Yes, I know, it is day six and not a peep from me. I have dutifully written notes in a spiral notebook so I will be able to reconstruct from my sometimes illegible hand (backroads are bumpy).
Update: Day 1 * September 20, 2010 * Monday
2:30 am! What a gawdawful hour or half-hour to get up! It didn’t sound THAT early when I arranged our arrival in Las Vegas before their rush hour and to be at Valley Of Fire State Park for an evening photo session. But, it came too early for both Tony, my husband, and me. I am not a real early riser anyway but 2:30 am?
Other than our Airporter Shuttle driver having to swerve to miss a car that couldn’t stay inside the white lines on I5 and the turbulence our Southwest airplane encountered on its descent into Las Vegas, that leg of our trip was uneventful. But, it took us over three hours to leave the big city behind. By the time we retrieved our luggage, boarded the car rental shuttle, decided that we didn’t require the $31 extra cost per day for insurance, (Yay, MetLife! Our agent back home informed us that that MetLife is one of the few insurance companies that cover a car rental the same as your personal vehicle), found a grocery store to buy ice, a cooler, groceries, and returned to the Lake Mead Parkway, it was almost 4:00pm.
And, Las Vegas was still too HOT. 100 degrees, the residents said, is a cooling trend.
On the way to Overton via Lake Mead Boulevard, after flashing my recently acquired Senior National Park Pass at the Lake Mead Recreation Area ranger, we soon turned onto Northshore Drive. This is a curving but well-engineered road that sees little traffic as most people travel Interstate 15. The road construction that we encountered last year in early September was almost completed. Improvements to win the battle of the washes where the highway always lost to the flash floods were installed. This route is more scenic, including canyons and badlands that reveal the violence of the geological processes that leave jagged-edged cliffs with fractured sandstone threatening to tumble onto the road as boulders and isolated strata that heave vertically into the sky. Although it appears to roughly parallel the lake, it is only possible to see occasional glimpses from the road. If you allow for extra time, there are several roads, both paved and rough, that will take you to the lake.
Unfortunately, we were both very tired, so after dinner we settled in for our one night in Overton without visiting Valley of Fire State Park. This park is one of my favorites because of the variations in rock formations, the multi-hued swirling slickrock, several arches, and Native Rock Art. We stayed at the Plaza Motel in Overton recommended by Wayne and Terry at the Sun and Sands in Kanab where I spent a few nights last January. Our room included a full-size refrigerator, oven, dishes, microwave, coffee maker/coffee and a bedroom suite for $40 per night including tax. Lin’s is an independent well-stocked grocery store a block and a half from the motel where groceries are reasonably priced and varied. Memo: next time we will bypass Henderson’s mess and stop here instead to stock up.
Update: Day 2 * September 21, 2010 * Tuesday
The rumble of trucks throughout the night did not encourage slumber, so we awoke sleepy-eyed to try for some early morning photography at Nevada’s Valley Of Fire State Park. It was dark but road construction was already underway on Northshore Drive (Nevada State Route 169) as we turned onto Valley of Fire Road (SR169), the road that runs through the park connecting to Interstate 15. We placed the $10 park entrance fee in an envelope, inserted it into the metal tube at the self-pay kiosk and entered the park. The sky was just beginning to lighten in the east after we drove up the White Domes Scenic Drive and turned onto the Selenium Cliffs Road. The photographer’s curse, a clear blue sky, forced us to shoot abstracts of the landscape as it started picking up the light, revealing an earthen palette of reds, creams, and soft yellows in the chunky boulders or swirled slickrock. We heard them before we saw the dozen or so Desert Bighorn Sheep parading sure-footedly across the slickrock below to find shelter from the hot sun in one of the many hidden canyons.
As the sun both blew out the highlights and began to burn our skin, we decided to begin our journey northward to Panaca up Nevada’s State Route 93. Because there would be few services available until we were close to our destination, we filled up the tank at the Sinclair gas station at the junction of I-15 and SR 169. If only we had known that eight miles westbound on the interstate at the exit for SR 93N we could have bought gas for $2.75 per gallon at Love’s rather than Sinclair’s $2.89.
