Archive for the ‘Utah’ Tag
The ranch land near Zion Canyon in Utah is among the most scenic in the country.
We might as well face it. America is no longer what it once was. Not long ago this was a country that relied on small-scale farming and ranching. They fed the cities with their increasingly important manufacturing economies. Perhaps more importantly they helped to form the country’s very identity. Farms, ranches and small towns have traditionally been a well that we drew upon to create a dynamic, growing nation. Many American thinkers and inventors were born and raised in small-town farming communities. To take a more specific example, American fighter pilots in both world wars learned their bold flying skills as young men in crop-dusting planes. There are countless other examples.
Nearly every region of the country has become more developed and populated. Cities have grown steadily; suburban areas surrounding them have grown even faster. And it’s these so-called exurban areas that have spilled out into formerly rural areas. Large parts of rural America have literally been paved over, changing them for the foreseeable future. But it’s not all gone, not by a long shot. You can still experience much of this country’s rural charm if you’re willing to leave the cities, get off the main highways and slow down.
And that is what this series is all about: travelling off the beaten track to experience some of the country’s rural charm. The introductory post discussed the growing rural-urban divide in America, but Part II left politics behind and focused on my home-region, the Pacific Northwest. This post will zero in on a unique part of the country: the amazing Desert Southwest.
It’s always fun finding an old buckboard wagon. In the dry air of the Southwest, they are well preserved.
Geography & History
The unique geography of the Desert Southwest is centered on an enormous geographic feature called the Colorado Plateau. This large chunk of elevated land extends across southwest Colorado, southern Utah and northern parts of Arizona and New Mexico. But the desert SW region extends west of the Plateau into the southern Great Basin of Nevada and SE California.
It also includes the low, hot deserts of southern Arizona, and actually continues south into Mexico, though it’s a different culture altogether there. Anyone considering a trip into the far southwest of the U.S., however, should seriously consider Baja California as an extension. The peninsula is amazing, the people friendly, and it is far safer than mainland Mexico at the moment.
What draws visitors today presented challenges to early explorers and settlers. It is an arid region of vast treeless plains on one hand, and steep bare-rock canyons and mountains on the other. Rivers are often incised into inaccessible canyons and follow torturous routes. One can’t easily follow a river for a distance then take a shortcut across a meander to save days of travel. And if you do manage to exit a precipitous canyon, water is very difficult to find.
The beautiful Baja Peninsula, Mexico, is an extension of the Desert SW of the U.S.
Ancient Ones to Spain to Mexico to USA
This region has been occupied for thousands of years by native groups. Spanish explorers entered the region beginning in the 16th century. During America’s westward expansion in the 1800s, the Desert Southwest was merely a barrier to cross in order to reach California. Most of it then belonged to Spain, and all roads led to Santa Fe. This still-beautiful city was the only significant settlement in the entire region. Today you can see some of the earliest buildings constructed by white people on the North American continent in Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico (see image below).
But you do not have to travel very far to see houses built long before that. Chaco Canyon and other sites are what remains of the ancient ones. Ancestral Puebloans (aka Anasazi), and before them the Basketmakers, inhabited these parts for thousands of years. They had success farming maize (corn) and beans, and they even mined for copper, silver and gold.
A hike in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon takes you past the so-called Supernova pictograph.
Despite the area’s harsh climate and geography, this region has the longest history of European incursion in the west. That is because the Catholic Church in Spain, specifically the Jesuits, established missions here going back to the 16th century. Santa Fe was founded in 1608. That’s 12 years before 102 travellers aboard a ship called the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock.
The San Miguel Mission in Santa Fe, originally built in 1610.
Santa Fe is the oldest capital city on American soil. It served as the capital of New Mexico for Spain, then Mexico after their war of independence. It was not long Mexico’s, as in the 1840s first Texas, then the U.S. military fought for control of New Mexico. It was ceded to the U.S. in 1848 after the Mexican-American War.
Taos to the north is also very old. The famous American frontiersman, Kit Carson, who first arrived in Santa Fe in 1826 and made his fame as a mountain man, scout and fierce fighter, lived there for years with his Mexican wife Josefa. They had eight children together.
Window on the historic Kit Carson home: Taos, NM
The famous Santa Fe trail, like the Oregon Trail to the north, began as a trading route that later became much more important as a route carrying American settlers west. Unlike the Oregon Trail it traveled through truly hostile (American) Indian country. The Apaches and Comanche did not tolerate trespassers and were feared much more than most tribes to the north (some Sioux bands excepted).
An old trading post on the Santa Fe Trail, New Mexico.
Mining in the Southwest
The Desert Southwest has from the beginning of European exploration been a target of mining. While ranching and farming faced the realities of the region’s dry, harsh climate and geography, mining had “only” to overcome the fierce Apache. I mentioned the early missionary efforts by Spain. If you know anything about imperial Spain, you know their desire to bring savage tribes into the Catholic fold was only surpassed by their lust for silver and gold.
When the U.S. took control of the Southwest, mining continued. But since the American military generally had more success putting down native tribes than had the Spanish and Mexicans, and because the U.S. government put in place several incentives and subsidies (e.g. the 1872 Mining Act), mining bloomed in the region. For visitors interested in history and in exploring rural parts of the region, the remains of mines large and small are not hard to find. And so are the ghost towns that once boomed in support of the miners.
Old mine workings like this one are not hard to find if you ramble around exploring in the Southwest. This is in New Mexico’s Mogollon Mtns.
In the early 1850s Mormons began to settle the Desert Southwest. Originally settling the Salt Lake Valley, they soon pushed south into canyon country. The remains of their homesteads are visible in many places, and often in very scenic locations (see image below). Like the Catholics long before them, they too founded missions in order to convert the natives.
Cowboys & Indians
One final piece of the region’s history has perhaps received much more attention than it deserves from a historical perspective. Stories of the old west that romanticize cowboys and outlaws have always had the power to capture our attention. In the Desert SW you can visit the old hideouts of legends like Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy, James Averill and the Hole in the Wall Gang. It’s also easy to visit old movie sets and eat at the same cafes, drink at the same bars as did old-time movie stars like John Wayne and Gregory Peck.
