The Vermilion Cliffs, which straddle the Utah-Arizona border, are part of the Grand Staircase. This is a huge feature on the Colorado Plateau, a series of long, east-west trending cliff bands separated by plateaus. The “staircase” steps down to the south, ending on a very large step – the Grand Canyon.
Much of the Grand Staircase is covered by a National Monument of the same name. This means it is largely protected. Not as much protection as a national park, but off-limits to activities like oil drilling and mining. Cattle ranching still takes place.
By the way I did a 4-part series on the Grand Staircase last year. Check out Part I (overview), Part II (geology), Part III (travel tips), and Part IV (highlights, including tips for slot canyon hiking).
The Grand Staircase occupies geographic center of some of the American southwest’s most beautiful and famous scenery. For example, the topmost step is made up of the Pink Cliffs. These form the colorful rocks of Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. Zion National Park is on the west side of the Staircase and Capital Reef National Park is on the east. Lake Powell toward the SE occupies Glen Canyon. As the Vermilion Cliffs drop down toward Page, Arizona, the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs National Monument covers a fairyland of strange rock formations and slot canyons.
The picture below captures a scene found along the western end of the Vermilion Cliffs, well away from the more popular parks. The snow-covered pasture in the foreground is part of the ranch land surrounding Colorado City, Arizona. The temperature was quickly dropping as the sun went down here. It was clear and cold!
Colorado City is one of America’s last havens for polygamy (multiple wives). Many hard-core Mormons live here in the so-called Arizona Strip (the land between Grand Canyon and the Utah border). It’s a quiet community. They like to be left alone with their lovely view of the Vermilion Cliffs.
I’ve been kicking around some thoughts on this subject lately. Photo workshops have been multiplying like rabbits lately, and I’ve been pondering the reasons for this. Since I do mostly nature, landscape and travel photography, I will focus on those. But the ideas in this and the next post apply equally to other types of photography. I will follow this with one on workshops in particular next Friday Foto Talk.
If you’re interested in any of these images (which are copyrighted and not available for free download without my permission) please contact me. If you click on them you will go to either the image (e.g. at top) or my image galleries. But since internet access is quite slow for image download where I am, it may be awhile before most of these are on my site. I would feel honored, however, to satisfy any last-minute holiday gift needs on a personal basis. Just let me know. Thanks!
Too Many Guides or Not Enough?
The answer may be yes and yes: Too many; not enough good ones. But let me start with what got me thinking about all this in the first place. On trips like the one I’m on right now, in national parks and other natural areas, I’ve noticed people being, for want of a better word, uncomfortable. Many people don’t seem to be sure of what to do or where to go. I’ve caught some even following me, which annoys me but shouldn’t. To me this suggests that many travelers need a guide.
In parks, most people go to the visitor center and ask a ranger, then go directly to the suggested locale. On the way to the trail or viewpoint, they ignore the natural curiosity they have about things glimpsed out of the corners of their eyes. They ignore the kid in them trying to get out.
Traveling photographers tend to do some pretty focused internet research, and that helps. But the most common mistake of all (one I’ve been guilty of) often gets in the way. That is, people tend to include too much in their itineraries. They don’t appreciate how big the world is, how much is relatively unknown and un-photographed, and how much time it takes to check an area out in enough depth to photograph it well. As a result of this unawareness, a lot of photographers settle for replication of over-shot subjects.
All sorts of travelers, including photographers, often plan a trip as a series of stops. They end up too focused on destination as opposed to journey. I don’t think they are aware of this most of the time. The right kind of guide (sadly few and far between) can help out. A good guide will walk the line between in-depth experience and efficiently visiting as many places as feasible. They will allow time for unplanned stops. And yet so many people, if asked, would insist that they do not need a guide. Americans especially are independent minded, almost to a (foolish) point. But so many don’t pair that trait with its natural partner, the ability to strike off in a direction that’s different from the crowd.