SR 93N is a long, straight road that gradually climbs then descends almost due north. We traveled through a Joshua Tree dotted valley contained on the west by the Sheep Mountains and on the east by the Meadow Valley Mountains. Fences along the west side constrained the Desert Tortoise in a preserve. Although we were miles from Las Vegas, the city that isn’t real has influenced the growth of communities out in the middle of nowhere and lent an authentic bit of its own realism: huge cement palm trees surrounded an entry sign for a large planned/platted development that was as real as the palms.
Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge was a welcome stop after an hour or so of a very tedious drive. Few cars were on the road and those going our way easily passed us on the straight highway. Lower Pahranagat Lake is the smaller of two lakes that comprise this refuge. It is also shallower and has a whitish (alkaline?) shoreline extending from the reeds and rabbit brush. But, it was filled with birds, feeding and resting, which were too far away to identify. After we drove through a short canyon, Upper Pahranagat Lake came into view. It is much larger, supporting more greenery (grasses, willows and cottonwoods) and wildlife. There were several places to camp and picnic along the shore. We ate our lunch at a defunct boat launch, watching the long-legged shore-wading birds searching for their lunch. Dragonflies were hovering throughout the reeds. Birds were numerous: kingfishers, three types of hawks, ducks, cormorants, snow geese, little yellow jobs, and others we couldn’t identify.
Moving on, more slowly now due to road construction, we sat in the air-conditioned coolness of our rental car while waiting for the flagger to motion us on. She had a portable fan, lots of water and the shelter of a car hatch from the hot sun. For fun, we turned west to follow Nevada State Route 375, the Extraterrestrial Highway. Five miles into the drive, the only alien we saw was a very large silver inflatable figure next to a pole building.
We turned around and headed back on SR 93N to Caliente. As we climbed eastward, the scenery changed to Pinion Pines from the Joshua Trees. Now and then big jumbles of boulders would decorate the landscape. Caliente was a small town of 1200 with a large train station, a white stucco building that evokes an Art Deco/Southwest décor. It is currently being used for government offices, food bank, art gallery and library. It will soon receive some needed renovations. A single row of small-town storefronts hid the few side streets nestled in the hills above populated with cottages, small stucco buildings that may have been miners’ homes during this area’s mining boom days.
We ventured further on 93N then cut off on 319 to easily find our lodging for the next two nights: the Pine Tree Inn and Bakery Bed and Breakfast in the small ranching town of Panaca. The hostess who greeted us at the door was a retired teacher, her husband a fifth generation rancher. The room was cozy and clean. Fitted with high thread count sheets and piled with generous layers of covers, the pillow top mattress was luxurious. A wide screen TV and a jetted tub completed the package. For all this, we paid a very reasonable $68.25 a night including a full breakfast one morning and a custom packed lunch the next. After twenty-one nights in rooms other than home, we agreed this was by far the best value.
After settling in, we visited the overview at Miller Point (two miles from the 93/319 junction) from which we viewed a small canyon where a trail traversed along the bottom from the picnic area in Cathedral Gorge State Park to the top of the lookout. I looked for a glow similar to the one at Bryce however most of the formations are buff white which may lessen the reflected light.
Update: Day 3 * September 22, 2010 * Wednesday:
We were up early to shoot inside Cathedral Gorge State Park in the dark (admission: $7). The staff at the Regional Information Center told us it was a small park easily navigable. But, not before sunrise as we discovered. Our compass showed us where east was so we used the lightening sky to find a large rock formation to catch the morning glow. Watching the sunlight light up a small red rock peak was a treat but there was no foreground interest. If we return, there is a pathway that skirts around the park that may offer better vantage points with foreground interest than where we shot from the campground site. When we noticed that the sun was coming up over the “cathedrals”, we chased over to the picnic area but the light was too harsh having shed that golden glow. Black and white conversion to the rescue?
