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 Alpha A6400 camera
  • $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.)

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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 6400 or A6300(read Tom’s review) or older A6000, NEX-6, and NEX-7 mirrorless E-mount APS-C-sensor cameras (read Tom’s NEX-7 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 (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 A6400, A6300, A6000). 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 A6400, A6300, or A6000.

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.

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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.

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Regarding smartphones — with great power comes great responsibility (as says the Greek “Sword of Damocles” anecdote, and more recently, Marvel Comics’ Spider-Man). Sadly, monetized social media has enabled extreme memes to shout-down both civility and reality itself. To my relief, Canadian psychologist Steven Pinker restores our faith in the triumph of public good in his important books:

Canon PowerShot SX10 versus G series

Canon PowerShot SX10-IS

Canon PowerShot SX10-IS

Canon PowerShot SX10 IS macro and telephoto versus G series.

Question: “My wife purchased a Canon PowerShot SX10 IS on line for me as a Christmas present. Do you have any experience or information which describes its ability in macro situations? I assume the 20x zoom is great (and look forward to using it for birds), but have they shortchanged us on the other end, or does the lens do it all? I take a lot of wildflower pictures and want to make sure that it will produce good results for the closeups I like to take. My eyes are aging, so I want to make sure the camera will auto focus when I need it to. Sorry my questions are so general…”     (from A. B. in Paradise, CA, December 2008)

 Tom responds in December 2008:

Check owner opinions for Canon SX10IS at:

Canon compact digital cameras are among the best available. The Canon Powershot SX10IS is a good choice for price value, with amazing abilities compared to earlier cameras. Canon’s official site

claims excellent macro performance, which I trust will be quite good, based upon earlier Powershot cameras:

Focusing Range Normal: 1.6 ft./50cm-infinity (W), 3.3 ft./1m-infinity (T)
Macro: 0.39 in.-1.6 ft./1-50cm (W)
Super macro: 0-3.9 in./0-10cm (W)

Super Macro mode can shoot objects that are zero distance from the lens! You cannot get any closer than that!

SX10IS  sounds like a great macro camera. (Macro close focus with superior depth of field is one of the strengths of compact cameras over DSLR style cameras.)

Macro is this camera’s strength. Its weakness is most likely at the telephoto end, such as difficulty focusing on and shooting at moving birds (a problem any compact camera will have). It could still be a good compromise for shooting birds, half the size and weight and much cheaper than a DSLR style camera. A tripod would be helpful for sharper shots at telephoto. At all zoom settings, I recommend setting ISO at 400 or lower to avoid noise (blotchiness at the detail level at ISO 800 or higher), unless you need to hand hold the shot. By default the camera uses Auto ISO, which might do okay in most of your daytime outdoor shots.

The SX10IS is 1.5 pounds (large and bulky compared to the G9 or G10), surprisingly wide 20x zoom range, 28-560mm equivalent lens, probably decent quality, with good Image Stabilization (IS), a must-have in any camera.

Its sensor is unfortunately quite small, 1/2.3 ” (6.16 x 4.62 mm), which limits the size of your prints, or low light shooting abilities, compared to cameras which have larger sensors such as the Canon Powershot G9 or G10 (which cost $100 more). If your goal is mainly prints smaller than 10 inches, then the SX10IS should be fine. Larger prints with it are possible if you shoot steadily and carefully, within its limitations.

You might also look at the Fujifilm Finepix S100FS (34 ounces; 28-400mm lens), which will take higher quality images if you shoot RAW mode, but is somewhat larger and heavier than the SX10IS.

Your needs may differ from mine. Personally, I need good enough quality to sell and publish large landscape prints, and I would pick a Canon Powershot G9, G10, G10, G12, or pocket sized S95  for fun, smaller carry-everywhere size, combined with great quality images (better image quality than SX10IS) and good macro. However, the telephoto is nowhere near as long in the G series versus SX10IS, so cropping images could compensate to similar ballpark quality. A birder hobbyist shooting mostly in bright daylight or sunlight may prefer SX10IS for the long telephoto.

BEST WIDE ANGLE LENS for APS-C; or stitch panorama

On your APS-C sensor camera, would you like a view wider than the kit zoom lens, which is limited to 18mm or 16mm (27 or 24mm equivalent)? The following specialty zoom lenses shoot unusually wide angles of view, with great depth of field (such as for tight interior spaces, architecture, real estate, slot canyons, or sweeping landscapes):

For Sony Alpha A6300A6000 and NEX mirrorless cameras (APS-C size sensor):

  • Sony 10-18mm f/4 OSS Alpha E-mount wide-angle zoom lens (8 oz, 2.75×2.5 inches, SEL1018, 2012) thankfully has OSS image stabilization for more hand-held photography free of a tripod. Its angle of view is that of a 15-27mm in terms of full-frame equivalent. SEL1018 is good for shooting architecture indoors and out, plus landscapes and slot canyons. (It is significantly sharper than Sony’s 18-200mm, SEL18200 lens.) SEL1018 is sharpest at f/5.6 to f/8 as you zoom, with least distortion from 14-18mm.
  • Although SEL1018 wasn’t designed for the full-frame Sony Alpha A7 Mirrorless Digital Camera (2013, 17 oz body) or Sony Alpha A7 II camera, you can easily crop away the corner vignetting for surprisingly satisfying results.

For Nikon DX and Canon EF-S DSLR cameras with APS-C sensor, the wide-angle choices unfortunately lack image stabilization:

  • Tokina 12-28mm f/4.0 AT-X Pro DX lens (19 oz, 2013) is sharper than the following older lenses:
    • Sigma 10-20mm F4-5.6 EX DC HSM
    • Tamron 10-24mm F3.5-4.5 Di-II
    • Tokina 12-24mm f/4.0
  • Tokina AT-X Pro 11-16mm f/2.8 DX II wide angle lens (19 oz, 2012) has sharper, faster, professional-level, pricier optics, best leveraged on a 24 megapixel camera such as Nikon D3300 (2014, 16 oz body).
  • Caveats: The above wide-angle Tokina lenses are not image-stabilized, and thereby increase tripod use. Instead, consider the stabilized Sony 10-18mm OSS lens. Image stabilization (such as Nikon Vibration Reduction/VR or Canon IS or Sony OSS or Tamron VC) is most important for telephoto lenses to counteract hand held shake at slow shutter speeds. When built into some wide angle lenses, this feature helps you shoot more sharply at slower shutter speeds (such as in dimmer light), helping to blur flowing water or moving subjects while keeping non-moving subjects sharp in the same image.

Note: These wide angle lenses don’t work well for close-focus (macro) photography − instead use specialty macro lens. 

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Stitch panoramas instead of buying a specialty wide-angle lens

Instead of buying a specialty wide-angle lens above, it’s cheaper to stitch a panorama from multiple shots:

  • To easily capture landscape images wider than your 18mm kit lens, simply stitch a panorama from a series of adjacent images shot with your existing lens.
  • Stitching multiplies megapixel count to compensate for compromised sharpness of megazoom and kit lenses. But if you want to enlarge prints bigger than 2 or 3 feet without the need for stitching, shoot with sharper lenses such as the above Tokinas on a tripod.

Prayer flags express compassion at this monument to fallen climbers, at Annapurna South Base Camp (ABC) in the Annapurna Range of Nepal.

The above panorama was stitched from three overlapping images. Prayer flags express compassion at this monument to fallen climbers, at Annapurna South Base Camp (ABC) in the Annapurna Range of Nepal. Published in “Light Travel: Photography on the Go” book by Tom Dempsey 2009, 2010. Published in Wilderness Travel 2010 Catalog of Adventures.

How to build a panorama:

If you don’t have Adobe Lightroom or PhotoShop to build your panoramas, try one of these:

  • Image Composite Editor (ICE) for Windows only, FREE from Microsoft Research Computational Photography Group. (I found that ICE was faster and sharper than using the old Photoshop version CS5.)
  • Hugin: FREE for Mac & Windows. Hugin is harder to learn & use than Microsoft’s ICE.

Nowadays for most people, a smartphone camera is the easiest way to make sweeping panoramas with decent quality. Just select the Panorama option, hold the phone vertically, press (or speak the command for) the shutter release, and sweep steadily left to right, followed by a second press of shutter release to finish recording. Pinch zoom to check sharp details in the recorded image. Smartphones made after 2015 can capture good shadow detail in fairly sharp panoramas by default (using AUTO HDR).

Most digital cameras have an automatic Panorama mode on their mode dial, but I find that automatic panorama modes often blur detail as you sweep the camera, or they can fail with an error message unless you carefully practice the steady sweeping motion. Your results may vary. (Some compact cameras don’t allow holding vertically during the sweep, so just horizontal shots are stitched, thereby making a less-useful proportion: an overly squat and wide image.)

For the best quality, I prefer to shoot a panorama manually on a good camera (with large sensor) as a series of steady shots as follows:

  1. Hold the camera very still for each shot, swiveling as if the center of the lens were mounted on a fixed post. Shoot quickly (but steadily) if subjects are moving.
  2. Overlap each image by a third, one after another in a row, column, or array.
  3. The distance at which important subjects are focused can optionally vary shot to shot, near or far.
  4. If brightness varies drastically across the intended panorama, try to expose for a true midtone within each separate frame, but ensuring that exposure transitions aren’t extreme, shot to shot. If panorama has a consistent brightness, try shooting with a fixed Manual exposure. Shooting raw instead of JPEG gives you more leeway to simply use autoexposure.