Billy the Kid started young. Click image for the source webpage.
For example, Kanab, Utah celebrates the era of Hollywood westerns at the same time it enjoys its location close to scenic wonders like Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks. Monument Valley is a place where the Navajo Nation shares the spotlight not only with the dramatic scenery but with the area’s history as setting for the famous collaboration between director John Ford and actor John Wayne.
The old Mormon homestead at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.
Road Tripping the Southwest
It is somewhat overwhelming to contemplate a trip to this enormous region. You can too easily bite off more than you can chew. And you can’t have a good time if you’re behind the wheel for your whole vacation. Decide what you’d most like to see and how much time you have. Then decide whether you can swing several trips (preferable) or must choose the one area that most ignites your imagination.
In succeeding posts we will travel from west to east in a series of road trips. They are those I have done, many several times, and I chose them because they not only visit spectacular natural wonders but take off down two-lane country roads with only locals (mostly bovine) for company. The idea is to get you off the beaten track to see the charm of the rural Southwest. I’ll repeat myself: whatever you do don’t try to see everything at once. You can’t travel, for example, from Anza Borrego in California’s Mojave to New Mexico’s high desert and hope to see much outside of gas stations and roadside eateries. That is, unless you have at least 3 months to travel. Thanks for reading!
Sunset at Monument Valley.
I’ve posted this image before: dawn at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.
This is the second of three parts on creating alternate versions of the same basic image. Definitely check out Part I; these are meant to go together. Alternate versions are not totally different compositions, or one shot looking one direction and one the other. They are those images you may group together on the screen to review and compare.
Creating alternate versions can be as simple as shooting one horizontal and one vertical. Or it could be as complicated as shooting a dozen versions all with different combinations of variables. And speaking of those variables, let’s pick up where we left off last time and look at more ways to vary a landscape image.
- Focal Length. Changing focal length by a lot changes the whole image, by a lot. But we’re talking about alternate versions of the same image, so think zooming in or out by only modest amounts. The idea is to keep the main elements of the scene the same but perhaps include or exclude subsidiary elements. It’s similar in some ways to moving toward or away from the foreground, but although it’s often mistakenly thought that the two are identical, they will yield a different look.
A wider version of the above scene. In addition to shorter focal length, I lowered the point of view, putting the fence in a more prominent position and including more sky. The light is different too, as it was captured after sunrise.
- Depth of Field (DOF). Varying how much of the scene is in focus is something many people don’t consider for landscapes. Most of us always try for the maximum, sharp from front to back. But sometimes it’s interesting to limit depth of field for a shot or two after you get the standard landscape. If you are limiting DOF you may also vary the place where you are focusing. For maximum DOF you really don’t have much choice for point of focus; that is, there is a ‘right’ place to focus (the hyperfocal distance).
- Exposure Time. Another under-appreciated variable. For example most people get in the habit of shooting waterfalls in one way, using long exposure to smooth the water. Even when shooting this way you can get quite different looks and textures if you vary that longer exposure. Another example: changing shutter speed when there are moving clouds can totally change the look of the sky. Whenever there are elements moving in your frame, changing exposure time will give a different look.
Because of a somewhat dangerous position, I only had time for two versions of this spring along Oregon’s Hood River. This vertical has the longer exposure time. 28 mm., 6 sec. @ f/11, ISO 50.
For the horizontal I went with a relatively short exposure for more detail in the water. 24 mm., 0.8 sec. @ f/11, ISO 50.
- Light. This variable is a bit different than the others. You don’t have nearly as much control on light as you do the others. But you do have some. The classic example is that photographer who shoots the sun as it’s setting. Then after it disappears below the horizon you look over and they’re packing up, thus missing out on alternate shots under different light. Another example: you may like a composition so much that you go out to shoot it both at sunset and sunrise. If it’s close to home you might shoot it in golden autumn light, crystalline winter light and bright spring or summer light.
There are two main points I want to make. One is that there are always options and usually enough time to get at least a vertical if not other alternate versions of the same scene. And so I recommend trying to do at least two versions of each landscape (a vertical and horizontal). I also recommend that while you’re out shooting, at least initially, you think about which variables you changed and, more importantly, why. As you become more experienced you’ll shoot alternate versions more or less unconsciously.
Next week we’ll conclude with some thoughts on post-shot review and processing of alternate versions. Thanks very much for checking in this week. Have a great weekend and happy shooting!
Sometimes you only have a few seconds to get a single shot. That was the case as I hurried to board a ferry. This is a traditional fishing vessel along the coast of Burma (Myanmar).
While shooting the landscape of southern Utah, these hikers “rudely” inserted themselves into my photo. The nerve!
If you haven’t been following along, I’ve been doing a little series on the idea of flow in photography. Flow is that state of hyper-focus that we’ve all experienced, perhaps not enough in the modern era of distractions. Last week’s Foto Talk looked at people photography in general, but was biased toward portraiture. This week is a follow-up that focuses on my favorite kind of people photography: serendipitous candid shots done either traveling or while engaged with another subject (landscapes, as above, for example).
Two young Malawian boys who somehow didn’t become members of Madonna’s family.
Serendipity & Candids
Serendipity implies little or no thinking ahead. But it’s okay to have a general approach. It’ll vary depending on whether you know ahead of time that you’ll be photographing people. And whether or not you like shooting without first asking permission. But serendipity means at the very least that your subject(s) don’t know they’re going to appear in your photos until very close to the time you press the shutter.
- Why should you do this kind of photography? Say you’re traveling, whether on a short weekend trip close to home or half-way around the world. You naturally want pictures, right? Suppose on this trip you head out on foot to look for interesting stuff to photograph. You might think you’ll be shooting buildings and “the sights”, but in most places you will come across people as well. You already know they usually make the best images from a trip, and that’s because people speak to us of the place where they live much more strongly and eloquently than any building or mountain can.
I didn’t even think about a shot of this Rasta woodcarver on the shores of Lake Malawi until he took a smoke break. I think he represents well the chill atmosphere of the lakeside part of that country.
