Big Bend or Bust!

Our first day in West Texas started early as we departed our hotel at 5 am. The drive to Big Bend National Park from Alpine, TX is around an hour and half which gave us plenty of time to load up on coffee and good conversation. As we were driving along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, a 30.9 mile road located in the center of the park that is primarily used for biking and scenic driving, we saw an opportunity to get some great shots of the sunrise, and we took it. We all looked on (and even helped when he would let us) as Mark Burns unloaded his meticulously packed car on the side of the road and began to set up his equipment to capture the perfect shot of the sun just over the horizon. Mark showed us the process of how he plans his shots: setting up his camera…

…checking the light with a light meter…

SHSU, LEAP Center, Big Bend, Mark Burns

and snapping a quick shot with an old Polaroid camera.

SHSU, LEAP Center, Big Bend, Mark Burns

After getting a few great shots, we loaded back up and began scouting a new spot to get some footage. We found a new location at the Sotol Vista Overlook, that was also right off of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, to get some great shots of Mark Burns driving on the winding road below. The Sotol Vista Overlook provides a spectacular view of the western side of Big Bend National Park and offered a beautiful but hazy view of Burro Mesa due to a fire located in the Upper Burro Mesa.


Next, we headed to the Boquillas Canyon Overlook where we found a rock covered in handcrafted, wire and bead knick-knacks shaped as road runners, peacocks and cacti.

We all picked out our favorite piece to take home as souvenirs. We even got to meet the two men who made them. Each day, they wade across the Rio Grande River from Mexico to replenish their supply and collect any money people have left for them in a weighted-down water bottle. Just as we were loading up the car for our next location, Mark stopped us because he saw a perfect opportunity to take a photo of the Canyon. We were able to see Mark use what is called a cable shutter release. A cable shutter release is a cable plugged into the camera and is able to release the shutter with a limited amount of movement to the camera. This is especially helpful when the camera is set to a long shutter speed. Watching Mark work with different tools is always interesting to watch.



We hit the road again until Maggie and Anne then got a spark of bravery (re: ignorance) and scaled an old stone tunnel to get the perfect aerial shot of Mark entering and exiting the tunnel.

After risking it all on the crumbling stones, we decided to take a break from our Evil Kinevil like stunts and stop for a quick picnic. At the Rio Grande Village, we stopped at the visitor’s center and ate a quick lunch while Mark told more stories.


After lunch, Mark suggested we visit the Hot Springs. We came across a hike down to the Hot Springs trail which, if I am being honest, was not as impressive as I had hoped. The trail is a 1.1 mile loop that is classified as easy, is moderately trafficked and is primarily used for hiking, biking and bird watching. We decided to do a little off road exploring to get a better view of the Rio Grande river.

SHSU, LEAP Center, Big Bend, Anne Jamarik, Maggie Denena, Peyton Reed

The Springs were murky and muddy, so we decide not to get in, but there were a few brave tourists who were swimming when we approached. The coolest aspect of the Hot Springs Trail was the old  General Store that had been run down to ruins.

SHSU, LEAP Center, Big Bend, Hot Springs, General Store

Mark snapped a quick photo of the old structure with his old Polaroid camera.

After hiking to the springs, we loaded into the car and drove to Sana Elena Canyon. While on our way, a torrential downpour left us feeling less than confident about the views and the photos we would be able to get of the Canyon. Never the less, we found a way to have fun and admire the views that Sana Elena Canyon had to offer.


After the muddy mess of an adventure, we were back to work at Balanced Rock. As we hiked up to the incredible view, we saw many multi colored lizards that we were sure to capture close photos of.