A tripod is not needed if light is sufficiently bright for sharp hand-held photography. Look for a camera with a built-in level indicator such as in Panasonic ZS100 or Sony RX10 III or Sony Alpha A6300.

Adobe Lightroom notes:

Adobe Lightroom Version 6 (released April 2015) and later includes Photo Merge to Panorama (and to HDR): Photo > Photo Merge > Panorama

But as of 2017, the quickest and best Photo Merge is in Lightroom CC (Creative Cloud version), which adds the wonderful Boundary Warp with Auto Crop, which retains about 20% more image around the edges (without needing frequent time-consuming touch ups around the edges in Photoshop). Lightroom CC stitches raw files into a top quality Digital Negative panorama .DNG file which can be edited with large tonal leeway AFTER stitching, just like raw. This is a big time-saver compared to earlier versions of Lightroom or other programs, where you had to edit each image first, THEN stitch. Always edit from the original raw file format (or from the largest, highest quality JPEG directly from the camera; because each time you re-save a JPEG, it loses quality).

For travel, zoom flexibility beats interchanging specialty lenses

For travel portability and convenience, I prefer the all-in-one Sony RX10 IV camera (read my review) which sharply captures 24-600mm equivalent, with up to 4.5 stops of stabilization benefit (slower shutter speed handheld). Its 25x zoom is sharper across the frame at more zoom settings than the following 11x to 19x travel zooms shot on 24-megapixel APS-C cameras:

  • Nikon VR, Canon IS, or Sony OSS 18-200mm 11x zoom travel lenses (at Amazon).
  • 19x zoom Tamron 16-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD MACRO lens (Amazon).
  • These travel zoom lenses equal the kit lens sharpness, without the need for constant swapping of two or more lenses in the field. Their image stabilization feature (VR, IS, OSS, or VC) supports 2 to 4 stops slower hand held shutter speed, which is critical for on-the-go photographers who want to minimize tripod usage.
  • When compared to faster Pro lenses, the handy Nikon VR or Canon IS 18-200mm travel lenses gain in image stabilization and compositional zoom versatility what they lose in absolute optical sharpness. Stitch sets of 18mm images into wide or tall panoramas. Better yet, zoom to 22mm and set aperture to f/8 to optimize sharpness on the Nikon 18-200mm VR lens.
  • Check lens reviews or test yourself to find the sharpest zoom and aperture settings for your specific lens. For example, the f/4 Sony SEL1670Z lens for A6500/A6300/A6000 is sharpest at f/5.6 across its 4x zoom range.

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LIGHT TRAVEL book teaches, inspires outdoor photography

“Light Travel: Photography on the Go” by Tom Dempsey teaches and inspires outdoor photography by revealing the magic of portable digital cameras. The book tells my story of how a switch from film to digital cameras inspired new creativity. Written in 2009-10, this work describes how to pick a camera, compose and edit, and capture evocative images worldwide. For more up-to-date information, please read my Buy Cameras page.

  • Look inside this book, which is “full of sound guidance and jaw-droppingly gorgeous full-color photographs” says reviewer Dan Barnett.  210 pages, fully illustrated.
  • Author Tom Dempsey was interviewed Northstate Public Radio and featured in a 30-minute podcast (Chico, California).
  • Master digital jargon from the proficient glossary and index.
Currently available for $14 as a digital file in PDF format: ask me to email an invoice for easy payment by credit card. [My printed edition has only a few copies left, reserved for my classroom students.]


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

What readers say:

  • “I purchased your great book and I’ve read it cover to cover. It’s just wonderful.  Congratulations.  Those pictures!  …the locales delighted me. It’s just lovely.” — Scott W. of Seattle, WA.
  • “Dad said to tell you that your book has the best technical information he’s seen.  And your photos are beautiful….  He says it’s an amazing book, a great book, and he likes the detail you go into.  He says it would be a great text book.” — Nancy & Bill Rauhauser.
  • “Wanted to let you know I received your book today.  I am so thrilled with it .   I would like to thank you and Carol for sharing your talents  and the wonderful photo journal of your travels.   I just purchased my first Digital SLR camera (Rebel Xsi & the Canon ef-s 18-200 lens) and have much to learn.  I look forward to reading your book and applying (I hope) all the wonderful information you have shared on  photography.” — Sherry H.

Photoseek Publishing, ISBN #978-0-578-03918-3

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ECUADOR: Galapagos Islands and Highlands

The Galápagos Islands and mainland of Ecuador have attracted photographer Tom Dempsey for three eco-adventure trips: in 2009 (April 8-27), 1994 (Feb 21-March 3), and 1986 (January 12-26).

After studying geology and wildlife on the Galápagos Islands for a month in 1835, Charles Darwin would later transform scientific understanding with his theory of evolution by natural selection. To this day, the islands nurture an astounding variety of lifeforms, of which the following are fleshed out further below: Blue-footed boobies, Nazca boobies, Galápagos giant tortoises, Galápagos marine iguanas, Galápagos land iguanas, Galápagos sea lions, Lava lizards, and Prickly pear cactus trees.

Click “i” to read descriptive Captions. Click the dotted square to scroll a set of thumbnail images. Add any of the above Ecuador favorite images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.
See more extensive galleries below.

From personal experience, we recommend cruising 7 nights with’s Galapagos Itinerary B. Or if budget allows, go with Wilderness Travel’s Ultimate Galapagos, a fabulous 14 night cruise with just 16 guests, in an active 17 day tour.

Recommended Ecuador and Galapagos books

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ECUADOR: Quito and the Highlands (extended gallery)

Quito was founded in 1534 on the ruins of an Inca city. Despite the 1917 earthquake, the city has the best-preserved, least altered historic center in Latin America. The City of Quito is honored as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Photos above include: Historic Quito. The atmospheric eco lodge and beautiful hummingbirds of Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve, between Quito and Mindo. Otavalo’s handicraft and animal markets. Cotopaxi volcano. Quilotoa crater lake.

ECUADOR: Galápagos Islands (extended gallery)

In 1959, Ecuador declared 97% of the land area of the Galápagos Islands to be Galápagos National Park. Ecuador created the Galápagos Marine Reserve in 1986 (strengthened in 1998). Both are honored as a UNESCO a World Heritage Site.

Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site. Photos above include: Red lava erupts from La Cumbre volcano. Pinnacle Rock. Kicker Rock. Charles Darwin Research Station. Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, capital of the Galápagos Islands. Wildlife: Galapagos Giant Tortoises, green sea turtles, Boobies (Blue-footed, Red-footed, and Nazca), Frigatebirds, Waved Albatross, Flightless Cormorant, Galapagos Penguin, Swallow-tailed Gull, Brown Pelicans, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Great Blue Heron, Striated Heron, Galapagos Dove, Galapagos Marine and Land Iguanas, Galapagos Sea Lions, Lava Lizards, Sally Lightfoot (red lava crab), scorpion, and more.

Blue-footed Booby mates nest two eggs on North Seymour Island, Galapagos, Ecuador

Galapagos natural history: animals, plants, geology

Blue-footed boobies

Blue-footed boobies parade their bright blue feet prominently during courtship. Courtship includes an elaborate sky-pointing display in which each booby in the pair alternately lifts each foot, then raise its wings and beak skyward. Males give a long whistle and females give a nasal honk. During courtship, one of the pair will place a stone or twig ceremoniously onto a symbolic nest, or will touch its long bill with the bill of its partner. Before a female lays an egg, she scrapes away the stones or twigs of the symbolic nest and lays the egg on the bare ground. This ritualistic nest-building behavior bonds the pair, and is a remnant of evolutionary history when blue-footed booby ancestors constructed real nests. The related red-footed booby still constructs nests in trees. Female blue-footed boobies have a ring of dark pigment around their pupils, which makes their pupils appear larger than those of males.

Blue-footed boobies lay one to three eggs about three to five days apart. After the chicks hatch, the parents feed the largest chick first, which is usually the first born. If food is in short supply, the larger chick out-competes its sibling, causing the smaller chick to starve. Sometimes the larger chick forces its sibling out of the nest, and the parents won’t allow the displaced chick to return. Although this behavior seems harsh, it helps guarantee enough food for the remaining chick to survive during hard times.

Both male and female blue-footed boobies share the responsibility to bring fish to their chicks. The naked hatchlings require a parent on the nest at all times for protection and temperature regulation. After the chicks grow a coat of white down and can pant to cool themselves, both parents may risk leaving the chicks to go fishing. Frigatebirds, hawks, and owls may take unguarded chicks. However, the chicks soon grow too large to be threatened by predatory birds.Nazca Booby pair preens on Galápagos Islands, Ecuador

Nazca boobies

The Nazca Booby (which has an orange beak) was formerly regarded as a subspecies of the Masked Booby (which has a yellow beak) but is now recognized as a separate species. Nazca and Masked Booby species differ in size, nesting habits, and mtDNA cytochrome b sequence data.

Giant Galapagos Tortoise under prickly pear cactus, Charles Darwin Research Station, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos Islands, EcuadorGalápagos giant tortoise

The giant tortoise inspired the name of the Galápagos Islands. “Galápagos” comes from the Spanish word “galapago” meaning “saddle,” which refers to the saddle-shaped shell found on some giant tortoise subspecies. Along with the Aldabra tortoise of the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, Galápagos giant tortoises are the largest living tortoises. They can measure five feet (1.5 meters) over the curve of their shell, and can weigh up to 550 pounds (250 kilograms). We saw tortoises with shells up to four feet long.

