Archive for November 2012

Valley of Fire, Nevada   4 comments

The Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada has a history of visitors that goes back thousands of years before Sunday drivers from nearby Vegas.

This is Nevada’s oldest and largest state park, located about an hour’s drive from Sin City.  On my way out of southwestern Utah (sad), I turned off Interstate 15 and slept near the entrance to the park.  The stars were affected by the bright half-moon but were nonetheless amazing.  So I did a couple starscapes (see below).  In the morning the sun rose into a clear sky and light became harsh within a half hour.  I captured the photo above about 15 minutes after sunrise.

The fall-blooming desert chicory adds color to Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada.

I had stopped at a small picnic area called Lone Rock, which is at the turnoff for “the cabins”.  There was nobody around, it being early on Black Friday, so the rock was indeed lonely.  But I was joined in spirit by those moccasin-clad travelers of a different age.  It was a big surprise to find these petroglyphs on a rock behind the Lone Rock.  There are other better-known rock art panels throughout this park, like Atlatl Rock on the Petroglyph Canyon Trail.  Park at Mouse’s Tank.  They date from as old as Fremont Basketmaker people, about 3000 years ago, but there is also art from as recent as several hundred years ago.

I stopped at a little pull-off with a sign explaining some geology – pretty basic stuff, of course, but interesting.  I wanted to do a hike into the maze of shallow canyons and slickrock that you view when you stop at Rainbow Vista.  It was still early, with nobody around.  There is a military firing range not too far away, and the boom-boom of the big guns echoed off the rocks.  This is one drawback to a visit here, but quiet does return when they stop.

It was during one of these quiet periods that I heard what sounded like somebody knocking rocks together.  I looked around and finally saw some movement in the distance.  There was a small herd of sheep some 1/2 mile away, and they were running around, making the noise.  I thought I was hearing their hooves knocking on the rocks, but I noticed as I drew closer to them that the rams were butting heads.

A desert bighorn ram at Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada watches for danger as the herd he is part of gets down to the business of mating season.

I stalked closer, using the terrain to conceal myself.  I cursed the fact that my 100-400 lens had been stolen.  In fact, I had only brought my little Canon S95 point and shoot camera with me on the hike, as I thought I would only be shooting pictures of the odd flower or cactus.  Dumb!  I got my first good view of them, but they had seen me first.  Some of the rams had enormous full-curl horns.

Several large rams make up the most obvious part of a November mating herd of desert bighorn sheep in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada.

It was very clearly mating season, and so the extent of their interest in me varied enormously between the sexes.  The females kept leading the herd away from me (there were a couple young ones).  Meanwhile the males only glanced my way from time to time.  I stalked them for quite some time, even crawling on my belly along washes to get close enough.  I was hoping the photos taken with my p & s camera would show more than specks for animals.

Seldom noted during the discussion of the battles between bighorn rams is the point of it all.

Not surprisingly, the pictures did not turn out that well.  I am sitting here right now in Vegas thinking about a return.  I wonder if I could find the herd.  When I finished my bighorn hike and got back to the road, I noticed that traffic had gone from an occasional car to a stream of them.  The horde had arrived from town, having finished their Black Friday morning shopping.  It was actually crowded; such a change from the quiet and empty morning hours.

I left and drove through the enormous desert landscape of Lake Mead Recreation Area.  The lights of Vegas formed a glowing dome above the horizon as the November dusk quickly took over.


Snow Canyon State Park, Utah   9 comments

Near St George, Utah, sunset illuminates Johnson Canyon and the cottonwoods hanging onto their leaves.

I’m being reminded on an almost daily basis why I think this country is the most beautiful in the world.  I haven’t been everywhere of course, and I make the comparison only to highlight the beauty here, not to somehow take away from that spread all across the globe.

The southwestern Utah desert hosts some very coloful lichens which grow on rocks and other surfaces; here at Snow Canyon State Park.

I have yet another playground in this part of the Southwest.  It’s the Utah State Park called Snow Canyon.  No, it’s not named for its climate.  In fact, today was Thanksgiving and Snow Canyon reached about 70 degrees with nothing but sunshine.  Snow is not common here.  It was named for an early Utah family, the Snows.

The basalt lava-rock forming the lowlands here at Snow Canyon State Park, Utah wraps around the older sandstone promontories.

At 7011 acres of canyon country, and only a half hour’s drive from St George, it is one of the best State Parks I know that is near a population center.  Chugach State Park in Alaska, in Anchorage’s backyard, has to take the prize for most awesome State Park near a town (if not most awesome period).

Ancient sand dunes, petrified and laid bare at Snow Canyon State Park in southwestern Utah.

Snow Canyon has very interesting geology and botany.  There are big and bold sandstone monoliths that form cross-bedded petrified sand dunes of the upper Kayenta Formation, along with the Navajo Sandstone.  These two formations, which along with the desert dunes include sands and muds laid down by streams, were formed in the Jurassic, a period when dinosaurs roamed the river valleys and deserts of North America.

Water from springs collects in Snow Canyon, Utah.

The sandstone, though it is much older, stands up above surrounding black lava rock.  Normally, the older rock lies below the younger rock.  Here, because you had lava flowing down an already eroded landscape, there is what geologists call “inverted topography”.  The lowest parts of Snow Canyon are underlain by rocks as young as a few thousand years old, while the highest peaks are close on 200 million years old!  The basalt was extremely fluid when it erupted (indicating a general lack of gases – water – in the lava), and so it sought out the low places between the sandstone outcrops.  There is much time missing between the Navajo Sandstone and the more recent basalt.