SHSU, LEAP Center, Big Bend, Balanced Rock

We took a few stops on our way up the mountain and got to ask Mark about some of his favorite national parks and most unique experiences. Mark told us amazing stories about the wild life in Alaska and the underwater photographs he got to take while in Florida at Biscayne National Park. While Mark was telling stories, Anne ran back to the car to grab a microphone and ran into two javelinas. Once we reached Balanced Rock, we listened as Mark described his last visit to the area four years ago when he captured the photo used in the National Parks Photography Project. The lighting and cloud coverage was perfect, something Mark did not have when he originally took his photo of Balanced Rock. Mark placed his camera tripod in the same exact spot it had been four years prior and snapped a beautiful picture of Balanced Rock.

SHSU, LEAP Center, Big Bend, Balanced Rock, Mark Burns

Maggie got brave and scaled a large rock to get an aerial shot of Mark as he talked about his previous trips to Big Bend. After many great shots from Balanced Rock, we headed back down the trail as the sunset, which offered the perfect view as we ended our day. We loaded up the car one last time and made our way back to the hotel, in preparation of another busy day–exploring Alpine and Marfa, Texas–ahead of us.


Big Bend Bound: Via San Antonio

By Maggie Denena,

The LEAP Center arrived in San Antonio around noon today and stopped for lunch at a local treasure, Mi Tierra. After navigating through the city to a public parking lot, we made our way around the block to the Historic Downtown Market, where Hispanic heritage runs thick. We checked into Mi Tierra with a 30 minute wait list, so we made the most of it by visiting the local shops and stands.

There were quite a few interesting characters, including but not limited to a dancing lady…

SHSU, LEAP Center, Mi Tierra, Market Square

…and a Hispanic Elvis, plus the local food stands smelled amazing. Finally, we made our way back to Professor Yawn in the restaurant lobby just in time: our wait buzzer went off and we were ready to be seated. The restaurant was very colorful, with lights and banners running along the ceiling and walls.


Once we sat down, we all spent a quiet few minutes looking though the menu—everything sounded so good it was hard to make a decision. Professor Yawn ordered queso flameado and guacamole for the table. The queso flameadio was so thick we had cheese-pull competitions, and the guacamole was some of the best I’ve ever had. I ordered the lunch special, enchiladas, but I was so full from our appetizers that I was only able to finish one of the two on my plate. I now understand why the restaurant was so packed!

After we had all that we could possibly eat, we headed out for another stroll through the market, where we found a mechanical bull.  Of course, I couldn’t resist! 

SHSU, LEAP Center, Mi Tierra, Market Square, Maggie Denena

After my impromptu rodeo, we headed to our next stop, which was the McNay Art Museum.
By Peyton Reed

The first interesting thing I noticed about the McNay Museum is the location. The museum was designed as a large house, with each room holding various paintings that flowed together seamlessly, arranged by various characteristics such as color, technique, period and artist. The winding path to get to the entrance of the museum passed by several sculptures by Robert Indiana, George Rickey, and Alexander Liberman, to name a few.

 The featured exhibition is titled “Immersed,” an interactive and compelling exhibit featuring pieces from Andy Warhol, Chris Sauter, and Yayoi Kusama.

The first piece we saw was the piece by Chris Sauter. Walking in to the enclosed space, circle cutouts allow some light to pour into a small living room set up. In the chairs are circle cluster figures, entitled “dopamine molecules” by Sauter, which he made from the wood he cut out of the walls.

SHSU, LEAP Center, McNay Art Museum, Chris Sauter


The Shadow Monster by Phillip Worthington was a playful exhibit. Pool noodles, hula hoops and spinning flower props allowed for interesting additions to our figures as a projector casted outlines of the observer on to the wall with fun twists. Our shadows morphed as we moved, forming eyes, tails and ears and transforming us into magical creatures.

One of the interactive pieces in the museum was a light board with different colored pegs. We did our best to spell out SHSU with the letters.

SHSU, LEAP Center, McNay Art Museum

We took a similar marketing strategy to the sequin boards, also at the patrons disposal, making for a truly immersive experience.