Along with other members of the turtle order, Galápagos giant tortoises have a bony shell which is fused with their ribs and some other skeletal bones. The plates of the shell grow at the outer edges, but the rings gradually wear away and cannot reveal a tortoise’s age. Galápagos giant tortoises may live up to 50, 150, or even 200 years, but no one knows for sure. The growth of large lichen and fungi patches on the shells of older tortoises hints at their great age. Because tortoises cannot mate until age 20 to 25, and because they live life in the slow lane, they can most likely outlive humans.

Despite the tortoise’s extensive body armor, the exposed skin attracts parasites such as ticks. To eliminate parasites, tortoises (and iguanas) have adopted a mutually beneficial cleaning relationship with mocking birds and finches. When a tortoise wishes to be cleaned, it stands erect to expose all skin areas. The mocking birds and finches have learned that tickling the tortoise’s neck tells the tortoise to stretch out and expose tasty ticks and mites.

Since the Galápagos Islands formed several million years ago, enough time has passed for a number of hardy reptile species to drift by and gain a foothold. Rafts of vegetation released by flooding rivers have been known to carry animals for hundreds of miles. The giant tortoise originally came to the Galápagos Islands from continental South America, probably floating for two weeks in the prevailing westward ocean currents. Genetic studies indicate that the fourteen subspecies of Galápagos giant tortoises evolved from a common ancestor that probably first colonized San Cristóbal Island. From there the tortoises spread to the other Galápagos Islands, such as to the cloud forests atop the volcanoes of Isabela Island. Each of the five volcanoes of Isabela Island have been sufficiently isolated to support the evolution of their own distinct subspecies of Galápagos giant tortoises.

Four out of the original fourteen subspecies of Galápagos giant tortoises were decimated by whalers, sealers, and settlers, and are now extinct. To restore remaining tortoise populations, the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island raises baby tortoises up to age five, when they reach a size safe from most predators. Scientists repatriate each tortoise subspecies to its native island or volcano. Each subspecies has a uniquely shaped shell. On dry islands, tortoises have saddle-shaped shells which allow them to reach high into the sparse vegetation. On wetter islands that have plentiful low vegetation, tortoises tend to have low, helmet-shaped shells. This distribution of giant tortoise subspecies greatly influenced Darwin’s theory of evolution. Through natural genetic variation and natural selection, each tortoise subspecies evolved a unique shell shape that better survived local conditions.Galapagos Marine Iguana breeding colors, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, South America.

Galápagos marine iguana

Galápagos sea iguanas, or marine iguanas, live throughout coastal areas of the Galápagos Islands, and are the world’s only sea-going lizard. They have evolved from land iguanas from the South American mainland, 650 miles to the east. Sometime in the past several million years, flooding rivers may have flushed rafts of vegetation into the ocean carrying the sea iguana’s ancestors. The prevailing westward ocean currents take about two weeks to reach the Galápagos Islands, a short enough trip for hardy reptiles such as iguanas to survive. Through genetic variation and natural selection over thousands of generations, iguanas adapted to a life of foraging algae from the sea.

The sea iguana feeds off red and green algae found underwater and in intertidal zones. As a consequence of its high salt intake, the sea iguana has evolved the most effective salt glands of any reptile. The iguanas sneeze the salt out of their nostrils, which often leaves their heads encrusted in salt. During breeding season, which varies island to island, males show brighter colors and aggressively defend their territories.Santa Fe Galapagos Land Iguana, Charles Darwin Research Station, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos, Ecuador

Galápagos land iguana

Galápagos land iguanas prefer drier areas, and obtain water primarily from their diet. They eat mainly prickly pear cactus fruits and pads, usually without removing the spines. Land iguanas reach sexual maturity after eight to twelve years, and can live more than sixty years. Males turn a brighter yellow in mating season, and compete ferociously for territories that overlap female territories.A Galapagos Sea Lion watches waves crash on North Seymour Island, Galapagos, Ecuador, South America.

Galápagos sea lion

Galápagos sea lions are a subspecies of the Californian sea lion. Female sea lions can mate after five years of age, and can live to twenty. Males can mate a little earlier, but live shorter lives. Female sea lions bear a single pup each year, which they suckle for one to three years. You can often see two differently aged pups suckling from one mother. Pups begin fishing for themselves after five months, and gradually wean from mother’s milk. Fearful of sharks, sea lions restrict their pups to shallow water. Often, one female will baby-sit a nursery of pups while the other mothers go fishing. The dominant, territorial bull will often guide youngsters to safe areas of the beach.

Female sea lions can choose a bull for mating, and can roam from the beach of one dominant bull to another. Females become sexually receptive about three weeks after giving birth, and males fight most severely over territory about this time. Most male sea lions lack a harem, and they frequently challenge the dominant bull with posturing, barking, pushing, or biting to try to gain territorial rights. When not challenging dominant bulls, the bachelor males usually gather in relatively peaceable bachelor colonies on less desirable areas of the coast, such as rocky cliffs.Lava lizard on Galapagos Marine Iguana, Punta Espinoza, Fernandina (Narborough) Island, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Lava lizard

The lava lizard, which grows much smaller than an iguana, is very common in the arid lowlands on most of the Galápagos Islands. Lava lizards can live up to ten years. Vision is the most important sense for a lava lizard, and it frequently climbs to the highest rock in order to keep watch on its territory. Both males and females have territories, but they only defend against members of their same sex. Males can mate after three years of age, and females can mate after only 9 months of age. Females sport a red throat during breeding season. Lava lizards see the colors red and yellow most clearly. (Images available upon request.)

Prickly pear cactus tree

Galápagos prickly pear cacti grow into trees with trunks up to 4 feet (1.25 meters) in diameter on Santa Fe Island. On other islands, prickly pear trees can reach 40 feet (12 meters) in height. You usually find the taller species of prickly pear on islands where they compete with dense vegetation and contend with giant tortoises, which eat their pads. Shorter species of prickly pear are usually found on islands with sparse vegetation and no tortoises. Various observations suggest that competition for light and consumption by tortoises has influenced the evolution of the fourteen diverse types of Galápagos prickly pear. Prickly pear pads provide the major food source for tortoises and land iguanas. The fruits sustain Galápagos doves, mockingbirds, and land iguanas. Native Galápagos cactus finches depend upon the flowers, fruits, and seeds of the prickly pear cactus for survival.April 21, 2009: La Cumbre volcano erupts on Fernandina, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, South America.

Geology of the Galápagos Islands

About ten million years ago, the first island of the Galápagos archipelago burst above the ocean. Huge submarine volcanoes have joined and uplifted into the Galápagos Platform, which rises 6,600 to 10,000 feet above the surrounding sea floor, in one of the most active volcanic regions of earth’s oceans. Isabela is both the largest and tallest island (5600 feet above sea level).

On April 21, 2009 we witnessed earth’s hidden fury as La Cumbre volcano erupted a fountain of lava. The glowing red river flowed into the Pacific Ocean and expanded the land area of Fernandina (Narborough) Island. We were lucky enough to have caught an eruption cycle that had been quiet for the past 5 years, until restarting on April 10. Fernandina Island was named in honor of King Ferdinand II of Aragon, who sponsored the voyage of Columbus. Fernandina is the youngest and westernmost island of the Galápagos archipelago, and has a maximum altitude of 1,494 meters (4,902 feet).

CANADA: Canadian Rockies & Columbia Mountains parks

Canadian Rockies and Columbia Mountains park photo galleries

The Canadian Rockies rival any mountains in the world for breathtaking beauty. Use this article to plan for great hikes and sights as follows:

  • Canadian Rockies
    • National Parks: Banff, Jasper, Yoho, Kootenay, Robson, and Waterton Lakes
    • Provincial Parks: Mount Assiniboine (in British Columbia); Peter Lougheed and other parks in Kananaskis Country (in Alberta)
  • Columbia Mountains
    • National Parks: Revelstoke and Glacier (in BC)
    • BC Provincial Parks: Bugaboo and Bowron Lake
    • Geologically, the Rocky Mountain Trench divides the Rockies from the Columbia Mountains to the west, in BC, Canada.

CANADA: mountain park favorite photos (Rockies, Columbia Mountains, plus Coast Range)

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Enjoy these wonderful Canadian parks by camper, bicycle, feet, and canoe.