The canyon wall in Snow Canyon State Park, Utah, has etched on it the names of some early pioneers.

This unusual geology has resulted in a varied and interesting topography, as well as a nice (for scenery) mix of desert soils and bare outcrop.  The variety starts with color: the sandstone is red and white; the basaltic lava rock nearly black.  The basalt, though it is much younger than the sandstone, has been much more weathered.  So you will see a sandy desert soil over the basalt in the canyon bottom, with a fascinating assemblage of desert plants.  This contrasts starkly with the nearly bare rock of the scenic red sandstone.

Snow Canyon State Park has what is called “inverted topography”, where the much younger basalt lava rock (foreground) lies well below the much older red sandstone.

There are several varieties of cactus, a nice mix of pretty desert shrubs, and a few juniper trees scattered about.  The basalt hosts an enormous variety of beautiful lichen, and the sandstone also has its share of this colorful symbiosis between algae and fungus.  In moist north-facing alcoves, you will find mosses.

The animal life includes coyote and rabbit, along with the occasional mountain lion.  A variety of birds, including spotted towhee, canyon and rock wren, and bluebirds make their homes here.  Yes, you will hear the cascading song of the canyon wren here.

Beavertail cactus, a member of the pricklypear family, is a common sight in Snow Canyon State Park, Utah.

The park also has some history.  Etched in the canyon wall are several pioneer names from the late 1800s.  You know they are real because one of them was named Harman.  Nobody these days names their son Harman!

This is the preferred outdoor workout place for several nearby fitness spa/ranches.  So in the mornings you will see plenty of vans providing support for sweatsuit-clad “biggest losers”.  They’re the ones who have that incredibly determined look on their red faces as they pass you, huffing and puffing, on the paved bike trail that traverses the length of the canyon.  You will also see plenty of St George’s serious cyclists, clad in colorful lycra.

A group of hikers from a nearby fitness spa/resort get a scenic workout at Snow Canyon State Park in southern Utah.

I think about taking things for granted when I visit places like this.  I’m sure people who use this place for a daily workout venue appreciate its scenic beauty, but I wonder if they take the time to slowly walk through the draws and slickrock slopes here.  I’ve been guilty of the same thing.  Once you decide a place is for running/skiing/biking through, that is the way you always experience it.  I think it is a pretty cool idea to occasionally just grab a camera (or binoculars if you’re a birder) and force yourself to go slow through your favorite local place.

Just outside Snow Canyon State Park, Utah is Johnson Canyon.

I did just that – went slowly – during sunset and the succeeding Thanksgiving morning.  At night I photographed the moonlit landscape and stars.  In the morning, I found all sorts of “intimate landscapes” to photograph.  When the sun became too harsh, I retreated to shaded canyons.  The last time I was here it was springtime, and there were clouds to provide some pretty great light.   Also, the plants had that desert-spring glow to them.  But this time (autumn) was fine too!  In fact, this state park is one of the best I’ve ever seen for landscape and nature photography.  The possibilities are nearly endless if you take the time to explore the park’s nooks and crannies.

Beavertail cactus grows abundantly in Snow Canyon State Park, Utah.

I hope you enjoy the photos.  If you are ever in St George, make a point to make the short drive to Snow Canyon.  I recommend camping at the small campground there, so you are up and at ’em for early morning photography.  The light is somewhat more shaded during late afternoon in the park, as opposed to early mornings.  But this depends, of course, on the season.  Summer is likely to be extremely hot here, but having only been in spring and fall, I can’t say that it’s too uncomfortable.  As they say, it’s a dry heat.

Dusk falls at Snow Canyon State Park in Utah.

Remember that the photos you see here are copyrighted, so if you are interested in one, please contact me.  You can also simply click on a photo to be taken to my website. They are much too small to be of any use if you were to try to download them anyway.  Thanks a bunch for your interest and appreciation.

The tilted layers of sandstone at Snow Canyon State Park are moonlit and stand out against the starry sky.

One More Zion: Kolob Canyons   7 comments

The high and huge Kolob Arch in a remote part of Zion National Park is one of the world’s largest.


I was going to apologize for doing yet another post on Zion National Park.  But then I thought, why apologize?  It’s a park I finally have found the time to really check out, and that means that I have too many photos to keep to myself.  I thought I had spent my last day in Zion yesterday.  But at the I-15 junction, where there is the choice to head south to St. George (and eventually Vegas), or north to Cedar City and Salt Lake City, I decided to postpone civilization (and a shower) for a couple more days.  I headed north to the Kolob Canyons area of Zion.

The high cliffs of Kolob Canyons in Zion National Park, Utah, admit the early morning sun grudgingly.

There are really four distinct areas of this park.  The main one, Zion Canyon, is the reason this is a National Park.  The second most spectacular is the east side of the park, above the tunnels (see Slickrock Hiking).  There are two other areas accessed from different roadways.  Kolob Canyons, where I am now, is the most forested.  The Kolob Plateau, which includes the highest point in Zion, is reached by turning north at the town of Virgin.  It has its charms too, not least of which is the Subway.  But it suffers because of all the private land inholdings.  In fact, it’s the most chopped-up section of National Park I’ve ever encountered.  Reminds me of many checkerboard National Forest lands.

Dusk comes on in the Kolob Canyons area of Zion National Park, Utah, but the rocks continue to glow from the remnants of the sunset.