My favorite piece was the Yayoi Kusama piece. We were allowed into an enclosed room lighted by hundreds of hanging candle fixtures.  The walls of the room were covered in mirrors, giving the viewer the perception that the space was infinite.

 Exploring the museum’s permanent collection was also an extremely satisfying experience.

Claude Monet’s “Waterlilies” was my favorite painting among the collection. I was struck by the size of it alone. Since this was my first experience at an art museum, it was amazing to see paintings by Van Gogh, Picasso, and Monet, some of the most well-known and talented artists of all time, all in one place. Another favorite sculpture piece was by Alexander Calder, an artist who specializes in Kinetic art sculptures.

SHSU, LEAP Center, McNay Art Museum, Alexander Calder

 Overall, exploring the McNay museum was an enriching experience that helped me gain a little more familiarity with art.

Zooming through Zion National Park

After a long night at Angel’s Window at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, we woke up latish, and headed to the Zion National Park–the second National Park on our trip.  The drive from Kanab, UT is about an hour, but summer is the busiest season for Zion, so we had to park (nearby parking is $10-$20) and then ride to specific Park destinations on one of their shuttles.

At 147,000 acres, the Zion is a moderate size for a National Park (Big Bend is about five times larger), but access is mostly restricted along one major roadway.  Given that it is the third most visited National Park in the Nation, at 4.5 million visitors, it ranks behind the Smoky Mountains (1) and The Grand Canyon (2) in annual visitors.  With that many people and one major roadway, the going was slow.  The shuttle trip from the Main Visitor Center to our destination was about 30-40 minutes on a crowded bus.

We began at The Temple of Sinawava, which allowed us to access the River Side Walk. This hike lead us to The Narrows, which is a popular trail that goes through water.

SHSU, LEAP Center, Zion, The Narrows Trail

We didn’t plan to go through (much) water, but we were eager to see the water and terrain.  We occasionally stopped to hop along rocks…

SHSU, LEAP Center, Zion, The Narrows Trail, Maggie Denena

…”LEAP” for a photo op…

SHSU, LEAP Center, Zion, The Narrows Trail, Maggie Denena, Ryan Brim, Anne Jamarik

…and enjoy the water that trickled down the mountains and into the stream.

SHSU, LEAP Center, Zion, Hanging Gardens

On our way back to the shuttle stop, we were “attacked” by a hungry squirrel.

The squirrels must be used to being fed by visitors, because this squirrel was fairly bold, and assertively looked for food, going so far as to burrow inside our bag.

From the shuttle, we headed to the Park’s seventh stop, Weeping Rock Trail. The trail was short but had an extreme incline to the viewing area where the water “weeps” from the mountain above. The view was beautiful, but difficult to capture by camera.

SHSU, LEAP Center, Zion, Weeping Wall

From our viewing area–an alcove in the side of the mountain–we sat for several minutes, enjoying the cooler temperatures behind our weeping wall.

We boarded the shuttle again for a short ride to stop six, where we got off to walk The Grotto, a short trail to the Lodge at stop five. This was our least favorite hike, although we did get to see a deer that seemed unperturbed by our presence.

We stopped at the Lodge for lunch in the Red Rock Café, which overlooks a large picnic/park area below.  Scores of people filled the area, lounging on the grass or sitting at picnic tables, enjoying the shade. Meanwhile, we enjoyed our burgers, before heading to Emerald Pool Trail.

The Emerald Pool Trail consists of three sections: the lower, middle, and upper trail. We traveled all the way to the upper Emerald Pool Trail, which is approximately 3 miles round trip with an elevation gain of 350 feet.  It was definitely worth the trek: the pools of water and views were beautiful.

Finally, we headed back to the visitor center at the first stop to hike the Watchman Trail for sunset. The Watchman was a fairly moderate hike up and around a mountain that lead to a peak to view the sunset. After seeing part of the sunset and taking photos…

…we gave up and headed back down the trail, exhausted from a day of many hikes.