- So whether or not your goal on a shoot is to photograph people, be ready anytime you’re out in even a lightly populated area. I don’t always follow this advice, being somewhat shy most of the time. But traveling in foreign lands is different; I’m much more outgoing. I’ve learned that approaching people is easier than it seems. For one thing they may be just as curious about you as you are of them, and for another many people want to help visitors, and that includes helping them get good photos.
Usually I have trouble approaching girls this pretty, but she and her friends turned out to be full of fun and easy to shoot.
- The first question photographers who want candid travel shots ask themselves is, “to ask or not to ask first”. While I do shoot the occasional picture when someone isn’t expecting it, I normally ask first. But don’t make the mistake I made at first, which is to go right up and ask to shoot their picture.
- Instead of letting your camera get in the way right off the bat, spend a little time with people before asking to shoot. Minimize the fact you have a camera (I know, easier said than done when you have a big white lens!). Be curious about them, advice that applies to all photography subjects. And if you’re not genuinely curious, shoot something else.
- As with all people photography (and in fact all photography), have fun! When you approach strangers, joking around and even making a bit of a fool of yourself are sure-fire ice breakers.
This cute little Sherpa girl, who was shy at first, had such a big playful personality that I had to force myself to stop and get pictures.
- All this engagement takes more time than if you simply shoot and move on to the next subject. You may miss a shot or two by focusing on the person first and the pictures second. And you’ll probably get fewer photos. But the images you do get will hopefully be better, and most important they will mean more to you.
- Now it’s time to ask for pictures. You can simply smile and ask, or you can take more of an indirect approach. You could point out the aspects of the setting, light, or of your subject that attracted your attention and made you approach in the first place. Whatever you do, be honest about what you want and respect their decision if they decline.
At first, this beauty in a remote little Zambian village said no. I didn’t push, just photographed her friend who had said yes. Luckily she changed her mind.
- There is one more issue that inevitably comes up when doing this kind of travel photography, and that’s how to express your gratitude if they say yes. Your subject may request money, especially if you’re a tourist in a foreign country. If it’s obvious that you are better off financially than they are, it becomes even more of a temptation to pay. I generally don’t pay for pictures. But there are a few exceptions, such as when someone has organized a way to direct a little tourist money to local people and I really want the pictures. But I do believe that paying results in a less desirable relationship between photographer/tourist and subject/local. I also think there are too many other ways to show gratitude (see below). But ultimately whether or not you pay for pictures is a personal decision.
While I didn’t pay this young Sherpa in a Himalayan teahouse directly, I did tip him well.
- Showing gratitude and sharing your pictures is about more than just showing the back of your camera. While traveling I carry a small portable printer (Polaroid Pogo but there are others). I print a wallet-size picture direct from the camera and it’s always a hit. If they ask for emailed pictures, always always follow up. I recommend you use low-resolution versions that are good for computer display. Another great way to show gratitude if your subject is a vendor is to buy something.
Happy kids aren’t hard to find in Cambodia, but these “urchins” along Angkor Wat’s moat were quite excited when I handed out pictures (which a couple are holding). Note my little red printer at lower left.
That wraps up people photography & flow. I hope you enjoyed the pictures. Granted, some of the above points are not specific to the idea of flow. It is good advice whether or not you experience flow while shooting candids. But all of will help create a comfortable atmosphere, and to help both you and your subjects relax and have a good time. It doesn’t guarantee experiencing flow but it sure helps. Thanks for reading and have a grand weekend!
The sun sets on a southern Thailand beach as this fire-dancer practices for the evening performance.
Sunrise over Lake Powell at Lone Rock.
This is a follow-up to the recent series on photography in national parks. For these mini-series, they just seem to naturally make up the nice round number of three parts.
Closures & Budget
In one of those posts I listed some of my likes and dislikes on shooting in national parks. Here is one more pair:
Like: National parks are open all the time. Unlike state parks and some other protected areas, which are often closed from dusk to dawn, national parks are generally open 24/7/365. That means you can go out with your flashlight and hike down a trail to an overlook to gaze at stars (and photograph them). There are some exceptions, and because of the near universality of this always-open policy, it can be a rude surprise to learn after you’ve arrived to a park that it doesn’t really apply there. Make sure to check their website before heading out. A few of these exceptions are described below.
Dislike: The Park Service has an extremely limited budget and yet in many cases does not seem to know how to spend it wisely. They are constantly under threat of either being shut down or privatized. Politically it’s the right-wingers & anti-government tea party types who push this agenda. While I believe strongly that parks should remain public and that they’re too commercial as it is, I do notice the NPS wasting their limited funding.
For example, I think too much money is spent at Yellowstone and other popular parks on a police force that seems much more well-staffed than it needs to be. A law-enforcement ranger in an SUV costs a lot of money, much more than an educational ranger who spends a lot of time outside, on foot.
Several decades back the NPS committed strongly to ramping up their law enforcement, replacing real rangers with police in ranger outfits. I believe strongly that this was wrong, primarily because it took resources away from education and interpretation, the traditional role of a ranger. It’s not that I disagree with having cops around; crime takes place in parks just like it does anywhere. It’s just that in most cases the numbers of police is overkill. There are neighborhoods in many cities that would love to have half the police presence that Yellowstone has.
Orange lichen and sandstone in the Grand Staircase, southern Utah.
Exception 1: Chaco Canyon.
This former center of the Ancestral Puebloan (aka Anasazi) culture in New Mexico has a scenic loop road that is the only way to access most of the ruins and trails in this national historic park. In order to control potential poaching of archaeological resources, the park closes that road at dusk. I can personally attest to their strict enforcement at Chaco; they want you out before the sun disappears below the horizon. I had to talk to the superintendent to get a (spendy!) ticket dismissed because I was shooting at sunset and assumed a small grace period.
The supernova pictograph in Chaco Canyon is only accessible by hiking.
Exception 2: Mesa Verde.
Mesa Verde in Colorado is similar to Chaco. That is, there is no access to the cliff dwellings after sunset. The reason, as always, is to protect resources. While that is certainly understandable, resources need protection all the time. The real reason is the usual lack of staffing, a budget issue.
Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Utah.
Exception 3: White Sands National Monument.
