Archive for the ‘canyon country’ Tag

Single-image Sunday: Colorado National Monument   6 comments

This is the first time I’ve visited this part of Colorado.  I’ve passed through before but never drove up the amazingly twisted and steep road into the national monument named I think more for the plateau and river than for the state.  The Colorado River flows through the Grand Valley, which is fog-covered in this shot.  The monument is a beautiful collection of canyons and rock formations spilling off a mesa that is part of the much larger Colorado Plateau.

Fog-filled Monument Canyon, Colorado N.M., Colorado.

Fog-filled Monument Canyon, Colorado N.M., Colorado.

It’s very near the Utah border, and here you are in terrain that is much less about the Rocky Mountains and more like the red-rock canyon country of the desert southwest.  There are plenty of great canyon hikes, and the mountain biking in adjacent lands is world class (google Fruita Colorado mountain biking).  Driving west through the Grand Valley and into the town of Grand Junction you are leaving the Rockies and entering the Colorado Plateau.  The river goes from more of a swift river of mountains to one that cuts through spectacular sandstone canyons.

Waking the first morning to fog in the canyon bottoms and lowlands, the sun didn’t show its face until the middle of the morning.  But I still had a grand time shooting the rock formations, wreathed in fog, for which this National Monument is known.  The spire front and center in the photo is called the ‘kissing couple’.  The view is southward down Monument Canyon and into the east-west running Grand Valley.

Hope you’re enjoying your weekend.  Friday Foto Talk, by the way, is on a bit of a hiatus.  It’ll be back, promise.

Friday Foto Talk: Lessons from the Field   11 comments

The day begins in southern Utah's desert.

The day begins in southern Utah’s desert.

I had quite an eventful day yesterday.  I don’t normally spend a lot of time blogging about the goings-on in my life.  This isn’t reality television after all!  But I’m going to make an exception because of how the day unfolded as a cautionary tale for any nature photographers out there.  Amazingly enough, all three parts of my day (sunrise, mid-day and sunset) contain lessons relevant to photography.  It might be instructive to take a look at how yours truly sometimes does things, if only so that you might learn what not to do!

Lesson 1 – When to Challenge Yourself

This is something that was brought home to me while shooting sunrise yesterday.  I was camped at Bartlett Wash in southern Utah.  It was my second visit.  As far as I know, the place is relatively unknown amongst photographers.  But I think it has a lot going for it.  Beautiful reddish & smooth sandstone with fascinating patterns overlooks a pretty canyon.  Atop this so-called slickrock lies a collection of white, mushroom-shaped sandstone monoliths, with views that include the La Sal Mountains.

On the first visit to Bartlett I was a bit late for the dawn light.  And having walked up to the white sandstone monoliths, I had trouble finding a good composition.  Even though it’s obviously an interesting place with plenty of photographic potential, it is also challenging.  The main trouble comes when trying to find good shooting positions (or points of view).  Some of the best compositions are found from atop the mushroom monoliths, but some of them are far from easy to climb.  And which one to climb?  It’s a bit confusing.

Dawn from the "mushroom monoliths" at Bartlett Wash.

Dawn from the “mushroom monoliths” at Bartlett Wash.

On the contrary, the reddish slickrock below is not only easier to get to, it is chock full of leading lines and other strong patterns.  It’s much more a gimme than the mushroom rock above.  So on this second visit, I told myself I would be early and make sure to shoot the reddish sandstone in the best light.  I woke early enough alright, but something made me go up to the mushroom rock.  I spent the time of best light up there, again getting frustrated looking for good compositions.  By the time I got around to the red slickrock the sun was well up and the light a bit harsh.

Classic cross-bedded sandstone slickrock in southern Utah.

Classic cross-bedded sandstone slickrock in southern Utah.

I don’t know about you, but I often go for the more challenging photo  subjects, even when I know a more-certain option exists.  The red slickrock was there for the taking.  I saw plenty of strong compositions which don’t involve any real challenge; you just walk right up to them.