Mountain hiking+climbing weather forecasts for the Canadian Rockies, listed by peak and range:

Rockies: Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, and Yoho National Parks: photo gallery

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Rockies: Recommended hikes and tips for Banff National Park, Alberta

  • Banff town and nearby
    • Hike over Cory Pass on the Mount Edith loop trail (best walked clockwise, 8 miles) with impressive views of the spire of Mount Louis. The trail is sometimes rough and steep, but scenically rewarding. Beware of steep snow patches and don’t hike in inclement weather. We hiked snow-free on August 29, 2009.
    • Drive Bow Valley Parkway (Highway 1A), a slower scenic route which parallels main Highway 1 between Lake Louise and Banff.
      • Johnston Canyon hike: Start early in the morning (or off season) to get ahead of busloads of hikers on this deservedly popular trail. Easily walk 1 to 7 miles, 300-800 feet gain, through an attractive gorge with waterfalls. Only walk further to the Ink Pots if you want more exercise.
    • Backpack to scenic Egypt Lake (with optional hut) starting from Sunshine Village (via bus) and/or its parking lot.
  • Lake Louise area
    • West of Castle Junction, the scenic Boom Lake trail features the mother lode of lichen polygon patterns, a holy grail for this nature travel photographer.
    • Beehive loop hike: Start early in the morning, and expect crowds of walkers on this very scenic hike from Lake Louise to Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse, looping back via the Beehive and Lake Agnes Teahouse. Atop the Big Beehive, admire turquoise Lake Louise and Fairmont Chateau where you started far below.
    • Saddleback-Mt Fairview: hike steeply through larch forest 4.6-6.4 miles RT / 1970-3310 feet gain.
    • Moraine Lake, in Valley of the Ten Peaks
      • Whether or not you walk to the pleasant Consolation Lakes, don’t miss the short side trail up a little hill for the stunning overview of beautiful blue-green Moraine Lake, just across the outlet stream!
      • Sentinel Pass (7750 feet elev) is one of our favorite hikes in the world. Hike 7 miles round trip, 720 meters up (2370 feet). Larch trees turn beautifully yellow in mid September. Park your vehicle early in the morning (before 9:00am in summer) at popular Moraine Lake before the lot fills. (Our friends don’t recommend the extra car shuttle effort of walking further from Sentinel Pass down Paradise Valley to a separate trailhead, 10.4 miles, 2370 up, 2900 down.) Alternative branch:
        • Wenkchemna Pass & Eiffel Lakes: hike 11.7 miles RT, 2362 feet gain for golden larches in mid September.
      • Moraine Lake Road closes around Oct 13 or earlier due to snow.
  • Icefields Parkway, from Lake Louise over Sunwapta Pass to Jasper
    • See classic Rocky Mountains reflected in Herbert Lake. Bow Lake reflects Crowfoot Mountain. Great viewpoints overlook blue-green Peyto Lake and Bow Pass.
    • Sunwapta Passarea
      • Mount Athabasca and other peaks rise impressively above the road.
      • Parker’s Ridge: Hike 4.8k round trip to overlook impressive Saskatchewan Glacier.
  • Hot Showers in Banff NP: Lake Louise Campground, Johnston Canyon Campground, Banff Tunnel Mountain Village Campgrounds 1 and 2 (plus Banff Upper Hot Springs nearby), and Two Jack Lakeside Campground.
  • Food: Get groceries in Banff and Jasper. Food is more expensive at Saskatchewan Crossing (small grocery & restaurant), Castle Junction, and Lake Louise. Restaurants are at Vermilion Crossing in Banff and Sunwapta Falls in Jasper.
  • RV dump stations: Tunnel Mountain, Johnston Canyon, Lake Louise, and Waterfowl Lakes campgrounds.
  • Camping logistics advice: Bicycle Jasper to Banff, Icefields Parkway

Rockies: Hikes and sights in Jasper National Park, Alberta

  • Jasper town
    • The Whistlers Tramway and hike: to save your knees, hike up 4000 feet and take the Tramway down (or Tramway round trip). See distant views of Victoria Cross Range, Colin Range, and Mount Edith Cavell.
  • Lower Maligne Canyon: hike above a scenic slot canyon and gorge.
  • Maligne Lake: Bald Hills hike 8 miles RT / 2000 ft gain for views of Maligne Lake. Cross Maligne River to park on west side of Maligne Lake. Or from the same lot, hike:
    • Little Shovel Pass day hike 12.5 mi RT / 1600 ft. Or backpack 2-4 days the whole Skyline Trail.
  • Miette Hot Springs:
    • Soak in the hottest springs in the Rockies, with a good view of Ashlar Ridge (drive 1 hour from Jasper). On the turn up Miette Road is Pocahontas Campground (reservations accepted) which will save you from driving an hour back to Jasper.
    • Sulphur Skyline: hike 5.5 mi RT/2300 ft (for better, higher views than from nearby Utopia Pass).
  • Mount Edith Cavell: Hike 2-5 miles to see spectacular Angel Glacier and Cavell Pond.
  • Athabasca Falls: Athabasca River plunges impressively at this roadside overlook and short walk.
  • Sunwapta Falls: scenic roadside overlook, or walk further to worthwhile Lower Sunwapta Falls.
  • Columbia Icefield Visitors Centre
    • Admire the Athabasca Glacier. Ride the SnoCoach on Columbia Icefield.
    • Wilcox Pass: Hike 5 miles round trip, 1082 feet gain (7,790 feet max elevation). Start at Wilcox Creek Campground, 1.2 miles east of Icefields Centre.
    • Parker’s Ridge, in Banff NP (7200ft elev): Walk 3 miles round trip, with 910 feet gain, for a great view of Saskatchewan Glacier. Park at marked trailhead, 5 miles south of Icefields Centre.
    • Nigel Pass hike.
  • Hot showers in Jasper NP: The Whistlers Campground (closes in mid October), Wapiti Campground (closes in early September), and Miette Hot Springs (day use).
  • RV Dump Stations: Whistlers Campground, Wilcox Creek Campground.

Rockies: Yoho National Park, British Columbia

  • Camp at Kicking Horse Campground or adjacent Monarch Campground, in Yoho National Park, BC.
  • Emerald Lake
    • Walk around beautiful Emerald Lake at lake level 5.2km. Or hike the breathtaking Emerald Triangle 20 km (12 miles, with 3200 feet gain) round trip over Burgess Pass and Yoho Pass in a day as we did!
      • To visit a fascinating chapter in the history of life, reserve a tour of the geologically important Burgess Shale, a restricted area near Burgess Pass.
    • If you stay at Emerald Lake Lodge, you can rent a canoe on the turquoise waters.
  • Yoho Valley:
    • Takakkaw Falls to Yoho Lake makes a great half-day circuit of 6.3 miles (10.1km).
    • Iceline Trail is a classic day hike or backpack.
  • Hike turquoise Sherbrooke Lake combined with scenic Paget Peak Lookout (7 miles round trip with 1920 feet gain). Cathedral Mountain and Mount Victoria North Peak rise dramatically above the Kicking Horse Pass area.
  • The town of Field in Yoho NP is 3.5 hours drive from Jasper townsite.
  • Lake O’Hara (6600 ft elevation) is a gorgeous area with many classic hikes from the campground (or lodge), with limited access.
    • No cars or cycling are allowed on the bus road to Lake O’Hara, but walking the road is allowed, and then taking the bus ride back down at 4:30 or 6:30pm is free with no reservations required. In 2001, we enjoyed walking Cataract Brook trail (closed as of 2012?) to Lake O’Hara in 8 miles (1350 feet gain), but now you must walk the road or take the bus.
    • Unfortunately, you must now make bus and tent campground reservations 3 months in advance by phone only (250.343.6433), usually sold out within the first hour. (As of 2012-13, you can no longer walk into the office for reservations the day before busing.)
    • BUS OPTION: Open June 14, 2013 to September 30, 2013 (dates vary by year). Taking the bus to Lake O’Hara starts several gorgeous day hikes of any length. The bus allows one large or two small pieces of baggage per person. Tent sites have tent pads, well water, cooking shelter, pit toilets.
    • Hike Odaray Highline Trail to Odaray Grandview Prospect.
    • Walk around Lake O’Hara.

Rockies: Kootenary National Park, British Columbia

  • 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). Nearby: historically, humans have mined the colorful Paint Pots, natural ochre beds formed by the accumulation of iron oxide around the outlets of three cold mineral springs, worthy of a short walk.
  • The Rockwall‘s east-facing cliffs form the backbone of the Vermilion Range, which stretches nearly 40 kilometers (24 miles), hikeable via athletic loops or traverses. The Rockwall soars 1000 meters (3300 feet) over Floe Lake, an excellent backpacking destination, 10.7 km one way. A great two-night backpacking traverse stays at Numa Creek Campground then Floe Lake Campground. A great 3-night traverse goes from Paint Pots Trailhead to Tumbling Creek Campground (where you can day-hike to Rockwall Pass), then to Numa Creek Campground, then to Floe Lake Campground, then out; or for 4 nights, start this with Helmet Creek Campground. Hitchhiking, bicycling, or car shuttle is possible to retrieve your car from the starting point.

Rockies: Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, British Columbia

Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site. Above photos include Lake Magog, Sunburst Lake, Cerulean Lake, Nub Peak trail, and a Columbian Ground Squirrel. Hike from Banff National Park to Rock Isle Lake via Sunshine Meadows.

Assiniboine Lodge and Naiset Huts

A helicopter can optionally carry you and/or your backpack to Assiniboine Lodge in the remote wilderness at Lake Magog with great views of Mount Assiniboine (11,871 feet, the “Matterhorn of Canada”). Comfortable private rooms in the Lodge are pricey. A cheaper option is to book your group into the dormitory-style Naiset Huts and use their Wonder Lodge Cooking Shelter for comfortable indoor communal cooking (gas cookers provided) and socializing. Or carry a tent and camping gear about 25 minutes further to Lake Magog Campground.