We returned to our lodging to a sit down breakfast of eggs, ham, fresh fruit, juice and coffee prepared just for us at 10:00 am. Our hostess mentioned Condor Canyon, one that we might enjoy as photographers. You would never guess that a red-walled canyon would exist here in this mostly flat area with a few scattered buttes but we drove there via a street in Panaca that became a gravel road leading to a few area ranches. Once past the ranches, we entered a beautiful red rock canyon on a single-lane road with reflected light. There were a few clouds in the sky behind a cathedral-spired rock formation just beyond where the road ended. A large shallow cave glowing red fronted by some photogenic green trees for a complementary composition was conveniently by the roadside. The wind was rustling the leaves so quick shutter speeds were required.
An uphill drive north on SR93 brought us to a detour on Business 93 for a scenic drive through the town of Pioche. A sign at Panaca Summit listed the elevation as 6900′ from Panaca’s 4300′. Pioche had a Wild West reputation along with other mining towns such as Bode and Tombstone. Boot Hill, a cemetery with some very crudely hand-made wooden boards marking the mounded dirt graves of some of the 75 people who died of other than natural causes testified to its reputation. We also toured the Million Dollar Courthouse which, due to unwise bond investing, cost almost that amount before being condemned four years before the payoff. It was sadly in need of some major restoration due to a leaking roof. The second floor featured an entire courtroom with dummies, original furnishings and flooring. A very dark, spartan affair with steel plated cells and doors and iron cots, the jail housed some of those responsible for the reluctant inhabitants of Boot Hill. Dominating the town was the aerial tram, complete with cables and clamshell buckets, frozen in time, suspended from the ore-containing hill above to the large Godbe mill below. Pioche’s downtown has a shabby collection of storefronts many of which are closed such as the GEM Theater. Crossing the road on our return to Panaca scurrying as fast as he could was a very large hairy tarantula, perhaps seeking a mate as they do in the fall.
We returned to Cathedral Gorge State Park to attempt some late afternoon images of the formations. I discovered that I had inadvertently changed my setting from RAW to jpg normal early that morning when fumbling about in the dark. Note to Judy: always check your settings. The light wasn’t the best but I shot across the fields from the “cathedrals” and managed to catch some interesting side-light hitting some formations to the north. I should have followed the fast-walking German piled down with pro gear headed further down the trail for some dramatic side lighting of the same formations. Sometimes, there is a reason to be in the right place at the right time: after sunset, we spotted a desert fox making his way across the scrub of the desert looking for his next meal.
Update: Day 4 * September 23, 2010 * Thursday:
Our packed lunch was awaiting us in the fridge as we left our lodging early for a morning shoot at Miller Point Overlook (somewhat disappointing, Miller Point, not the lunch). The wind had died down enabling us to reshoot the colorful red alcove with stilled foliage in Condor Canyon. Unfortunately, the clouds had dissipated, but you can’t have it all and you take what you get. There may have been some updrafts in the higher reaches of the canyon as we both watched a Golden Eagle circle and soar higher and higher, narrowly clipping the walls with his outstretched wings, until he was out of sight.
Back on the road from Panaca, we continued on Nevada State Route 319E until it became Utah State Highway 56. Twisty and curvy, this route climbed and descended as we traveled eastbound. The scenery was typical high desert with large ranches and very small towns to service them. We encountered another tarantula crossing the road. And, we discovered the what the large circles were we saw from the air on our flight to Las Vegas: these were real crop circles as the field irrigation pipes pivoted radially on wheels powered by motors.
Having watched the movie “September Dawn” about the Mountain Meadow Massacre of 1857, we detoured to the Memorial site near Enterprise, Utah off of Utah SR 18. It was quite sobering to know that around 120 unarmed pioneers were murdered here due to misunderstandings and hysteria. To cut off some miles and time, we left SR 18 to turn onto the Bench Road, a backroad that lead us back to Hwy 56 and into Newcastle. We saw little traffic and many ranches, a scene that would repeat many times before we returned home.
