equivalent f/2.8-5.9): Read my ZS100 review. ZS100 introduced the first pocketable 10x zoom on a 1-inch-Type sensor, capturing close macro at more zoom settings and enormously extending optical telephoto reach beyond my 3x-zoom Sony RX100 (read my 2012-15 review). Anywhere from 3x-10x on Panasonic ZS100 beats digital cropping of rival Sony RX100 (which stops at 70mm equivalent in versions III and IV).
  6. $1130, 32 oz with 19x zoom: Good value DSLR with optical viewfinder (if you like that kind of thing) using a legacy mirror box:
    • Nikon D3500 (2018, 13 oz body, ~$500, 24mp APS-C sensor/DX format, CIPA battery life 1550 shots) with travel lens:
    • Tamron 16-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD MACRO lens (2014, 19 oz, ~$630, 19x zoom 24-450mm equivalent, 3 x 3.9″) equals Nikon’s kit-lens quality. But Sony RX10 IV and III are significantly sharper, especially at ≥90mm equivalent. [Avoid the Tamron 18-400 25-oz lens, which is too soft beyond 50-100mm; and its Vibration Control (VC) only helps by up to 2.5 stops slower shutter speed.]
    • Upgrade: Nikon D5600 (2016, 16.4 oz body, 24mp) adds fully articulated (flip out) LCD touchscreen.
  7. $400, 11.4 oz: Pocketable and inexpensive: Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS70 (2017, 11.4 oz, 30x zoom 24–720mm equivalent f/3.3–6.4, 20mp, EVF).
    • or ~$260 for older ZS60. These nice little cameras have a rare viewfinder and small 1/2.3″ sensor that still beats smartphone quality.

See my latest camera ratings on PhotoSeek BUY CAMERAS page.

Sony RX10M4 and RX10M3 beat the following midsize rivals for versatile lightweight travel:

  • APS-C flagship Sony A6500 (2016, 16 oz body, $1200) or earlier Sony Alpha A6300 (2016, 14 oz body, $900), plus mounting a SEL18200 11x zoom lens (27-300mm equivalent f/3.5-6.3, 19 oz, $900), totals 35 oz or 33 oz respectively.
    • A6500/A6300’s interchangeable-lens capability is made redundant by RX10’s sharp and bright 25x zoom (which more than doubles my former zoom range while improving image quality).
    • You must inconveniently interchange a much heavier, pricier set of lenses on APS-C cameras to rival the quality of RX10 III’s sharp 25x F4 zoom.
    • This APS-C flagship is at best 5% sharper than RX10M4 when using the wider end of a premium 4x zoom lens, but no better in dim light. I would rather have an all-in-one 25x zoom which astoundingly extends sharp f/4 telephoto reach to 600mm equivalent.
    • To my delight, RX10’s faster, larger-diameter lens (72mm filter size) plus backside illumination (BSI) sensor technology together magically compensate for the sensor size difference.
    • The professionally-sharp, bright 25x zoom of RX10 III resoundingly beats the resolution of my previous favorite Sony 11x zoom lens SEL18200 on flagship APS-C Sony A6300 anywhere above 90mm+ equivalent telephoto, even as high as ISO 6400. At wider angles, 27-80mm equivalent, both capture similar quality in bright outdoor light. Advantageously, RX10 stretches to a wide view of 24mm equivalent. In dim/indoor light, A6300’s larger sensor can sometimes resolve more detail than RX10III, but not consistently in my real world comparisons using SEL18200 and SEL1670Z lenses.
  • Canon PowerShot G3 X camera (2015, 26 oz, $850, 25x zoom, 20mp) has 24-600mm equivalent f/2.8-5.6 lens (which is neither as bright nor as sharp as Sony RX10 III). The G3 X buys you lighter travel weight, but you must separately add a pricey $240 viewfinder. Also its older, poorer 1″ sensor is a stop or two worse at ISO 800+ in terms of noise compared to FZ1000 or RX10. Panasonic FZ1000 is a better value than G3X.

How does RX10M4 compare to full-frame cameras?

In historical perspective, the Sony RX10M4 makes prints far bigger and sharper than my full-frame 35mm film cameras used 1978-2004. Compared to modern full-frame digital sensors, RX10M4’s 1-inch-Type sensor has a crop factor measuring 2.727 times smaller diagonally.