But here’s the thing: it’s not at all clear that it was worth the extra effort to bang my head (metaphorically) against the white mushroom rock.  It may or may not have yielded the best images at Bartlett.  But the fact that it’s more challenging up there drew me.  And so I missed good light in the more certain photographic terrain of the red slickrock.

The mountain-biking terrain at Bartlett Wash, Utah.

The mountain-biking terrain at Bartlett Wash, Utah.

Only you can decide which path you will take when presented with similar options during your shooting.  It may depend on your mood.  I don’t know if it’s very smart for me (a non-morning person) to pick the more challenging path for sunrise.  But without thinking about it that’s what I did.  You might be better able than me to see where the better pictures are to be had and go there without regard for challenge.

In fact, it makes more sense to save the more challenging terrain for a time without the extra stress of quickly passing dawn light.  The idea is to find the good composition at leisure and then return for it in good light.  That would be the logical way to do it.  Sometimes I am not the most logical person.  But I’m sure of one thing: the process of tackling challenging photographic subjects in quickly changing light can definitely make you a better photographer.

This juniper tree appears to lean against a sandstone monolith at Bartlett Wash, Utah.

This juniper tree appears to lean against a sandstone monolith at Bartlett Wash, Utah.

Lesson 2 – Be Prepared

This one isn’t tied directly to any photographs I took, but it’s certainly relevant to photography.  In mid-morning, after the sunrise shoot (see Lesson 1), I decided to do a short mountain bike ride at a place called Bartlett Wash in southern Utah.  Or that was the plan, to play on the slickrock there for just an hour or so.  By the way, slickrock is smooth sandstone that is perfect for off-trail hiking and mountain bike riding.  The Moab, Utah area here is famous for it, but it occurs throughout the American desert southwest.

While riding, I became intrigued by the slickrock terrain on the other side of the wash from where I was riding.  Yes, the grass is always greener on the other side, and the slickrock is always smoother!  Finished and back at the bottom, I saw a little sign I had not noticed, pointing to the area I had been curious about.  It said simply “3-D Jedi”.  I had not heard of that ride.  Bartlett was in my guidebook but not this one with the fascinating name.

Views of canyon country: the Book Cliffs, Utah.

Views of canyon country: the Book Cliffs, Utah.

So instead of heading back as I should have done I biked up onto the slickrock.  I told myself I would just check out the first mile or so, but you know how that goes!  The thing is, since I was only out for a little bit, I didn’t bring any sun screen or sunglasses (the day started out cloudy).  I also didn’t bring a repair/patch kit or bike pump. And crucially, I had no map and no water.  Yep, you heard it right, I was out in the desert with no water.

Stupidly, I kept going..and going.  The ride turned into a 5 hour ordeal (I mean ride!).  Though I never saw another soul, a set of bike tracks was visible in places, plus sporadic rock cairns marked the route.  So I was pretty sure I wasn’t getting lost.  I kept wanting to head back but the thought (hope?) that I was riding a loop kept me going. For over a mile the “trail” skirted a narrow ledge with a truly dizzying drop on one side.  Needless to say I walked my bike on the narrowest parts.

View from the Jedi area near Moab, Utah.

View from the Jedi area near Moab, Utah.

When the route finally descended onto more great slickrock and dropped onto a jeep track, I saw my first sign at a junction.  Though the sign didn’t say 3-D or Jedi, I guessed the left fork would lead me back to where I came from.  Deep sand had me pushing my bike for a good while, and the sun came out in force.  I was THIRSTY!  Then my luck turned: I saw a sign that said 3-D with an arrow pointing ahead.

When the sandy jeep track crested a ridge I recognized the canyon.  I was back in Bartlett!  The surface grew firm and I raced down the twisting trail.  I had made it!  I almost attacked the water back at camp, and in fact had to rein myself in.  You can get very sick drinking too much water at one time.  It even has the potential to kill you.

Slickrock makes the finest riding surface for biking around Moab, Utah.