Reach Kolob Canyons by driving north on Interstate 15 toward Cedar City.  At exit 40, turn off the freeway and travel east past the visitor center (where you must pay entrance) and up into the park.  The road is relatively short at just over 5 miles long, and ends at an overlook.  But only a couple miles up the road is the Taylor Creek Canyon hike.  It’s worth coming here just for that.  But there is another hike, on the La Verkin Creek trail, which takes you about 7 miles one-way to Kolob Arch.  I did both Taylor Creek and Kolob Arch on successive days, so I feel pretty well hiked out.

In the Kolob Canyons of Zion National Park stands an old log cabin.

Arriving at Kolob Canyons in the late afternoon, I was my usual scrambling self, looking for good photo ops. as the sun made its rapid descent to the horizon.  I decided to cut a short-cut to the Taylor Creek trail, and regretted it almost immediately.  The  fact is that I have gotten used to being able to hike through this country with no trails.  But the Kolob Canyons area is higher and much wetter than most of the rest of Zion National Park.  And so it is more heavily forested (pines), with plenty of thick bush to whack.

The gold light from looming red-rock cliffs reflects in a pool on a small tributary of La Verkin Creek in the Zion backcountry.

There is a cabin a couple miles up Taylor Creek, built in 1930.  It is not too far from a falling-apart state, and the Park Circus has performed some triage (which of course takes away from photos).  I was lucky enough to encounter very late light at the same time I was photographing the cabin.

Shallow late autumn flows characterize the small tributary canyons in the Kolob area of Zion National Park in Utah.


I have found that, often enough in this region, the setting sun skims through the atmosphere and reflects off the reddish canyon walls.  This makes for a nice red-orange light that is evenly distributed on everything that is front-lit.  But this light, coming between sunset and blue hour, is precious short.

I pressed into blue hour, doing some shots of the subtly red-lit rock formations with Taylor Creek in the  foreground.  This left me to make it back on a headlamp with failing batteries.

A large cottonwood falling just right has made a natural bridge over Taylor Creek in the Kolob Canyons area of Zion National Park in Utah.


Next day it was the Kolob Arch, a 14-mile round-trip hike.  The arch stands above a tributary canyon to La Verkin Creek.  This canyon is quite beautiful, and I lost track of time (as usual) doing the photo thing.  The result was hiking most of the way back (about 6 miles) in the dark.  But there was a half-moon, and I had put fresh batteries in the headlamp.  The temperature was perfect for power hiking, so it felt good.  My reward was a glass of smooth warm golden liquid that burns a little going down.

A rock tower in Zion National Park and the half moon highlight the approaching dusk.


The late afternoon sun reflects off a shallow tributary creek flowing down from near Kolob Arch in Zion National Park, Utah.


Short winter days come to the Kolob Canyons of Zion National Park, Utah.



Slickrock Hiking in Zion   2 comments

Getting out on the steeply sloped slickrock in Zion National Park requires sticky soles and little fear of heights.

Just one more post from Zion National Park in Utah, so sad to be leaving!  I was ready to hike Angel’s Landing yesterday, but changed my mind.  Angel’s is a popular hike, for a reason of course.  Instead I stayed on the east side of the park and hiked up a big canyon just above the tunnels.  It was an amazing hike.

Autumn holds on in one of Zion National Park’s many canyons.

I didn’t cover that many miles, going up the trail-less canyon until it got too gnarly to continue (at least without rope and gear).  The light was nice because of some clouds, so I stayed until it got dark.  I hiked out first by moonlight, then by headlamp.  I climbed up on the canyon wall for sunset, and boy was it fun.  The slope of the bare sandstone along the canyon wall allowed me to “friction hike”.

In the canyons of Zion National Park in Utah, yucca are a common sight.

For those uninitiated in such hiking, this is when you walk on crazily tilted sandstone “slickrock” without slipping.  It helps to have good grippy soles on your shoes.  I recently bought a new pair of running shoes, and they worked like a charm.  The only problem with this incredibly freeing form of desert locomotion is that it tends to get you in trouble.  All of a sudden you realize the slope has gotten just a bit too steep, and you have to carefully backtrack.  But it certainly allows you to get to places you would never get to if the canyon were cut into some other type of rock.  Sandstone (and especially Navajo Sandstone) is the best for slickrock friction hiking.  I’m also glad my tripod has sticky rubber feet.

One of Zion’s so-called temples looms above a slickrock canyon on the park’s east side.

Shooting until blue hour and then having to descend a steep slickrock slope as it got dark was definitely exciting.  The crescent moon helped a little bit, and I got off the steep stuff before it got so dark I had to use my headlamp.  I was feeling pretty darn great when I finally reached my van (and a snoozing dog).  It was a shortlived feeling though, when I realized I had left my headlights on.  The road passes through two tunnels here, and I had passed through one – with headlights on – just before parking at the mouth of the canyon.  It was a little difficult getting people to stop on the road, in the middle of nowhere, in the dark.

Hiking canyons in Zion National Park often involves narrow sections called slots.


In situations like this, you get to see just how many people in this world take the news of bad things happening a little too literally.  It’s easy to think the whole world is full of creeps and criminals if you consume too much news.  But I was soon able to flag down a nice guy who gave me a jump.  All’s well that ends well!

In order to access the spectacular east side of Zion National Park in Utah, driving through two tunnels is required.


The late-afternoon sun prepares to set over the upper elevations of Zion National Park in Utah.


The high east side of Zion National Park in Utah shows its moody side.




Photography in Zion   2 comments

A very wide angle view of the Subway, a canyon in Zion National Park, Utah.