For a significant jump up in quality, night photographers and big-print professionals can consider using fast lenses on Sony a7R II (price at Amazon) (2015, 22 oz body), a big 42-megapixel full-frame mirrorless camera, featuring the world’s first 35mm-size BSI CMOS sensor, plus a 5-axis image stabilization built into the body, hybrid autofocus, and 4K video, good for capturing the northern lights or indoor action.

But for me, full-frame systems are too bulky and expensive for travel, especially in terms of zoom range. If money is no object, using Sony’s 10x zoom FE 24-240mm f/3.5-6.3 lens (28 oz) on A7 IIR’s 42mp sensor (50 oz total camera+lens) should buy superior quality at wide angles, beating RX10M4’s smaller 20mp sensor (37 oz). But RX10M4’s f/4 quality should beat cropping down the 42mp to reach the 500-600mm equivalent necessary for wildlife and bird photos. Realistically, A7 IIR’s incredible sensor so greatly exceeds the quality of the FE 24-240mm lens that only sharper, faster lenses should be considered. In comparison, RX10M4 is much more portable (37 oz versus 50+ oz), and its 20 megapixels are plenty for my professional publishing needs.

Tom Dempsey

2018 July: Canadian Rockies, Columbia Mtns, Bugaboo & Kananaskis hikes

Radium Hot Springs made a great base for our day hikes in less-crowded areas of the Columbia Mountains and Canadian Rockies, in a two-week vacation from Seattle.

Photo gallery from this trip


Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

Trip details with selected photo highlights

Having just sold our VW Eurovan Camper to be upgraded with an RV next spring, we instead drove our Prius V car. We rented accommodations with kitchen in Brisco and Radium Hot Springs (which are cheaper than in Banff and Canmore). Two weeks from July 13-27 gave us eleven good day hikes in Yoho, Kootenay, and Banff National Parks plus Bugaboo and Peter Lougheed Provincial Parks.

In Revelstoke National Park, the Skunk Cabbage Trail allowed us stretch our legs and eat lunch in a natural setting with giant leaves.

Paget Peak Lookout and Cathedral Mountain. Yoho National Park, British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Paget Peak Lookout and Cathedral Mountain. Yoho National Park, British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


On a hot day in Yoho National Park (85F), we hiked turquoise Sherbrooke Lake combined with scenic Paget Peak Lookout (7 miles round trip with 1920 feet gain). Cathedral Mountain and Mount Victoria North Peak rose dramatically above us near Kicking Horse Pass.

On Stanley Glacier Trail, a waterfall plunges from the sheer walls of Stanley Peak, in Kootenay National Park, British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

On Stanley Glacier Trail, a waterfall plunges from the sheer walls of Stanley Peak, in Kootenay National Park, British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

The Canadian Rocky Mountains reflect in the Kootenay River, in Kootenay National Park, British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

The Canadian Rocky Mountains reflect in the Kootenay River, in Kootenay National Park, British Columbia, Canada. Stitched from multiple overlapping photos. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Multiple trips through Kootenay National Park rewarded us with rows of Canadian Rocky Mountains reflected in the Kootenay River. A herd of scruffy mountain goats attracted a line of parked cars, but we drove onwards. On the spectacular Stanley Glacier Trail (6 miles round trip with 1200 feet gain), a waterfall plunged dramatically from the sheer walls of Stanley Peak.

Just down the road, a worthwhile short walk is Marble Canyon, which cradles turquoise Tokumm Creek just above its confluence with the Vermilion River. For over 500 million years before tectonic forces thrust up the Rocky Mountains, a shallow tropical sea deposited carbonate sediments that became the limestone and dolomite rock seen here (not marble).

A little further west are the orange-yellow Paint Pots. Historically, humans have mined these natural ochre beds, which formed by the accumulation of iron oxide around the outlets of three cold mineral springs. The Ktunaxa (formerly Kootenay), Stoney, and Blackfoot tribes collected ochre here for important ceremonies and trade. The yellow ochre was cleaned, kneaded with water into walnut sized balls, then flattened into cakes and baked. The red powder was mixed with fish oil or animal grease to paint their bodies, tipis (teepees), clothing or pictures on the rocks. In the early 1900s, Europeans hand-dug and sacked the ochre for hauling 24 kilometers via horse-drawn wagons to the Canadian Pacific Railway line at present-day Castle Mountain, where it was shipped by train to Calgary and became a pigment base for paint.

Marble Canyon embraces Tokumm Creek just above its confluence with the Vermilion River, at the north end of Kootenay National Park in the Canadian Rockies of British Columbia, Canada.

