Archive for the ‘Zion National Park’ Tag

Friday Foto Talk: Alternate Compositions of the Same Image   2 comments

Dawn and part of a frozen waterfall in Zion National Park.

Dawn and part of a frozen waterfall in Zion National Park.  16 mm., 1.6 sec. @ f/11, ISO 100

Sometimes you have just one opportunity to get a shot.  You have to whip that camera up and shoot.  If you’re not ready the moment is gone.  But more often there is time to capture different versions of the same subject.  Since landscape photography is so applicable to this, and because I do a lot of it (I’m not alone!), I’m going to use landscape photography to illustrate ways to create alternate versions of an image.

There are several main ways to vary a landscape shot.  Let’s look at those that change the composition but keep the same main elements of the scene the same.

  • Format.  Changing between horizontal (or landscape) and vertical (portrait) formats is the easiest way to create alternate versions of an image.  Normally a vertical emphasizes the height of things like trees and mountains.  It can also give a greater sense of depth.  Horizontals emphasize a sense of space and can lend a serene feel to a landscape.  I usually try to get both unless the picture definitely lends itself to one or the other.
  • Point of View.  Point of view (POV) can be changed in many ways.  I did a mini-series on POV that explores this very important subject.  One of the most common ways to vary POV is by changing camera height.  Depending on how close the foreground is, changing height will also change the distance to that foreground, which can greatly change the look of an image.
Vertical of the image at top. I lowered POV, got closer to the foreground and thus emphasized the ice and sandstone while reducing the apparent size and importance of the background mountains and sky.

Vertical of the image at top. I lowered POV, got closer to the foreground and thus emphasized the ice and sandstone while reducing the apparent size and importance of the background mountains and sky.  16 mm., 1.3 sec. @ f/11, ISO 100.

  • Proportion of Sky vs. Land.  Changing POV in turn can change this variable.  It involves changing the relative amount of sky vs. land in the image, a very common thing for landscapers to do.  For example, simply tilting the camera down or shortening your tripod legs takes you from an image dominated by sky to one dominated by the landscape below.  The possible variants are nearly endless.  For example you can change from nearly fifty-fifty to almost all land with just a sliver of sky.  You could even shoot with the horizon in the middle, but that works well only in certain situations.
  • Distance from Subject/Foreground.  As long as you don’t exclude a main element (in which case it’s a different picture), you can change the feel by simply moving closer to or further from the closest element in the frame.  Try doing this without changing any of the variables above.  It’s hard to do, isn’t it?
Catching a rainbow at Vista House in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge.

A rainbow and a tall fir tree frame Vista House in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge.  35 mm., 0.4 sec. @ f/11, ISO 100.

As just mentioned it can be tough to change just a single variable when you’re taking multiple shots of the same thing.  Of course you don’t have to limit yourself to one variable.  And you shouldn’t.  We’re not doing science experiments, we’re shooting pictures.  But if you’re curious and want to see more clearly what the effects of changing a certain variable look like, go ahead and control the other variables.  Play scientist for awhile.

Next time we’ll look at a few other variables you can change to create alternate versions of your landscape images.  Thanks for reading.  Have a fun weekend, one filled with laughter and plenty of pictures!

Which version do you like, this horizontal or the vertical above?  By changing format & using a slightly longer focal length, the tree and top of the rainbow are cropped off.  The light has also changed slightly.  50 mm., 0.5 sec. @ f/13, ISO 100.

 

Narrow   21 comments

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.

ONEONTA GORGE

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

Green Oneonta Gorge, Oregon

The narrows at Oneonta Gorge, full of water during the heavy rains of early Spring.

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.

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.

 

DEATH VALLEY

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

A slot in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

Squeezing through a slot canyon.

Squeezing through a slot canyon.

Thanks for looking!

Visiting Zion National Park – Part VII: Photography   6 comments

The Kolob Terrace part of Zion National Park wakes up to a cloudy sunrise.

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.

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

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.

PHOTOS ANYTIME

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 unique sunset shot with the crescent moon.

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.

Visiting Zion National Park – Part VI   8 comments

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.

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.

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 up on the Sentinel Slide (aka Sand Bench).

Prickly pear cactus growing high above the Virgin on the Sentinel Slide (aka Sand Bench).

Visiting Zion National Park – Part V   2 comments

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.

Sandstone detail on Checkerboard Mesa, East Zion.

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.

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. 

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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.

 

Visiting Zion National Park – Part IV   6 comments

A fall scene along the Pine Creek canyon bottom, Zion N.P.