I should start this post by telling you how I research locations to practice my photography.  No, I don’t go online to look at endless (mostly boring) photos on stock sites.  Yeah I might drop by a postcard stand in the area, if I pass one on my way to coffee.  You can get a surprising number of ideas of what to shoot this way, and the merchant or somebody in the store often has good local knowledge when you ask where something is.  Also, I occasionally get ideas when perusing the work of nature photographers that I admire.

But the only way I’ve found that is foolproof-valid to check out an area to photograph is to (go figure) just go and photograph it.  I know this doesn’t seem efficient, but it works for me.  I end up discovering places that aren’t on many people’s radar, while admittedly missing out on some obvious places.  But these places are often over-photographed anyway.

The Left Fork canyon in Zion National Park, Utah, fills with sunset light on a late November afternoon.


  • I think the east side of Zion, beyond the Mt Carmel Tunnel, is the best place to photograph wildlife, and also it contains some great off-trail canyon hikes.  Just head north or south from the road, and the closer to the first tunnel (the short one) you are, the more steep and spectacular the canyons.  This could be a problem though, because most of us don’t have Spiderman powers.  Desert bighorn sheep are a virtual certainty, and the area outside the park to the east has some huge buck deer.
  • The Virgin River, all along its length through the canyon, offers limitless possibilities for shooting long exposures of water and rapids.  You will deal with major contrast when you try to include sunlit rocks + shadow, but if you stay within either of the above it’s very simple exposure.  Bring a pair of rubber boots or hip waders to increase your options greatly.
  • When you approach Zion from the west, around the town of Rockville, if you climb above the road, or alternatively wander right of the road, near the ranch fences, you’ll get nice compositions when the sun is very low in the west.  Don’t go all the way into Springdale; stay between the two towns.
  • Any walk along the Virgin River, from near the western entrance all the way to the Narrows, is chock full of photo opportunities.
  • The roads and bridges within Zion are made from reddish aggregate, so they match the cliff colors.  Definitely include the roads and bridges in your compositions.
  • Get close to the canyon bottoms with a wide-angle lens, in good light.  You can’t go wrong.  Also, there are some interesting macro options along the canyon bottoms.
  • Get very high on the canyon rim, in good light, and include some of the interesting vegetation in your foreground.
  • Although Zion is desert, because it’s well watered by springs and streams you will often have trees and other plants in your compositions.  This can be a good thing, but you often can get clutter – unusual for the desert.
  • On the bright side, fall colors are gorgeous, happening along about mid-October to mid-November (or even later for cottonwood).  It’s not just the usual yellows of aspen and cottonwood either; there’s red Rocky Mountain maple (a smallish tree) as well.
  • As always, check the direction of the setting and rising sun.  Zion’s cliffs are so high they can block the sun for long enough that the light is harsh once the sun appears over the rim.  On the plus side, if the canyon faces the rising or setting sun, the reddish walls tend to focus that gorgeous light inward, subtly infusing even shaded areas in the canyon bottoms with a nice color.  Check out the Photographers Ephemeris.
  • Speaking of canyon direction, the Left Fork (where the Subway is) faces nicely toward the setting sun in fall.  Zi0n Canyon is better situated in Spring, but its walls are so high that you’ll always see shadows on the rocks when the sun is low.
  • Make sure to pay attention to smaller scale landscapes in canyons.  For example, the Subway is a photogenic spot, but with the tough hike to get there, you might as well take the time to photo the canyon on the way too.  Try to do the Subway before the end of October.  Short days will definitely cramp your style on this longish hike.  Better yet, get with a canyoneering guide and do the Left Fork/Subway from the top down.  Though its technical this way,you’ll also have more fun per effort that way.

The Subway in Zion National Park, in black and white.

A Rocky Mountain maple leaf shows its late fall color in Zion National Park, Utah.

The Virgin River, which flows through Zion National Park, Utah, is lined with cottonwood trees.

The waters of Left Fork in Zion National Park reflect the purplish colors of a November sunset.

The Kolob Plateau section of Zion National Park wakes up to a cloudy sunrise.

Zion National Park: Travel Tips   6 comments

The Kayenta Formation at the bottom of Zion Canyon is easily undercut by the Zion River.

Zion is a well-known National Park in southwest Utah.  It’s centered on a spectacular red-rock canyon on the western edge of the Colorado Plateau.  The canyon walls are near vertical (even overhanging in places).  The vertical relief from the highest point (over 8000 feet) to the lowest point in the canyon (3700 feet) is about 5000 feet (over 1500 meters).  So hiking here can involve some sweat.  Coming in from the west, via St George, Utah, you’ll approach through the beautiful valley of the Virgin River.

The Virgin River in Zion Canyon reflects early evening light.

Most people seem to fly into Vegas and rent a car, then race across the Interstate 15 to the park.  Undoubtedly this is a cheap and quick option, but flying into Salt Lake City and looping down through Capitol Reef N.P., Grand Staircase, Bryce N.P., and then into Zion would be my preference if I had the time (two weeks minimum).  You could also do the 5-hour drive from Salt Lake to Moab and do Arches and Canyonlands.  Then loop west toward the above destinations.  Figure three weeks for that trip, though many would be able to do it in two (or even one week for the quick-hitter tourists).

I entered this time from the east, part of a large looping roadtrip which started Sept 25th by driving from my home in Oregon to northern Idaho.  Then it was Montana, Wyoming, NE Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, across southern Utah, and here I am in Dixie.  I bet you thought Dixie was in the southern U.S.  Well that’s true, but they call this part of Utah Dixie as well.