It was the first time to visit Zion National Park for all the LEAP members and it did not let us down!


Roaming the North Rim: Day Five in Arizona

The first three days of our trip to Arizona involved a rigorous schedule, but we were fueled by the excitement of visiting the Grand Canyon.  That excitement continued today, our fourth day of the trip, as we prepared to see the Desert Watchtower on the South Rim, have lunch at the Cameron Trading Post, and then make a longish drive to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

We began by driving to the far end of the Grand Canyon to see the Desert View Watchtower. Once reaching the tower, we instantly took notice of the interesting and beautiful architectural style of Mary Colter, the woman who has often been deemed “the architect of the southwest”. It almost looks like it was meant to be there, as if nature itself had erected the structure in time.

SHSU, LEAP Center, Grand Canyon, Watchtower

The tower was built in 1932 and has served visitors of the canyon since, providing them with spectacular views of the Grand Canyon and winding Colorado river below.

SHSU, LEAP Center, Grand Canyon, Watchtower

On the first floor there is a large, open area that had several vendors selling jewelry. As the LEAP ambassadors climbed to the second and third floors they viewed the Native American paintings along the walls.

SHSU, LEAP Center, Grand Canyon, Watchtower

Once reaching the forth floor everyone took to the outlook windows to enjoy the unique view of the breath taking beauty that is the Grand Canyon.

SHSU, LEAP Center, Grand Canyon, Watchtower

The Desert View Watchtower was a great start to the busy day ahead, and toward the end of our tour, we were joined by photographer Mark Burns, who was doing photography in the park.

This would be everyone’s last view of the south rim of the Grand Canyon (for now) as we made our way to the north rim, and it was far from a disappointment.

SHSU, LEAP Center, Grand Canyon, Watchtower, Mark Burns

Although we still had much to do, we also had to eat.   The Cameron Trading Post in Cameron, AZ was established in 1911, making it older than the establishment of the nearby Grand Canyon as a National Park and even the National Park Service. This historical site is where we ate on our way to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The trading post is more than a Native American food restaurant and oversized gift shop, however. There is also a motel, RV park, and authentic hand-crafted Native American art shop, though we were there for one reason: food. Our dishes arrived not long after we ordered them, though the restaurant was busy: Navajo French Dip, Green Chile Stew, Navajo Taco, and Navajo Fry Bread covered in honey.

SHSU, LEAP Center, Cameron Trading Post

We only had a few minutes to look around the enormous gift shop before we had to get back on the road to make it to the North Rim before sunset, so once again, we all loaded in the cars and drove the scenic route to the less visited side of the Grand Canyon.

We arrived at the entrance about an hour before sunset…

SHSU, LEAP Center, North Rim Grand Canyon, Angel's, Bright Angel Point

….and we maximized our time by exploring Bright Angel Point, a short (.5 miles) but scenic .5 mile hike. Though not long, the Bright Angel Point Trail had large changes in elevation and offered several incredible vantage points of the vast canyon…

SHSU, LEAP Center, North Rim Grand Canyon, Angel's, Bright Angel Point

….and at sunset, the colors in the layer of the rock revealed themselves, especially the reds.

SHSU, LEAP Center, North Rim Grand Canyon, Angel's, Bright Angel Point

The views were incredible, and we also took advantage of the many rock outcroppings to gain even better views!

SHSU, LEAP Center, North Rim Grand Canyon, Angel's, Bright Angel Point

…and to pose for photos.

SHSU, LEAP Center, North Rim Grand Canyon, Angel's, Bright Angel Point

It was a beautiful hike, and a good introduction to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  It was the first time that any of us had been there and we were duly impressed.

SHSU, LEAP Center, North Rim Grand Canyon, Angel's, Bright Angel Point

Following our hike that finished at sunset, we still had a long day ahead of us.  Our plan was to assist Mark Burns with some basic photography (mostly carrying equipment) as he continued work on photos for his Grand Canyon Exhibit, which will open at the George Bush Presidential Library in 2019.