American parks are really set up for the independent, road-tripping, overlook-hopping traveler. Contrast this picture with the tour group. In popular scenic areas there are plenty of groups too. Unfortunately, most are too large (think buses with backup alarms!), but that’s beginning to change.
We all love to look down our noses at tour groups don’t we? The problem with this attitude is that it ignores the inconvenient fact that these people (they aren’t always Asian either!) are simply being honest about their unfamiliarity with the area. They’re logically using their limited time rather wisely. Who’re the smart ones? I occasionally use guides when I’m overseas, but probably not as much as I should.
I’m lucky to have the sense of direction, map-reading and observational skills that years of geologic fieldwork will give anyone. But in civilized areas it’s a different story. Unless I have a definite itinerary I’m at a bit of a loss. Even in my hometown Portland, where there are countless diversions, I’m guilty of not taking advantage of all the city offers. In natural areas it’s a different story. I know what I want to do. If it’s a new place I want to explore; if I’ve been there before I want to revisit favorite spots and explore where I haven’t yet been.
I don’t brag about this. I’m just pointing out that not all people are at the same place in life. We don’t all have the same background or experiences. I’ve been lost countless times and Lost only a handful. The difference between the two? You can, at least subconsciously, wish to get lost, all the while having confidence in the ability to find your way back after you’ve had your fill of wandering. But being Lost is far different and never happens except accidentally. If for you being lost is always the same and always a bad thing, then I think you could sometimes use a guide.
Don’t forget to tune in next Friday for a follow-up post where we’ll dive into photography workshops: pros & cons; how to decide if they’re for you, etc. Thanks again for reading and have a fantastic weekend!
I’ve mentioned slickrock before on this blog. It is that sculpted and smooth sandstone that with few exceptions (Cappadocia, Turkey springs to mind) seems to be a unique feature of the American desert southwest. For hiking and mountain biking it can’t be beat. There’s a freedom you feel on it, no trail, exploring at whim. Because of its friction, you can walk or bike on crazy steep angles. On any other surface you would quickly slip and fall on your behind. If this happened around these parts you just might wind up making a mess thousands of feet below.
So if slickrock is so sticky for sneakers and bike tires, why on earth is it called slickrock? The name goes back to pioneer days, when white explorers, miners and cowboys first traveled through this canyon country. Their horses, shod with steel horseshoes, found it nearly impossible to gain any kind of purchase on this rock. Horses can do much better on it with the hooves Mother Nature gave them, but shod they might as well be on an ice-skating rink.
This image I shot while riding my mountain bike one morning near Moab, Utah. Moab is well known for its slickrock riding. The Slickrock Trail is famous around the world, but since I’ve ridden that “trail” on two previous visits, I skipped it this time. Instead I explored much less crowded slickrock rides a bit further from town. This one, an area called Tusher, is about 18 miles north of Moab. I had it to myself. It’s a great ride, with a bonus: dinosaur bones are weathering out of the rock in the draw on the way up to the slickrock.
I’ve been trying for a picture that gets to the heart of hiking or riding the rollicking roller coaster that is slickrock. I didn’t want a cyclist or hiker in the shot competing with the stone (easy on this day). I also wanted to show both the texture and smooth curves of prime slickrock. I think this image is as close as I’ve come. Please let me know if you like it or not, and why. Don’t be shy if you don’t; my skin is thick.
I hope your weekend is going well!
I hope your Thanksgiving was warm and wonderful! This is the second of a two-part post. Check out Part I. I left off talking about what a traveling photographer should do with all those well-meaning recommendations on what and where to shoot, plus when is the best time of day. Upon entering Arches National Park in Utah, the flier the ranger gives you has one of these lists of where you should consider shooting photos at sunrise and sunset.
Following Recommendations…sort of
After my first day in the park, I got around to reading the flier. Among others, they listed Balanced Rock and (of course) Delicate Arch for sunset. For sunrise, one of the spots on the list was the Windows area. I didn’t know exactly what to think about the list, so I checked out the internet to see what popped up. After Googling “good photo locations for sunrise at Arches”, I came upon definite recommendations on where I should go. The first page of search results all featured the same target: the Windows area. They were more specific than the Park Service in that they recommended a certain composition where North Window frames Turret Arch. Both arches are lighted by front-light from the rising sun, which is over your shoulder.