Zion is a bit like Yosemite.  In both parks, you can hardly go without seeing the main canyon.  But while Yosemite Valley and Zion Canyon are both spectacular and well worth spending some time in, they are also very popular (i.e., crowded).  You should try to spend part of your time hiking the trails.  The shorter trails like Emerald Pools are beautiful but also a little crowded.

The longer trails are more fun I think.  Angel’s Landing, for example, while it’s popular, is nonetheless quite spectacular and not too difficult or long.  Observation Point on the other side of the canyon is a tougher climb (over 2000 feet vertical).  Echo Canyon along this route is simply amazing.  Also, consider a detour up Hidden Canyon.  I highly recommend Observation Point.

I strongly recommend driving over to the east side of the park, through the incredible Mt. Carmel Tunnel.  There are several likely off-trail areas to hike in this area.  If you don’t try to pretend you’re a world champion free climber, and only go far enough to easily retrace your steps, you’ll be fine.  Remember the general rule of thumb in federally managed areas: always obtain a backcountry permit if you plan to camp overnight away from the roads.

Another option if you want to lose some of the crowd is to visit the northern part of the park.  There are two roads.  One heads up Kolob Plateau from the town of Virgin, not too far from the west entrance.  There are several trails from this road.  One classic hike is to take the West Rim Trail one-way from Lava Point (the highest road-accessible point in the park) all the way down past Angel’s Landing into Zion Canyon.

I haven’t done this one yet, because you need a shuttle.  But I again see parallels with Yosemite; namely the John Muir Trail from Toulumne Meadows all the way down to Yosemite Valley.  The West Rim Trail is quite a bit shorter than this route though.  At 16 miles you can do it as an all-day hike or a leisurely overnighter.  You can also do an out and back hike on this trail from the canyon floor, past Angel’s Landing and onward up the West Rim until you need to turn back.

A rapidly warming day greets the sleepy campers in Zion National Park in Utah.

The other access point to the northern part of the park is off Interstate 15 (exit 40) and up Kolob Canyons Road.  A good all-day hike from this road is the LaVerkin Trail to Kolob Arch.  This arch is one of the largest free-standing arches in the world.  Both of these areas, along with the east side of the park, are at higher elevations than the main canyon.  So if it’s that time of year you might run into snow.  Kolob Plateau is highest.

A prickly pear cactus displays its version of fall colors in Zion National Park, Utah.

In addition to all of the above, there are a plethora of canyoneering routes in Zion (canyoning for all you Europeans).  If you’re experienced, plan by picking up a guidebook and 7.5 minute USGS topo maps.  Tom Jones’s book is excellent (not that Tom Jones!).  Take all the necessary canyoneering gear.  If you’re not a canyoneer, come close to it by hiking “the Subway”.  You’ll need a permit from the visitor center (or make reservations online) to hike this awesome (and popular) canyon off the Kolob Terrace Road.

The quieter east side of Zion National Park, Utah.

When you arrive, obtain local info. on which springs are flowing (to plan your water needs).  The N.P.S. wilderness desk at their visitor center is pretty decent in this regard, but local guides are good backups.  Also realize that  logjams can create extremely dangerous conditions on normally pedestrian canyon routes.  If you are not an experienced canyoneer (or are solo), there are plenty of guides in the area.  Google and get recommendations.

In Zion Canyon, Utah, the Virgin River flows out of the Narrows.

Zion is an incredible National Park, deserving of all its popularity.  But do yourself a favor and don’t just stay in a tourist hotel in Springdale and ride the shuttle to all the popular spots.  Try to get off the beaten track.  Take a hike!  You’ll be glad you did.

Near the Big Bend in Zion Canyon, the Zion River winds past Great White Thrown.

The night gathers inside Zion Canyon in Utah, the Great White Thrown far above.

Oh Zion, How You’ve Changed   5 comments

In Zion National Park, Pine Creek flows down a canyon nearly as spectacular as Zion Canyon itself.

The last time I visited Zion National Park in southwestern Utah, it was with my uncle about 15 years ago.  It was my stay-at-home uncle’s only western road trip.  He has never had a driver’s license.  We visited Death Valley too, and we had a grand time.  But this post is not about that trip, it’s about my most recent one (which is still going).

Now that was not that long ago, in my opinion.  But this park has changed.  It is much more heavily visited than a decade and a half ago, of course.  It’s become one of those heavily visited parks, like the Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite or Yellowstone.  There is a shuttle system in the canyon now, and I learned there has been since 1997!  Although I’m visiting in November, when the Park Circus allows you to drive into the canyon, it is busy enough to imagine how much of a nightmare it would be if they did not ban private vehicles from April through October.

The east side of Zion National Park is higher and sees frequent dustings of snow in the fall.

Perhaps not surprising but still disappointing is the change in the surrounding communities.  Springdale at the western entrance is the most heavily affected.  When I visited in the 90s, this was still just a quiet ranching community.  St George nearby had started to grow as a retirement haven, but the surrounding communities were still quiet, with very few services.

I drove through Springdale the other day and was disappointed.  It resembles Gatlinburg, Tennessee, at the entrance to Great Smoky N.P.  All Springdale needs is a Dollywood!  Okay, it’s not as bad as Gatlinburg, but I think it’s catching up.  There are a cluster of restaurants, motels, and assorted ugly garbage clogging what once was a glorious entry into Zion Canyon.  They have one of those big theaters, IMAX I think, to show you on a screen what you can simply go into the canyon and see for real.

On the bright side, the towns a bit further from the entrance, Rockville and Virgin, are free of tourist clutter.  From Rockville you have some nice views toward Zion Canyon.