Mount Assiniboine backpacking trip
  • Trailhead: Spray Lakes-Mount Shark Day Use Parking, on gravel road 1 hour (41.3 km) west of Canmore, Alberta (or 1.5 hours drive from Banff, or 3 hours drive from Calgary).
    • For many more hikes nearby, see Kananaskis Country further below.
  • Day 1: hike 7.5 miles, 400 feet up, 300 feet down to Bryant Creek Shelter (6000′).
  • Day 2: hike 6.7 miles, 1100′ up through Assiniboine Pass (7000′) and then to Naiset Cabins at Lake Magog (7100′), below towering Mount Assiniboine.
  • Days 3 and 4: Layover days, for hiking around this beautiful area.
  • Day 5: hike 7.9 miles, 750′ up, 1850′ down, through Wonder Pass (7850′) past huge Marvel Lake to Bryant Creek Shelter (6000′).
  • Day 6: hike 7.5 miles, 300′ up, 400′ down retracing Day 1, back to trailhead.
  • Or use the helicopter: Send your backpack ahead by helicopter and hike the 14.2 miles in one day. We enjoyed this service going out!

The optional Citadel Pass route to Mount Assiniboine starts at Sunshine Village (7200’), reached via bus in in Banff NP. Hike 8.7 miles to Porcupine Campground, then 9.5 miles to Assiniboine Lodge Naiset Huts (at 7100′ elevation). The hardest part is a steep descent from Citadel Pass (7740’) to Porcupine Campground (6000’).

Rockies: Mount Robson Provincial Park, British Columbia

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Camping near Mount Robson trailhead
  • Getting there: Mount Robson Provincial Park Visitor Centre is 1 hour drive from Jasper town, or 200 miles (4.5 hours drive) from Field in Yoho NP.
  • Robson Meadows Campground: hot showers; 93 sites first-come first-served, 32 sites reservable 2 days to 3 months prior at at or 1.877.737.3783 from 7am-7pm.
  • Robson River Campground: hot showers, 19 sites first-come first-served.
  • Lucerne Campground is located on Yellowhead Lake in British Columbia, 10 km west of Alberta boundary, 32 sites first-come first-served, no showers.
  • Robson Shadows Campground: 5 km west of Mount Robson PP Visitor Centre, panoramic view of Mount Robson, 25 natural campsites on Fraser River, hot showers, group site, phone 250-566-9190, reservations 1.888.566.4821.
Berg Lake, Mt Robson backpacking

In 2008, Carol and I fondly revisited Berg Lake, our first international backpacking destination together (1995), plus other parks, with a group of friends. Backpacking to Berg Lake is 22 kilometers (13 miles) one way. All campsites have bear poles, pit toilets, washbasins and grey-water pits. Reserve backcountry sites at 1-877-737-3783, change at 1-800-689-9025, 7am-7pm.

  • Day 1: Hike 6.5 miles, 870 feet up to Whitehorn Campground (3700 feet elev).
  • Day 2: Hike 5.6 miles, 1700 feet up to Berg Lake Campground (5400 feet elev).
  • Day 3: Allow time for the eye-popping dayhike to spectacular Snowbird Pass, one of our world favorites.
  • Day 4: Hike out 13 miles in one day, mostly downhill.
    • Or on Day 4, hike 7.9 miles, 2100 down, to Kinney Lake campground (3300 feet elev). Then on Day 5, hike from Kinney Lake campground to trailhead 4.1 miles, 470 feet down.

Rockies: Kananaskis Country, Alberta: Peter Lougheed Provincial Park & more

Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site. Images include: golden larch trees, grizzly bear (brown bear), pica, ptarmigan, Upper Kananaskis Lake, Chester Lake Trail & Three Lakes Valley, Galatea Creek Trail to Lillian Lake & Galatea Lakes, Mount Kidd reflecting in Kananaskis River, Rawson Lake trail, Mari Lake reflections, and Sarrail Creek waterfall.

The many parks of Kananaskis Country rival the splendor of neighboring national parks but without the crowds. Kananaskis Country is an improvement district (rural municipal administration) in the front ranges of the Canadian Rockies west of Calgary, in Alberta.

Detailed hiking book with maps: Gillean Daffern’s Kananaskis Country Trail Guide – 4th Edition: Volume 1: Kananaskis Valley, Kananaskis Lakes, Elk Lakes, The Smith-Dorrien (2010).

Recommended hikes in Kananaskis Country:
  • From H40 in Kananaskis Country:
  • From Kananaskis Lakes Trail road in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park:
    • Mari Lake Trail: stroll from Elkwood Campground.
    • Indefatigable Trail: hike 3.4-5.7 mi RT/1500-2550 feet gain for one of the best views in this exceptional area. Start from North Interlakes parking lot at the end of Kananaskis Lakes Trail road. See hikes #76+76A in Daffern’s Kananaskis Country Trail Guide (2010). 
    • Frozen Lake in Elks Lakes Provincial Park, BC: hike 8.3 mi RT/1620 ft gain steeply to gorgeous deep blue lake under Mt Fox, from the trailhead on Kananaskis Lakes Trail road within Peter Lougheed PP. See #58+58A in Daffern’s Kananaskis Country Trail Guide (2010).
    • Three Isle Lake:  hike 13.9 miles RT/1600 ft gain, a long day, optionally biking 5 miles RT from Kananaskis Lakes Trail road. See #71 in Daffern’s Kananaskis Country Trail Guide (2010).
      • Or backpack from North Interlakes Trailhead to Forks Backcountry Campground (10 miles round trip, 800 ft cumulative gain). From Forks Campground we day hiked to North Kananaskis Pass (13 miles round trip/2700 ft) with great scenery all along the way! The next day we day hiked to Three Isle Lake (5 miles round trip/1800 ft, much easier without a heavy pack), then collected our tent and hiked back to the car.
      • Harder alternative: a great 5+ day backpacking loop starts from North Interlakes Parking Lot via the north side of Upper Kananaskis Lake to Forks Campground, Lawson Lake,  Turbine Canyon Campground, North and South Kananaskis Passes, Three Isle Lake, up to the airy heights of Northover Ridge , down to Aster Lake, then out via the south side of Upper Kananaskis Lake. Combine #69+70+71A+72+73+71 in Daffern’s Kananaskis Country Trail Guide (2010).
  • From H742 / “Smith-Dorrien/Spray Trail” gravel road in Kananaskis Country:
    • Chester Lake + Three Lakes Valley: hike 5.2-7.8 miles RT with 1000-1800 ft gain in a delightful ramble through larch forest to lake-dotted limestone barrens. See #92+92B in Daffern’s Kananaskis Country Trail Guide (2010).
    • Mt Shark Road:
      • Birdwood Lakes + Birdwood Pass + Tryst Lake: has breathtaking views and superb alpine zone. Adding side trip #84 Tryst Lake (with nice larches) totals 10.4-11.2 mi RT/2483-2653 ft gain; else hike 1630-1800 ft  in 8.8-9.6 miles RT (or 7.8-8.6 miles via wet shortcut from H742). See #85+84 in Daffern’s Kananaskis Country Trail Guide (2010).
        • Shorter: Tryst Lake alone is 4 mi RT/853 feet gain (#84).
      • Nearby 1km north: Tent Ridge loop hike (6.1 mi/2700 ft gain) is one of the most enjoyable ridge walks (with some easy non-exposed scrambling). See #83 in Daffern’s Kananaskis Country Trail Guide (2010).
      • Hike and/or helicopter-pack to Mt Assiniboine and Lake Magog (detailed further above).
    • Buller Pass in Spray Valley PP: hike 8.9 miles RT/2200 ft gain (plus Ribbon Lake adds 2.3 mi RT plus 700 ft down & up) from H742. See #77 in Daffern’s Kananaskis Country Trail Guide (2010).

Local comforts in the wilderness:

  • Good base camps with hot showers in Kananaskis Country:
    • huge Mt Kidd RV Park on H40 just northwest of Spray Valley PP, just 30 minutes north of Lower Kananaskis Lake and 45 minutes east of Banff.
    • reservable Elkwood & Boulton Creek Campgrounds in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. (If these are full, try the unserviced Canyon & Interlakes Campgrounds which are first-come first served.)
  • Sunny Talus Lodge (external link) is a catered premium escape to wildly spectacular hikes (guided or self) in remote wilderness, around $1500 per person for 4 nights private room & meals (in 2015), with electric generator and hot showers via bucket. The price includes a spectacular helicopter flight from Canmore or Mt Shark Road! Up to 12 guests can choose 3, 4, or 7 nights. Talus Lodge is in a dry area receiving only 25 inches of precipitation/year, far in the backcountry between Mt Assiniboine and Upper Kananaskis Lake.

Rockies: Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta

Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site. Images include: A stream flowing through colorful sedimentary geology in Red Rock Canyon, and mountains reflected in Waterton Lake.