If you’ve read this blog before, you know what I did with this information. I made a note not to photograph Turret Arch framed by North Window at sunrise. But I didn’t avoid the area at sunrise, far from it. In fact, I think it is a great place to shoot at sunrise and I wound up visiting no less than four times. On that first morning, I went to the recommended spot.
I had that funny feeling you get when you are doing something counter to your personality. But what the heck. I was there very early, I was curious, and only two other groups of people appeared pre-dawn. Unfortunately the light was not great at sun-up. I roamed around to look for other shots and voila! I found some. On subsequent visits to Windows I captured Double Arch, a nice panorama, and some great moonlight shots.
Each of the other mornings I visited the Windows area up to a half dozen photographers were in place before sun-up in order to replicate the picture of Turret Arch through North Window. And this is in low season! The area where you need to set your tripod is small so I imagine in high season competition is fierce. There really isn’t enough room for more than a few photographers.
In Moab, the town near Arches, I saw two framed versions of Turret Arch through North Window. One was in a bank and the other in a cafe. I’m sure there are more hanging around. This is a very popular picture. Is it a good one? Sure. But I think it’s also somewhat two-dimensional. And after shooting in Arches pretty extensively over a week, I know it isn’t even close to being the best picture you can get in the park, at sunrise or any other time. It may not even be the best you can get from the Windows area.
What to Do with Recommendations
So what to do when you’re researching an area you are planning to visit? I recommend not totally ignoring the lists of recommended spots for photography and when to shoot. Check the direction of the sun at your planned time of visit (use the Photographer’s Ephemeris) to see what the angle of light will be. Check at sunrise and sunset; the recommended time to shoot will usually be based on front-light, and you might want to try it back-lit (shooting into the sun).
Also, check maps (or Google Earth) to get an idea of the terrain around the popular subject. If you want to shoot it, don’t hesitate. Go for it. Just realize that anything that is listed very high on a Google search will be over-shot. Period, no exceptions. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find other interesting compositions in the area. It also might be worthwhile to get the recommended shot under unusual conditions (snow, moonlight + stars, etc.). It pays to visit during the day with an idea of where the sun rises and sets. Record the azimuth of sunrise & sunset and bring a compass, or use one of the smartphone apps for this purpose (I go old-school).
By using a map and having a healthy explorer’s spirit, you can often get a different perspective on the popular subject. To illustrate this last way to visit popular photo spots without shooting the same shot everybody else does, let me tell you what I did at another place in Arches National Park: Courthouse Towers.
Shooting a Popular Spot your Way
You will find Courthouse Towers on almost any list of recommended places to shoot at Arches, in this case at sunset. I had checked the area out one morning and noticed a group of people with rock-climbing gear heading out. I watched where they went, up a steep gully. They weren’t using their ropes. Later that day, I hiked/scrambled up the gully and, as I suspected, found out it was a canyoneering area.
Canyoneering (called canyoning in Europe) means hiking up to the top of a canyon and then using ropes to climb/rappel/jump/slide/swim down. I’ve done it a half-dozen times in technical canyons and it’s a blast! The slickrock area at the top turned out to be fairly extensive and easily explored without climbing gear. You do need to be sure on your feet and not too afraid of heights. Best of all for me, it looked to have promise for photographing Courthouse Towers from above.
I got some decent shots on that late afternoon, but I suspected it might be even better at sunrise, shooting into the sun. So I returned a couple mornings later, hiking up by headlamp. While actual dawn was a little disappointing light-wise, once the sun was up I got a few very nice shots, including the ones above & below. I really like the fact this picture shows the majesty of Courthouse Towers, but not with the popular perspective of looking up at them. Instead, this view is downward and includes one of the steep canyons that makes the area popular with the climber/canyoneer crowd.