The road in Zion Canyon, Utah is lined in places with cottonwood trees.

Luckily, the entrance on the other side of the park is not like this.  If you come through the east portal, near Mount Carmel Junction, it still looks like rural Utah.  Long Valley on Hwy. 89 as well as Utah Hwy. 9 cutting west to the park, still have a nice feel.  There are some housing developments springing up nearer the entrance, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.  I approached Zion on Hwy. 9, after a snowy morning at Red Canyon near Bryce.  It was night-time, and cold.  There were more deer on the road than you could shake a stick at, including some very big bucks with huge racks.  I drove slowly, and found a camp off the road to Orderville Canyon.

A sandy wash in Zion Canyon, Utah has seen a freezing night.

Next morning I drove into the park, and immediately noticed I had company.  Granted, it was a gorgeous Sunday, but after the Grand Staircase, it felt confining.  And I was on the quieter east side of the park!  When I drove through the spectacular Mt Carmel tunnel and down into the canyon proper, the traffic tripled.

But this time of year, being chilly and relatively uncrowded (relatively being the operative word), is an excellent time to explore the backcountry a bit.  Trails are uncrowded and trail-less canyon routes empty.  So I took a couple short hikes up side canyons, and I was feelin’ good in the sunshine.  I even saw a couple desert bighorn sheep (see image below).  The day was capped off nicely when my football team won big (I have satellite radio).

A desert bighorn sheep prowls the slickrock country of Zion National Park in Utah.

I ran into some serious-looking photographers, and only a couple seemed to want to use their feet to help their photography.  This is the biggest mistake would-be landscape photographers make in my opinion.  I think most (not all) know that their brain not their fancy gear is their best tool.  But their second-best tool, two legs & two feet, too many people ignore.  Sometimes I feel a bit foolish, running about, scrambling down road embankments, climbing roadcuts and spending perhaps too much time with one subject.  But then I say to myself, “Oh yeah, this is the only way I get half-way decent shots.  At least for me!”

The grass grows tall in Zion’s Pine Creek Canyon bottom.

I’ll admit this aversion to easy vantage points isn’t as important when the light is fantastic.  But at the very least I think you’re guaranteed to get shots that look a little different from everyone else’s.  When I saw a line of tripods on a bridge over the Virgin River, for example, I stopped a half-mile down and walked along the river bank to get the shot at bottom.  It’s not an award-winner, and it might not even be a better photograph than the group at the bridge got.  But I sure enjoyed the process!

Fallen autumn leaves litter mule’s ears in Zion National Park, Utah.

Okay, that’s my tip for the day: use your feet!  The conditions here now are not ideal (too clear), but I’ll stay and hike some.  I missed the end of the storm that passed through over the weekend.  I guess I’m too used to the Pacific Northwest, where the storms don’t clear up nearly as quick as they do here.  The light in Long Valley was so great at sunset the other day that it is hard not to regret not getting to Zion in time for it.  Stay tuned for more Zion!

A view of the Virgin River as it exits Zion Canyon near Springdale, Utah.

Grand Staircase IV: Ode to My Playground   2 comments

A close-up view of sandstone strata in the slickrock country of southern Utah, very near the location called “the wave”.

I have to say goodbye, for now, to my playground the Grand Staircase.  Hopefully I can visit on this trip my other favorite playground of the southwest, Death Valley.  Before I go, an ode to this beautiful and forbidding land. 

When I was 12 years old my family took all of us to Colorado to visit my uncle in the Air Force. It was my first time west, and I loved it. We visited several areas outside Colorado Springs, including Pike’s Peak, Cripple Creek, and Garden of the Gods. I remember just going ape clambering over and playing on the rocks, sliding down steep gullies, and generally making my mom crazy with worry.

Calf Creek flows thinly over the sandstone near its confluence with the Escalante River in Utah.


My horizons had expanded forever. My beloved woodsy park at home had suddenly become small. I saw that even in adulthood I would play like this, because there was such a thing in the world as adult-sized playgrounds: big mountains and big canyons! Maybe I have a hardwired penchant for this kind of fun.

All of this is to explain why I believe that Grand Staircase/Escalante is like one giant playground. Every time I stop along the roadside to take a few pictures, there is a very real chance that hours will pass before I get back to the van. Often I will have only traveled a mile or less down a canyon, walking much more than that, shooting loads of pictures, and losing track of time. It’s definitely my kind of playground.

Dramatic striations (called desert varnish) mark the sheer walls of a shady rock alcove near the Escalante River of southern Utah. A pond remains frozen in early Spring.

The whole region, including the bordering national parks, is a wonderland of slickrock escarpments, sandy washes, forested plateaus, and (famously) slot canyons. A slot is a very narrow section of a canyon. Canyon walls are near vertical and only a matter of feet to yards apart. In some of the more narrow spots you literally have to squeeze your body sideways to get through.

Banded sandstone appears to flow at “the wave”, a location in southern Utah now famous among photographers.