Slickrock makes for the finest riding surface for biking around Moab, Utah.

Lesson 3 – Go slow to go fast

You might have heard this expression before.  If you don’t take your time enough to do things right, even under stressful conditions when hurrying is important, you will pay the price.  You’ll spend much more time either fixing mistakes or regretting not having been more careful.  This was brought home to me during my sunset shoot yesterday.

After the big bike ride, I realized I had time to go somewhere for sunset.  I felt I had played Bartlett out, and it’s best for sunrise anyway.  There’s an area I also like near Moab, one that also doesn’t see photographers.  It’s great for sunset, with a grand view of the La Sal Mtns.  There is one hitch though – access.  You either need to do a rough 4WD jeep trail or hike in from the other side.

The hike up the wash toward my sunset spot.

On the hurried hike up the wash toward my sunset spot, I paused just once for this shot.

The hike (which takes about an hour) goes up a canyon.  Then you need to climb out of the canyon up onto the rim.  There are only a couple reasonable routes, the rest being cliffs.  I explored this area awhile back for the first time.  When I started out sunset was 55 minutes away, so I was in a hurry.

Almost at the top, I glanced over to the La Sals and saw beautiful light beginning to hit them.  There was one more 10-foot ledge to scramble up, and I was determined not to miss the light.  I stepped on a huge block of sandstone that I should have been suspicious of.  It shifted and came smashing down on my ankle.  I wrenched my leg away just in time then came a mad dash for safety as the huge rock began rolling.  Luckily it didn’t go far and I was able to get out of the way.

I lay there on my back in some pain.  Looking up into the sky I saw the clouds turning orange and pink.  But suddenly that didn’t matter.  I gingerly rotated my ankle.  Amazingly it seemed okay.  The real test came when I got up and put weight on it.  Yes!  It seemed to be only bruised and cut.  To shorten the story, I made it to the spot I had in mind and got some nice shots (bottom).  After the sun set I made my way down.  Though I had my headlamp, it’s somewhat nerve-wracking to pick your way down a steep rocky descent in the dark.

On a different hike in Arches National Park, I decided to capture what it's like to still be on the edge as darkness falls.  Car headlights trace the park road.

On a different hike in Arches National Park, I decided to capture what it’s like to still be on the edge as darkness falls. Car headlights trace the park road.

That night as my ankle swelled up, I thought about how stupid I had been.  Go slow to go fast!  It’s even more important advice when the light is pushing you to hurry. Though it’s important not to waste time getting set up (the light won’t wait after all), over-hurrying often results in mistakes that show in your pictures.  Bad photos are one thing; always remember that much bigger disasters are possible when you’re in a big rush.

So think about what you’re doing when out photographing nature.  It’s a real excursion, and you are the only one responsible for your safety.  Go prepared.  Pay attention to your surroundings.  Take your time.  It’s important to come back with the best pictures possible.  But it’s even more important to come back!

Thanks for sticking with this long post.  If you’re interested in any of these images (which are copyrighted and not available for download without my permission), please contact me.  Click on any of the pictures to go to my galleries.  Thanks for your interest.  By the way, my ankle is sore but just fine.

The view from "almost broken ankle point" in Utah.

The view from “almost broken ankle point” in Utah.

Wordless Wednesday: Canyon Country   8 comments


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.




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 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.

Page and Lake Powell   1 comment

Dawn breaks over Lake Powell in Utah.


This will be a shortish post (for me!).  I wanted to post a few pictures from the shores of Lake Powell, near Page, Arizona.  But first I want to let you know (since I haven’t in awhile) that these photos are copyrighted material.  If you click on one you’ll be taken to the website for MJF Images, where they will be appearing in finished form very soon.  These versions are really too small for you to put them to good use.  When you get to the website, browse the images and, if you like, you may purchase with a single click: downloads, prints, framed, canvas, whatever you wish.  Please contact me if you have any questions or just want to order one of the images from a recent blog.  I’ll get it out to you right away.  Thanks for your cooperation and interest.