Recommended hikes in Waterton Lakes NP:
  • Hikes near Waterton Park Campground:
    • Bears Hump: hike 1.8 miles RT/738 feet gain for a classic view of Waterton Lake, starting at the National Park Visitor Center trailhead, early for better photo light and avoidance of crowds.
    • Bertha Lake: hike 8.6 miles RT/1542 feet gain starting from Townsite Campground. A good rainy day hike would be to Lower Bertha Falls (3 miles RT/574 ft gain).
  • Hikes along Akamina Parkway:
    • Akamina Ridge loop (see 2022 trip): 12-14 miles RT/2918 feet gain steeply from Forum Lake to Wall Lake over Akamina Ridge in Akamina-Kishinena Provincial Park, BC. Or else hike out and back to Wall Lake and Bennett Pass with optional side trip to Forum Lake.
    • Carthew Traverse: ascend 2460 ft to Carthew Summit (7910 ft), descend 3670 ft to Waterton Townsite, 12.4 miles one way via public or private shuttle. We loved this colorful hike in 2002.
    • Rowe Lakes: hike 7.5+ miles RT/1881 ft gain, optionally extending via a very steep scramble to Lineham Ridge 10.1 mi RT/3182 ft (or onwards to Lineham Lakes 12.3 mi/4500 ft RT, where you might better loop out on Lineham Creek Trail with car shuttle to save 1148 ft). Scramble up Avion Ridge to see golden larch trees starting in late September.
  • Hikes along Red Rock Parkway:
    • Red Rock Canyon: stroll along a remarkably colorful stream. This is also the trailhead for the following hikes:
    • Goat Lake: 8 miles RT/1739 ft gain, or 10 miles to views from Avion Ridge. Or loop further along the same trail:
      • Twin Lakes loop: day hike 15.5 miles in a loop/2133 feet gain.
      • Or backpack: starting at scenic Red Rock Canyon, do 4-day basecamp at Twin Lakes (6450 ft elevation) climbing 1540 ft in 7 miles (or camp 1 night at Goat Lake), hiking out via Blakiston Creek & Falls. On layover days, hike high along Waterton Park’s western boundary to do any of the following: 1) Sage Pass short hike, 2) loop north on route along Avion Ridge to Goat Lake back via Bauermann Creek, and/or 3) go south to Lone Lake or South Kootenay Pass.

Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada and Glacier National Park in Montana, USA comprise Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, which is honored by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. See related articles:

Columbia Mountains, Purcell Range: The Bugaboos, British Columbia

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Bugaboo Provincial Park lies in the Purcell Range of the Columbia Mountains south of Golden, British Columbia. Most tourists are distracted by nearby Canadian Rockies parks along fast paved highways and skip gravel logging roads, thereby leaving the stunning “Bugaboos” as a quiet retreat for hikers, climbers, and helicopter guests of luxury CMH Bugaboo Lodge. Hike in late September to see the glow of golden fall colors of tamarack larch, whose deciduous needles turn from green to bright yellow-orange. Stay in expensive accommodation at CMH Bugaboo Lodge and CMH Bobby Burns Lodge just outside the park, or camp free at 4 primitive sites in Bugaboo Septet Recreation Area. The following view hikes are best on a sunny day:

  • Hike 10 km/6 miles round trip with 730 meters/2400 feet gain to Conrad Kain Hut for breathtaking views of nearby Bugaboo Glacier, soaring granite spires, larch trees, and sedimentary Rocky Mountains eastwards across the Columbia River Valley. This trail makes a fantastic day hike or awesome overnight hike with convenient shelter in Kain Hut (which for a fee provides propane stoves and space for people with a sleeping bag) or nearby campground. A few ladders and hand cables assisting this steep trail may bother those with fear of heights.
  • Hike panoramic Cobalt Ridge, 8 miles round trip with 914 meters/3100 feet gain on a steep but well-defined trail. Two-thirds of the way up, Walter Cobb Lake (or Walter Lake) adds just 1km round trip for lunch in a forest of larch trees that will be golden in late September or early October! Don’t miss the view from the highest point of the Cobalt Ridge. Optionally continuing onward to Cobalt Lake adds 2.5 miles round trip and 150 meters/500 feet gain. Start walking from Bugaboo Septet Recreation Site campground or CMH Bugaboo Lodge or park at the marked Cobalt Lake trail head.
  • For a more distant panorama, hike up Chalice Creek and Ridge, 16 km/10 miles round trip with 730 meters/2400 ft gain, measured starting from Bugaboo Septet Recreation Site campground, near the bridge across Bugaboo Creek, near CMH Bugaboo Lodge.
  • For a close side view of glaciers and peaks, hike to Silver Basin, 12 km/7 miles round trip with 450 m/1500 ft gain. Go past CMH Lodge, make the next right, and park at the first switchback to avoid the short, rough 4WD road to the trail head above.
  • Bugaboo Pass is 5.2+ miles with 2200 feet gain, or longer depending on your car’s progress up the rough dirt road.
  • Directions to the above hikes in the Bugaboos:
    • See Mountain Footsteps: Hikes in the East Kootenay of Southeastern British Columbia (Fourth Edition 2018, by Janice Strong)
    • From Brisco (about 44 kms north of Invermere on Hwy 95) or Spillimacheen, follow signs to Bugaboo Provincial Park and CMH Lodge on a gravel logging road. After driving 47 kms (1.5 hours), turn right on a rougher road to reach Cobalt Lake trail head and spectacular Kain Hut trail head, or continue straight (left) along Bugaboo Forest Service Road. Before you reach the gate of luxury CMH Bugaboo Lodge, a left turn crosses Bugaboo Creek bridge: then a left reaches Bugaboo Septet Recreation Site (4 primitive campsites in a free, user-maintained campground reachable by 2WD vehicles) or straight up takes 4WD vehicles and hikers to Chalice Creek trail head. Curiously, every parked vehicle is barricaded with provided chicken wire fencing! In the past, porcupines gnawed under vehicles; but author Janice Strong says porcupines damaging vehciles is now rarely a problem for BC & Alberta vehicles since the provinces changed their winter road salt, plus porcupine populations have declined.
Geology of the Bugaboos and Purcell Mountain Range

The ancient Purcell Mountains (a subrange of the Columbia Mountains) formed from sediments around 1.5 billion years ago, a time on earth when only algae grew. Not until the age of the dinosaurs did the much younger Rockies appear east of the Rocky Mountain Trench. Near the end of the Rocky Mountains creation, masses of molten rock pierced the old metamorphic rocks of the Purcells and cooled into hard crystalline granodiorite batholiths of the Bugaboos, 135 to 70 million years ago. Glaciers and water chiseled away weak overlying rock and revealed spectacular granite spires of the Bugaboos. Mining peaked in nearby Bugaboo Falls around 1906 — miners described a deadend mineral lead as a “bugaboo,” the park’s namesake. (Some USA maps label the “Percell Mountains” where their southern limit protrudes into the states of Idaho and Montana.)

Columbia Mountains, Purcell Range: Lake of the Hanging Glacier, British Columbia

Hike along foaming Hellroaring Creek to spectacular Lake of the Hanging Glacier (see Google maps). Drive 1.5 hours west of Radium Hot Springs on the dirt Horsethief Creek Forest Service Road. High clearance vehicle recommended. On 2018 July 19, via rough but dry roads plus two small streams crossed, our Toyota Prius V made it carefully to parking at 1 km from the trailhead, making the effort 11.7 miles round trip with 3100 feet cumulative gain. The scenic reward was worth hiking over and under 60 fallen trees each way. (click for an external PDF guide to this hike).

For hikers, I recommend a 2018-updated book covering this corner of BC: Mountain Footsteps: Hikes in the East Kootenay of Southeastern British Columbia (Fourth Edition 2018). (I call it “Strong Mountain Footsteps” for short.) Southeast BC will attract us back to hike Jumbo Pass, Hourglass Lake, Tanglefoot Lake, and more.

Columbia Mountains: Revelstoke and Glacier National Parks, British Columbia

Revelstoke National Park has a nice place to eat lunch then stretch our legs in a natural setting on the short Skunk Cabbage Trail. Starting with a public shuttle ride from the top lot, a pleasant hike is Miller Lake 7.2 miles round trip with 500 feet gain, plus 1.5 miles to Eva Lake.

In BC’s Glacier National Park, Bear Creek Falls Trail (Parks Canada) stretches your legs for 1.2 miles round trip. The easy Abandoned Rails Trail interprets Rogers Pass National Historic Site (2.4 miles round trip). Abbott Ridge trail (Parks Canada) is 8.5 miles round trip with 3400 feet gain, to an great view of Mount Sir Donald and the Illecillewaet Glacier.

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Columbia Mountains: Bowron Lake Provincial Park, British Columbia

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See my article “Pardon Me, I’ll Run to my Ambulance Now.” This true story from Bowron Lake Provincial Park recounts my group’s adventurous 73-mile canoe trip paddling a rectangular circuit of wilderness lakes, where we portaged by rolling canoes on wheels.

See related articles

Recommended guidebooks from

Search for latest “Canada Rockies travel books” at

Search for latest “Montana travel books” at

The following Canadian Rocky Mountains parks comprise a spectacular World Heritage Area listed by UNESCO:

  • Banff National Park
  • Jasper National Park
  • Kootenay National Park
  • Yoho National Park
  • Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park
  • Mount Robson Provincial Park
  • Hamber Provincial Park (not pictured in this article)

USA SOUTHEAST: Appalachians: Virginia, WV, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky

Favorite photos from Southeast USA

Our trips to Southeast USA (Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky) captured fascinating national and natural history plus colorful autumn leaves in the following favorite images:

Click “i” to read descriptive Captions. Click the dotted square to scroll a set of thumbnail images. Add any of the above Favorite images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

I suggest guidebooks at bottom. All photographs in this article are taken from four trips:

  • October 20 to November 10, 2008 to Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee.
  • October 25, 2010 to Mammoth Cave, Kentucky.
  • June 20 to July 1, 2012 to Virginia: Mount Vernon, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore, and Gloucester Courthouse.
  • October 7-23, 2015 trip from Indianapolis to Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia.