This place in New Mexico has an unusual policy where they close the entrance gate from about dusk to dawn, with hours varying by season. It’s very much like a state park or wildlife refuge. The reason given is the adjacent missile range, so it’s a safety issue. But it’s also because they don’t have money to patrol at night. They are happy to open early for sunrise or stay late if you pay them $50 per extra hour, which is actually a pretty good deal if you have a group. But really: the military doesn’t have money to patrol their own boundaries?
Early morning at White Sands, New Mexico.
DUSK TO DAWN CLOSURES
When protected areas are closed at night it can create a problem for landscape & nature photographers, even those who don’t want to shoot the stars. Because of the need to concentrate our shooting at dawn and dusk, it can be quite difficult to properly shoot at sunset and get out by nightfall. No good photographer packs up right after the sun dips below the horizon, for one thing. The best light often comes after that.
I’ve found that many state parks will give you a decent grace period; you’re okay until it is fully dark. Even so, when you hike a fair distance to a sunset spot, it’s well and truly dark when you return to the car. A grace period won’t help in that case.
Another recent image from the Grand Staircase, Utah.
Although (some) state and other parks may show some flexibility, things are different at national and state wildlife refuges. These sites are managed for wildlife not people, so don’t expect much if any consideration. Some areas, in fact, are closed to entry day and night. And it’s common to close areas seasonally for breeding birds. I’ve heard of people being jailed for entering wildlife refuges, even those without firearms. Poaching is a big problem at many refuges, so it’s perfectly understandable.
But I often wish for a world without so many rules. Most are made and enforced because of a very small minority of people who can’t seem to figure out how to behave. But it’s all of us who have to suffer for it. I suppose it’s one of those things that can’t be helped, so why stress about it?
That’s it for this week. I may have come off as a bit of a grump, but that’s not really me at all. I’m actually very happy having all these fantastic places to shoot and play. But the main reason for my appreciation is that it’s unlike so much of what humans do, which is the result of rather selfish, short-term thinking. But parks and preserves are set aside for future generations and thus arise from more enlightened long-term thinking. Have a great weekend and happy shooting!
Sunset at Coral Pink Sand Dunes, a state park near the much more famous Zion National Park, Utah.
A rare selfie in one of the narrow canyons of Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada.
Time for a themed post: Narrow. It’s this week’s WPC travel theme, so check out all the other entries.
I’ll start out close to home: Oregon’s Oneonta Gorge. Nowadays it is quite famous, but I recall a time when only locals knew about it. In the warmer months hordes of people hike up the short narrows, wading through the cool water to escape the heat. In just a half-mile or less your progress is halted by a tall waterfall, where you can climb up a short way and jump off into the pool below. So refreshing!
Green Oneonta Gorge, Oregon
The narrows at Oneonta Gorge, full of water during the heavy rains of early Spring.
My pictures of Oneonta, however, were all captured in the worst weather I could manage, normally winter or early spring. The canyon is at its greenest and the mossy walls drip with tiny waterfalls. At these times it is dangerous to go further than the log jam. The water is deep and swift and believe me, you wouldn’t want to be swept under the logs. They would be pulling your body out later.
These logs testify to the power of Oneonta Creek when it floods during heavy rains.
Wading through the icy water of Oneonta Creek during a winter storm.
While most of the canyons in this amazing place are not the ultra-narrow slots common to the Colorado Plateau, the park does boast a plethora of narrow canyons to explore. One of the most famous is Titus Canyon. Most times you can drive this canyon. You leave the park on the east side and then re-enter it by descending Titus, passing a ghost town along the way. There are other canyons near Titus that represent great hiking destinations. Just hike north from the parking lot at the mouth of Titus Canyon.
You can drive down one of Death Valley’s largest canyons, Titus.
For a canyon hike in Death Valley, the one I most often recommend is Marble Canyon. Access it by driving the dirt road from Stovepipe Wells, passable in a 2-wheel drive car (but check at the ranger station). Walking up-canyon, you soon reach the narrows, where canyon walls reach hundreds of feet into the sky. On a hot day try pressing your whole body against the grey limestone canyon walls. Definitely a cooling experience! By continuing up-canyon you eventually come to the beautiful marble that it’s named for. Most of the way you are passing through limestone, stacks and stacks of it piled into layers at the bottom of the sea hundreds of millions of years ago.
Marble Canyon, Death Valley National Park, California.
SLOTS of the COLORADO PLATEAU
Spreading across southern Utah, northern Arizona and part of Colorado is an enormous feature called the Colorado Plateau. It is an uplifted landscape characterised by naked sandstone bedrock. Known throughout the world for its iconic scenery, the plateau is dissected by countless canyons of all description.
The heart of the Colorado Plateau is incised by the meandering San Juan River, Utah.
The Grand Canyon is of course the biggest, but many are so narrow that you have to squeeze yourself through. These are the famous narrow gorges called slot canyons. They formed because, during the plateau’s uplift (at the same time as the Rocky Mountains rose), fractures developed much like a rising loaf of bread. It is along these fractures that the slots have been eroded by a combination of freeze-thaw action and flowing water.
One of the biggest concentrations of slot canyons lies in Zion National Park. Many of these are accessible to any adventurous hiker – for example the two most popular hikes: the Narrows and the Subway. But some others require specialized equipment. Being a popular national park, there are plenty of outfitters who will guide you safely through the technical slots. If you’ve never done any canyoneering before, let me tell you: it’s a blast!
Zion Canyon from Angel’s Rest. The famous Narrows of the Virgin River are at the head of the canyon in the background.
If you want to hike the Subway, I recommend either getting a permit way ahead of time or doing it off-season. Permits are required April through October, so November is a perfect time to do it. It’s not a short hike but anybody in good shape and with some experience should have no problem.
The Subway in Zion National Park, Utah.
Yet it’s easy to get a feel for slot canyons without investing a lot of time. Simply drive up to East Zion (beyond the tunnels), park at a likely spot and set off up one of the canyons, turning around at your whim (or when your way is blocked). This is a great way to explore the park.
A side-canyon in East Zion, Utah.