Coming into Cedar City, home of Southern Utah University and big box stores, was a shock after several days of lonely backroads, nearly deserted highways and barely alive settlements. Cedar City is on Interstate 15, the main connector between many large towns and cities in the Western U.S. such as Las Vegas, Mesquite, St. George, and Salt Lake City. SR56 grew from two to eight lanes very quickly. Our night’s lodging, Knights Inn, was on one of the main streets through town. Smith’s Grocery Store, located a few blocks away, honored our Fred Meyer card so we stocked up on more food.
Once settled in, we discovered that Utah had moved ahead one hour but we hadn’t so we had to scrap our plans to shoot the lovely red rock canyons of the Kolob section of Zion National Park. This was unfortunate as they are best sited for evening photographs as we discovered the next morning. Knights Inn had an on-line manager’s special so our night at this chain motel was one of the less expensive stays at $40.14 including tax. It had the required microwave, mini fridge and was clean.
Update: Day 5 * September 24, 2020 * Friday:
To avoid Interstate 15 and its 75mph speed limit observed by truckers, commuters and RVs alike, we detoured on Old Highway 91 (aka Frontage Road) through Kanarraville that we would follow again on our return several weeks from now from LaVerkin to St. George and again from Snow Canyon State Park to Mesquite. Old Highway 91 was replaced by Interstate 15 in 1973 and Highway 91 was decommissioned in 1974, in use today mainly by local traffic. We did have to use I15 for a few miles to access the exit for Kolob which was unavoidable but at 75mph, you enter and exit quickly.
We aimed for starbursts from behind the very large red walls as there was absolutely no side lighting anywhere along Kolob Canyon Road, the six mile scenic route that dead ends at a viewing area. There may be better images during either solstice in the evening hours from different viewpoints but the morning offers little for photographers. I did discover an interesting green-red complementary color composition along the side of the scenic drive.
When I was planning this trip, I relied on various Visitor Bureaus for local information. We were advised to check out the Fall color on the Kolob Terrace Road and in the Right Hand Canyon area. On our way up this winding road, the color was spotty and not as prevalent as predicted. We did find an overlook where a plaque told us that on a clear day like today we could see into Nevada where we were yesterday. Returning to Utah Scenic Byway 14, we meandered our way to Cedar Breaks National Monument. Turning north on Utah State Route 148, we toured the monument until we arrived at Brian Head, the destination for our night’s lodging. A few miles away from the park, Brian Head is a destination ski resort in winter so the rates increase in mid-November. Our junior villa at Cedar Breaks Lodge was very roomy with jetted tub, flat screen TV, full kitchen and two very comfortable queen beds for the summer rate of $107.35 including tax.
Cedar Breaks National Monument, it is said, is a preview of Bryce National Park. Although Bryce may be the star, Cedar Breaks is no mere understudy. While it may not boast the many shapes and sizes of Bryce’s hoodoos, the colors and layers of the geology, particularly in the evening light, were just as luminous. It is a smaller, less frequented crown jewel, with fewer trails and overlooks. We didn’t encounter the busloads that swarm the more popular national parks. Its elevation is also higher at over 10,000 feet vs the 8,000′ to 9,000′ for Bryce. The honor system admission fee is a very reasonable $4 payable at the visitor center if you arrive at the south end from SR14.
After our late lunch in one of the picnic areas provided, we took a quick afternoon drive to 11,300′ Brian Head Vista where after a quick walk to an open shelter we could see a 360 degree view of the area. During the ascent, we encountered a herd of sheep when we came around a long curve. As we returned to SR148, we saw a sharp cheek-boned Basque shepherd tall in the saddle of his horse.