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.

A hike through the snow along Taylor Creek in Zion’s Kolob Canyons area.

GETTING THERE

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.

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.

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.

View across to Mountain of the Sun from atop the Sentinel Slide, Zion N.P.

 

Visiting Zion National Park: Part III   10 comments

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Morning light at chilly East Zion.

Let’s continue the series on Zion National Park in Utah by picking up the story of human presence in this southwestern corner of Utah.  For the history of the ancient ones, the American Indian at Zion, check out Part II, and for the geologic history and formation of Zion, see Part I.

EARLY EXPLORERS

During the time leading up to the mid-1800s, the Zion area was wild and populated thinly by the Southern Paiute.  They may have avoided Zion Canyon itself because they believed it was inhabited by capricious spirits.  Their names for features in the canyon indicate as much: Temple of Sinawava (Coyote the trickster), Mount Wynopits (god of evil), etc.  All this time the area was claimed by Spain, and then by Mexico once they had gained independence.

In the late 1700s Spanish explorers penetrated southern Utah, apparently missing the Zion region.  But the reports of Escalante, Dominguez and Rivera, and the beautiful maps of the artist-cartographer Bernardo Miera, greatly helped later white settlers.  In particular the Mormons were intrigued by the Spaniards’ tales of Utah, a fact that would determine the future for the Zion area.

Bernardo de Miera's map of the 1776 Dominguez-Escalante expedition. Click image to go to source website.

Bernardo de Miera’s map of the 1776 Dominguez-Escalante expedition. Click image to go to source website.

In the early 1800s, trappers and mountain men, while mostly staying to the north and east, did explore Utah.  They found (a word I use loosely) many of the old Indian trails like the Old Spanish Trail.  These would several decades later be used by white settlers.  John Fremont explored Utah in the mid 1840s but he too missed Zion.

It should be noted however that the quirky and tough mountain men befriended many natives that they met.  (They preferred Indian to white women as brides.)  Some of them took secrets of their travels to their graves.  So the odd mountain man could have walked up the Virgin River looking for beaver sign.  Or even wintered in the relatively mild climate of SW Utah.  We know Jedediah Smith, perhaps the widest-traveled mountain man (and my personal favorite), knew of the Virgin River.  We just don’t know if any of them stepped foot in Zion Canyon.

This is actually a replica not the real deal. But forts were required to subdue the native populations of the west.

This is actually a replica. But forts were certainly required to subdue the native populations of the west.

THE MORMONS

Led by their leader and prophet Brigham Young, in the summer of 1847 thousands of Mormons arrived in the valley of the Great Salt Lake.  This was after their persecution back east (their founder and original prophet Joseph Smith was murdered while in prison).  At the time the area was beyond the boundaries of the U.S.  A year later that changed as all of Utah (including Zion) was part of the huge area ceded to the U.S. by Mexico.  This was the result of Mexico’s defeat in the Mexican-American war.

That didn’t deter Brigham Young.  He later became territorial governor of Utah, but the relationship between the government and Mormons has always been a tempestuous one (it’s a great story of its own).  After being named president of the Mormons, Young sent parties to explore SW Utah in the 1850s.  A mission to convert the Southern Paiute was established near what is now St. George not far from Zion.  They took Indian lands in order to grow corn and other cash crops, including cotton.  It didn’t take long for many Paiute to die of disease and starvation.

Mormon leader Brigham Young.

Mormon leader Brigham Young.

Because cotton and tobacco could be grown in the mild climate of SW Utah, and also because many of the settlers were originally from the American South, the area was named Dixie.  The mission and settlement was largely unsuccessful and many fled.  But Young kept it alive, sending more settlers south.  He also sent Mormons to other places in the intermountain West.  Mormons discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill in California and even founded Las Vegas (of all places).

Under the cottonwoods in Zion Canyon, Utah.

ZION & THE POLITICS OF PLACE-NAMES

John Wesley Powell (another favorite figure of mine) led an expedition to the Zion area in 1872, recording the canyon’s name as Mukuntuweap.  This is a Southern Paiute name meaning “straight canyon” or “arrow quiver” depending on who you believe.  Powell may have been using the actual Indian name for the canyon or he may have gotten it wrong.  But in 1909, when the area was given national monument status, it was called Mukuntuweap.

This is despite the fact that it was named Zion decades earlier.  In 1858, the Mormon Indian interpreter and explorer Nephi Johnson explored the canyon (he is recorded as the first white person to see it).  Despite the typical Mormon take on it that he was just exploring, he was very likely looking for a place to hide and lay low.