To the east of Zion is another wonderland of slots: the Escalante country. A drive down Hole in the Rock Road near the town of Escalante brings you to numerous hikes into the typically narrow tributary canyons of the Escalante River. You don’t have to brave that long washboard road, however. Get a good map and explore the numerous canyons accessible from Highway 12.
There is such a thing as a slot that is too narrow: southern Utah.
Nearby Bryce Canyon, while not known for slot canyons, nevertheless has an amazing hike you should do if you visit. It drops below the rim and wanders among the hoodoos (rock pinnacles) that make the park famous. It’s like a maze of narrow passages, including one named Wall Street (image below).
Aptly-named Wall Street in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.
Capitol Reef National Park also has some amazing narrow canyon hikes. One I can recommend hiking is the strangely-named Muley Twist Canyon. Drive the Burr Trail Road (an adventure in itself) and near its summit you can hike either up- or down-canyon, exploring Muley Twist to your heart’s content. A shorter canyon hike at Capitol Reef is Grand Wash, located at the end of the scenic drive (turn off at the Visitor Center).
The Wave is a sculpted stretch of sandstone in southern Utah.
Continuing east across the plateau you’ll find more fun canyons to explore in the Moab area, including Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. You could spend your whole life doing nothing but hiking canyons on the Colorado Plateau and never finish with them. There are just so many. It’s a true wonderland. But be smart when you go canyon hiking. Take the ten essentials plus a hiking partner (or at least let someone know where you’re going and when to expect your return).
A slot in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.
Squeezing through a slot canyon.
Thanks for looking!
Since I’ve been shooting a few more abstracts recently I thought I’d join in on this week’s travel theme. The theme appears on Ailsa’s blog Where’s My Backpack? Hope you enjoy!
Algae releasing oxygen for us to breathe during photosynthesis in a meltwater pond at Mt. St. Helens.
Springwater collects in a small canyon at Snow Canyon State Park, Utah.
A burned lodgepole pine forest in Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.
Canyon scene reflected in a stream, southern Utah.
Agave in Mexico is backlit by a setting sun.
Banded sandstone appears to flow at The Wave in southern Utah.
Fine clay at the bottom of the amazing Utah slot canyon Buckskin Gulch.
Kolob Terrace in Zion National Park wakes up to a cloudy dawn.
I’m finally concluding this series with tips on photography at Zion National Park. Believe it or not I will get back to regular Friday Foto Talk posts next week, promise!
Actually, there is one extra topic for Zion that I’ve been avoiding, at least until I get back there for more shots that match the theme. That’s life and biodiversity at Zion. With the great variation in elevation and available water in the park, there is an amazing diversity of plants and animals.
For example it’s relatively easy to see desert bighorn sheep but much tougher to find the Zion snail, or to notice other interesting plant and animal species. But it’s certainly a worthwhile topic to learn about, especially if you’re a nature photographer. Here’s a good website for that.
A family of bighorn sheep survey their realm in East Zion.
I feel the same way about telling you what and where to shoot as I do recommending specific places to go. I don’t want to be like that tour guide who leads you to some viewpoint where he looks expectantly at you and your camera. Then he’s slightly annoyed if instead of taking a picture where everybody else does you stop and shoot in odd places, throwing a wrench in his agenda. But I do want to provide some guidance. It’s a fine line, so please consider the following as suggestions only.
The road in Zion Canyon is lined with beautiful cottonwoods.
PHOTOS AT SUNRISE
East Zion is my favorite area to shoot at sunrise. Hiking up the slickrock where it’s not too steep will get you the necessary elevation above the road. Tip: you can walk very steep sandstone slickrock without slipping because it offers amazing friction, belying its name. You’ll see most people shooting from near the road, but that follows a canyon, often putting you just a little too low.
A full waterpocket reflects the light of sunset at Zion National Park.
Waterpockets are pools of water that hang around on the sandstone bedrock well after rains. Do some exploring during the day and try to find some of these at Zion. You’ll have much more luck in East Zion than elsewhere, but anywhere high up, like Kolob Terrace or up on one of the rims of Zion Canyon, offers good waterpocket hunting. Of course if you’re there off-season, by next morning you could find your pool frozen. But so much the better!
Canyon Hiking in the early morning can offer very nice image possibilities. Most canyons face generally west, but in the right light, shooting in canyon bottoms at Zion is perfect (and uncrowded!) at sunrise.
A walk in any wet canyon bottom can reward with simple pleasures like this swirling eddy.
PHOTOS AT SUNSET
Zion Canyon faces southwest, so late afternoon light tends to flood up the canyon in fall when the sun is to the south. When the sun sets more directly west in spring and summer the sun sets behind mountains. But you’ll still have good shooting if some clouds are around reflecting and sweetening the light.
The Virgin River at sunset is a nice low-energy thing to try. Walk anywhere along its length from the entrance on up to the Narrows. Even with the sun itself obscured you may get that special glow seeping down into the canyon bottom.
Hike high up on Zion Canyon’s sides, as high as energy and terrain allow. Then you can either shoot up-canyon in front-light or down-canyon in back-light. I have several spots like this that I’m fond of. I gave away one in the last post (whinny!), so I’ll keep the rest to myself and let you find your own.
I found this view of the Patriarchs while stumbling around up on the sides of Zion Canyon
Kolob Terrace is great at sunset, or sunrise if clouds are kicking around. Drive up the road from Virgin early so you can do some exploring to find unique perspectives.
The Kolob Canyons area also faces west, so going up there for sunset, then heading back down to camp at Red Cliffs Campground is a good plan. It’s at the mouth of a lovely wet canyon that faces east for sunrise photos.
Ranch Land on the western approach to the park offers nice front-light in late afternoon. Fall colors here linger a bit longer than higher in the canyons. You can find peaceful pastures to shoot with Eagle Crags in the background (Eagle Crags is a good off-beat place to hike to as well).
Horses and Eagle Crags near Rockdale, not far outside Zion National Park.
Anywhere: If you’re lucky enough to have stormy weather at Zion, or the daytime light is otherwise spectacular, try any of the above ideas, or just wander around with your eyes open.