Marble Canyon embraces Tokumm Creek just above its confluence with the Vermilion River, at the north end of Kootenay National Park in the Canadian Rockies of British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Bighorn Sheep / Ovis canadensis at Radium Hot Springs village, British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Bighorn Sheep / Ovis canadensis at Radium Hot Springs village, British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Every time I visit, wild Bighorn Sheep wander the outskirts of Radium Hot Springs village. Sinclair Falls is worth seeing from Juniper Trailhead, between Kootenay National Park entrance station and the hot springs.

The Hound's Tooth (2819 meters) rises above Bugaboo Glacier in Bugaboo Provincial Park, in the Purcell Range of the Columbia Mountains, British Columbia, Canada.  (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

The Hound's Tooth (2819 meters) rises above Bugaboo Glacier in Bugaboo Provincial Park, in the Purcell Range of the Columbia Mountains, British Columbia, Canada. The Spires Trail to Conrad Kain Hut is 6 miles round trip with 2400 ft gain. This image was stitched from multiple overlapping photos. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


I booked our AirBnB (your signup supports my work) lodging in Brisco for 5 nights near my beloved Bugaboo Provincial Park, which is accessible via 75-minutes of dirt road in the Purcell Range of the Columbia Mountains. Although short and scenic throughout, the Spires Trail to Conrad Kain Hut is very steep (6 miles round trip with 2400 ft gain), forged by climbers drawn to this park’s soaring rock pinnacles. The sun-drenched slope (85 to 91 degrees F in the sun) overheated Carol, who turned back just above the ladder. Starting closer to sunrise would have kept us cooler. I persevered to be rewarded by one of my favorite views in the world: the Hound’s Tooth nunatak rising above Bugaboo Glacier, plus Snowpatch Spire and other pinnacles soaring overhead.

The Lieutenants Range rises above Lake of the Hanging Glacier in the Purcell Range of the Columbia Mountains, British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

The Lieutenants Range rises above Lake of the Hanging Glacier in the Purcell Range of the Columbia Mountains, British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


While it still remains a wild adventure, consider hiking to the Lake of the Hanging Glacier, which features floating icebergs calved from Jumbo Glacier. The lake’s scenic reward was worth the effort of hiking over and under 60 fallen trees each way. Drive 1.5 hours west of Radium Hot Springs on the dirt Horsethief Creek Forest Service Road, preferably in a high clearance vehicle. On 2018 July 19, our low-clearance Toyota Prius V succeeded in crossing a planked wetland and two streams to reach the parking pullouts at 1 km from the trailhead, where a deep road dip finally blocked the car. From there we hiked 11.7 miles round trip with 3100 feet cumulative gain to the impressive lake. Fascinating lichen and rock patterns lie on stepping stones across the lake outlet. The spectacular Jumbo Glacier perches precariously above Lake of the Hanging Glacier. This wilderness wonder is threatened not only by global warming, but also from the huge Jumbo Glacier Resort planned/debated immediately south of Lieutenants ridge.

Swirling orange & blue rock pattern. Lake of the Hanging Glacier Trail, Purcell Range, Columbia Mountains, British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Swirling orange & blue rock pattern. Lake of the Hanging Glacier Trail, Purcell Range, Columbia Mountains, British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

For hikers, I recommend a newly-updated book covering this corner of BC: Mountain Footsteps: Hikes in the East Kootenay of Southeastern British Columbia (2018 Fourth Edition). (I call it “Strong Mountain Footsteps” for short.) This area has much to bring us back, such as hiking Jumbo Pass, Hourglass Lake, and Tanglefoot Lake.

Lichen polygons. Boom Lake Trail, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Lichen polygons. Boom Lake Trail, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


In Banff National Park, the scenic Boom Lake trail featured the mother lode of lichen polygon patterns, a holy grail for this nature travel photographer.

Boom Lake, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Boom Lake, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Lawson Lake reflects the limestone fangs of Mounts Maude, French (3244 m), and Jellico. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Lawson Lake reflects the limestone fangs of Mounts Maude, French (3244 m), and Jellico in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Carol and I backpacked from North Interlakes Trailhead to Forks Backcountry Campground (10 miles round trip, 800 ft cumulative gain) in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, Kananaskis Country, Alberta. From Forks Campground we day hiked to North Kananaskis Pass (13 miles round trip/2700 ft). The pass revealed fields of seed heads of Western pasqueflower (Anemone occidentalis, aka Pulsatilla occidentalis, in family Ranunculaceae), and acres of yellow Indian paintbrush (Castilleja). The next day we hiked to Three Isle Lake (5 miles round trip/1800 ft), then back to the car. In Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, roadside wildlife included a coyote casually crossing the road, plus a black bear.