Virginia: Monticello (Thomas Jefferson estate) and Shirley Plantation

  • Monticello (the estate of Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States) reflects in a pond on a hill near Charlottesville, Virginia. The fascinating tour inside includes underground buildings with old wood fired kitchen and copper pots.
  • The Rotunda building (built 1822-26) graces the grounds of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
  • Shirley Plantation, settled in 1613, is the oldest active plantation in Virginia and said to be the oldest family-owned business in North America, dating back to 1638.

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Virginia: Mount Vernon, estate of George and Martha Washington

View Tom Dempsey’s photos of Mount Vernon, Virginia, which was the plantation home of George Washington, the first President of the United States (1789–1797). The mansion is built of wood in neoclassical Georgian architectural style on the banks of the Potomac River. The estate served as neutral ground for both sides during the American Civil War, although fighting raged across the nearby countryside. George Washington (1732-1799) was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America (USA), serving as the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, and presiding over the convention that drafted the Constitution in 1787. Named in his honor are Washington, D.C. (the District of Columbia, capital of the United States) and the State of Washington on the Pacific Coast. Mount Vernon estate was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960 and is owned and maintained in trust by The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

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Virginia: Historic Jamestowne, Jamestown Settlement, and Williamsburg

Historic Jamestowne, run by the National Park Service and Preservation Virginia, is the actual historic and archaeological site on Jamestown Island where in 1607, settlers established the first successful English colony (Virginia) in the Americas. Historic Jamestowne photos below include: palisade of the James Fort, Captain John Smith and Pocahontas bronze statues, Memorial Church, 1907 Tercentennial Monument obelisk, well excavation, cannon, Jamestown-Scotland Ferry, Chesapeake Bay map; Coat of Arms of United Kingdom & Ireland, used 1603-1649 by James VI (King of Scots), 1660-1689 by Charles II, and 1702-1707 by Queen Anne.

Adjacent to Historic Jamestowne is Jamestown Settlement, which was created in 1957 as “Jamestown Festival Park,” part of Virginia Colony’s 350th anniversary celebration. Jamestown Settlement, operated by the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, chronicles 1600s Virginia and the convergence of three cultures: Powhatan Indians (with recreated Village), west central African tribes (described in museum), and Europeans (with recreated English Fort and ship replicas Godspeed, Discovery, and flagship Susan Constant).

Photos of nearby Colonial Williamsburg include: Capitol building, Chowning Tavern, Governor’s Palace foyer, wood-fired stove, dining table with 1700s style place settings, pipe organ, guns, swords, 1715 Bruton Parish Church, Courthouse with actors, straw hats, two-horse carriage, alphabet drawn with contorted human bodies, silversmith tools, and map of the British colonies in North America from the mid 1700s.

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Virginia: Luray Caverns, Shenandoah National Park, and Humpback Covered Bridge

My photos of Shenandoah National Park include tree silhouettes during an orange sunset. Humpback Covered Bridge, built in 1857 near Covington (Interstate 64, Exit 10), is the oldest remaining covered bridge in the state of Virginia, and its unusual humpback design raises the bridge deck 4 feet higher in the middle than on the ends. Luray Caverns photos include: Great Stalacpipe Organ (a unique musical instrument that taps bell-like stalactites), blue-green Wishing Well pool, cave speleothems, stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, columns, mud flows, patterns.

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Virginia: Appalachia: Blue Ridge Parkway

This gallery illustrates Virginia’s section of the Blue Ridge Parkway. (See separate gallery for North Carolina’s section.) Photos by Tom Dempsey include: vibrant fall foliage colors on October 18-19, 2015; a lovely sunset view at Chimney Rock Mountain Overlook (Milepost 44.9); and beautiful Indian Rocks. The scenic 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway was built 1935-1987 to aesthetically connect Shenandoah National Park (in Virginia) with Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina, following crest-lines and the Appalachian Trail.

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Virginia: Appalachia: Natural Tunnel State Park

At the unique Natural Tunnel State Park, near Duffield, Virginia, both a train and a river share the same natural limestone cave, measuring 850 feet (255 meters) long, since 1890. Natural Tunnel began forming during the early Pleistocene Epoch and was fully formed by about one million years ago. Daniel Boone is believed to have been the first white man to see it. William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925) dubbed this tourist attraction as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” Natural Tunnel State Park was created in 1967 and opened to the public in 1971. A passenger train line ran through Natural Tunnel for a time and today, coal is still carried through by rail to the southeast USA.

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Virginia: Chincoteague and Gloucester Courthouse

Assateague Island is within Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of the Virginia Eastern Shore, and can be reached by road bridge from Chincoteague Island. Below, see my photos of Chincoteague Ponies, Assateague Light House (built 1867), water birds (Great White Egret, Snowy Egret, Glossy Ibis, Black Skimmer).

  • The Chincoteague Pony (or Assateague horse) is a breed of small horse (Equus ferus caballus) which lives wild on Assateague Island in Virginia and Maryland, USA. The breed was made famous by the “Misty of Chincoteague” series written by Marguerite Henry starting in 1947. Legend claims that Chincoteague ponies descend from wrecked Spanish galleons. But they more likely descend from stock released by 1600s colonists escaping laws and taxes levied on mainland livestock. In 1835, settlers began pony penning to remove some horses. In 1924 the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company held the first official “Pony Penning Day,” where ponies were swum across Assateague Channel and auctioned to raise money, a tradition thriving ever since as a public spectacle. The federal government owns Assateague Island, which is split by a fence at the Maryland/Virginia state line, with a herd of around 150 ponies living on each side of the fence managed separately. The Maryland herd of “Assateague horses” lives within Assateague Island National Seashore and is treated as wild, except for contraceptives given to prevent overpopulation. The Virginia herd of “Chincoteague ponies” lives within the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge but is owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. The Virginia ponies get twice yearly veterinary inspections to cover possible auction sale into the outside world. Only about 300 ponies live on Assateague Island, but 1000 more live off-island, having been privately purchased or bred.

Photos below also include historic Gloucester Courthouse and pretty garden lilies. Gloucester County was the site of Werowocomoco, a capital of the large and powerful Native American Powhatan Confederacy, which affiliated 30 tribes under a paramount chief. It was home to members of early colonial First Families of Virginia and important leaders in the period up to the American Revolutionary War.

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Virginia/Tennessee/Kentucky: Cumberland Gap National Historic Park

In Virginia, visit Pinnacle Overlook (2440 feet elevation) in Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, above Middlesboro, Kentucky and Cumberland Gap, Tennessee. From Pinnacle Overlook, see Tristate Peak where the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia meet, as resolved in 1803. The pass of Cumberland Gap (elevation 1600 feet / 488 meters) is famous in American history as the chief passageway through the central Appalachian Mountains and as an important part of the Wilderness Road. Long used by Native Americans, the path was widened by a team of loggers led by Daniel Boone, making it accessible to pioneers, who used it to journey into the western frontiers of Kentucky and Tennessee. The gap was formed by a southward flowing ancient creek which cut through tectonically uplifted mountains. As the land lifted, the creek reversed direction, flowing into the Cumberland River to the north. Nearby, stop at Clinch Mountain Lookout, near Bean Station, Tennessee, to ogle Cherokee Lake, dammed by the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) on the Holston River in 1941.

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Tennessee: Appalachia: Bays Mountain Park

In Bays Mountain Park & Planetarium in Kingsport, Tennessee, enjoy walking a 2.3-mile loop (and other trails) on boardwalks and easy paths around the old Kingsport city reservoir which provided water 1917-1944 and now serves as lake habitat. This attractive nature preserve is the largest city-owned park in Tennessee and was declared a State Natural Area in 1973. As part of the Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians, the ridge of Bays Mountain runs southwest to northeast, from just south of Knoxville to Kingsport, in eastern Tennessee.

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Tennessee/North Carolina: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles Tennessee and North Carolina in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are part of the larger Appalachian chain. In 1983, Great Smoky Mountains National Park was honored as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Photos include: panoramas seen from Webb Overlook and Clingman’s Dome, Cades Cove churches, Cable Mill Historic Area, Mingus Mill, historic settler cabins, cantilever and drive-through barns, old wood fired stove, wooden buggy & wagon, yokes, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, fall foliage colors, Little River Road, walking behind Grotto Falls, deer.

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Tennessee/North Carolina: Cherohala Skyway

Atop the Unicoi Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina, the Cherohala Skyway reveals far-reaching views in the Blue Ridge Mountains (a subset of the Southern Appalachian Mountains). Cherohala combines the names of the two National Forests traversed: “Chero” from Cherokee and “hala” from Nantahala NF. Vibrant fall foliage colors begin in mid October at highest elevations then work their way down the Cherohala Skyway. Long in planning since 1958, the Cherohala Skyway opened to automobile traffic in 1996 – a new National Scenic Byway. The Skyway climbs over 4000 feet, starting at elevation 900 feet along Tellico River and reaching 5400 feet on the slopes of Haw Knob in North Carolina. The 43-mile paved Cherohala Skyway follows Tennessee State Route 165 (SR-165 or TN 165) for 25 miles from Tellico Plains to the state line at Stratton Gap, then continues on North Carolina Highway 143 (NC 143) for 18 miles to Robbinsville. The Skyway accesses various protected and recreational areas including Citico Creek Wilderness, Bald River Gorge Wilderness, and Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.