The Canyon Overlook Trail near the east tunnel entrance, while it’s best at sunrise, offers a spectacular view of Pine Creek Canyon at any time.
I got lucky with stormy weather one early morning from Canyon Overlook.
Riparian Zones are plant-filled riverside canyon bottoms. They’re a challenge to shoot because of all the “stuff”. But they are nonetheless worthwhile places to look for intimate landscapes. Try walking Pine Creek either up or downstream from the bridge.
The Aeries of Angel’s Landing and Observation Point are sublime spots for overview shots of the canyon.
There are plenty of other places to shoot at Zion if you do some wandering around. And I haven’t even spoken of all the places outside the park. So use your imagination and don’t follow the crowd.
That’s it, we’re done! I hope you’ve enjoyed the series, and the pictures as well. I was surprised I had so many that were worthy of posting. But would you think me greedy if I said I wanted more? Have a great time at Zion National Park!
Hiking up on the steep slickrock of East Zion at sunset I found this image with the crescent moon. Worth a dark hike back down.
A soggy-sneakers shot of the Virgin River, upper Zion Canyon.
We’re almost finished with Zion National Park! I’ve gone into a bit more detail than I expected I would. Last post was a guide for first-timers. This post suggests places to go if you’re planning a return trip. But even first-timers will find the following useful if planning a little more time for in-depth exploration of the park.
IF YOU ARE RETURNING TO ZION
Do the Narrows: A return trip is the time to get off the beaten track by visiting one of the northern areas and/or hiking into the backcountry. The Narrows is the most famous back-country hike at Zion (closely followed by the Subway below). You’ll need a permit and car shuttle to do the usual one-night backpack trip, but it can be done as an out and back from the end of the road in Zion Canyon.
Do some research and planning for the Narrows, starting of course at NPS’s site. And for any back-country exploration a great website is Canyoneering USA. Tom Jones (no not that Tom Jones!) writes for this site, and he also has a classic guidebook for Zion.
Hike the Subway: Situated in the Left Fork of North Creek off of Kolob Terrace Road, the 9+ mile hike to the Subway has become extremely popular in recent years. In fact, so popular that the NPS has a lottery permit system in place if you’re doing it from March through October. Check the NPS site for details. Another popular slot canyon with a lottery system is Mystery Canyon.
A hike along Left Fork offers image possibilities galore.
Of course your pictures of the Subway itself are not exactly going to be breaking new ground. But it’s a fantastic canyon filled with photo opportunities. It’s also a great challenge if you’re trying to “up your game” in terms of canyoneering. If you plan to do an overnighter here, you’ll need a permit from the Park Service. You can hike the Subway from the bottom-up and back or as a top-down semi-technical descent (entering from above the Subway). Either way plan to get your feet wet.
Almost posted my shot of the Subway itself, but I don’t want to ruin it for you in case you’re not looking at any photos before you go there. This is looking down-canyon in Left Fork at sunset.
Do an off-trail canyon adventure. Several companies offer guided hikes in canyons where you’ll generally need a shuttle and knowledge to get to remote trailheads. You can also descend one of the amazing technical canyons at Zion.
Canyoneering here (called canyoning in Europe) is renowned far and wide. It requires rope and other gear, plus experience if you’re not going to do a course with one of the outfitters. For photography you’ll need to leave the DSLR behind or have a foolproof way to keep your gear dry. One of the best sources of information on canyoning at Zion is Tom Jones and CUSA
Hike Kolob Canyons. This is the separate part of the park to the north off I-15. The Taylor Creek trail is wonderful and feels very uncrowded compared to Zion Canyon’s trails. For a longer walk, Kolob Arch (one of the world’s largest arches) is amazing and even less peopled. I did the roughly 14-mile round trip and saw no other people. No campground exists at Kolob Canyons, but there is one to the south at Red Cliffs Recreation Area, at the mouth of a gorgeous canyon I strongly recommend exploring.
Red Cliffs Recreation Area, although it isn’t in the park, is nonetheless a marvelous place to go.
Drive to Lava Point. The Kolob Terrace Road, which starts near the town of Virgin, is a beautiful drive up to Zion’s high country. Go past the trail-head for the Subway and let your imagination be your guide. You’ll pass large monoliths that beg to be explored off-trail (remember, don’t trample the biological crust). Or hike one of the trails near Lava Point. Sunset from this area offers the opportunity to shoot unique pictures of the park. There’s a campground up here too!
Hike Zion Top-to-Bottom. A memorable way to enter Zion Canyon is to do a long one-way hike from the high plateau to the canyon bottom. For West Rim, you’ll leave your car in Springdale (outside of shuttle season leave it at the Grotto). Then drive or get shuttled up to the Lava Point Trailhead. Then it’s about 14 miles and 3700 feet down to the canyon. Healthy knees required!
For East Rim, get shuttled or drive a second car to the trailhead near the east entrance and hike 11 miles one-way to Weeping Rock trailhead in the canyon. At first you climb gently, then it’s rolling until the big descent to the canyon floor. From there you take the shuttle or pick up the car you left outside of shuttle season. You can also start from East Mesa Trailhead; local shuttle drivers know where this is.
If you’re cheap like me and don’t want to pay for the shuttle you just hike from the east entrance, descend to the canyon, then climb back out for a very exhausting 20-miler. I did it in combination with my mountain bike, but that’s because I didn’t know that wasn’t allowed! For West Rim without a shuttle, do it from the bottom up: a 2500-foot elevation gain and drop. You don’t go all the way to Lava Point unless it’s an overnighter. Instead turn around at West Rim Spring.
Both of these hikes can be done as overnight backpack trips (where you’ll need a permit) and both are fantastic. The West Rim route is longer and more diverse while the East Rim trip accesses more side-trails for a backpack trip.
Desert bighorn sheep prefer the higher country at Zion.
Ride a horse up on Sand Bench. In season (March – October) you can ride horses at Zion. Though you can do a short jaunt along the Virgin River, a better way to become one with your mount is on a longer ride on the enormous slump block (type of landslide, see Part I) that is Sand Bench. Prices are fairly reasonable I believe, though I don’t pay for riding horses (spent too much feeding mine!).