Johnson was directly involved in the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857, not far north of St. George.  About 120 California-bound emigrants from Arkansas, including women and children, were murdered by Mormon militia-men (disguised as American Indians).  A group of Southern Paiute, under direction of Johnson, also took part.

The town of Springdale at the entrance to Zion Canyon was founded by Mormon farmers in 1862.

The town of Springdale at the entrance to Zion Canyon was founded by Mormon farmers in 1862.

In 1861 another Mormon settler named Isaac Behunin, armed with information from Johnson, entered the canyon and built a one-room log cabin at the site now occupied by Zion Lodge.  Like anyone, Behunin needed a name for his spectacular new surroundings: “A man can worship God among these great cathedrals as well as in any man-made church – this is Zion.”

Under great political pressure from Mormons, who had all along been calling the place Zion and who were angry about the Paiute name, the acting director of the Park Service bowed to pressure and renamed it Zion.  This was fortuitous for the Mormons, since the iconic director of the NPS Stephen Mather, who was dead-set against a name-change, was on leave at the time, suffering one of his long bouts of depression.

When the fantastic canyon, which by this time was well known thanks to the wonderful paintings of Frederick Dellenbaugh (see below), became a National Park in 1919, it was called Zion.  And so it remains today.

Zion is a biblical word meaning place of refuge and peace.  Considering their long migration to seek refuge from persecution, it’s a name near and dear to Mormons.  But Nephi Johnson and the Mountain Meadows Massacre in a way twists the ideal of Zion.

A Dellenbaugh painting of the Springdale farmland and Zion Canyon in springtime.

A Dellenbaugh painting of the Springdale farmland and Zion Canyon in springtime.

TOURISM ARRIVES

A road was completed up Zion Canyon in 1917 and Wylie Way Camp was established to house pioneering visitors.  Early tourists came to Zion in special convertible buses.  Using these buses, Zion became part of the “Great Circle”, which took in Bryce Canyon, Zion and the Grand Canyon’s North Rim.  When you take the shuttle bus or drive up Zion Canyon today, as you crane your neck trying to view the soaring canyon walls, you may wonder why that fantastic original idea of topless buses didn’t last.

Zion became Utah’s first National Park in 1919, and in that year about 3700 people visited.  William Wylie’s camp was purchased and Zion Lodge was completed in 1925.  Tourist access continued to increase when the road to Zion became a thru-route in 1930.

After three years of innovative but dangerous road engineering that cost one worker his life, a tunnel was completed through the high cliffs east of Zion Canyon, connecting the park to points east.  The Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, with its charming skylight windows overlooking Pine Creek Canyon (its route is very close to the cliff wall), is still one of the country’s most marvelous road-works.

Eastern entrance of Zion - Mount Carmel Tunnel.

Eastern entrance of Zion – Mount Carmel Tunnel.

The same year the tunnels were finished (there are actually two), tourist numbers had increased to about 55,000.  Visitation hit one million annually by 1975 and two million in 1990.  In 1997, with visitor numbers exploding and the canyon becoming a veritable parking lot in summertime, the Park Service instituted a long-overdue mandatory shuttle system.  From mid-March to the end of October, and also Thanksgiving weekends, you must take the free shuttle to access Zion Canyon.

Annual visitor numbers are now in excess of 2.5 million.  So Zion can be quite a busy park.  Next post in the series will focus on ways to come away from Zion with a positive experience while avoiding the potential negatives of all those fellow visitors.

Autumn is a magical time at Zion: ranch not far from the west entrance at Springdale.

Visiting Zion National Park: Part II   7 comments

The area around Zion remains sparsely populated enough to get a feel for what ancient people saw as they passed through.

This continues the series on Zion National Park in Utah.  We’ll focus this time on the history of American Indians in this part of the desert southwest.  Check out Part I for Zion’s pre-human history – its geology.  If you plan on visiting Zion, or any other place, with photography being a big deal for you, I recommend learning about the place instead of perusing photo after photo of it.

In other words, find out what’s interesting about to you about the place.   Try to tailor your visit so you hit spots that feature those interesting aspects, even if they’re outside of your planned destination (in this case the park).  Resist the temptation to visit too many spots based merely on your admiration for the photos others have captured there.  Sorry, end of lecture!

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VISIT THE MUSEUM

If you’re interested in the natural and human history of Zion, you’d do well to visit an interesting little museum upon arrival.  The Zion Natural History Museum is located on the left not far past the west entrance.  Turn left just after passing the turnoff for the campground, which is on the right.  While worthwhile, by far most cultural artifacts are not on display here.  They are housed in Springdale at park headquarters in a large collection of more than 20,000 items.