Burns’s objective on this evening was to shoot the Milky Way over “Angel’s Window” in the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  To that end, we were with him from approximately 9:30pm until 1:30am.  Although summer, it occasionally got cold on this rim promontory, with the temperatures dipping to the low 50s.  This wasn’t freezing, but it could be chilly.

We learned a lot by watching, and we enjoyed the immense beauty of the night sky.

SHSU, LEAP Center, North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Angel's Window, Mark Burns, Milky Way

We observed about a dozen shooting stars, and we practiced shooting in the dark.

SHSU, LEAP Center, North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Angel's Window, Mark Burns, Milky Way

Although this proved difficult, it gave us much to think about.

SHSU, LEAP Center, North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Angel's Window, Mark Burns, Milky Way

It was approximately 1:18am, when Mark got the shot he wanted, and it was a good one (attend his opening exhibition to see it!).

SHSU, LEAP Center, North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Angel's Window, Mark Burns, Milky Way

With that, we left for Kanab, Utah, where we would be spending the “night.”  Given that it was two hours and fifteen minutes away, it was more like we were spending the morning there.  But with a big day at Zion the next day, we were eager to get whatever sleep we could, so we finally settled into the hotel around 5am, for a couple of hours of sleep with pleasant, star-filled dreams.

Ambling Across Arizona

By: Anne Jamarik and Maggie Denena

Today, LEAP Center students hiked up to Devil’s Bridge in Sedona, Arizona. With narrow spaces and lots of steep “steps”, the hike up was slightly more challenging than our previous hike, but we knew the payoff would be worth it. The trail was steep but offered shady spots that we took advantage of when we would stop to admire the red rock of the canyon (and catch our breaths). The narrow path was lined with prickly pear cacti, tall century plants and hikers sitting to get some water and rest for a moment. Once we made it to the top of the bridge, we knew all the climbing had been worth it. The views from Devil’s Bridge were breathtaking.SHSU, LEAP Center, Sedona, Devil's Bridge


Just as we began feeling brave, we met a man who asked us to take a photo of him doing a handstand on top of the narrow bridge, putting us all to shame.

SHSU, LEAP Center, Sedona, Devil's Bridge

While on the bridge, we made a small cairn, which, according to Professor Yawn, officially made us hikers.

SHSU, LEAP Center, Sedona, Devil's Bridge, Maggie Denena, Anne Jamarik


After admiring the views from Devil’s Bridge, we began the trek down, but not without a few pitstops. We went down and caught a quick glimpse of the bridge from below.

SHSU, LEAP Center, Sedona, Devil's Bridge, Maggie DenenaThe trip down seemed much easier as we were all still so amazed at what we had just experienced.


After a quick bite to eat at The Wildflower Bread Company in Flagstaff, Arizona, the LEAP center explored the town square. The square on Friday evenings is vibrant with people shopping and eating at the unique food joints.


We visited a cool little bookstore where there was a live performance from a local band while the small crowd sang along to a song about mermaids.

After our group slowly made our way around the store reading the back of books and discussing ones we’ve read, we headed to a local favorite co-op art gallery and window shopped. Unfortunately, the gallery was closed, but we were still able to admire the beautiful works of art within. Next, we headed to a mystical store called Crystal Magic, where we all shared a few laughs about the shops interesting perspective. We continued our way around the square admiring local cuisine and the different types of people around each corner. Finally, we made our way through their local mall, which offered fashion of all types and a fun candy shop. I had never tried chocolate covered orange peels and surprisingly liked them! One thing I thought was interesting about Flagstaff was how active the square was on a Friday night, there were people everywhere! It really added to the fun and easy-going vibe of the town. I thought it was neat how all the restaurants were locally owned, each offering their own unique menu.  Flagstaff is a town I would enjoy visiting again and hopefully trying out a few of the favorite food joints.