Last weekend, Jen and I decided to use the slower-than-normal weekend to set out on a hike in the Austin area. I have had a book sitting on the shelf for a few years, 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles of San Antonio & Austin, that we browsed through to find something close enough and long enough. Most of the hikes were too short (~3 miles), and some were a bit far away.
Pace Bend fit the bill, though: the route there was to be about 5 miles, and Pace Bend is relatively close to us. It is SW of Austin abutting Lake Travis. We're on the SW end of Austin as it is, so it was just a short (20-30 minute) drive west on 71 to get there.
The book includes a map of the intended hike. It did not show the full Pace Bend trail system, but rather a trace of the out-and-back route it wanted us to take. It had us taking Grisham Trail (one of the main park roads once you enter) to the trail head. From there, we memorized the basic left/left/right/left sort of sequence we'd need to take to stay on the path. We drove a bit farther than we expected, but eventually saw a sign that read 'TRAILHEAD' and saw a rough parking lot. It was mostly full of mountain bikers loading and unloading; there looks to be plenty of good singletrack there.
We started hiking, and started encountering trail markers like this:
You can see the number marker on the post. When we drove into the park, the gate guard gave us a trail map. It has waypoints denoted by these numbers, but is pretty sparse otherwise; it doesn't label the trail segments by name (as you can see on this marker: 'Pack Trail' and 'North Quarry'). Jen thought the map must be wrong or out of date in some way, as she thought 'the numbers don't line up with the map'. We pressed on.
The early hiking was pretty rocky, but quickly transitioned into some nice shaded packed singletrack, akin to the easier parts of Walnut Creek. Despite a bit of rain in early winter, it's still pretty dry:
The map's numbers started to make sense, and after we'd hiked a few miles, we headed back for the trail head to get to the car. The trial posts were pretty sparse, but we were able to follow the numbered waypoints to point ourselves back to the Southeast Trailhead.
One problem: we made it to the trail head (going by the numbers)...but our car was not there. In fact, there was no parking lot, and no sign saying 'Southeast Trailhead'. We started to wonder if we'd interpreted the map completely wrong, if we were actually somewhere else on the map, and what direction we should head. After a while, the trails look like a never-ending maze of this:
Pretty, but a bit confusing if you're trying to figure out which direction to point yourself. We soon realized (we were pretty sure) our mistake: we HAD reached the SE Trailhead. However, we had not parked there...we must have passed that on our drive in somehow, and instead parked at the East or North trail head. The park map did not have the parking lot(s) labeled, so we had no way to know which of the two it really was. In any case, we thought our best bet was to head back to the SE Trailhead that we found and had earlier left (not being sure it really was where we should go, in our confusion). Grisham runs right by the SE Trailhead..so if we were where we now thought we were, we should just go to the road and walk along the road north. If we were right, we'd see the same things we saw on our drive in.
Sure enough...we started recognizing landmarks, and eventually the RV/improved campsite area that was shortly before the place we parked (which turned out to be the East Trailhead). The map below is marked up to show where we really entered, followed by all sorts of wandering around the spaghetti in the middle, and finally popping out on the bottom right of the map...only to walk along the road back to where we started.
Oops. Our guess is that we hiked 7 or maybe 8 miles, instead of the 5 we were expecting. Well, now we know for next time. It is somewhat understandable: the SE entrance has no parking lot and no sign of any kind, so I have no idea how we would have found that entrance from the car even if we knew to look for it. The East Trailhead was the first one with a sign and with somewhere to park the car. The trails did look great for biking, so we'll surely be back with our bikes next time...
Among my Christmas gifts, I received gift certificates towards some additional camera gear (it is for Adorama). With this money, I plan on picking up a new lens. The gift money would cover all of some of the options and leave me a bit short on some of them. However, if I have to kick in a bit extra to get what I decide is the 'right' choice, it's well worth it (and much cheaper than if I had to pay for the whole thing).