If you have a keen interest, you can make an appointment to see this collection.  Just email the curator at miriam_watson@nps.gov.  You’re not guaranteed to get in, and it may help to have a group so they make the time for you.  Your goal is to find an NPS staff member with time to give you a personal (and free) tour of the collection.  You can learn some basics by reading in the Park Service’s website for Zion, along with other sites (go beyond Wikipedia!).  But if you can make time for the hands-on approach, you’ll get much more out of it.

View up Zion Canyon at dusk.

View of East Temple at dusk.

ANCIENT TRAVELERS

The first people in North America were hunters traveling with and hunting herds of wooly mammoths, gathering plants for food and medicine along the way.  Most of the evidence we have for these people comes from their spear points and other stone tools like scrapers.  The points, called Clovis and (slightly later) Folsom, are distinctively fluted and usually associated with mammoth remains at kill sites, tagging them as belonging to these ancient hunter/gatherers even where direct dating is impossible (which it usually is).

Although to my knowledge there have been no Clovis or Folsom sites documented for Zion itself, there have been points found north and west of the park.  So it’s reasonable to assume these wanderers walked the canyons and plateaus of what would thousands of years later become known as Zion National Park.  The fact that these canyons are subject to dramatic flash floods means that archaeological evidence tends to be swept away.

Somewhat more evidence ties later hunter/gatherers to the Zion area about 8000 years ago.  These hunter/gatherers, who hunted bison and smaller mammals (mammoths, sloths and other ice-age megafauna had been hunted to extinction), may have even set up seasonal camps.  But there are precious little remains to go off of.

Beaver-tail (or prickly pear) cactus with dried fruits growing in east Zion. A staple of American Indians for thousands of years, the fruits were eaten fresh and raw or made into a jelly. The nopales (cactus pads) were sliced and eaten, and also used to treat wounds and swelling.

Beaver-tail (or prickly pear) cactus with dried fruits growing in east Zion. A staple of American Indians for thousands of years, the fruits were eaten fresh and raw or made into a jelly. The nopales (cactus pads) were sliced and eaten, and also used to treat wounds and swelling.

BASKET-WEAVERS & ANCESTRAL PUEBLOANS

There is evidence of these ancient farmers at Zion.  Basket-weavers, known for their baskets woven of willow and other plants, lived here between about 300 B.C. and 500 A.D.  Since their artifacts degrade easily, they are very rare.  Not much evidence was left behind at Zion, but what there is points to early farming.  These people were succeeded by two groups in the so-called Formative Period from 500 to 1300 A.D.

PAROWAN FREMONT

These people lived in the north of the region up on the plateaus near springs.  Some farmed a cold-tolerant form of corn, some led a more mobile hunting/gathering lifestyle, and some were semi-nomadic.  These hunters did not use bows and arrows.  Rather they threw spears (or arrows) using an ingenious implement called an atlatl.  Atlatls extend the reach of your arm, increasing leverage and speed greatly.  I’ve tried them and they do indeed fling the arrow fast.  But I realized right away that to gain accuracy would require much practice.

Both of these groups, left behind rock art.  It’s very sad that much of this art has been vandalized by clueless visitors.  More remote sites like the Cave Valley petroglyphs off of Kolob Terrace Road are in much better shape.  But even these have been damaged.  As a result, good luck getting any ranger to tell you how to get to this rock art.  The Parowan Fremont sketched unique art characterized by anthropomorphs with triangular or trapezoidal bodies and limbs.

Fremont rock art is characterized by anthopomorphic figures with blocky triangular bodies.  The squiggly line at left represents a journey.

VIRGIN ANASAZI

Farming the southern canyon bottoms were an Ancestral Puebloan group known as the Virgin Anasazi.  As the name “puebloan” suggests, they were sedentary, occupying small settlements.  They were farmers who left behind food storage sites (see below) along with stones for grinding grains called manos and metates.  Later on the farmers began building stone and masonry structures alongside their partly underground dwellings and storage sites.

The two groups evidently had some contact, even though they lived in different environments. They traded tool-making stone and very likely food and medicinal plants as well.  There is no evidence for conflict between them, though some suggest the arrival of Southern Paiute and other tribes from the north may have had something to do with their leaving the area.