Tips for slot canyon hiking

  • Figure on a much slower pace than regular trail hiking. Even on a non-technical canyon route, you won’t do much more than 1 mile an hour (perhaps much less).
  • Get some local knowledge of the route, specifically whether it is a technical slot and where it turns technical.
  • Wear your most streamlined backpack, and put anything not safe for water in a dry sack if the slot is wet.
  • Often you will come up on a dropoff into a pool of water, depth unknown. To jump in or not to jump in…don’t until you know how deep it is.
  • On the bright side, there is often a way around dropoffs.  Look and scout. A rope, gear for fixing anchors, and knowledge of how to use it will allow you to stay in the canyon bottom more, and actually save you time over scrambling around.
  • Most of the slots in the Escalante country are dry for much of the year, but watch out in Spring or in wet years.  Neoprene socks will keep your feet warm.  For slots with swimming involved, consider a neoprene suit.  The water can be pretty cold even in hot weather.
  • Never travel a slot when the weather is too threatening. Get out quick when you see the water rising or it turns from clear to muddy. If you hear a roar upcanyon, put on your spiderman suit quick! Seriously, climb up as high as you can if you hear a roar. Even a couple feet more height can save your life.

    Pine Creek flows through the forests of Box-Death Hollow wilderness in southern Utah.


I will very likely come back here, maybe next Spring! I want to bring my truck next time. My van does not like washboard roads much at all, and there is so much to see of Hole in the Rock Road.  Hope you enjoyed the photos.  Remember that clicking them takes you to my website, where purchase is easy as pie.  No illegal downloading please.  These versions are too small for much use anyhow. 

The quiet and idyllic ranch land beneath Boulder Mountain in southern Utah basks in late afternoon light.

Grand Staircase III – Travel Info.   Leave a comment

The rural areas of southern Utah probably have more cows than people in late November when most of the tourists have gone.

The Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument covers a huge area in southwestern Utah.  Zion National Park is directly west while Capitol Reef N.P. and Glen Canyon Recreation Area lie to the east.  Lake Powell and the Arizona border skirts it to the south.  Two highways, U.S. 89 and Utah 12, encircle all but the east side of the Monument.  Both roads are very scenic, but you can also dive into the heart of the Monument by taking one of the unpaved routes.  Regular 2wd vehicles, as long as they have decent clearance, are usually suitable.  But beware: when it rains, these roads become impassable, even with a 4wd.  This is because of the abundant clay.

Grand Staircase is cut by two few major rivers that flow south toward the Colorado.  Actually they enter Lake Powell, since the Colorado has been dammed at Glen Canyon.  The Paria and Escalante Rivers are characterized by gorgeous wilderness canyons with countless tributaries.  This is canyon country…big time canyon country!

Clay often forms sculpture in canyon bottoms of the Paria River system in Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument, Utah.


Spencer Flat is accessed via an unpaved road that heads south from Hwy. 12 between the town of Escalante and the bridge over the Escalante River.  The turnoff is very close to the top of the big hill just west of the Escalante River bridge.  The gravel road heads 7 miles or so to Spencer Flat. Along the way are a myriad of interesting rock formations.  The road forks right at the far end of Spencer Flat and soon becomes too sandy for 2-wheel drive vehicles.  Actually, you can’t go much further in a 4wd. If you camp here, or at any likely spot along the road, make sure you bring plenty of water (there is none).

The Wave in the Coyote Buttes area of Vermilion Cliffs N.M. is made of thinly laminated and sculpted sandstone “waves”.

You can literally close your eyes and have a friend spin you round.  When you stop, open your eyes and that is the direction you will go.  Whichever direction you happened to choose, you are sure to find a desert canyon playground.  There are sand dunes nearby, unnamed slot canyons, huge rock massifs, fields of moqui marbles, and assorted other wonders.  Stop at Escalante Outfitters in the namesake town and grab a map.  National Geographic has an excellent one called “Canyons of the Escalante”.  The guys there can give you plenty of local advice too. Either use a GPS and set your camp’s location, or be very handy with map and compass.

I have camped and hiked at Spencer Flat twice now, once a couple years ago and again this time.  I think I will go there each and every time I visit.  It’s not far from a town, relatively unknown, and unlike many of the destinations in the Monument, it does not involve endless miles of washboard.  I think one could easily spend a month here, camped in the same spot, and never visit the same place twice.

A classic sandy wash hike at Spencer Flat near the Escalante River, Utah.

Sandstone strata near “the wave” in southern Utah, near the Pariah River.

Lick Wash is another great place, on the opposite side of the monument from Spencer Flat.  The canyon hike is accessed from the gravel Skutumpah Road (I don’t make these names up!).  This very scenic route connects Henrieville just west of Bryce Canyon to Johnson Canyon, from where a paved road connects to Hwy. 89 just east of Kanab.  Lick Wash is a hike of about 4 miles one way, through a beautiful canyon.  At the far end of the canyon it opens out to a large area surrounded by mesas (you can climb one!).  There is a charming stone cabin.  You are likely to have the place to yourself, as I did when I hiked it in the early Spring last time I was here.  The creek had a healthy flow, and so I was hiking in the water.  If you don’t have soggy sneakers on numerous occasions while hiking Grand Staircase in the springtime, you aren’t doing it right!  Later in the year, Lick will be a dry hike.

The Pine Creek/Hell’s Backbone loop road is another very worthwhile detour.  The gravel road heads north from Escalante and loops around back south to Hwy. 12 near the town of Boulder.  It will take you through a very different kind of country: mountain lakes, pine forests and clear streams.  Blue Spruce is a lovely small camp set amongst pine trees.  You’ll sleep mere yards from a gurgling creek.  Visit at least one of the lakes along the route, and wet a line or take a dip.

You will drive around the head of a huge box canyon called Death Hollow.  There is a very adventurous backpack trip that heads down this canyon, ending at the Escalante River Bridge.  Previous canyoneering experience is a good idea; this is no walk in the park, believe me.  Hell’s Backbone, where the road traverses along the top of a narrow ridge, will have you alternately rubbernecking and gripping the wheel tightly.  At one point a skinny bridge spans a gap in the ridge – it’s a catwalk.  You will end your descent in quiet ranch land on the beautiful lower slopes of Boulder Mountain.  I fantasize about having a place here, reveling in the quiet surrounded by my animals.