Lake Powell and the graveled part of Lone Rock Beach reflect a colorful dawn sky.

This is the first time I’ve ever been to this summer playground in the desert.  People flock here to ply the waters of Lake Powell, the reservoir behind the damn dam that has drowned Glen Canyon for decades now.  And to think they named it after the man who journeyed through Glen Canyon when it was at its raw best, and who loved the canyons for their naked beauty.  Renting a house boat is very popular, as is drinking and soaking up the sun.  But it is November  now, with chilly mornings and wonderful days.  Only a few tourists around, but it is not at all near deserted.  And this is especially true this weekend, the first in November, when the annual hot air balloon festival takes place.  Dozens of hot air balloons launch at dawn, and the town is all abuzz.

The area around Page, Arizona and Glen Canyon Dam is peppered with small sandstone buttes, which are fossil sand dunes.

It clouded up late yesterday afternoon, but the sunset was only okay considering.  I camped at the shores of Lake Powell at Lone Rock Beach to take advantage of what I thought might be a nice sunrise because of the cloudiness.  I could have instead shot balloons at dawn, but there is so much photography of hot air balloons.  I know what you’re thinking…there is no shortage of colorful sunrise pictures consisting of water and sky.  But give me a break.  The days have cloudless and rather boring (for photography) for the past couple weeks.  So I did not want to waste the opportunity.

A lone hot air balloon floats beyond the golf course in Page, Arizona during its annual balloon festival.

This is a great time to visit the area, being cool and uncrowded.  The middle of October might be even better, for fall colors.  But there are precious few aspens or cottonwoods in the area.  The balloon festival is certainly not a bad time to visit.  You might want to make reservations if you plan on staying in a hotel.  There are other events going on over the weekend.  It is a small town, and when things go on in towns this size, you know it.  People are in a great mood.

Lone Rock in Lake Powell, Utah stands high in late fall’s low water.

The big question I have for myself is whether to go on to the north rim of Grand Canyon today, or hang around and tour Antelope Canyon.  If you don’t know, Antelope Canyon is that slot canyon you see so much of in photographs.  The red sculpted walls that arch over forming a roof, and often with a shaft of sunlight streaming in from above.  Well, I am certainly in to that sort of photograph.  But this is one of the most over-photographed subjects in the Southwest, so I am more than hesitant.  I may try instead to get similar shots in a different slot canyon to the north, in the Escalante River region.  But then again, if you see Antelope Canyon shots in my next post, you’ll know I caved and did the tour.  It is on Navajo land and costs $25-40 to take the tour.

Well, enjoy the photos and take care everyone.  Happy fall (it’s still fall, right?) and don’t forget to set your clocks back one hour tomorrow night.

A lonely Lone Rock beach on Lake Powell in Utah greets an early November dawn.


The balloon festival at Page as viewed from the Glen Canyon Dam.


Lake Powell along the Utah/Arizona border glories in sunrise.

Utah’s San Juan River   1 comment

The San Juan River flows through southeastern Utah near the town of Bluff.

The San Juan River surprised me. Never having traveled through the Beehive State’s southeastern corner, I had no idea it was such a significant and beautiful river basin. Rising in Colorado’s mountains of the same name (which I posted on recently), the San Juan enters canyon country in Utah and flows for hundreds of twisted, lonely miles, finally winding up in Lake Powell. This is the reservoir that, sadly, covers both Glen Canyon and the confluence of the San Juan and Colorado Rivers.

Just west of the town of Bluff, Utah I stopped at a boat launch/campground called Sand Island. Here there is an enormous petroglyph panel, hundreds of feet long, with a dizzying variety of Native American rock art. Wandering down to the riverside, I was floored when I saw how much water the San Juan was carrying. This is the driest part of the year, after all. The sun approached the horizon, the light grew golden, and I took the opportunity for a great little photo walk along the river.

A full moon shines on the Goosenecks, a series of incised meanders on the San Juan River in SE Utah.