ARCHAEOLOGY TRAIL

There is an ancient grain-storage site you can hike to from Zion’s visitor center.  Ask a ranger for directions to the trailhead for the Archaeology Trail.  It’s short, steep and you get a good view of the canyon.  There is not much left of the 1000 year-old Virgin Anasazi site, so get the ranger to give you a few tips to see what there is to see.  But it’s definitely a great way to stretch your legs when you stop at the visitor center.  You can ponder the reasons why the Ancestral Puebloans left their dwellings so abruptly, almost as if they intended to return after visiting friends or relatives elsewhere.

Frozen dew at the end of autumn, Zion National Park.

Frozen dew at the end of autumn, Zion National Park.

RETURN OF THE WANDERING LIFESTYLE

The main tribe to enter the area from the north were the Southern Paiute.  Arriving around 1100 B.C., they obviously coexisted with the nearby farmers for some 200 years.  But their lifestyles were very different.  They hunted and gathered plants, occupying pit-houses and other semi-permanent structures only seasonally.  As such, these nomadic people were well equipped to handle the series of droughts interspersed with catastrophic flooding that began on the Colorado Plateau about 1300 A.D.  They remained while the Ancestral Puebloans and Fremont people left.

These tribes were the ones who greeted white Euro-Americans in the late 1700s.  And when I say greet I don’t necessarily mean warmly.  Many died from diseases brought west by the invaders; the rest were defeated and placed on reservations.  Such is the march of “progress”, but that’s the subject for next post.  We’ll continue with the story of Brigham Young and his flock of Mormons.  Have a great weekend!

The setting sun turns East Zion's cliffs orange above a vernal pool.

The setting sun turns East Zion’s cliffs orange above a vernal pool.

Visiting Zion National Park: Part I   20 comments

Zion Canyon from Bridge Mountain.

Zion Canyon from Bridge Mountain.

I’m going to change pace and do a short travel series: an in-depth look at Zion National Park.  I’ve not done one of these for a long time.  As usual I’ll start with Zion’s natural history, including geology in this post.  Then I’ll go on to human history and life on display at Zion.  I’ll finish with travel logistics and recommendations for various visit lengths, focusing of course on photography.

If you haven’t yet visited Zion, this series will be an in-depth introduction with tips, but without presuming to tell you exactly where and how to photograph the park.  If you’ve been to Zion before, you will learn some interesting stuff about the park and probably find out about one or two out-of-the-way photo spots.

But mostly this is about background knowledge.  I strongly believe the more you know about a place the better your experience and photos will be.  Though my posts are always heavily illustrated, I hope you’ll try to forget the pictures when you go out yourself.  Do your own thing and get pictures that represent your own unique take on the park.

East Temple from just east of the tunnels.

East Temple from just east of the tunnels.

REGIONAL SETTING

Zion National Park lies in southwestern Utah, in an area called Dixie.  That term is normally associated with the southern states (Alabama, Georgia, etc.).  Utah’s Dixie is certainly where the climate is warmest in the Beehive State.  But it’s much drier than the humid South.  Zion is at the southwestern edge of the Colorado Plateau, that huge regional uplift of sedimentary rocks that covers parts of four states and defines much of the dramatic scenery of America’s desert southwest.

THE GRAND STAIRCASE

Zion is also on the western edge of a geologic feature called Grand Staircase.  This is a large series of cliff-forming sedimentary layers that steps downward from north to south.  Some of the area’s highest and youngest rocks are to the north near Bryce Canyon while some of the lowest and oldest rocks are exposed to the south in Grand Canyon.

But the rim of that last southern step (it’s a doozie!) tops out at 8800 feet in elevation on the north rim of the Grand Canyon.  That’s very similar to the top of Bryce (the northern step) at 9100 feet.  So the Grand Staircase not so much steps downward in elevation but in geology.

BREAKS & CANYONS

Zion Canyon, centerpiece of the park, plus Cedar Breaks to the north, are located where the land “breaks” downward off the high eastern plateaus of south-central Utah to meet the lower deserts of SW Utah and southern Nevada.  These breaks are also known as the Hurricane Cliffs, which continue south into NW Arizona.

The towns in this part of Utah, largest of which is St. George, are situated near the foot of this dramatic sandstone escarpment, at a relatively low elevation compared with much smaller burgs up in the plateau country to the east.  The Virgin River and its tributaries have cut generally SW-facing canyons down through the escarpment.  The most dramatic of these is Zion Canyon.

The Hurricane Cliffs 'break' down off the Colorado Plateau here at Kolob Canyons, part of Zion National Park, Utah.