Because several overlooks were closed, we were limited to shooting the Amphitheater from the one at Sunset Point. Lens flare was definitely a problem so the choice of isolating various geologic features rather than wide angle framing was the answer. Clear blue skies usually make for a boring image so featuring the geology is the way to go using the Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 VR lens. The two mile roundtrip Spectra Point and Wasatch Ramparts Trail would have been an option but we didn’t want to stumble back in the dark. This would be an excellent hike in the spring months for wildflowers and features some ancient Bristlecone Pines. The light was extinguished as the sun set and we drove the short distance to our junior villa.
Update: Day 6 * September 25, 2010 * Saturday:
This cold morning (29 degrees) we were glad to have included our fingerless gloves and warmer clothes when we packed. The wind heightened the cold but we were toasty warm. The evening light, despite lens flares casting golden hazy spotlights, definitely enhanced the colorful layers of sandstone more than that of the morning. In the light of dawn, the colors were softer, more muted and not nearly as dramatic. This was again the time and place for the Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 VR lens to isolate various formations and color patterns in the folds of the badlands and canyon of the amphitheater at the Sunset Point Overlook.
We then tried in vain to find that iconic image of the Quaking Aspens which were in various stages of the fall color transformation of their foliage. At this higher altitude, their trunks were spindly and some were distorted. When the winds rustle through their leaves, you can see why they are so aptly named. But, rustling leaves and bright sunshine are not the best conditions for iconic images, so we left the park heading south on SR148 to connect with Utah State Scenic Route 14.
SR14 or the Markaguant High Plateau Scenic Byway is aptly named as it curved and descended to meet with US Highway 89 further east. The aspens were golden in patches. If we had been more familiar with the area, we may have opted to bypass the Sunset Point morning shoot and scooted straight on to a lovely small lake with quaking aspens reflected in its quiet waters. We could tell that cold weather was coming as we noticed many pickup trucks hauling open utility trailers heading into the wooded areas in search of firewood.
Once northbound on US Highway 89, we couldn’t drive so leisurely as this is known as the main arterial to the major national parks such as Glacier, Yellowstone, Bryce, Zion, and the Grand Canyon with offshoot roads making the final connections. This historic highway passed through range lands, thinly populated areas, and the small town of Hatch following the Sevier River.
We soon turned east onto Utah Scenic Byway 12 aka the Journey Through Time Scenic Byway which we will follow, first to Bryce National Park, then traverse the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, to its terminal at Torrey, the portal for Capitol Reef National Park. It is becoming more evident that we are nearing Bryce: the RVs dragging their SUVs, huge tour buses, and numerous passenger cars in a hurry to complete the Grand Circle Tour (the big four of the national parks: Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce, and Arches). We stopped near Red Canyon, part of the large Dixie National Forest for lunch. A paving crew slowed traffic down so we could take a more leisurely look at the carved canyons walls that are said to be redder that those in Bryce. Two short tunnels through the red rock caused the snap and shoot crowd to roll down their windows and shoot away.
A right turn onto Utah State Route 63, the 62 mile scenic drive that meanders through Bryce, took us to our lodging for the night in Bryce Canyon City at the Bryce View Lodge. The many tour buses and the few cars in the parking lots clued me in to why it was so difficult to find lodging in Bryce. $95.25 including tax bought us a place to stay very close to the park, two queen beds (more firm than we prefer), and microwave and mini-fridge on the second floor. The managers told me that they overbooked so they had to put people on a waiting list.
After the unpacking and stowing, we continued down SR63 to our first overlook: the much celebrated Sunset Point. Although tour buses disgorged visitors frequently, we never had to wait for a spot to position our tripods. After scrutinizing the fenced off viewing area from left to right, I noticed a glow toward the right looking toward Inspiration Point. After scrambling up some slickrock anchored by a tree without the fencing, I found a safe spot to unfurl my tripod and mount my Nikon D700 and 70-200mm f2.8 VR lens to isolate the areas that seemed to announce their photogenic quality. Most people didn’t notice this, being in awe of the total package. And, I was thankful that we left as early as we did to shoot as even at 4:30pm the glow was on. We continued to shoot until the light disappeared. Bryce did not disappoint.