The San Juan cuts some truly spectacular canyons on its way west, including the famous Goosenecks. This series of what geologists call entrenched meanders can be viewed from a state park off Hwy. 163. If you’ve never seen pictures of the Goosenecks, try to imagine a lazy river meandering across a broad river valley. Then imagine that pattern cut deeply into layered sandstone to form a rugged meandering canyon.

The sun rises behind a cottonwood tree in one of Valley of the Gods’ many canyons.

This is the layer-cake geology of the Colorado Plateau, a stacked geological movie through the Paleozoic Era.  Frozen in time are huge sand seas, big river basins, seaside salt pans (as in the Middle East), coral reefs and muddy ocean bottoms.  The canyons of this region cut into this record.  The rivers had no choice as the entire region was lifted straight up during formation of the Rocky Mountains.

Ship Rock in northern New Mexico is formed from a spectacular dike that runs for miles across the desert.

I camped out on the Navajo Reservation in northern New Mexico.  Although I was a bit nervous about this, being visible for miles in the flat and treeless sage plain, I wanted to get moonlight and dawn pictures of Ship Rock.  For some reason I got little sleep, dreaming of my van being invaded by a group of angry natives.  I suppose it is all those old western movies to blame, when the wagon circle was attacked by the “savages”.  But there was a bright side to this; I got pictures of the stars after the moon had set – beautiful!

Ship Rock stands under a glowing moon in the northeastern New Mexico desert.

Ship Rock is an enormous volcanic plug sticking out of the desert.  The monolith trails out on either end (but more obviously on the south) into a spectacular dike.  A dike, in the geological sense that is, is a tabular sheet of magma that invades upward into a fissure or fault in the earth’s crust.  It hardens when it cools, just like lava.  Then, many millions of years later, when (if) the area is uplifted and eroded, the dike is left standing up because of its superior hardness compared to surrounding rocks.  It then resembles the natural version of a dike built to hold back water.  The one that Ship Rock is connected to is a classic “textbook example” of a dike.

Melting ice forms patterns on sandstone in a spring found while hiking one of Valley of the Gods’ many canyons.

A cottonwood tree frames one of the rock ramparts in Valley of the Gods, Utah.


I also visited an area that seems to be known mostly to locals: Valley of the Gods.  This is a beautiful area of canyons and monoliths that is quite similar to the better-known Monument Valley to the south.  You need to drive a gravel loop road 16+ miles long to get in here.  It’s a wilderness study area, and is connected to an equally wild and huge area called Cedar Mesa to the north.

I camped along the gravel road, then in the morning took a hike up a canyon.  Quite a few vehicles were driving the loop, it being a weekend.  But nobody else was hiking, that is unless you count a horseman I ran into.  He was a nice fella, smoking a cigar as he rode.  As I scratched his horse behind the ears, I thought of my own horse back home.  Could she handle this rugged country?  It might take some getting used to.  I miss her and Khallie (the filly) both.

I traveled south from Valley of the Gods, past the Goosenecks (that I had visited in moonlight the night before) and on towards Monument Valley.  I came upon a just-completed wedding ceremony at riverside in the town of Mexican Hat.  Guess what the town is named for.  You got it, a rocky pinnacle with a sombrero-shaped top.

The happy couple were rafting down the river when I stopped and joined the wedding party in watching them float down the San Juan through town.  I didn’t take any pictures, feeling the wedding photographer might not like it.  But I did feel a bit sad and lonely, as I always do when I see weddings.  Not for long though.  It was a gorgeous day and Monument Valley at sunset was waiting not far away.  That will be the subject of my next post.

By the way, if you’re interested in downloading any of these copyrighted photos, please click on one and you’ll be taken to my website.  There you can browse my photos and order any of them, for download or as beautifully made prints (framed or unframed).  These particular photos will be up soon, but if you want one right away, just email me.  Thanks for your interest and cooperation in not trying to download any illegally.




Along the San Juan River in SE Utah, fall holds on in late October under a nearly full moon.

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