The Hurricane Cliffs ‘break’ down off the Colorado Plateau here at Kolob Canyons, part of Zion National Park, Utah.

The lower terrain near St. George, Utah is exemplified by Snow Canyon State Park, but the land continues to drop to the south and west.

The lower terrain near St. George, Utah is exemplified here at Snow Canyon State Park, but the land continues to drop to the south and west.

GEOLOGIC HISTORY

THE GREAT JURASSIC DESERT

The most prominent formation at Zion is Navajo Sandstone.  It forms most of the named dome-like features at Zion, such as the Patriarchs, the Sentinel, and White Throne.  The Navajo, which is generally a whitish sandstone, preserves record of an ancient desert.  This desert, which existed in the Jurassic age (dinosaur times), was dominated by enormous sand dune fields (ergs) similar to today’s Sahara Desert.

You can tell the rocks are ancient sand dunes because of cross-bedding.  Take a good look at the sandstone walls at Zion and notice the lines angled at about 35 degrees to the main rock layers, which are nearly horizontal.  A great place to see cross-bedding is at Checkerboard Mesa near the park’s east entrance, but you’ll see it everywhere in East Zion east of the tunnels.  The rocks behind the sheep below show cross-bedding.

Desert bighorn sheep at East Zion.

Desert bighorn sheep at East Zion.

The desert sands of the Navajo formed when plate tectonics, beginning a couple hundred million years ago, dragged this area north from equatorial to much drier latitudes in the vicinity of the Tropic of Cancer (30 degrees north).  This is the latitude, both north and south of the equator (Tropic of Capricorn), where the world’s major deserts are still found.

Also contributing to desertification in the Jurassic were the mountains building to the west of Zion in Nevada and California.  These ranges, which were the result of tectonic collision at the western edge of North America, are now gone, eroded away.  But in the Jurassic they formed an effective rain-shadow, blocking rains coming off the Pacific and helping to dry things even further.

A side-canyon in East Zion has a stream carrying sand eroded from the Navajo Sandstone, itself built from dune sands eroded from a long-gone ancient mountain range.

A side-canyon in East Zion has a stream carrying sand eroded from the Navajo Sandstone, itself built from dune sands eroded from a long-gone ancient mountain range.

PRE-DESERT TIMES

There is more than Navajo Sandstone at Zion, however.  The Virgin River has cut so deeply into the rocks that, despite the great thickness of the Navajo, other formations are visible beneath it.  These record shallow seas, meandering streams and floodplain environments.  For example, the Kayenta and Moenave Formations below the Navajo are reddish stream deposits formed in climates that changed from subtropical (for the older Moenave) to semi-arid (for the overlying Kayenta).

These older formations form the rubbly slopes and red cliff bands low on Zion’s canyon walls.  They’re also prominent above the town of Springdale, and up on Kolob Terrace Road.  Solid red cliffs of Kayenta, formed at the edge of that great encroaching desert, lie directly beneath the hard white sandstones of the Navajo.

If you gain a high vantage point you may notice the red “hats” or caps on top of the Navajo Formation’s highest white domes.  These belong to the Temple Cap and Carmel Formations, at 160 million years the youngest rocks at Zion.  Their reddish color is clue to wetter conditions returning in the late Jurassic.  A warm sea even invaded again, this signaled by limestones of the Carmel Formation.

The Navajo Sandstone is in places stained with iron oxide, where fractures have allowed fluids to penetrate the rock and move iron from other formations.

The Navajo Sandstone is in places stained with iron oxide, where fractures have allowed fluids to penetrate the rock and move iron from other formations.

UPLIFT & EROSION

Time didn’t stop after deposition of the Navajo and other Jurassic rocks at Zion.  Sedimentation continued into the Cretaceous and beyond; yet, save for an important exception (see below), younger rocks of the Zion region have been stripped away by erosion and transported down the Colorado River into the Pacific Ocean.

Erosion is a big deal at Zion.  The Colorado Plateau continues to be shoved upward by tectonic pressures (a 5.8 magnitude earthquake shook Zion in 1995).  Over time, this uplift has increased river gradients dramatically, resulting in very active erosion by streams and rivers as well as landslides.  Wind has helped sculpt the landscape.

Basaltic lava flows form a stark contrast with iron-stained Navajo Sandstones.

Basaltic lava flows form a stark contrast with iron-stained and dune cross-bedded Navajo Sandstones.