For photography, hiking the 3-mile Sand Bench loop at sunset is a winner. Pack a good flashlight for the hike down. I personally resist the temptation to join all those other photogs. on the bridge over the Virgin River in the lower canyon. I don’t want the same exact picture as everybody else has. Which brings me to the topic for my final post in this series: Photography at Zion.
That’s it for now. Enjoy ‘going deep’ at Zion, and have a wonderful week.
Prickly pear cactus growing high above the Virgin on the Sentinel Slide (aka Sand Bench).
Fall hikes in Zion’s side-canyons can bring you to splashes of color like this.
Let’s continue the series on Zion National Park with specific recommendations on places to go. I’m not really one to try and “guide” people on their travels. Sure, I’ll have to get used to it if I decide to hang out a shingle and start leading photo trips. But I believe once you have a general feel for an area, and as long as you have an adventurous spirit, you can do just fine on your own. The key is having the time and desire to fumble around on your initial visit. So to avoid some of that read on.
Detail of fractured cross-bedded sandstone on Checkerboard Mesa, East Zion.
IF THIS IS YOUR FIRST TRIP:
Zion Canyon is a must-see. So considering its popularity it’s a good idea to plan your first trip for a less-busy time. Try early spring, say mid-Feb. to early March. The front or tail ends of fall color are good too. Forests of tripods sprout at Zion during peak fall color in late October & early November. The NPS actually publishes visitor numbers by month, so by all means check that page out when planning a trip.
In springtime of course you’ll have longer days than in late autumn. Plan at least two and probably three days for the main part of Zion. That’s one full day for the canyon and a day each for East Zion and a longer hike. The 3rd day could also be spent driving up Kolob Terrace or Kolob Canyons.
Walk along the Riverside: Do an easy stroll along the Virgin River. Or better yet two walks: in the lower canyon from the visitor center, and at the upper canyon’s Riverside Walk. Both the Pa’rus Trail from the visitor center and the Riverside Walk up-canyon are wheelchair-accessible.
At sunset there are many photo opportunities along the canyon bottom, especially with fall colors. For the upper Riverside Walk, if you’re willing to get your feet wet, your photos will be better for it. Photographers more prepared and more averse to wet feet than I am use hip-waders. If you continue up into the Narrows, make sure you’re prepared by talking it over with a ranger.
Dusk along the Virgin River in the lower canyon near Springdale.
Short Hike to Emerald Pools or Hidden Canyon: If it isn’t too busy (go early morning), Emerald Pools is definitely worthwhile. The trailhead leaves from the Zion Lodge shuttle stop and it’s about 3 miles round-trip. Up-canyon from Emerald is the trailhead for Weeping Rock. Do the short walk to the crybaby rock then take the trail on up to Hidden Canyon. It’s a fairly short but steep hike. For more strenuous hikes, read on…
Climb to a Canyon Viewpoint: If you have the energy and time, do a longer hike in the Canyon. The same trail to Hidden Canyon climbs steeply beyond to an amazing bird’s-eye view at Observation Point. It’s 8 miles round-trip with a 2100-foot elevation gain. There is another way to get to this outstanding viewpoint, but it requires driving to East Mesa trailhead over a rutted road. Any vehicle with decent clearance should have no problem, though if it’s wet or snowy up there forget it.
On my first day in the canyon back in the early ’90s I hiked to Observation Pt. then got lost coming back down off-trail. Got cliffed-out, had to turn around, saw big cat tracks, and hiked back in the dark. In other words a typical hike for me at the time. But it was such a great intro. to the area.
Zion Canyon from a high viewpoint along a sheep trail.
Angel’s Landing, despite its harrowing reputation, is quite a popular hike. So do it early. From the Grotto shuttle stop, you ascend the west (left) canyon wall 2.4 miles and 1500 feet to a jaw-dropping view. The last 1/2 mile is true mountain-goat territory, so no small kids and no fear of heights allowed!
Explore East Zion: East Zion is a spectacular area of the park, and is also your best chance to see bighorn sheep. Don’t miss it. Head past the turnoff for the main canyon and drive up the switchbacks, through the tunnels and into a land of slickrock and pinyon pine. Park wherever you see an interesting side-canyon and simply walk up it, turning around as you please. If you keep going you’ll be stopped sooner or later anyway by intimidating cliff walls.
Canyon Overlook is a wonderful little trail that begins at the first (longer) tunnel’s east entrance. The trail is quite popular and parking is limited. So I recommend doing this at dawn for the great photo opportunities at trail’s end. Except for this trail and the long one near the park’s east entrance, no other marked trails exist in East Zion. But don’t let that stop you from exploring the area on foot.
About Foot Travel at Zion:
- Be kind to the environment and if you’re off-trail walk on sandy canyon-bottoms or on bare sandstone slickrock. Avoid the crusty and fragile soil at Zion and throughout the Southwest. It’s actually alive!
- At Zion you have quite a lot of choice, anything from simple hikes (on- or off-trail) to technical canyoneering descents.
- Not to discourage you from exploring off-trail, but use good judgment. If you head up (or worse, down) some random canyon on your own, realize it’s quite easy to get in over your head. You may end up wondering when your simple canyon walk turned into technical canyoning without a rope (which I can say from cruel experience is not a very good feeling!).
- Putting all the above together, think about signing up with one of the specialty outfitters for a guided canyon adventure. I’m sorry I can’t make personal recommendations since I haven’t used any guides at Zion. To research the park’s guides, Google away!
Next time we’ll go deeper with some lesser known places to explore at Zion. Perfect for repeat visitors or people who have more time on a first visit. Have a wonderful week everyone!
This spectacularly cross-bedded Navajo Sandstone could be mistaken for being at Zion, but it’s not far away in Snow Canyon State Park.
A fall scene along Pine Creek’s canyon bottom, Zion N.P.
Happy New Year! Friday Foto Talk will return next week. Let’s continue the travel series on Zion National Park in Utah.
Zion is the 7th most popular national park in the U.S. More than 3 million people visited last year alone! What makes it feel more crowded than a park like Yellowstone (which sees at least a half million more annual visitors than Zion) is that most people come to see a single strip of ground: Zion Canyon. The mandatory shuttle system has helped greatly, but the main entrance at Springdale is very much a hectic bottleneck at busy times.