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North Carolina: Appalachia: Blue Ridge Parkway

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a 469-mile (755 km) long highway that connects Shenandoah National Park, Virginia, with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee, following the ridge crestlines near the Appalachian Trail. It is both a National Parkway and an “All-American Road” (one of the best of the National Scenic Byways).

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North Carolina: Appalachia: Hanging Rock State Park

Look across miles of autumn orange and red foliage at Hanging Rock State Park, Stokes County, North Carolina. The eroded quartzite knob called Hanging Rock rises to 2150 feet elevation. The park is 30 miles (48 km) north of Winston-Salem, 2 miles from Danbury. The Sauratown Mountain Range is made of monadnocks (or inselbergs, isolated hills) from erosion-resistant quartzite remnants of mountains pushed up between 250 and 500 million years ago, that are separated from the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains.

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North Carolina: Durham, Duke & Eno River State Park

Photos around Durham, North Carolina, include: gothic spires of Duke University Chapel, Duke Gardens (Muscovy Duck, Great Blue Heron eating fish, lily pond reflections, orange mushroom, Sugar Maple vibrant autumn colors), and fall foliage colors reflected in Eno River State Park.

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North Carolina: Outer Banks

The Outer Banks are a 200-mile (320-km) long string of narrow barrier islands in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North Carolina. Photos include: Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, Bodie Island Lighthouse, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, sea shells, skate egg case, and bird tracks in sand dune patterns.

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The following photos from Mammoth Cave, Kentucky on October 25, 2010 include: fall foliage color, Historic Entrance panoramas, stairways, formations, cave cricket, wild turkey, green algae on white fungus covering a tree trunk, and scenic drive. In 1981, UNESCO honored Mammoth Cave National Park as a World Heritage Site.

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West Virginia

The following photos of West Virginia include: New River Gorge Bridge and boardwalk, Hawks Nest State Park views of New River, Babcock State Park, Glade Creek Grist Mill, barn with silo and farm amidst fall leaf colors, Green Bank Radio Telescope, map of the National Radio Quiet Zone, Harpers Ferry Armory, John Brown’s Fort, 1833 St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, Jefferson Rock, Hilltop House, Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad Crossings bridges on the Potomac River, funny dogs looking through window cut in fence.

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Recommended Southeast USA guidebooks from

Compare Pentax K20D, Nikon D90, D60

Pentax K20D is good for Nepal trekking, but Nikon D90 mounts 18-200 VR lens and D60 is lighter. Lens angle of view factor.

Question from Brian to tom @, September 2008

…I will be going on a trek to the Everest region in spring of 2009.  I am really excited about the trip.  I have been thinking about adding on the Gokyo Lakes trek also.  This is how I happened across your web site.  Your images are truly incredible.  BY FAR the best I have seen.  So, thanks for your site!  Your images have convinced me to add on the Gokyo Lakes trek to the Everest Base Camp trek.  After all, when will be the next time I will have this opportunity?  The web is a pretty amazing creation isn’t it?  I am looking forward to the trip.  I will have to buy a new camera for it.  I have been using an old Pentax PZ-1p for a long time.  I am looking at the Pentax D20 which operates on double A batteries as opposed to Lithium cells.  Do you have an opinion on that?  I guess I think it would be easier to carry around a lot of double A instead of trying to charge or replace the Li cells.  I have about 4 lens but for ease I am thinking of 28-90mm and 100-300mm.  These lenses are not that fast so maybe the 50 mm 1.4 lens.  Thanks again for your art, it is breathtaking and inspirational (heck, it has convinced me to do an add on trek!)  Have a great weekend, Brian — Friday Sept 26, 2008

Tom Dempsey answers

Hi Brian: the view from the peak of Gokyo Ri in Nepal is very spectacular and worth the effort!  Annapurna Sanctuary was also spectacular and actually more enjoyable due to lower altitude (only 14,000 ft) and fewer days on the trail.

Nepal Trekking Tip: I recommend wearing a scarf over your mouth to keep out dust and better hydrate each breath in the high altitude air, to reduce the “Khumbu cough” that nearly everyone experiences above 10,000 feet elevation..

Here is a full review of the Pentax K20D, where gives their highest rating “Highly Recommended”:

  • Read the detailed review of Pentax K20D:
  • “Robust body with dust and weather seals, high build quality.”
  • Dust reduction by anti-static coating and optional sensor ‘shake’. Dust alert makes sensor cleaning simpler.
  • Not so good: “The live view mode is neither as seamless as Sony’s implementation nor as useful for tripod-based work as Olympus’s and consequently feels like a feature that has been added purely to make the camera more marketable.” (Live view is a feature new to DSLR cameras, a bonus, previously found in most compact digital cameras.)
  • The extra megapixels in the K20D (14.6 mp) don’t gain any enlargement quality advantage over the competing Canon Rebel Xsi/450D, or Nikon D90 (12 mp each).
  • For me, the biggest problem of the Pentax K20D (and Nikon D90) is the weight: body with battery: 800 grams (1.7 pounds).

If you are going to get a camera that heavy, 1.7 pounds, I recommend considering the Nikon D90 (specifications on which weighs the same, has similar price, has useful live view, shoots HD movies (which the Pentax doesn’t do). For travel, consider mounting the Nikon D90 with the all-in-one wonder lens, like I use on every trip: Nikkor AF-S DX VR 18-200mm 3.5-5.6G IF-ED lens (20 ounces / 560 grams; new in 2006; about $800) which lets you hand hold images in up to 4-stops dimmer light, using Vibration Reduction (VR). No lens changing required!  I hardly ever use a tripod now, which is a big change for me from earlier cameras. Pentax doesn’t offer an equivalent high quality, image stabilized lens, so far as I have heard.

To save 8 ounces of weight, you might consider the Nikon D60 (17 ounce camera, with battery), which I currently use exclusively along with the Nikkor 18-200mm VR travel lens. I may later add a longer telephoto for better animal photography. The D60 plus 18-200mm VR lens is only 38 ounces.

For batteries, I buy enough rechargeable batteries to last the time I am away from power, like two weeks for Nepal. (11 batteries was more than enough — I only used about 6 batteries before recharging). I get about 400 shots per charge on the Nikon D60 and D40X. (Keep a spare warming in your pocket for temperatures below 45 F., and change it every ten minutes if temperatures are near freezing.)

Have a great trip!  — Tom Dempsey, photographer, Seattle, Washington

Brian’s Question: I have a 28-90 (42-135 digital equivalent) that I use most of the time.  On a trip like this, do you think additional zoom capability is necessary? or is 135mm enough?  Could always swap out with a 100-300mm, but like yourself I am a minimalist and on the trip I would rather not worry too much about camera equipment and having to deal with filters (UV and polarizer only)…

Tom Answers: I would definitely bring more zoom power on this trip of a lifetime to Nepal. (I rarely used polarizer in Nepal, because at high altitude the polarized sky turns too black, and it flattens the image appearance too much.)

Brian’s Question: Regarding an 18-55mm lens sold with a camera kit, is that a real 18-55 or is it a 27-83mm based on the conversion? Also, are the available lenses designed to focus light on the digital light sensor for digital SLR, and not film emulsion?  Are our older lens that we used for film less “effective” when mounted on a DSLR because they have not been designed for a sensor rather film?

Tom Answers: Many photographers like using the heavier conventional lenses on their APS-C cameras, because they save money, and they only use the sweet spot in the center of the lens, for sharp, undistorted images. The newer lenses “designed for digital” “or designed for APS-C” usually capture equal quality images, with less weight and bulk. In my opinion, using either the old or new lenses, the latest APS-C DSLR cameras capture much better quality than scanning 35mm film. Please confirm quality differences with specific lens reviews:

The sensor size determines the angle of view conversion factor (to give you the equivalent angle of view of a film camera lens shooting 35mm size film). APS-C size cameras have a sensor about 24×16 mm, such as the Pentax K200 or K100 (or Nikon D60 or Canon digital Rebel). Divide 35mm by 24mm and you get about a 1.5x angle of view conversion (or some call it focal Length Multiplier; or others call it a field of view crop factor), when using 35mm film camera (“full frame”) lenses on an APS-C sensor camera. Good explanation:

If you are accustomed to 35mm film terminology, when you buy a digital APS-C camera coming with a lens labeled as a 18-55mm real focal length, then you can know that it captures an angle of view equivalent to a 27-83mm lens on a “conventional” film camera (multiply by 1.5x). Most digital SLRs can use conventional 35mm lenses. But such lenses are designed to create an image circle that covers a 35mm film frame and are therefore larger and heavier than necessary for sensors which are smaller than a 35mm film frame. ‘Digital’ lenses (such as Canon EF-S lenses, Nikon DX Lenses, Olympus 4/3″ System) are lighter because their image circles only cover the sensor area.”

Pentax K20d first impressions

Brian’s followup January 13, 2009 to Tom Dempsey:

Well, I received the Pentax k20d from B and H last week.  I spent about three days with the manual and playing with the menus, custom functions and in general screwing around with the camera to get familiar with it.  It is quite similar to the Pentax PZ-1p that I have used for years.  This camera is well built, solid feel in my hands.  Has plenty of features that I will make use of while not bogged down with complicated functions of a pro camera.  The camera functions well mechanically and the image stabilization works well.  All in all, a great camera at a fantastic price.  If I used Canon or Nikon prior to this I would stay with those brands but as a Pentax user, the K20d delivers the goods to the market it was designed for.