The huge Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site was declared by UNESCO in 1984.

Seed heads of Western pasqueflower (Anemone occidentalis, aka Pulsatilla occidentalis, in family Ranunculaceae). On the right is Mount Beatty Glacier. Photographed along the trail from Forks Campground to North Kananaskis Pass (13 miles round trip/2700 ft) in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Seed heads of Western pasqueflower (Anemone occidentalis, aka Pulsatilla occidentalis, in family Ranunculaceae). The common name Pasque refers to the Easter or Passover blooming time of other species, and to the purity of the white sepals. On the right is Mount Beatty Glacier. Photographed near North Kananaskis Pass in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

For travel tips, see: BC & AB: Canadian Rockies & Columbia Mts

2018 April: SW USA. UT: Druid & Delicate Arches. AZ: Monument Valley; Hermit Trail. CA: Death Valley.

On a campervan trip to southwest USA from 7-26 April 2018, we enjoyed photographing some great sights shown in galleries below. Carol was delighted by her first visit to Death Valley National Park (further below), including sunrise at colorful Zabriskie Point, Golden Canyon, and Mesquite Flat Dunes.

Photo highlights from this trip


Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site. Or click here see a more complete set of sequential images from this trip, “2018 Apr 9-26: all: Southwest USA.”

Trip summary

Our 17-hour drive from Seattle to the desert playground of Moab in Utah was split with an overnight rest in pleasant Three Island Crossing State Park on the Snake River in Idaho.

Important tip: By scheduling the trip to avoid the full week before and after Easter Sunday (both hectic school vacation weeks), our stay in tourist hotspots like Moab was markedly quieter and more enjoyable! Avoid crowded Jeep Safari week. We prudently booked our campgrounds several weeks in advance. Furnace Creek Campground in Death Valley was first-come first served after mid April, with no problem getting a site, though shade is in short supply. Despite checking 4 months in advance, we couldn’t get into scenic Devils Garden Campground in Arches NP, which allows reservations up to 6 months in advance.

Our favorite Canyonlands RV Resort & Campground hosted our pop-top VW Eurovan Camper for four nights conveniently in downtown Moab. On nearby BLM land, red rock Hunter Canyon was a delightful hike of 4.5 miles round trip, blooming with fragrant yellow barberry flowers along a gentle potholed stream. A massive cottonwood tree nicely framed photos of Hunter Arch. Check out the roadside petroglyphs on Moonflower Panel and walk its half-mile canyon. In fantastic Arches National Park, we hiked from Klondike Bluffs parking lot to impressive Tower Arch via the Marching Men rock formations (2.8 miles with 1280 feet gain). The freshly snow-dusted La Sal Mountains provided a dramatic backdrop, such as seen southwest of Balanced Rock. Just before clouds rolled in, golden late afternoon sun illuminated iconic Delicate Arch (3.8 miles with 900 feet gain). Its parking lot was thankfully only half full during mid week. Don’t miss seeing the Ute Rock Art (1650-1850) on Wolfe Ranch side trail. A pullout southeast of Garden of Eden allowed off-trail access to Cove of Caves area on the back side of Double Arch. Walk on rocks and don’t disturb the black biologic soil crust. Also in the Windows Section, we visited Turret Arch and looped a mile around North and South Windows.

In the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park, Whale Rock and Upheaval Dome (beware of limited parking) made short but rewarding walks of 1.0 and 0.8 miles. We moved camp to spend 2 nights at dusty Needles Outpost Campground, picked for its hot shower (though Canyonlands’ nearby Squaw Flat Campground is more aesthetically attractive, at trailheads). Best of all was a long-anticipated 12-mile lollipop loop with 1980 feet gain from Elephant Hill Trailhead via Chesler Park to charismatic Druid Arch in the Needles District.

Driving south, I liked exploring little-known Recapture Pocket near Bluff. Fascinating Goosenecks State Park overlooks deep, curly meanders of the San Juan River near Mexican Hat. A side trip on Mexican Hat spur road gives a closer look at the red wavy patterns of Raplee Anticline (Lime Ridge) along San Juan River.

Just across the state line, don’t miss the spectacular sunset or sunrise at Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park in Arizona. At sunset, I rephotographed a favorite balanced rock in the foreground with West and East Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte on the horizon beyond. Sunrise was easy to photograph, as The View Campground looks directly east to the iconic West and East Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte.