Zion is popular for good reason; it’s spectacular! By all means plan a visit. This post (plus the next one) is to help you navigate the numbers of people and have a great time. I’ll begin with some basic tips on travel to Zion, then next time get more specific with recommendations on places to see and photograph for both first-time and repeat visitors. For planning online, start with the Park Service’s Zion site.
One of Zion’s best-known landmarks, the Great White Thrown rises far above the Virgin River.
WHEN TO GO:
Summer is busier than other times of course, and the heat can get pretty intense while hiking the usually shade-free trails. I would avoid summer weekends unless you’re planning on getting way off the beaten track and well away from Zion Canyon.
One good thing about summer, at least for photographers, is the late summer monsoon rains. This weather pattern, widespread across the Southwest from July to early September, can bring spectacular clouds in the afternoon. Just be careful. Don’t get caught in high, exposed places when lightning is in the sky.
Spring is a great time to come to Zion. The flowers are blooming and crowds are not normally what summer and some fall weekends can bring. Higher elevations like Kolob Canyons may remain snow-covered well into spring.
The mandatory shuttle up and down Zion Canyon begins in mid-March, so weekends leading up to that time can be pretty busy in the canyon. If you’re planning to hike the narrows or do any other canyoneering, spring is when water levels are highest, making some canyons difficult or impossible. In fact, if you plan to do much slot canyon exploration at Zion, I’d recommend summer or early fall.
Spring is the time of blooming cactus!
Autumn is a fantastic time to visit the park. Fall colors in the canyons start around mid-October and run to about mid-November. Starting 1st of November the shuttle quits running and cars are allowed in Zion Canyon. Since this is usually prime time for fall colors as well, early November (especially weekends) can be quite crowded.
The long Thanksgiving weekend is the de facto finish to the season at Zion. The shuttle runs then however, making the canyon much nicer without all the cars of other November weekends. Visitors largely disappear after Thanksgiving.
Winter is a delightfully uncrowded time to visit Zion. Last week of December can see a jump in visitors, but generally low temps. keep numbers down. In some years, December and then again starting in late February, Zion is blessed with perfect late autumn or early spring-like weather.
Unless you want the best chance for snow, I’d avoid January. But in any shoulder season expect cold mornings. Snow is not infrequent at these times, more so in East Zion and to the north in Kolob Canyons. Cross-country skiing is possible at these times.
A hike through the snow along Taylor Creek in Zion’s Kolob Canyons area.
Zion is located in the southwestern corner of Utah. The nearest city of any size is Las Vegas, but Salt Lake City is not too far either. St. George, about a 45-minute drive from Springdale, is the largest nearby town. It’s the best place to fill up with gas and stock up on groceries or camping gear.
Most visitors either drive their own cars or fly into Vegas or Salt Lake City and rent a car. You don’t need four-wheel drive unless you’re planning to go into remote areas of the Grand Staircase. But you’ll be happy to have a vehicle with decent ground clearance if you’re doing a self-drive tour of the Southwest.
And for many, Zion is part of a grand tour of the desert southwest, one that includes other parks in the area like Bryce Canyon, Arches, etc. Just be careful you’re not leaving too little time for this kind of trip. Don’t make the common mistake and do what ends up to be one long drive with short stops to look at rocks! If you’re coming from afar, consider two separate trips to the region.
There are two entrances to the main part of Zion. One is at Springdale on the west end and this is by far the busiest. The east entrance is perfect if you’re coming from Page, AZ or Bryce Canyon. There are two areas to the NW of Zion Canyon: Kolob Canyons is accessible off I-15 between Cedar City and St. George; and Kolob Terrace (including the Subway hike) is accessed by a road heading north from the town of Virgin, not far west of Springdale.
The magnificence of East Zion in black and white.
WHERE TO STAY & GETTING AROUND
The choice of whether to camp or stay in a motel or lodge depends on the nature of your trip and your preferences. Either is perfectly suitable for Zion. By camping you have a bit more versatility, but the two campgrounds near the Visitor Center (Watchman and South) fill up every day in the busy season. Besides those two, there’s only one other campground inside the park, Lava Point high up on Kolob terrace.
For camping March through November at these two campgrounds you can make reservations up to 6 months ahead of time. A loop with electrical hookups is kept open through the winter at Watchman Campground. Lava Point is first-come first-serve and closes for winter. Several campgrounds exist outside the park, open seasonally. Check the NPS site for details on camping.
If you have a small RV/van you can find spots to free-camp in remote areas outside the park. But that depends to some extent on season and whether you’re the type to fly “under the radar”. For either camping in the canyon or staying at a lodge/motel in Springdale, make reservations as far ahead of time as possible. Failing that show up in the morning on weekdays. Zion Lodge is an option if money is no object. If you stay there you get to drive your car up the canyon during shuttle season.
You don’t even have to leave Springdale and enter the park for views like this.
The great thing about staying in Springdale or camping in the canyon is that you can park your car and not get back behind the wheel for the duration of your visit. A free town shuttle runs along the main highway from Springdale to the entrance area, where you can hop on the park’s free shuttle and continue all the way up-canyon, getting off and back on as you please. The last shuttle heads back down-canyon at 11 p.m. You’ll need a car to visit East Zion and also for Kolob Terrace and Kolob Canyons.
Several companies offer shuttles and tours throughout the park. It’s a nice option if you want to limit your driving and concentrate on sight-seeing. A shuttle is necessary if you have only one car and you’re planning a thru-hike of the Narrows or other one-way hikes. Let’s face it. Getting around is easiest when chauffeured by a local. So whether you hire a one-off shuttle or spend one or more of your days fully guided, going with one of the local tour companies means you have one less thing to worry about.
That brings us finally to the point of recommending places to go and photograph. And without presuming to tell you exactly how your visit should go, the next post in the series is a guide to making the most of your time at Zion, whether it’s your first, second or tenth visit. Have a wonderful 2016!
View across to Mountain of the Sun from atop the Sentinel Slide, Zion N.P.