There are many many other places to visit at Grand Staircase/Escalante. Camping at Kodachrome Basin or Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Parks, hiking Peekaboo and Spooky slot canyons, driving the Burr Trail, or visiting the town site of Pahreah with its pioneer cemetery.  

And if you can get a permit, do the obvious; that is hiking The Wave.  Be sure to take the whole day to hike the area around the Wave though, don’t just go see the formation itself.  All of these could have you lingering a week or more.  Even more important than plenty of time, I think, is to bring a real sense of adventure.  If you visit Grand Staircase and the Escalante River country, be prepared for BIG fun in a BIG playground!

Hell’s Backbone near Boulder, Utah is like driving across a huge natural catwalk.


A bit of the old west survives at the old Gifford homestead, now inside Capitol Reef National Park.  It’s a short drive east of the Grand Staircase.

The Grand Staircase II   Leave a comment

In southern Utah, Red Canyon and its colorful rock formations see their first snowfall of the year.

The oldest Grand Staircase’s steps, the Chocolate Cliffs, are mostly Permian in age.  This is the time before dinosaurs, when reptiles and amphibians ruled the world.  But most of the formations in the Staircase were laid down during the Mesozoic Era.  They span the Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods – more than 130 million years!  They are sedimentary in origin, formed in shallow marine and low-lying land environments.  There were river plains, seashores, coral reefs and enormous deserts.  North America was lower in latitude then, and so warmer.  In short, it was during much of this enormous span of time a paradise for the plant and animal life, a time so long before ours that it is impossible to grasp.  

Layers of sandstone are striking as the sun gets lower in the Escalante River country of southern Utah.

And the animals that walked the earth then?  Dinosaurs!  Their fossil bones and tracks are found throughout the Grand Staircase region.  For example you can visit a dinosaur trackway not far from Kanab, just beyond Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park.  Check at the BLM visitor center for directions.  There are also fossil tracks south of Escalante, off of Hole in the Rock Road.  Drive ~20 miles down the road and turn right on Colette Canyon Road; then look for a large white outcrop (the tracks are on top).  You can get info. at Escalante Outfitters in that town.

Cryptobiotic soil covers the ground in a sandy wash near the Escalante River in Utah.

At the top of the Staircase are the Pink Cliffs, the youngest of the steps.  These rocks date from a time after the dinosaurs went extinct.  Though there are not many fossils from this formation, this was the time when mammals rose to take the place of dinosaurs in all of the ecosystems once dominated by the giants.  So when you stand atop the Paunsaugunt Plateau in Bryce Canyon National Park, looking out and down the Grand Staircase, you are standing at a time when mammals were rising to dominance.

The cross-bedded sandstone in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, Utah forms sinuous patterns across the landscape.

 And when you look out to the south and east, down the Staircase, you are looking back in time.  You might think you are merely looking across cliffs and mesas, but you’re actually peering through the immense ages of time when dinosaurs ruled the earth.  Later, at night, look up at the impossibly brilliant stars, and realize you are, again, looking back in time.  The light from the distant stars began its journey across the vastness of space long ago, and so carries evidence of that time through space and time.

The hoodoos (rock towers) in Red Canyon are similar to those exposed in the Pink Cliffs of nearby Bryce Canyon, Utah.

A few little hints on how to recognize the different environments represented in the rocks.  The bold sandstone outcrops that have the angled stripes (layers) are ancient sand dunes.  The striking pattern results when sand grains blow up and over the top of a dune, forming angled layers (cross-bedding) when they tumble down the so-called slip face.  So you are looking at an ancient version of the Sahara.

Hoodoos are a common feature found in the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument.

Other sandstone formations of the Grand Staircase also have tilted layers in places but at a much lower angle.  This rock often has thinner platy layers with much silt and clay in between the thicker sandstone beds.  It was laid down by ancient rivers.  Both the ancient dune sands and ancient river sands make rock that is mostly tan in color, but iron oxides can give it a reddish hue, especially on the weathered surfaces.  Thinly layered siltstone and shale often forms vegetated slopes in this arid region, not cliffs.  So these formations are easy to miss.  You can see the small platy pieces in the soil if you look where you’re walking.  These rocks were formed in a shallow marine environment, or in bays close to the coast.  Think mudflats and deltas and you have the idea.

Calf Creek just above its confluence with the Escalante River has numerous potholes from infrequent floods, and which show up during autumn’s low water flows.


Limestone, unlike in the Grand Canyon, is not a huge part of the Grand Staircase, but it is here.  It is formed in and near coral reef areas, or further from the coast in deep water.  This rock is often gray in color, though it can often show red on the weathered surface.  What you will notice about limestone in an arid environment is that it is abrasive, like a very coarse sand paper.  Hiking in limestone terrain, every geologist knows, can really chew up a pair of boots.  Occasionally in this region, not often, you’ll notice lava rock.  Basalt is the most common type.  It’s quite dark in color, often has holes in it (from gas bubbles) and contrasts greatly with the light-colored sandstone.

In Grand Staircase National Monument in southern Utah, the first of winter’s storms brews to the west.

This Monument is huge!  It’s tough to decide where to spend your time, especially when that time is limited.  The next post, my last on the Grand Staircase, will cover some basic trip planning and highlight a few worthwhile places to visit.



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