Every ecosystem presents nature photographers with unique challenges. If the number of photographers who focus exclusively on West Texas is any indication, the Chihuahuan Desert may fairly be said to present more than its share. Though the largest desert in North America, few photographers focus exclusively on this region. The reasons for this neglect are not entirely clear but several come to mind.
One is the geology of the region. The Chihuahuan Desert is primarily a basin-and-range desert lying atop limestone. Mountains are small and widely spaced – there are no snow-covered mountaintops to be found here – they never rise above the timberline. The mountains are nonetheless “rugged.” Foot travel is difficult owing to the thick, thorny brush that usually grows on the slopes. Footing is treacherous. The plant cover is insufficient to hold the soil, so rocks slip out from underfoot – slips and falls are common. Then too, the vast expanses of flat basin topography must appear boring to many photographers.
Since limestone is white, most of the area has little in the way of colorful rock to attract the eye. Mountain peaks, cliffs, creek beds – all are light-colored. And unlike sandstone, limestone does not weather in a dramatic fashion, so the sweeping curves and striated bands of color that make Utah so popular are not to be found here.
All desert climates tend to discourage casual visitors. Native residents are accustomed to blistering summers, bone-chilling winters, and very little in between, but others are not. No shade protects summer hikers, there is little shelter of any kind to be found, and the winds are legendary. Hurricane force winds may blow for days on end raising dust clouds that keep even the most hearty indoors. In the north, visitors “wait out” snowstorms – in the Chihuahuan Desert visitors wait out the dust. Being outside in some of these “blows” can be downright dangerous. Hikers have been blown off of trails in the Guadalupe Mountains, tractor-trailer trucks blown off bridges and RV’s overturned. People who find themselves vacationing in these conditions can be forgiven for wanting never to return.
Forget about photographing water. Sparkling streams, placid lakes, waterfall, shores – nope. We ain’t got much water round these here parts. You’ll just have to get over it.
Then there is the fact that the Chihuahuan Desert doesn’t look like what most people expect. Sand dunes are rare and we have no Saquarro cacti. This is the most heavily vegetated desert in North America. During the rainy season many newcomers would be hard pressed to recognize the area as a desert at all. In the next photo you can see just how green it can get out here.
Late summer is the “monsoon” season, sometimes referred to as the “Fifth Season.” The rains tend to come in the form of violent, and visually dramatic storms. If you’re willing to be out in the storms, the Chihuahuan skies may reward you with some spectacular shots.
In many ways, vegetation controls the visual appearance of this area. It softens the lines of hills and mountains. It obscures interesting ground patterns. It covers everything with dense, complex textures that are difficult to render with small format photography. But it also gives color, form, and character to the landscape. Fortunately, Chihuahuan vegetation grows in unique and interesting shapes – shapes that hold true throughout the year. For example, visually speaking, Ocotillo is distinctly Ocotillo whether green and in bloom or not.
Our vegetation tends to be small – we have few trees. If you’re looking for spring wildflowers you’ll find them here, but you should watch the ground carefully everywhere you go. A close look will reveal a world of delicate beauty that exists only on a diminutive scale. The tiny Candellia blossom, for example, is only 2 or 3 mm across, but it is worth photographing nonetheless. Just bring your macro lens!
You may find larger flowers in depressions and along the bottoms of stream beds. Even so, they are likely to be no more than a few inches tall.
Winter in the Chihuahuan Desert has its own special charm. Though colors tend to be muted, textures are clearer due to lack of foliage and many of the slope and mesa plant communities change color to a caramel palette.
Snow is rare here, but when it happens it finds a world of fascinating vegetative shapes to fall on.
Best of all, in winter the sun is low in the sky through much of the day, and side lighting tends to make almost any picture better. Winter is the time to shoot those vast landscapes with breathtaking skies.
Plant lovers will find much to enjoy even in the summer. Just remember that the heat here is dangerous. When you come to the parks, read all the visitor guidelines carefully and take them to heart. For the prepared, there’s little to worry about – for the unprepared … well, maybe we’d better not go there.
So come on out to West Texas. Be prepared, and keep your eyes open. Much of the Chihuahuan’s beauty may be an acquired taste, but anyone with open eyes and open mind can come to love it here. I hope you’re one of them.