I had a few lenses on my Christmas list already (we have a big shared Google Docs spreadsheet for the whole family), only some of which are even remotely realistic; I don't expect anyone to actually get me the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM:
The 70-200 is a very versatile focal length and the above is a fabulous lens that I'd love to own at some point. I rented (much cheaper, much ligher) the f/4 IS version for our trip to the UK this August from LensRentals. I borrowed Matt's original version of the 70-200 2.8 IS for our honeymoon.
I do not own a macro lens yet, and am interested in macro work. The IS present in the L version is supposed to be stellar, and it seems like it would make handheld shooting much more feasible; it would be nice to avoid having to relegate macro shots almost entirely to the tripod.
The Tamron was picked just to serve as a do-it-all travel lens. It could work for trips on which I don't have the space to pack a few lenses, or if were were out on a day trip without any foreknowledge of what I'd be shooting.
Santa did not bring any lenses (although he did bring some nice photography accessories, like a Vello ShutterBoss and a pan/tilt head for my tripod), but he did bring these gift cards to use for photography equipment. I thought about the macro lens (as well as its 100mm non-IS, non-L little brother) and the Tamron, and the more I looked...the more I decided to nix the Tamron from contention. It seems that (aside from a few "this lens does EVERYTHING!" user reviews) most of the detailed reviews of this lens characterize it as of middling build/durability and good but not great optically. I think the LensRentals commentary best summarized it as a 'compromise lens', and that is probably to be expected in a not-very-expensive super (15x) zoom targeted at crop sensor cameras (of which my 7D is one, admittedly). I may actually end up using it, but I think I'd feel like I was 'being lazy' if I left it on, as opposed to bringing 2 or 3 better-performing lenses.
Somewhere in all of this, I had another thought: what about an ultra-wide? I have really liked landscape photography on our trips, and such lenses are also great for architectural photos during these trips. This complicates the decision greatly, as research suggests 3 contenders:
#1: The Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM. This lens seems to be universally well-reviewed, and seems a bit like my existing 17-55 2.8: L optics/internal construction without an L physical exterior build (or designation); I'm not sure Canon would ever label an EF-S lens an L, in any case.
#2: The Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 ATX Pro DX. A tad less wide than the Canon, but with a constant 2.8 aperture. A full stop better in the best case, with a gap that only grows from there. For landscape photography, the speed is likely irrelevant, but it might be useful for architectural work. The reviews also suggest this thing is built like a tank: optics on par with (some say better) than the 10-22, but with a build more like a Canon L. Its zoom range is so small that it almost feels like buying a prime.
#3: The Sigma 8-16mm f/4.5-5.6 DC HSM. I believe this is the widest rectilinear lens available for crop sensor cameras. It has a bulbous front element (and a fixed hood), so conventional filters aren't usable. This is the slowest, but also the widest.
So....it comes down to 2 decisions, in this order:
Macro, or ultra wide zoom. My existing 17-55 is pretty useful for wide shots as it is...but these options are a lot wider yet. The Canon macro could be used if I moved to full frame one day, whereas all of these ultra wides would only ever pair with crop sensor cameras like my 7D. I'd probably take more shots/would get more use out of an ultra wide than a macro.
If ultra wide, which? I think it's really between the Canon and the Tokina. The 2.8 is attractive, but reviews suggest it's pretty soft at 2.8, and so the aperture advantage is really so great. I have never owned a third party lens, and so also wonder (and see this mentioned in some user reviews) about AF behavior for such lenses versus the genuine Canon. Ken Rockwell raves about the 10-22. Then again, he is sweet on the Tokina, too. I'd welcome any input!
I'm not sure which route I'll go. I am tempted to rent both the Tokina and the Canon ultra wide lenses from LensRentals for a weekend and take a ton of similar shots...and then see if I have any preference for the results after getting them loaded into (and lens corrected) in Lightroom 3. As for the macro, I could rent that as well, picking a different weekend to play around with that.