We booked three nights in Mather Campground in Grand Canyon National Park, served by a handy free shuttle along on the South Rim. On the way into the park from the east, don’t miss the impressive Hopi artwork inside Desert View Watchtower, which was built by architect Mary Colter in 1932, integrating work by other southwest artists. Starting west of Yavapai Geology Museum, we enjoyed walking the 1.3-mile Trail of Time interpretive exhibit, backward in time from today toward the oldest rock in Grand Canyon, Elves Chasm gneiss, 1.840 billion years old. Our main hike was the scenic Hermit Trail from Hermits Rest to Lookout Point (7.6 miles with 2200 feet gain, plus walking between shuttle stop and campsite).

Death Valley National Park


Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

Late fall, winter, through early spring are good times to visit Death Valley National Park, which is otherwise beastly hot. During our visit 19-21 April 2018, some refreshing sprinkles formed a rainbow over the colorful geology. Parting clouds revealed fresh snow whitening Telescope Peak (11,043 ft), impressively high above Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America (282 feet below sea level). Cresting the Panamint Range, Telescope Peak has one of the greatest vertical rises above local terrain of any mountain in the contiguous United States. At our feet, evaporation from Badwater Basin concentrated crystalline mounds of sodium chloride (table salt), plus calcite, gypsum, and borax (famously mined 1883-1889 with Twenty Mule Teams). Artist’s Drive was worth the short side trip to explore the colorful geologic formation of Artists Palette. More than 5 million years ago, multiple volcanic eruptions deposited ash and minerals which chemically altered into a colorful paint pot of elements (iron, aluminum, magnesium and titanium).

We were delighted to photograph sunrise illuminating a tapestry of golden yellow striated landscape patterns at Zabriskie Point. Next, driving around to Golden Canyon Trailhead begins a great hiking loop uphill to Red Cathedral then back downhill via Gower Gulch (6 miles with 800 ft gain), our favorite walk in the park. Around lunchtime, I enjoyed photographing pioneer-era mining and transportation machines outdoors at the Borax Museum at Furnace Creek Ranch. In rising 90+ degree temperatures, we retreated into the nearby national park Visitor Center to absorb the excellent orientation film.

To escape increasing heat, we drove up Emigrant Canyon Road to 4100-foot Wildrose Campground, where faucets provided tasty drinking water. Helpful tip: dry air cools by 5 degrees Fahrenheit for about every 1000 feet ascended (or 3 degrees for wet air). Along the winding road, we luckily spotted some Desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) with two lambs. Campground quiet was suddenly shattered with the loud hee-haw braying of an alpha donkey keeping his herd in line. Invasive burros (Equua asinus, often called donkeys) can be found throughout the backcountry in Death Valley. Originally descended from the African wild ass, burros were introduced to North America. These invasive, nonnative burro populations can grow quickly, damaging native vegetation and spring ecosystems, thereby hurting native wildlife such as bighorn sheep and desert tortoise.

Along the hike to Fall Canyon’s dry waterfall (6.7 miles with 1250 feet gain) were some feisty Zebra-tailed lizards (allisaurus draconoides), some creamy yellow flowers of the desert rock nettle (Eucnide urens or desert stingbush) clinging to shaded canyon walls, plus some intriguing rock patterns. But this experience paled in comparison to our previous day in glorious Golden Canyon; so for dramatic build-up one should hike Fall Canyon or other hikes first.

Near Stovepipe Wells, the first light of sunrise high-lit Mesquite Flat Dunes so dramatically as to impress my wife Carol, who previously hadn’t been attracted by dunes. Optionally take your shoes off and enjoy this inland wilderness beach. I love being the first in the morning to form footprints across a tall virgin dune. Most nights, the slate of footprints is wiped clean and wavy. Discover why Lawrence of Arabia was personally attracted to the desert, saying: “It’s clean.”

Just outside Death Valley (on the way to or from Tecopah and Las Vegas), you can camp overnight at Shoshone RV Park and swim in a developed hot springs pool. Thought extinct in the 1960s, Shoshone pupfish (Cyprinodon nevadensis shoshone) were rediscovered in 1986 and protected by the land owner in nearby restored ponds. Found nowhere else on earth, Shoshone pupfish are unique to Shoshone Springs.

See also articles on each state: Southwest USA (Arizona, ColoradoNew MexicoNevada, Utah), California, and Texas.