Now you might or might not be up for doing this kind of exploring. I certainly don’t want to encourage you to get into dicey situations. You normally need to be a fairly confident off-trail hiker to explore for unusual nature photo opportunities. Very important is to stay off of delicate areas. For instance, in the desert southwest, there are extensive areas of biotic soil crust, a living community that is destroyed by boots and bike or jeep tires.
To start out, you should take easier and shorter routes and work slowly towards tougher excursions. Remember if you start getting in over your head you can always turn back and retrace your steps. Rely on your intuition on this. The key, photographically-speaking, is to not have any expectations of certainty.
One thing I’m certain of, however, is that in popular areas such as National Parks, in order to find unique and interesting photos, you simply must be willing to explore, to eschew the shots that have become popular. You might strike out of course. The safe and sure course is to go where other photographers are. I’m not looking down my nose at those photos or the folks who capture them. I simply want to point out there is another way to do it.
As usual, if you are interested in any of these images just click on them. If you get to my galleries and can’t find the one you’re interested in, that means I haven’t uploaded it to my site yet. I will, however, respond immediately to any request you have. Just contact me. I prefer meeting any of your needs with personal attention anyway. Thanks for your interest! This subject has given me some ideas that I’ll share in a post soon, a post that will be a different sort for me. I hope you’ll stay tuned.
To all of my U.S. friends I wish a Happy Thanksgiving. And I send the same wishes to anyone else who might choose this day to give thanks for this wonderful world (and universe!) we all are privileged to live in. (To Canadians, sorry I’m late!) I am most thankful for all of you, who are sticking with me on my blog, even though I’ve not been great about checking out all your blogs while I’ve been on the road. Thanks for this!
With so much food around on Thanksgiving it’s certain there will be leftovers. Leftovers (and specifically turkey sandwiches) were always one of my favorite things about Thanksgiving. So I’m posting this recent image I have titled Arch Leftovers. It’s a picture I captured at Arches National Park in Utah.
When arches form by weathering and erosion from the sandstone fins in Arches and the surrounding region, one question comes up. Where does the rock that occupied the spaces go? Believe it or not, this is a great scientific question. Weathering breaks the blocks that fall from the forming arches into smaller and smaller pieces. Eventually you end up with sand. Since water does run in the desert washes, however infrequently, you’re safe assuming that most of the sand is carried away in streams. Actually, most is transported down to the nearby Colorado in dramatic flash floods.
Because this is a treeless desert region, erosion by wind, though it takes a back seat to water, is quite prevalent. Sand is picked up by strong winds and, like sandpaper, wears away and sculpts the arches and spires in the park. When it has done its job, the sand is unceremoniously dumped, unneeded and forgotten, into dunes.
These are not dunes the size of those in the big sandy deserts of the world. Water carries away much of it before it can accumulate into big dunes. Nevertheless the dunes that do pile into alcoves and niches in the cliffs take on graceful shapes and curves, especially in beautiful late day light. It was windy just before sunset when I shot this, and the blowing sand gives the dunes a certain soft texture.
The first snowstorm of the winter moved across the desert southwest in the past few days. When the desert gets snow, it is announced noisily beforehand by cold and wind. But like most politicians it doesn’t fulfill all its blustery promise with much of a payoff – in this case snow. The first night an inch or two came, and the second about five inches fell. That morning I woke in Capital Reef National Park and there were large flakes slowly falling in a gentle, windless snow. Beautiful.
This particular storm is neither the coldest nor the snowiest I have seen in these parts. But for November its not bad. Since I can remember I’ve enjoyed weather like this. I always think it passes too quickly in the western U.S. Alaska is the only place I’ve ever lived where weather like this can hang on for weeks. This weather cay yield great pictures, but I can’t say I like messing with camera gear in cold, wet conditions. I will post a Friday Foto Talk on how to deal with this potentially damaging issue surrounding winter shooting.
As I write this the weather has returned to typical conditions for the desert southwest; that is, cloudless blue skies. Have a great week!