YOUNG LAVA FLOWS

If you drive up to Lava Point on the Kolob Terrace Road, you will notice dark lava flows, which flowed out of vents that opened up as this area began to stretch (rift), starting about 2 million years ago.  This young age places the lava flows (which being basalt were quite fluid) in the Ice Ages, which were fairly wet times at Zion.  Think about the terrain at that time, which was dramatic canyon country as it is today.

This combination of climate, active basaltic volcanism and topography tells you something must have happened (and it did!):  lava-dammed lakes.  If you hike the Subway, a lake formed in that canyon when lava dammed the Left Fork; it extended all the way up to the Subway itself.  If you’re observant you’ll notice fine lake muds and silts laid down by this lake.  You pass right by them when you’re hiking back out of the canyon.

By the way, let’s put some numbers on this story.  Most of what you see at Zion is between about 200 and 160 million years old, placing it squarely in the Mesozoic Era, age of dinosaurs.  Less noticeable rocks beneath these are as old as 250 million years, while the young lavas are between 1.5 and 200,000 years old.

Dusk falls on the Kolob Terrace, with a large dome of Navajo Sandstone catching the glow above red Kayenta sandstones. Footprints of sauropods (huge plant-eating dinos) have been found in the red formation.

Dusk falls on Kolob Terrace, with a large dome of Navajo Sandstone catching the glow above steep red and mauve slopes of the Kayenta.  Beneath that in the foreground are brick-red rubbly cliffs of the Springdale Member of the Moenave Formation. Footprints of sauropods (huge plant-eating dinos) have been found here.

TROPICAL SEAS AT ZION?

The older pre-dinosaur strata is worth mentioning because it is prominent at nearby attractions, such as Grand Canyon to the south of Zion.  Most prominent of the area’s oldest rock formations is the Kaibab.  It dates back to Permian times about 260 million years ago.  In these ancient times, an embayment of the ocean we call Panthalassa lapped at the edge of the world’s only landmass, the supercontinent Pangaea.  At that time this region, later to become Utah and Arizona, was near the equator.

The Kaibab is mostly limestone, formed in warm, shallow seas.  It’s visible in places low along the Virgin River within the park and also dramatically in the Hurricane Cliffs near the town of Hurricane and north along the east side of I-15.  It’s interesting to realize that the Kaibab, which hides low in Zion’s deep canyons, forms the high rim of Grand Canyon to the south.  This tells you something about the layout of the Grand Staircase.

Thought I'd throw in a shot from the Grand Canyon, because the Kaibab Limestone is exposed so well here at Toroweap on the North Rim.

Thought I’d throw in a shot from the Grand Canyon, because the Kaibab Limestone is exposed so well here at Toroweap on the North Rim.

THE SENTINEL SLIDE

More recently during the Ice Ages, the climate at Zion was wetter than today’s.  The Virgin and other rivers carried more water, thus flash-flooding was more frequent and violent.  Four thousand years ago a huge landslide blocked the Virgin River and formed a 350 foot-deep lake in Zion Canyon.  This enormous slump block came off The Sentinel, so it’s called the Sentinel Slide.

The lake extended from Canyon Junction all the way to Angel’s Landing.  Sediments settled out on the canyon floor, partly filling its natural V-shape.  The river could not be stopped for long of course, and the natural dam was eventually breached.  The resulting flood drained the lake and formed the V-shaped inner canyon between Court of the Patriarchs and Canyon Junction.

So now you know why Zion Canyon is flat-bottomed; it’s the old lake-bed.  You can see the remains of the Sentinel Slide above you on the left as you drive up-canyon.  For a closer view hike or go on a horse-back ride on the Sand Bench Trail, which climbs up on top of the slump block itself.  By the way, the Sentinel Slide still acts up from time to time.  In 1995, part of the old slide slipped, briefly blocking the river.  The road was flooded for a time until the Virgin, never to be denied for long, re-established its channel.

Stay tuned for more from Zion National Park!

Looking down-canyon at sunset from atop Sand Bench, which is the huge slump block of the Sentinel Slide.

Looking down-canyon at sunset from atop Sand Bench, which is the huge slump block of the Sentinel Slide.  I’m on top of one of the huge blocks moved by the slide.

 

Friday Foto Talk: Winter Photography – Safety   12 comments

Skiing near Mount Hood, Oregon.

Skiing near Mount Hood, Oregon.

Winter Safety 101 – Driving to the Shooting Locale

Okay, now that we’ve made sure our equipment is protected (see Part I), it’s time to talk about winter photography itself – how to get the best pictures when it’s cold and snowy out.  Right?  Not so fast!  Be patient, we’ll get there.  There’s no sense shooting in winter if you’re not going to stay safe yourself.

A recent November storm moves into Zion National Park, Utah.

A recent November storm moves into Zion National Park, Utah.

And before worrying about coats, layering, snowshoes and all that stuff, it’s a good idea for all of us to take a good  hard look at our winter driving skills.  Of course most guys (and some girls) think they’re expert winter drivers.  But we’re literally talking life and death here.  So forget about ego.  No matter how much experience you have, before snow and ice arrive, do some brushing up.

  • To Go or Not to Go:  This would be an easier decision if stormy weather did not so often present some of the most beautiful, dramatic light.  So check the forecast, think about your tires, your vehicle, and most of all your skills.  Discretion is the better part of valor, but I don’t think avoidance is a good policy either.  Practice makes perfect in winter driving as in all else.
  • Leave Extra Time:  Being in a hurry when you’re driving can be dangerous at any time, but when it’s slippery out, driving too fast could be the last mistake you will ever make.  Head out to shoot earlier than you normally would.
  • Slow Wins the Race:  It’s worth repeating: going slow, especially on curves and down hills, is the most important thing to practice when driving in slick winter conditions.  Go slower than the conditions dictate (except when starting up a hill – see below).  This goes for every type of vehicle out there, from beefy 4×4 to rear-wheel drive sedan.
Waking up to a snowy morning at the rim of the Rio Grande Canyon, New Mexico.

Waking up to a snowy morning at the rim of the Rio Grande Canyon, New Mexico.

  • It Helps to See:  Keep your windshield clear.  Stop and scrape it if necessary.  If visibility is extremely poor, you may need to pull over and wait for things to improve.  Don’t push it whatever you do.
  • No Cell Phones Here:  Winter driving demands maximum attention.  First, increase your following distance by quite a bit.  And look further ahead than usual.  Keep a special eye on other vehicles to catch on to out of control drivers.  Use your mirrors when you slow to make sure somebody is not ready to rear-end you.
  • Light on that Brake!  As much as possible, stay away from the brake.  To slow, let off the gas well ahead of time, shift down (auto transmissions also have low gear options – use them) and avoid turning the wheels sharply.  If you must use the brake, alternate pressing and releasing, looking out for areas of better traction to hit the brake in.  If you have more distance, you can try feathering the brake.  Never press and hold.  If push comes to shove and you must stop quickly, stomp on and immediately release the brake, and keep doing it until the emergency is over.  This is one of only two times that it’s okay to make strong, aggressive movements when you’re driving in snow and ice.
A pause while descending a snowy slope near Mt. Hood, Oregon.

A pause on a ski descent near Mt. Hood, Oregon.

  • Momentum is Your Friend:  Keep momentum up on hills.  At the approach to an uphill, get up speed.  On the way up, if you slip, back off a little on the gas.  Knowing when to hit the gas is a feel thing when it’s slick out, and like braking, it helps to look out for areas with more traction and hit the gas there.  On downhills it’s the opposite.  Slow down on the approach and shift down before the steep part.  Gently feather the brakes if you need to slow more.
  • Curves: The Approach.    Recall what you were told when you learned to drive – slow on the approach, gentle acceleration through the curve – and take that to heart.  Slow well ahead of the curve then gently accelerate through it.  You should never have to touch the brake on a curve.  
  • Curves: The Fish-tail.  If your rear end slides sideways (a fish-tail), it means one of two things.  Either you are going much too fast or you hit the brakes when you shouldn’t have.  Turn your wheel in the same direction as your rear end is going, toward the outside of the curve.  The sooner you do this the better; the second you notice it starting is good.  By the way, this is the only other time it’s okay to make quick movements on slippery roads.  Just make it quick and smooth.

**But there’s a catch: it’s very easy to overdo steering into a slide.  Back off the second you feel your rear end coming back out of the skid and be ready to swing the wheel quickly the other way, in case you fishtail in the opposite direction. Again, it’s about feel: steer smoothly and no more than necessary.  Feel what’s happening and adjust accordingly.

  • Keep your Cool:  In any emergency situation, keep calm but react.  The sooner you make the (correct) adjustment, the better things will be.  The key is to not freeze up but also not to panic and over-react.  A relaxed focus plus action will get you through a lot!  Your attitude should be one of confidence up to a point; don’t get overconfident and go too fast.  If the conditions deteriorate, just turn around.

Next time we’ll talk about equipment specific to winter photography.  Have a great weekend!

The entrance to Zion Canyon, Utah.

The entrance to Zion Canyon, Utah.

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